Stolen Song by Autumn Reed

 

Imogen

I made people nervous.

Actually, nervous was a bit of an understatement. I terrified people.

As I was led down the hall toward the warden’s office, I caught a flash of color, or the gleam of skin, but the forms skittered away from me as soon as I glanced toward them. They hid in the shadows of their cells as far away from me as they could get.

Nothing I did would assure people I meant no harm. Even if I could tell them—the other inmates of Nightmare Penitentiary—I wasn’t the thing that would kill them, they wouldn’t believe me.

Swallowing thickly, the collar around my neck biting into my skin, I shifted my gaze from the dark cells of my fellow inmates to the back of the warden’s head.

His broad-shouldered form held ramrod straight, he strode down the hall, uncaring of—or unmoved by—the wails and shrieks of the other prisoners.

I had no idea why he’d pulled me out of my cell. In the time I’d been locked up, shoved into a solitary room from which I had no hope of escaping, I’d learned that predictability was good. When every day began the same—oatmeal—and ended the same—lights out at sunset—I was safe.

Or I had the illusion of safety.

For all the bars and guards, for the magic and the pain compliance, there were times when the creatures locked in this place made a brief foray into freedom. Some of those beings enjoyed the hurt they inflicted on others. They followed their basest desires, reveling in the blood and chaos for as long as it took the guards to rally and shove them back into their holes.

So, I knew people died inside this prison.

But not because of me.

“Banshee inmate.” The warden spun on his heel, and I staggered to a stop. I was too close to him and took an instinctive step backwards. One side of his mouth lifted in a smile. I’d flinched. Stupid. The sign of weakness would come back to bite me somehow, I knew it.

He spoke again. “Banshee.”

That’s all I was here—a banshee. A wailer of songs and laments. I wasn’t Imogen Eveningsong or Genny. I was the messenger of death, and no one gave a single solitary eff about who I was or had been before I was dragged, protesting my innocence, to this hellhole.

Nearby, nails clicked against the cement floor, distracting me. I turned my head in time to recoil from a dark, hairy, clawed hand swiping at my face.

Jumping away, I slammed into the cell on the other side of the hall.

The warden smiled, both sides of his mouth lifting as if he’d never seen anything so amusing.

How he could smile in the face of a far darrig was beyond me. Clearly the man was so confident of his safety that he didn’t so much as blink at this creature.

I, on the other hand, was scared witless.

This, this, was a nightmare.I’d never seen one up close. He wore red from head to toe, which made me think he must not have been here long. Or perhaps this was a being who scared the guards as much as I did. Far darrigs were known for their uniform.

I covered my mouth and nose with my hand as the smell hit me. It only took one breath to realize that the color came not from dye, but from the blood which soaked the red cap’s clothing.

Cold, black eyes met and held mine, and he reached for me, opening and closing his hand. “Banshee,” he said in a gravelly voice, “sing for me. Give me my freedom.”

It was the last request I expected, and in that moment, I was struck by just how hopeless this place was if even a red cap wished for death.

Goosebumps raised the hairs on my skin as a cool breath wafted over my neck. “This banshee doesn’t sing.” The warden stood like a shadow at my back, fingers lightly grazing my elbow as he turned me back toward his office.

The red cap stared at me one second longer with...pity? That was new. He pulled his lips back from his teeth. But the warning hiss that came out of him wasn’t for me. His gaze flicked toward the warden, whose fingers dug into my flesh.

I was a banshee whose song was feared, and until I arrived here, most people treated me with a far-removed respect. In prison, all of that disappeared. I was only one faceless, nameless creature who was deserving of punishment. If the red cap was surprised by this, it was because of how very new he was to Nightmare Penitentiary.

After one final look of understanding to the red cap, I turned toward the warden. He opened the door to his office and pulled me inside, where I stumbled to a stop.

Automatically, I opened my mouth to speak. Killian. But the collar did its work. As soon as it sensed I took a breath to give voice, pain shot through my body.

It was sharper than electricity and hotter than a flame, and it raced from my throat to every part of my body.

Distantly, I registered my knees hitting the cement floor, but that discomfort was nothing compared to what the collar dispensed.

And that wasn’t even the worst part. No. That was knowing the men who’d put me here—Killian, Ronan, and Flynn—were witness to my shame.

With every bit of pride I could muster, and I had very little left, I forced my gaze from the floor to the princes. I couldn’t say why. Part of me hoped they’d help me. Or maybe that they’d come to set me free, having realized I’d done nothing to deserve this place.

As our eyes met, I dropped mine at what I saw.

How ironic that the red cap had more pity for me than these three who I’d once counted as friends.

“As you can see, the collar works quite well. We’re all immensely proud of it.” The warden’s voice filtered to me as I got my breathing under control. My body ached, pain still radiating along my nerves, making my arms and legs shake as I tried to push myself to stand.

“And she can’t speak at all?” Killian asked.

It took all of my control not to answer, Obviously, jerk. The collar gave a little warning buzz, as if it sensed my desire, and I swallowed hard.

Laughing, the warden gripped me under the arms and hauled me to my feet to deposit me in a chair. “Did you hear that high-pitched whistle?” he asked. “The banshee considered answering your question, and it warned her. Brina, our prison doctor, designed that detail. Not only does the collar punish the banshee, it shapes her behavior. Amazing, isn’t it?”

All throughout his bloated, self-congratulatory speech, I kept my head down. My face was wet with tears I hadn’t recalled crying, and that, if anyone asked, I would ascribe to an uncontrolled pain response. The very last thing I wanted was for these dillholes to believe they caused my tears.

The collar would punish me for any sound I made—any squeak or sigh—so I focused on breathing deeply and soundlessly. It wasn’t until I could take a breath that didn’t shake that I lifted my gaze again to my ex-best friends.

Killian. Crown prince of Tuatha Dé Danann and jerkwad extraordinaire. He looked as he always did—flawless.

And frowny.

Next to him stood Ronan, his brother and bodyguard. The huge man stared at my neck. My eyes are up here. As if he cared. He was probably fascinated by how I was kept in line without anyone lifting a finger. Kind of made that sword he carried around irrelevant. Too bad I couldn’t point that out.

And Flynn. As much as I wanted to soften at the sight of the youngest of the trio, I didn’t. Flynn was the one who’d found me, red-eyed and hoarse, beneath a hawthorn tree and had dragged me to his brothers as so-called proof of my crimes.

They stared at me as intensely as I studied them, but inspection was all I saw in their eyes. There wasn’t even a flash of emotion. I was a stranger to them.

How long had I been in this prison, living this nightmare?

The last time I’d seen them, they’d been wild with fury. They’d screamed accusations in my face. If anyone had told me my friends could blame and wound me the way they did, I’d have laughed.

Don’t flinch. Don’t flinch.

I could almost feel Flynn’s hands on my arms as he shook me, begging me to tell him why, why had I hurt him? Why had I driven his father mad?

How could I have been so cruel?

And I couldn’t even tell him. I didn’t know. When the song came over me, the impulse to lament couldn’t be denied. I lost all sense of who I was or where I was. There was no time and no friendship. No love or hate. There was only the keening wild wail of a banshee, announcing an inescapable ending.

Unable to stare for one more second at the cold forms of the people who should have known me better, I went back to studying my hands.

“Here.” Killian’s deep voice startled me as he thrust a handkerchief under my nose. When I didn’t take it, he dropped it in my lap. “You’re a mess, Imogen.”

“Now that you’ve seen the banshee, is there anything else I can help you with?” the warden asked.

“No.” Ronan spoke this time. His soft, raspy voice filled the room. “We’ve seen all we need to.”

The door opened behind me, and a guard suddenly hefted me to my feet. I let the handkerchief fall to the ground.

Of course, I was a mess. Thanks to what the princes had done to me.

I made sure to step on the fabric embroidered with the royal seal as I left. I didn’t want anything from them.