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Crown of Blood and Ruin: Chapter 19

Night Prince

Being kept face down in the barred coach had caused part of my face to go numb, but what I knew of Jarl Magnus, I’d expected to be dragged behind the wheels all the way to Ravenspire.

Beside me, Gunnar was on his belly. For the first time since meeting my nephew, he appeared terribly young. Alone here in the dark, with the stink of vomit on the laths from past prisoners, his boyish features bled into me. Each wince of fear, each wrinkle of his brow when a Raven slapped at the bars drew out a wild protectiveness of my sister’s son.

“Gunnar.” I waited until he opened his eyes. “When we arrive at the gate, do not speak to them, but if you must—tell them you have fury. Our magic.”

“I don’t have fae features.”

The ears. Dammit. “Then insist you lied about your gift to save your mother. Do not let on you are one of these Alver folk.”

“They’ll kill me.”

“They won’t touch you.”

“My maj told me of those bindings on your wrists. I know they kill your magic. What can you do?”

“Know this about our family, we fight for each other. I will fight for you. Bindings will not stop me, boy. I swear it.”

The coach rolled to a stop. Blood rushed to my head. Alone, I would have little fear. I would find Sol, and we’d work our way out of these damn walls. Now, we had the weight of keeping Gunnar alive when his magic would draw a fine price in the East.

“Follow my lead,” I hurried to say. “They’re like bleeding dogs and will smell your fear. They’ll use it against you, Gunnar. This is when you must be strong.”

He nodded briskly; fists clenched in the chains behind his back.

“They’ll take us to dungeons. Be ready for pain, but you can do this. You are Herja Ferus’s son. You are made of substance that does not break easily.”

Gunnar visibly tensed when the back doors hauled open and greedy hands tugged at his legs and arms, wrenching the boy to his feet. A swell of pride tightened my chest at his instant resilience. In front of the Ravens he did not wilt. His head was lifted—he was from royal blood and the boy showed it.

Three Ravens reached for me. They were anything but gentle as they dragged me by my legs from the back of the coach. My head slammed onto the ground, and one guard kicked at my hip, a signal for me to stand.

Before I could, two thick boots stomped in front of my face.

Jarl towered over me. “Welcome home, Night Prince.” I braced, knowing a coward as him would kick to show his dominance, but the sting of his boot still shocked my system. “Get up.”

Jarl was shorter than me, but still gripped a fistful of my hair, forcing my face close to his. “I see so much of Legion Grey in you, the man I tried so desperately to impress. How cunning you must think yourself. Fooling a kingdom. But you don’t know any of the true secrets Ravenspire keeps. You don’t know what we already know.”

I grinned wickedly. “I assure you, when you knew me as a dowry negotiator, you were neither my first choice for the Kvinna, nor did you impress me.”

He struck my jaw. What a bleeding fool. Showing how words crawled under his skin by losing his head at a few biting remarks.

“I do not think it bothers you that I fooled a kingdom,” I said, spitting blood. “It bothers you that I fooled you.”

His eyes darkened. I wasn’t finished. If this sod craved power, but crumbled under words, I would slash his innards with every taunt, every jab until he could not escape his own fragile mind.

I lowered my voice. “What really bothers you, though, is Elise. A woman—a lesser in your eyes—did not choose you. That even after my lies, she still chose me. You will never win her.”

“I will break her, and I will make you watch.”

Unlike Jarl, I’d learned to conceal reactions. While his threat burned in the deepest parts of my soul, I kept my face smug and aloof. “I doubt that. You met your match in the Queen of Etta, Jarl Magnus. You cannot break her, but she will undoubtedly break you.”

Jarl’s pale cheeks burned in a flush of red, but he turned his rage to Gunnar. “Did you know your mother is dead, boy? That little mouse of a sister too.”

Gunnar blanched.

“He’s lying,” I told him.

“Am I?” Jarl chuckled. “We no longer needed her. One direct link to the princess was plenty. Why take the risk of her blades finding us again? She’s dead, strung from a tree. Naked. So the entire kingdom can see what a pathetic, shell of woman the legendary Herja Ferus became.”

Gunnar made a move for Jarl, but a Raven swung the blunt end of a hilt against his stomach. I ground my teeth together as he doubled over.

“You don’t believe me, Night Prince?” Jarl asked.

“Not at all.” Truth be told, I wasn’t sure. They could’ve pursued everyone after we were taken away.

“Then you are a fool. Take them to the holding.”

An entire unit of Ravens surrounded us through the portcullis of the main courtyard. Gunnar wiped his mouth, torment carved in the lines of his young face. I nudged his shoulder. “He’s found your weakness. They will now use your mother and sister against you. Do not let them.”

His voice cracked. “What if she’s . . .”

“Hells,” I hissed. “Do you know your mother at all? You think she would not slaughter half a unit to defend your sister? The only reason she did not take up arms before was because you had to play the great defender and get yourself chained.”

“You should talk. You got yourself snatched too,” he grumbled.

“Bury your fears.” I practically snarled the words. “I’ll not warn you again.”

“I’ve dealt with Ravenspire my whole life. I don’t need warnings.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed? You survived a fat, out-of-commission warrior. This is the bleeding snake pit. Now keep your mouth shut.”

I already held a chest full of affection for this boy I’d just met. But he would need to meet fire with fire. I would not coddle him, not when his life depended on cunning and the will to fight.

Gunnar took me at my word and pinched his lips, trudging silently toward the tower.

Castle Ravenspire was less of a stone and brick castle, and more wood and wattle built tall and in wide towers. It had withstood the turns of battle from my great-grandparents to false kings.

Eli had reshaped much of the grounds to suit his endless consorts and wives.

Villas and longhouses speckled the lawns that once were open and lovely with gardens my mother loved so much. There were wide open fields where we could ride horses, or spar, or use fury to feed this land with magic and the gods’ power.

I did not recognize this place any longer.

Golden sunlight was buried behind gray, somber skies. Lush grass and wildflowers had wilted into cold, wet earth. Once these grounds breathed with sweet blossoms. Now a constant burn of standing water and mildew soaked the wood panels and mud beneath our feet.

Wizened branches of moonvane struggled to live, until I strode past.

I didn’t miss the few murmurs between the Ravens when the silvery blooms burst to life; the boughs seemed to reach and arch for us as we were shoved into the far tower.

“Up. Move.” A Raven shoved my shoulder when I turned toward the lower levels of the tower.

Up? Why would they place us in the upper levels? Hells, I despised not knowing what these sods were planning. I could brave the face for a time, but Jarl did speak true that Ravenspire—that Calder—had games to which only he knew the rules.

One Raven gripped Gunnar’s arm, wrenching it too high up the boy’s back. “Move your feet.”

It was swift. A simple adjustment of my stance, my chained arms, and I soon had the heavy iron fetter laced around the guard’s neck, a dozen short blades pointed at my back from his companions.

“Don’t touch the boy again,” I hissed in the Raven’s ear. “If you think a few chains will keep me from snapping your neck, you are mistaken.”

The point of a blade jabbed my back. “Stand down, Night Prince.”

“Do we have an agreement?” I looked at the bold guard behind me.

“Release him. No one will harm the bleeding boy.”

I sneered and pulled the chains off the neck of the Raven and stepped back. “Was that so hard?”

“For now.” The Raven added. “The boy will be left alone for now.”

“As you will be left alone. For now.”

Gunnar stood a little straighter, a faint smile pasted on his lips as the Ravens kept a healthier distance from us and led us to the highest room in the tower.

“Windows are warded with magic you don’t have, little prince,” the lead guard said at the door. “Rooftops, doorways, it’s all warded and you can’t use your earth fury to get out. Don’t try. We’ll know.”

“Ah. Clever of you. Don’t you think?” I glanced at Gunnar. “They are so impressive with their little tricks.”

I was going to get struck again, but I’d say it over and over if it drew the wide smile on my nephew’s sober face.

The lead Raven pointed all his disdain at me as he unlocked the door.

I made swift mental notes of everything. Heat. There would likely be a stove or small fire inside. Thick walls. We’d be unable to hear goings on in the towers or hallways. A flicker of light. Could be from lanterns, or the fire. They didn’t plan to torture us with darkness and cold. Then it’d likely be through pain.

I could summon the bloodlust inside; I could tolerate pain. It was Gunnar I feared for.

A final detail. The door key—a rune stone. One I couldn’t read or understand. Dammit. The Raven spoke true, and fury didn’t guard these walls. Distant magic or manipulated fury from the experiments at the quarries held us in here.

But what the Ravens didn’t know was we had an Alver on our side. I didn’t know the depths of Gunnar’s abilities, but maybe he could help somehow.

To my surprise—no, my suspicions—the Raven turned me and released the chains on my wrists and ankles. The bindings remained, but I wasn’t shackled. What games were they playing?

“Get in and do us all a favor and be good, little prince.” The Raven chuckled and slammed the door behind him.

I didn’t understand this. In all my turns in the captivity of Timorans, a warm, comfortable room without chains had never been part of their strategy.

I trusted this less than a dank cell below ground.

Gunnar and I stood shoulder to shoulder, unmoving for at least four heartbeats before laughter stirred me from my puzzlement.

When I glanced over my shoulder, my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. “Sol.”

A smile on his face, a mischievous gleam in his eye, my brother stood from the edge of a large bed.

In five wide strides, I crossed the room into Sol’s open arms. I’d always been broader, while Sol was the tallest, but my embrace seemed to swallow him whole. All gods. I clenched my eyes shut; my forehead fell against his shoulder.

Sol’s big hand gripped my tunic. The both of us kept slapping the other on the back, the sound a constant reminder this was real. He was real. No longer a face I saw at a distance. Here, I didn’t feel a drop of shame at the sting of tears. When I pulled away, Sol even batted at his face, laughing sheepishly.

“Hells, Valen.” He cupped the back of my neck, forcing my brow to his like our father used to do. “I’ve missed you.”

“Have you? Seems you’ve been living well while we freeze in Ruskig.”

Sol scanned the large room. “A play in their game. Simply another play. You’ve joined a gilded cage.”

I cleared my throat and patted the side of his face.

Sol adjusted, sniffing, and clearing away his emotion. “And well done. You must be a little wise if you figured out my message. Though, you are an idiot and came without a much-needed piece. Where is Herja?”

“Safe. With Elise.”

“Grand. Why the hells is she not here?”

I gestured to Gunnar who remained by the door, shifting on his feet. “Because her son has the same hero complex as you and I.”

“Son?” Sol gaped at me, then looked back to Gunnar. He took a few strides across the room before the truth hit him square in the face. Sol was the brother who loved best. He’d been happiest, kindest, probably the most wicked depending on the day. But when his family or his hjӓrta were ever threatened, the eldest Ferus became the deadliest. “What do you know of the bastard who fathered him? Where is he?”

“We’ll find him.”

Gunnar’s eyes flashed in a bolt of anger I’d not seen. “My daj isn’t like those other men. I know you must think he hurt Maj, but he didn’t. They’ve loved each other for turns, and now they took him.” Gunnar’s breaths came deeper, more ragged. “All he wanted was to keep us safe and . . . they took him.”

Sol was nearest, and cautiously put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Who took him?”

Gunnar’s eyes were red, but he fought mightily to steady his voice. “My father is Alver folk. From the Eastern Kingdom. They forced him to play for the Valkyrie, but he only pretended to. He always told me he fell in love with Maj that first night. She listened to him, didn’t kill him, and for hours all they did was learn of each other even though Maj could not speak.”

“Herja couldn’t speak?” Sol looked at me.

I didn’t have answers, so I simply shrugged.

“The first time I heard my mother’s voice was only months ago. Something changed, we all felt it, and her voice returned,” Gunnar said.

Sol glanced at me. “It was the same with me. All at once, I could think clearly again, and their manipulations began to fail. What changed?”

I racked my mind, trying to think. “Nothing. After we left you here when I came for Elise, we returned to Ruskig, and I suppose the only difference was . . .” I paused, eyes wide. “I took the throne.”

Half Sol’s mouth curled. “The land chose you. There is much to be said about the fury of this earth. These curses placed upon us, perhaps they could not withstand it. Etta is fighting back, Valen.”

A thrill raced through my blood. If true, then we had the power of the purest fury on our side. The bleeding power of the fates themselves.

Sol looked to our nephew. “Boy—”

“My name is Gunnar,” he muttered. “Are you the Sun Prince? My other uncle? Maj often spoke of you both. She always wanted us to know our history, our people.”

“I am,” Sol said. “But tell us of you. How old are you now?”

“Sixteen this past summer.”

“You have magic?”

“Yes. I . . . I can manipulate the mind.”

“Not earth magic?”

“Alver folk,” I started, “their magic is over the body.”

“Fascinating,” Sol whispered. “What can you do with this manipulation?”

“Convince people to do things. Plant ideas in their minds,” Gunnar said. “But . . . it hurts. I can’t hold it long.”

I recalled the itch in my skull when we met, the desire I had to leave the tent. He’d told me I wanted to leave, and I had wanted to leave.

“I can fight, though,” Gunnar insisted. “I’m better than Maj with a bow. Rarely, if ever, do I miss.”

Sol laughed. “I have no doubt your gifts will be very useful.”

“Possibly. I don’t want to expose him to the false king, though.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I want to know more about your father. You say he was a good man? He cared for Herja?”

“Yes. They have been together for nearly eighteen turns. They played the charade of defeating the Silent Valkyrie well, so as a reward, Magnus allowed Daj to visit twice a turn.”

“Did Magnus harm you?”

“My father’s family is nobility in the east, and I believe Stor Magnus does trade with them. He did not beat us or torture us out of fear one word from my father would ruin their civil business.”

“If he has such power, why did he not free you?”

Gunnar’s jaw pulsed. “He tried. All my life he’s tried. I don’t know the Eastern Kingdom well, but he fought against his folk, and ours here. The best deal he bartered was for Laila and me to remain unharmed and unable to ever be sold. He tried to use his magic to break the bonds that held Maj captive. When they found out, I did not see him for an entire turn. He is nobility, but not as free as you might think.”

It would not surprise me. If this man was an Alver, Junius hinted magic was as brutally hunted on her shores as it was here.

“But when Daj returned months ago, my mother had her voice. She told him something had changed. Begged him to take us away. She knew something dangerous was happening in the land. He promised he’d return for her, but we only made it as far as the north fjord before they caught us.

“He wouldn’t let me use my mesmer—that’s what he calls it. He didn’t want them to know I was Alver folk and made sure they didn’t. His Alver magic is blocking and snuffing out other gifts by a simple thought. I could’ve protected him.” Gunnar closed his eyes and shook his head. “A man from the east was there at the docks, almost like they knew we’d run. I . . . I think it was his father. My daj told me all would be well, but I know it isn’t. He always writes to us, but we’ve heard nothing since he left. We don’t know where he is.”

This was . . . unexpected. Part of me wondered if Gunnar was shown only what this man wanted him to see. He might appear to be a doting lover to his children, but perhaps alone with Herja he was cruel. But it didn’t fit. Herja would never allow him to live or go near her young ones if he were vicious.

I looked to Sol. “Magnus pretended not to know the man, called him a mystic. If they have correspondence, we might be able to find him.”

Sol scratched his chin. “Add finding Herja’s lover to the list of tasks we have yet to accomplish. A name would be helpful, Gunnar.”

“Hagen Strom,” he said, eyeing us with caution.

“Do you know anything about his life or family?”

“Not much. H-He didn’t like talking about his home, but he mentioned once if ever we came to the Eastern Kingdom, he’d introduce us to one person. A younger sister, but he didn’t say her name. All I know is she is an Alver, and he was hesitant to speak of her. Said she was one of those valuable Kinds that would be traded if anyone knew what she could do.”

“It’s not much, but it’s something to search out,” Sol said.

Gunnar wrung his fingers in knots. “You . . . you really would help find him?”

“What did I tell you?” I asked. “This family fights for each other. If your father is Herja’s hjӓrta, then it means a great deal.” I closed my eyes against thoughts of Elise. One task at a time. “It makes your father family. When we win back this land—and we must—we will do what we can to find him.”

“Agreed,” Sol said. “But for now, we have more pressing issues. Did you make Elise’s title official?”

“She is queen. Why?”

“I don’t know, but her sister and the false king feared greatly if Elise took the title as queen. I don’t understand it, and now her sister will want her more than anyone.”

“You put a target on Elise?” My voice rumbled dark and low.

“Me? You took the vows. Did you take them only at my word, or do you love the woman?”

I cracked a few knuckles. Words were flying, and I needed to keep my head. I’d already planned to take vows before we found Sol. “Sorry. I cannot stand that I’ve left her to raise this fight alone.”

“But she will?” Sol asked. “She is a woman who will bear the burden of queen like our mother?”

I smirked. “Elise will tear this kingdom to the ground soon enough.”

“Good. I look forward to seeing the fear on her sister’s face.”

“What do you know, Sol? Why did you need me to come?”

My brother hesitated. “When my mind had returned to me, I did not let on for some time and played the part of insanity well. I’ve overheard many things, Valen. Careless words spoken amongst the guards when they did not think I could understand. The false king was desperate to trap you, to have your power here where he could keep watch on it. He did not know Herja lived at first, but when he discovered the truth, he came for me.”

“How did he learn she was alive?”

“I think when the curses lifted from us, she could no longer hide her bloodline and word was sent to Ravenspire. Did strange things happen around her when her voice returned?” Sol asked Gunnar.

The boy took a breath, then nodded. “Yes. Now that you mention it. The land around our manor where they kept us changed. The flowers always pointed at her, as in they moved when we walked past.”

I chuckled. “The land gave up her secret. It is because the fury of this land chose the Ferus line to rule here long ago. You will see it do the same for us.”

“Magnus pressed her when they took note of it,” Gunnar said with a deadened voice. “It was one of the few times he hurt her. They chained me, but I could hear her try to fight him off until they took Laila and threatened to cut off my sister’s ears. Maj finally gave up her true name. She’d been known as Breeta until then. Only we knew her as Herja Ferus.”

By the dark glare Sol pinned on me, it did not take much to guess he had the same thoughts as me. House Magnus would burn for what they’d done to our sister.

“The false king lives in his bleeding library,” Sol said after a pause. “He spends his days searching prophecies and sagas. Perhaps he has slipped into his own bit of madness.”

“What did he do?” Gunnar asked. “You said he came for you when he learned my mother lived.”

Sol dragged a hand through his dark hair. “He shouted at me, said he knew my mind had been restored. He said the curses were dead and insisted I tell him what I knew of a tomb, to explain how the land would die if we died. For once I had no idea what he was talking about.” Sol rubbed a spot over his chest. “No amount of torture gave him answers.”

I closed my eyes. How long had they hurt my brother all because their king was losing himself to old writings? But, unfortunately, Calder’s rantings held a degree of understanding for me.

I despised fate. She never did make life’s path simple. “There is a tomb I know. The Black Tomb, and it is a wretched place, Sol.”

His eyes widened. “You’ve been?”

“I died there. Nearly twice.”

Sol arched a brow. “I’ll expect that story later, but for now, we need to figure out a plan on how we can get there. The false king insists our mother hid powerful fury in this tomb and only the blood of her heirs will be able to open the doors. If they do not, the land will slowly die in time, and our curses will shift to Timorans.”

“And Calder believes this?”

Sol grinned darkly. “More than he believes in his own name. Before he knew my mind was no longer dark, the false king ranted for hours, cursing his dead father for telling him nothing of the fury secrets passed down between Timoran kings. He is discovering truths as he goes and will be weaker for it.”

“Unless we cannot find the answers before him,” I said. “The Black Tomb is wicked. We don’t want to go there.”

I hated the Black Tomb. It’d become a bleeding curse on its own. But this didn’t make sense. I’d been to the tomb too many times for one lifetime, but there was no grand door with fury. Then again, the bleeding place was rife in the darkest, deadliest fury I’d faced. Who was to say there could not be greater secrets?

“We may not have a choice,” Sol said. “If this is the false king’s move, we must beat him to it.”

I shook my head, an ache building behind my eyes. “What is it he mentioned about heirs again?”

Sol nodded. “He spoke of our mother’s heirs. Their blood can unlock the fury of the tomb. We’re the heirs, tell me I’m not misinterpreting.”

“If he wants three heirs, then yes,” I said. “He doesn’t know what is hidden there?”

“The way he looks ready to slit his own throat when he tries to get answers, no. I don’t think the false king has any idea what is at this tomb. But it explains why we’ve been kept alive,” Sol insisted. “They fear us, but they bleeding need us for some reason. Either to keep us from discovering this or using us to help them take it. I feel it in my bones—we’re the only ones who can open whatever Maj hid away.”

I glanced at my nephew who stood somberly by the wall. “Gunnar has Herja’s blood, do you think it will be enough?”

“I can’t say,” Sol admitted. “But we need to try. Prepare for him to come for you, Valen. He wants answers, and he will hurt you to get them.”

I steeled myself as if Calder might appear at any moment. We were interrupted by a knock. I froze, expecting the king, but a broad serf opened the door. Not Ettan, and one who hardly seemed ruffled by our faces as he pulled a cart of food behind him. “The king and queen insist you keep your strength up.”

I gawked at my brother. “Ravenspire feeds its prisoners now?”

No doubt there would be attempts to poison us.

Sol rolled his shoulders back and clapped me on the arm. “Ready yourself, Valen. The games have begun.”


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