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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.26
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.26

           Elise Kova

  “Vhalla, Gods. Vhalla, what . . .” He couldn’t seem to find words. Her perpetually enthusiastic, ever-talkative friend couldn’t find words.

  “Fritz, everything is a mess.” Tears burned her eyes again. “Baldair, Baldair is dead, and then Aldrik, he, we, we didn’t—I mean.” Vhalla shook her head. “He needed me, Fritz . . . It shouldn’t be this way.”

  “Vhalla,” he whispered gently. “You’re covered in ash and soot and blood.” He put his palm on the crown of her head. “When was the last time you brushed your hair?”

  Vhalla blinked at him. Had he not been listening to her? This was hardly the time.

  “Is there a washroom here?”

  “I don’t know . . .” Vhalla couldn’t decipher her friend’s actions.

  Fritz chose one of the two doors, and picked wisely. It led into a bathroom that was small, yet still befitting a prince. Fritz assessed things for a moment before beginning to draw a bath.

  “Sit here.” He placed her on the edge of the tub and began to nib through the drawers and cabinets. He located a brush and some soap before returning to kneel before her. “Will you let me help you bathe?”

  Vhalla blinked, he was asking her to undress for him.

  “I don’t want to leave you alone right now, Vhal. I want to help you. I grew up with all my sisters and can assure you that you won’t surprise me with anything. Plus, it’s not as if you’d have anything that could entice me.” He grinned half-heartedly.

  Was he right that it didn’t matter? Vhalla couldn’t foresee Aldrik being particularly pleased at another man seeing her naked. She was fairly nervous with the idea. But she’d bathed with other girls. Did it make any difference that he simply had something different in his trousers than she? What was more important, how he was in her mind, or how he was in his body?

  Vhalla slowly peeled off the singed and stained clothes.

  Fritz didn’t even bat an eye at her naked form. Concern and compassion were written across his face, and he focused only on hers. He exhibited no spark of want or desire. Vhalla saw Larel’s spirit in her friend as he helped her into the steaming tub.

  He hovered beside her, lathering soap into her locks with a soothing touch. Vhalla stared at her palms. The water was already a dingy color from the soot and grime that was on her. A small voice counseled that she should feel guilty for her part in staying with Aldrik, but Vhalla couldn’t evoke the emotion. He had needed her.

  “Has the Emperor come into the Tower?” The hot water had calmed her enough to think rationally.

  “No.” Fritz placed some hair over her shoulder as he began to brush the next section.

  “What have you heard?” She needed to know if she was going to calculate what was next. “Tell me true, Fritz.”

  “That Prince Baldair has died. That the Windwalker and Prince Aldrik ran off together in a fit of grief,” he listed.

  Vhalla laughed softly. “It’s actually true, for once.”

  “They say the North will be up in arms about it.” Fritz sighed. “Though, most people seemed to be more amused or surprised, but not upset.”

  “Should I find consolation in that?” It was interesting, however, that the people seemed to consent to the crown prince and the Hero of the North being together.

  “You should find consolation in anything you can,” he answered honestly.

  “How did you know I was here? Aldrik?”

  “Elecia.” Fritz surprised her. “Aldrik told her because she can move more easily than he can right now. She sent me though, rather than coming here herself because, well, eyes are still on her also.”

  “Is Aldrik okay?”

  “I’m not sure.” Fritz shook his head. “Elecia left to go back to him, to try to help things with him. Rinse your hair.”

  Vhalla did as he instructed. She washed her body next, and the conversation died during that act. Vhalla emerged when the bathwater began to cool, Fritz dutifully wrapping her in a towel. The cloth smelled as though it had been hanging for too long but there was still a lingering, comforting scent of Aldrik to it.

  She was forced to rummage through his drawers until she found a stash of clothes. Vhalla didn’t have much to choose from, so she just picked what looked the warmest. As to be expected, it swam on her, and the waist of the trousers fell around her hips.

  “What happened?” Fritz asked as they sat at the table. He grabbed the sack he’d dropped earlier from the floor and produced three rolls with meat.

  “You have most of it already. Baldair died, I was there.” She stared at the food blankly.

  “Eat,” Fritz insisted.

  Vhalla forced herself to oblige. “After, it’s just as they say. Aldrik ran, he took me with him. We hid in his room.”

  “Did you . . .?” Fritz asked slowly.

  “We were a comfort to each other, but not in that way.” Vhalla said firmly, proud she could look her friend in the eye and say it.

  “Good.” Fritz seemed equally pleased as he stood. “Try to get some rest. You look dead on your feet.”

  “You’re leaving?” She stood also.

  “I have to. It’s not good for me to go missing too long. Grahm agreed to be an alibi if I need one.” Fritz gave her a tired smile. “But it’s still not a good idea to push things. No point in rousing suspicions within the Tower.”

  “Right.” Vhalla grabbed his hands. “Fritz, thank you, for everything.”

  “Of course, Vhal. It will work out, I’m sure it will.” Her friend’s confidence sounded false, but the final squeeze he gave her before leaving certainly wasn’t.

  With the metallic sound of the lock sliding back into place, she was alone again in the room. Vhalla sighed heavily. There were books, but she didn’t want to read. There was some kind of closet or storeroom through the other door. But it was dark, and she didn’t feel too inquisitive.

  In the end, Vhalla collapsed onto the bed, her face buried in the pillow. But she didn’t cry. She didn’t like feeling isolated and alone. Her mind was already churning with plans for what she could suggest when Aldrik returned.

  For the third time in one day, a knock awoke her. The trend was exhausting, and on her way to the door, she peaked out the curtains, discovering it was nearly sunset.

  “What is most beautiful just before it dies?” she asked through the door.

  There was a long pause. “A rose.”

  Vhalla twisted the lock and looked at a familiar set of dark eyes. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Aldrik.”

  “Vhalla, we have to go.” His voice was strange, some kind of tension pushing it up an octave.

  “What’s happened? Is it your father?”

  “It has to do with none of that.” He shook his head. The day competed with itself to get worse. “It’s Victor.”

  “Victor?” The world stilled.

  “I went to ask him for help and found him gone.” Aldrik cursed. “All the crystals were gone, the notes from when we were boys open on his desk. I think he’s heading for the caverns.”

  “He, we were going to destroy them,” she said hastily, hopefully.

  “Not from what I read.” Aldrik frowned. “He was lying to you, Vhalla. He wants the caverns for himself.”

  “What, no—”

  “We have to go stop him,” Aldrik barked roughly.

  “What about the barrier?” Vhalla inquired.

  “The barrier?”

  “The one set up by Egmun, after you . . .” Vhalla danced delicately with her words, suddenly wondering if she had misunderstood Aldrik’s history.

  “Victor was trained by Egmun,” Aldrik answered quickly. “They’re both Waterrunners, so I’m certain his magic would be attuned to Egmun’s.”

  “What do we do?” Her encounters with the minister had grown stranger and stranger. After Fritz’s cautions and knowing Aldrik’s story, it wasn’t a far leap of logic to think that the Victor had gone off the deep end when it came to crystals. Horror raked itself across her heart. It was
her fault; she had handed him the axe.

  “We make haste for the caverns.” Aldrik started down the Tower, motioning for her to follow.

  She nodded, grabbed a random cloak off a nearby peg, and shut the door behind her. Aldrik made no motion to tell her to lock it, and she completely forgot in her panic. She fell into step behind him, and he didn’t even turn to look at her. At some point, he had found time to fix his hair. She wondered what really had gone on with the Emperor.

  No, there were more important things to worry about than Emperors and hair, she reminded herself. Her chest tightened. Victor was headed to the Crystal Caverns with an axe that could sever souls.

  ALDRIK’S STEPS WERE fast, and she struggled to keep up. Her feet felt heavy, her mind sluggish with exhaustion and the mental strain of the past few days.

  “Wait!” She stopped at the door to her room.

  “Vhalla, we don’t have time,” he responded briskly.

  “I know, but I will freeze if I go out like this.”

  “Quickly,” he begrudgingly agreed.

  Vhalla darted into her room and rummaged through things, not caring what fell out of place. Piling on layers, Vhalla was a miss-match of clothing: the gloves that went under her gauntlets, two pairs of socks, a rope belt to secure his oversized pants around her waist.

  In her rummaging, Larel’s bracelet fell from its place of honor on the stack of Aldrik’s notes. Vhalla paused, considering taking it, but left it instead. She didn’t want anything happening to the last token from her friend; who knew what would transpire before the dawn.

  Vhalla raced down the Tower behind Aldrik once more, throwing her cloak over her shoulders. It had been well over a year since she had last seen her prince as tense and shut-off as he was now, though she could hardly blame him given the circumstances. Two floors down, the door to the vessel room opened, and Vhalla almost ran head first into the Eastern man who emerged.

  “Vhalla?” Grahm blinked at her.

  “I have to go.” She glanced at Aldrik, who was now ten steps ahead. He did not so much as glance in her direction, simply expecting her to keep pace.

  “What? Where? What is it?” He squinted at the prince she followed.

  “I can’t-can’t explain.” She took a few steps backward and called over her shoulder, practically running to catch up with Aldrik. “I just have to go.”

  A very confused Easterner was left in her wake. Aldrik pulled open one of the outer doors and ushered her inside. Vhalla caught a glimpse of Grahm on their heels as the door closed.

  “Vhalla, that—” Grahm called

  Aldrik slammed the door and locked it.

  “We can’t have distractions,” he cursed gruffly. The doorknob turned as someone tried to open it. Vhalla stared at it uneasily. Aldrik had never met Grahm, she told herself. He didn’t know the Waterrunner pursuing them. “Come.”

  He led as they plunged through the palace-side door. They raced through the outer halls, avoiding the major arteries of the palace. Whenever someone would pass by at an intersection, they would duck behind a column or into a doorway to hide.

  Vhalla panted softly. They were sneaking, she realized. What had his father told him? What would happen if they were seen? Surely no one would stop them from trying to prevent tampering in the caverns, she insisted to herself. But that also depended on someone being willing to listen to the real reason why they were sneaking off in the night.

  The person in the hallway passed, and they were off running again. Vhalla focused on her prince as they spiraled down stairs within an outer wall of the palace. She couldn’t fathom the darkness that was determined to creep back into his mind. There was no doubt in Vhalla’s mind that he considered his current circumstances as some sort of delayed justice, given how his mind worked.

  Her chest ached for the man she followed out onto the snowy ground of the stables. They ran through the white moonlight. Colors were bleached from the world, and her toes already felt cold. A stable hand was startled into action by their presence.

  “My prince?” The young girl blinked at him. Her eyes drifted over to Vhalla and they widened. Her mouth fell open.

  “We need two horses; they should be already tacked in those stalls,” Aldrik demanded, pointing.

  “Not your mount, my lord?”

  “No, I need those,” he affirmed impatiently.

  The Western girl’s dark eyes looked between the two of them. She closed her mouth and a sly, knowing smirk spread across her features that she couldn’t successfully hide as she departed to do Aldrik’s bidding.

  Vhalla panted softly, cursing the girl. She thought it was some scandal, the prince and Windwalker running off in the night.

  “Mother, what’s taking her so long?” Aldrik squinted in the direction the girl departed.

  “Aldrik,” Vhalla whispered gently. She placed a palm on his upper arm to reassure him. The fabric of his shirt was coarser than she was used to, and it moved strangely in the moonlight. He practically jumped away at her touch.

  “Don’t!” His sudden and intense anger directed at her was startling. “Now isn’t the time, Vhalla.”

  She frowned, preparing to tell him off for his tone when the girl came back with their horses. They were tall with long legs and lean, ropey muscle. Aldrik checked the saddlebags on his mount, fumbling inside them a moment before swinging into his saddle. Vhalla followed suit, deciding to let his snappishness slide given the pressure they were under as they rode out into the snowy night.

  Vhalla glanced over her shoulder. She saw the castle ethereally shimmering in gold and white moonlight. She wished she had the ability to enjoy the beautiful scene that stretched before her, sparkling with the first snow of winter. But now was not the time for enjoyment.

  Breath from the horses and humans let out small white puffs of steam into the nighttime air. The houses passed in a blur. On occasion, some late night wanderer or drunk would be startled as the couple raced by. But for the most part, potential observers were safely tucked in their beds.

  They rode the most direct route down through the city and out the main gate. The dense buildings of the capital faded as they proceeded down the mountain. Aldrik turned north at the fork and, after a short stretch, they veered off for a more western headway.

  A thin layer of clouds blotted out the moon, shifting and rolling the shadows of the world into a fluctuating state of darkness. Vhalla blinked her eyes, squinting through the dim twilight. Aldrik continued without fear or hesitation.

  The barren trees fractured the sky above them like the lead of a macabre stained glass. Silence was their only company, moonlight their only guide. The world darkened again, and snow began to fall.

  “We’re lucky,” he finally spoke.

  “We are?” Vhalla asked, slowing her horse alongside his to give the animal a rest.

  “With this much snow, our tracks should be covered,” he explained.

  “Does anyone know where we are going?” she thought aloud.

  Aldrik looked startled a moment. “Yes.”

  “Then why would we want our tracks to be—” she began softly musing.

  “Because we only want the right people to know,” Aldrik spoke over her. “I can’t just tell anyone we’re headed for the caverns, given their history.”

  “Of course.” She glanced over at him. His jaw was clenched tight. “Aldrik, don’t worry.”


  “Well, yes.” Vhalla shifted the reins in her hands. “I know that since it’s the Crystal Caverns, you must be worried. But this isn’t your fault. Last time really wasn’t either. But this truly is not.”

  “I know,” he said thoughtfully. “This is Victor’s fault. But then again, I shouldn’t have let such a powerful sorcerer go so unchecked.”

  “You couldn’t have known.”

  “I should have.” Aldrik frowned. “He was my mentor. We experienced the same thing as boys. I should have known. I should have put a stop to you working with
crystals with him.”

  “I should’ve done it myself.” Whatever Victor truly intended, she’d enabled it. Vhalla began to question everything the minister had ever told her. “Doesn’t he see? All that’s there is death.”

  “No, all that’s there is power,” Aldrik corrected. Vhalla considered the strange comment as the prince continued. “Neither good, nor evil, it’s the hearts of men that turn a weapon into the tool of a knight or a butcher.”

  “How far is it?” His manner was making her abnormally uneasy, and Vhalla was eager to change the topic. Something about the night air and the stillness was starting to get to her nerves.

  “It can take slow riders two days.” He remained fixated on a distant point of the horizon.

  “Two days?” They didn’t have rations or supplies for a journey of that length.

  “But these horses were bred for speed and endurance in the mountains. We can push them. I hope to arrive before dawn.”

  “How long ago did Victor leave?” She tried to remember how Aldrik said he’d known the minister had ridden off to the caverns.

  “Only an hour or two,” he answered confidently.

  “Perhaps we could intercept him before he gets there,” she mused hopefully.


  Vhalla resisted the parrot comment in the wake of something dawning on her. “Wait, how could you have known when Victor left? Didn’t you only just go to his office before coming to me?”

  “Someone else had mentioned seeing him.”

  Something still wasn’t settling right. “But if Victor only left an hour or two before us, shouldn’t we see trac—”

  The reverberation of a low horn echoed through the mountains, sounding through the still forest. Vhalla turned. The palace and capital city was out of sight, but the sound was unmistakable.

  “They know,” he whispered. “Damn it, we should have had more time!”

  Aldrik snapped his horse back to a run. Vhalla followed suit, her body tense. If they were trying to save everyone from the caverns, then why did it feel like they were fugitives in the night?

  “Can’t we wait for more help?” she called, catching up to him. “We should be close to Victor now!”

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