The young mother must find more strength than the Lindorm’s to thwart the enemies that seek to destroy their kingdom.
I shook. My body refused to calmly accept this new information.
Rasmus’s stranglehold reduced my voice to a rasp, but I still tried to argue.
“He loves me, Runa. Everyone knows that. Surely even you could see that. He can’t want me dead. It’s not possible.”
“You will either stop speaking that way,” said Runa through clenched teeth. “Or I will strike someone.”
My anger must have burned the boy, because he suddenly squirmed down.
Runa stepped back, her temper instantly under control. “The message had his seal. They checked it with yours. Until we can prove it is some sort of trick, any attempt to argue against his orders will, by definition, be treason.”
“But Tykone won’t let anyone hurt us, and even Rickard has sworn loyalty to my husband by now.”
Runa grabbed my fluttering hand and caged it like a butterfly between her own.
“At this very moment destroying you is going to be Rickard’s deepest test of obedience. He will not fail.”
Somehow this didn’t seem any worse than what we already knew. I always understood Rickard didn’t see me as a real person.
“Then what do you suggest we do, Runa?”
“I suggest you get out of the castle and keep yourself and both boys out of harm’s way. Aren’t there plenty of stories about people surviving in the woods for weeks or even months or years?”
“I don’t remember any of the people in the stories having small children,” I said doubtfully, watching Rasmus wander over to Hale, who’d fallen asleep on the carpet in front of the fire.
“We’ll pack provisions for you, then, and just bolt.”
Rasmus squatted next to his brother’s head and pet Hale’s curls off his ruddy face. I didn’t find it comforting. Hated how my attention felt divided, diluted between Runa and the boys. Something wasn’t right.
“The soldiers continue to check in each hour,” I reminded her. “They’ve been more apologetic each time, but they’ve been consistent since the seal was confirmed as genuine.”
“I’m certain your stepmother is behind it all,” said Runa. It was like a physical blow.
“But-but I was so sure she had changed.”
Hale screamed, and I looked back in time to see Rasmus lifting his foot to stomp on his brother.
“No!” I shouted helplessly, limping forward too slowly as Rasmus’s little foot clomped down once more. Hale screamed and curled around his tummy defensively, then Runa was suddenly there, scooping Rasmus from his place of power and pushing aside his long hair to whisper something in his ear.
The little boy screamed, then cried and nodded.
“You didn’t want to believe it was your husband changing,” said Runa, setting Rasmus back on the rug as though nothing happened. “Why couldn’t it be your stepmother staying the same?”
I pulled Hale into my lap and sat on the hearth by the low fire.
“I wanted to believe she could change…”
Runa jammed her hands onto her hips.
“People don’t change, Linnea. Look at me. I don’t change. I can’t change. When have I really cared about anyone?”
“So you concern yourself with my wellbeing only out of duty? Of duty toward your step-sister and defiance of our future king?”
Runa hesitated only moment, then sat beside me, handing me a handkerchief.
“It’s not in me to care.”
I blew my nose and nodded, not caring what made sense anymore.
“And yet you risked your life for Celia,” I pointed out. “When you could have reasoned she wanted to leave.”
Runa shrugged and looked away, but I let go of Hale to catch Runa’s chin, making the beautiful girl look at me again.
“Tykone told me it was the first time he noticed a spark of feeling in you, and thought you might be human after all.
She jerked away.
“Why wouldn’t I be human?”
“Oh, don’t let it disturb you,” I patted Runa’s white hand. “It’s only what you’ve said yourself. You hold so much of yourself where others can’t see you. But we both saw your love for Celia that night. And I can see we’re precious to you, too.”
Runa pulled her chin out of my soft hold. “I will be back for you as soon as the next watch has passed.”
~ ~ ~
Mere hours later I looked wonderingly at Runa as we walked together through the neglected homestead where I had grown up. Hale was hard asleep, his cheek plump on Runa’s shoulder and his lips pursed in complete relaxation. I noticed a tiny tear run down Runa’s marble cheek and felt a melancholy contentment.
Runa wasn’t the only one who liked being right. I enjoyed knowing she cared, even if she couldn’t see it yet.
Before I could suggest the idea of a hug, Runa stopped between my father’s grave and the trees.
Here an unfamiliar horse waited. A bundle was arranged all along the length of his back, with a blanket thrown over all to provide a seat. Looking at the unaccustomed height and massive build of the draft horse, I took a deep breath and shifted Rasmus to one arm so I could catch at the horse’s bridle. My confidence grew when he didn’t shy away.
“Wait,” said Runa. Her voice in the dimness made me jump. “Before you mount, let’s wrap Hale on your back. That will give you only one boy to maintain with your arms, along with the reins.”
“Very sensible,” I murmured. “Other than the mounting part. You’ve made sure we won’t starve, Runa, but how in all the forest am I going to climb that mountain?”
The brush just inside the trees began to stir and I huddled closer to the suddenly comforting mass of the horse.
The shape became recognizable as Henricke, the king’s old steward. Rasmus waved shyly, his head still on my shoulder, and the grey-haired man waved back, the infantile finger-curling incongruous next to his large belly. His eyes were on me.
“Will your highness be going for a ride on such a stormy night? There is a fair danger one could get lost in the coming storm.” His voice was as unjudgmentally bland as ever, and I couldn’t decide whether it contained a threat.
Rasmus wiggled in my arms and I set him down before I noticed I had.
The boy wobbled on sleepy legs toward steward. My hand fell instinctively to my belt, and I paled, remembering again why my magical knife was gone. I couldn’t believe my husband would want me dead, but I was sure I deserved it for losing Celia.
Only the boys shouldn’t be punished as well. That was fully unreasonable.
Looking up, I watched with clenched fists as the man squatted slowly and lifted Rasmus into a hug, resting their round bellies together.
“Well, frejan,” he said, speaking to Rasmus with respect, “I’m glad you told me you were leaving bye-gone with your new mama. There are a lot of people who would have been very happy for you to share that with them. To their shame they might have made it harder for you all.”
“So you are not one of them?” asked Runa, her voice hard.
“Surely you’ve guessed I’m not.” He looked at Runa for the first time. “But of any here you’re the one who should be worried about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Runa stood straighter. “I know how to keep my mouth shut.”
“Unless you are asked by your mother. Then you seem uncommonly willing to speak.”
“I only answer what she asks.”
“And do whatever she asks.”
Runa pressed her lips into a line.
“Hmm. Yes, well, I’ll not press the matter now,” said Henricke. “Other than to advise you to keep as far from her as possible. And please, as a favor to me, verify Linnea has her husband’s ring.” Runa paled in the late-setting light of the summer night, but nodded.
Henricke petted Rasmus’s smooth dark hair with his enormous hand. “Go on and help the princess with her back-rider. I’ll keep this one comfortable until you’re ready for him.”
As the Runa began wrapping Hale in his place, Henricke continued to talk.
“Best get as far as you can, this ride,” he said briskly, his voice losing its familiar languid rhythm. “If you take my advice you’ll just have the two boys ride after that. I’ve no idea how you’ll remount that behemoth. You might even have better control on foot. My hope is after this night of riding you’ll have enough ground covered to feel safer, and walking won’t frighten you as much.”
Henricke gestured to the provisions padding the broad back. “Should be enough in there to hold you till you find some settlement far enough off that they haven’t heard the she-worm’s attack on your honor. I pray you’ll find help enough there until I can learn the true state of things back home.
“Once the king’s back you can return home. He’s less married to the letter of the law than the queen herself. She’s known too much chaos to let laws have exceptions.
“I gave you enough to survive for weeks,” said Runa, obviously feeling usurped. “If you’ll listen to my advice you won’t seek safety with people at all. I’ll believe anything when it comes to your stepmother, and you’ll have to admit you’re no great discerner of character.”
I tucked my chin, feeling as though I’d just been struck.
Henricke passed Rasmus into Runa’s reluctant arms. Linking his fingers beside the horse he bent his knees to offer me a step up. Hesitating only a moment I set my bare left foot in his warm hands.
Pressing my weight into the laced fingers, I threw myself gracelessly onto the wide back in front of me.
Once settled, I reached for the dark haired boy and situated him facing me, his skinny legs wrapped around my waist.
“Runa,” I said, ignoring Henricke as he tugged a blanket from the pack. “Have you included a knife in the pack?” Henricke opened the blanket and stood on tiptoe to throw it around Rasmus.
The old man’s eyes were bright.
“That boy deserves a good mother,” he said. “Sanna should be thankful to you.”
As I turned to him my throat nearly clogged with tears. “I suppose she’d appreciate the effort we are taking to show the boy a bit of variety in the scenery.”
Henricke patted my bare foot.
“It won’t be the first time. God willing it will be the last, but for the trip home.”
I touched Runa’s perfectly smooth hair and tried to laugh.
“Here is my heart– so full and with no words to empty it.” I wiped my face on the handkerchief Runa offered and turned to stare into the dimness under the trees. “So much to decide,” I whispered, then took a deep breath. “And no one left to tell me what to do.”