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Crown of Blood and Ruin: Chapter 31

Rogue Princess

Smoke burned my eyes to tears. I swiped the back of my hand over my face, smearing blood and sweat. Runa remained tucked away near the walls, sword in hand, but untouched on her horse. A forgotten foe by others. The entire focus for me.

I forced my eyes to keep open, to blink through the burn.

This was the ending. This was the final step in the path of fate. Only one crown for one queen would be won today, and it wouldn’t be Runa’s.

Cries of battle were fading. Little by little the slide of steel against steel weakened. Roars of attack were more laments of pain and exhaustion. I did not know our losses. I did not know where Valen was.

Soon horns of retreat and respite would sound, but I would not return to fight another day. My path ended at my sister.

I knew it to my core.

At my next step, a blinding light flashed through my vision. My head rang, and I fell to my side.

Struck. I’d been struck. My head spun as Halvar’s battle lessons grew hazy, but Valen’s voice insisted I bleeding defend myself. He wouldn’t accept the excuse to die because of a blow to the head.

My fingers curled around the hilt of my sword, and I hurried to my unsteady feet.

Night coupled with smoke and ash made it difficult to make out any faces. But the gleam of torches and firelight glowed over the pale, sharp angles of my cousin. Calder tossed back a dark hood, his face as stone.

His eyes held nothing but disdain for me.

“Kill her!” Runa’s cry cut the last link between sisters. She raged from her post, watching with a twisted kind of gleam as her husband stalked around me.

“I tried to stop this, Elise. But you insisted on continuing this damn idiocy. This is on your head,” Calder said. He moved as a lithe warrior. Skilled and deadly.

I gripped my sword tighter to hide the tremble in my hands. On impulse, I studied his movements and watched his footing. Calder would deliver strong blows. He’d strike at the sides, come from the top. I blew out a long breath, ready to block each blow.

All the lessons did not prepare me for cowardice.

Hands gripped me from behind. Calder’s top knights held tightly to my arms, one kicked out my knees, forcing me to kneel. A guard snagged my braid and wrenched my head back. They kicked my seax aside.

Arms out, heart exposed, a perfect target for Calder’s sword.

No. No. I cursed the gods. What a cruel trick to bring me so far, give so much hope, and end it all in a weak death.

“Think so poorly of your talents with the blade that you must render me defenseless, cousin?”

Calder tilted his head. “One queen leaves this field today. I’m afraid there is too much at stake to take any chances that it might be you.” He paused a few paces away. “I’ll always have fond childhood memories of you, Elise. Those are the ones I’ll keep, where you were not such a thorn in my side.”

He closed the space between us, sword raised. I wanted to close my eyes but forced myself to look at him. He’d see my eyes before he ran me through.

Calder took his strike.

The clang of blades rattled in my brain. Where I thought I’d lose my head, two swords crossed in front of me, locking Calder’s blade from moving. Grunts and gasps followed. The knights holding me tightly stumbled backward, arrows in their backs.

Calder stared in disbelief as a tall, broad fae cradled the edge of his sword with two of his. The man flicked his eyes to me. Dark eyes, but wise. His skin was rich and brown. His hair was braided off his face, and two polished onyx stones pierced the lobes of his pointed ears.

He looked like Valen in so many ways, I did not know what to think of it.

This . . . this couldn’t be his father?

What felt like many moments of staring at each other ended. No more than half a breath before who I thought might be Arvad Ferus shoved Calder out of the blade lock.

“You have the misfortune of paying for the sins of many false kings,” he said in a low timbre.

My cousin’s face was cut in furious rage. He held steady against the swords for a few paces, but the fight was outmatched in skill and steel.

An arrow broke through the haze. The point thudded into one of Calder’s shoulders. He cried out, slouching to one side. Soon enough a second arrow met the opposite side. Through the smoke, Herja stepped forward, her son at her side. Both had bows raised, arrows notched.

Calder roared his anger and made a weak swipe at Arvad. He could’ve, but Arvad didn’t swing a killing blow. Instead, he stood by as a woman came from behind.

My eyes widened. Light hair, stained in dark blood; she was no Ettan. Small in stature, hardly an obvious threat on the battlefield. But the way she clambered up Calder’s broad back, arm curled around his neck from behind, knife at his throat, she became the most fearsome warrior on the field.

“Tell Eli we won,” she snarled into his ear before she dragged her knife across Calder’s throat.

He gasped for three heartbeats, then staggered to his knees, falling face forward onto the grass.

Dead.

More than one Raven noticed. They seemed to freeze in their places. Some dropped their weapons, some continued to press against our armies.

“Elise!”

My heart jumped. Valen. I didn’t see him, but his voice carried in the wind, alive. He was coming. He was alive.

Perhaps to the Ravens, the king was the final word, but the murderous shriek at my back drew me to the truth. I turned away from the distant shouts of my husband, jaw tight, and slowly found my feet.

This would not end until all those who claimed the throne of Timoran were in the hells. Runa gripped a sword, eyes flashing with hatred. She screamed my name, then sprinted down the slope toward me.

I met her pace. No hesitation, no second thoughts.

The rest of the field fell away. If fighting remained at my back, I didn’t know it.

With a strangled cry, I landed a blow against the edge of hers. A quick strike, one that tossed us apart nearly as fast. We circled each other. The vibration of the steel prickled up my arms. Runa’s eyes flashed like a storm over the sea. No longer the sister I knew, then again, I was no longer the quiet second Kvinna of our past.

We said nothing. There was nothing to say.

The Lysander daughters were here to kill each other.

I rushed at her again. She met my strike with a ferocity I didn’t anticipate. My sister landed a cut to my arm that reeled me backward. Adrenaline masked the pain, and I met her downward strike with more strength.

A kick to her ribs. A jab to my leg. Back and forth we pushed. Sloppy strokes, desperate blows, we fought with a finality, a knowledge this moment would change the course of this land forever.

Runa slammed her sword against mine, and promptly drew a fist against my jaw. I fumbled forward. The tang of blood grew hot on my tongue.

Stand up, Elise. Be ready. Do not fall.

“Elise!” Valen came into my sights. He shoved through the masses, dodging strikes, fighting his way forward.

He was too far.

Fear lived in those beautiful eyes. The realization he would not be able to reach me now.

This fight was mine to finish anyway.

I lifted my sword and faced my sister. Her breaths came heavy, her face twisted in pain. But my body protested too. Each step limped, my skin was riddled in burning cuts and gashes. I was certain I’d broken at least three fingers. The tip of my sword dragged through the grass, too heavy to hold up when no strike was coming yet.

“You have no kingdom here, Runa,” I said. “It is over.”

“I am chosen by fate! You are wrong.” It was all she said before a new wind filled her lungs and she flung her sword again.

Blades met. Runa screamed as she tried to hack at my neck. I parried and shoved her back.

Another blow came to my lower spine. I dodged. She met my strike over her head. Each clash, each blow lost power but gained hatred. A breath of steel hit my guarder, cutting into the leather.

Runa’s boot slammed into my knee. I cursed her and fumbled backward. In the haze of my mind Valen’s furious shouts fueled me on. Runa made a sloppy cut at my heart, but weak steps fumbled over the uneven soil.

Now.

Her body curled forward, off balance. With haste, I adjusted my grip on the blade, point down. A scorch of hot air burrowed in my lungs. I spun on my heel, let out a wretched cry, and leveled the tip of my sword against her, carving out the base of her throat.

In a wash of dark blood, the steel tore through her skin.

Runa’s pale eyes flickered in stun, remorse, hatred. Until light faded. Blood fountained from her neck, and for a moment Runa stood still. Her brow furrowed in a wince as if she might shed a tear, but nothing came before she fell back, lifeless eyes locked on the dark sky.

The seax fell from my hand. My body trembled, and I could not draw a deep enough breath. Weak steps took me away from the unmoving form of my sister.

Over. The world reeled in my head. It was over.

Armies stared at the bloodshed, stared at me in horror, awe. I didn’t care. I saw one face only. My leg throbbed, my head screamed, but I quickened my step, limping forward.

“Valen.” My voice croaked. I tried to run, and only stumbled more.

The Night Prince shoved through the last line of warriors and raced for me. In the next step, he caught me as I jumped into his arms. My legs wrapped around his waist. His embrace tightened, choking air from my body.

The tip of my nose burrowed against his neck. All gods. I breathed him in. Real. Alive. He was here. Valen gripped my hair, my neck. His lips pressed against my skin, hands roamed any surface of my body as if he, too, couldn’t make sense that we were both standing, both breathing.

He pulled back, brushing bloody, sweaty hair from my face. His own features were blotted in smoke and bruises, but his grin whitened it all.

The Night Prince kissed me.

No tenderness. No gentility. This kiss was raw, pained. Perfect.

I was breathless when we pulled away, my forehead pressed to his. “You’re done playing the hero, Valen Ferus. I will not allow it from this day on. No sacrificing yourself for another person again. I will not watch you die; I will not watch you be captured. You will be the king who hides in his castle when war calls. Do you hear me?”

He grinned against my mouth. “I thought you loved my heroics.”

“I hate them. Despise them. I want you alive, and breathing, and in my arms. I demand it.”

He kissed me slowly; his voice turned soft. “Agreed. I will never argue such a bargain.”


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