“Take them. Find the others, and bring them, as well.”
Jasna heard the coldly melodic voice, though she could not see its source. Branch-like fingers curled around her face, in addition to those already gripping her arms, and she could see nothing but branches, trees, and sky as the creatures carried her deeper into the forest.
Branches, but no leaves. She at first thought it a trick of the strange, murky not-quite-twilight lighting filtering from the purplish-orange sky, but the bark of the trees as they passed by looked… ‘Sick’ was the only term that readily crept into her mind: the wood looked bark-like enough on one side, facing away from her direction of travel, but the other was… smooth, glossy and rippled like the shrubs surrounding the orphanage in Threshold sometimes looked when the morning’s dew froze in the later part of winter. But the frozen dew’s glaze never held the greenish-gray tinge. And while the thorns from the roses sometimes peeked through, what protruded from the sickly trunks and branches was sharp, jagged, and green, but certainly was no thorn she had ever seen.
The branches fell away, and she found herself staring up into the open sky. Publish, like a bruise, touched around the edge of her vision with shades of orange, like sunset touching clouds. Yet there were no clouds. Oddly colored though it was the sky was clear. She could even see the beginnings of stars winking here and there.
But they were wrong, too. And not just because she could not tilt her head to catch the right angle. Not a single group formed one of the familiar nighttime constellations.
The back-and-forth sway of her captors’ strides changed to something closer to a heave-ho cadence, her stomach lurching in the space between each step. Climbing, and not on regularly cut steps, she guessed. If she could have twisted her head to look down, over her shoulder, Jasna was sure she would have seen more of the step-like, outgrowths of roots.
Three more long, regular strides, and then the breath whooshed from her lungs as the tree-men dropped her onto what definitely felt like hard-packed dirt.
She tried to wheeze in a breath, turning over and gathering her knees and elbows under her.
More of the same hard, sandy soil, that scrubbed and scraped beneath the heels of her hands, the toes of her boots.
Tiny, leaf-studded shoots wagged and waved from crevices in the ground. Odd, Jasna thought, since it seemed much too early for any such growth.
Too slow, she tried to push herself away, and the sprouts surged into vines, entwining her forearms, while other runners snaked around her legs. Several thin, greenish streamers even twined through her hair. The more she struggled, the tighter they wrapped, as if trying to pull her into the ground itself.
From the gasping and cursing behind her, she guessed the Zirchev had met a similar fate.
“By all means, keep struggling,” the frost-tinged voice purred, from somewhere above her. “Those are bloodvine creepers. It has been an age since I have had visitors, when they last fed. They are ever so eager to flower again.”
The vines heaved, sending dry earth billowing up in a dusty cloud. Too late, Jasna tried to hold her breath, but already had half a lungful of grit. When her coughing subsided enough and she finally dared open her stinging eyes, she found herself staring through tears at jagged ends of bone protruding from the ground, broken-off bits of thorn still embedded in one of them. An arm? A leg? Katarin would no doubt be able to tell which it was.
She blinked again, harder, trying to clear her vision, and found herself staring at the hem of a brilliant white gown, pooled as the figure before her stopped. She peered closer. It was not white, not entirely, but a shimmering of color after color so quick as to trick the eye into seeing no color at all. The elves, she knew, were said to make cloaks that did that.
Had they stumbled into one of the elves’ sacred groves?
“We didn’t mean to—” she began, but the creepers writhed further into her hair, leaves uncurling, sifting her hair this way and that, tickling her cheeks, nose.
“I did not give you leave to speak.”
Jasna tried to crane her neck, to look up, and again, the tendrils tensed. What brushed her cheek was not a leaf, but something harder, sharper. It slithered up her cheek, uncomfortably close to the girl’s eye.
“Nor did I give you leave to raise your head. When in the presence of a queen, one does not raise one’s eyes until they are given permission.”
The figure took a step to the side, and the gown flowed, as the figure bent, leaning towards Jasna’s left ear. Much as she wanted to risk a glance, the girl kept her eyes fixed on the broken end of bone jutting up from the soil between her hands.
“Had you moved your eyes,” the voice whispered in her ear, “I would have taken them as punishment. Perhaps there is wisdom in you, yet, child.”