“Have you lost your senses?” Lucien shouted above the drums. His face was ghostly pale. “What are you doing here?”
None of the faeries noticed us—they were all staring intensely down the path, away from the cave. “I wanted to—” I started, but Lucien cursed violently.
“Idiot!” he yelled at me, then glanced behind him toward where the other faeries stared. “Useless human fool.” Without further word, he slung me over his shoulder as if I were a sack of potatoes.
Despite my wriggling and shouts of protest, despite my demands that he get my horse, he held firm, and when I looked up, I found that he was running—fast. Faster than anything should be able to move. It made me so nauseated that I shut my eyes. He didn’t stop until the air was cooler and calmer, and the drumming was distant.
Lucien dropped me on the floor of the manor hallway, and when I steadied myself, I found his face just as pale as before. “You stupid mortal,” he snapped. “Didn’t he tell you to stay in your room?” Lucien looked over his shoulder, toward the hills, where the drumming became so loud and fast that it was like a rainstorm.
“That was hardly anything—”
“That wasn’t even the ceremony!” It was only then that I saw the sweat on his face and the panicked gleam in his eyes. “By the Cauldron, if Tam found you there …”
“So what?” I said, shouting as well. I hated feeling like a disobedient child.
“It’s the Great Rite, Cauldron boil me! Didn’t anyone tell you what it is?” My silence was answer enough. I could almost see the drumbeats pulsing against his skin, beckoning him to rejoin the crowd. “Fire Night signals the official start of spring—in Prythian, as well as in the mortal world,” Lucien said. While his words were calm, they trembled slightly. I leaned against the wall of the hallway, forcing myself into a casualness I didn’t feel. “Here, our crops depend upon the magic we regenerate on Calanmai—tonight.”
I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my pants. Tamlin had said something similar two days ago. Lucien shuddered, as if shaking off an invisible touch. “We do this by conducting the Great Rite. Each of the seven High Lords of Prythian performs this every year, since their magic comes from the earth and returns to it at the end—it’s a give-and-take.”
“But what is it?” I asked, and he clicked his tongue.
“Tonight, Tam will allow … great and terrible magic to enter his body,” Lucien said, staring at the distant fires. “The magic will seize control of his mind, his body, his soul, and turn him into the Hunter. It will fill him with his sole purpose: to find the Maiden. From their coupling, magic will be released and spread to the earth, where it will regenerate life for the year to come.”
My face became hot, and I fought the urge to fidget.
“Tonight, Tam won’t be the faerie you know,” Lucien said. “He won’t even know his name. The magic will consume everything in him but that one basic command—and need.”
“Who … who’s the Maiden?” I got out.
Lucien snorted. “No one knows until it’s time. After Tam hunts down the white stag and kills it for the sacrificial offering, he’ll make his way to that sacred cave, where he’ll find the path lined with faerie females waiting to be chosen as his mate for tonight.”
Lucien laughed. “Yes—all those female faeries around you were females for Tamlin to pick. It’s an honor to be chosen, but it’s his instincts that select her.”
“But you were there—and other male faeries.” My face burned so hot that I began sweating. That was why those three horrible faeries had been there—and they’d thought that just by my presence, I was happy to comply with their plans.
“Ah.” Lucien chuckled. “Well, Tam’s not the only one who gets to perform the rite tonight. Once he makes his choice, we’re free to mingle. Though it’s not the Great Rite, our own dalliances tonight will help the land, too.” He shrugged off that invisible hand a second time, and his eyes fell upon the hills. “You’re lucky I found you when I did, though,” he said. “Because he would have smelled you, and claimed you, but it wouldn’t have been Tamlin who brought you into that cave.” His eyes met mine, and a chill went over me. “And I don’t think you would have liked it. Tonight is not for lovemaking.”
I swallowed my nausea.
“I should go,” Lucien said, gazing at the hills. “I need to return before he arrives at the cave—at least to try to control him when he smells you and can’t find you in the crowd.”
It made me sick—the thought of Tamlin forcing me, that magic could strip away any sense of self, of right or wrong. But hearing that … that some feral part of him wanted me … My breath was painful.
“Stay in your room tonight, Feyre,” Lucien said, walking to the garden doors. “No matter who comes knocking, keep the door locked. Don’t come out until morning.”
At some point, I dozed off while sitting at my vanity. I awoke the moment the drums stopped. A shuddering silence went through the house, and the hair on my arms arose as magic swept past me, rippling outward.
Though I tried not to, I thought about the probable source and blushed, even as my chest tightened. I glanced at the clock. It was past two in the morning.
Well, he’d certainly taken his time with the ritual, which meant the girl was probably beautiful and charming, and appealed to his instincts.
I wondered whether she was glad to be chosen. Probably. She’d come to the hill of her own free will. And after all, Tamlin was a High Lord, and it was a great honor. And I supposed Tamlin was handsome. Terribly handsome. Even though I couldn’t see the upper part of his face, his eyes were fine, and his mouth beautifully curved and full. And then there was his body, which was … was … I hissed and stood.
I stared at my door, at the snare I’d rigged. How utterly absurd—as if bits of rope and wood could protect me from the demons in this land.
Needing to do something with my hands, I carefully disassembled the snare. Then I unlocked the door and strode into the hallway. What a ridiculous holiday. Absurd. It was good that humans had cast them aside.
I made it to the empty kitchen, gobbled down half a loaf of bread, an apple, and a lemon tart. I nibbled on a chocolate cookie as I walked to my little painting room. I needed to get some of the furious images out of my mind, even if I had to paint by candlelight.