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Court of Ice and Ash: Chapter 23

Rogue Princess

    into discomfiting silence. The only sound was my pulse thudding in my ears.

“Elise,” Jarl shouted. “Come outside and no harm will befall you or anyone here.”

“Don’t,” Valen said in a dark voice. His hand still clasped mine and he tugged me back.

“Go with the Shade. Take people out,” Ari commanded Frey.

The guard nodded and opened the floor hatch once more. The ravens were everywhere, and with Jarl here it would mean Calder and Runa sent their fiercest warriors.

Ulf stared out the window, his jaw tight like stone. “They have too many. They’ll obliterate us.”

“Fate is on our side, Ulf,” Ari said in a steady voice.

The way the bulky guard closed his eyes, I doubted he had as much as faith as his king.

Mattis and Siv both took out their own weapons. Siv a dagger, Mattis an axe and knife. Siv looked to me, fear buried beneath bravery. Mattis glanced at her. An entirely different emotion in his eyes.

“Elise,” Jarl called out again. “I didn’t want it to come to this.”

A new sound filled the night. A scream. A child’s scream. Followed in another breath by Arabella’s.

“Ellis!” She bolted to the door, but Tor caught her. Arabella kicked and thrashed and screamed for her son. Tor held her tightly against his body until she crumbled, sobbing in his arms.

He looked to me, then Valen. Even with his mask Valen’s anger radiated like an open flame.

“Come outside and the boy lives,” Jarl said. “Hide away like a coward and I’ll send his head inside for his mother to bury.”

Arabella choked a strangled sob. She vomited, still cradled in Tor’s arms.

I peeled my fingers free of Valen’s grip.

“Elise,” he snapped, reaching for me. “Don’t you dare.”

“I will not let him die for me. You’ve seen what Jarl can do—he will not hesitate to hurt a boy. Open the door, Ulf.”

“Wait,” Ari said. “It should be me.”

“They want me,” I said. “Ari, they don’t know what you look like. It is still an advantage. They will not know who leads the Night Folk.”

Ari looked as if he wanted to disagree, but he gave me a curt nod.

“You’re not going out there,” Valen said. “They are playing you.”

I ignored him. “Open the door.”

Twenty paces away, Jarl held onto Ellis’s arm. The boy was crying but tried to stand firm.

“Release him,” I called out.

Jarl’s sneer turned my insides into hot acid. “I was beginning to wonder if you were really here.”

“Release the boy, Jarl, or I will not take another step.”

Jarl held up his hands, watching Ellis stumble. The boy sprinted into the game hall, into Arabella’s arms. Even at a sturdy eleven, his mother rocked him, covered his cheeks in tearful kisses, and stroked his messy black hair.

“Get them,” Ari said. “Go. Go.”

Arabella gave me a watery look. Her chin trembled, then she disappeared through the hatch with another of Ari’s guards.

Siv came to my side, she took my hand. “Don’t do this.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

Mattis came behind her. “Elise, please.”

I took both their hands in mine. “Help take folk away from here. Please, I need you to help. I do not think they will harm me. Not yet. There is something they want from us first.”

“I’m not letting you go out there,” Mattis insisted.

“Mattis, this is battle. Negotiations and moments of truce are part of it. But the people of Mellanstrad are unarmed, and you both know how to use a blade. Fight for them.”

I turned away at once. Behind me some of Ari’s guard gave instructions to my friends on the path they needed to take to help the dock men, the fishermen, the women, and young ones toward safety.

I couldn’t think of them. Not right now.

Valen crossed the room in three strides. “I’m going with her.”

Halvar, Tor, and Stieg jumped to attention, ready to fight, or protest. Probably both.

“No,” I said, embarrassed how my voice quivered. I rested a hand on Valen’s chest. “No, you can’t. You are needed.”

Valen’s face dipped close. Through the mask, his lips brushed my cheek. “Try to stop me.”

“Go,” Ari said, his eyes like black stone. “Scare the piss out of them, Wraith.”

More than the Blood Wraith followed me into the night. The Guild of Shade had masked and armed themselves. They surrounded me like a dark circle, ready to leap in front at the first threat.

Truth be told, their nearness helped me stand a little straighter.

Jarl wore thick pelts on his shoulders. A blade on each hip and the hilt of another rose over one shoulder from a sheath on his back. Since seeing him last—the night he tethered me to a bed and tried to force vows—he’d grown a golden beard and allowed his hair to meet his shoulders.

His pale eyes narrowed. “Stop there. Not another step Blood Wraith. She comes alone.”

Valen laughed, his voice no longer the Night Prince, but the low, gravelly rasp of the Wraith. “Afraid I’ll finish the job I started last we met?”

Jarl winced but pointed his glare at me. “You come alone, Elise, or—”

“Or what, Jarl?” I said, snidely. “What will you do? You have returned your hostage. You have men, but you know how the Guild of Shade fights.”

“It is a truce.”

“And we will not lift a blade unless needed. But you must think me mad if you believe I’ll go anywhere with you unaccompanied.”

He clenched his grip around the bronze pommel of his broadsword. We were outnumbered, but I found a bit of gladness at the notable fear Jarl kept for the Guild of Shade and Blood Wraith.

“Follow me,” he said after a painful silence.

Jarl led us to a white canopy tucked behind the coaches and line of Ravenspire warriors. Seated on a plush cushion, dressed in a long gown, Runa stared us down like we were no better than the dirt on her feet.

My sister wore a gold circlet. Her hair had been braided, as a symbol for her upcoming vows. Gold rings lined her ears and fingers, and runes were tattooed on the tops of her hands.

I hated my sister. But in the same thought, I did not want to fight her.

“I had no idea you’d garnered such violent connections, sister,” Runa said. “The Blood Wraith. I’d be impressed if you were not being such a fool.”

“There are many things you do not know, sister.”

A figure emerged from the back of the canopy, and I swallowed a gasp.

“Daj,” I whispered. My father stood tall and broad. His skin no longer pallid and sunken. His hair had thickened, and his beard was braided and beaded in silver. Leif Lysander looked every bit the prince consort he’d once been.

Calista’s story of sickly fate against my father had faded with Valen’s curse, no doubt.

My father’s jaw tensed. There was a fleeting shadow of pain in his eyes before his gaze hardened. “Daughter. I’m ashamed of the company you keep.”

“Or terrified,” Halvar said behind his mask.

Of course, he’d find a reason to tease even now.

“Runa,” I said. “What do you want?”

My sister regarded me for a moment. “I want this quarrel between us to end, Eli. We are blood. We are sisters. You belong with your people and family.”

“My family tried to have me killed,” I said dryly.

“No, you’re mistaken. We sought you out to keep you safe.”

“After you killed our uncle? Safe from your actions?”

Runa frowned. “I don’t expect you to understand, Elise. Our uncle was leading Timoran into the frigid wasteland our ancestors fled. We will save it. We’ve brought life back.”

I snorted. Everyone claimed to be the one responsible for returning life to Timoran. If only they knew the man at my side was the one who had the magic to save this place, to heal the scars that ran so deep.

“Elise, the king has arranged a comfortable life for you should you come to your senses and return with us,” my sister said. She gestured to Jarl. “You and Jarl will take vows—”

“No,” Valen interjected.

My sister startled at his voice. It took a moment for her to peel her eyes away from the Blood Wraith and continue. “Together you shall be granted lands in Lyx, grander than even those of our parents. You will help us ensure peace with the Ettans. They trust you; they value you. Together we can make Timoran what it is destined to become.”

“I will not stand for your plans with Night Folk,” I said. “I know you are trying to take fury for yourself. You torture Ettans, Night Folk, and our own people to further your ambitions. If you vow to cease these things, vow to step down from the throne, then yes, our quarrel will end.”

Runa sneered. “You’re a fool, Elise. So many people will be harmed if you do not stop.”

My blood heated. I saw red. Laughter and memories as young girls faded into something like hate—it was a strange tangle of emotion. Disdain, agony, regret, sadness. I leaned over the narrow table that held a silver crusted horn for the future queen, drawing our faces a hairsbreadth apart.

“You are threatened, sister, or you would not have called me here. Perhaps it is you who is the fool.”

Runa shot to her feet. “We will kill Legion Grey.”

I lifted a brow. “What?”

Runa smiled, smug and wicked. “Yes. After you fled, we found your vow negotiator. As I recall, you fancied him. I will see to it every inch of his skin is peeled from his bones. His screams will haunt this land until your last breath.”

Runa’s breaths heaved. It took a great deal not to laugh.

Halvar took the liberty for me. “Such brutal description.”

When I snickered, my sister seethed at me. “You think I won’t?”

She was grappling and desperate to appear as the dark, formidable queen of the land. She would fail.

“I think you’re lying,” I said.

“I’m surprised. I thought you had more affection for the man.” She turned to Jarl. “See it done.”

Jarl bowed his head in agreement. I bit the inside of my lip. “Is that all you have to threaten me with?”

“I will take his eyes first,” Runa said. “Perhaps you can keep them as a token of your callousness.”

“This is tiring, and frankly disappointing. I expected better from the likes of Ravenspire,” Valen said. “You lie, we know you do, and we shall never stand with your false, stolen throne.”

“Your mistake,” Runa said through gritted teeth. “He’ll die to—”

“Enough.” Valen let out an exasperated sigh and before I could protest, he pulled down the red mask. “Your threats are childish, and clearly Legion Grey is not in your grasp.”

I took a great deal of satisfaction watching Jarl’s face pale, watching Runa stammer. My father was the only one who appeared nothing but irritated.

Herr Grey is . . . he was in my house all this time!”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Valen said.

Jarl’s eyes flicked between the two of us. I could only guess what sort of thoughts rampaged in his brain. How he’d kill Legion? How he’d hide from him. I hoped he’d lose sleep knowing Legion Grey fooled the entire kingdom.

He was still fooling them.

Runa, after composing herself, shoved a nearby guard. “Take an eye.”

Valen reached for his blade, but to my horror she did not point at the Night Prince.

Runa directed the guard toward our father.

“Runa,” he said, stunned.

My sister wheeled on me. “This is your doing, Elise.”

Two guards gripped my father’s arms. He struggled and shouted as they forced him to his knees. The guard my sister had directed removed a vial from his tunic. I’d expected a knife but imagined the murky liquid to be a kind of poison.

“Have you lost your mind?” I screamed at her. Valen unsheathed the dagger. Tor, Halvar, and Stieg did the same.

“Daughter, no.” My father fought against the ravens. He clamped his eyes closed when the vial was lifted over his head.

Runa held up one hand, holding the guard in place. “His fate is in your hands, Elise. Come with us and save our father from suffering. Or perhaps my sister is truly dead.”

An arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me back. Valen dragged me toward the flap in the tent.

“No!” I cried. Runa’s grin faded. She lowered her hand and nodded. My heart stuttered. “No! Stop!”

Valen held me against his chest as the guard tipped the vial into my father’s right eye. The potion hissed. Deep, black veins cracked from my father’s eye, down his face and neck.

I desperately wished to look away. I didn’t blink.

Whatever it was seemed to be rotting his eye from the inside out. His screams rattled in my head. How could she do this? What had happened to my sister to twist her into something so cruel and ugly?

She turned her dark, wretched gaze to me. “Kill them.”

The next moments blurred. Valen pulled me out of the canopy. Tor and Halvar threw knives straightaway, almost as one, killing the two guards who’d held my father. Stieg faced Jarl. The clash of steel on steel burned through the night.

“I can’t leave him.” I struggled against Valen. My head spun.

“They will kill you,” he said. “It is blight, Elise. Dark fury. He cannot be helped now.”

I barely registered a line of Night Folk stood outside the door of the game hall, Ari in the center, swords drawn.

“Ready!” Ari shouted. He acknowledged Valen, hardly spared me a glance. It wouldn’t take much to know something had gone wrong and the Blood Wraith was saving my life. Ari’s guards raised blades; Night Folk lifted their palms. From the canopy, Runa shrieked for guards to attack—to slaughter us all.

Valen whistled, and in another breath, Stieg, Halvar, and Tor raced back to the game hall.

“Show them the fury of this land,” Ari roared. “Show them what they will never have!”

His voice soaked deep into my blood, stirring something alive inside. Ari was not the true king. Someday he would realize it, but there could be no doubt that he was a leader. And a chilling one.

Night Folk moved as one. Their hands open, some kneeled. Fury called to the earth. Not in the way Valen could bend and break the soil, but thorns, branches, shrubs reached out like sharp fingers and surrounded the Ravenspire canopy.

A shimmer of magic surrounded the game hall, doubtless some kind of illusion barred the ravens from seeing clearly.

Some of the guards cried out angrily as brambles coiled around their ankles, dragging them to the ground. Like snakes in the grass shrubs entombed the guards to the ground.

“We hold!” Ari shouted. “Break away in units. Run to the river!”

Ulf stared blankly at the new rush of guards from my sister’s camp. We had fury for now, but more ravens kept coming, like a scourge.

“What the hells is that?” Stieg shouted.

Valen’s arm tightened around my waist, but once my eyes focused, I froze. Something dark crept across the earth. Shadows—no—something tangible like ink bled into the fury-controlled branches. Black devoured the grass, robbing it of color. Life shriveled into something dry and brittle. As the skeins of black flowed over the trapped guards their screams froze my blood.

“What is that?” Stieg repeated.

“Go!” Valen shouted. A true fear in his voice sent a frigid chill down my spine. “Fury will not hold.”

Ari didn’t hesitate. “Pull back! Run to the ship.”

In a shudder the fury barricade dissolved. Around me, Ari’s defenses fled into the darkness. I was almost certain someone called my name. My head spun in a painful flurry, attacking my body, stilling my muscles. What happened here tonight? How had my sister become so cruel, so power mad?

The shock of it all filled my skull, slowing each thought until I could hardly keep up.


Valen. His hands were on my shoulders. He shouted in my face.

“Go. You must run.”

Why did he have a blade drawn? Why wasn’t he running?

I blinked. “Come with me.”

“I will hold them back.”

A cold blow to my chest shook me from the fog. I snapped to attention, my heart in my throat. “No, you-you’re bound.”

I screamed when another hand gripped my wrist. Stieg pulled me back.

Valen was ordering him to.

“No! No, you can’t fight this.”

The Night Prince ignored me. He turned away, too quickly, as though he would not be able to leave otherwise.

The Guild of Shade and Blood Wraith drew their weapons. The last thing I saw was the black ink devouring some of Ari’s fury branches and a new unit of ravens racing down the scorched hillside toward the Guild of Shade.

“Stieg, no!”

“They’ll hold them back,” he grunted. “Buy us some time. Come on, quit kicking. All gods, you’re stubborn.”

When the game hall disappeared completely, I gave up. Stieg outmatched my strength three to one. Numb, I allowed him to pull me through the gnarled trees until the soil dampened and the air grew wet with stagnate water and mold.

The longship bobbed a good distance off the bank. Men trudged through the water, others pulled them over the edge and into the ship.

Stieg raced with me into the icy river.

I coughed against the pain of cold but forced my feet to keep moving.

Any moment Valen would break the trees.

He didn’t need fury. With his curse he hadn’t realized he had fury and he’d survived. He was the Blood Wraith the same as he was the Night Prince.

Kvinna, here.” I don’t know who pulled me over the edge of the ship. Korman? Frey? The moment I plodded onto the deck, I turned back to the trees.

“Row,” Ari’s breathless voice commanded.

“No! Ari, they’re still out there.”

The king gritted his teeth and cursed. He faced the trees, scanning the shadows like the rest of us.

“We cannot wait,” Ulf insisted. “We’ll be trapped by their ships.”

“Ari,” I said, a break in my voice. “Do not leave them. I beg you.”

His jaw pulsed. He scanned the riverbank again, flicking his fingers at his sides. After a few, tense moments, Ari turned to me. “We cannot remain here, Elise.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

The oarsmen gave a great pull. The ship lurched forward.

“No.” I raced to the bow frantically. In passing my mind registered Siv and Mattis were there. Arabella and Ellis. Junie and Casper. But not Valen. Please. Please. I clutched my throat, one foot propped on the ledge of the ship, ready to jump in. “Wait! Stop!”

My finger trembled as I pointed to the trees. Three figures burst from the shadows, sprinting into the river.

“Stop,” Ari commanded. The current still carried us away, but slow enough they’d catch up.

The Guild of Shade swam with the flow of the river. Korman, Mattis, and Casper leaned over the edge and caught them by their forearms before the current dragged them downriver. I remained frozen at the bow, hand on my throat as Tor, Halvar, and Valen were dragged on board, soaked, but breathing.

Ari chuckled, but it seemed to come from nervousness. He clapped Valen on the shoulder as the Night Prince leveraged into sitting. “I knew I would not regret you.”

Valen scoffed, shirked the king off, but grinned. “They will follow. I suggest you get us out of here, king.”

Once the oarsmen picked up their pace again, the longship settled into a tense calm. Everyone remained alert, but there was a sense of peace the farther downriver we sailed. My fingernails dug into the wood of the ship. From this vantage point I had a clear view of Mattis. He took Siv’s face in his hands, whispered something only she could hear, then kissed her.

A grin played with my lips.

He kissed her until she gave in and curled her arms around his neck.

Stubborn fools.

I slid down the side of the ship. My body melted into the wood and damp. Each movement ached.

I looked to Valen. His eyes locked on mine from across the ship. I wanted him to come to me. Wanted him to look away. It didn’t take long before men from the game hall swallowed him up and the Guild of Shade with questions, pitiful bawdy jokes. He would not come to me.


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