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Crown of Blood and Ruin: Chapter 15

Rogue Princess

My friend,

By the gods, why did you give yourself over to the Timoran King? Do not deny it—you are too clever to be caught sailing so near a shore. You intended to be found and taken.

I cannot deny having you so near me brings comfort, but also severe unease. My future and fate must be dire, indeed, if you have so willingly sacrificed your own freedom to come to my aide. Tell me the prophecies are not written on my threads of life. I am not certain I can see it through if it is as you say.

Tell me what I must do to free them, to save them, to heal this land, and I will do it. Even at the cost of my own life. I will do it all to keep my children from suffering. To keep my husband breathing. Tell me and it is done.

I anxiously await your reply. Leave the missive beneath the third ewer on the highest shelf in the kitchen, and my maid will deliver it to me.

Your loyal friend,

—Lili


Two weeks after the execution, the Silent Valkyrie remained lost to us.

Not even Lilianna’s mysterious letters brightened my spirits. How were we to press forward when we could not find our footing? Valen agreed it was the best lead we had to Herja. If such a woman as this Valkyrie existed, she was mightily hidden.

Still, the waiting and searching had left us all rather restless.

“You don’t need to be here doing this, Queen Elise,” an old, wizened woman named Gretel said.

I tugged with a bit of annoyance on the twine and needle. “If you can repair nets, so can I.” Siv snorted, but turned away when I shot her a glare. With furious fingers, I finished knotting my twine. “No, I mean it. What makes net making beneath me? We cannot attack Ravenspire, not yet, so I am not needed in battle strategy. I can barely show my face outside these walls since everyone recognizes me. So, I shall sit here, make nets, and be useful.”

“I think our queen might need to eat,” Kari said in a soft, sing-song voice. “She seems irritable.”

More than a few snickers rippled through the small room. If I were not so irritated, I might laugh. This was the sort of court I always wanted to be part of, one where leaders respected the common folk. Leaders who sat with them in their shanties by the sea. Leaders who knew their names, their families, their fears.

But being trapped in Ruskig while the Sun Prince withered in Ravenspire, while a princess might be chained and battered in a manor I was not sure existed, my greatest impact on the day was mending fishing nets.

I did not even want to be in the royal longhouse.

The man might own my heart, but it did not mean we always stared at each other with longing.

I scoffed at the thought. No, there was no longing this morning. In fact, I’d snapped at Valen not so many hours ago for staring too long at a map of the kingdom.

He’d looked at me with a touch of Blood Wraith, so I lifted my chin, stalked out of the longhouse, and took my leave with the hope salty air might do me some good.

I picked up another net, searching for holes, ignoring everyone and their aggravating grins. I’d barely taken up the needle when Klok entered the shanty, stomping mud from his boots. “My Queen, a missive arrived for you from the East.”

Once, I’d been a royal of Timoran; I’d been taught how to behave with dignity, but there was no dignity when I bolted from the chair and snatched the parchment from Elder Klok’s hand. His eyes widened, but no one questioned me as I tore the seal, scanning Junius’s delicate writing.

E,

I’ve done as you asked. There is no one by the name Silent Valkyrie in any corner of this land. I assure you the Nightrender and his Guild of Kryv hold unique skills to get such a job done, and they found nothing.

By the by, you asked of him, but I have heard nothing more from you on the Nightrender. What is happening there? Should we come to you? There is something you’re not telling me.

I could taste it in your last missive, my friend. Do not keep things from me.

Remember your allies in the slums,

—J

I folded the parchment and slumped in the chair. I’d known it was unlikely, but with vast travel between kingdoms, it was worth it to see if perhaps this Valkyrie prize was shipped to and from distant lands.

“Disappointing news?” Siv asked.

“Yes. Again.” I passed her the note. She frowned and showed Kari.

“It’s possible she doesn’t exist,” Kari said. “I never heard such a name when I was in the guard.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, unwilling to accept we were chasing a myth. If true, we were a dozen deadly steps away from finding Herja. According to Valen, she was necessary, and Sol would not have mentioned the first, the middle, and the last if their sister were not alive and utterly crucial to this fight.

Hells, even if she were not, we still needed to find her.

Siv dragged her stool closer to my side and lowered her voice. “Maybe you ought to tell Junius. We don’t know this husband of hers, and she made him out to be dangerous. In a way we might need. They could help.”

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

In truth, I wanted to tell Junius of our lack of progress. She had connections to strange magic I didn’t know, but she’d only earned her freedom not long ago. I did not want to put more people I cared about in danger when I had no bleeding direction.

She’d used this Nightrender to search for me. Why? What sort of man was he to do such a task?

I forced Calista’s warning of a breaker of night and fear, of battles—present and future—out of my mind. This unseemly acquaintance of Junius might not be the one the storyteller meant anyway.

I wasn’t sure if I thought it more to convince myself, or if I truly believed our battle was nearing its end.

To end it meant there would be an outcome. A victor. In truth, I wasn’t sure I was ready to learn if we would rise victorious or find ourselves dead.


Valen stared at the flames in the fireplace, his fingers lazily clutching a drinking horn. One leg was outstretched, one fist held up his head on the arm of the chair. I studied him for a few moments, memories of long, unburdened conversations with Legion Grey rippled through my head.

A smile curved over my lips. He’d been cursed, I’d been trapped in a world I hated, but we laughed often. We had few true burdens. To think, once our paths collided, the things that would unfold.

My heart warmed.

To know this would be the outcome—war, blood, death, fear—for him, I’d do everything again.

With slow steps, I crossed the space to him, my fingertips gently touching his shoulder. Valen lifted his eyes, a smile on his lips.

“I wondered if I’d gotten too far under your skin.” He pressed the back of my hand to his lips.

“Oh, you did,” I said as I nestled in the chair, leaning my head against his shoulder. “You are aggravating and always have been. But I have a confession—I love even your aggravating qualities.”

He chuckled and scooped his arm around my waist, holding me close. Valen offered me a sip from the horn and together we stared mutely at the flames for a time. There wasn’t much to say. Raw assurances that we’d find his sister? I said them often. New places to search? We’d scoured the land.

Sometimes silence was all we needed.

“Elise,” he whispered, his fingers in my hair, softly playing with the tresses. “Sol needs me to return to Ravenspire. With Herja.”

“What?”

A muscle in his jaw pulsed. “With all that has been happening, I never mentioned it. When he said to come home to visit him, he meant Herja and I needed to return to Ravenspire. Our old home. There is something there, I don’t know what, but he needs the three of us together.”

“But you said you didn’t know what he meant.”

“I wanted to be sure,” he admitted. “After some thought, I’m certain Sol needs us there.”

I shook my head. “You’re not going there, Valen. You’ll never come out.”

“So little faith in my abilities, Wife?” He grinned in a way that weakened all my resolve. A sly smile unique to him. When I did not return a grin, he sighed. “We knew the fight would reach Ravenspire eventually, but I do agree we should try to get Sol out, get him to us, then we find a way to attack.”

Yes, I knew in the depths of my heart we’d return to Ravenspire, but the thought of Valen being taken before our growing army had a chance to rise against them added ice to my blood.

I lowered my forehead to the side of his. “We return there together. After we have Sol and Herja.”

“But how do we get Sol without going to Ravenspire?” He was thinking out loud, rattling ideas with me. A habit I loved.

I mulled the question over for a few breaths. “They bring him out to manipulate you. Maybe we can set a stage they cannot resist, and they will bring him again. We take him there.”

Valen watched the fire, the glow of it like red stars in his dark eyes. “It could work. We lie, draw them out, force them to make a move.”

I gripped his shoulder, straightening. “Valen! What if that is how we find the Valkyrie?”

“What do you mean?”

“The same as drawing out Ravenspire, we could put word out that some wealthy sod is seeking the legend of the Silent Valkyrie, then see if any slimy traders emerge from the underbelly. You were a trader, am I wrong? Dark deals are done through word of mouth, are they not?”

Valen stood abruptly, a wicked kind of smile on his face. “It could work, and as you said, if word reaches Ravenspire, they might come if she is Herja.”

“They might not bring the Sun Prince, though.”

Valen scratched his face. “Perhaps not, but we might kill a few Ravens in the process. And if we have Herja, our next move would be retrieving Sol anyway. We fight them, we free him, we take back what is ours.” In a few quick steps he had my face trapped between his palms, lips close. “Have I told you I think you’re brilliant?”

I grinned. “No, but I am completely open to any ideas you have in convincing me.”

Valen kissed me, freer than before. There was a fire behind his touch, as if hope burned through his veins and came out through his kiss.

We were close. We’d find more answers, more strength at our backs. I might learn the answer to a toiling question I couldn’t shake: why keep the Ferus children alive all this time? What purpose did it serve to curse Valen, enslave Herja, to poison Sol?

Timoran could’ve guaranteed its survival if they’d slaughtered them all.

I understood a past storyteller convinced King Eli to keep Valen alive by lying about the land being cursed if he died. But had she done the same with the others?

I was all at once grateful to a fate witch from the past. She’d risked a great deal to keep a vicious Timoran king satisfied in the Ferus suffering, while keeping them alive for . . . this moment?

A wash of hope filled my heart. If fate wanted them alive, then it was more possible fate wanted them back on the throne.

Another week behind the walls of Ruskig, but at least we’d taken steps forward. Once more, I sat beside Valen in the longhouse, well after lights were doused and the quiet of midnight overtook the refuge. Beside the fire, Siv slept, her head on Mattis’s lap. He fought mightily to keep his eyes open but was failing.

Stieg and Casper shuffled a game of wolvyn and crowns, but neither seemed interested in playing. Kari sat beside Halvar in front of the fire, her fingers massaging the point of his ear until the tension in his neck melted and he closed his eyes, leaning into her touch. Tor and Brant remained at the window, watching.

Everyone moved with such nerves, I could hardly breathe. The only tether I had to peace lived in the few touches Valen offered as he paced around the table. He was lost in thought, but every few moments he’d curl a finger around mine, run his hand across the back of my neck, or gently squeeze my hip as he passed.

I suppose I served as his anchor too.

Once the plan was placed, we quickly discovered delivering word about the Silent Valkyrie drew more attention than we imagined. The woman was a game, constantly on the move. She’d be well guarded. By Ravens? I didn’t know. But it was nothing but a sport to the house who owned her.

A vague messenger greeted Ari at Sven’s alehouse not three nights ago. A courier for the owner of the Valkyrie.

The match was set. The challenger accepted.

Now, we were to wait for word on the final meet. Directions to where we were to play the game of defeating the Valkyrie or dying at her hand.

It was a twisted game, and if this woman did not turn out to be Herja, there was no telling what could happen.

Not soon enough, the door swung open, banging against the wall. Ari tossed back a wool cowl, shaking off dust and a bit of frost from his hair. He looked weary and travelworn. Without a word, he reached for a tall ewer and poured a horn of sharp, warm ale.

Siv and Mattis were awake now. In truth, everyone was on their feet before the door closed at his back.

At the table, Ari took a long drink, some ale spilling out the sides and down his chin. He gasped loudly, probably to annoy us before speaking. “It’s done.”

“You’re going to need to give more information than that, you bleeding fool,” Tor said.

“Always so irritable.” Ari reclined in the chair and met mine and Valen’s gaze. “They’ve accepted the payment amount and will set the match where you will face their Valkyrie. The rules are you draw blood, you earn the right to take her. But if she guts you first, then you meet the Otherworld.”

Valen clenched his fists. His face contorted in red rage. We all thought the same—how many patrons had faced this woman, tortured her, used her, fought her?

“You’re positive these people are who we’re looking for?” Kari asked.

Ari gave a firm nod. “It’s a deliciously twisted network of secrets hiding this game. We never would’ve found it without putting our interest in the wind. It is as if they have eyes everywhere, waiting for a glimmer of willing players. Without doubt they span throughout all the kingdoms. Which reminds me—I have made you a dignitary from the South, My King. The ears—they’ll be expected.”

Tor crossed his arms over his chest. “And they simply believed you?”

“I created a very convincing illusion of a documented noble line, thank you very much. Your tone of mistrust is rather irksome, Torsten. In need of a drink? A gentle embrace? Tell me how we can ease your frustration when it is I who have been traipsing across this gods-awful land arranging this game.”

“We’re grateful,” I said, smirking. “Ari, you are magnanimous in your abilities, and we don’t deserve you.”

“Thank you. I completely agree.” He tugged on the sleeves of his tunic. He lifted his eyes to Valen. “I will go with you, to make sure you are not recognized. They will set the encampment in three nights in the east side of the Nightwood.”

“And we will be alone?” Valen asked.

“No one goes into the Valkyrie’s chamber but the patron. I should warn you; the courier was quite insistent that you understand she has never lost in his entire employ with his master.”

A curl tugged at the corner of Valen’s mouth. “Good.”

“Who are the masters?” I asked.

“Ah.” Ari took another drink. “The final piece of this wretched game. The Valkyrie belongs to Ravenspire’s most trusted warriors. A noble house. A brutal one, made of many generals of war, of raiders, of—”

“All gods,” Stieg snapped. “Who is it?”

“All gods, let me explain,” Ari hissed back. “If she is Herja, I am not convinced these nobles know it, or they would not risk her in such games. They simply believe she is a gift from Ravenspire for their service. Their brutality in war is well known and should not be discounted when we go to them and trust me—they are as close to Ravenspire as we can get without setting foot inside.” Ari didn’t look anywhere but at me. “She belongs to House Magnus, Elise.”

I closed my eyes, chest tight. Jarl’s house. His cruel, wretched family. If they suspected our ruse at all, they’d end us before we drew our blades.


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