We all become mud after the autumn rain.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Hanna lifted the leather window curtains to peer outside the carriage. Under a faltering drizzle, a small army of men worked their way down the well-maintained road leading from the outpost on the southern side of the Rin Mountains, small and dark against the northern sky. There was nothing interesting to see so soon after leaving Hjörtur, but Erik was out there somewhere. Despite the rain, brilliant sun rays shone through the thinning gray clouds, yet the light did nothing to remove the recent gloom from her heart.
Three days. It had been three days since she told Erik to leave and not to come back. They had spoken no words since then, and had only caught short glimpses of each other. She sighed.
“The weather’s clearing up,” Cecilia said.
Hanna allowed the curtains to fall back into place. “It seems so.”
Cecilia brushed a strand of golden hair from her eye and turned the page of the leather book plopped on her lap. Her blue dress was etched with silver crescent moons; the colors did not quite match, but somehow she managed to make it look dazzling none the less.
“What are you reading?” Hanna asked.
Cecilia shook her head and smirked. “The same thing I’ve been reading for the last hour. I’m glad you’re finally feeling well enough to notice you’re surroundings.”
“Somethings don’t change, eh.” Hanna searched her yellow dress for imaginary dust. “You’re still a little brat.”
“And you’re still a self-entitled ass.”
They glowered at each other before breaking out into fits of laughter. This had often been their way. From the beginning of their relationship, they had been enemies, set against each other more by jealousy more than anything else. They had only grown into friends after long years of quiet battle. Hanna still bared the scars to prove it.
“It’s called the Thirty-Eight Stratagems, one of Gilbert’s books. A book on the stratagems of war,” Cecilia said. “I swear, I must of read it a hundred times. Still every time I open it, I discover something new.”
Hanna folded her hands in her lap. The Cecilia she knew was never interested in her studies and had once stated that reading was the greatest bore that life yet held. What had brought on this change?
“Listen to this.” Cecilia paused a moment to find her spot on the page. “The Second Stratagem: ‘Distract Then Destroy. For a solitary wolf to survive an attack from the lambs, he must strike at what they hold dear. Then destroy them as they return to safeguard their heart.’”
“You study to become a general?” Hanna could not quite keep the hint of mocking from entering her voice.
Cecilia feigned a pout in her direction. “No. Well, not exactly. The genius of these strategies is that they can be applied to anything. After all, what is life but a battlefield.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “And what are you and I but captive wolves?”
“These lambs have teeth, Cec,” Hanna told her.
“As do we.”
“We’ve been circling around this topic now for the last few days.” Hanna sighed and tried to collect her thoughts. “I’m afraid to ask what you have planned. A part of me thinks it’s better if I don’t know.”
Hanna leaned forward, desperate to be believed. “You don’t know my husband like I do. Any plans you have are destined for failure.”
“I’ve heard the stories. They say he came back from the dead. That he can’t be killed. That he’s a monster. That he’s the Eternal Father reborn.” Cecilia slammed her book shut. “All none sense.”
Hanna favored her friend with a small smile. “Are you so certain?”
“No one is without weakness.” Cecilia placed the book on the empty seat next to herself. “Not even the gods. Otherwise, most of them would not be imprisoned in the Abyss at this very moment.”
Hanna pulled the curtains back from the window again. “Maybe this is my fault. I shouldn’t have left you on your own after we learned of Willum’s death.”
“Perhaps he isn’t—”
The carriage jerked to a stop, and Hanna dropped the curtains. A claw seized her heart. “Perhaps he isn’t what?” She could not mean. . . . Could she? Had grief made her deranged?
The carriage door opened and Gilbert entered, his robe and beard dripping with water. Cecilia grabbed the book from the seat and scrambled back to make room for him, hopelessly trying to avoid getting drenched in the process.
“Gilbert! ” Cecilia clicked her tongue.
Unconcern with his wife’s complaints, he showered her cheek with kisses, draping his wet beard onto her dress. “Be happy you don’t have to walk through the rain. A few droplets are nothing compared to what you would suffer then.”
“He do be right,” Hanna told Cecilia with a sweet smile.
Cecilia clicked her tongue again. “Don’t go filling his head, it’s big enough as it is. He’s only right when I say he is.”
Hanna rose her hands in mock surrender.
Gilbert turned his attention to Hanna. “I wished you and the Prince would end this disagreement, my dear. The men are already beginning to talk. He refuses to be engaged in conversation. He just stares at anyone who approaches him with those cold green eyes.”
Hanna froze and released her breath in a controlled manner. The last thing she wanted to discuss was her relationship with Erik. She had already wasted enough time worrying over that tangled ball of yarn.
“Leave her alone, Gilbert,” Cecilia said, drying his beard with an old rag. “Their relationship doesn’t concern anyone but them.”
Gilbert sat back, a gentle smile curving his pale lips.
Hanna tapped her finger on her thigh. There was something off about the Viscounts smile. No. Not his smile, but the way his shoulders tensioned every time Cecilia touched him. Was she imagining things? Or was there relationship not as loving as it first seemed?
“You’re right,” he said to Cecilia before shifting back to Hanna. “Sorry, my dear, I don’t mean to pry. It’s my nature to worry about such things. An unhappy Cultivator can be a very dangerous thing, especially if he’s allowed to spend too much time in his own head.”
Hanna nodded, even as Cecilia hissed at her husband. Talk of Fiendlords was never a happy topic. He shrugged at Cecilia apologetically, his eyes softening as he stared at her. Gilbert did love Cecilia, Hanna could see that. Perhaps the tension she saw earlier was just stress of making sure everything ran well.
Maybe. . . .
Hanna lifted the leather curtains aside once again and stared longingly up at the sunlight casting rents in the thinning gray clouds. The sounds of passionate kisses battered her as her thoughts strayed to Erik.
Erik rode a black gelding of the finest Vindurian bloodstock, idly watching the high-wheeled cart that ambled in front of him. Water mattered his hair from the drizzle that fell from the gray heavens intermittently. At his side strode Kai in plate-and-mail armor under a blue surcoat etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito, twin to the symbol on the sagging banners that a number of soldiers carried.
His thoughts strayed from worry of turning the gelding into bloody muss if his weight randomly increased and the unconscious Lightbender in the back of the cart and back again. Better that than thoughts about Hanna or the letter.
He forced his mind away from that topic and back onto what Númi might say. The aged Lightbender had fallen into a coma after his fit and nothing any of the Læknar did helped him regain consciousness. For that small mercy Erik was thankful, but now he had a conundrum on his hands.
I won’t let you touch him, Patrick said, his tone biting.
Erik frowned, trying to keep his calm. Won’t let me? Patrick had long worn out Erik’s last nerve.
Yes. Patrick growled. You heard me the first time.
Who do you think you are? Streams of armored soldiers mixed with a handful of black-coated warriors matched alongside Erik, grumbling to each other about the rain, and how they could not wait to camp for the night.
I’m your partner, Patrick said.
The horse groaned under Erik and he seized control of his emotions before disaster could strike. Nothing made him lose control of his new powers like rage, and Patrick had the ability to bring it out of him in waves. He shook his head and droplets rained down from him, causing Kai to step further back from him.
Erik smiled sheepishly down at the man. “Rain on our first day, not a good omen. I bet you wished you’d stayed in Hjörtur now?”
“It’s just a little rain, my Prince,” Kai said. “Its clearing up, I believe.”
Erik grunted and turned his attention back to the cart and its unconscious occupant. He was going to have to make a decision soon. The danger was no longer his own, he had others to keep in his mind, now. Others he must keep safe from the potential danger of Númi’s words.
Now you think you can just ignore me, do you? Patrick asked with what Erik imagined was a snarl on his face.
You should have killed him when you had the chance, son, Asbjörn said, his voice almost lucid. But now it’s too late. He laughed. It will always be too late.
Run him through on your spear, Saxi said. Then turn it on yourself, human. Human was always made to sound like the lowest of slurs when spoken by the Gray Skin.
Patrick laughed, anything but amused. I see you’ve all turned against me, he yelled at the voices in Erik’s head before turning his focus back to the Prince. You swore an oath! We are partners. You can’t murder my father.
Erik eased his grip on the horse’s bridle with difficulty. I never promised to protect your father. That wasn’t the oath. I told you that I would help track down the woman you love, the woman you raped. He could not keep the disgust he felt for Patrick from leaking through his thoughts.
He had a rapist in his skull—not one but two. Sometimes that was more than enough to make him want to take his own life.
“I’m sure if you went to her, she would take you back,” Kai leaned in to whisper. “Women are really forgiving that way.”
Erik realized he was scowling and forced the expression from his face. “Thank you for your advice, Kai, but I’ve followed the tracks in the female mind all the way down to the heart of their greatest delusion.”
“And what would that be, my Prince?” Kai asked, trying to hide his confusion but failing.
“They believe our monstrous natures can be tamed.”
Kai had nothing to say to that. He trudged on, his boots leaving wet marks into the mire of the road. If the rain continued for much longer, it would make travel all but impossible for the carriages and the carts. That was the danger with traveling with such a large group.
And when did I say I was going to murder your father? Erik asked Patrick. Not once did I say that. All I want to do is talk to him. For now.
Patrick was a seething ball of hatred in the back of Erik’s skull. If this carried on for much longer, he would explode. You must think I’m one of your women. Even Hanna wouldn’t be stupid enough to believe that. I’m inside your head. I might not see all, but I see enough.
What’s that supposed to mean? Erik ground his teeth.
Patrick did not respond, and Erik rode on, his head for once only filled with the chatter of his own thoughts. The collective stink of men and horses washed against him with every breath of the northern breeze. No matter where else he looked, before long his eyes were drawn back toward the cart and Númi. Despite what he said to Patrick, he understood the man’s father must die. For Hanna. For—
“And what about us.”
Erik blinked. It took a second for him to realize it was Kai that had spoken. The large man peered up at him from behind his dented helmet. What was he going on about now?
“If women’s greatest delusion is believing we can be tamed, what’s our own?” Kai asked.
Erik gazed up at the sky. The rain had stopped completely and the gray clouds appeared in real danger of dissipating. Bright bars of sunlight tore through what yet remained, glittering of the dusty armor of the marching soldiers.
“Our delusion is sadder yet,” Erik said. “Ours is thinking we can be saved by being tamed.”