Haunted scenes from The Ever Sea and The Broken Kingdoms
On Haunted Tides
Enthusiastic drums boomed from somewhere in the center of the royal city. Folk were celebrating the first full move of the Haunt, an eerie tradition amongst the sea folk where lore said the trickiest of creatures emerged from the hellish pits to scheme and taunt the gods.
Sometimes on their way to frighten the deities, they’d join the folk of the sea in festivals by leaving sweets when a child played the cleverest trick on a playmate. Sometimes they’d indulge the folk in a night of haunts and games that left the people across the Ever jumping in fright and laughter.
Most attended to see which had the boldest of hearts and could face their fears for the whole of a clock chime.
It was a stupid festival.
Still, I told Alistair to see to it the celebration went on. I supposed the first Haunt after the war was something the old git insisted the Ever needed—some gods-awful speech about morale and unity.
I rolled my eyes and rolled over onto one shoulder on my too-large bed. How many damn lovers had my daj had in here when he wore the crown to insist upon such a massive bed.
I punched and puffed one of the smooth sea moss pillows until it bunched under my head.
Alistair said I ought to attend the festival. I was king, after all.
Why would I want to go? To sit on the bleeding throne while everyone gawked at me? While they wondered if my scars got any worse after fighting the earth fae? Well, they did. A few rogue strikes left a few new marks.
Besides, it wasn’t as though anyone would really notice my absence.
Not that it bothered me. Why would it? My people needed to respect me, they needed to fear what might be if they disobeyed their young king.
They didn’t . . . well, they didn’t need to . . . like me. I didn’t want them to, of course.
I was used to not being liked. It was fine. Expected. It was comfortable that way, not needing anyone. It hurt a lot less.
The uncomfortable, horribly aggravating, pang of longing pinched my chest. I rubbed a palm over my heart. The pressure didn’t ease. Foolish to think it would, nothing ever eased the sensation until I went through my ridiculous ritual.
With a heavy sigh, I tugged on the scratchy twine that irritated the scars on the back of my neck and palmed the silver swallow charm.
Like always, my thumb traced the edges of the wings, the forked tailfeathers, the point of the beak. Then, I dragged my fingers over the smooth surface of the charm as a whole.
Did earth fae have a Haunt season?
Did the little songbird laugh and dance and get a sour stomach with too much icing and sweets?
Would she have spun and laughed with me if I’d . . . if I’d stayed?
I flipped over onto my back, letting the swallow fall onto my chest. Why did I even let my thoughts spin like this? If I’d stayed, I would need to kill her daj. I wouldn’t be a true Ever King until I did, and the little songbird would hate me anyway.
Stupid to wonder what she was doing.
Stupid to wonder if she wondered about me.
I closed my eyes and smashed the pillow over my face, all at once desperate to drown out the noise of the festival where no songbird waited to laugh and dance with me. There was no songbird down there who cared if the Ever King was there.
A cold, steady drip of icy water spilled onto my cheek.
Somewhere in my pathetic musings I must’ve fallen asleep. The pillow had slid off my face, and the moonlight was cast at a new angle in my bedchamber.
Another drop of water cascaded down my cheek. I wiped it away, only to meet a dark figure hovering close over the edge of my bed, a dagger leveled to plunge into my chest.
I blew out my lips. “You do this so much, if there ever comes a day when you actually want to assassinate me, I won’t believe you.”
Gavyn chuckled and lowered his dagger, stepping into the light. Water dripped off his cheeks from his tide-shifting. “Maybe that’s my plan, you sod. Get you comfortable, then take your crown.”
“Good plan.” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and sat up against the back of the bed. “Until the crown of the Ever scalds the flesh off your skull.”
“Come on, I’ve got to live up to the reputation Lord Joron keeps spreading about seekers. What was the last mention he made at council? ‘My glorious king, do forgive me for abandoning you in the war, but I have pressing matters at hand,’” Gavyn drawled in a pretentious tone, mimicking the lord over the House of Tides to near perfection. “‘It must be of utmost importance in our weakened state to see to it these rumors of seeker blood is quashed. We cannot afford another dead Ever King.’”
I fought to hide the smile on my lips. “As if that bastard wouldn’t hire you to slit my throat for himself.”
“Probably would. Maybe I ought to spill my little secret. Might be lucrative.” Gavyn snorted, but his face sobered. “Did you hear he’s training his daughter to be a Tidetaster?”
“Joron cares enough about his girl to train a new piece of her voice?”
Lord Joron was unashamed to show how greatly he thought the men of the Ever as superior. It was almost humorous, like the goddesses of the sea wanted to prove him wrong by only supplying him with female heirs.
“Seems he doesn’t have a choice,” Gavyn said. “If she actually acquires the voice, she’ll be able to find me out.”
I arched a brow. Tidetasting was an extinct voice, or so I thought. The ability to taste and track magical voices of other sea fae. Almost as formidable as a seeker like Gavyn. If Joron’s daughter learned the gift, then tracked him, his secret would be out.
She could always find him, kill him, or expose the treason of the rest of his family for simply being alive.
“You’re really worried?” I asked.
Gavyn paused for a few breaths, raking his fingers through his messy, dark hair. After a moment, he shrugged. “Not tonight, I’m not.” He smacked my leg this time. “Get up. I was instructed to get you. We’re going to celebrate Haunt.”
“No.” I sank back into the finely spun kelp satin on the pillows. “That is the last thing I want to do.”
“Not with all those asses in the city.” He used his thumb to gesture over his shoulder toward the festival. “You’re coming with me. I have it on good authority there is a cave that is said to be the opening to the hells corridor. I’ve been given a challenge to step foot inside without fear, and you know I don’t back down from a challenge.”
“Then go on your own.”
“No.” Gavyn tugged on the ankle of my sore leg. “You can’t keep holed up in the palace.”
“I am king, I can do as I please.”
He ignored me, and tossed my discarded boots at my chest, forcing me to snap upright with a grunt.
“You survived a war, Erik. You rule the Ever too much on your own. Never forget I am your elder—”
“By mere months, you sod.”
“As your elder,” he went on, “I know we impressive, young rulers of the world must still breathe real air beyond tedious council and judgment from those ancient bastards who secretly plot our deaths in their dreams. You need to sail. Feel the sea.”
“You’re not my damn nursemaid.” I kicked at him when he reached for my ankle again.
“No, but I am your friend.”
The word stuttered against me. I’d known Gavyn since before his world was shattered when he lost his mother, before the wars of earth fae, before he was the lord over the House of Bones. I’d known him from the earliest days of my own father’s hatred.
As though the gods knew a lonely prince might need a companion, he’d arrived in the lower coves, catching me in tears over a mother I’d never see again.
He told me to keep his ability a secret. I told him to do the same when I fessed up about what my blood had done.
We’d found old driftwood sticks, and battled like we were fierce privateers against enemies deep in the far seas.
I trusted Gavyn, but had I ever allowed the word friend to cross my mind?
It was a strange feeling, almost as fierce as the night the little songbird insisted we could be friends like the creatures in her altered tale.
Friends. Perhaps . . . perhaps he was a friend.
I’d keep the truth of it private. No mistake, friendship would qualify as one of those things Harald and my father insisted destroyed an Ever King. Without responding to Gavyn’s proclamation, I let out a groan, and rose from the bed.
“Fine,” I grumbled, hopping into my boots one by one. “If it’ll rid me of you sooner rather than later, I will go to this cave.”
He grinned, wide and white. “I have a feeling you’re going to be pissing your trousers before me, My King.”
They brought Tait.
Gods. It was all part of Gavyn’s wicked plan to restore whatever infantile bonds he thought Tait and I ought to have as blood cousins.
They were gone. Destroyed. Finished. We were family, but it meant little. Tait hated me. I hated him. I did. I was certain of it, and it didn’t matter if I had to remind myself of my hatred day after day to avoid forgetting.
Not to mention, the sod kept looking at me with an inquisitive brow arched on his stupid face. Like he knew things. Like he knew the truth about what happened to Harald in the earth realms during the war.
Like he knew his father’s slashed throat only came after poison had clotted my uncle’s veins.
Let him wonder—hells let him know the truth. I didn’t kill Harald because he beat Tait daily. I killed my uncle because I hated him more than I hated my cousin. Obviously. I didn’t care if Tait was beaten, and I kept telling myself the same thing until the hull of the skiff dragged across the dark stones of the isle just off the coast of the royal city.
Celine gasped like a stupid, frightened girl. Hells, she was supposed to begin sailing on the Ever Ship now that I was tall enough to handle the helm, and if she was bleeding gasping at a cave, I’d tuck her into the hull hatch, far from the others.
I rolled my eyes, then bit down on my own gasp before I let it slip when I faced the shore.
“What is this place? I’ve never seen it.”
“Because it’s haunted.” Gavyn wiggled his fingers in front of his sister’s face, chuckling when another squeak slid from her throat.
It was almost . . . nice to see them taunt each other. Within the gates of the royal city they didn’t acknowledge the others’ existence.
“Come on,” Gavyn said, nudging my arm. “Whoever lasts the longest gets a prize.”
“What’s the prize?”
“Daj said it’s a surprise, meaning it’s a surprise,” Celine said, as if I were the most foolish boy in the sea.
“Watch the tone, Celine,” I said. “I’m your captain.”
“And?” One brow lifted. “You’re also my king, and Gavyn’s a house lord. Hasn’t stopped me from telling the lot of you that you’re fools.”
“Moon lights the way, Tidelings.” Sewell abandoned the helm, adjusting the leather tricorn atop his head. His words were coming clearer with each turn, and we’d begun to understand his new way of speaking fine enough.
Based on the gesture toward the gangplank, he was telling us it was time to disembark.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Tait asked, voice soft.
“Come on, Heartwalker.” Gavyn shook Tait’s shoulders before descending onto the shore. “Nothing’s really in there.”
I followed Gavyn, sparing my cousin a narrowed glare when I passed by. We’d been captured by the earth fae together, but had never spoken of the war.
Truth be told, I wasn’t certain my cousin was the same since we’d been banished through the Chasm.
Either he hated me more than he had, or . . . he seemed more concerned about me losing my head now that Harald was gone.
“The meeting post greets at the next chime,” Sewell told Celine.
“We’ll be here in a chime.” Celine spoke in a whisper. “You’ll come find us if . . . if we don’t?”
He chuckled and cupped her cheek. “Never doubt, Thunderfish.”
An ache bloomed in my chest. Sewell meant he’d always be there, and he’d never fail to be. Sewell was always formidable on the sea, fearsome, brutal. He was a man of power once, yet gentle to a skiff full of littles.
Perhaps that was how a man of power could be? To see him treat us kindly didn’t lessen what I knew of Sewell. It didn’t make me see him as weak, like Harald said gentility caused. I still knew, should something threaten any one of us, Sewell would peel the flesh from bones for our sakes.
It didn’t fit in the life I was supposed to lead, and I didn’t understand it. I chose not to. All I had to do was appease Gavyn, get through a chime of the Haunt, then I could return to my chamber. Alone. Always alone.
The cave was mammoth, a set of gaping jaws of some surfaced creature waiting to devour us in one bite. Low tides flowed in, then out to the sea, as though the cave were breathing, drawing in, then out.
Unbidden, Celine grabbed onto Gavyn’s arm, clinging tight enough he had to demand she recoil her fingernails before she drew blood.
I couldn’t resist, almost like an instinct, I poked her in the side so she shrieked.
An odd laugh escaped, almost light, mostly unnatural. “What’s wrong, Celine? Afraid of a cave.”
“No.” Yet, her grip tightened on Gavyn’s arm again.
“Do we—” Tait cleared his throat. “I mean, do we get torches or anything?”
“Afraid, cousin?” I sneered.
He narrowed his eyes. “No, just don’t know what the point of this is if we can’t see nothing.”
“You’re all a bunch of sods,” Gavyn said, grinning. “All of you, pissing in your trousers, and won’t even admit . . .”
Gavyn’s voice cut off when we crossed the threshold of the cave. A howl echoed through the chambers, snaking down the throat until it faded.
Celine squeaked and buried her face into Gavyn’s arm.
My palms were sticky with sweat, but with Tait still standing upright and not fleeing out to the shore, there wasn’t a chance in the hells I was going to show it.
“Come on,” Gavyn said, the slightest of trembles to his voice. “Let’s, uh, let’s keep going. This is the game of the Haunt. We . . . we can do it.”
Outlast a chime facing a fear. The whole purpose of the Haunt was to force folk to face the things that prickled their skin, that raced their pulse. To see how long they could look fear in the eyes and come out upright.
Most often the sea witches played along, casting spells and tricks during the festival.
This was simply us refusing to admit the lot of us feared the dark.
“See anything?” Celine’s rough whisper rattled across the dripping top of the cave after a few more steps.
“Nothing,” I returned. “How far do we go?”
“I don’t know,” Gavyn admitted.
“Then, let’s stop here,” Tait hissed.
“No,” I said. “We have to at least go a little—”
How far I’d planned to tell him never came. My voice choked in the back of my throat like a clod of soil when a spitting, thrashing kind of snarl rumbled from the belly of the cave. In the next breath, a flash of poisonous blue ignited the darkness in a frenzy of fluorescent colors.
“Jormungandr!” Celine screamed.
The hinges of my jaw loosened and my mouth gaped at the sight.
There, slithering up from the darkness, was a thick, black serpent. His head was ridged in spiked scales, a tongue, forked, and as red as the freshest blood, and his eyes pulsed in a sickly yellow. From the curved fangs over his thick lip, drips of wet venom plopped like rain onto the cavern floor.
Bravery, an attribute of an Ever King. Boldness, a quality the king should never shake.
I could not find either.
In time with the other three, I let out a fearful cry, froze for a breath, then another, until I reeled around on my heel and raced for the entrance of the cave. My leg protested by spouting fire through my weaker bones, but I didn’t stop.
Pain would be a small price to pay to keep my head from being torn off by a massive sea serpent.
Celine had the lead, her hand locked with Gavyn’s.
Tait stumbled. I caught him under his arm and limped him out with me. I certainly ignored his mumbled thanks, and merely gripped him tighter. For a moment, I knew to the core of my bones, I was not ready to lose the last of my blood family.
Another roar from the fearsome snake drew out more of our screams, and they didn’t fade until we raced straight into the tides. We didn’t even stop to find where Sewell had taken the skiff.
Only once we found a small lip of the isle where we could hide from the cave did we slow our swim.
When the roars faded, when I peeked around the sandy bank and saw a dull cave (one that all at once seemed much smaller) I let out a shaky laugh.
“Gone.” I faced the others, a smile of relief on my face. “You about soiled yourself, Gavyn.”
“Me?” He cupped a handful of water in his palms and tossed it in my face.
“Bastard.” I didn’t even touch the water, simply opened my palm and laughed, a true laugh, when a rolling wave covered his head.
Celine tossed water at Tait. A small, cautious grin crossed my cousin’s constantly burdened expression when he dunked her whole head under the tides. She spluttered and gasped, cursing his name. Tait’s eyes widened in a bit of fear when Celine lunged on his back and tugged at Tait’s hair until he toppled under the water.
I wasn’t certain when the fear left and fun took hold, but I was too lost in the first, true moment of freedom since the war, too focused on not caring that I was supposed to be indifferent to the lot of them, too focused on laughing and tossing the tides about, I didn’t notice Sewell’s skiff near the cove with the monstrous cave.
There was no attention to the wooden box laden in sweets and gifts like new whittling knives for me, Tait, and Gavyn, and a new pearl necklace for Celine.
I didn’t notice the way he grinned at the sea witch on the shore. I was too lost in the first night of amusement since a battle upended the Ever.
In truth, splashing in the tides left none of us to take note of Lady Narza as she bid Sewell farewell, nor the small wooden figure of Jormungandr in her hands, or the few herbs for a haunted spell cast.
Nor did I see the lingering look she had for the young Ever King she had never truly been given the opportunity to know.
For a moment, all I noticed was how light, how free, my heart was for the first time since the Chasm locked us beneath the waves.
Haunts of Hus Rose
***This scene takes place after the final book in the Broken Kingdoms, Song of Sorrows and Fate. I’ve tried hard not to give spoilers of events, but some characters you will see are not revealed until later books in the series, aka the Phantom from book 8 & 9. If you’d rather not know his name, or anything about the final books, including the children of our main couples, consider not reading this scene until you finish.
If you don’t care or have already finished, well then, happy reading***
“They say old haunts of every kingdom keep to these walls.” Halvar was making quite a show of raising the hair on the arms of our little royals. Perhaps, he was doing it because his daughters were tossed in the mix and he rather enjoyed when his littlest clung to his leg. “Calista will tell you. The haunts are left from the kingdom of her daj, the last fate king.”
When the big, glossy eyes of the littles spun to face me, I wiggled my brows. “Well, it’s true. They say a haunt from every realm needed to be left in Hus Rose, so we could find our way back to the first kingdom. But they must be trapped and bound when they’re released, or they will continue to bring havoc. The fates demand it.”
“Is there . . . is there a story here?” Mira whispered. The girl had the tendency to fret like Saga, but there was a touch of brazen fearlessness like Ari in her too.
“Oh yes.” I tapped the tip of her nose. “And it leads to you littles. We have fought our battle, now the Norns have need of your bravery to face their runaway haunts.”
After the battle of the sea, I began to take great care in using the power to twist fate. In truth, I practically avoided it.
The last time I’d truly began a tale of fate, it shattered our kingdoms, healed a great many hearts, broke more, and brought us to a battle of worlds.
I’d rather pretend the Norns had died in the fight.
Still, the little royals took fierce stock in any word or tale of fate that spilled out of my mouth.
“What . . . what kind of haunts, Auntie Cal?” Livia slowly backed into Alek’s side and snatched hold of her cousin’s hand until her knuckles went white.
“Haunts like . . . Mares.” I jumped at Mira and Aesir, Halvar’s only son.
Mira stumbled against Aesir. The boy tried to be Rave like his father, but he fumbled on his feet and nearly fell backward.
“Or maybe Fafnir, the dragon,” I barked at Jonas and Sander. In the same breath, both thieving little princes’ darkened their eyes to the glossy black of their nightmare mesmer.
“I’m not scared of dragons,” Jonas grumbled, smoothing his tunic.
“Oh, really?” I opened my arm toward the main door of Hus Rose. “Well then, little shadow prince, perhaps you ought to lead.”
Jonas’s face paled for half a breath. Soon enough he sniffed, and lifted his chin, blowing out his lips. “Fine with me, Auntie Cal.”
Jonas shook out his hands and took a step toward the door. “You coming, Sandy?”
“Don’t call me Sandy.” Sander followed his brother, eyes coated black as a raven’s wing, and glanced about.
One by one, the small group of littles followed.
Livia was pressed close to Aleksi, holding his hand on one side, and clasping tightly to Mira’s on her other.
Now that Halvar had stepped back, his daughters were clinging to their older brother. Frigg, the daughter of the trickster Hob, was in the huddle, pretending like Jonas and Sander couldn’t see her quivering.
On the next step, the doors burst open, drawing out a chorus of shrieks and wails.
“Don’t go in there!” Metta screeched. Herja and Hagen’s youngest girl had pleaded, practically on her knees, to finally be included as one of the older royals, and not be grouped with the littles.
Her cousins watched in terror as she fled toward the back courts of the new fort we’d shaped from Hus Rose.
I bit down on the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing as Jonas hesitated. The boy rolled his shoulders, clapped his twin on the back, and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
Halvar followed me into the wide front hall behind the littles, a grin on his face. A fierce gust of wind slammed the doors at our backs. More screams, more bouncing on toes seeking out the haunt responsible.
An eerie laugh echoed through the halls. Mira clapped her small palms over her eyes. Aleksi tried to step in front of Livia, but they both ended with their arms wrapped around each other, glancing side to side.
“What is it?” Jonas’s voice had gone soft as a hiss on the wind.
“Don’t see nothin’,” Sander returned.
“The haunts are out tonight,” Halvar said, leaning over his knees. “All right, we need to see. Shall we see if the friendlier of tricksters are willing to give us a bit of light?”
“Yes.” Jonas said swiftly. He cleared his throat and swung his arms back and forth as though at ease. “I mean, if everyone wants to.”
“The way to speak to them is by clapping your hands no less than a dozen times, then shouting, pyre!” Halvar said with a low timbre. “Ready?”
It took little convincing in the dim hall to get every little clapping with such a frenzy I thought they might end up with bruises on their palms, then in sporadic voices, like rain beating across the stone floor, they shouted, “Pyre!”
One breath, two. Another haunting sort of laugh, followed by a rush of wind, ran through the corridor.
The littles were too frightened, of course, they missed the snort of a laugh from the room adjacent to the hall and Tor’s low hiss of, “Stieg, shut it.”
The warrior was wholly amused with his air fury and his random gusts, clearly.
Across the sconces in the hall, blue flames burst to life. Gasps ran through the littles.
“Looks like Daj’s pyre,” Aleksi whispered to his cousin. “We’ll be all right.”
Together the littles progressed toward one of the far corridors where Tor had positioned his pyre fury to light the way. They trudged up the staircase, groans of the wooden steps underfoot left the littles quivering like the tiny mice in the fields.
Once they reached an upper corridor, lined with old paintings of the world before the kingdoms shattered, they’d grown lax in their fear. Enough time had gone by, their guards were down.
Halvar slowly tapped on the wall, unnoticed by anyone but those who knew to watch for it.
“See,” Jonas said, with a bit of haughtiness. “We’re just fine and—”
The walls bulged and horrid groans rolled from behind every portrait. Rivers painted on the canvas dribbled as though the paintings were sobbing. Sconces rattled, the flames on the candlesticks burst like beams toward the ceiling.
The little screamed as shadows wrapped around them as though darkness were a new layer of skin.
“Daj!” Sander shrieked. “Is that Daj?”
“Daj can’t make the walls explode!” Jonas shouted back.
“Clear out the haunts. How do we clear ‘em out,” cried Livia.
“Spin around four times,” Halvar insisted, demonstrating. “Arms in the air. Spin, hurry, hurry.”
Squeals of fright rolled through the halls, but slowly the shifting walls, the weeping portraits, the shadows crept back until no hint of them were left.
Frigg had practically leapt into Aesir’s arms along with his sisters. Mira and Livia throttled each other in a horrified embrace while Aleksi, Jonas, and Sander kept glancing at each other. Doubtless to test who was bravest.
“Well done.” Halvar swiped a hand dramatically over his brow. “That’s two spaces cleared.”
“I don’t like it,” Livia insisted, rubbing the spot on her forearm just below her elbow, as though it ached.
“Almost through, Livie,” Jonas said, but he wasn’t looking at the Night Folk princess. He cautiously peeked around the only open doorway leading into Silas’s old music chamber before we left for Kunglig. “I think . . . I think we need to go in here.”
“Auntie Cal?” Mira asked.
For no reason, other than I enjoyed playing a role like the irritating antics of Forbi and her rune seer sisters, I closed my eyes and hummed.
Maybe my shoulders twitched for good measure.
“The Norns have need of you inside the room.”
The little royals were low now, creeping like haunts of their own, and made their way into the dust coated room. Once everyone was across the threshold the games began.
The caw of a raven had everyone but Mira screaming.
“Maj?” she whimpered, but Saga never showed.
“Could it be the All Father’s ravens?” Halvar asked. “Have we crossed into a dark realm of the gods on the night of haunts?”
“No,” Frigg whimpered and shielded her eyes as though the sun shone against her.
The floor shuddered. The littles screamed and scattered. Rumbles of the earth were added upon when the wooden shutters over the windows slapped and slammed against Hus Rose. Overhead came a black cloud of creeping things.
“What are those?” Sander cried.
“Web weavers.” Livia sobbed and pointed to the scattering horde of screeching and hissing weavers.
At the far end of the room a door flung open with shadows coiled around the knob.
“Run!” Aleksi cried out. Web weavers, trembling floors, and slamming windows—it took no convincing at all to get the littles to race for the far room.
I couldn’t keep the laugh in, watching them fight to be bold, to be brave and clear out the haunts of Hus Rose. But there was a bit of delight knowing they would end it now with something we all prayed would lighten their young hearts.
They’d already seen too much with the war and loss of many we loved. This could be the first night since the barriers went up against the sea folk and the Chasm that we’d reunited for nothing more than . . . enjoyment.
I wasn’t certain we all knew how to do it, we’d been living in a constant state of battle and war for so long, but this moment—seeing how our little royals banded together—and knowing what awaited them, it was worth it all.
Jonas, frightened as he was, had a bold heart and stopped at the open doorway. “Livie, Mira, Frigg, girls!” He reached for all the little girls. “Go first.”
My Shadow King might even crack a smile knowing his boy didn’t save himself first.
The girls scrambled into the room, the boys next. Halvar and I followed. Like before when everyone was in the room, the door slammed at our backs. This time there were no more haunts. The dimmed candles flickered back to life, but shadows remained in every corner.
Only in the center did the darkness truly fade, revealing the most stunning of kings.
Silas grinned at the littles, hands clasped behind his back, no mask hiding the scar down his face.
“Uncle Silas,” Mira said, a little breathless. “Did we get the haunts?”
My Whisper flicked his gaze to me and winked, then faced the littles again. “I think you did. What a relief. I lived in Hus Rose for so many turns, and now because of you lot it feels like home again. As a reward, I think you’ve earned the sweets of the haunt.”
Shadows recoiled like dark, misty serpents until they were fully absorbed into the Shadow King who stood on one side of the room. Malin was at his side, a canvas pack stuffed to the brim with sweet things in her arms.
“Daj! Maj!” the twins cried and rushed for their parents. “Is all that for us?”
Kase, brow arched, smirked down at his sons. “No, it’s for me.”
He snatched the pack from his queen, nearly grinning in earnest when his boys, Frigg, and every one of Halvar’s daughters protested and tried to attack the Nightrender.
The ground rumbled, drawing out more screams, until the door opened and Elise shoved Valen inside, laughing.
Livia let her head fall back and grunted in frustration. “Daj. All that was you?”
“You were fierce, little love.”
“Was not,” she grumbled. “I thought the hells were gonna swallow us up.”
“But was the haunt fun? Even a little.”
Livia cracked a smile. “I s’pose.”
Valen scooped his girl up and slung her over his shoulder, reveling in her laughter. Elise rocked baby Rorik in her arms, grinning as the walls began to groan and bulge again.
This time, Mira wasn’t fooled. She huffed, crossing her slender arms over her chest. “Daj. I know it’s you.”
Ari and Saga stepped into the room. Saga had a robe wrapped around her body, and her hair was wild from her raven shift. They laughed and took Mira’s hand, leading her to Malin who’d begun to hand out parchment-wrapped ice cakes, and honey sweets and toffee creams.
The last to arrive were Sol and Tor and Stieg.
Aleksi poked Tor in the ribs. “I knew that was your pyre, Daj.”
“Oh, did you?” Sol ruffled their son’s hair and hooked an arm around Alek’s neck, holding him close to his side.
“Yes.” Aleksi insisted, voice muffled against his father’s body. “And the wind was . . . it was Stieg.”
“Wise boy, that one.”
When each little had stuffed their mouths with at least one sweet, Metta and Dain entered and frowned, insisting Herja and Hagen had just set out a feast for the season of Haunts, and Lilianna would certainly be annoyed if everyone spoiled their appetites with cakes and candies.
The children squealed and ran off for the great hall of the new fort once it was promised they’d all get to sleep on furs near the inglenook and hear ghost stories from Arvad until the moon was highest.
I slipped my arm around Silas’s waist. He pressed a kiss to my brow. “Did we pull off our first Haunt, Little Rose?”
I tilted my face to his. “I think we did, Whisper.”
“It feels . . . good,” he said softly. “I don’t know how to explain it, but all these months I’ve still been on edge waiting for something to happen, some battle to rise again.”
“I know what you mean.” All my life it felt as though I’d been fighting my way to Silas and our life together. We had yet to grow accustomed to this new peace.
“But tonight,” he went on, tightening his hold on my waist. “Tonight it doesn’t feel that way. It finally feels . . . simple.”
I went onto my toes and kissed him long enough Mira made a hacking noise at the sight of it. Let her make fun. Silas was right. Tonight, screams, tricks, scares, and all, it was simple.
It was perfect.