Empty and forgotten, the third flask lay among their bags as Kallan stared up at the crescent moon. With every image that plagued her imagination, her sanity slipped further from rational. Huffing, she flipped to her side. From across the fire, light spread up and over Rune, spilling over his back.
Just like Emma, she thought and again sorted through endless variations of Rune and his Englian strumpet.
Hatred swelled, clawing her insides with a maddening rage that urged her to march back to Nidaros and kill the wench while he slept peaceably, free of the demons he beset upon her.
How dare you sleep while I lay tormented?
The words rent all thoughts, stirring awake other memories—barely forgotten memories—of her father as he lay dying and her blood-soaked hands. A wave of hate washed over her, abating all thoughts of Emma, and Kallan gazed at the Ljosalfr asleep beside her. A new darkness consumed her and the eye of the dragon awakened.
Dead men breed no pain.
Her eye settled on the black and reds of Gramm’s pommel.
While he sleeps…he wouldn’t even know…and I could return and conquer Gunir.
Throwing off the blankets, Kallan grabbed the nearest saddlebag and rose to her feet. With full force, she threw the satchel into the back of Rune’s head, jerking him awake.
Before he could turn and assess, before he could comprehend, Kallan took up his sword and unsheathed Gramm, its blade ringing out as if sounding off the opening note to his dirge.
Within two long strides, she came to stand over the Ljosalfar king and gave her battle cry. Seeing the blade turned down, Rune visibly braced for the sword to penetrate his heart as Kallan dropped all her weight onto him and plunged Gramm into the earth.
Blocking her face in shadow, her hair hung free as she heaved. Blood flowed where the blade nicked Rune’s ear. Against the black of Gramm’s hilt, Kallan’s white fists shook. The fire popped as Rune watched.
“Far too long I’ve dreamt of my sword stained with the blood of your people.” Kallan said. “Too long I’ve sought your death. Too long I’ve moved to strike. Even as you pulled me from the rancid darkness and I lay dying, did I plan to kill you and avenge my father’s death. Even now, all I have to do is strike. At the end of it all, I must decide. Should I kill you? Should you die?”
Rune watched, ready for whatever choice she made next.
“I should kill you,” Kallan whispered, “and watch your blood run with the blood of my people. If I kill you, all my troubles end. And I go home to Lorlenalin, my father’s death avenged.”
“And if you’re wrong,” Rune said, “if it was another who stole your father’s life, leaving him to die dishonorably upon the fields of Alfheim, whose life then will you have avenged by wrongfully killing me?”
The heavy burden of understanding weighted down her eyes, and, all at once, there was doubt.
“What wars may come by staining your hands with my blood?” Rune’s hush swept through her. “What lies then will you tell yourself once you’ve lied to your people? Can you risk being wrong, Kallan? Can you risk all the lives that will die and mine, all from your mistake?”
“Why did you save me?” she breathed. “Why did you kill my father only to save me?”
“I didn’t kill him,” he whispered.
“I can’t believe you.” Her voice wavered as the words caught in her throat.
“A king’s head is worth its weight in gold,” Rune said. Her eyes widened with unshed tears as she recalled Aaric’s words to her. “Name your price,” Rune said.
The back of her throat burned as she forced all other thoughts aside.
“Crawl through Svartálfaheim,” she said, “into the depths of Hel, beyond the roots of Yggdrasill, and bring him home to me.” Kallan stifled a sob. “That is my price.”
The chill from Rune’s eyes was gone, replaced instead with a pity that reached down into her and shook the walls she had built on anguish.
“Find the father you took from me,” Kallan bade, “and restore him unto me.”
“I can’t,” he whispered thickly.
Kallan’s dagger was suddenly unsheathed and pressed against his throat.
“Please.” The word tripped on a gasp. A tear slipped from her eye. “If I let you live,” she said, “please give my father back to me.”
He visibly swallowed against the blade.
“Please,” she said.