When Rhys and I showed up at my "brother" Matt's house at eight in the morning, he was happy...in the sense that he was glad I was alive and hadn't disappeared forever. Despite being angry, he listened while I put together a vague explanation, glaring at me the whole time with mystified rage.
At least I only had to face Matt. My aunt Maggie is my legal guardian, but she wasn't there when we arrived. Matt explained that she had gone off looking for me in Oregon. I have no idea why, but for some reason, she thought I'd run off there.
As Rhys and I sat on the shabby-chic couch in Matt's living room, surrounded by the boxes that he had yet to unpack from when we'd moved into the house two months ago, Matt paced back and forth in front of us.
"I still don't understand," Matt said. He stopped in front of us, arms folded over his chest.
"There's nothing to understand," I insisted, gesturing at Rhys. "He's your brother! It's pretty obvious when you look at him."
I have dark, wild, curly hair and mahogany eyes. Matt and Rhys both have sandy hair and sapphire eyes. They had something much more open in their faces too, and they had the same easy smile. Rhys stared up at Matt with bemused wonderment, his eyes wide with awe.
"How could you possibly know that?" Matt asked.
"I don't know why you can't just trust me." I sighed and laid my head back on the couch. "I never lie to you!"
"You just ran away from home! I had no idea where you were. That's a major trust violation!"
Matt's anger couldn't cover up how hurt he still was, and his body showed signs of the strain he had been under. His face was gaunt and haggard, his eyes red and tired, and he had probably lost ten pounds. When I disappeared, he completely collapsed,
I'm sure. I felt guilty, but I hadn't had a choice.
Matt had always been too preoccupied with my safety, a side effect from his mother having tried to kill me and all that. His life revolved around me to the point of being unhealthy. He had no friends, no job, no life of his own.
"I had to run away! Okay?" I ran a hand through my tangled curls and shook my head. "I can't explain it to you. I left for my safety and for yours. I don't know if I should even be here now."
"Safety? What were you running from? Where were you?" Matt asked desperately, not for the first time.
"Matt, I can't tell you! I wish I could but I can't."
I wasn't sure if it was legal for me to tell him anything about the Trylle or not. I assumed everything about them was secret, but nobody had expressly forbidden me from telling outsiders either. Matt would never believe me, though, so I didn't see the point in trying.
"You're really my brother," Rhys said in a hushed tone. He leaned forward to get a better look at Matt. "This is so weird."
"Yeah, it is," Matt agreed. He shifted uncomfortably under Rhys's stare before he turned to me, his expression serious. "Wendy, can I have a word with you? Alone?"
"Uh, sure." I looked over at Rhys.
Taking his cue, Rhys stood up. "Where's your bathroom?"
"Down that way, off the kitchen." Matt pointed to his right.
Once Rhys was gone, Matt sat down on the coffee table in front of me and lowered his voice.
"Look, Wendy, I don't understand what's going on. I have no idea how much of what you've told me is true, but that kid looks like a total weirdo to me. I don't want him in my house, and I don't know what you were thinking bringing him here."
"He's your brother," I said wearily. "Honest, Matt. I would never, ever lie about something this major. I am one hundred percent certain that he is your real brother."
"Wendy..." Matt rubbed his forehead, sighing. "I get that you believe that. But how could you actually know? I think this kid is feeding you a story."
"No, he's really not. Rhys is the most honest person I've ever known, except for you. Which makes sense, since you're brothers." I leaned in closer to Matt. "Please. Give him a chance. You'll see."
"What about his family?" Matt asked. "Who has been raising him all these years? Don't they miss him? And aren't they your 'real' family or whatever?"
"Trust me, they won't miss him. And I like you better," I said with a smile.
Matt shook his head as if unable to decide what to make of all this. I knew a large part of him didn't trust Rhys and wanted to throw him out of the house, so I admired him all the more for his restraint.
"I wish you would be straight with me about all of this," he said.
"I'm being as straight with you as I can be."
When Rhys came back from the bathroom, Matt leaned away from me and eyed him warily.
"You don't have any family pictures up," Rhys commented as he looked around the room.
That was true. We didn't really have decorations of any kind up, but we didn't particularly care to remember our family. Matt especially was not fond of our...er, his mother.
I had yet to explain to Rhys about his mother being a lunatic locked up in a mental institution. Stuff like that is hard to break to someone, especially someone as awestruck as Rhys.
"Yeah, we're just that way," I said and stood up. "We drove all night to get here. I'm pretty beat. What about you, Rhys?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess I'm tired." Rhys seemed a bit startled by my suggestion. Even though he hadn't gotten any sleep, he didn't look tired at all.
"We should get some sleep, and we can talk more later."
"Oh." Matt got to his feet slowly. "You're both going to be sleeping here, then?" He looked uncertainly at Rhys, then back at me.
"Yeah." I nodded. "He doesn't have anywhere else to go."
"Oh." Matt was clearly against the idea, but I knew he was afraid that if he kicked Rhys out, I'd go after him. "Rhys, I guess you can sleep in my room, for now."
"Really?" Rhys tried to tone down his excitement over staying in Matt's room, but it was obvious.
Matt awkwardly showed us up to our rooms. My room was still my room, all my stuff the same as I had left it weeks earlier. As I settled in, I listened to Matt and Rhys talking across the hall in Matt's room. Rhys was asking him to explain the simplest things, like how to turn on the bedside lamp, and it made Matt frustrated and uncomfortable.
By the time Matt came into my room, I had already changed into my pajamas. They were worn and comfortable, and I loved them.
"Wendy, what is going on?" Matt whispered. He shut the door behind him and locked it, as if Rhys were some kind of spy. "Who is that kid really? Where did you go?"
"I can't tell you what happened while I was gone. Can't you just be happy that I'm here and I'm safe?"
"No, not really." Matt shook his head. "That kid is not right. He's so amazed by everything."
"He's amazed by you," I corrected him. "You have no idea how exciting all this is for him."
"None of this is making any sense." Matt ran a hand through his hair.
"I really do need to get some sleep, and this is a lot for you to process. I get that. Why don't you go call Maggie? Let her know I'm safe. I'll get some rest, and you can think about everything I've been saying."
Matt released a defeated sigh. "Fine," he said, then his blue eyes went hard. "But you better think about telling me what's really going on here."
"All right." I shrugged. I could think about it, but I wouldn't tell him.
Matt's gaze softened again, and his shoulders slackened. "I am glad you're home."
I could see just then how terrible this had all been for him. And I knew I could never disappear like that again. I went over and hugged him tightly.
Matt left me alone in my room, and I crawled into the familiar comfort of my twin bed. I had been sleeping in a giant king-sized bed in Förening, but somehow, my narrow bed felt so much better. I snuggled deeper in the covers, relieved to be somewhere that felt sane again.
I'd always had an inkling that I didn't fit in with my family, despite Matt's devotion to me. My mother had nearly killed me when I was six years old, claiming that I was a monster and not her daughter.
Turns out, she was right.
Less than a month ago, I found out I was a changeling—a child that is exchanged in secret for another child. Specifically, I was switched at birth with Rhys Dahl. It turns out that I'm a Trylle. Trylle are basically glamorous grifters with mild superpowers.
Technically, I'm a troll, but not in the creepy little green monster sort of way. I'm of normal height and fairly attractive. In Trylle culture, the use of changelings is a practice that dates back centuries. The custom's intention is to make sure Trylle offspring have the best childhoods possible.
I'm supposed to be a Princess in Förening—the compound in Minnesota where the Trylle live. My birth mother is Elora, the Trylle Queen. After spending a few weeks in Förening, I decided to head home. I had a falling-out with Elora, who had forbidden me from seeing Finn Holmes simply because he's not royalty.
I escaped and took Rhys with me. In Förening, Rhys had shown me genuine kindness, and I felt he deserved some of that in return. I brought him here to meet Matt, since he is really Rhys's brother, not mine.
Of course, I couldn't tell Matt all of that. He'd think I was completely insane.
Growing drowsy, I thought again how good it felt to be home. It only took ten minutes for Rhys to shatter that comfort when he crept into my room. I was almost asleep, but the sound of my door opening made me alert. Matt had gone downstairs, presumably to make the phone call I suggested, and if he knew Rhys was in here, he'd kill us both.
"Wendy? Are you asleep?" Rhys whispered, sitting gingerly on the edge of my bed.
"Yes," I muttered.
"Sorry. I can't sleep," Rhys said. "How can you sleep?"
"It's not that exciting for me. I lived here before, remember?"
"Yeah, but..." He trailed off, probably because he had no argument for that. Suddenly he tensed and sucked in his breath. "Did you hear that?"
"You talking? Yes, but I've been trying not—" Before I could finish my sentence, I heard it too. A rustling sound outside my bedroom window.
Considering I had just had a horrible run-in with some very bad trolls known as Vittra, I was alarmed. I rolled over and peered at the window, but the curtains were drawn, blocking my view.
The rustling turned into actual banging, and I sat up, my heart pounding. Rhys shot a nervous glance at me. We heard the window slide open, and the curtains billowed out from the wind.
He stepped into my room in one graceful move, as if entering through bedroom windows were nothing out of the ordinary.
His black hair was slicked back impeccably, but he had stubble growing along his jaw, making him look even sexier. His eyes were so dark they were nearly black, and he took one discerning look at Rhys before settling them on me, making my heart forget to beat entirely.
Finn Holmes had snuck into my room.
He still managed to stun me the same way he always did. I was so happy to see him that I almost forgot how angry I was with him.
The last time I had seen Finn, he was slinking out of my bedroom in Förening, per his deal with my mother. Elora told him that he could spend one more night with me before leaving. Forever.
We had only kissed, but Finn had failed to let me in on Elora's plan. He didn't even bother to say good-bye. He didn't fight it or try to get me to run away with him. He just crept out of my room, leaving Elora to explain to me exactly what had happened.
"What are you doing here?" Rhys asked, and Finn pulled his eyes off me to glare at Rhys.
"I came to collect the Princess, of course," Finn said, but irritation saturated his words.
"Well, yeah, but...I thought Elora reassigned you." Rhys seemed thrown by Finn's anger, and he fumbled for a minute. "I mean...that's what people were saying around Förening, that you weren't allowed around Wendy anymore."
Finn tensed noticeably at Rhys's words, his jaw flexing, and Rhys looked down at the floor.
"I'm not," Finn admitted after a moment. "I was preparing to leave when I heard that you two had vanished in the middle of the night. Elora was deciding who would be best suited to track Wendy, and I thought it would be in her best interest if I went after her, what with the Vittra stalking her."
Rhys opened his mouth to protest but Finn cut in.
"We all know you did a wonderful job of protecting her at the ball," Finn said. "If I hadn't shown up, you might've protected her right into getting murdered."
"I know the Vittra are a threat!" Rhys shot back. "I just...we came here to..."
Hearing his confusion, I got up off the bed, moving to intercede before Rhys figured out why he'd let me talk him into coming here.
The truth was, Rhys didn't agree to come here. He wanted to meet Matt, but he was adamant about my safety and had flat-out refused to let me leave the security of the compound. Unfortunately for Rhys, I had persuasion. When I looked at people and thought about what I wanted them to do, they would do it, whether they wanted to or not.
That's how I convinced Rhys to go with me when we ran away, and I needed to distract him before he caught on.
"The Vittra lost a lot of trackers in that fight," I interjected. "They're not eager to repeat it anytime soon. Besides that, I'm sure they're sick of trying to get me."
"That's highly unlikely." Finn narrowed his eyes, studying Rhys's bewilderment, and then he looked darkly at me. "Wendy, do you care nothing for your own safety?"
"I probably care more than you do." I crossed my arms firmly over my chest. "You were leaving to go on to another job. If I had waited one more day to leave, you wouldn't have even known I was gone."
"Is this about getting my attention?" Finn snapped, his eyes burning. I had never seen his anger directed at me this way before. "I don't know how many times I have to explain this to you! You are a Princess! I mean nothing! You need to forget about me!"
"What's going on?" That was Matt, shouting from the stairs. If he came up here and caught Finn in my room, it would be very, very bad.
"I'll go...create a diversion." Rhys glanced at me to make sure that was okay, and I nodded. He darted out the door, saying things to Matt about how awesome the house was, and their voices faded as they went downstairs.
I tucked my curls behind my ears and refused to look at Finn. It was hard to believe that the last time I had been with him, he had been kissing me so passionately, I could barely breathe. I remembered the way his scruff scraped against my cheeks and the way his lips pressed against mine.
I suddenly hated him for that memory, and I hated that all I could think about was how badly I wanted to kiss him again.
"Wendy, you are not safe here," Finn insisted quietly.
"I'm not going with you."
"You cannot stay here. I won't allow it."
"You won't allow it?" I scoffed. "I am the Princess, remember? Who are you to allow me to do anything? You're not even my tracker anymore. You're some guy being a creepy stalker."
That sounded much harsher than I'd meant it. Not that anything I said ever really seemed to hurt Finn. He just stared at me, his gaze level and unfazed.
"I knew I would find you faster than anyone. If you don't come home with me, that's fine," Finn said. "Another tracker will be here shortly, and you can go with him. I'll just wait with you until he arrives, to ensure your safety."
"It's not about you, Finn!"
He had played a larger part in my leaving Förening than I would ever admit, but it really wasn't just him. I hated my mother, my title, my house, everything. I wasn't meant to be a Princess.
Finn looked at me for a long moment, trying to understand where this was coming from. I had to fight the urge to squirm as he scrutinized me. His eyes flashed darkly for a second, and his expression hardened.
"Is this about the mänsklig?" Finn asked, referring to Rhys. "I thought I told you to stay away from him."
Mänsklig were the human children taken in exchange for Trylle babies. They were the lowest in the Trylle hierarchy, and if a Princess was caught dating one, they'd both be banished forever. Not that I cared, but I didn't have any feelings for Rhys that weren't purely platonic.
"It has nothing to do with Rhys. I just thought he'd like to see his family." I shrugged. "It has to be better than living in that stupid house with Elora."
"Good. He can stay here, then." Finn nodded. "Matt and Rhys are taken care of. Now you can come home."
"That is not my home. This is my home!" I gestured widely to my room. "I'm not going, Finn."
"You are not safe." He took a step closer to me, lowering his voice and staring into my eyes. "You saw what the Vittra did in Förening. They sent an army out to get you, Wendy." He put his hands on my arms, strong and warm on my skin. "They will not stop until they have you."
"Why? Why wouldn't they stop?" I asked. "There's got to be Trylle out there who are easier to get than me. And so what if I'm a Princess? If I don't come back, Elora can replace me. I'm meaningless."
"You are far more powerful than you know."
"What does that even mean?"
Before he could answer, there was a noise on the roof outside my window. Finn grabbed my arm and threw open my closet door, shoving me inside. As a rule, I don't enjoy being tossed into closets and having the door shut in my face, but I knew he was protecting me.
I opened the door a crack, so I could watch what happened and intervene if necessary. Even as mad as I was at Finn, I would never let him get hurt over me. Not again.
Finn stood a few feet from the window, his eyes blazing and his shoulders tense. But when the figure climbed through the window, Finn only scoffed.
The kid coming in tripped on the windowsill. He wore skinny jeans and purple shoes with the laces untied. Finn towered over him, looking down at him wearily.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" The kid flipped his bangs out of his eyes and pulled down his ill-fitting jacket. It was zipped all the way up, and the bottom met the top of his jeans. When he bent over or moved, it rode up.
"Getting the Princess. They sent you after her?" Finn arched an eyebrow. "Elora really thought you'd be able to bring her back?"
"Hey, I'm a good tracker. I've brought in way more people than you have."
"That's because you're seven years older than me," Finn replied. That made the clumsy kid twenty-seven. He looked much younger than that.
"Whatever. Elora picked me. Deal with it." The kid shook his head. "What? Are you jealous or something?"
"Don't be absurd."
"So where is the Princess anyway?" He looked around my room. "She ran away for this?"
"This is my room." I walked out of the closet, and the new tracker jumped. "You don't need to be condescending."
"Um, sorry," he stumbled, blushing. "My apologies, Princess." He offered me an unsure smile and did a low bow. "I'm Duncan Janssen, and I'm at your service."
"I'm not the Princess anymore, and I'm not going with you. I just finished explaining that to Finn."
"What?" Duncan looked uncertainly at Finn as he adjusted his jacket again. Finn sat down on the edge of my bed and said nothing. "Princess, you have to come. It's not safe for you here."
"I don't care." I shrugged. "I'd rather take my chances."
"It can't be that bad at the palace." Duncan was the first person I had ever heard genuinely call Elora's house a palace, even though it sort of was one. "You're the Princess. You have everything."
"I'm not going. You can tell Elora that you tried your best, and I refused."
Duncan once again looked to Finn for help. Finn shrugged at Duncan, and his shift to indifference startled me. I had put my foot down on the subject, but I hadn't really expected him to listen.
"She can't possibly stay here," Duncan said.
"You think I don't agree with you?" Finn raised an eyebrow.
"I don't think you're helping." Duncan fidgeted with his jacket and tried to stare Finn down, a task I knew was impossible.
"What do you expect me to say to her that I haven't already said?" Finn asked, sounding surprisingly helpless.
"So you're saying we simply leave her here?"
"I'm right here, you know," I said. "And I don't really appreciate the way you keep referring to me like I'm not."
"If she wants to stay here, then she'll stay here," Finn said, continuing to ignore me. Duncan shifted and glanced over at me. "We're not going to kidnap her. That leaves little in the way of options."
"Can't you, like"—Duncan lowered his voice and fiddled with the zipper of his jacket—"you know, convince her somehow?"
Word of Finn's affection for me must have spread through the compound. Aggravated, I refused to let my feelings for him be used against me.
"Nothing is going to convince me," I snapped.
"Do you see?" Finn motioned toward me. Sighing, he got to his feet. "We should be on our way, then."
"Really?" I couldn't hide the shock in my voice.
"Yeah. Really?" Duncan echoed.
"You said there's nothing I can do to convince you. Has that changed?" Finn turned to me. His voice was hopeful, but his eyes were almost taunting. I shook my head firmly. "Then there is nothing left to say."
"Finn—" Duncan started to protest, but Finn held his hand up.
"It is as the Princess wishes."
Duncan looked skeptically at Finn, probably thinking that this was some sort of trick, much as I was. There had to be something I wasn't getting, because Finn wouldn't just leave me here. Sure, that's exactly what he had done a few days ago, but that's when he thought leaving was what was best for me.
"But Finn—" Duncan tried again, but Finn waved him off.
"We must go. Her 'brother' will notice us soon," Finn said.
I glanced at my closed bedroom door, as if Matt would be lurking right there. The last time Matt and Finn had a run-in it had not gone well, and I was not eager to repeat the experience.
"Fine, but..." Duncan trailed off, realizing too late that he had nothing to threaten either of us with. He gave me another quick bow. "Princess. I'm sure we'll meet again."
I shrugged. "We'll see."
Duncan climbed out my bedroom window, practically falling onto the roof. After he was out, he half jumped, half fell off the roof. Finn watched him apprehensively for a moment, holding my curtain open, but he didn't follow after immediately.
Instead, he straightened up, looking over at me. My anger and resolution were fading, leaving me hopeful that Finn wouldn't really leave things this way.
"Once I'm out this window, lock it behind me," Finn commanded. "Make sure all the doors are locked, and never go anywhere alone. Never go anyplace at night, and if at all possible, always take Matt and Rhys with you." He looked past me for a moment, thinking of something.
"Although neither of them are really good for much of anything..." His dark eyes rested on mine once again. His expression was imploring, and he raised his hand as if he meant to touch my face, but he lowered it again. "You must be careful."
"Okay," I promised him.
With Finn standing right in front of me, I could feel the warmth of his body and smell his cologne. His eyes were locked on mine, and I remembered the way it felt when he tangled his fingers in my hair and held me so close to him I couldn't breathe.
He was so strong and controlled. In the brief moments he allowed himself to let go of his passion with me, it was the most wonderfully suffocating feeling I'd ever had.
I didn't want him to leave, and he didn't want to leave. But we had both made choices we were unwilling to change. He nodded once more, breaking eye contact, and then turned and slid out the window.
Duncan waited at the bottom of the tree, and Finn dropped gracefully to the ground. From the window, I watched Finn coax a hesitant Duncan away from the house.
When they reached the hedges separating my lawn from the neighbors', Finn looked around, checking to make sure no one was there. Without even looking at me, he and Duncan turned and disappeared.
I closed the window, locking it securely the way he'd said to. I felt a terrible ache watching him go. Even though he had done this kind of thing before, I couldn't wrap my mind around Finn really leaving and convincing Duncan to leave me too. If he was so concerned about the Vittra, why would he leave me so unprotected?
It finally dawned on me. Finn had never left me unprotected, no matter what I or anybody else wanted. As soon as he had realized I wasn't going with him, he hadn't wanted to waste any more time arguing. He would wait in the wings until I changed my mind or...
I shut the curtains tightly. I hated being spied on, but I also found it strangely comforting that Finn was watching over me. After having my window open for so long, my room felt chilly, so I went over to my closet and pulled on a heavy sweater.
The adrenaline rush from seeing Finn had left me wide awake, but I was looking forward to curling up in bed, even if I wouldn't be able to sleep.
I settled into my bed, trying futilely to forget about Finn. Within minutes, I heard a loud banging downstairs. Matt let out a yell, but it was cut short, leaving the house in total silence.
I jumped and ran to my bedroom door. With shaking hands, I opened it, hoping that Finn had tried to sneak back in and had a misunderstanding with Matt.
Then I heard Rhys screaming.
Rhys suddenly went silent. I barely took a step out of my room when I heard footsteps pounding up the stairs, and before I could react, she was there.
Kyra, a Vittra tracker I had dealt with before, appeared at the top of the landing. Her dark hair was in a pixie cut, and she wore a long black leather jacket. She hung on to the railing, crouching down. As soon as she saw me, she sneered, showing more teeth than any human would.
I rushed toward her, hoping for the element of surprise, but I was out of luck.
She dodged before I got close and sent a swift kick into my abdomen. I stumbled backward, gripping my stomach dramatically, and when she came at me again, I punched her in the face.
Unfazed, Kyra lunged at me and returned the blow much harder. When I fell down, she stood over me, smiling, with blood dripping from her nose.
I scrambled to my feet, and she grabbed my hair, yanking me up. I kicked at her as she lifted me, and she rewarded my moxie by kicking me in the side so hard I cried out. Kyra laughed at that and kicked me again.
This time I saw white and everything faded out for a moment. My hearing got wonky, and I barely hung on to consciousness.
"Stop!" a strong voice shouted.
When I blinked open my swollen eyes, I saw a man running up the stairs toward Kyra. He was tall, and beneath his black sweater he was well muscled. Kyra dropped me to the floor when he reached the top of the stairs.
"It's not like I can really hurt her, Loki," Kyra said, her voice bordering on whining.
I tried to get to my feet again, even though I felt dizzy, and she kicked me down.
"Knock it off," he snapped at her. She grimaced and took a step back.
He stood in front of me, towering above me, and then knelt down. I could scramble away from him, but I wouldn't get far. He cocked his head, looking at me curiously.
"So you're what all the fuss is about," he mused.
He reached forward, taking my face in his hands. Not painfully, but he was forcing me to look at him. His caramel eyes fixed on mine. I wanted to look away, but I couldn't.
This strange fog settled over me, and as terrified as I was, I felt my body relaxing, losing its ability to fight. My eyelids were too heavy to keep open, and, unable to stop it, I fell asleep.
I was dreaming of water. But anything more specific than that I couldn't remember. My body felt cold, like it should be shivering but wasn't. My cheeks were warm, though, resting against something soft.
"You're telling me that she's a Princess?" Matt asked, his voice a deep rumble above me. My head lay against his leg, and the more I woke up, the more I realized how terrible my body felt.
"It's not that hard to believe, really," Rhys said. His voice came from somewhere on the other side of the room. "Once you get all the Trylle stuff, the Princess part is pretty easy to take."
"I'm not sure what to believe anymore," Matt admitted.
I opened my eyes with a struggle. My lids felt unnaturally heavy, and my left eye was swollen from where Kyra had punched me. The room swayed, and I blinked it into focus.
When my vision finally cleared, I still didn't understand what I was seeing. The floor appeared to be dirt, and the walls were brown and gray stones, looking damp and weathered. It reminded me of an old cellar...or a dungeon.
Rhys paced the other side of the room, fresh bruises on his face. I tried to sit up, but my entire body hurt and my head felt woozy.
"Hey, take it easy," Matt said, putting his hand on my shoulder, but I didn't listen.
I pushed myself up until I was sitting, which took a lot more effort than it normally required. I grimaced and leaned against the wall next to him.
"You're awake!" Rhys grinned. He was probably the only person in the world who could look happy in this situation.
"How are you feeling?" Matt asked. For his part, he didn't have any visible bruises, but he was a better fighter than Rhys and me.
"Great." I had to lie through gritted teeth because it hurt to breathe. Based on the intense shooting pain in my diaphragm, I guessed I had a cracked rib, but I didn't want to worry Matt. "What's going on? Where are we?"
"I was hoping you could shed some light on that," Matt said.
"I already told him, but he won't believe me," Rhys said.
"Where are we, then?" I asked Rhys, and Matt scoffed.
"I'm not sure exactly." Rhys shook his head. "I think we're in the Vittra palace in Ondarike."
"Ondarike?" I asked.
"The Vittra capital," Rhys explained. "But I don't know exactly how far it is from Förening."
"I figured as much," I said, sighing. "I recognized the Vittra who attacked the house. Kyra went after me before."
"What?" Matt's eyes were wide and disbelieving. "These people went after you before?"
"Yeah, that's why I had to leave." I closed my eyes because it hurt too much to keep them open. The world wanted to spin out from under me.
"Told you," Rhys said to Matt. "I'm not lying about this stuff. After what happened, you would think you'd cut me a little slack."
"Rhys isn't lying," I said, wincing. It was getting harder to breathe, and I had to take very shallow breaths, which only made me more light-headed. "He knows more about all of this than I do. I wasn't there very long."
"Why are these Vittra people coming after you?" Matt asked. "Why do they want you?"
I shook my head, unwilling to risk the pain of speaking.
"I don't know," Rhys answered when I didn't. "I've never seen them go after anyone this way before. Then again, she's the first Princess I've been around, and they've foretold of her for a while."
I'd wanted to know what they were foretelling, but everyone gave me vague responses, so all I knew was that I'd be powerful someday. But I didn't feel very powerful, especially right now. It hurt too much to speak, and I was locked up in a dungeon.
And even worse, not only had I failed to save myself, but I'd gotten Rhys and Matt dragged into this mess along with me.
"Wendy, are you okay?" Matt asked.
"Yeah," I lied.
"You don't look okay," Rhys said.
"All your color is gone, and you're barely even breathing," Matt said, and I heard him getting to his feet next to me. "You need a doctor or something."
"What are you doing?" Rhys asked.
I opened my eyes to see what Matt was up to. His plan was simple and obvious—he went to the locked door and pounded on it.
"Help! Somebody! Wendy needs a doctor!"
"What makes you think they'd even want to help her?" Rhys asked, echoing my exact thoughts. Kyra had gone out of her way to hurt me when she captured me.
"They haven't killed her yet, so they probably don't want her dead." Matt had stopped pounding long enough to answer Rhys, then went back to hitting the door and yelling for help.
The sound of it echoed through the room, and I couldn't take it anymore. My head throbbed too much already. I was about to tell Matt to knock it off when the door opened.
This was the perfect time for Matt and Rhys to launch a counterattack, but it didn't occur to either of them. They both just moved away.
The Vittra from the house walked into the room, the one who had rendered me unconscious, and I dimly remembered Kyra calling him Loki. His shaggy hair was surprisingly light for a Vittra, almost blond.
Walking next to him was a troll, like an actual troll. All short and gobliny. His features were humanoid, but his skin was slimy and brown. He wore a hat, and tufts of grayish hair stuck out around the edge. He barely came up to Loki's hip, but the fact that he was an actual troll made him more intimidating somehow.
Rhys and Matt both gaped at the hobgoblin, and I probably would've too, if I'd been capable of gaping. I could barely keep my head up.
"You say the girl is in need of a doctor?" Loki asked, his eyes resting on me. He regarded me with the same mild curiosity he had before.
"Kyra did that?" the hobgoblin asked, his voice unexpectedly deep for such a small creature. He looked to Loki for confirmation, shaking his head at the damage she'd inflicted on me. "She needs to be put on a leash."
"I don't think Wendy can breathe," Matt said, his features hardening with self-restraint.
I was sure my condition was the only thing keeping him from attacking Loki. If he hurt them, they wouldn't be able to help me.
"Well, let me have a look." Loki walked over to me, his strides long and purposeful.
The hobgoblin stayed by the door, guarding it from Matt and Rhys, but they were too focused on me to consider escape.
Loki crouched down in front of me, looking me over with something that resembled concern. I was in too much pain to feel real fear, but I'm not sure I would have been afraid of him. Physically he was much stronger than me, and he had some kind of ability that could knock me out, maybe even more than that. But somehow, I knew he'd help me.
"What hurts?" Loki asked.
"She can barely breathe, let alone talk!" Matt snapped. "She needs immediate medical attention."
Loki held up his hand to silence him, and Matt sighed heavily.
"Can you talk?" Loki kept staring at me.
When I opened my mouth, instead of speaking, an excruciating cough rose up in me. Closing my eyes, I tried to fight it. I coughed so hard, tears streamed down my cheeks, and I felt something wet. I opened my eyes to see bright red splattered all over my legs and Loki's feet. I was coughing up blood, and I couldn't stop.
"Ludlow!" Loki shouted at the hobgoblin. "Get Sara! Now!"
Loki crouched in front of me, keeping Matt back. He probably knew Matt's inclination would be to hold me, and Loki didn't want me moved, afraid that it might rupture something. Matt shouted frantically, but Loki kept insisting that everything would be all right.
Within moments a woman appeared in the room. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she knelt down in front of me, pushing Loki to the side. Her eyes were almost as dark as Finn's, and I found something comforting in that.
"My name is Sara, and I'm going to help you." She pressed her hand hard against my abdomen, and I winced.
It hurt so bad I wanted to scream, but then the pain began to fade. A weird numbing tingle ran through me. It took me a second to figure out where I had felt the sensation before.
"You're a healer," I mumbled, slightly dismayed that she was helping me. The pain in my chest and stomach had disappeared, and she put her hand on my face, fixing my black eye.
"Does it hurt anywhere else?" Sara asked, ignoring my statement. She looked worn out, a temporary side effect from healing, but otherwise she was incredibly beautiful.
"I don't think so." I sat up, still a little unsteady, but that was lessening by the moment.
"Kyra went way overboard," Sara said, more to herself than me. "Are you okay now?"
"Yeah." I nodded.
"Excellent." Sara stood up and turned to Loki. "You need to control your trackers better."
"They're not mine." Loki crossed his arms over his chest. "If you have a problem with how they do their job, take it up with your husband."
"I'm certain my husband wouldn't like how this situation was handled." Sara looked at him severely, but he didn't back down.
"I was doing you a favor," Loki replied evenly. "If I hadn't been there, it would've been worse."
"I'm not having this discussion now." She glanced in my direction, then walked out of the room.
"Is that everything, then?" Loki asked us once she'd gone.
"Not even close." Matt had been sitting next to me but he got to his feet. "What do you want with us? You can't just keep us here!"
"I'll take that as a yes." Loki smiled emptily at me and turned to leave the room.
Matt tried to rush him, but Loki was already out the door before he got to him. He slammed the door and Matt flew into it. There was a loud clicking as bolts locked, and Matt sagged against the door.
"What is going on here?" Matt shouted and turned to look at me. "How come you're not dying anymore?"
"Would you rather I be dying?" I pulled the sleeve of my sweater down and wiped the blood away from my face. "I could get Kyra in here to finish the job."
"Don't be ridiculous." Matt rubbed his forehead. "I want to know what's happening. I feel like I'm in a bad dream."
"It gets easier," I said and turned to Rhys. "What the hell was that hobgoblin thing that came in? Was that an actual troll?"
"I don't know." Rhys shook his head, looking just as bewildered as I felt. "I've never seen one before, but everyone goes out of their way to make sure mänks don't know anything."
"I didn't think there were real trolls." I furrowed my brow, trying to remember what Finn had told me about trolls before. "I thought they were just myths."
"Really?" Matt asked. "After everything that's happened? So you pick and choose what mythology you believe in?"
"I'm not picking and choosing anything." I got to my feet. I still felt sore all over, but it was light-years better than I'd felt when I woke up. "I believe what I can see. I hadn't seen this before. That's all."
"Are you okay?" Matt watched me as I hobbled around the room. "Maybe you should take it easy."
"No, I'm fine." I brushed him off. I wanted to get my bearings in the space, maybe see if there was a way that we could get out. "How did we get here anyway?"
"They broke into the house and attacked us." Matt gestured to the door, referring to Loki and the Vittra. "That guy knocked us out somehow, and we woke up here. We hadn't been awake very long before you woke up."
"Lovely." I pressed my palms against the door, pushing on it as if I thought it would open. It didn't, but I had to try.
"Hey, where's Finn?" Rhys asked, echoing thoughts I was starting to have. "Why didn't he stop this?"
"What does Finn have to do with this?" Matt asked with an edge to his voice.
"Nothing. He used to be my tracker. It's sorta like a bodyguard." I took a step back, staring at the door and willing it to open. "He tried to protect me from all of this."
"That's why you ran away with him?" Matt asked. "He was protecting you?"
I sighed. "Something like that."
"Where is he?" Rhys repeated. "I thought he was with you when the Vittra came."
Matt started yelling about Finn being in my room, but I ignored him. I didn't have the energy to fight with Matt about propriety or his feelings for Finn.
"Finn left before they broke in," I said, once Matt had finished his tirade. "I don't know where he's at."
I wouldn't admit it, but I was surprised that Finn hadn't protected me. Maybe he had really left. I thought it had all been a bluff, but if it was, Finn would've been there when we were attacked.
Unless something bad had happened to him. The Vittra could have gotten to him before they came after me. He cared too much for duty, even if he didn't care enough for me. The only way he wouldn't keep me safe was if he couldn't.
"Wendy?" Rhys asked.
I think he'd been talking before that, but I hadn't heard anything he'd said. I'd been too busy thinking of Finn and staring at the door.
"We have to get out of here," I said and turned to Rhys and Matt.
Matt sighed. "Obviously."
"I have an idea." I bit my lip. "But it's not a great one. When they come back, I can use my persuasion. I can convince them to let us go."
"Do you really think it's strong enough?" Rhys voiced the concern I'd had myself.
So far, I'd only used persuasion on unsuspecting humans, like Matt and Rhys, and Finn had told me that without training, my abilities weren't as strong as they could be. I hadn't begun my training yet in Förening, so I had no clue how powerful or weak I might be.
"I really don't know," I admitted.
"Persuasion?" Matt raised an eyebrow and looked at Rhys. "Is that the thing you were telling me about? That mind thing she can supposedly do?" Rhys nodded, and Matt rolled his eyes.
"It's not supposedly." I bristled at his skepticism. "I can do it. I've done it to you before."
"When?" Matt asked dubiously.
"How do you think I got you to take me to see Kim?" I asked, referring to when he'd taken me to see his mother, my "host" mother, in the institution.
He hated her and didn't want me to have anything to do with her. I'd used persuasion on him, even though I'd felt guilty about it, but it was the only way I could talk to her.
"You did that?" The shock and hurt in his eyes was instantly replaced by anger. He looked like he'd been slapped in the face. I lowered my eyes and turned away. "You tricked me? How could you do that, Wendy? You always say you never lie to me, then you go and do something like that!"
"It wasn't a lie," I said sheepishly.
"No, it's worse!" Matt shook his head and stepped away from me, as if he couldn't stand to be near me. "I can't believe you did that. How often did you do that?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "For a long time, I didn't know I was doing it. But once I figured it out, I tried not to do it at all. I don't like doing it, especially to you. It's not fair, and I know it."
"Damn right it's not fair!" Matt snapped. "It's cruel and manipulative!"
"I'm really sorry." I met his eyes, and the hurt in them stung painfully. "I promise I won't ever do it again, not to you."
"I hate to break up this moment, but we need to figure a way out of here," Rhys interrupted. "So what is the plan?"
"We call someone," I said, happy for the reprieve from thinking about how much Matt must hate me.
"What do you mean, 'call someone'? Do you have your cell phone?" Rhys asked excitedly.
"No, I mean, summon someone. The way Matt did before." I pointed to the door behind me. "Knock on the door, say we're hungry or cold or dead or whatever. When they come, I can use my persuasion on them to get them to let us out."
"You think that will really work?" Matt asked, but the disbelief had dropped from his voice. He was only asking my opinion now.
"Maybe." I looked at Rhys. "But I have a favor to ask. Can I practice on you?"
"Sure." Rhys shrugged, trusting me immediately.
"What do you mean, 'practice'?" Matt asked with a concerned edge.
He moved a bit closer to Rhys, and I realized with some surprise that he finally believed Rhys was his brother. He wanted to protect Rhys from me. I felt some relief and happiness knowing that he'd started accepting him, but it hurt a little—okay, a lot—to know that Matt thought of me as a threat.
"I haven't done it very much." I didn't like the way Matt scrutinized me with his gaze, so I paced the room, as if that could deflect his attention somehow. "And it's been a while since I've done it at all."
That last part wasn't entirely true, since I'd just used it on Rhys the day before, but I didn't want him reacting the way Matt had. This whole process would go a lot easier the less people hated me.
"So what do you want to do?" Matt asked.
"I don't know yet." I shrugged. "But I just need to practice. It's the only way I can get stronger."
Despite Matt's obvious reservations, Rhys went along with it. It felt very odd to have someone witnessing persuasion, especially someone clearly against it, but I had no choice. It wasn't like I could send Matt into the next room or something.
I could see Matt watching me intently out of the corner of my eye. It was distracting, but that was probably better practice for me. I doubted I could get any of the Vittra to step aside to a quiet place while I tried to use a bit of mind control on the guard.
I decided to start simple. Rhys and I were standing, facing each other, so I started repeating in my head, Sit down. I want you to sit down.
His blue eyes met mine evenly at first, then a fog passed over them. His face seemed to slacken, and his expression went completely blank. Without a word, he sat down on the floor.
"Is he okay?" Matt asked nervously.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Rhys sounded like he'd just woken up. He looked up at me, his eyes dazed. "So, are you gonna do it or what?"
"I already did it." I had never talked to anybody about it after using persuasion on them, and it felt strange to be open about it.
"What are you talking about?" Rhys's brow furrowed, and he looked back and forth between Matt and me, trying to understand.
"You got all spaced out, then you sat on the floor," Matt said.
"Why did you sit down?" I asked.
"I..." His face scrunched up in concentration. "I don't know. I just...I sat down." He shook his head and looked up at me. "You did that?"
"Yeah. You didn't feel anything or sense anything?" I asked.
I had never known if what I did hurt people. They never complained of pain or anything, but maybe they couldn't because they didn't understand what was happening.
"No. I didn't even..." He shook his head again, unable to articulate what he meant. "I expected there to be a blackout or something. But...I knew that I was sitting. It was more like a reflex. Like, I breathe all the time, but I don't think about it. This was the same."
"Hmm." I looked at him thoughtfully. "Stand up."
"What?" Rhys asked.
"Stand up," I repeated. He stared up at me for a second, then looked around. His eyes hardened and his eyebrows pinched up.
"What's going on?" Matt asked, moving closer to us.
"I...I can't stand up."
"Do you need me to help you up?" Matt offered.
"No. It's not like that." Rhys shook his head. "I mean, you could pull me up. You're stronger than me, and I'm not physically pinned to the floor. I just...forgot how?"
"Weird." I watched him with fascination.
Once before, I had made Matt get out of my room, and it'd been a while before he'd been able to go in there again. Which meant my persuasion had lingering effects, but it did eventually wear off.
" 'Weird'?" Matt scoffed. "Wendy, fix him!"
"He's not broken," I said defensively, but Matt glared at me in a way that made me want to crawl under a rock. I crouched down in front of Rhys. "Rhys, look at me."
"Okay?" He met my eyes uncertainly.
I wasn't even sure if I could reverse the process. I had never tried to undo persuasion before, but I didn't think it'd be that hard. And if I couldn't, then he'd just have to sit down for a week or two. Maybe.
Instead of worrying about the possible repercussions, I focused all my energy on him. I just said, Stand up, in my head over and over again. It took longer than it did last time, but eventually his face started to fog over. He blinked at me a few times and got to his feet.
"I am so glad that worked." I let out a sigh of relief.
"Are you sure it worked?" Matt asked me, but his eyes were on Rhys. Rhys stared blankly at the floor, looking more out of it than he had last time. "Rhys? Are you okay?"
"What?" Rhys lifted his head. He blinked at us, as if he'd just noticed we were there. "What? Did something happen?"
"You're standing up." I pointed to his legs, and he looked down.
"Oh." He lifted one of his legs, making sure it still worked, and didn't say anything for a minute. Then he looked up at me. "I'm sorry. Were we talking about something?"
"You couldn't stand up. Remember?" I asked, but my stomach twisted. I might really have broken Rhys.
"Oh. Yeah." He shook his head. "Yeah, I remember. But I can stand now. Did you do that?"
"Wendy, I don't like you playing with him like this," Matt said quietly.
Matt faced Rhys, but he gave me a sidelong glance. He tried to keep his face hard, but his eyes betrayed his fear.
I had scared Matt, and not in the same way as when I'd run away. Then he'd been scared for me, but now he seemed scared of me, and it created a painful knot in my chest.
"I'm done now." I stepped away from Rhys.
My dark hair hung around my face. I had a tie around my wrist, so I pulled my hair up into a loose bun.
"What?" Rhys asked, sounding alert.
He had fully come out of the trance I'd had him under, but I didn't want to look at him. Matt made me feel ashamed about using persuasion, even if Rhys was aware of what I had done.
"Sit down," Matt suggested.
"Why? I don't wanna sit down."
"Sit down anyway," Matt said, more firmly this time. When Rhys didn't respond, Matt repeated his command. "Rhys, sit down."
"I don't get why it's so important to you that I sit down." Rhys grew more agitated as Matt pressed him, which was strange, since I'd never really heard him sound irritated with anyone. "I'm fine standing up."
"You can't sit down." Matt sighed, looking over at me. "You broke him a different way, Wendy."
"Wendy did this?" Rhys furrowed his brow. "I don't understand. What did you do? You told me not to sit?"
"No, I told you to sit, and you couldn't stand. Then I told you to stand, and you can't sit." I sighed in frustration. "Now I don't know what to say! I don't really wanna say anything anymore. I might make it so you stop breathing or something."
"Can you do that?" Matt asked.
"I don't know!" I threw my hands up. "I have no idea what I'm capable of."
"I can't sit down for a while." Rhys shrugged. "Big deal. I don't even wanna sit down."
"That's probably a side effect of the persuasion," I told him as I paced our cell.
"Whatever, I don't care if it is," Rhys said. "It doesn't matter. I'm not in a situation that calls for sitting down, anyway. The important thing is that you know that you can do this. You can use this, we can get out of here, and somebody in Förening can fix me. Okay?"
I stopped pacing and looked uneasily at Matt and Rhys. Rhys was right. I needed to get us out of here. It wasn't safe here, and Rhys's inability to sit was a secondary concern. If anything, it just made me want to get us out of here quicker.
"Are you guys ready?"
"For what?" Matt asked.
"To run. I don't know what's on the other side of the door, or how long I can hold them off," I said. "As soon as they open the door, you have to be ready to run as fast as you can, as far as you can."
"Aren't you just gonna Star Wars them?" Rhys asked, completely unfazed by the idea. "When Obi-Wan's like, 'These aren't the droids you're looking for.' "
"Yeah, but I don't know how many guards there are, or how dangerous they might be." My thoughts flashed back to Finn and how he hadn't been at my house during the attack. I shivered involuntarily and shook my head.
"Let's just get out of here, okay? There's no way to know what we're up against, so let's deal with it as it comes. Anything's better than sitting around waiting for them to figure out what they want to do with us. Because when they do decide, I have a feeling it won't be good."
Matt didn't look convinced, but I doubted anything could've convinced him. This whole thing had turned into a giant horrible mess, all because I hadn't wanted to stay in Förening and be a stupid Princess.
If I had, none of this would've happened. Matt and Rhys would be at their respective homes, safe and sound, and Finn would be...well, I didn't know where he'd be, but it had to be better than where he was now.
With that thought burning in my mind, I pounded on the door, knocking as loudly as I could. My fist hurt from how hard I hit, but I didn't care.