Throughout the course of her life Lorelei had endured a lot of tense, anxiety-inducing situations. The day she’d been presented to the court for the first time as a young woman of marriageable age she thought for sure she would die on the spot while thousands of eyes scrutinized . When she’d been led like a lamb to the slaughter before Aelfric’s entire kingdom the day she was betrothed to Trystay she had fainted in front of all those people. As she turned to wave goodbye to her mother, Pahjah and Mirien for the last time she felt like a part of her was dying. The night she’d overheard Trystay’s plot to kill her she ran, not even knowing where her feet would take her, but none of those things seemed even half as overwhelming as the throng of bodies that lined up at the gates to meet her for the first time.
She cast a helpless look over her shoulder at Finn, but Logren seemed determined to wrench her away from the only source of comfort she had at the moment. When his arm moved across her back, it wasn’t a gesture of reassurance, but an effort to move her forward just a little bit faster and she almost stumbled over her own feet because she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going.
“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes, girl.”
A tall, thick-waisted man standing in the center of the horde stepped forward to meet her, the armor he wore groaning and clanging when he lifted his arms toward her in welcome and began to approach. She started to shy away when he gripped her forearms gently in his meaty hands and held her out to look at her. The white-blond tufts of thinning hair atop his head fell into his face and he huffed them away, revealing the darkest blue eyes she’d ever seen.
“Ah, girl, I’ve been waiting to see your face again since before you were even born,” he told her. “You look just like I remember.” Winking as he withdrew his hands and turned inward toward the crowd of bodies gathered around. “All hail, the Light of Madra.”
“All hail!” The overwhelming chorus of voices that answered his call brought shock waves of distress that made her legs feel like jelly beneath her.
She staggered backward a little, her heart racing furiously inside her chest. Then a steady pair of hands met with her back, the fingers curling in around the curve of her waist as Finn drew her body against his. He was so warm, so solid behind her that she leaned into him and shivered a little when he bent to whisper in her ear. “It’s all right, Princess. I’m right behind you.”
She’d never been so happy to hear that ridiculous nickname in her life. A fraction of the tension melted away and she reached down to wrap her fingers around his, clutching them so tight she half-expected him to yank his hand away for fear she’d break his bones. But he didn’t.
“My friends, Finn and Vilnjar,” she found her voice, the tone cracking under the strain of her nerves. “Logren has told me they are to be questioned.”
“Yes.” The man who’d come forward to meet her nodded and started to gesture for his guard to step forward, but Lorelei held up her hand. “We believe they may have valuable information about the U’lfer and their plans that could assist us in the days to come.”
“It is my wish for them to remain at my side at all times so long as I am here.” It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, wielding confidence like a weapon in front of so many people she knew nothing about. “They are my friends, and I will not see them harmed.”
“You are our honored guest here, and no harm will come to your U’lfer friends, my lady,” Hodon promised her. “But we would still like to question them.”
“Then you can question them with me present and they will tell you what you want to know,” she turned a look toward Finn, who shifted uncomfortably behind her. She wondered for a moment if it bothered him that she had taken control of his fate, or maybe whatever it was he had obviously been hiding from her from the start was more than enough to get him into trouble with the people of Dunvarak. “But they do not leave my side.”
“Anything you ask of us, we will do.”
The severity of that admission terrified her, and she almost jumped when the crisp crack of fabric on the wind drew her attention to the banners they hoisted. A red wolf bayed before a silver moon, disappearing and reappearing with every frigid gust that blew through them.
It was a strange thing, the coldness of that wind, unnatural in that she could feel the heat of the city, the warmth of the fires and all those bodies mingling so close together, but the wind still nipped at her skin like frozen teeth. It nibbled away at any chance at comfort she might have thought such a city would bring to her. Pahjah would say such a thing was a bad omen, and she should trust her instincts—turn and run away from whatever awaited her beyond those gates, but she had a feeling the host of soldiers at her back would never let her go. That made her feel trapped, almost as trapped as when she’d been pinned to the ground beneath her shield while the U’lfer hunter battered away at her defenses.
“Do not be afraid, young one.” A frail, old woman pushed her way through the crowd, shoving the blond man who seemed to know her before she was even born out of the way to approach. She had a thick, rasping voice, but despite the way it grated on the senses it made Lorelei feel almost as safe as the touch of Finn’s hand on her hip. “Your people have waited so long for you to come, and though it may not seem so now, they are more overwhelmed by the fact that you have finally come than you are at being here.”
She had kindly eyes, so pale blue they seemed almost as white as the snow that stretched for endless miles beyond the gates.
“You are the seer,” she finally managed to say, her mouth so dry the words barely even croaked from her throat when she spoke.
“I am Yovenna, the Voice,” she nodded slowly, “and I have seen.”
Holding out her hands, Lorelei felt compelled to reach for them, the old woman’s warm, gnarled fingers wrapping around her wrists to draw her closer. The most calming energy flowed into her until she felt almost hypnotized. Tilting her head, she watched transfixed as all the color of Yovenna’s eyes paled until the pupils and irises became a void and in their reflection Lorelei saw the clatter of a hundred images pass across them.
The most beautiful woman she had ever seen bathing in a river of starlight. A shadow lurking in the trees beyond and then a knife plunged into that shadow, so swiftly Lorelei could almost feel the cold metal twisting into her own ribs. The woman in the river screamed, the shrill sound draining the light from the world until all was dark and the clean water ran red with blood.
Weathered standards whipped furiously in the wind. The din of battle echoed in her ears, the battering split of a blade thunked through armor. War-cries mingled with the keen of death. Blood sprayed through the air and painted the clean white snow a dirty shade of smeared and blackened red. Bodies fell, wolves and men trampled them beneath their feet as they charged in to clash with one another. Frightened horses stomped through the chaos, rearing and whinnying in terror. She saw three wolves standing beneath the rising mother moon, one red, one brown and one black, and when they lifted their faces to the sky the piercing echo of their howls died on the wind.
Lorelei tugged one hand free with a hard breath of fretful astonishment, breaking the stream of visions. When she blinked, she saw the old woman’s face again, her cracked lips twitching against the slow semblance of a painful smile.
“I have seen, child,” she whispered, patting the leathery palm of her hand across Lorelei’s knuckles before squeezing her fingers and letting go. “This and so much more.”
There was little time to dwell on the strange burst of imagery she’d just witnessed. Feeling so completely overwhelmed by what she’d seen, she actually recoiled and stumbled into Finn behind her. No one else even seemed to notice the exchange, and Logren swept in to quickly to distract her by dominating the next few moments and tugging her away from both Finn and the old woman.
He introduced her to the first man to meet her at the gates. Hodon Skull-Crusher, he was called, and he said he’d known their father well and had many stories he wished to tell her at the great feast they’d prepared and in the coming days. There were others, men and women with hard-sounding names but the gentlest and most eager faces she’d ever seen. They looked upon her with a sense of hopeful desperation that only intensified the fear she felt coursing through her. She was just a girl, barely even a woman and she knew nothing of the world. How could she be expected to help anyone, when she couldn’t even help herself?
He swept her through the crowd so quickly that she lost track of Finn until Logren’s attention was drawn to the sound of a high pitched voice echoing through the streets.
The crowd parted to make way for a small child who couldn’t have been more than four, his mother sauntering after him with her arms crossed, as if she’d given up chasing him and planned to arrive in her own time.
“Ah-ha-ha! There’s my little pup!” Logren dropped to one knee to catch the child in his arms when he charged, his face disappearing into the mop of dark-red curls atop his head when he kissed him.
Lorelei was stunned, a part of her feeling truly discouraged by just how little she actually knew about the man who called himself her brother. It was one of the central points in the argument they’d had that morning, all the things he was keeping from her, but even as she railed against him had it never once crossed his mind to tell her that he had a son? She hadn’t known he had a wife until he’d mentioned her the night before.
“Papa, you came back.”
“Of course I came back,” Logren laughed. “I always come back to you, Roggi.”
“Did you bring her?” When the boy leaned back to look at his father Lorelei felt a hitch in her chest as she realized the child was asking after her. It was the oddest, most disconcerting feeling to be standing among an entire city of people who seemed to know everything about her and had done for years, while she’d never even known that they existed at all.
“Aye, I did.”
Turning his head over his shoulder, a pair of large, round brown eyes stared up at her in awe, the pouting buds of his small mouth stretching into a grin when he pointed toward her with a chubby finger. “Is that her?” He fell shyly against Logren’s shoulder, turning his face in but keeping one shining eye on her as he whispered.
Logren’s hand disappeared into the mop of bronze curls atop his head, a hearty laugh following as he drew him back. “Aye. Would you like me to introduce you to her?”
“Perhaps if you do, he’ll finally relent and go to his bed, as I’ve been telling him to do since just after sundown.” Viina was a tall woman, lean but solid, hard but gentle, as if she’d spent the majority of her life eking out a hard living, but still knew how to laugh despite the hardships that she’d seen. She wore her dark brown hair in a pile of braids that hung loose from the long day she’d endured waiting for her husband to return. “For three days this one has bounced off the very walls asking when his father would come back with his aunt so he could finally meet her.”
Aunt. She was an aunt. How strange that word sounded to her.