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Court of Ice and Ash: Chapter 1

The Night Prince

    still there. Heavy and palpable each time I rested a hand on the black iron axes tethered to my belt. A mute creature still lived, wanting blood, desiring the pain of it. As if the curse went on too long and now a bit of me would always be deadened to the warped beast I’d embraced time and again.

I had grand plans to keep the truth of it to myself.

Seated on a boulder in the trees, I breathed in the tang of copper mingled in the damp. Blood was there in the last remnants of the storm. I inhaled it all, soothing the tug in my chest, desperate for more.

“What is the point of this?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tor. He scraped a whetstone over his dagger, glaring at me. Like he used to when I was nothing more than a tagalong boy to him and my older brother, Sol.

Back when life made sense.

“I liked you better when you bowed to me.” I turned away and rested a hand on one axe.

“Yes, a fleeting moment, a bit of gladness to have a curse lifted and memories restored.” Tor stopped sharpening his blade and came to my side. “Tell me something, My Prince, what will this accomplish?”

My thumb stroked the now useless black seer stone around my neck. I had no answer, and in truth, I hated admitting I didn’t have a sure plan. Somehow, I managed to school my voice into one of confidence. “Losing another caravan will be a dent in the false king’s coffers. It will build agitation and mistrust.”

Tor rolled his eyes and I nearly laughed.

Memories speckled my brain in a clear image of Tor arguing with Sol and rolling his eyes much the same. Moments kept forming as time went by. Sometimes one of us would pause, rub, our forehead, then describe the new memory.

We’d either laugh or use it to fuel our lust for vengeance.

“I think this brings us too close,” Tor said, voice low. “You said you wanted to leave her in peace, yet we keep returning to those closest to her.”

One fist clenched at my side as things that drew out a strange fear in my chest took hold. Things I couldn’t risk, and certainly couldn’t want.

She could have nothing to do with me, the Guild of Shade, or this endless battle to avenge the blood of my family. It wouldn’t be fair. At least that is how I justified the idea in my head. Closer to the truth was Elise Lysander would take away the last of my bloodlust and I wasn’t ready to bid it farewell.

So, I’d go on as if I were utterly indifferent.

I glared at Tor, glad to see him lower his gaze beneath my scrutiny for once. “This has nothing to do with the Timoran.”

“The Timoran? I’m glad to hear you talk like that because she is Timoran. No matter what Kvinna Elise did to break the curse, she is the blood of King Eli. His damn namesake. If you want to move forward, then we do it alone. Yes?”

My eyes dropped to the red cloth in my hands.

“Unless you’d rather admit to a change of mind, perhaps a change of heart.” Halvar materialized from behind a tree, licking grease from his fingers and tossing aside the slimy bone of a waterfowl. “In which case, I vow to the skies, I will not say I told you so. Even if I have told you so many a time.”

“Elise has no place here,” I said more to convince myself than them.

“I agree,” Tor said. “She played her role, and now will be better off away from us.”

“I do enjoy listening to the both of you say thoughts out loud. Almost as if you’re convincing the fates that brought her to us, as if they care what you think. Elise is his hjӓrta, the song of our prince.”

“Really? When did you turn so soft, my friend?” Tor said, snorting a laugh.

“Ah, I’ve always been the best lover of us all. There is nothing soft about me. And deny it all you wish, Torsten. You are the one among us who has had your own hjӓrta, and should recognize it better than me. But I think you, too, have tried to close off that blackened little heart of yours.”

Halvar grinned with a touch of wickedness when Tor tried to strike his arm. After moving a safe distance, Halvar looked to me. “I stand by what I said, and I shall enjoy watching you fight against the draw you have for Kvinna Elise, Prince Valen. Truth told, I plan to say I told you so at least a hundred times once you—”

“I wish the curse had muted him,” Tor interrupted.

I tightened my jaw to keep from grinning. I missed this. Knowing one another as we once did. I didn’t even mind that I’d been the younger nuisance and these two had played horrid tricks on me. I only wished Herja and Sol were still here. My sister would be my defender, and Sol would know what to do better than me. He’d know how to make New Timoran pay for our people’s blood and suffering.

“Let’s move.” I paused and narrowed my gaze on Halvar. “And Elise is not my hjӓrta.”

He grinned, like I was a ridiculous child once again. “As you say, My Prince.”

It was a romantic notion. A favorite among Night Folk so long ago. Legends spoke of old fury that would connect two lovers in such a way their souls seemed to bond like a song’s harmony. Unbreakable.

It was ridiculous.

It ached.

My father always called my mother his heart’s song. She’d been Timoran. Perhaps . . .

No. I had no business connecting myself to Elise Lysander. I used her with intention to break the curse. We’d succeeded. It was done.

I lowered to a crouch, narrowed my eyes, focused on the rough trade road that wound beneath the rocky ledge. A discreet road, tucked between black oaks and willows and evergreens. The tops of trees cut through a gathering fog like fingers tangled in the hair of a lover. Hazy as it was, I still tracked the black coaches well enough. My eyes had grown keener at night since the curse released my fury and memories, but it was what I’d been known for in a life long gone.

The Night Prince, sovereign born under a crescent moon, prince of the shadows, keeper of earth fury. I’d always favored dusk over dawn and still did.

Three coaches bounced and rocked over the raised roots and brambles of the path. Each followed by a line of weary travelers on foot.

The blood is there. Dozens of Ettans dressed in Ravenspire blue carried ribbons and satins; some carried heavy canvas sacks on their shoulders. Others carted bags of endless fabric, feathers, pins, and needles for tailors and seamstresses. Few of the serfs had shoes. Most were bent over, fumbling across the bits of sharp rock and dust on the road. Even the smallest among them.

My lip curled into a sneer.

A girl, made of nothing but skin and bones, carried a grain sack as big as her. All the while, the Ravens sat on their plump asses, guarding the caravan without noting the suffering people at their feet. My people.

I could not be their prince. At least not the prince they wanted. But I could be the villain on their behalf. A rogue who brought Castle Ravenspire to its knees.

Then, I’d be free of this godsforsaken place.

This was not the Etta of my childhood. This was a land I didn’t recognize, and I felt little love for it. Its people, I held a degree of loyalty to, but I could not—more, I would not—rule them.

By the time I took my vengeance, I’d be as unfit as the false king who sat on the throne.

“Why the hells are we going for textiles? Where are the treasury carts?” Halvar muttered.

He hopped from an upper ledge and came to stand beside me. Dressed like a Shade, his mouth and nose were covered in black, so he faded into the night.

“It’s all the game, you bleeding idiot.” Tor slid down the side of the ledge and crouched in the darkness, ten paces from us. His fingertips sparked with pale blue flames, then dissolved when he clenched his fists. Pyre fury was one of the more difficult veins of power to control. In a way, after his memories were recalled, Tor had to relearn how to balance his magic.

Halvar sniffed. “I’d rather hit the false king where it hurts most—right in the coffers.”

“In due time, Halvar,” I said dryly. “Due time.”

From the moment the curse lifted, we’d taken to driving a thorn into the side of King Calder—a fool and boy who’d murdered his own father for the throne.

First with the guards he’d sent to the Black Tomb once the curse had lifted. I knocked away the tightness of remorse thinking of the moment. They’d been sent to discover what had happened, and they’d discovered the ends of their lives instead. All but one. We’d let him live to stagger back to the castle with tales of the Blood Wraith and the Guild of Shade.

I’d wallow in the title Blood Wraith; it was a means to the end. I couldn’t be Valen Ferus, couldn’t shoulder that weight when all I needed to do was avenge the deaths of my family. Their blood soaked into the soil of Old Etta, and I could not sleep over their cries.

I wanted Timoran to crumble.

“What is the best way to bring about the downfall of a kingdom, Halvar?” I asked in a low voice.

He folded his arms over his chest, studying the caravan. “Light it on fire, rob it blind, cut off the head of the king? I do love your riddles, My Prince, but do tell me. I can wait no longer.”

I grinned. Gods, he hadn’t changed. Curse or no curse, Halvar talked too much, loved too thoroughly, and was loyal to the end. “You drive a wedge between its people and its king, my friend. Unmask his incompetence. While they suffer, he grows rich.”

“You want us to bring suffering to Ettans?”

“Timorans,” I said. “Our people already suffer. But Timorans, the common people, they already see their supplies depleting while their king and their nobles bask in wealth.”

I faced the trade road again, grinning. By the time we finished, Timorans wouldn’t have faith in their king. They’d see him for the sniveling snake he was. They’d oust him, and leave way for fury, for the blood of Etta to come forward again.

We just needed to find a Night Folk willing to take the crown of such a battered kingdom. I’d rescind my claim. The land would choose another by my word.

Fury chose the royals of Etta. A gods’ given gift, and it was only natural it should be the deciding factor in the sovereign of the land.

Halvar squatted beside me. “She’s going to know it’s you.”

Words like a dagger to the chest, so swift and harsh it was impossible not to react. Like I buried the call to blood, I could bury this too.

But such a longing for a such a woman proved a fiercer beast to tame.

“It doesn’t matter.” Ah, but it mattered a great deal and I hated it. “Let her despise me. Then she will be free of me.”

Halvar closed his lips—for once—and simply shook his head.

I turned away from him, studying the red mask in my hands. She hated this, even vowed to give me a different color. Back when we dreamed of being free of this land together. I closed my eyes, buried the disquiet until my heart burned and rage took over the soft memory of her lips, of her skin on mine.

I covered my chin, mouth, and nose with the red cloth. The threads were heady in smoke and sweat and blood.

I breathed deeply.

I tugged the black hood over my head. An ache grew, one that yearned for my heart to bid farewell to Elise; the same as it always did before I attacked. True, she’d know I was the one causing pain amongst her people. It was for her benefit. I was not the man for her. I wanted to wallow in blood.

Forgive me, the unbidden thought came as I spun an axe in hand.

Tor opened his palm, so a cool flame coated his skin. Halvar spun the storm clouds above us with air fury.

I gripped my axes. If I revealed I could bend and break the earth, I’d be known. But no matter. I didn’t need to fight with fury, and took more pride in attacking bone and flesh.

A wicked kind of grin curled my lip beneath my mask. The caravan passed directly below us. They’d never reach Castle Ravenspire.

“For Etta,” I said, voice dark and low.

“For Etta,” my friends repeated.

I took the first step down the ledge.

Blood was calling.


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