Stil panted and peeled himself off the ground, rubbing the sore shoulder he landed on.

On the other side of the frosted wall, the nightmare screamed and the hellhound howled.

Advertisement

Stil groaned and shook his head to clear his sight and mind. “That was fair stupid of me,” he admitted, taking inventory of his body as he stood.

He was going to be stiff the following day, but there were no injuries.

The nightmare snorted, having traveled a few feet down the border to peer around the ice shield.

The rider shot his loaded crossbow, but the arrow was blocked by ice that shot out of the ground and snapped around the weapon with frigid jaws.

-- Advertisement --

“Cudere,” Stil called, forcing his arm up. His double-ended spear trembled for a moment before it whirled through the air, as if thrown. It easily broke through the ice wall, sending a cascade of ice shards everywhere. Stil caught the weapon and twirled it once to rid it of ice flecks before he brandished it at the rider.

He toed the border line and took a swipe at the nightmare with the curved tip. The beast barely avoided it and screamed in anger as it backed up.

Stil waggled the weapon at the rider. “Well?” he said.

The nightmare snorted as the rider lowered the crossbow. The rider turned the animal and road off into the inky darkness, the hellhound following them.

Stil backed farther into Verglas and shook his head. “I have no idea what any of this is about,” he sighed.

Lady Linnea grunted as she swung her leg over the palace wall, dropping into the small area above Gemma’s cell. “Gemma, I have got news for you. Sissel just about took down Malfrid when Malfrid…Gemma?” Lady Linnea said, kneeling down to press her face against the window grate and peer inside.

Gemma was not in her cell.

“Is she out walking?” Lady Linnea wondered, fixing the shawl she had tied over her blonde hair. “No, her cape is here, and the mittens I brought her. They can’t have moved her, or she would have taken her things…” Lady Linnea trailed off, her heart crawling into her throat.

Where was Gemma?

Had King Torgen called for her? Had he figured out how she got the gold thread and beheaded her?

“Gemma,” Lady Linnea hissed into the empty cell.

There was no response.

Her heart pounding, Lady Linnea scrambled to stand up.

What happened to Gemma? Where was she? How could she find out?

Lady Linnea franticly climbed the wall and flew into palace, looking for the one person who could help her. She needed to find Toril.

“What is it?” Prince Toril said, skidding into the palace gardens. He was half undressed, wearing only black knee-length trousers, a linen shirt, knee-high socks, and buckled shoes in the cold, biting air. Clearly he was in the middle of something when he received Lady Linnea’s panicked message via a servant.

“Gemma is gone!” Lady Linnea said.

“What?”

“Your father must have done something. She isn’t in her cell!”

“The guards occasionally take her for walks; she’s probably out on one right now,” Prince Toril said, the wind ruffling his hair.

“NO!” Lady Linnea said. “Her cape and that black, wool thing she’s been working on are still in her cell. If she were outside or set free, she wouldn’t have left them behind. She’s gone!”

Toril exhaled and set his shoulders before looked decisively to Lady Linnea. “Come,” he said, offering his hand.

Lady Linnea took it and the pair ran indoors, a pleasant change from the raging winds. Prince Toril led Lady Linnea through the hallways at a quick, ground-covering walk.

Several times, the pair ran into servants who watched with wide eyes but said nothing as their future monarch and the beautiful Lady Linnea—almost all the palace servants recognized her on sight now as the girl Prince Toril occasionally snuck out to see—marched through the palace.

They reached the dungeon stairs and clattered down them, leaving the light, airy architecture of the palace and swapping it for the oppressive dungeons.

When they were almost to the base of the stairs, Lady Linnea cut in front of Prince Toril to take the lead. She jumped down the last two steps, her heart beating frantically, when she recognized the sound of…Gemma’s laughter.

Lady Linnea and Prince Toril poked their heads around the corner.

In the middle of the dungeon aisle, lounging on cushions and crowded around a table that was barely a foot off the ground, were Gemma and three guards.

“Considering you were the one who wanted to teach her how to play, Captain, you’re doing terrible,” one of the guards said.

“It’s four cards for each person, right?” Gemma asked, dealing cards.

“Yes,” the guard captain, recognizable by his uniform, sighed. “If you and Skoglund win another trick, that will put you in the majority, and you’ve won the game. I hope it’s not boring you?”

“Oh, no. It’s quite entertaining,” Gemma said. Although her words were bland, her eyes glowed with mischief.

-- Advertisement --