Chapter Sixteen

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Igren stared into the darkness as if she could keep it at bay.

She'd lain awake for hours. The candle and the fire in her grate had long since died. Through the lidless eye of her skylight, Igren saw the night was shrouded in cloud, as if it too were mourning.

She couldn't get the taste of blood out of her mouth.

In her mind's eye, the room was crowded with dead faces. Those she had loved, those she had feared—and those she had killed herself.

But, most of all, she saw Matta. Tall, slender and proud—so like her father, so like her mother, so like herself. Blood trickled down the apparition's face from the small hole in her temple. Igren knew that, if Matta turned, the rear of her skull would be mostly gone.

In the dark, Igren reached out her hand.

"Forgive me," she whispered. She couldn't tell from whom she asked forgiveness—perhaps she asked it of them all.

Her hand hovered, empty and cold in the blackness. She grasped air, and ghosts.

Then, she felt something warm brush her fingers.

Igren cried out and sat bolt upright. She stared wildly into the shadows of her room, but saw nothing. All visions of the dead had vanished. She was alone.

But I felt something...

Or perhaps I was simply dreaming.

Her palm tingled. She rubbed it with her other hand.

"Matta?" she whispered. "M'Lady? Are you there?"

But, as Igren expected, there was no answer.

_____

Elsewhere, deeper within the castle, Kelle Terin lay on his narrow cot and dreamed.

He hadn't meant to sleep—had, in fact, refused to close his eyes for nearly two days for fear of what he would remember—but exhaustion had come upon him like an assassin in the night and dragged him under before he could fight it.

Now, in his dream, he was laughing.

"Ha!"

She dodged to the side, braided hair flying out behind her a she jabbed with the wooden shortsword.

He parried it easily.

She growled in frustration and lunged again.

This time, he knocked the training blade from her hand.

Red-faced and panting, the princess let out a string of curses that scorched the air almost as much as the noonday sun beating down on their heads. Her green eyes flashed like emerald fire.

He grinned. "I've told you, M'Lady, your temper gets th'better of you too easily."

Sweat gleamed on her forehead and neck, making tendrils of hair cling to her skin. Chest heaving, she threw him a scathing glance. "My temper will get the better of you in a minute, stable boy."

He shrugged. "I'm only speakin' the truth. You're thinkin' too much about bringing me down, not enough about guarding yourself. Here." He bent, retrieved her fallen weapon from the golden grass of the valley and held it out, hilt-first. "Try again, only watch my feet. You'll see how I readied myself for you."

She raised an eyebrow, but accepted the wooden sword wordlessly. 

They each took their positions. This time, her strategy was noticeably more controlled. He made the first move--she parried. They fenced. This continued for a few seconds, until she made her first strike. He raised his blade to block her again, but before he could she changed her footing and swung under his arm. He felt the blade strike his abdomen.

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