The Kingdom of Etta
I was almost certain I was about to vomit, but I clenched my teeth and kept the bile at bay. We had a feast to prepare. Still a little battle weary from the fight of the crown at the Black Palace, our folk deserved to have a reason to celebrate.
“Elise, you look greener than the spruce boughs.” Lilianna cupped my face between her palms. She stood shorter than me, but for a moment I wanted nothing more than to curl against her and have her stroke my hair like a mother might.
“I’ve been devouring ginger bites all day.” I said, hand on my stomach. “I’ll survive.”
The healers predicted the prince or princess growing inside me had only four months before making an appearance, but I could not bleeding shake the aversion to smells and standing and genuinely doing anything but sleeping.
“You will,” Lilianna said, giving my hand a squeeze. “You are made of soft things with a hefty dose of iron, my girl. I have every faith you’ll survive.”
I tilted my head. “Thank you.”
“Well,” I said as we walked the great hall, donning the long table with more boughs. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have a son who hovers. I’ve begun to question if the man truly believes I know how to dress myself at this point. Apparently, in my condition, I should be left to rot in bed with servants feeding me, and there I should stay until the sour stomach fades. For how dare a queen have an upset stomach.”
Lilianna laughed, one hand on my arm.
“I do not sound like that.”
As much as I taunted the man, my heart still skipped at the sight of him. Valen wore a dark, forest green tunic with silver threading, his axes were polished and tethered to his belt, and the sides of his dark hair were braided to a knot behind his head.
The king strode across the hall and had his arms around me in the next breath. His warm breath heated my neck as he whispered, “Careful, Kvinna, there are some things the healers have insisted are perfectly acceptable when you are with child. I might make you eat your words.”
Oh, the man had power with that silver tongue, but so did I.
Taking Valen’s chin between my finger and thumb, I drew his lips close to mine. “I really hope you do, My King. No, I don’t hope—I insist.”
“Gods. Contain yourselves. There are young ones about.” Halvar’s voice broke us apart. He covered his son’s eyes. Little Aesir giggled and started sucking on his father’s fingers now that his back teeth were beginning to pop through.
“It’s good for the boy to learn,” Valen said, nudging Halvar’s shoulder as he led me toward the head of the table.
Doors opened from every side of the Great Hall. People started to spill in from the kitchens, the gardens, the corridors. Jul Fete meant there were no titles among us, not anymore. We dined with our staff, our friends, and outside beneath canopies with fire fury heating them, people across the kingdom would dine together on the royal grounds.
When my family had ruled here, Jul meant a show of their power, higher taxation to fund the grand revels. It was a change I wanted, and one Valen agreed to wholeheartedly.
Peace would not last in New Etta if we did not stand united and love our folk.
I sipped ginger tea, picked at the eel, potatoes, and pickled herring, but reveled in the joy around the table.
Sol and Tor hardly noticed their plates, too focused on the tiny Aleksi as he babbled and reached for Sol’s royal broach pin on his cloak. Everything the babe did had them laughing and showing off the new feat as if little Alek were the most advance fae child in the history of fae children.
It always drew a smile to my face. I had a feeling a certain king would be much the same in a few months.
Mattis and Siv sat beside Kari and Halvar, laughing and mocking others who sat nearby who might’ve had too much sweet ale. There were empty places where Stieg and Ari ought to be, but they’d remained in the South at the invitation of the new King Bracken.
Reluctantly, Valen agreed it would be good for peace talks to immerse our folk deeper into the Southern Kingdom.
Still, I looked at Ari’s place with a bit of a heavy heart. We’d grown close during the battle for Etta, no mistake. But I’d claimed him as my brother entirely during the fight in the East. He’d been my steady place when I’d been separated from Valen and when Valen had been cursed again.
The way Ari had leapt at the chance to be cursed in the king’s place made him my family. Long ago, I learned blood did not make the family. His missives were growing less frequent, and I could not shake the feeling there were things he kept from us.
But surely if there was trouble in the South, Gunnar and Eryka wouldn’t be here.
I smiled when Gunnar tossed his head back and laughed as little Dain accidently sipped from his horn and gagged at the taste of the heavy Eastern brän.
“It’ll put hair on you, boy,” Gunnar said, ruffling the child’s hair.
“He will always look to you as a brother,” Eryka whispered, patting Gunnar’s chest.
He grinned and kissed the back of her hand. We’d all grown rather accustomed to Eryka’s random words of prophecy. She was not the same as Calista’s terrifying stories, but she’d yet to be wrong when she blurted out her words.
Hagen and Herja helped Dain and his sister, Metta, with their plates while Laila doted over her new younger siblings.
“Your folk did not celebrate Jul?” Valen asked Eryka.
She smiled, showing the scar Thorvald left behind with a bit of pride. “This turn they determined it was not to be. Happens sometimes, I’m afraid.”
“I plan to celebrate each turn no matter what the stars say,” Gunnar said.
Eryka snickered. “I will speak true, my love, I think the stars said nothing about Jul. I think it is more the folk did not wish to prepare the food.”
“Ah, so they use the stars as an excuse when they don’t want to do something.” Gunnar tugged Eryka closer to his side. “Is this what you plan to do once we’re vowed?”
“Yes,” she said, kissing his neck. “And you will never know which is true or which is me trying to get out of a task.”
Hagen laughed. “This is why she’s perfect for the boy. Keep him on his toes, Eryka.”
“Actually, I’d prefer to keep him off them.” Eryka sipped her wine, oblivious to what she’d insinuated, but when the table burst out in laugher and Gunnar’s face tinted deep red, she grinned. “Well, it’s the truth.”
“I don’t get it,” Laila said, pouting.
Herja stroked her daughter’s hair. “Someday, love. Someday.”
“Far, far in the future,” Hagen added with a grunt.
I loved them. Everyone at this table held a deep place in my soul, as if their names were inked into my bones, I lived for them all. On the morrow, Hagen, Herja, and their children would sail to the East. Malin and Kase did not leave since, like me, Malin found out she was with child. I understood the repulsion to traveling when eating was a mountainous obstacle.
I wished they were here, I wished Ari and Stieg were here. But when I glanced at Valen as he laughed with his siblings, his parents, his people, I could not recall when I’d been more at peace than this moment.
Once the feast ended we gathered around a large evergreen donned in wooden rune pieces and handed around parchment wrapped gifts.
Lilianna had gowns for her granddaughters made, along with quivers of new arrows. For her grandsons she had bronze daggers commissioned with personalized prayers etched into the blade. Arvad revealed a new grandchild cottage he’d had built on the grounds. A place where they could sleep, even Gunnar and Eryka had a private room.
Halvar gifted Kari black stone jewelry infused with herbs Niklas had helped prepare, that were supposed to make her inappropriately ravenous for him. She rolled her eyes, but I noted the way she slid the bracelet on straightaway.
Eryka had a soft quilt made for our child with threads of silver and lavender.
“So she’s always embraced whenever we’re gone to the Southern Isles,” Eryka said.
I arched a brow. “A she?”
Eryka simply smiled and rejoined Gunnar on the chaise.
“My Queen,” Frey said, handing me a small leather sack. “From the ambassador.”
I grinned and took hold of Ari’s gift, silently missing him all over again. Until I saw the note and laughed.
Valen grunted when he read over my shoulder. “Bastard.”
Always think of me when I am not there, My Queen. It shall be our little secret.
Your Loyal Servant, Ari
I laughed and added the silver stone earrings to a second hole in my ears.
“Moonstones,” Frey told us. “Folk in the South believe they offer protection from the gods.”
“You may inform the ambassador, I rather hate him for not showing up, but I love them.” I twisted the stones in my ears, then slid my fingers through Valen’s.
We stepped back and silently watched our family open gifts, laugh, and reminisce.
Valen pulled me against his side. “I have something for you.”
Valen dug into his tunic and removed a small square of thick vellum. I bit my bottom lip, grinning at him as I tore into it. Two silver rings fell onto my hand, both etched in gilded moonvane shapes with thorn branches running through the center.
“Ari told me of a Southern tradition, and I liked the idea,” Valen said, taking the smaller of the two rings and sliding it onto my center finger. “He said when couples take vows in the Southern Kingdoms they pass on rings with their family symbols, or personal endearments that matter to the couple. The ring is to symbolize eternity.”
I studied the silver, tears in my eyes.
Valen slid the thicker ring onto his middle finger. “You are my hjärta, Elise. My eternity.”
I threw my arms around his neck, and kissed him. Halvar muttered at our backs that his boy would be scarred with such a king and queen, but I didn’t care. I kissed Valen until I was forced to pull back.
He chuckled. “I’ll take it that you like them?”
“Love them.” I crouched and took a small, wrapped package from the evergreen. “I love them so much, my gift seems almost . . . silly.”
“I don’t need gifts, Elise, I—”
“I know.” I swatted at his chest. “I don’t need them either, but here. It was meant to make you laugh, but if I’d known you planned to melt my heart—”
He silenced me with another quick kiss, then tore into the package. When he read the title on the small leather book, he did laugh. “Wait, this is almost like the book Mattis gave you when—”
“When I had a pesky dowry negotiator following me around, yes.” My cheeks flooded with heat when Laila and Gunnar tried to peek at Valen’s gift. I stood in front of the book of bawdy fae pleasure spells. “But the more I think on it, the more I realize I should’ve had you open this in a more private setting.”
Valen’s eyes grew dark with desire. He slammed my body against his, tucked the book behind his back, and drew his lips against my ear. “The revel will end soon, and I assure you, I plan on using my gift . . . tonight.”
He kissed me again. We laughed, we loved, we battled, we bled, but these moments of stillness, these were what I lived for each day.
The Black Palace
“Everyone just . . . sit down,” I said and plopped into a padded seat at the head of a table in Felstad. The ruins were still being repaired, but the open courtyard was perfect for everyone to gather.
“Oh, as you say, My Liege.” Raum twirled his hand, bowed to mock me, then sat on the thick bench at the table. Lynx and him chuckled like two sods when I glared at them.
“So magnanimous of you to invite us paupers, My King,” Ash started, but burst into laughter when I pointed a finger at him.
“Don’t start, Ash. Don’t follow their example.” I gestured at Raum and Lynx. “They’re bleeding idiots.”
Hanna laughed silently beside her brother. I wouldn’t smile, but inside I was more than glad to be back in these ruins. A small hint of blood and smoke still lived in the soil, but it was home. I didn’t care what ridiculous title the folk of the East gave me, Felstad was where we belonged.
Malin, Junius, and Inge had worked with the Kryv and a few Falkyns to don the walls with rowan berries tied in red satin. Bone runes dangled from the strands, offerings to the gods to keep our infantile kingdom safe.
Let them praise the gods, I praised our blades and brains for winning the East.
“He’ll learn how to talk like a king,” Niklas said, tugging Junius against his side. “Soon he’ll be a bleeding tyrant.”
I tossed a shelled nut at the fool, but Tova reached out and snagged it from the air. She cracked the shell with the hilt of her blade, and popped the nut onto her tongue.
“Don’t ever be kingly, Kase,” she said. “The kingdom will be dull and I’ll need to stop stealing from him.”
She jabbed her thumb toward Bard Strom. He narrowed his eyes. “What have you stolen from me?”
“Besides your heart? You’ll never know.” Tova fluttered her lashes, more to irritate the man than anything.
Still, Bard’s face heated in a flush of red. They spoke big like this, taunting each other, but I’d yet to see either of them get off their asses and do something about the tension building between them.
Luca snuck another honey cake for Von, giving me a wink when he tried to pretend I didn’t notice. Dagny helped their son sip some of the berry flavored water, and looked around like she might be ready to burst into tears at the sight of royal thieves.
I supposed I understood.
There were moments I didn’t believe we’d ever be here. We’d planned to join our folk in Etta, but Malin’s announcement that a little was coming kept us here.
As much as I enjoyed our Northern friends, I was glad to be here for the first turn after winning the queen’s ring. For too many turns the four regions of the East were hellish slums to me; places where I fought to keep breathing around every damn corner.
This was the first turn we could simply . . . live.
A soft hand covered mine, and the smile curled on my mouth at once. I gripped Malin’s fingers and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand.
She looked at me with glassy eyes. “I keep thinking of the last Jul we had together before the masquerade.”
A memory of the hayloft filtered into my head. From Malin or my own, I was never certain anymore. She could share her thoughts with me so easily with the ring, it was almost like we could become one mind.
The hayloft had been cold that turn, our lantern was our only light, and we’d both given each other stolen gifts.
I’d stolen her a hair pin with a jade stone on the end. She could only wear it in the hayloft since too many folk would notice if the poor girl in the loft wore expensive hair jewels, but she’d slept with it against her chest for weeks.
“You gave me my first candied pear.” My brow furrowed. “Honestly, it was my only candied pear.”
There were no sweets in the Black Palace once I was snatched. And after, delicacies were the last thing on my mind when I was trying to keep a hidden queen hidden and the Kryv alive.
“I know.” Malin grinned and ducked under the table. She returned with a basket. “Now, keep in mind this was my first time trying to make them, but Hob insisted his grandmaj had the best recipe.”
“That she did!” Hob’s voice flowed down the table. He gave me a nod and patted his infant daughter’s back as she slept against his chest.
I gave Malin a quizzical look. “Hob was involved?”
“I take offense to that tone, Nightrender!” Hob huffed and kissed his daughter’s dark head.
To some, I would always be the Nightrender and never ‘King’. Good. I preferred it that way. Except when I wanted the stuffy council to leave me in peace. In those moments, I tossed around titles with ease.
Malin snickered again. There was more color in her cheeks, and she was notably excited. She’d hardly been able to keep food in her belly for weeks. To know she took the time to even make anything for Jul was gift enough.
I lifted the basket lid and grinned. A dozen candied pears glistened in the candlelight. “Mal, you made these?”
“Yes.” She sighed and leaned back. “If you don’t like them, hide your memories from me, and lie horribly. They were a true labor of love to make this first Jul back together something memorable. I didn’t know when I began they took two days for the candied coating to harden. It’s quite testy. A thing you’d think my instructor would tell me.”
“You were fine.” Hob snorted.
“I would not call heaving all day fine.”
“Inge will tell you, I am skilled with expectant women, and was an excellent vomit bowl holder.”
“Please.” Tova held up a hand, the other over her mouth. “Not while we eat, you fool.”
Again, Hob simply shrugged.
I cupped my hand around the back of Malin’s neck and tugged her mouth to mine. I kissed her, unbothered by the audience.
“Thank you,” I whispered against her lips. “I have something for you too.”
My stomach turned to knots, and I waited until easy conversation returned to the others. I didn’t need everyone bleeding watching.
I handed Malin a small box tied in twine. On the top was a roll of parchment, and when she unraveled it, my face heated with embarrassment. Without noting my face, Malin took my hand and squeezed as though she already knew. No mistake, she likely did.
The damn note took longer to write than the whole gift. I kept skipping words, or symbols, or writing too slanted, all to write a few lines telling my wife exactly what I thought of her.
It had the impact I’d hoped. No one but Malin and Lynx knew the depth of my struggle with reading and writing, so like her candied pears the effort was acknowledged when she met my gaze with tears in her eyes.
She kissed me quickly. “I love you too, Nightrender.”
“Open it.” I pointed at the box.
Malin grinned as she tugged the top off the wooden box. A small gasp slipped out of her throat. “Kase.” Gingerly, she touched the charms on new gold chains. More tears welled in her eyes. Admittedly, since she told me she was having our child, Malin hated how tears would spring to her eyes on a whim. But I liked to think these would’ve come either way.
“I thought . . . I thought I’d lost it.” She touched the raven charm I’d carved all those turns ago. Next to it was my rose. Instead of the weak, fading wood, I’d had them dipped in gold. I considered iron for the strength, but gold won out when Tova and Junius had a say.
I helped Malin fasten her new raven around her neck, then kissed her pulse point before pulling away. “You’ve been mine from the beginning, Mallie. You’re mine until the end.”
The Southern Isles
Foreign Dignitary Longhouse
Three hells I enjoyed a good fete. This was a strange turn. Well, in truth, most of my Jul Fetes had been strange.
Born during the Timoran Raids, all we Night Folk could do most turns was sneak a few walnuts to roast, or boiled sweet blossoms for syrups over oat cakes. Then, during the turns in Ruskig, we more drank heaps of ale to keep warm and pounded a few rawhide drums to dance, laugh, or bed folk to help us forget we were starving in a ragged refuge.
Last turn had been the first Jul where it was almost normal. The second turn after the war, in Ravenspire with Night Folk, Ettans, and Timorans as if we’d not been mortal enemies for centuries.
There’d been a fragrant spruce tree, saffron cakes, honey glazes, and peace. Most of all peace.
I hoped they were all doing the same this turn.
I missed my folk, but was not disappointed the way the Southern Isles celebrated. Frey had returned home with the prince, while Stieg and I remained to learn how Bracken and his people hosted their winter revels.
Honey wine and folk tales were passed around a center fire. Seers from the Court of Stars sang ballads of the gods blessing the isles, they recanted poems of the fae folk who’d discovered the hot springs in the Fate’s Ocean and dove inside, only to emerge on the rocky shores of the Court of Blood. There, rivers and springs split, carving out the Mirror Lake which reflected the starlight to three more regions. The people divided into the four courts.
It made little sense, but lore and myths weren’t meant to be logical.
Huldra folk danced with forest fae, regaling the tales of their maidens luring men and women into the trees in tales of old. Lyres and drums brought songs of the sea kings beneath the waves with their courts of water nyks and sirens.
I shuddered. Those were not myths. I’d traveled with a bastard of a sea king beneath the waves to gather the storyteller girl. Thorvald never took me to his kingdom of the Ever, but the way he powered his strange ship through the waves was damp, dark, and disorienting.
I’d stick to land.
Bracken’s court storyteller stepped into the center when sugared cloudberries were passed around and finished the revel with the ghostly tale of how all the ravens disappeared in the South. A fact, I’d noticed over time.
True enough there were no ravens here like there were in Etta. Crows, sparrows, pheasants, they were all accounted for, but no ravens.
“Times of riots, times of chaos,” she’d said, enunciating the words riot and chaos as if we were supposed to take some sort of clue from the words. “These were the days when the lands were divided and the earth swallowed the raven folk, sending them back to the gods as wise counselors and guardians of a world destroyed by anger and greed and those who fought against fate . . .”
More lore, but I’d lost interest in the tale. Ravens unsettled me. And I did not know how to tell the storyteller woman she was wrong. There was a raven in the South. It haunted me, plagued me. After the tale, I was beginning to wonder if I was imagining the beast.
But, no, others had seen the creature. It had pecked at blood fae during the battels of the East, it had led me straight into a bleeding troll burrow.
I’d caught glimpses of the bird here. But the people of the South were bleeding superstitious. No doubt they’d think me cursed if I admitted I was followed by a raven.
“It was an honor to have you with us this turn.” Bracken said, a little slurred as he clapped my back. His pale hair was tousled, and the king fumbled once or twice, drunk on ale before Sofia caught him around the waist.
“All right, My King,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s get you back to the Borough before someone beheads you and takes your throne.”
Bracken laughed and stroked Sofia’s long, auburn hair. “Sof, Sofie, Sof. Have I told you how lovely you look in the moonlight?”
“Many times,” she said with a sigh. “And always when you are drunk with no memory of it in the morning.”
Sofia offered me a small wave before guiding her king toward the mossy wood and wattle royal house on the highest knoll.
I searched the space for Stieg, only to see him chatting rather closely with a forest fae woman with milk blue skin and pale green hair. Best to leave him be. I was content . . . until I drew closer to the longhouse provided us by the Court of Hearts.
The trek turned lonelier and lonelier the nearer I came.
There was once a time when Jul was lively in the Sekundär household. My mother would make it so. She’d dance about, placing crowns of holly and candles on my sisters’ heads, then my father and I would play the gift giver, meager as those gifts were.
As a boy I’d spent weeks before Jul whittling my sisters’ wooden charms for their braids, or dolls, or rough-cut rings.
Old pains dug deep into my chest, bringing me to pause outside the longhouse door. My hand went to my pocket. Perhaps I carved them turn after turn out of nostalgia, or habit, but I palmed the beads meant for a woman’s hair.
No one to claim them, most turns I tossed them into a creek and watched them float away.
I closed my fist tightly, the ache blooming deeper until my blood scorched like poison. I shook away the thoughts and stepped into the quiet longhouse.
Yes, I enjoyed a good Jul revel, but without fail, the nightmares would be fiercest tonight. Times of togetherness always managed to remind me of how very alone I truly was in this damn world.
I dropped my seax onto the center of the table in the hall with a clatter. Bowls and wooden plates rumbled.
A squeak of surprise drew my attention to the inglenook.
I groaned when Saga shot to her feet. Hells, the woman was an annoyance I never wanted to leave. And that annoyed me even more. Why did she need to wear so many clothes that covered the curve of her throat, or the length of her arms, yet they were still fitted enough I could see every bleeding curve?
Why did she need to let her dark hair loose at night?
And why did those damn storm cloud eyes look more like silver when she glared at me with such venom?
I bowed at the waist with condescension. “God Jul, my sweet menace.”
“I didn’t expect you back yet. Or at least not alone.”
“Ah, wondering what things go on in my bed?” I grinned. “I could show you if you beg.”
Saga tilted her head and sneered. “I’d rather pluck off my own fingernails and eat them.”
“So descriptive. I’ll get the plates.”
She let out a sound of frustration. “Gods. I’m going to bed, unless the master is too drunk to make it to his room, in which case I’m still going to bed, but with the added hope you’ll slip on the staircase and tumble all the way down.”
I grinned viciously and trapped her against the wall before she could slip away.
Saga spoke big, but in this moment she looked at me, crowding her, pinning her, with a touch of fear. Maybe something else. I noted how her gaze drifted to my mouth, then back to my eyes. For all I knew she wanted to ram a fire stoker down my throat, but I was just drunk enough to think she might want to taste me more.
“You’d weep, admit it.”
Saga’s breaths deepened. “I’d sob with joy.”
“You know, in old times serfs loved their masters so much when they died, they sacrificed themselves to the gods to join them.” I slid my palm to her throat. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same.”
She stiffened, but the race of her heart was too intoxicating to pull back. Saga narrowed her eyes. “I would not even waste the thought.”
I chuckled, my thumb tugging on her bottom lip. I half expected her to try to bite off the tip, but she drew in a sharp gasp instead. Gods, perhaps I was drunker than I thought because I liked that sound. I thought of all the other places I wouldn’t mind if she made that sound again.
I was pathetic. She was a traitor, a weak-spined woman who stood with corruption, and now she was my servant for a hundred turns.
But despite all that, I would blame the ale until I met the Otherworld as the reason I dug into my trousers and removed the whittled beads. I forced Saga’s soot covered palm open and placed the pretty little things inside, curling her fingers around them.
“For Jul,” I said, voice rough. “Don’t say your master never gave you anything.”
Saga’s brow furrowed when I stepped away. She studied the beads, a little stunned, perhaps disgusted. I didn’t know. I turned and hurried to the stairs.
Halfway up, she spoke, drawing me to a pause.
“You made these?”
“You . . . want me to have them?”
“That is usually the idea behind giving someone something, yes.”
She hesitated. “I will never say this again, Ari, but . . . they’re lovely.”
I made certain I was still turned away so she wouldn’t see the smile twist in the corner of my mouth. I hated her. She despised me. But there was something unspoken between the antagonistic words.
I wouldn’t dwell on it, I wouldn’t even try to break it apart to analyze, I’d simply let it be.
At my door, I paused. There on the floor was a basket of freshly frosted saffron buns with dried currants in the pretty braided knots.
Saga hurried past my door, aimed at the ladder that led to the loft where she slept. She caught my gaze, my arched brow, and frowned. “Don’t think too deeply and hurt your small mind, master. I made them for myself and after I ate my fill there were some leftover.”
“And then simply . . . left them by my door.”
Saga huffed and began to stomp up the ladder pegs. “They are for you and Stieg. Gods. Forget I even tried to be amicable. You’re impossible.”
At that she slammed the hatch to the loft shut on my face, only her heavy steps heard above. I chuckled and picked up the basket, biting into the soft bun.
It was a lonely Jul, but . . . I supposed it had been made slightly better by a reluctant captive who hated me.
I would never tell her.
I hope you enjoyed these scenes from the Broken Kingdoms.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.