“We can’t actually take the cart, you know?” 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.
“I guess not.” Lydia looked at the cart and the pony grazing placidly beside it. “We were hidden in the back before. We’d stick out like a sore thumb on the roads-” She stopped as Eyvindr laughed. “What?”
“Sorry, your idioms are strange.” He looked at the wagon speculatively. “I’d offer to drive, but an alf in resting form driving a cart would attract almost as much attention as three humans doing so.” He fingered a lock of his silky blonde hair as he spoke. “Korrig said you were going after the Light bracelet?”
“We are,” Lydia replied. “Do you know where it is?”
“Not precisely, no. But I know where we can find out. The Core gave it to the Mountain King to guard.”
“Well, that’s not good,” Kimi said. She’d returned to her leopard form and was lounging on one of the ice boulders. “That’s not good at all. I mean it could be worse, Queen Valeria could have it. But I don’t think King Dariad will just hand it over.”
“I doubt he’d refuse outright,” Eyvindr said. “But he might give you problems because your heart friend isn’t with you.” He cocked his head at Karen. “Do you know where he is?”
“Korrig 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.”
“What?” Eyvindr said incredulously. “No, that can’t be right. There’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.”
“Er? Why do you say that?” Lydia asked. “I mean, she’s militantly anti-human, isn’t she?”
“She is now. She wasn’t always. She got badly burned by what happened two years ago,” he replied. “Alban’s her foster son. He’s a ljos like me, but she took him in as baby after his clan abandoned him. You don’t want to know what she did to his clan.”
“You think Karen’s Heart Friend is Prince Alban?” Kimi exclaimed.
“She’s the light warrior. Who else would it be?”
“I- that’s true, isn’t it.” Kimi regarded Karen speculatively. “But that means…” she trailed off.
“What does it mean?” Karen asked.
“You’ve cut your hair,” Eyvindr said. The non sequitur made Lydia blink.
“Eh?” Karen’s hand shot to her hair. “My hair’s been short for a couple of years. I only kept it long before, because my boyfriend at the time liked it. Wait, how-”
“I think you’ve grown a little as well. I only saw you once, and that was from a distance. It was in Elapyron city. You wouldn’t remember though. The Core wiped your memories because you were traumatised by what happened.”
“Wait! We’ve been here before?” Andrew asked. “Is that why Lydia knew how to shield herself, but couldn’t remember how?”
“No!” Bennu and Kimi said simultaneously even as Eyvindr shook his head.
“No, only Karen has.” He paused as Lydia and Andrew turned to stare at their sister. “The warriors from that group were metal, earth, sound, water, and light.”
“And from what Korrig said, the water warrior turned traitor,” Lydia said.
“Yes. The Core hasn’t said much about it, but he betrayed them and the metal warrior died taking him down.”
”I see.” Lydia looked back at Karen who had tears trickling down her cheeks. “Are you okay?”
“I- I-” Karen shook her head and blinked back the tears. “No, I’m not! I should remember this!” Her tone was hard and bitter. “It had no right to mess with my memories.”
Lydia hugged her sister. “It sounds like you were in one hell of a state, Kaz. I’m sure it was trying to help. But it would be useful if you could remember now, I think.”
“Yes.” Karen wiped at her eyes furiously. “But I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s talk about getting my bracelet and rescuing Alban, that’s stuff we can do something about.”
“You’re right, I guess,” Lydia said.
“So,” Andrew began, “if this Alban isn’t exactly a prisoner, why would this Hulder tell Korrig otherwise?”
“To make us act rashly, I guess.” Lydia said. “It doesn’t sound like she’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.”
“You do, but I think Korrig was right; you need to get the bracelet first. I’m sure you both know how hard is it to use your powers without the bracelet. It’d be worse for Karen if she uses them inadvertently.” Eyvindr paused. “And you should probably inform his people what happened to him.”
“You’re right, we should, and about those circlets as well,” 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. “Here.”
”Thanks.” Karen wiped her eyes with a tissue before scrubbing at her face with a baby wipe. “We should take the remains of the circlet that was on Eyvindr to show them, so they can recognise them.”
“Good idea.” Lydia looked round with a frown and noticed it wasn’t where Korrig had dropped it. “Hey, where did it go?”
Kimi leapt of the boulder and padded over to where it had fallen. “It was right here.” She sniffed the grass. “I smell the Rider’s scent. He must have taken it.”
“Damn! We needed that as evidence!” Lydia said.
“Not a problem!” Andrew leapt to his feet. “There were others. You get ready to move out and I’ll go and fetch one.”
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 wasn’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.
“Mother!” Alban’s enraged tone brought her back to the immediate problem. “It’s bad enough that you won’t let me leave, but the guards have taken my bow and knife.”
“Yes, I told them to,” she said. “You don’t need them.”
“Yes I do! That’s why you had them made for me in the first place. Because I need them!”
“Alban, I-” she began but he cut her off.
“You know that without Karen I’m powerless. I need them to defend myself. What if someone attacks me?”
“Who would attack you here?” she asked in what she hoped was a reasonable tone.
Alban looked away and muttered something about Maran.
“Your uncle wouldn’t hurt you,” she said, but she could taste her own doubt. Maran had never liked heart friends.
“Yes he would. He’d hurt Sal, too. I heard him telling Sirin and Lorelei that their mother was right.” He paused as Valeria snarled at the mention of the late songstress. “Yes, 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 couldn’t hear what they were saying after that and they’d have stopped talking if they’d seen me.”
“Well, Marin isn’t here. I’ve sent him after the dark rider,” she said. “I’ll assign you a guard I trust to make sure no one attacks you.” And find out what they were talking about, she appended mentally.
“I want my weapons.”
“You don’t trust me! What do you think I’m going to do? Slice down the guards and make a run for it? I’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.”
“She’s my friend,” he said plaintively. “And you liked her before everything ended badly. What happened wasn’t her fault.”
“You say that, but you won’t tell me what happened.”
“I can’t tell you what happened!” he flared, then looked down. “Sorry, mother, but I really can’t. The Core forbade us to talk about it. I wish I could, you’d find it enlightening.”
“You say that, but if you won’t tell me what happened, how can I trust her?”
“Do you trust me?” he asked and it was her turn to look down.
“I- I want to, but you’re bonded to her. Your judgement is biased.”
“And what are you going to do when the Dragons come? Sit by and let them eat everyone because you’re scared of humans?”
“I don’t know,” she said tiredly. “Go back to your room, Alban. We’ll talk about this later.”
“Give me my bow back, mother,” he said softly. “At least then if a dragon comes here before Karen does I’ll be able to protect you.”
“I’m sorry.” 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 he’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.