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“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”
~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

A breeze tugged at Axel’s shirt, the scent of sea and salt wafting over him

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A breeze tugged at Axel’s shirt, the scent of sea and salt wafting over him. The scent of home. Bittersweet happiness twisted inside him as they made their way beneath the postern gate. He imagined the tall white walls and curved arches leading into the high city. The spires of the High Court where it perched on the cliffside facing out towards the sea would normally be visible from here. But they weren’t. Darkness was his homecoming, looming around him, clawing into him, as they paused in a wide open courtyard.

The low area housed stables and gardens and all manners of buildings before the glistening white stone stairs wound up to the palace itself. A virtual city in its own right, the High Court was the jewel of Skievheim. A pang twitched in Axel’s chest as he dismounted, tendrils of pain shooting outwards to his arms and legs. The ring burned against his flesh begging to be removed as he grit his teeth, turning to help Sloane dismount.

“Are you alright?” Her soft voice drew his mind from the curse ranging through him. Plastering a smile where usually a firm line would be he nodded. If this were his last moments with the woman he loved, he wouldn’t waist them causing her worry.

“I’m fine. Truly,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to her brow before turning to where everyone else hovered nearby having already dismounted. “We’ll camp in the lower area. We don’t know what we’ll find taking refuge in the palace and dare not risk another confrontation this close.” He’d meant to say more, but the words trailed off as images of the runestone ring flashed in his mind.

“When do we set out? It’s not far from these gates, is it?” Selby asked, speaking up before either of her brothers dared.

“We will not be going anywhere,” Emerens interjected. “You and Sloane will remain here with Mats. Arne and the guards will remain in the forest around the ring while Axel and I replace the stones.” Axel felt Sloane stiffen beside him at the same time Selby let out a frustrated guffaw.

“And this is how you want it?” Sloane asked, her voice quiet in the dim glow of their lanterns, but her face betrayed the raging emotions inside her.

Was it what he wanted, he wondered to himself? No. What he really wanted was to trek through the ancient trees by himself, not risking anyone else’s life. But that wasn’t completely true either. Glancing towards Emerens, he watched his twin lead Selby to one side, both just beyond the light’s brightness, only their silhouettes visible against the stones. Even with the dark, he saw Selby’s frustrated gestures. Was it wrong he felt a glimmer of relief knowing his brother would be there at the end? It wasn’t the first ill decision he’d made over the past few years, he thought giving into the comforting idea.

“It’s for the best,” he murmured close to Sloane’s ear. “Knowing you’re safe, I’ll be able to replace the stones all the faster.

Surprisingly, Sloane didn’t argue, one long sigh was all the sign he received she’d didn’t like the idea. But it was enough to raise the guilt from its slumber. He hadn’t lied. He would work better knowing she was tucked away safe and sound. But he’d implied he'd be returning to her when he knew well he couldn’t make that promise. Truthfully, he had no idea what would happen afterwards. There was only the dread growing inside him the closer the time came to complete this ill-fated task.

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