We have just over two weeks left on the Kickstarter for The Paths of Cormanor! Don’t miss out on this fantastic novel that people are saying has the magic and wonder of Stardust, the wit and humor of The Princess Bride, and the action of A Princess of Mars! We offer you now, a glimpse, a walk down the path of Amara, a young cormorant woman, whose family receives a very special visit from the youngest prince!
Amara (with interludes of Kellen)
Amara smoothed her cloak of feathers. She and her sisters were going to dive for a prince today. The youngest prince, but a prince nonetheless, and she didn’t want to stand out because her feathers were out of place.
She, too, was the youngest. All sisters, that’s how it ran in the family.
She shrugged into her cloak and fastened it around her neck before looking out the window at the black water of the lake. It would be cold, but that wouldn’t matter once they’d transformed into cormorants.
Heidi stuck her head in the room. “Aren’t you ready, Mari?” she asked Amara. “Großmutti is in the hall. She expects the prince to arrive soon and wants us all there.”
Großmutti, Mutti, and Amara’s six sisters—three generations from the centuries of women who held the lake as their fiefdom.
It was late in the year for scrimshaw salmon; hopefully the prince wouldn’t be disappointed with their catch. It probably depended on what he came to see. Amara wished she knew.
“I’m on my way,” she said, pausing to look in the mirror to make sure her poor sleep—from bad dreams—didn’t show on her face. Satisfied, she hurried from her room.
Cormanor House wasn’t far ahead. One of the benefits of being the youngest prince is that my travel retinue is quite manageable. I rate one good horse as a travelling companion.
But I can travel wherever I wish. The kingdom is generally safe, and if I do die by accident or bandit attack? Most of my life has been a combination of deference and neglect, I imagine my death would be much the same.
You learn a lot by looking through the cracks to see what has fallen through. Sometimes you find people who need help, other times people who are happy enough to be left alone.
The stories of Cormanor always fascinated me—women who transformed into cormorants to dive for scrimshaw salmon. We had several carvings made from the ivory plates found in the salmon’s heads, but I’d never seen them being caught.
I sent ahead for permission—something my more senior brothers would not have done. Royal prerogative always saw them through. While the folk of Cormanor prefer to keep to themselves, they agreed to my visit.
The hall was warm when Amara entered. It rarely was in the winter. The vaulted timber ceiling normally sucked all the heat into its vastness, leaving the rest of the room chill and the flagstones cold.
Today, whole tree trunks burned in the fireplace, enough to heat the cavernous room. Großmutti sat at the edge of the hearth, its light highlighting her face, showing every line. The feathers of her cloak were laced with grey.
She spent her summer days on the parapets in the sun, her winter ones near the fire. She rarely flew, and never dove, but her eyes still sparkled and she missed little.
She beckoned Amara over. “What do you feel?” she asked.
Amara looked around, half expecting to see the question was actually directed to one of her sisters. “What do you mean? Few see us transform, but he is a prince. You could not say no.”
“Not that, what do you feel?” Großmutti said, impatient.
Amara tried again. “A little apprehensive? Only the cousins watch us dive.”
Großmutti shook her head. “That’s not what I meant, but well enough.” She waved Amara to join her sisters, who watched for the prince’s arrival.
Amara took two steps and stopped. “Großmutti? I dreamt of darkness last night. Is that what you meant?”
“What kind of darkness?”
Amara shrugged, ruffling her feathered cloak. “Darkness. Cold and darkness.”
Großmutti glanced at the fire. “Huh.”
When she didn’t say more, Amara asked, “Do you know why he’s coming?”
“It would be dangerous to speculate. Fate treats people like him differently.”
“People like him? Princes?”
Großmutti smiled, a hard but affectionate smile. “Them, too. No, he’s—”
“He’s here!” exclaimed Heidi from the window. The sisters jostled, fluttering about each other, trying to see out.
“He’s handsome enough,” said Alyce.
“Enough!” Großmutti said. “We will not embarrass ourselves acting like new-hatched chicks.”
By the time the prince knocked on the door, Mutti had come over to stand behind Großmutti, and the sisters had gathered on the opposite side of the hearth.
Amara listened as the door was opened, the door warden offered words of welcome, and footsteps sounded in the long foyer. The door to the hall opened, a few more words of direction, and Prince Kellen entered.
He hesitated and looked around while the last bits of snow melted off his boots. Seeing the gathering waiting for him, he straightened a little and approached. Mutti stepped around Großmutti’s chair and dipped into a curtsy. Großmutti didn’t rise, but bowed her head in respect. Amara and all her sisters curtsied as well.
“We are honored to have such an important visitor,” Großmutti said.
The prince looked a bit embarrassed. “The seventh son is hardly important. It is I who am honored.” He bowed first to Großmutti, then Mutti, and finally to the sisters.
Amara wasn’t sure what she expected—not this self-effacing young man who was almost embarrassed to be thought of as royalty.
“And yet your father was also the seventh son, and he became king,” Großmutti said.
Kellen acknowledged the statement with a nod before changing the subject. “I confess myself… fascinated by the idea of your diving. You’re sure my watching isn’t a trouble? I know you—” He faltered on the words and recovered. “I know this is something rarely seen outside your family. And it is very cold today.”
“The lake hasn’t frozen yet,” Mutti said. She crossed over to where the sisters stood, drawing the prince’s gaze with her. “The cold doesn’t affect us the same when we’ve transformed.” She then introduced the sisters, starting with Heidi and ending with Amara.
Amara looked down, just as she should when meeting royalty. She glanced back up, too soon, and met his eyes. She blushed, and he smiled his amusement.
“Have you experience on the water, Your Highness?” Mutti asked, drawing the prince’s attention from her.
“I have,” he said.
“We’ll be diving from a wherry. For your comfort, we have a skiff where you won’t risk being bumped or splashed. If that’s acceptable?”
Kellen nodded. “Of course. Whatever is best for you.”
Mutti gave a little curtsy.
Amara stifled a smile, amused that no matter how friendly the prince seemed, how normal, they must never forget he was a prince and give him due courtesy. She didn’t think he would mind a little less formality.
“Amara will be in the skiff with you,” said Großmutti.
Amara looked to her, shocked, beseeching with her eyes not to have to do this. Why choose her? She knew nothing of princes. She wanted to dive.
Amara led the Prince down to the water. Cormanor House sat where the river met the lake, giving it water on two sides, and the dock was on the river.
New snow lay thick on the land, a deep blanket, soft edges gilded by sunlight. The river water was ribboned with white where the current ran while the lake was placid and black.
“Is everybody here a woman?” the prince asked. She looked over her shoulder. He gave her a timid smile. “Even the door warden was a woman. It’s a bit unusual.”
“Father died shortly after I was born. That was twenty years ago, but the cousins are all men. They live across the lake. You’ll meet some of them as they man the wherry while we dive.”
She didn’t mean to sound bitter, but he said, “You’d rather be diving.”
She turned away so he wouldn’t see her expression. She could dive as well as any of her sisters. “It would be a gross violation of our hospitality to leave you alone.” She made her tone light. “Who would answer your questions if not me?”
“Well, I thank you, and I’m sorry you can’t dive on my account. I could ask to see you dive.”
She stopped in surprise. Nobody told her a prince could be kind. “Please don’t. Großmutti would think I asked you to.”
“Oh. If you wish.” He gestured to the dock where the skiff was tied. “Where are the other boats?”
“They’re docked across the lake.”
“But how—?” He looked around. “How will the others
get—?” Suddenly, six black cormorants flew over the house and headed across the lake. “Oh.”
She watched her sisters longingly as they crossed the lake.
“Is diving dangerous?” the prince asked.
“There are dangers.” She was sure he asked to distract her. “Sometimes nixies try to steal fish from us. There’s supposedly the Grimly in the water caves at the east end of the lake,” she said. “We stay away from there.”
“What’s the Grimly?”
She waited until they reached the dock and answered as she held the skiff for him. “If the Grimly were human, you’d call her a water-witch. She’s said to be a body-snatcher and soul-stealer.”
“What does she want?”
“At one time, she wanted to rule these lands. Now, she just wants to be left alone. I’ve never seen her. Nonetheless,” she said as she pointed to the west end of the lake, “we’ll dive over there.”
She hopped into the skiff, intending to take the oars, but he already had them unshipped.
“I like rowing,” he said. She doubted that, and it must have shown, for he added, “Truly.”
She couldn’t help but like him and didn’t want to argue. How does one argue with a prince? she wondered.
The large diving wherry pulled away from the far shore. Four cousins, all the eldest and strongest, showing off for the prince, rowed at breakneck speed. A fifth, four-year old Svend, sat in the stern bundled against the cold.
“Poor Svend,” she said. “He’s wearing so many coats he can barely move.”
They met mid-lake. Heidi took charge of introductions from Einar, the eldest, to Svend, the youngest, who almost fell overboard when he tried to bow.
“We may not catch a scrimshaw salmon, Your Highness,” called Heidi, “but we’ll certainly catch dinner.” She stood in the bow of her wherry, shoulders back and chin lifted. She snapped her arms up and brought them down, suddenly wings lifting her into the sky, and she was no longer a woman but a cormorant. Jet black, she wheeled before settling onto the lake just long enough to arch into a graceful surface dive.
Kellen twisted to look at Amara. “You can do that too?”
She nodded. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“I’m Kellen. Just Kellen.” He turned back to watch the other sisters lift off, one by one. One by one, they disappeared into the lake.
“How far can they dive?”
“We can dive a hundred fifty feet.”
He blushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to exclude you.”
She didn’t answer. How can you take back an implication? If she were honest with herself, she liked his company, she just wanted to dive.
Time dragged out. Kellen fidgeted. “How long can you stay underwater?”
“More than two minutes. You needn’t worry.”
A cormorant—Heidi—popped up. The cousins laughed and jested, for she didn’t have a fish. She gave a deep, almost guttural answer and dove again.
Amara glanced at Kellen, half-afraid he understood what Heidi said, but he seemed unoffended.
Another bird popped up to more laughter, then a third with a small trout in her beak. This wasn’t much better, as the fish was held up and found wanting.
“Do they always jest so harshly?” Kellen asked.
“Always,” Amara said. “But don’t feel sorry for us. The cousins wish they could dive and fly. And if you understood what Heidi said, well, she would never have said it as a person, but they understood well enough.”
The water was full of diving birds, and the air full of laughter, but it was a familiar laughter. Amara watched her sisters with a faint, bitter smile, for she had never wanted to catch the largest fish more than she did right now.
I didn’t hear what the cousin, I think his name was Einar, said, but the cormorant flew up and flapped her wings in his face. He laughed and stepped back, rocking the boat.
Little Svend was leaning over the side, trailing his fingers in the water. The sudden motion pitched him over the side. I confess I smiled, expecting him to be quickly fished out.
But nobody else had seen him fall, and worse, he didn’t surface. I leaned over and saw him, sinking under the weight of his many coats. Not wasting time for explanations, I shrugged off my own coat and dove to save him.
Amara spun in shock as Prince Kellen jumped to his feet, threw off his cloak, and dove into the water. She shouted and everybody turned.
Heidi immediately dove after him.
“Why did he do that?” somebody called.
Amara shook her head, frantically looking, into the lake, around at the cormorants and oarsmen. Did he think he was a bird?! Several more sisters ducked under the water.
The shout snapped her attention to the wherry opposite. The boy was missing. She swore.
The cormorants re-appeared with news. The Prince had Svend, they said. Heidi was in human form and helping them both to the surface.
Amara closed her eyes for a moment in relief.
Heidi surfaced, holding Svend, but the Prince was not with them.
“Where’s Kellen?” Amara demanded. Did I just call the prince by his first name?
“Something grabbed him. I tried to save him, but he gave me Svend inst—”
Amara didn’t wait. She lifted her arms and snapped down her wings, lifting, transforming, and diving. Down, down, faster than a person could dive. Searching, searching. Deeper. Searching.
Something had him. Something dark.
She surged down, driving her beak at its claws. She struck again and again until it loosened its grip. She transformed into a woman and pulled him away. The darkness reached for them both, but her sisters caught up to her. The water was full of cormorants.
The darkness drew back. In one last fit of spite, it struck at Kellen. A tendril of darkness lashed at him, glinting as it came away.
Amara kicked. Kellen had been underwater too long. He didn’t help her, didn’t struggle. He hung limp in her grip.
When she reached the surface, strong hands lifted Kellen into the wherry. Another pair helped her.
There was no laughter or jesting now. Just grim silence as Einar rolled Kellen onto his side and slapped his back, trying to clear water from his lungs so he could breathe again.
“How is Svend?” Amara asked, not taking her eyes from Kellen.
“Cold, but fine,” somebody said.
“Thanks to the prince,” another added.
Everybody, all the sisters, all the cousins, watched motionlessly as Einar pounded on Kellen’s back.
Breathe, Amara urged him. Breathe.
Kellen hacked and spat out water. Einar paused. Kellen didn’t breathe in. Just as Einar was about to strike again, Kellen spat out more water and wheezed in a lungful of air.
Amara leaned forward.
Kellen coughed, gasped, and started to breathe.
She let out her own breath and ventured a smile of relief. “Prince Kellen?”
Kellen didn’t move. Einar rolled him over and cushioned his head.
“Prince Kellen?” She reached out and shook him gently. “Your Highness?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know.” She looked up at Einar. “Get us back to the house. Maybe Großmutti will know.”
Something old, cold, and evil tore me away from the others and held me fast. Something born in the darkness under hills and waters when spirits ruled and mankind had not yet come to be. I could feel its hunger; for wealth, for power, and the only thing it had to feed its hunger was hate, of which it had a bottomless well.
It held me tightly, and I clung to it. It felt like I was missing something, that I would be lost, adrift, without something to inhabit. But even as I grasped at it, I felt smaller, and bound to it in some horrible way. I hated what held me, and that feeling, but I was helpless against both.
Amara sat on the hearth, staring at Kellen as he lay before the fire. His breathing seemed normal, and his color had returned, but he didn’t wake.
“Why now? Why him?” Heidi asked as Großmutti tended Kellen.
“He should never have gone in the water,” Großmutti muttered. She glanced at Amara. “It was your job to keep him safe.”
Amara shrank down, trying to disappear into her feathers.
“But what happened?” Heidi asked.
“The Grimly tried to snatch him,” Großmutti said. “He’s the seventh son of the seventh son, and she hoped to harness his power.”
“How did she know?”
“She felt it the moment he hit the water.”
His power? Amara felt a shiver go down her spine. If only she had known. Gathering her courage, for she didn’t want Großmutti to blame her again, she said, “What power does he have?”
“Who knows? Healing, maybe. Prophecy. Fate hasn’t led him to discover it yet. But the Grimly could twist it to her ends.”
“Why isn’t he waking?” Amara asked. “Svend is awake.”
Nobody answered her.
Großmutti crouched next to Kellen, opening his eyelids and peering in. Mutti stood over them, looking down with a grave expression.
Finally, Großmutti looked up. “He isn’t waking, because he isn’t here.”
“What do you mean?” Amara asked.
Großmutti gestured to Kellen. “When she couldn’t steal his body, the Grimly took his soul.”
“Oh, spirits,” Heidi said. The cousins looked away, as if the concept were too horrible to face.
Amara went cold inside. “What will she do with it?”
Großmutti shook her head. “Had she stolen him entire, she would have twisted his gifts and made him a werewolf to do her bidding. Perhaps she’ll build a golem and use his soul to power it. Perhaps she’ll eat it.”
“Eat it?” Amara said faintly.
Großmutti didn’t answer. After a moment Mutti said in horrified wonder, “It would be as if he never existed.”
“I’ll go fetch him,” Amara announced.
“Mari, no,” Heidi said.
“I took my eye from him in the skiff,” she said, “and he was in my grasp when his soul was stolen. I need to do this.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Heidi said.
“Then I’ll go with you.”
Großmutti shook her head. “Numbers will not help in the Grimly’s lair. Amara is better served with stealth.”
“If it needs be one,” Heidi protested, “it should be me. I’m the eldest.”
“She is a stronger diver,” Großmutti said. “Not by much, but we know nothing of the Grimly’s lair.”
The water was cold, and even Amara’s cloak couldn’t protect her completely. The cold seeped in like fear. She’d never dove in the east end of the lake, but she found the lair quickly. Three large slabs of slate, two supporting the third, formed a doorway. She passed inside, staying as close to the wall as she could.
At the end of a short passage, the tunnel walls fell away and light shimmered off the surface of the water. She was still deep beneath the lake, but she poked her head into the air pocket and blinked in the weak light.
A torch lit a shelf of stone covered with the detritus of years. Dried seaweed, fish bones, broken barrels and crates, even the stove-in hull of an old rowboat.
Amara hopped onto the shelf. She was alone in the cavern. A passage sloped upward from the back of the shelf. The only sound came from the burning of the torch and the drip of water from her tailfeathers.
She fluttered over some bones that weren’t fish and landed next to the passage. There might or might not have been a dim glow ahead. She returned to her human form and began to creep upward.
The glow grew brighter as her eyes adjusted. It was another torch, this one in a small chamber formed by intersecting passages. More trash littered the ground. A broken oar, a tattered jacket.
She tried to place these things, wondering whose jacket it had been. Was it just a lost jacket, or had somebody been wearing it when the Grimly dragged it here?
And where was the Grimly? Where was Kellen’s soul?
Which of these passages should she take?
Use the torch as a reference, start to its right.
Quietly, in a place as quiet as death; slowly, in a place that hadn’t changed since time began, she crept through the passage until reaching a small room filled with bones and a charnel house smell.
Here is the Grimly’s tale, she thought. Generations-old dead, who only live on in the reputation of their murderer. They had been dragged under, used, fed upon, and discarded.
The lure of Prince Kellen’s power was enough to waken dreams of such times and maybe bring them back.
She returned to the reference torch and chose another passage. This led her to another chamber, natural but enlarged by hand. It stank like the sediment at the bottom of a lake—slowly drying muck and fish and seaweed. There was a nest of sorts and a rough wooden door on the far wall. Nothing else.
A voice whispered, “Screams and dies,” as two cold hands clamped down on her arms.
She drew in her breath but whoever held her shook her and repeated, urgently, “Screams and dies.” Heart racing, she closed her mouth.
“What is this?” the voice hissed in her ear. It was a deep voice, surely a male, though maybe not? “Who creeps in this place? Nothing mein Geburtstier brought.” Her captor turned her around to look at her.
Birthbeast? Was this the Grimly’s child? Her son?
He held her out so he could examine her. He hunched over her, tall and stooped. He was nearly bald, only a few clumps of long hair hanging lank on his pale head. Large, dark eyes peered at her. His lips were thin; they didn’t cover his jagged teeth.
He didn’t wear a shirt. His shoulders were narrow, and his arms long with ropey muscles. His cold fingers dug into her arms.
She couldn’t speak, didn’t dare speak. She tried to pull away. He pulled her closer and shook her. “Geburtstier… what did she do? Why did she return with a soul? After all these years? Why now? And you come so soon after.”
“It’s a powerful soul,” Amara whispered.
“It’s a powerful soul,” he repeated. He leaned over her and sniffed. “You must stay away from her.”
Amara risked a wide-eyed nod.
He held her, and she didn’t dare move again. They couldn’t stay like this forever, but what did he want?
A long moment later, she gently pulled back, just to see how he would react. He kept staring at her. She twisted, just a little, to see if she could loosen his grip.
Somewhere, a door crashed open. “Kleiner Schrecken!”
The monster clutched Amara convulsively. She bit down a cry of pain.
Schrecken, if that was his name, jerked her around, putting his body between her and the shouting voice. “Must stay away from Geburtstier.”
Amara nodded vigorously.
“Not me!” he said. “You. She’ll eat you. Bones in the closet.”
“We don’t want that,” she said.
Schrecken carried her to the ill-fitting door and opened it. “No. Not want that. She’s not to eat you. Your soul is not hers.” He pushed her into the dark room. “You’re mine.”
He closed the door, trapping her in the darkness.
Amara listened at the door. Schrecken’s footsteps left the room and she could hear the Grimly berating him. He protested, there was a solid thump.
She crouched down. The door slats were warped. She poked her finger through. The gap at the bottom of the door was only about three inches.
She felt her way around the closet. She found a pair of large, damp, smelly boots. Further back, a pile of clothes rotted into mush. Another, firmer, object seemed to be a book, but so soft it dripped and pulled apart as she moved her hands.
She found some bone buttons, some decayed leather cording, and three human teeth. A few inches away was what felt like a jawbone, but she didn’t hold it to the crack to examine it closely. There was no skull.
She pushed the door. It didn’t open, and she didn’t dare make too much noise.
“Well, I’m not going to wait for him to return.” She took a deep breath and lifted her arms. Moments later, she flattened herself to the floor. A cormorant could squirm through very narrow openings. Her webbed feet propelled her, beak first, under the door.
She couldn’t see as well as she could as a woman, but as a cormorant she could tuck her head under her wing and pretend to be a shadow in the corner. Mindful of this, she stayed a bird as she crept along the wall, slowly, taking the first passage away from the sounds of the Grimly and Schrecken’s argument.
There were hints that once the Grimly had lived differently. Broken furniture littered several chambers; saggy, mouldy tapestries clung by a few threads to their rusted rods. Long ago the Grimly had stopped caring for her lair.
In the furthest chamber, she found a pallet of furs on the floor. Next to the pallet was a pile of things that sparkled and shone, heirlooms from other houses so beautiful that, even when she despised all else, the Grimly kept these ancient trophies.
Next to the pile was an iron-bound chest.
Amara hopped over a raw, half-eaten fish, skirted the pallet, and approached the chest. She looked back to make sure she was alone before changing back into a human.
The lid stuck. It felt locked, but it opened when she tugged harder. A glass jar glowed in a nest of silks and linens. A slight warmth, trapped in the chest, wafted up.
She gathered it in both hands. It was lighter than she expected. Warm. Cheering. It was a good soul.
“WHAT IS THIS?”
The Grimly stood in the doorway. “That soul is mine.”
The Grimly bared surprisingly white teeth. Amara had expected a monstrous creature, but the Grimly looked human. Intimidating in the way she loomed, disconcerting because of her wild appearance, but human.
They locked eyes. The Grimly sniffed. “The youngest. I’ve felt you, but you’ve never been worth it before. Now, here you are.” She smiled.
In those eyes, in the smile, Amara saw the monster. She set the soul back into the chest and closed it. “You had Prince Kellen at a disadvantage.”
The Grimly laughed. “You pretty child. You think you have an advantage here?”
Amara knew better.
The Grimly advanced. Amara ducked away. The Grimly grabbed her and lifted her up. Amara struggled to break free. If she transformed, the Grimly would break her fragile bird bones.
She kicked and twisted. The Grimly shook her like a rag doll.
Amara gave a violent twist and wrenched free. She stumbled as she landed and darted for the door. The Grimly reached back and hit her, knocking her into the wall and stepping to block her escape.
Amara rose. Her head spun and she staggered sideways, trying to get around to the door. Escape, hide, return; that was her only hope.
The Grimly laughed. She was toying with Amara now. She moved sideways, and back when Amara moved back. She advanced, smiling now.
Amara rushed her.
The Grimly struck with the back of her hand. Amara flew over the pallet, landing in the pile of treasure. Riches sprayed across the floor. Amara rose to her hands and knees. A curled scroll crinkled under her; a golden drinking cup rolled away.
“Who will save you now?” the Grimly said with a laugh.
Amara focused on the hilt of a sword, inches from her hand. Gems glinted in the torchlight. She grabbed it, drawing the blade out from under a wadded-up tapestry.
“I will,” she said.
The Grimly stopped laughing and leapt over the pallet. Amara rose up to her knees, but the Grimly kicked her in the ribs.
“I will!” Amara cried as she swung the sword.
The Grimly twisted away. Amara swung again. The Grimly evaded. “You’ve no training with that.” She was laughing again.
Amara stepped forward. The Grimly stepped back on the golden drinking cup. It rolled under her foot, and she pitched backwards. Amara leapt and drove the sword into the Grimly.
Amara stood, staring down, breathing heavily.
The hate and madness, all that gave the Grimly life, left her eyes. And something else, a strand of gold wafting up, a small thing, but it matched the glow of the jar. Amara cupped her hand over it and gathered it to her. If she tried to put it in the jar with the rest of Kellen’s soul, the entire soul would escape.
She opened the chest and picked up the jar, juggling it as she kept the glow contained. She hesitated, turning the jar over, wondering if she could open it upside down. Before she tried, the glow in her hand faded. It was gone.
“Geburtstier?” Schrecken called timidly. “Geburtstier?”
Amara wrapped the jar in the fallen tapestry and went to stand beside the door.
A minute later, Schrecken came to the doorway. “Geburtstier?” He let out a wail of anguish and rushed to the Grimly’s side.
Amara ducked out the door and ran.
“NO! No, no, no!” Heavy footsteps sounded behind her.
She ran, from one chamber to the next, down the passage. Schrecken followed after, making sounds of anger and sorrow. She ran down the last passage, putting the tapestry in her mouth and, when she reached the bottom, she dove off, turning into a cormorant as she did, holding the soul in her beak.
The soul dragged on her as she swam. She could feel the water tremble as Schrecken dove in after her. She raced toward the lake, burst from the tunnel and headed toward the surface. She looked down to see Schrecken following, mere feet below her.
She redoubled her efforts, stretching up, breaking the surface and flying. Drops of water hit her as Schrecken surged up and splashed back, for he couldn’t fly.
I felt the change. It was like if your hand was stuck in the middens and suddenly comes free. That part of you is suddenly clean again. For a moment I was confused—lost—wondering if I had misplaced my… self, or a part of myself. But the feeling disappeared and I was anchored again. I might hate the helplessness of being without senses, but I did not hate whatever held me. No, I did not hate it at all.
Amara told what had happened while she clutched the jar tightly, afraid that here at the very threshold of victory she might drop it. Prince Kellen still lay on a cot near the fire, while Großmutti sat in her chair. The rest of the family had pulled the dining benches close so they could hear.
Amara let her gaze linger on Kellen. “What about that bit of soul that disappeared?”
Großmutti chuckled. “It did not disappear. Souls find homes in living things. That little bit entered the Grimly as she carried the whole soul. Had she not bottled it in time, the rest would have entered her body too. When she died, it left her.”
“But what happened to it?” Amara said.
Großmutti looked at her like she was being purposefully stupid. “You held it.”
Amara blushed. She had been stupid. “It’s inside me. How do I give it back?”
“I don’t have that kind of power.”
“Who—who does?” She looked around.
“He does,” Großmutti said. Amara followed her gaze to Prince Kellen. “But he doesn’t know how. Give him back what is in the jar so he can go learn.”
Mutti frowned and nodded. “The sooner the better.”
Amara knelt beside him and paused. It was a good soul; warm, cheery. She was surprisingly reluctant, but it was time it went home. She unstoppered the jar and pushed the opening into Kellen’s mouth.
A moment later his eyes opened. His gaze settled on her. He closed his eyes and relaxed, opening them again as the sisters and cousins began to murmur. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “You don’t have all your soul back.”
“I know,” he whispered as he fell asleep. “I still thank you.”
The next day, Amara stood in the doorway as Kellen waited for his horse. “How long will it take you to learn?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I’ll have to find somebody who will teach me. Then I’ll have to learn. It may take some time.”
He said “some time,” but Amara heard “maybe years.”
His horse was brought, and he swung into the saddle.
She didn’t want him to leave. How does holding part of his soul affect me? she wondered. “I’ll keep it safe,” she blurted.
“Keep yourself safe,” he said gently. “And not for my soul’s sake. I will return.”