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A Fate Inked in Blood: Chapter 34

I woke to dawn light peeking in through the branches Bjorn had used to cover the entrance to the cave, my ears filled with the sounds of trickling water, birdsong, and Bjorn breathing in my ear, still asleep.

A giddy smile grew on my face, the purest form of happiness expanding my chest, and if not for the press of my bladder, I’d have allowed myself to drift back to sleep. Sighing, I gently lifted the heavy arm wrapped around my middle, the fact that he didn’t so much as twitch speaking to the depth of his sleep.

Outside, dawn had already come and gone, the sun above the horizon and the summer air warm. Nothing stirred but the faint breeze in the trees, though I heard the chatter of squirrels as they shouted at me for breaking the peace of the morning. Taking care of my needs, I slipped back inside the cave to find Bjorn still sleeping, eyelashes black where they pressed against suntanned skin, his hair a tangled mess.

As was my own.

Frowning at the chaos that was my braids, I stepped into the pool and found a rock to sit on while I unraveled them, careful to set the ribbons on the bank lest they slip downstream and betray that I’d not died in the falls.

No one could ever know we were still alive.

A sharp pain struck me in the chest as I thought of the news that I’d fallen being delivered to my brother and Ingrid. For all their failings, I knew they loved me, so learning that I was with the gods would hurt.

Though possibly for the wrong reasons.

With me dead, Snorri’s bitterness might cause him to exclude my brother from his war band. But Geir and Ingrid would be alive, able to go in whatever direction they saw fit.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d mourn my death. Or resent it.

My chest tightened, and I tried to force the thoughts from my head as I unraveled the last of my braids, my hair floating long and loose in the water. But what Bjorn and I were leaving behind refused to relinquish its hold so easily, and my mind turned to thoughts of my people. How had they fared after the battle? Did they still follow Snorri? Or, after my death, had they all gone their separate directions?

It’s not your problem, I told myself sternly. They don’t need you.

Yet guilt still bit at my core, because I was abandoning them for selfish reasons. How would it feel if word traveled across long miles that Harald hadn’t abandoned the battle with my death. How would it feel if we learned that Harald now ruled our people? Would I be able to bear it, or would the fact I’d left them to that fate burrow its way into our happiness, growing like a cancer until guilt consumed me?

“They don’t deserve you.”

I twitched as Bjorn’s voice filled my ears, ripples brushing against my skin as he waded down into the water and pulled me against him. “What do you mean?”

“I know the look you get when you’re feeling guilty,” he said, kissing my throat. “I also know that everyone you feel guilty about leaving behind used you like a thrall, caring nothing for your happiness. If your absence causes hardship, it is their own fault for not treating you as you deserved.”

“They’re your people, too,” I said, for while I agreed with his words, it was not as simple as that. “They relied on you to protect them and now you’re gone. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“They lived happily without me for many years.” He kissed my lips. “They’ll do so again, for they will no longer be a threat to Nordeland.”

Not for the first time, I sensed that Bjorn didn’t consider himself Skalander at all, the time he’d spent in Nordeland refusing to let him go. But my growing sense that he was glad Skaland was no longer a threat to Nordeland was new.

The thought troubled me, and I pulled myself from his grip. “We should go soon.”

I felt his frown as I stepped out of the pool, but neither of us spoke as I pulled on my clothes, which smelled strongly of smoke from drying near the fire. I was painfully aware of Bjorn’s eyes on me with every motion I made.

Did he care? Did it matter to him what happened to those we left behind? I knew that his relationship with Snorri was strained, made worse by Ylva, but what of his brother? His friends?

What friends?

I bit my lip, thinking back through our time together, remembering his interactions with the other warriors. With the other people in Halsar. Cursory, at best. Like either they or he kept one another at a distance.

Liv, he was friends with Liv. There’d been grief on his face when the healer died, far more than a stranger warranted. The reminder eased the tension in my chest, though in truth I didn’t entirely understand why these thoughts were eating me up. “Will you miss your brother?”

Bjorn paused in pulling on his trousers, then tugged them the rest of the way over his arse. “Of course I will. But with me gone, Leif will become Snorri’s heir. He’ll be jarl one day, and in truth, the people will be better for it.”

“Why do you think that?”

Bjorn’s eyes narrowed and he was silent for a long moment before saying, “Because he’s one of them in a way I never will be.”

My stomach roiled with unease, but I kept silent.

Exhaling a long breath, Bjorn sat on the floor. “I spent too many years in Nordeland, and that left a mark. In the way I do things. In the way I speak. In the way I think. Whereas Leif is Skalander through and through, and that makes the people like him better. Ylva was right to want him to lead the clan.”

I needed to know. “Are you a Skalander?”

He tensed slightly, then shook his head. “Soon neither of us will be, Freya, so I fail to see why this matters.”

“Because you don’t seem to care, and I want to understand why that is.” Accusations were going to spill forth, my temper hot, though it shouldn’t be.

Why was I so agitated? So angry?

“It’s complicated!” Bjorn rose to his feet. “My past is complicated, Freya. Nothing is simple, but what I don’t understand is why you feel you must dig into it now.”

“Because I want to know the truth about the man I’m abandoning everything for,” I exploded. “Especially given that you’ve all but admitted there are important things you haven’t told me about yourself.”

“Freya.” He reached for me, but I took a step back. “I love you. All I want is to be with you somewhere you are safe. To build a life together away from my past.”

Dread pooled in my chest, because if it was nothing, he wouldn’t be this cagey. He’d tell me if for no other reason than to calm me down. “I want those things, too.” My voice was breathy and strange, my head pulsing with tension. “But…but I can’t go until I know everything. If you won’t give me the truth, then I’m going back.”

All the color drained from his face. “You can’t go back.”

“Yes, I can.” I felt like I couldn’t breathe, because how had everything devolved so quickly? How had I gone from absolute certainty in him to…to this? “I can tell them I escaped the falls. No one ever has to know.”

“You don’t understand. If you go, he’ll—” He reached for my arm but I leapt backward, nearly sprawling as my feet caught on a rock.

“He’ll what?” I demanded. “What will Snorri do?”

“It’s complicated.” There was sweat beading on his brow. “Freya, I’ll explain everything, I swear it. But we need to leave. We need to run.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Twisting on my heel, I strode out of the cave, my eyes burning. But I made it only a few steps before sliding to a stop, terror filling my chest as I found myself face-to-face with King Harald of Nordeland.


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