Chapter Three: A Heart Freshly Broken

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Chapter Three:

A Heart Freshly Broken

There was no shrine in the Erlking's palace. There was nowhere to mourn the dead in privacy. It was probably because goblins didn't really care much for their dead in the first place. If there'd been one, I'd be on my knees every day from dawn until dusk begging for forgiveness. Instead, I was rushing through the dark corridors and naturally carved halls with no idea where I was headed.

The tears were hot, building up behind my eyes. I wouldn't cry. I couldn't cry. The last time I'd shed a tear for myself was over a decade ago and I wouldn't let the pain get ahold of me again. I couldn't afford to be weak.

I turned the bent nail over and over in my hand. As long as this doesn't burn me, I'm human. Relief flooded through me like warm sunlight. But if Soren had his way it wouldn't be for much longer. The relief died a short, cold death. There was some truth to what he said; I'd adapted to his kind's ways to survive against the odds. A burning part of me couldn't stand the idea of dropping dead like the others surrounding me. I wanted to live. I had to live.

But adapting wasn't the same as truly becoming like them. It couldn't be. I wasn't a monster. I wasn't about to become a monster with a mind so twisted that emotions were foreign and bringing pain caused pleasure.

I hurried through the dark halls of the palace, clutching the nail in my hands, allowing it to dig into my skin, to draw blood from the heel of my palm. I wanted to feel pain; I wanted to know I could still feel pain.

Finally, when one side of the hall dropped into a large chasm and the jagged rocks made it precarious to continue, I collapsed and let myself breathe. Every cell in my body was on fire but strangely the pain wasn't physical. I wanted to scream to drown it out, cover my ears so it would stop assaulting me. There was so much pressure inside my chest I was sure it would burst.

Calm yourself. I thought, trying to keep a steady breath. Calm yourself.

I stared at the nail in my palm and remembered things I tried to forget.

A small fishing village close enough to the forest that hunting with a bow was just as widely taught as fishing with a spear, a mother who brushed my hair each night, braiding it with care, a father who took me when he traveled into the snow, taught me the tracks of animals and the calls of bird, the smiles of my sisters when we played games together, the feeling of their arms surrounding me, pinching my cheeks and giggling at the dirt on them, and a fire that burned so I was warm all the way to the bone.

I turned the nail over in my palm.

"You're different than the other girls Janneke." A broad man said.

Tears rolled down my face. "Why don't you call me Janneka?"

His beard hung braided down to his chest, making up for the lack of hair on his head. I clung to him the way children clung to their mothers as he wiped away my tears. "Janneka is a woman's name. Janneke is masculine."

New tears replaced the ones he wiped away. I loved the way Janneka sounded, loved the way the J sounded like a Y, the way it bubbled on my lips like a stream. Janneke, with its harsh J and abrupt ending could never compare.

"I want to be a woman, not a man. Why can't I at least be a shieldmaiden?" Shieldmaidens were still considered women, even if they did fight.

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