â€œWe canâ€™t actually take the cart, you know?â€ Karen said. It was a couple of hours later and she and Eyvindr finally seemed to be back to normal, though both were still shivering.
â€œI guess not.â€ Lydia looked at the cart and the pony grazing placidly beside it. â€œWe were hidden in the back before. Weâ€™d stick out like a sore thumb on the roads-â€ She stopped as Eyvindr laughed. â€œWhat?â€
â€œSorry, your idioms are strange.â€ He looked at the wagon speculatively. â€œIâ€™d offer to drive, but an alf in resting form driving a cart would attract almost as much attention as three humans doing so.â€ He fingered a lock of his silky blonde hair as he spoke. â€œKorrig said you were going after the Light bracelet?â€
â€œWe are,â€ Lydia replied. â€œDo you know where it is?â€
â€œNot precisely, no. But I know where we can find out. The Core gave it to the Mountain King to guard.â€
â€œWell, thatâ€™s not good,â€ Kimi said. Sheâ€™d returned to her leopard form and was lounging on one of the ice boulders. â€œThatâ€™s not good at all. I mean it could be worse, Queen Valeria could have it. But I donâ€™t think King Dariad will just hand it over.â€
â€œI doubt heâ€™d refuse outright,â€ Eyvindr said. â€œBut he might give you problems because your heart friend isnâ€™t with you.â€ He cocked his head at Karen. â€œDo you know where he is?â€
â€œKorrig said a troll called Huldre told him that Queen Valeria has him prisoner. Apparently her troops caught him near the Flame Palace when he tried to join up with us.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Eyvindr said incredulously. â€œNo, that canâ€™t be right. Thereâ€™s a very good chance Valeria is holding him in the Storm Palace, but I doubt she considers him a prisoner. And I doubt he got anywhere near the Flame Palace to start with.â€
â€œEr? Why do you say that?â€ Lydia asked. â€œI mean, sheâ€™s militantly anti-human, isnâ€™t she?â€
â€œShe is now. She wasnâ€™t always. She got badly burned by what happened two years ago,” he replied. â€œAlbanâ€™s her foster son. Heâ€™s a ljos like me, but she took him in as baby after his clan abandoned him. You donâ€™t want to know what she did to his clan.â€
â€œYou think Karenâ€™s Heart Friend is Prince Alban?â€ Kimi exclaimed.
â€œSheâ€™s the light warrior. Who else would it be?â€
â€œI- thatâ€™s true, isnâ€™t it.â€ Kimi regarded Karen speculatively. â€œBut that means…â€ she trailed off.
â€œWhat does it mean?â€ Karen asked.
â€œYouâ€™ve cut your hair,â€ Eyvindr said. The non sequitur made Lydia blink.
â€œEh?â€ Karenâ€™s hand shot to her hair. â€œMy hairâ€™s been short for a couple of years. I only kept it long before, because my boyfriend at the time liked it. Wait, how-â€
â€œI think youâ€™ve grown a little as well. I only saw you once, and that was from a distance. It was in Elapyron city. You wouldnâ€™t remember though. The Core wiped your memories because you were traumatised by what happened.â€
â€œWait! Weâ€™ve been here before?â€ Andrew asked. â€œIs that why Lydia knew how to shield herself, but couldnâ€™t remember how?â€
â€œNo!â€ Bennu and Kimi said simultaneously even as Eyvindr shook his head.
â€œNo, only Karen has.â€ He paused as Lydia and Andrew turned to stare at their sister. â€œThe warriors from that group were metal, earth, sound, water, and light.â€
â€œAnd from what Korrig said, the water warrior turned traitor,â€ Lydia said.
â€œYes. The Core hasnâ€™t said much about it, but he betrayed them and the metal warrior died taking him down.â€
â€I see.â€ Lydia looked back at Karen who had tears trickling down her cheeks. â€œAre you okay?â€
â€œI- I-â€ Karen shook her head and blinked back the tears. â€œNo, Iâ€™m not! I should remember this!â€ Her tone was hard and bitter. â€œIt had no right to mess with my memories.â€
Lydia hugged her sister. â€œIt sounds like you were in one hell of a state, Kaz. Iâ€™m sure it was trying to help. But it would be useful if you could remember now, I think.â€
â€œYes.â€ Karen wiped at her eyes furiously. â€œBut I donâ€™t want to talk about it. Letâ€™s talk about getting my bracelet and rescuing Alban, thatâ€™s stuff we can do something about.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right, I guess,” Lydia said.
â€œSo,â€ Andrew began, â€œif this Alban isnâ€™t exactly a prisoner, why would this Hulder tell Korrig otherwise?â€
â€œTo make us act rashly, I guess.â€ Lydia said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t sound like sheâ€™d hurt him and he wants us worried. It gives us a bit of breathing space. But we still have to get him out of there.â€
â€œYou do, but I think Korrig was right; you need to get the bracelet first. Iâ€™m sure you both know how hard is it to use your powers without the bracelet. Itâ€™d be worse for Karen if she uses them inadvertently.â€ Eyvindr paused. â€œAnd you should probably inform his people what happened to him.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right, we should, and about those circlets as well,â€ Karen said.
She was still wiping at her eyes, Lydia noticed. She went into the rucksack and found a pack of tissues and the babywipes she used for keeping clean in the wilds. â€œHere.â€
â€Thanks.â€ Karen wiped her eyes with a tissue before scrubbing at her face with a baby wipe. â€œWe should take the remains of the circlet that was on Eyvindr to show them, so they can recognise them.â€
â€œGood idea.â€ Lydia looked round with a frown and noticed it wasnâ€™t where Korrig had dropped it. â€œHey, where did it go?â€
Kimi leapt of the boulder and padded over to where it had fallen. â€œIt was right here.â€ She sniffed the grass. â€œI smell the Riderâ€™s scent. He must have taken it.â€
â€œDamn! We needed that as evidence!â€ Lydia said.
â€œNot a problem!â€ Andrew leapt to his feet. â€œThere were others. You get ready to move out and Iâ€™ll go and fetch one.â€
Valeria sensed Alban storming down the corridor towards her personal apartments even before he reached them. Oh well, this had been bound to happen sooner or later. She took the few moments grace she had to school her expression and turn to the door the greet her errant foster son. It wasnâ€™t a moment too soon either, because the door slammed open. It banged into the wall so hard that the crystal cracked. Valeria winced at the thought of how much the goblins would extort from her to repair that – if she even dared let one in to the palace to do so.
â€œMother!â€ Albanâ€™s enraged tone brought her back to the immediate problem. â€œItâ€™s bad enough that you wonâ€™t let me leave, but the guards have taken my bow and knife.â€
â€œYes, I told them to,â€ she said. â€œYou donâ€™t need them.â€
â€œYes I do! Thatâ€™s why you had them made for me in the first place. Because I need them!â€
â€œAlban, I-â€ she began but he cut her off.
â€œYou know that without Karen Iâ€™m powerless. I need them to defend myself. What if someone attacks me?â€
â€œWho would attack you here?â€ she asked in what she hoped was a reasonable tone.
Alban looked away and muttered something about Maran.
â€œYour uncle wouldnâ€™t hurt you,â€ she said, but she could taste her own doubt. Maran had never liked heart friends.
â€œYes he would. Heâ€™d hurt Sal, too. I heard him telling Sirin and Lorelei that their mother was right.â€ He paused as Valeria snarled at the mention of the late songstress. â€œYes, exactly. I thought Lorelei was going to hit him, but Sirin sent her away. Then they went and huddled in a corner of the yard with Huldre. I couldnâ€™t hear what they were saying after that and theyâ€™d have stopped talking if theyâ€™d seen me.â€
â€œWell, Marin isnâ€™t here. Iâ€™ve sent him after the dark rider,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™ll assign you a guard I trust to make sure no one attacks you.â€ And find out what they were talking about, she appended mentally.
â€œI want my weapons.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t trust me! What do you think Iâ€™m going to do? Slice down the guards and make a run for it? Iâ€™m not stupid, and even if I were most of them are my friends. But Karen will come for me, you know. She needs me.â€
â€œSheâ€™s my friend,â€ he said plaintively. â€œAnd you liked her before everything ended badly. What happened wasnâ€™t her fault.â€
â€œYou say that, but you wonâ€™t tell me what happened.â€
â€œI canâ€™t tell you what happened!â€ he flared, then looked down. â€œSorry, mother, but I really canâ€™t. The Core forbade us to talk about it. I wish I could, youâ€™d find it enlightening.â€
â€œYou say that, but if you wonâ€™t tell me what happened, how can I trust her?â€
â€œDo you trust me?â€ he asked and it was her turn to look down.
â€œI- I want to, but youâ€™re bonded to her. Your judgement is biased.â€
â€œAnd what are you going to do when the Dragons come? Sit by and let them eat everyone because youâ€™re scared of humans?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she said tiredly. â€œGo back to your room, Alban. Weâ€™ll talk about this later.â€
â€œGive me my bow back, mother,â€ he said softly. â€œAt least then if a dragon comes here before Karen does Iâ€™ll be able to protect you.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€ She turned away from him and went back to her desk. He swore at her a few times and then she heard the door slam. She glanced around to make sure heâ€™d gone and then laid her head on the desk and sighed. He was going to be so angry when he found out what she had planned.