Spoiler Alert: This trilogy is a direct sequel to Crownless, my stand-alone high fantasy novel published in 2021. The following chapters contain major spoilers for the ending of that book. That said, this story does stand on its own, as does Crownless, and each can be read independently from the other. Proceed at your own discretion.
Also note: These chapters have not yet benefited from final edits. There may be typos or other minor inconsistencies.
One: Dark Dreams
Sunlight flashed across his opponent’s sword hilt. Prince Jetekesh flinched and staggered back, raising his broadsword in defense. Beneath the merciless noon sun, everything shone: the pond, the broken bottles crowding one corner of the ruins, the crumbling granite walls.
I need to see my surroundings.
Jetekesh set his jaw and bounded into the meager shade painted by a leaning pillar.
Master Ivam anticipated him. The man swung his sword hard enough to make it sing.
Jetekesh blocked the blow. A dull thud sounded as covered blade met covered blade.
“Good! Better, Your Highness. Much better.” Master Ivam lowered his blade. “That’s enough for one day.”
Jetekesh shoved back his damp golden hair, plucked a handkerchief from a vest pocket, and mopped his brow. “Let’s go a little longer. I’m not tired yet.”
Master Ivam’s smile drew crow’s feet around his eyes. “You say that now, my prince, but tomorrow you’ll feel what you’ve already done.”
“That’s fine.” Jetekesh rotated his wrist until his pommel caught a sliver of sunlight and gleamed. “I need to get much stronger.”
Master Ivam rested a hand on his shoulder. “You are strong, my prince. Your progress has soared in recent months, and your father is pleased. Very pleased.”
Jetekesh’s cheeks warmed as he grinned. “Thank you, Master Ivam. But I’m not where I wish to be just yet.” His eyes strayed to the mountain range beyond the Ruins of Glayn. The lush green verdure of late spring wrapped the mountains in a bright tapestry, promising a fertile year for farmers across Amantier. The rains came frequently enough to color the world without drowning it.
It promises to be a good planting season.
His chest constricted.
His eyes drifted from the north, then he slowly wheeled to face the south and the rolling hills leading down toward Kavacos, Royal Capital of Amantier. The walled city shone, roof tiles bright and clean after the last series of storms. Prosperity reigned across Amantier, and reports from KryTeer and Shing suggested they, too, flourished in this new age of peace. The White Death, a persistent plague in Shing, had vanished nine months ago.
All moved like a potter’s wheel, steady, fluid. All were content and happy.
All but Jetekesh with his heavy heart.
His eyes drifted past the Rose City and its myriad sights, sounds, and smells, toward the southern desert far beyond view. His memories crawled over the wearisome paths he’d trod in company with some he would never meet again.
Sir Palan, the legendary knight without equal. Silent Tifen, Jetekesh’s faithful protector. Jinji Wanderlust of Shing, the renowned storyteller with a price on his head. All dead.
Jetekesh ducked his head to blink back a sudden mist, then pressed a smile on his lips as he turned to the swordmaster. “Perhaps we should stop for the day, Master Ivam. I’m more exhausted than I believed if my thoughts wander so far.”
The middle-aged man narrowed his brown eyes. “You appear rather melancholy, my prince. Do you wish to unburden your soul? I’m a fair listener.”
Jetekesh shook his head. “Thank you, but no. It’s nothing.” How could he speak of those he’d lost in KryTeer? How could he articulate his guilt? Nine months weren’t sufficient to shed his grief and move on. A hunger clawed at him to become strong enough that he wouldn’t lose anyone else through his helplessness.
Nor my temper.
He strolled beyond the ruinous structure and sat in the tall grass to unwrap the cloth around his blade. Master Ivam followed, crossed his legs in the grass, and worked in silence to unbind his own sword. A breeze teased their fair hair and tugged on their shirts.
Finished, Jetekesh climbed to his feet, sheathed his sword, and brushed every speck of dirt from his britches.
The swordmaster rose, slid his blade into its sheath, and squinted down at Kavacos. “Beautiful day. The weather is finally taming, I think.”
Jetekesh nodded faintly. “Just in time to plant crops.”
“We’re blessed by the One God this season.”
Jetekesh didn’t bother answering. He’d never known how to juggle small talk. “Shall we return?”
Master Ivam started to nod, then pressed his hand against his forehead to shield against the sun. “Is that the banner for Sage Province?”
Jetekesh cupped his hands across his brow and searched the far westside gates of Kavacos. Approaching them, a group of horsemen rode along the King’s Highway in military formation. Rippling above them, a banner bearing sage leaves clutched in hawk’s talons boldly stood against a silver field. Wisdom and Might: the motto of Sage Province. “By the saints, I think it is.” His heart stuttered. A smile graced the edges of his lips despite himself. Cousin Rille had come to visit. Energy surged through his limbs. “Come along, Master Ivam! Make haste.”
He bounded down the north hill toward the capital. How long had it been since he’d seen his cousin? Rille had turned eleven years old last autumn, shortly after they’d returned from KryTeer. After that, she’d gone back to her fallen estate to restore her dead father’s duchy. In the winter snows, she’d returned to Kavacos only once to celebrate the Holy Nocturne. Her stay had been brief.
Jetekesh couldn’t say why excitement now carried him like he had wings on his feet. He and Rille had never been close. They’d spent most of their journey south bickering. Yet together they’d experienced something few royals ever did, and she understood better than anyone—except perhaps the Blood Prince of KryTeer—the painful depths of losing Jinji Wanderlust.
Not Blood Prince. He’s the Blood King of KryTeer now.
Jetekesh crested the second, smaller hill and paused to catch his breath. Master Ivam pulled up beside him, puffing for air.
“Why the urgency, Your Highness?”
Jetekesh brushed back strands of his long honey-blond hair while he gulped more air. “Haven’t…the faintest…notion.” He inhaled, drinking in verdure and the damp of a nearby brook, then he sprinted onward. He’d chosen not to ride his stallion out to the ruins. He loved riding—particularly to spite Mother who had rarely let him near horses—but he’d decided after his adventure with Jinji that he needed to increase his stamina.
Soon he reached the northside gates of the Rose Capital, puffing only a little. A few trumpet notes blasted the news of his return as the portcullis lifted to give him passage. Master Ivam caught up, and together they entered Kavacos. A company of knights saluted as the two passed, then they pivoted to flank Jetekesh. The escort crossed a thriving market square, with its mingled scents of leather, ironworks, and roasting mutton, to reach the sandstone palace walls. Jetekesh ignored the hawkers who called out to him, begging royal favor.
The knights ushered him between the tall palace gates while guards stationed to either side saluted. He hurried through the northern rose gardens where the first buds peeked out among the thorns. His eyes roamed the paths, expecting to spot Mother among the rose beds, cooing at her precious, growing flowers.
A forlorn sensation swept over Jetekesh. Mother is gone. Let her rest. You hated her anyway, didn’t you?
A liveried servant turned the corner and stepped into view. Relief softened the man’s face. “Ah, Your Highness, excellent. Your Lord Father wishes you to meet him in the throne room. Lady Rille has arrived from Sage Province and claims her arrival is of a most urgent nature.”
She’d really come.
Of course, it would take something urgent to chase her back here.
Jetekesh tacked a smile to his lips. “Thank you. I’m on my way.”
The servant bowed and vanished around the corner. As Jetekesh reached the same bend, he glimpsed the servant trotting toward the sandstone Rose Palace cut like a great solid square. The prince’s gaze lifted to find the Crowned Rose pennant snapping in a growing wind atop the highest turret. His stride quickened.
* * *
His Majesty, King Jetekesh the Fourth—along with Cousin Rille—waited upon the raised dais in the throne room. Lord Father wore his fine court apparel, and his long mane of light brown hair hung in loose curls around his scarlet surcoat. His blue eyes shone in a ray of sunshine, bright and kind, though lines of worry strained at his mouth. He still looked a bit fragile since his years-long illness, but each month brought improvements. Someday, he might have his old strength back.
Father and son didn’t look much alike. While the king had a solid, tall frame—despite his prolonged illness—Jetekesh was lean and short. Mother had also been tall, with platinum hair and hazel eyes. The prince, meanwhile, had honey-colored hair, turquoise eyes, and delicate features. He was almost pretty, but he hoped to one day grow into a man’s figure with the authority and fortitude of Father or the iron will of Sir Palan. Mother would have hated that.
The prince gave the vaulted chamber a cursory glance as he entered, taking in the polished stone floor, the Crowned Rose banners hanging from the rafters, the swaths of red velvet draping the throne of Amantier, and the absence of gentry and nobility. His steps echoed as he crossed to meet his cousin.
Rille smiled down at him from the dais, amber eyes cat-like in the colors streaming from high, stained-glass windows. Her pale hair had been piled and coiffed on her head, and she wore a gown of green velvet and gold satin.
Jetekesh climbed the dais steps. “Hello, Rille.”
“Salutations, Lord Cousin.” She dipped into a graceful curtsy. As her grim eyes lifted, fear flashed through them.
Jetekesh frowned. “Not that I’m unhappy to see you, but your unannounced appearance does instill a sense of anxiety.”
Her smile stretched thin. “Astute, Lord Cousin. I’m not here to socialize.”
Movement in his periphery snared Jetekesh’s notice. He glanced left to find Sir Yeshton near the dais, cloaked in the shadows of a sunless corner. The knight looked much more polished than he had on the road last year. His long, dark blond hair was half pulled back; his scruffy dusting of whiskers had turned into a respectable, trimmed beard; and his brocaded clothes were tailored and costly. Rille doted on the knight, there was little doubt of that. But then, Sir Yeshton had saved her after her household had been slaughtered by the Blood Knights of KryTeer during their march on Amantier. Jetekesh suspected she had unofficially adopted Yeshton as a surrogate father.
The knight’s gray eyes collided with Jetekesh’s—grim, pensive—then Yeshton bowed at the waist.
The prince inclined his head, then turned back to Rille. “It must be quite a sensitive matter for my lord father to dismiss his court this time of day.”
“I fear it is.” Rille sighed. “A bad dream awakened me yester week. A dream like none I’ve had since Jinji’s passing.”
Jetekesh flinched. How could she use those words so bluntly? He drew a quick breath. “I thought your Sight had failed when magic fled Nakania.”
“Precisely my point, cousin. It did. But now I See again. My gift has come back. Yet I fear the reason for that.”
A shiver jolted up his spine. “What was your dream?”
Rille opened her mouth just as footsteps approached beyond the throne room—dozens of them, pounding, scraping, as armor clattered. Lord Father stepped to the edge of his dais, silken cape rippling. The far doors flung open to reveal Captain Frebe of the palace guards, eyes wide and searching.
“Your Majesty!” Frebe cried. “Strangers at the northern gate.” He scurried forward, guards at his back matching his pace.
Lord Father nodded, calm despite the alarm in the soldiers’ eyes. “Expound, Captain.”
“Sire, they…they’re…not Amantieran.”
The king’s lips twitched down with stifled impatience. “Go on.”
Captain Frebe took a moment to collect his breath as his eyes danced from the king to the prince, to Rille, to Sir Yeshton, to the empty room. Back to the king. “Sire, they’re from the Clanslands.”
Jetekesh started and glanced toward Lord Father.
The king’s eyes narrowed. “How many?”
“Two dozen, two hundred?”
“No, sire. Two people.” Frebe looked over his shoulder toward the half dozen guards at his back. He cranked his head back around to eye the king like an owl blinded by the sun. “I’ve never seen their like before. Skin dark as ebony. Strange hair. Nasty-looking spears.”
Lord Father nodded and strode down the dais steps. “Are they waiting outside the gate?”
“Yes, sire. They requested to see—”
Lord Father marched across the chamber. “Lead me.” He glanced back. “Stay here, Kesh.”
“Please, sire,” said Frebe. “They requested to see Prince Jetekesh.”
The king’s steps faltered. “Did they say why?”
“No, sire. Only that it was imperative.”
Rille moved from the dais. “Let them, Lord Uncle.”
“I’ll come with you.” Jetekesh slipped past Rille and trotted to Lord Father’s side.
The king’s frown deepened. “No. Captain, escort our guests here. We had best do this in proper fashion and within our halls.” He glanced at Jetekesh. “I won’t risk you in the open until we know what they want, my son.”
As Captain Frebe bowed and waved his men out of the throne room, Jetekesh’s heart quavered.
“Am I in danger, sire?” he asked. “I’ve never met anyone from the Clanslands before.”
The king shook his head. “That, I couldn’t say. But I’ll take no chances. The Clanslands are full of peculiar, wild places. Some clans are friendly. Most aren’t. But very few are openly hostile.” He strode back to the dais, spun to face the chamber, and sat upon the throne. “Rille, we’ve a few moments before they arrive. What is your dream’s warning?”
Rille paced to the dais steps and stared up into the king’s troubled face. She drew a breath. “I dreamt that the darkness that possessed Emperor Gyath had returned from its banishment in the depths of the sea. Erisyrdrel walks this world again.”
Memories of the KryTeeran emperor’s court surged across Jetekesh’s thoughts. Mere months ago, he’d stood before that wicked man, alongside Jinji and the rest of his traveling companions. Jinji had mustered enough strength to summon Prince Sharo from the magical realm of Shinac, and the fae prince had struck Gyath down upon his throne. The darkness possessing Gyath had slipped away like black sand, banished back to its confinement in the ocean.
Prince Sharo had claimed the dark thing wouldn’t return in Jetekesh’s lifetime.
What happened to change that?
“You’re certain it wasn’t a mere nightmare, niece?” asked the king.
Rille shook her head. “The difference between Sight and dream is substantial, Lord Uncle. Something broke Erisyrdrel’s chains. I couldn’t say what. Something…horrible.”
Sir Yeshton slipped from the shadows to stand at Rille’s side. “She awoke screaming, Your Majesty.” He folded his wrist over his sword. “She never screams.”
Jetekesh could well believe that of his cousin. She was too pragmatic and proud. The prince stepped onto the dais. “What should we do, Lord Father?”
The king shook his head, eyes riveted on something beyond the floor at his feet. Something far, far away. Silence enveloped the chamber until the distant sound of a bird outside the stained-glass windows penetrated the stillness.
Jetekesh let his eyes wander over the windows. The images set into the colored glass depicted Cavalin the Third, hero of Nakania; Driodere, grim Death himself; the saints of ages: Vashi, Kilith, Norgric, Peratha; and others, so many others. Martyrs, heroes, warriors.
Jinji should be up there.
Jetekesh lowered his gaze and turned to find Rille watching him.
“I dreamt of you, cousin,” she said.
Jetekesh grimaced. “Not dying at the hands of darkness, I hope.”
“No. Not quite that.”
He rolled his eyes. “Always so cheery.”
“I have little reason for cheer, cousin. We haven’t the means to slay such a monster as Erisyrdrel.”
Jetekesh turned his gaze from Rille as his heartbeat quickened. He willed his face to keep a neutral expression, but knew he’d failed.
What can we do against a threat like this?
Footsteps pounded against the flagstones beyond the chamber doors Captain Frebe had left open. A swell of guards poured into the throne room and parted to let the captain lead the strangers across the elongated chamber. The two clansfolk walked behind him, their strides long and graceful.
Jetekesh’s eyes widened. Never had he seen such people. Their dark skin shone in the window light. Thick woolen hair twisted atop their heads, black but for streaks of outlandish colors: bright green, orange, and pink. Patterned cloth, including leopard spots, swathed their lean, tall figures. Both wore spears with jagged tips, decorated with feathers, sheathed across their backs. One stranger was male, the other female. Captain Frebe brought them a dozen feet from the dais, turned, and motioned for them to stand still. They obeyed without a word. The captain marched to the edge of the dais and positioned himself near Sir Yeshton and Rille.
The male foreigner took a single step forward. “King Jetekesh, I presume?” A slight accent laced his words, but otherwise he spoke the trade tongue flawlessly.
“You presume correctly,” Lord Father said, switching from Amantieran to the trade tongue. “Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
The stranger inclined his head. “I am Dakarai of the Karanki Tribe in the eastern realm of what you call the Clanslands. This is my companion Anenyasha. We have traveled to your fair city on a mission of terrible importance.” His dark eyes drifted to Jetekesh. “Is this your son and heir?”
“He is,” said Lord Father, a note of strain threading through his tones. “My captain of the guard mentioned you came here seeking Prince Jetekesh. I’m surprised you know him by name.”
So was Jetekesh. The Clanslands had long kept out of western politics, keeping to themselves in their deep, dangerous jungles. Little was known about the folk who lived there, and the prince’s tutors had assumed that the Clanslands cared little about the other countries. Only a few of the clansfolk ventured south to trade with Shing across a wide bay.
Dakarai’s lips lifted in a smile. “You would be surprised by much that we know, Your Majesty.” He extended his free hand toward the prince. “Your Highness, we have brought a gift for you if you will accept it.”
Jetekesh threw a furtive glance toward Lord Father, who nodded faintly. Squaring his shoulders, Jetekesh inhaled and moved from the dais to stand before the strangers. He met Dakarai’s gaze. The stranger was well over six feet tall and almost willowy. His eyes were a vibrant brown, keen and sharp, above high cheekbones and full smiling lips. He was no more than thirty years old.
The young woman, Anenyasha, stepped forward and extended her hand in a fist.
Jetekesh held out his palm. She dropped something onto it. He flinched like the object scorched his flesh—but something cool settled against his skin. Heart hammering, he dared to look: a sapphire, winking in the colored light from above.
His heart cartwheeled. “I… It’s beautiful. Thank you. But, if I may ask, why are you giving this to me?”
The stoic woman stepped back and looked at her companion.
Dakarai answered. “It is our custom to bring our host a gift. Please accept our humble offering.”
Jetekesh resisted an urge to seek his father’s guidance, though why they gave him the offering rather than the king, he couldn’t fathom. He curled his fingers over the sapphire and tugged his lips into what must look like a bemused smile. “Thank you again. I accept your gift heartily.”
Dakarai smiled. Anenyasha mirrored him, though her expression was far more reserved.
“Now to business,” the clansman said. “We have come to Amantier at the behest of our watchwoman. She bade us to make haste seven days ago after she awakened from a terrible dream.”
Rille’s intake of breath echoed in Jetekesh’s ears as his face drained of blood. He shivered.
Lord Father rose from his throne. “What was the essence of this terrible dream?”
Dakarai’s eyes lanced Jetekesh, never wavering. “She saw a glowing arch burst asunder. Then a great watery demon rose from the western seas. It slithered into the shadows and became lost to her. Just after this dream, dark things attacked my tribe and slew many of my people whilst they slept.”
The man took a shuddering breath. “We come, Prince Jetekesh, to aid you against the fell things creeping across our world. The watchwoman has declared you Marked—one who has been touched by truth.”
Wind snatched at Kajsa’s hood, trying unsuccessfully to unleash her long white-blonde hair. A gust flung snow in her eyes. She shuddered and huddled deeper into her fur-lined cape as she trudged through the knee-deep snow, a cloth bundle of dried herbs clutched in her arms. The glow of the firelight within the distant turf house compelled her onward.
Only a few more yards.
Her boot caught a buried rock. She lurched forward and plunged into a snowbank, losing her herbs in a sea of white. Kajsa lay stunned as ice kissed her cheeks. Setting her jaw, she drew herself upright and dug into the snow until her mittened fingers found the bundle. A few herbs had spilled out. She swept them back into the pack and pulled herself to her feet. Only a few more paces to the front door.
A frosty gale howled in her ears, laughing. She ignored it and slogged onward as her nose tingled. The feeling in her toes had faded to a distant thing, like a memory of spring.
Kajsa staggered the last few feet to the porch. She pounded as hard as her frozen arm would let her through the cushioned mitten, too numb to clutch the doorknob.
“Ingrid, it’s me! Open up, please!”
The door swung aside, and Kajsa stumbled into the cheery room. Warmth slapped her face. She steadied her feet and turned to smile at her friend.
It wasn’t Ingrid.
Instead, a tall, comely young man held the carved door.
“Axel!” An urge to throw herself into his arms flooded her limbs, but she swayed back to stop herself.
The young man grinned and his pale green eyes twinkled. “The hunt ended early. No sense dying in this blizzard.” He pointed to the ornately engraved hearth. “Brought some fowl for my supper.”
Kajsa spotted the birds plucked and strung up. Curled up beneath them, Axel’s black and silver wolf, Raum, slept near the open flames, nose tucked under his bushy tail.
Nodding, Kajsa shifted her pack. “I’ll start cooking right away but first…” She dodged around Axel to find Ingrid in the wisewoman’s favorite corner, rocking in her chair, a mangy cat curled up on her lap. Kajsa held up the bundle. “I brought what you needed, Ingrid. My stores are a little low, but we’ve plenty of feverfew.”
The old woman lifted her blue eyes from the cat and smiled, drawing new lines into her craggy, papery face. “Thank you, Ky.”
Kajsa brought the herbs to the table where other dried plants lay in neat piles. She slipped her mittens off, untied the pack, and carefully separated each root and leaf into its proper pile while Axel looked on beside her. His nearness brought a fire to her cheeks, and she avoided glancing at him until she set the last herb in its mound.
Turning, she wiped her hands against each other as she stared at Axel’s feet. “I’m glad you’re back safe, Xel.”
He caught her chin and tilted her head until their eyes met. His gaze, warm and friendly, melted the last specks of ice from Kajsa’s blood. His platinum hair fell around his chin, but for a long lock trailing down his shoulder, caught in a beaded clasp. She longed to finger his hair, to press herself against his well-sculpted frame, and drink in the security he exuded.
“You’re thinner,” Axel murmured.
Kajsa eased back from his touch and moved to the hearth. “I’ll start on supper.” She shook her layers of woolen skirts to dislodge the clinging chunks of snow, then hung her short cape on a peg near the fireplace and knelt beside the slumbering wolf.
Axel’s footsteps thudded across the floor behind her. “Are you taking care of yourself?”
She nodded faintly as she examined the fowl. He sat beside her, crossed his legs, and rested a hand on her shoulder. She dipped her head further.
She sighed and angled herself to face him. “Don’t worry so much, Axel. I’m getting by well enough.”
He scoffed. “You’re thin as a reed, tiny for your sixteen years, and pale as the driven snow. I’ll worry if I like, thank you.” His hand slipped from her shoulder to catch her wrist. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Kajsa. You can’t let the village use you up.”
She shrugged and stared at the floor.
“That’s not an answer. What am I supposed to read in that? Look at me.”
She hefted her eyes.
Axel’s smile could banish a blizzard. “You deserve respect, Ky. Most especially from yourself.”
She let her lips curve upward. “You’re an angel, Xel.”
He snorted. “Right. But I mean what I say.” He climbed to his feet. “Now, get that supper on. You need it as much as I.”
As she set to work seasoning the meat, moisture gathered in her eyes. She wiped them away before Axel could see. He mustn’t know how she felt. She was already such a burden without that.
* * *
An hour later, Kajsa sat with Axel on the floor of Ingrid’s turf house and picked at her meal. Ingrid had fallen asleep. The cat prowled close to examine the bit of meat Axel proffered to lure him.
“What’s his name?” asked Axel.
Kajsa shrugged. “I call him Mouser, hoping he’ll start earning his keep if the name sticks. Ingrid calls him Nuisance, but she likes him all the same.”
Axel grimaced. “Those aren’t names. C’mere, Tatters. C’mon. Get the meat.”
The cat’s yellow eyes slid from the hand holding dinner to Axel’s face, a look of mild offense punctuated by a backward flick of his ragged ears. His tail lashed back and forth in a slow rhythm.
“He won’t come,” Kajsa said between mouthfuls. “You’ll have to throw it. He’s too proud to beg.”
Axel chuckled. “Don’t be like that, Tatters. Some things are worth the begging.”
The cat yawned and sat down on his haunches, content to wait.
Axel shrugged and tossed the meat. “Fine.” He turned back to his plate, lips turning down. “There’s another reason we came back from the hunt early.”
Kajsa pushed her meat away from her turnip juices. “Was someone hurt?”
Her eyes jerked up. “Who?”
“Not anyone we know. Relax.”
She let her shoulders slouch. “A stranger? At this time of year?”
“Must’ve been caught in the storm. He was half frozen but still breathing. We’d been debating turning around anyway. Finding him settled the argument. We’ll know more if he wakes up.”
“Is he hurt badly?”
“Dunno.” Axel prodded at his turnip with his fork. “I’d hoped you could look at him. I don’t want Ingrid going out in this weather.”
Kajsa sprang to her feet and nearly lost her grip on her plate. “Is he at the Elderhouse?”
“Xel, you should’ve spoken sooner.”
He rose and crammed the last bite of meat into his mouth as he shrugged.
Kajsa threw on her cape, still damp but endurable. “Hurry.”
“A couple minutes won’t make much difference. Slow down.”
She shot him a scowl. “A couple minutes and an hour besides!”
He chuckled. “So assertive. You might try being more like this about other things. You’d fare better in the village.”
Kajsa’s fingers fumbled over her soggy mittens. The village. “H-how many will be at the Elderhouse?”
“Probably half of Tuksa by now. Word travels fast, even in this weather.”
Kajsa snatched Ingrid’s herb kit off its peg on the wall. “Can’t worry about that. I’ll endure it.”
“Sorry, didn’t catch that.”
“It’s nothing.” She turned to find Axel chewing the last of his turnip. Kajsa’s expression softened. He stood there, a full eighteen years old, looking like a child caught with a fresh-baked strudel. But his childlike moment vanished as a smile swept over his lips and the warm firelight caught in his pale eyes.
“I’m ready.” He shrugged into his fur coat. “C’mon, Raum.”
The wolf’s ear flicked, then he raised his head. A whine issued from his mouth as he yawned, stretched, then rose to his paws.
* * *
The fragrance of woodsmoke and pipe tobacco lingered in the air as Kajsa steeled her nerves and pressed her way into the Elderhouse. Axel was right behind her. Raum stayed outside. Kajsa stifled a sneeze and danced around a gaggle of women deep in conversation. They offered no more than a perfunctory glance as she plowed further into the crowd.
Voices droned around the large room. More than half the village had indeed braved the cold night air and sleeting snow.
Axel slipped ahead of her to cut a path. People parted like snowy drifts beneath a sled for him, and soon Kajsa reached the head of the lodge’s main hall. Elder Viggo stood before the large hearth, hands cupped behind his back, head bowed in reflection. Axel strode up to him and cleared his throat.
Viggo turned a vacant glance on him, then blinked. “Ah, Axel. Did you bring her?”
Kajsa slipped up beside her friend and bowed her head. “Greetings, Elder Viggo.”
“Never mind that, never mind. You’ve a patient in the next room. Step softly. Help him if you can.”
Kajsa padded into the adjoining chamber. The death room, most called it.
Her steps faltered but she willed herself to plunge ahead. Axel followed her and shut the door in their wake.
A single candle illuminated the confines of this room of horrors. Kajsa hadn’t come back here since she bade farewell to Fa…or what had been left of him. Bile burned Kajsa’s throat as the memory of Fa’s torn body and the odor of death closed over her mind.
Run. Go. You can’t stay here!
She cast a glance around the room: the curtains shrouding the window, the cold fireplace—dead like everything that dwelled in this room.
A gentle hand caught her shoulder. “Easy,” whispered Axel. “Breathe out the bad, Ky. You’re here to save someone, not say goodbye.”
His words eased her racing heart back into a steady beat. She let her breath out and tiptoed to the bed set against the left side wall. In the flickering candlelight, she could make out a pale face and hair.
“I need more light, Xel.”
He retreated from the room with the silence of a skilled hunter, then prowled back inside moments later, a lit lantern swinging from his hand. He shut the door with a soft snick, then crept to the bed. The flame illuminated the room, dampening the sterile feel a little.
“Set it there.” She motioned to the nightstand.
Axel rested the lantern on the polished wood surface, then stepped back as Kajsa pulled the heavy quilted coverlet from the unconscious figure in the bed. Like everyone else in this forsaken wasteland, the man looked Norvian, with fair skin and pale hair, yet something in the structure of his bones unsettled Kajsa as she ran her fingers over his frame. Nothing broken. No indication of blood loss. A few bruises. No fever. No sign of a head injury.
She tipped her head as she considered the sleeping man. His flesh looked almost like ice stretched over sharp features reminiscent of a fox.
“I don’t see anything wrong with him.” She turned to Axel. “He’s just sleeping.”
Axel’s brows knitted together. “You’re sure?”
She nodded. “There’s no sign of injury. Nothing.” She glanced at the sleeping man and tensed. His eyes were open now, their color molten gold in the lantern’s guttering light.
“Oh, hello.” Axel stepped up beside Kajsa. “How do you feel?”
The man’s gaze slid to Axel’s face. A strained smile twisted his lips. “W-where…?”
“You’re in Tuksa, one of the mountain villages. From where do you hail, stranger?”
The man considered Axel for a long, silent moment. He drew a breath, then spoke in soft, silken tones. “Where is Tuksa in relation to Amantier?”
Kajsa blinked. Amantier?
Axel laughed softly. “That’s leagues away. I doubt anyone in Tuksa—or indeed, anyone in Norva—could give you better insight than that. Are you from beyond the mountain, friend? Or did you dare attempt to travel the Snowblinds into the northern realm in this blizzard?”
The man’s eyes closed. “I…will rest a while longer.”
Axel pulled Kajsa away from the bed. “We might have a madman on our hands, Ky.” His voice hung on its lowest notes.
She glanced at the bed. “Let him rest. When he’s regained his strength, he might better know what he’s about.”
Axel grinned and ruffled her hair. “Can’t always give people the benefit of the doubt. Time will tell, I suppose. Best report to the Elder.”
“First let’s start a fire.”
Kajsa grabbed the lantern and followed Axel from the room in search of kindling. Nearing the door, she glanced back and a shiver ran down her spine. The man had opened his strange gold eyes, and they were pinned straight on her.