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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.29
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.29

           Elise Kova
 

  With a straight arm, Fritz gave a shove to Aldrik’s shoulder to push him aside. Fritz’s hand fell across Vhalla’s stomach, his palm on her pallet. He was sitting next to her before the flurry of blankets had time to land across the room. Fritz completely ignored the offended scowl coming from the prince. His bright blue eyes were glued to hers.

  “You’re alive!” Fritz almost shouted after a long moment of staring at her.

  “You doubted me?” Elecia huffed in mock offense.

  “I am.” Vhalla struggled to sit, scooting up under Fritz’s arm.

  “How do you feel?”

  “Like I just had an axe in my shoulder.” Vhalla brought her left hand across her chest, lightly massaging the bandages that lurked beneath the oversized shirt she wore.

  “Sleeping beauty wakes.” Jax roused and sat up on the opposite side of Aldrik.

  Vhalla’s eyes fell on the two Northern women in the corner. They had been woken by the commotion and regarded the Imperials with guarded attention. Vhalla’s lips pursed at Za. Vhalla knew that if Za posed a direct threat to her life, Aldrik would allow the archer nowhere near her. But that only made the woman’s presence all the more confusing.

  “Let me see, Vhalla.” Elecia walked over. It was now Fritz’s turn to be unceremoniously shoved aside to make room for Elecia to access Vhalla’s chest.

  “Yes, why don’t you take off your shirt and let us see?” Jax cocked his head to the side with a crooked grin. The action caused a cascade of perfectly straight black hair to slip over one shoulder and fall just below his pectorals.

  “Jax,” Aldrik gave a low growl.

  He smiled sweetly. “What, my prince?”

  “You know what.”

  “I don’t think I do.” Jax snickered.

  “Boys.” Elecia clicked her tongue. “I was serious; I wish to check her. All of you, out.”

  “All of us?” Fritz pouted. It was his turn to earn a warning—and slightly confused—stare from Aldrik.

  Vhalla bit her bottom lip as she tried to hide a tiny grin, remembering her friend’s delicate hand in helping her wash up after Baldair’s death. The memory wiped any levity from her face fairly quickly. Like ice in her veins, the younger prince’s untimely demise sobered her.

  “All of you, yes.” Elecia sighed and shook her head.

  Aldrik stood, as if to lead by example. Vhalla was relieved when the two Northerners followed him as well.

  “Now, off with the shirt,” Elecia demanded the second the last of them had vanished through the curtain that served as a door into the unknown room beyond. Vhalla blinked at the other woman, startled by her directness. “I know you’re hardly modest, and it’s nothing I, or the older girls, haven’t already seen.”

  “Older girls?” Vhalla paused, halfway done with unbuttoning the front of the oversized shirt, a shirt she had never seen before. Her movements were still painfully slow.

  “Fritz’s sisters,” Elecia elaborated. “After Aldrik was a reckless idiot and nearly killed himself giving you the magic back—”

  “Nearly killed himself?”

  “Yes.” Elecia scowled. “I will never forgive you for making him the reckless fool that he’s been.”

  Vhalla had no retort.

  “When I saw the mountain wall sliding to close up the caverns, I thought you all were dead. But, no, you were alive and, despite dodging fate once more, Aldrik was determined to save you. After Aldrik gave you the Bond magic back, he collapsed, and I could do nothing. The princess was equally spent doing . . . whatever she does with her Northern magic. We couldn’t ride back to the capital in such a condition,” Elecia’s words spilled out. “Luckily, Fritz could navigate us here. You were a bloody mess, more than anything I had ever tried to heal, and Aldrik wouldn’t wake for a whole day, leaving me to guess if he would ever wake again—I thought he was dead because of you!”

  “Elecia . . . I’m sorry.” The other woman’s pain was sudden and intense.

  “First, it was Baldair, and I couldn’t, I wasn’t fast enough to get there.” Elecia balled a fist in the blankets. “Then I thought I lost the man who has been like my brother. I shouldn’t forgive you!”

  “You shouldn’t,” Vhalla whispered, looking down at her hands. “For Aldrik, and for Baldair. I couldn’t save him either.”

  “Shut up,” Elecia said sharply. “Just shut up, I won’t tolerate you feeling sorry for yourself and moping around. Aldrik, god knows what will happen to him when he gets back to the capital, if we get back. After how he left, I have no idea what the Emperor will do.”

  Vhalla stared at where Aldrik and the princess had departed. What would the Emperor think?

  Elecia started on her bandages in heavy silence. They fell away, and Vhalla followed the woman’s eyes to her chest. The moment softened as Elecia’s fingers fell on the hideous deformity that now marred Vhalla’s skin. “It’s going to stay.”

  Vhalla swallowed hard.

  “Healing you with magic alone wasn’t very graceful, and we do not have any proper potions or salves. It’s hard to make them when every plant is covered in snow.” Elecia actually sounded somewhat apologetic. “It is healing . . . I will do my best to leave you with as small a mark as possible.”

  “It’s fine. Thank you for doing everything you have already.” Vhalla had learned to live with scars. “It will remind me what I work toward now. It will be my badge and my mission.”

  Elecia stilled. “What do you think you can possibly do?”

  “A wise man once told me that something very small can cast a large shadow when it’s close to the sun.” Vhalla cast her heart in stone, her mind already churning around her next move. She pushed the loss of her magic down into the depths of her heart. There was no solution for that pain and she would just have to smother it until it died. She had an Emperor and a madman to deal with. But first, she’d start with the princess in the other room.

  THE CHAREM FAMILY home was a well-sized log construction. The tall pines dictated the dimensions of the structure more than any architectural plans the original builder may have created. One third was a loft, with a private room below that normally belonged to Fritz’s parents; that is, until the random assortment of nobility showed up on their doorstep. The family had lived there for over four generations, and each person to inherit the house seemed to add their own touch. The first person built the home, the second added the insulating mud and clay mix between the logs, the third added a wooden shingled roof, the fourth added the wooden floor inside, and so on.

  That was how Fritz’s father explained it. Orelerienum Charem, Orel for short, was a large and muscled man. His bicep was wider than Vhalla’s thigh. He had broad shoulders and weathered skin with smile wrinkles around his Southern blue eyes. His hair was cropped short, but Vhalla did not have to wonder who Fritz inherited his wild locks from.

  Tama Charem was a full figured woman with messy, light blonde hair. When it wasn’t in a thick braid down her back to her waist, it was a mane around her face and shoulders. She was a kind and generous hostess with a round face and melodic laughter that complemented her husband’s full-bellied guffaws.

  “Gwen! Get up!” Cass, the eldest, called up to the loft. Her hair was short, cut like a man’s and she looked to be the female version of her father—sturdy and unmoving.

  “She’s not getting up,” Reona, the third child, remarked from by the hearth. She was a pretty girl with a button nose and a faint dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks. “Not without food started.”

  “She needs to help with that food!” Nia rolled her eyes. She was cutting some salted meat and root vegetables to be put into a large pot. Nia was the second youngest, and she had already hit her growth. All legs and arms, she was a slip of a girl with fantastically wild hair to her shoulders.

  “Gwen, if you don’t get down here I’m gonna tan your hide, miss!” Tama called. “You know we have guests.” She looked back at Aldrik with a small, apologetic bow.

>   “Your hospitality is already more than enough,” Aldrik said gracefully from a chair at the end of the table where he sat.

  Vhalla gave him a small smile. She knew this life must be very odd for him, but he handled it like a gracious ruler. Aldrik caught her eyes, and his lips curled into a small smile in return. Vhalla looked away quickly, frustrated that after all this time, her cheeks could still feel hot near this man. They both seemed to be on a mutual elation just at the sight of each other, especially after all that had occurred.

  The feeling sobered when Vhalla’s eyes turned across the table, meeting the Northern princess’s. There were many words unsaid, and she couldn’t let the lull of normalcy distract them for too long. Vhalla caught the prince’s eyes once more, and he nodded in agreement, able to read her obvious thoughts.

  As much as Vhalla wanted to just kick everyone out, she knew why it hadn’t been done yet. Fritz’s family remained oblivious to the real reasons why they had arrived, knowing nothing more than there were injuries in the party. Vhalla resented the girls slightly for their ability to remain ignorant of the horrors in the world, but not enough to want to shatter it for them.

  “Fire is going,” Jax announced from the stone hearth that dominated a large portion of the wall to the left of the main entrance. He sauntered over to the table, leaning between Elecia and Nia. “My stunning lady, might there be the slightest thing I could do to assist you? I hate to see such beautiful hands being taxed with such labors.” Jax took the knife from the open-mouthed girl’s palm.

  “I-I-hi, hi, how are you?” she stuttered dumbly. The girl clearly had limited experience with men, and encountering Jax was akin to being thrown into the deep end. “What’s your, name? Yes, that’s, something, forgot, what’s your name?” She smiled widely at the charming look Jax was giving her.

  “My name.” His hand cupped her cheek boldly. “Fair lady is—”

  “Jax!” Fritz snapped, carrying in a load of lumber from the yard. “Away from my sister!”

  “I do not think your brother approves.” Jax grinned, passing the knife back to Nia.

  “Let her be, Fritz.” Cass rolled her eyes. “It’s not like you’re around to protect her normally; she’s gotta learn.”

  “And oh, the things I could teach her.” Jax snickered at Fritz.

  “Jax!” Fritz practically jumped at the man.

  “Fritter,” his father boomed with a laugh, scooping up the scrawny sorcerer with just his arm. “Leave the girls be.”

  “I’m trying to help protect them!” Fritz frantically tried to keep the stack of cut wood in his hands as his father carried him, heavy load and all, over toward the hearth.

  “Oh right, we need protecting?” Reona rolled her eyes as she helped with the lumber. They did not need wood to burn with sorcerers about, but Orel seemed to move out of habit. “Just like that time we got you out of the tree when you climbed too high up and wouldn’t stop crying?”

  “I was five!” Fritz whined, his father putting him down.

  “Or the time when you got stuck in the smokehouse playing hide and seek and wouldn’t stop wailing until Cass got you out?” Nia motioned with her knife at her brother.

  Elecia sniggered, shooting Fritz a sideways glance.

  “Let’s not forget, girls, the time he was so scared by a nightmare he wet—”

  “Enough!” Fritz cut off his big sister with a red flush. “There’s a reason I don’t come home!”

  “You love us.” Cass hooked her arm around Fritz’s neck and ruffled his hair.

  “So you’re really the Windwalker?” Nia asked from her place by the hearth.

  “Nia, that’s not—” Fritz was quick with an apologetic look directed at Vhalla.

  “I was.” Vhalla attempted a brave smile. She had to brace herself to endure the wave of emotion that came with those words.

  “Was?” Nia tilted her head. Cass began listening, too.

  “There was an accident.” Vhalla raised a hand to her shoulder.

  “The one that made you all come here a day ago?” Cass asked.

  Vhalla nodded.

  “Sorcerers can lose their powers?” Reona asked sincerely.

  As Vhalla opened her mouth to explain, there was a commotion from up in the loft above. The patter of feet started from the middle and rushed toward the edge. A girl, who could not be older than six, holding a blanket like a cape about her shoulders, jumped off in clear disregard of the ladder nearby. Aldrik, Jax, and Elecia were all on their toes. Vhalla stuck out her hand instinctively to stop the girl’s descent but no magic came to her palm, and she was forced to feel ashamed and awkward. Fritz just rolled his eyes.

  “Papa!” the girl squealed, kicking her feet in the air.

  “Good morning, my little Gwen!” Orel boomed. He crossed the room in five large strides and caught the bundle that was his daughter.

  “Good morning, papa!” Gwen kissed his nose lightly. “How are you?”

  “I am well, and how is my little princess?” The giant man poked her nose lightly, drawing a giggle from the small girl.

  “Good!” she announced. “I would like my breakfast now!”

  “It is not ready yet!” Nia remarked.

  “It would be if you had helped!” Reona begrudged, putting the top on the pot before carrying it over to the fire.

  “Let me assist.” Jax was up on his feet.

  “It’s really fine.” Reona glanced skeptically at the Westerner.

  “Fair lass,” Jax chuckled, taking the pot from the girl’s hands. “I am a Firebearer, the flames are my brothers and sisters, so they cannot hurt me.” He reached into the fire dramatically and placed the pot on one of the farthest hooks bolted into the inner mantle.

  “Oh, I see.” Reona stared dumbly.

  Nia giggled next to her, twirling a lock of hair around her fingers. Bringing Jax into a house of young maids was an awful idea.

  Vhalla pointedly ignored the Northerners sitting across from her throughout breakfast. She would only have a short time to pretend at normalcy with the Charem family, and Vhalla would savor each fleeting moment she could. Their banter was a momentary escape from the truths that stared Vhalla down.

  At one point, Elecia leaned over to Fritz, whispering something in his ear. It made Vhalla realize with a dull ache that she’d lost her magic hearing. She wouldn’t have used it on her friends, but there would never be a chance to use it ever again for anything.

  As soon as the meal was finished, Vhalla didn’t have to wonder what was said anymore as Fritz promptly engaged in a quiet conversation with his mother, and Tama began to give marching orders to her brood that conveniently involved all outdoor activities.

  Jax stood as the room was clearing. “It looks like all the ladies are headed to the creek to do laundry. I think they may need some extra supervision.”

  “Jax, I am not leaving you alone with my sisters!” Fritz hurried out behind him.

  It all too conveniently left Vhalla, Aldrik, Za, Sehra, and Elecia at the table. Vhalla turned to her friend, and Elecia arched a dark eyebrow.

  “Do you think I’m leaving?” she asked incredulously. “I was the one who cleared the room for this awkward little chat that needs to happen.”

  “Thank you for that.” Aldrik took the lead at the head of the table. “We have quite a few things that we need to cover.”

  “Indeed.” Sehra showed her intent to participate in the conversation. “Now that your Southern idiocies have unleashed the true strength of the Crystal Caverns.”

  Guilt pulled on Vhalla’s shoulders, but she didn’t bother trying to hide or deny the fact. She met the princess’s eyes. “What do you know about the caverns?”

  “More than you do.”

  “That doesn’t help us.” Vhalla frowned.

  “Who says I have any interest in helping you?” Sehra narrowed her eyes. “You had no interest in my deals, in my wisdoms, before. What makes you think my offers still stand for you?”


  “Because you don’t have a choice,” Vhalla spoke, silencing the table. “Victor is insane. He plans to make a new world order, built around idolizing sorcery. He’s going to go to any end to achieve it; he’s already demonstrated that much. While you may be magically special, that is not going to exclude the majority of your people from being rearranged to where Victor feels they belong.”

  The confident expression slipped off the girl’s lips. Vhalla knew just what button she needed to push. More than anything, the princess was loyal to her home.

  “Our best chance is not to divide our strength by allowing a civil war,” Aldrik agreed.

  “You want us to stand with Solaris.” Sehra clearly didn’t like the idea.

  “You are Solaris.”

  Za snorted at Aldrik’s proclamation.

  “No one will stand at all if we can’t figure this out.” Vhalla sighed, the table quickly devolving before her eyes. “Sehra, what do you know about what Victor did?”

  The princess finally relented. “The man is quite clever; I will grant him that.” She sighed and leaned back in her chair. Vhalla briefly saw fear in her eyes and was reminded that the princess was wise beyond her years, but still only a girl. “The artifacts were left by the Goddess, the caverns her point of departure into the other realms. Each artifact connected the caverns across the continent, drawing magic.”

  “Why affinities come from different regions,” Vhalla realized. “Each one pulled a different facet of magic.”

  “So we believe,” Sehra affirmed. “Our ancestors came from the Crescent Continent, from the lands beyond, seeking shelter because they did not possess the ability to harness magic like the old races. The weapons to build our world and the caverns were the Goddess taking pity upon us.”

  “You can’t really believe all this?” Elecia looked to Aldrik.

  “Elecia, you are not above being removed from this council.” Aldrik frowned and motioned for Sehra to continue.

  “Believe what you will, Southerners,” the princess huffed. “Shaldan has not forgotten our roots to our ancestral lands.”

 
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