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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.31
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.31

           Elise Kova
 

  “Was I?” Vhalla asked softly. She supposed some of it was still true.

  “You tell me,” Cass laughed. “In any case, it is an honor to meet you. Gwen had a mouse she found in the spring that she named after you.”

  “What?”

  “I think she lost it.” The elder girl coughed and glanced away. “But for girls like us, you are the impossible dream.”

  “It still feels impossible,” Vhalla mused softly. “In some ways, it was a dream.”

  “Reona and I were planning on heading into town today.” Cass passed her another potato. “Would you like to join us?”

  “That sounds nice.” Vhalla nodded. She needed to see how she fared on a horse, and a small practice ride sounded like a smart idea before pushing to the capital.

  “I’m going to get her up soon. We should leave early to make it back before nightfall. Reona can linger,” Cass explained. “I wanted to get breakfast started before we went off.”

  “You’re a good big sister, aren’t you?” Vhalla grinned, dumping some of her chopping into the large pot that was used.

  “I try.” She chuckled. “Fritz left when he was young, so I knew I had to look out for the girls. Speaking of, I’ll go rouse Reona.”

  Vhalla finished while Cass disappeared up the ladder and into the loft beyond. She hummed softly to herself, trying to remember the mix of spices that she’d seen Nia put in the morning before. A flap of canvas distracted her, and she was surprised to see Elecia emerge.

  “You’re up?” Vhalla arched her eyebrows in surprise.

  “Thanks to the boys,” Elecia grumbled.

  “Sorry.”

  “I blame you completely.” The dark-skinned woman crossed the room, placing her hands on the opposite side of the table. Her voice dropped, and she cut to something that had clearly been on her mind since their first night at the Charem’s. “Did Aldrik share your bed at the palace?”

  “No.” Vhalla looked back to the spices. “He was engaged to someone other than me.”

  “That seems to have changed yesterday.”

  “Before yesterday.” Vhalla touched the watch around her neck.

  “Since the North? Truly?” Elecia put it together quickly. Vhalla nodded. “My, you two really don’t give a damn about his father, do you?” There was an appreciative note to her words.

  “Not really.” Vhalla shrugged, instantly regretting the motion.

  “How is it?” Elecia caught the look of pain.

  “Not bad, considering,” Vhalla answered honestly. “Thank you truly, Elecia. I would’ve died without you.”

  “Yes, you would’ve.” Elecia shook her head dramatically. “You’re unlikely to stay in one piece without me being near.”

  “Seems so.” Vhalla glanced up at the loft when she heard the creaking of wood. “I’m going into town with the girls, test out riding.”

  “Good idea.” Elecia nodded, watching Reona and Cass descend the ladder. “Aldrik will regret it if he’s not there to perform the Rite of Sunset for Baldair.”

  The thought hadn’t occurred to Vhalla, but she instantly knew it was true. Aldrik would never let a crone perform the rite. It would be his flames to send Baldair into the realms of the Father.

  “I hear you’re coming with us?” Reona yawned.

  “If you’ll have me.” She needed to ensure she could ride as fast as possible. If not, she’d encourage Aldrik to return home ahead of her.

  “Reona, check the larder on the way to the barn,” Cass asked her sister.

  “When we return to the capital, I will see that the Ci’Dan family shows their appreciation to the fullest extent for what you have done for us.” Elecia met the eyes of the eldest Charem child. “Were it not for you, the life of our prince would have surely been forfeit. If we were stuck out in this winter, it would have been the end of all of us.”

  “Truly, it has been our honor,” Cass said, ever mindful of her place in the world.

  “Dresses! And axes! We want dresses and sharp axes!” Reona chimed in eagerly from the doorway. Cass shot her a glare. “I mean, yeah, our honor,” she coughed.

  Vhalla followed Cass out to the barn, bundled in a spare riding cloak of Reona’s. She didn’t have the energy to dread returning to the capital as she likely should, she only felt exhausted. The world had spun so fast it’d fallen off its axis, and Vhalla felt like she would be chasing it forever to try to get back on, just to live.

  A surprise waited for Vhalla when they reached the open-style barn that housed the family’s horses and small pens of livestock. Each stall was packed fuller than it should have been to keep all the animals out of the heavy snow, but Vhalla could easily pick out a steed slightly larger than the others.

  Lightning, the mount that had carried her across the continent, whinnied as she pet his nose with her palm. He had always been a smart horse, and while it may have been her wishful thinking, the steed seemed to remember her. The horse had been well taken care of. He was strong, and his trot was familiar the second Vhalla was once more upon his back.

  For a time, she had wondered what had become of her Lightning after leaving the North. Now she had no doubt who had taken care of him. Especially after Baston’s death. Vhalla glanced over her shoulder back to the slowly shrinking home, left behind as she followed Cass and Reona toward town. She wondered if Aldrik had managed to go back to sleep.

  Her eyes fell on the barn once more, and Vhalla picked out the mount she’d ridden alongside Victor. Victor, the name made her blood bubble so hotly that Vhalla could ignore the pain in her shoulder due to the jostling of the horse. He’d been planning to use her from the start. He’d seen her saved from the Senate, and then he’d turned the Senate’s sentence into an opportunity to get the axe. He’d trained her himself upon her return. He’d prepared her as carefully as a prize hog for slaughter.

  He was the greatest puppet master the world had ever known. He’d manipulated princes and Emperors for his own vision. It’d be admirable, if that vision wasn’t a twisted and corrupt thing.

  The woods were washed in white, and Vhalla tried to turn her thoughts away from lusting after the former Minister of Sorcery’s death. There were no others nearby, and the snow was pure and unblemished. The girls chattered on about this or that which they could also pick up in town. At a quarter day’s ride away, Vhalla had no doubt that going into town was indeed an affair. It had been the same for her as a child, and she remembered with fondness every time her mother would take her into Leoul proper.

  Whistling through the trees, the wind whipped her cloak around her. Vhalla drew her hood. Holding out a hand, the air slipped through her open palm. It felt different. She was once more normal, no more special than the girls she rode with. Vhalla looked up to the sky, broken and blotched by trees; there was one man who now felt what truly blew in the wind and she hated him all the more for it. Her red-chilled hands gripped the reins once more.

  They reached the outskirts of town in good time, and Vhalla pulled her attentions back to the present. The town closest to the Charems’ home, Rivend, reminded Vhalla very much of Leoul. It was a town indeed, but barely so. Houses gathered closer together than normal. There was an inn, a grocer, some general stores, cobbler, seamstress, and other life essentials. But that was where the similarities ended.

  The buildings were basic log construction with shingled roofs. It was different from the river stone and thatch-work that was made in the East. People used what was available to them in places like this. Most did not have glass on the windows. Some had been wealthy enough at various points to afford paint—that was now chipping away—on their storefronts.

  No one seemed to pay the girls any mind as they rode to the grocer and dismounted. Vhalla realized with her hood drawn she was likely assumed to be Nia and was content to blend in with the girls as they went about their business.

  “Welcome, welcome!” the grocer hummed from behind his counter as a bell alerted him to their entry. “Ah, Cass!”


  “Hello, Daren,” Cass said with a smile.

  “What’ll it be today?” The elderly man rested his elbows on the high counter.

  “The normal, please.”

  “You usually don’t return to me so quickly.” He began to grab bags of grain, salted pork, and preserved food from around the store. Cass helped, knowing where things were from prior experience. “Is little Gwen finally eating into her growth spurt?”

  “Maybe!” Cass laughed.

  “Actually we have—” Reona began.

  “We have Fritz home also,” Cass finished for her sister with a glare.

  Vhalla realized they were keeping their presence silent. She wondered if they had been coached by Elecia or Aldrik, or if it was simply Cass’s keen insight.

  “Do you? How is our mad sorcerer doing?” The grocer began to tally up the pile on the counter.

  “You know Fritz.” Cass smiled as she began to count coins from a bag strapped to her hip.

  “The lad has never grown up.” The man chuckled as they began to collect the groceries. Cass passed a bag of flour to Vhalla, and she noticed the man staring at her strangely.

  “Nia?” He squinted.

  “Please excuse us, Daren!” Cass herded them out.

  “What are you doing?” Reona hissed as they were loading the horse’s saddlebags.

  “I don’t know.” Cass paused, glancing at Vhalla. “But I didn’t see how we could explain having the prince or the Windwalker at our house.”

  Being called the Windwalker stung.

  “What’s the point of having a prince if we’re not gonna tell anyone about it?” Reona whined.

  “Hush.” Cass rolled her eyes.

  “Thank you,” Vhalla said earnestly. She realized the foreign horse would likely give away that something was different in such a small town. But perhaps it could be explained away as Fritz’s mount from the palace.

  “We should head home.” Cass noticed Vhalla considering her horse and had the same idea.

  “We should.”

  They tied up the last of their supplies to the saddles, and Vhalla adjusted the hood on her head, suddenly conscious of her own existence. Reona huffed, annoyed that her big secret actually had to remain just that.

  A scream rang out through the quiet town.

  All three girls turned to the source of the sound. A commotion was being raised at the far end. Vhalla glanced to Cass.

  “Reona, stay here with the horses,” the elder sister ordered.

  “I’m coming.” Vhalla fell into step by the eldest Charem girl. Cass gave her a nod and did not question.

  A crowd was quickly gathering at the main entrance to the town. People of all shapes and sizes poured into the street to see the source of the commotion. Judging by the size of the group, everyone who lived in the area was likely there. Cass squinted over people’s heads. Vhalla had no hope of seeing, even on her toes. They pushed around the side to one of the storefronts. Standing on some wooden boxes, they could finally see the source of the fuss.

  It was then that Vhalla realized how true the princess’s words had been.

  “Jon, Jon! What, what is wrong, Jon?” a woman blubbered, stepping forward from the semi-circular crowd. A man had walked, judging by the footprints, through the mountain snow, and he had come a very long way. He wore the bloodied and torn uniform of a palace guard. Blood no longer oozed from the gaping wounds in-between his plate. It had crusted and frozen.

  His head tilted to the side, weighed down by a rock that jutted out from his eye. No, it wasn’t a rock. Vhalla’s eyes widened. The crystal shone unnaturally in the light of the afternoon. Blood coated the man’s face from where the magical object had been shoved through. His other eye shone red, and his skin had turned to leather. Whoever this man had been, he was no more.

  “I have been sent.” His voice echoed, raspy and hollow, across the silenced crowd. “As a messenger, from your new sovereign.” The crystal glowed ominously as he spoke, everyone stared in horror.

  “I fought for the old regime, for the wicked Emperor Solaris, oppressor of power. For my loyalty, I was justly put to death, as were all who stood with the dying sun.” The man’s body did not move as he spoke; it was as rigid as a corpse, save for his jaw. “The family Solaris is dead. The Emperor died a screaming death. He has been flayed, his entrails set out for the birds and his skin used to make our lord’s first banner. His lady wife followed him after. The sons Solaris perished to hand over their succession rights to our lord’s divine right to rule. Their bodies have been quartered and fed to dogs.”

  Vhalla’s hands rose to her mouth. Baldair, was her only thought. The idea of Victor disgracing the remains of the golden prince gave her a sickening mental image. An image that she would use as kindling to stoke the malice she held for Victor into a fever heat.

  “There will be no quarter given to those who show a love for the fallen sun that is the family Solaris. They are all dead and rotting. Even the Windwalker was put to death for her well-known love of the late crown prince.”

  Vhalla blinked. The man spoke of her. Victor proclaimed Aldrik and her dead to the world. He did not know they had managed to escape the caverns and found shelter from the winter. In all his over-confidence, he was so drunk on triumph that he missed their salvation at the hands of Elecia, Jax, and Fritz.

  “Love your new lord for he is akin to the Gods, supreme king, our one true master, governor of this world, Victor Anzbel. Those who share a fraction of his power as sorcerers are to be heralded as his chosen ones. They are invited to the capital to swear fealty and live the life of nobility. Those unchosen, Commons, are to learn their new place and prostrate themselves before their magical overseers.” The grotesque animation finished its speech.

  Vhalla felt an awful wrenching inside of her. This was the power she had unleashed. This was the fate she had allowed to be brought upon the world.

  “We need to go.” Vhalla grabbed Cass’s elbow. The girl stared, gaping at the nightmare. “Now.”

  “Right.” The eldest Charem finally was pulled out of her trance. As subtly as they could, they retreated away from the crowd.

  “Jon, Jon, what madness are you speaking?” The woman stuttered her words with grief and disbelief.

  “Kneel before me, so that he may witness your loyalty to this new world order,” the man continued as though he did not hear the woman.

  They were halfway back to their horses, but in the silent town, each word was clear across the snow.

  “Jon, please, speak to me as you always did. You-you loved, you were so proud to serve the Imperial family,” the woman pleaded.

  Vhalla clenched her hands into fists instinctually, even though there was no longer magic to Channel. Grief was clouding that person’s judgment, and Vhalla was hopeless to help.

  “Kneel, woman. Let your King Anzbel see your loyalty.”

  “What’s going on?” Reona asked.

  “Get on your horse,” Cass snapped at her sister.

  Luckily, the girl was old enough and Cass was firm enough that she did not question. Vhalla swung her leg over Lightning. She noticed that sitting on the horses they were tall enough to see the scene off in the distance. Reona’s eyes were already fixed.

  There was another scream, then chaos broke loose in the crowd behind them.

  “All who do not kneel for the Supreme King Anzbel will die!” the man shouted.

  They used the commotion to their advantage and spurred their horses into the woods. Vhalla turned in her saddle, picking up the rear behind the Charems. There was a commotion, shouting, crying, screaming, a flash, and the sizzle of magic. The town’s resistance was brief. Just before all were out of her vision, she saw the still living kneel in the blood of their fallen friends and family.

  “What was that, what was that, what was that?” Reona was shaking her head. She had heard and seen enough.

  “Hush, Reona!” Cass’s voice was breaking.

  “We will be fine,
Vhalla assured the girls. Two sets of blue eyes looked back at her as they raced through the wood. “There was only one. If he catches up with us, Jax, Aldrik, Elecia, and Fritz will protect us.”

  Vhalla gripped her reins. If she had her powers, that guard—the magically reanimated monster of Victor’s—would be dead . . . again. But all she could do was run, run and keep the two girls with her as safe as possible by getting them away. She could no longer fight with her magic and had no weapons. She’d been reduced to using the only tool she’d ever had at her disposal: her mind.

  Vhalla looked behind them at the deep tracks in the snow. Despite the cold, sweat ran down her forehead. If she had her powers, she could cover those betraying dips in the white world. Cursing aloud, she snapped the leather in her death-grip, her heels digging into Lightning. Anyone would be able to see the path leading right to the Charem home.

  “We need to split up!” Vhalla pulled hard on her reins. “Loop around in circles.”

  “What?” Reona was shaking, and Vhalla doubted it was from cold.

  “Make a bunch of circles, loop back, and then we’ll meet back up again in a bit. Stay in earshot,” Vhalla ordered.

  Cass picked up on what Vhalla was attempting, likely she was one of the hunters of the family, and followed Vhalla’s orders. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but the abomination didn’t seem too intelligent, and it was better than nothing. They rode apart for a stretch, coming back together just as the Charem home came into view.

  Orel was out chopping wood. Tama and the two Northern women were tending to something in the livestock pens. The horses were a fury of thunder that shattered the relative peace.

  Vhalla met a set of emerald eyes. Sehra studied her face as if she was able to replay the horrors Vhalla witnessed from her expression alone.

  “Daddy!” Reona launched off her horse, stumbled, rolled in the snow, found her feet, and ran to her father. Orel was confused, but wasted no time scooping his crying daughter into his large arms. “Daddy, daddy, daddy!”

  The commotion drew the men from within the home, and a pair of dark eyes met hers. Vhalla looked at Aldrik, and her chest tightened. He knew instantly something was amiss.

 
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