Crown of Darkness (Dark Court Rising #2) by Bec McMaster



Prologue





The first earsplitting shriek of abandonment echoes in the air as the baby wails.

The princess stares down at the child, the one she loves so dearly, and every inch of her trembles. This is not what she wants for it, but she cannot keep it. Not without risking its life. And she has already risked too much. The only answer she has is this.

A moon-drenched forest.

An old, hollow stone that has been used for this purpose for eons—an altar to the Old Ones.

And the silence, broken only by the baby’s quiet sobs as it stares at her face, its lower lip trembling as if it knows its fate.

“I’m sorry.” She falls to her knees, tentatively touching its soft face.

The night steals away its features, but she knows them as well as her own. Those green eyes, so alert, even from the moment of its birth. An old soul, this one. The thatch of black hair is different from the gold of her own, but the soft pillow-shaped curve of its mouth mimics hers, and she cannot help tracing those little lips with her finger.

She never knew love like this until the baby’s birth.

“This is for your own good,” she whispers. “I must keep you safe, no matter what it costs me. I must protect you. I love you, my little one.”

And so I must give you away.

Pressing one last kiss to the baby’s smooth forehead, she forces herself to stand, ignoring those whimpering cries even as her heart bleeds.

Shadows draw closer, as if sprites linger. The golden, unblinking eyes of demi-fey watch from the woods, curious and playful. And the baby wriggles fat, chubby arms, tearing free of its blankets.

She should go.

She needs to go.

But she cannot leave the child alone until she knows it is safe.

Hiding in the nearby trees, she tries to steel herself against the whimpering cries. It needs to cry if it is to be found. Old Mother Hibbert can hear the sobs of abandoned babies from a thousand miles away, and it is she the princess wishes to attract.

Minutes trickle past. It’s growing late, and she must be away before the sun rises. The child screams now, full-throated sobs that might attract any manner of predators.

“Please,” she whispers, clenching her fist around the hilt of her sword in desperation. “Please, come. Please take this child.”

Eerie blue-white lights gleam through the trees. Will-o’-the-wisps? Or something else?

The princess freezes.

And sure enough, the sound of bells tinkles through the trees on the heels of the glittering lights.

Relief slams through her. Thank all the gods.

An enormous reindeer draws the ancient sleigh, lichen clinging to the hairs under its chin, and breath steaming from its nostrils. A hooded figure hauls on the reins until the reindeer pauses.

“Here now,” the old woman calls. “What have we here?”

The princess draws back, pressing her spine against the tree so as not to be seen. Slowly, she peeps around the other side of the tree, to where a spill of moonlight falls on the altar and the child.

“Oh, look at you, my poor, poor sweet,” whispers the old hag, stooping to pick it up. The baby’s cries grow louder, but she tucks its wrap tightly around it and rocks it in her arms. “Now, no more of that, no more. Old Mother Hibbert is here.”

The baby snuffles and whimpers. It is but days old.

And the princess’s heart quivers in her chest as she watches another cradle it close, when she has known the feeling of it in her arms. This is for the best. It has to be.

But her yearning betrays her.

A stick cracks beneath the toe of her boot as she leans forward.

“Who’s there?” Old Mother Hibbert snarls.

The princess freezes.

The old hag cradles the baby with one arm, the other falling to one of the knives sheathed at her waist. “Aye, I can hear you breathing now, you little creeping wretch. Come out and let me see you.”

There’s no help for it. She cannot afford to let the old crone flee in fright.

She steps around the tree, her hands held in the air.

They stare at each other, and the hag puts the baby back on the altar, her nostrils flaring as she draws a knife.

“No, don’t! Please take it,” the princess begs. “I know I shouldn’t have stayed, but I just wanted to make sure the baby was safe.”

“Is this a trap?” the hag demands, her head turning this way and that. “Come forth, you bright and shining wretches, and meet my iron. I shall cut thee and rend thee and boil thee in my cauldron.”