I frown and walk faster.
The armies of the Seven Realms gather outside Stonehill, near the burned corpse of a forest, each stationed with their colors. Ace's soldiers are under my command, since he is still convalescing at High Castle. Asher and I enter a grand red tent, large enough to fit dozens of men. Levi, Niam, Dean and Zeb wait inside, gathered around a war table full of maps.
Levi points to one. "Let us march forward, into the northern woods, and cut them off."
"No," I say. "We must avoid the forests. If they are set on fire we will burn alive within them. And we must stay far from the rivers unless we wish to battle Wadu once again."
"Where does that leave us then?" Dean asks, who at least came dressed appropriately for once in battle gear and armor.
"The mountains," I say.
Asher groans, but does not disagree.
Levi shakes his head. "They will slow us down, and if we are caught in the lower ground, we will be at a disadvantage."
"That will not happen," I say. "Not if the Druids think we're somewhere else."
Zeb nods. "What do you propose then?"
"A decoy," I say. "We send in a Shade we trust who claims to be a deserter. They tell the Druids we are taking the river pass, that we feared the forest because of fires, but we were less concerned with the Water Druid. We fought her off before."
"And why would they believe this person?" Levi asks.
"They are too caught up in the idea that all Fae and Shade are on their side, that no one with Fae blood would ever willingly fight for us," I say. "The Druids have slumbered for thousands of years. They do not realize things have changed. They do not realize there are Fae and Shade who would fight and die with us and not with them, even if given the choice."
Levi crosses his arms over his chest. "Let's say that's true. How can we trust the Shade not to betray us?"
"They won't know enough of our plan to give much away, so the risk is small."
"It's our best plan," Dean says, surprising me. "I agree with Fen."
Zeb, Niam and Asher all agree as well. Levi frowns, but doesn't argue. I call a Shade boy over and tell him what his orders are. He looks nervous, but I remind him his actions will help save Princess Arianna, and his eyes light up. He will do as I ask, that much I'm sure of.
Once the boy is off, my brothers and I send our scouts forward and take the lead at the head of our armies. We march up the mountains, against the snow and wind, to claim the high ground before the Fae take notice of us.
It's a long, hard hike, made harder still by the continuous deluge of rain pouring down like waterfalls. "It's the blasted Water Druid," Niam grumbles. "She's trying to drown us before we even have a battle."
Asher rings out his cloak, a look of distaste on his face. "It's working. I feel as if I might never be dry again."
"At least this will make our forests harder to burn," I remind them.
"I wish Ace were with us," Asher says. "He might have a nice invention to make this miserable climb a bit more pleasant."
At the mention of Ace, everyone's mood turns from frustration to grief. Levi seems to be most affected, patting Asher on the shoulder as he passes. "He will be with us again soon, brother," says the Prince of Envy, his red cloak wrapped around him.
It takes many hours to reach a plateau high enough and large enough to make camp. Our commanders report to each of us and rally the soldiers to their stations, setting up shifts for guards and patrols. We pick an area separate from the rest to bed down for the night.
By the time the moon is high in the sky, the rain finally stalls out, giving us a brief reprieve.
"Maybe she ran out of magic," Dean says, taking off his shirt—naturally. He grins as we all groan. "What? It's soaked. I'm drying it. Don't be jealous of my majestic physique. We can't all be this irresistible."
Asher chuckles. "We can't all be that annoying either."
Zeb brings out a plate of cheeses and meats and two bottles of wine. He holds up one. "Alcohol." Then he holds up the other. "Blood." He places them both before us. "I have more. Choose your poison."
Most opt for both, mixing the blood and wine into a vampire cocktail. I take neither. I've had blood recently, and I don't wish to dull my senses with alcohol before battle. I advise my brothers to show restraint, but Zeb laughs.
"Eat, drink and be merry, Fen. Tomorrow might be the end," he quips.
"Yes, especially if you're hungover," I remind him, but he doesn't listen, not that I expected the Prince of Gluttony to stop drinking.
"How did you fit all this in your pack?" Niam asks, filling another glass.
Zeb smiles. "Magic."
It doesn't take long for the combination of blood and wine to make them all drunk and nostalgic. I poke at the fire with a stick and listen as they reminisce about a past so long ago it's almost a dream to me.
"Remember when we were kids, and Dean got lost in the Silver Gardens?" Zeb asks. He speaks of the Old World, the time before the Fall. When we weren't the Fallen, but the Chosen.
"He claimed it wasn't his fault, that the place was huge," Niam says.
Asher chuckles. "He was too busy staring at his reflection in the statues to pay attention to where he was."
Zeb laughs. "And it was Levi who found him first, but then… " he laughs so hard he nearly chokes and takes another drink before continuing. "Then they both got lost."