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Crystal crowned, p.1
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       Crystal Crowned, p.1

           Elise Kova
 
Crystal Crowned


  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters and events in this book are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Silver Wing Press

  Copyright © 2016 by Elise Kova

  All rights reserved. Neither this book, nor any parts within it may be sold or reproduced in any form without permission.

  Cover Artwork by (to come)

  Editing by (to come)

  ISBN (paperback): 9781619844780

  ISBN (hardcover): 9781619844773

  eISBN: 9781619844797

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016906373

  Printed in the U.S.A

  For Jeff,

  my lord, my love, my Bond

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  FRIGID AIR CLAWED its way under the pelts piled atop Vhalla Yarl, hunting out her warmth to herd it away as only winter could. She rolled over, jarred awake by a searing pain in her shoulder. Wincing inwardly, she eased off the wound, her hand instinctually reaching to rub it. It throbbed and itched worse with each passing day. Elecia was doing all she could to heal it, but healing supplies were severely limited. Even for a sorcerer of the woman’s caliber, there was only so much that could be done to quicken the healing process.

  Vhalla rubbed her eyes and pushed herself to a seated position. Her companions rested where they had finally collapsed the day prior, the after effects of mental exhaustion. Fritz breathed heavily to her left, huddled against Elecia. Jax lay to Vhalla’s right. The Northern princess and her guard curled in on each other, slumbering in the corner.

  Her eyes met the Westerner’s, and Vhalla inquisitively searched his gaze. Jax understood her silent question, snaking a hand out from under the blankets and pointing to the doorway. Vhalla stared at the vacant space to her immediate right, the vacancy that had let the cold in. One of her companions was not as she had left them.

  Easing herself slowly up, Vhalla crept out of the bedroom, pulling a heavy blanket around her shoulders. The main room was empty. Fire smoldered in the recesses of the hearth, offering little to ward off the chill. It was easy to take stock of the Charem family home; there was the room in which the guests slept, the loft above that held Fritz’s family, and the main room in which she now stood. Her eyes fell on the boots lined up by the door, and her gaze noted the empty space between two pairs.

  Booted and bundled, Vhalla ventured into the early twilight morning. The moon and stars still offered as much light as the early tendrils of dawn. The world of heavy snow and skeleton trees was void of color. It seemed as if it was withholding life until those horrors that had been unleashed upon the land were sorted out.

  A line of footprints led away from the front door. Vhalla struggled through the deep snowdrifts on her short legs. She followed the tracks up a short ridge toward a sitting figure looking over the small quick-moving stream that the Charems used as their primary source of water.

  The Emperor of Solaris sat as still as a statue. He was cut from midnight shadows and moonlight. The light dusting of snow looked like stars upon a night sky against the dark blanket over his shoulders. His skin was carved from alabaster, not even reddening by the cold. Vhalla wondered if a man with fire in his veins even felt the chill as she did.

  She eased down next to him, their sides touching. She followed his line of sight, trying to see what so captivated his attention beyond the early morning’s horizon. She slowly took his hand in hers, lacing her fingers against his.

  There was no lightning to his touch now, only heat. But even without the Bond, she knew how his mind worked. She felt his emotions like a phantom limb—a hollow and strange sensation of what should be there, of what her heart knew was there, but wasn’t. Vhalla finally drew her eyes to study his profile.

  She had yet to find words to say to him. After the group’s proclamation that he was their true Emperor, he had announced that he was retiring early. Vhalla had gone with him, letting him draw whatever support he could from her presence. He had clung to her throughout the night, but withdrew before the sun rose.

  She wanted to find the right words. She wanted to say something to give him strength, to remind him of all he still had. She wanted to say something that wouldn’t echo as a false display of support. But it would all be empty solutions to a problem that they both knew couldn’t be fixed. What did one say to a man who had lost everything but gained the world?

  “Aldrik,” she began weakly.

  “We need to move.” His voice was stronger than she expected, and it gave her pause. “You said there was a messenger.”

  Vhalla nodded, though she wasn’t sure how he saw the motion. His eyes still had yet to leave that distant point on the horizon.

  “There will be others, many others. Victor is clearly trying to make a quick claim for the Empire, before any have an opportunity to group against him,” he spoke mechanically, emotionlessly. His mind was moving faster than the wind, but his heart seemed like it had stopped altogether.

  “Aldrik,” Vhalla tried again, a little stronger.

  He continued without giving her his attention, “We need to unite the people faster than he can, under the banner which they have been fighting for—the Solaris banner. We must protect them.”

  “Aldrik.”

  She tugged firmly on his hand, and his head finally swung to her. His eyes were listless, only the hint of red at the edges betrayed that a piece of his heart had survived the latest blow. A heart that had been shattered with the death of his brother no more than days before.

  A weak condolence stopped before it could pass her lips. Vhalla swallowed it down. She pressed her mouth into a firm line, giving him a nod. “We will protect your people.”

  The knot in his neck bobbed as he swallowed hard. Her arms slipped out from under the blanket, wrapping tightly around his shoulders and pulling him to her. His hands found life again and tugged her toward him and onto his lap, swaddling her under his blanket against his warmth.

  The pads of his fingers dug into her side and shoulder. It felt as though they were trying to meld back into one mind and one body, as they had once before with the Bond. Aldrik’s face buried in the side of her neck, and Vhalla stared at nothing as his breath seeped through her layers to her skin.

  “Our people.”

  They remained until the sun crested the horizon, tucked against each other, the silence speaking louder than any words could. Aldrik hoisted her, carrying her halfway back to the Charem home, a happy trail of smoke emitting plumes from the chimney. Vhalla saw it only as a beacon. If Victor’s tainted monsters had any sentience left at all, they would know to come in this direction soon.

  Or, far more likely, Victor would drive them in logical directions. The creature had demanded people kneel so the new king could see their lo
yalty. Clearly, the crystals created a magical connection between Victor and his abominations.

  Back inside the house, no one said anything about the return of the Emperor and the woman who was once the Windwalker. Cass, the eldest Charem daughter, kept the conversation going throughout breakfast. But it wasn’t nearly as lively as Vhalla’s first meal with the brood. Reona sat listlessly, moving food around her plate as though the face of the tainted monster they’d witnessed in town was beneath it and she wanted to keep it hidden. Elecia alternated between concerned glances at Aldrik and hushed whispers with Jax. Fritz tried to remain his bubbly self, but even that seemed hollow. There was a deeper, somber current that tore its way across the world, and the table had been swept up in it.

  When the food was mostly finished, Aldrik cleared his throat lightly, more to prepare himself to speak than to gain the attention of anyone. “I require a word.”

  There was no confusion as to who he required a word with and, shortly thereafter, the seven of them were crammed into the smaller back room. The Firebearers conjured thin motes of fire to hover harmlessly in the corners, warming the room to a comfortable temperature—but their efforts did little to warm Vhalla. She sat next to Aldrik, so close they were touching.

  “We will leave tonight,” Aldrik announced the moment his unorthodox council was settled.

  “Tonight?” Fritz was reluctant to even consider the notion. “It will be absolutely freezing. Cass said she saw the makings of a storm on the horizon when she was getting wood this morning.”

  “All the better. The moonlight will guide us; it’s full enough, and the storm will hide our tracks.”

  Had Aldrik been looking at the horizon for storms? Had he woken so early to see if they could make headway in the darkness? Vhalla wondered in surprise. She had no doubt as to the sincerity of the grief that piled on his shoulders. But her prince—no, Emperor, she corrected mentally—remained ever focused. In the end, his nature and upbringing won over his grief.

  “Fritz,” Vhalla interrupted her friend before he could protest again. “We need to go. We’re a danger to your family if we stay.”

  “What?” The blonde’s expression changed dramatically.

  “Victor is announcing that the whole of the Solaris family is dead, that I am dead. His monster demanded that all kneel before their new king so Victor could bear witness to their loyalty. Those who did not met a horrible fate. A fate I would never want to see brought upon your family.” She spoke gently, but she wasn’t going to spare Fritz the truth. He had been to war, he knew horrors, and he needed to know that it would be at this doorstep if they didn’t leave.

  “But . . .”

  “She’s right,” Elecia interjected. “If—when—Victor finds out Aldrik is still alive, it will turn into a manhunt. What do you think will happen to anyone who is known to harbor or help us?”

  Fritz slumped.

  “You can stay.” Vhalla reached out, lightly touching her friend’s knee. “We have to go, but you don’t have to. They’re not hunting you, Fritz, and you can lie about your involvement. I will understand if you stay.”

  “Don’t be stupid, Vhal.” Fritz squeezed her hand. “The Charems aren’t a bunch of weak flowers. We can protect ourselves. By the Mother, Cass can be more frightening than anything I’ve ever seen Victor create.”

  Vhalla tried to maintain an appropriate expression in the face of Fritz’s determined smile, but she was certain she fell short. Her friend hadn’t seen what Victor had created. He couldn’t comprehend what type of magic the former Minister of Sorcery was capable of now.

  “If I leave you now,” he continued, “Larel will come back from the dead and haunt me ‘til my dying breath.”

  She squeezed his hand in reply. Vhalla felt genuinely guilty about taking her friend from his home when he had just returned, especially when the world was so uncertain. But she also felt relief that he would remain by her side. Fritz was a man; he could make his own choices, and, as his friend, she had to let him.

  “Now that that’s settled,” Elecia gave Fritz an approving nod, happy as well that he’d be joining them, “the fastest route to Norin from here would be the old roads. But if we took the Great Southern Way through the—”

  “We’re not going to Norin,” Aldrik stated, reclaiming the conversation.

  “What?” Elecia asked in confusion that mirrored Vhalla’s.

  “My uncle will raise the banners at the first word of what Victor has done, with or without me.”

  “Mhashan will never support a tyrant who has murdered their prince and seeks to oppress them.” Jax gave Aldrik an approving nod.

  “However, the East is not so simple.” Aldrik’s eyes fell on Vhalla. She straightened, trying to grow into the role he was not so subtly placing upon her. “The East is uninterested in war. They’ll side with the victor—” Aldrik grimaced at the word, realizing the brutal irony at the same time as everyone else, “—with the winner, if they think it means preserving the peace and government for their people.”

  “Bleeding heart Easterners.” Elecia rolled her eyes.

  “Stay your tongue,” Aldrik warned his cousin. “They are part of this Empire, and we need them for our army.” He turned his attention to the silent Northerners in the room. “We will need your people as well.”

  “As long as our deal remains, you shall have them.” Sehra, princess of Shaldan, Child of Yargen, gave an affirmative motion.

  Vhalla’s stomach clenched, but her expression betrayed nothing of her uncertainty at those words. If she and Aldrik wed and she bore him an heir, their child would be sent to the North as a gesture of good faith and a promise to look after the people in the recently conquered land. Sehra met her eyes, as if trying to root out Vhalla’s turmoil at the thought.

  “Your deal remains,” Vhalla spoke on behalf of her and Aldrik. She would say the words that they needed—that she knew he wasn’t prepared to speak again.

  “Come north with us until the Eastern cutoff.” There was a cooling hostility between Aldrik and the Northern women. It was almost tangible in the way he had changed his speech patterns toward them. Now that he was no longer in a forced engagement with the princess, things were more relaxed between them. The deal for his child aside, there were signs of hope for the future negotiations between the Northern clans and their new ruler. “We will all be safer in a group.”

  “I protect Sehra,” Za proclaimed in her broken Southern common.

  “You will,” Aldrik agreed with a graceful nod of his head, “but it will be easier when you have extra eyes to keep watch at night so that you may rest.” This seemed to satisfy Za, so Aldrik continued, “When we arrive in Hastan, I will send word regarding plans to regroup in Norin.”

  “So we are going to Norin then?” Elecia couldn’t hide her eagerness at the idea of returning home.

  Aldrik nodded as he confirmed, “We must. If there are no further questions, then we should spend the day prepar—”

  “There is something else,” Elecia spoke over Aldrik, eliciting an arch of a dark eyebrow from her Emperor. Her eyes turned to Vhalla. “She should stay here.”

  “No.” Vhalla wasn’t sure who said it first, her or Aldrik.

  “You can stay hidden among the Charem girls.” Elecia was now appealing to Vhalla. “If Southerners passed for you on the march, you could pass—”

  “No.” Aldrik wasn’t hearing another word.

  “Aldrik.” Elecia’s attention shifted. “I know you want her to come. But you also want her alive, don’t you? She can’t protect herself.”

  “This is not up for discussion.”

  “She cannot come!” Elecia finally snapped. “If she does, you are a reckless fool, and your life is worth far more than hers!”

  “Don’t you dare,” Aldrik snarled at his kin. Magic flashed dangerously around a clenched fist, red sparking to orange fire.

  Elecia remained unfazed and didn’t back down. “If you die, who will the banners rally be
hind? If she comes, you will throw your life away for hers the first time she needs protecting. And such a need will arise, especially since she’s just a Commons.”

  “Elecia, I am your Emperor now—”

  Vhalla’s heart stopped at those words said aloud.

  “Then act like it!” Elecia clearly was not struck by the same awe. “Think of the people you are responsible for. They need you, Aldrik. They need their Emperor. No one will stand to challenge Victor if not you. No one can unite the banners like you can.”

  “Do not assume for a moment that I do not know how many lives I am responsible for.” Aldrik’s voice deepened. “This is not your choice.”

  “And it’s not yours either, Aldrik.” Vhalla finally spoke up, silencing the group. “It’s mine.”

  “Vhalla . . .”

  Her lover’s eyes searched her desperately. Anger quickly turned into fear that she would agree with Elecia. That she would leave him. Vhalla knew that logic defined it as the “right” choice. But what they were, everything she and Aldrik had ever been, defied logic.

  “I will go.”

  “Are you mad or just selfish?” Elecia snapped viciously.

  Aldrik ignored his cousin and gave Vhalla a slow, relieved smile.

  “If I stay,” Vhalla began, tearing her eyes from the quiet joy that a smile on Aldrik’s lips gave her to look at the seething Western woman. “What will happen the first time Aldrik thinks me in trouble?”

  The woman had no response.

  “How will constant worry about my wellbeing impact his focus?”

  Elecia still said nothing.

  “Who will push him when he needs to be pushed?” Vhalla stole a glance at Aldrik, hoping he didn’t take offense to her words. “Who else is unafraid to say what needs to be said, when it must be said, to him of all people?”

  She met Elecia’s disbelief with a challenge. Aldrik and Vhalla had wrapped their lives around the “appropriate” decisions as dictated by the world. They’d hidden their wants and pushed aside what they had known to be true. What had it earned them? A world of death. She’d had enough of doing what the world wanted.

  “I am not helpless,” Vhalla insisted. She had been training for weeks with Daniel. “Give me a sword, and I can defend myself.”

 
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