Excerpt: The Northern Heart

Emmerich woke suddenly, nearly collapsing as awareness shot through him as quick as a bolt of lightning. He was outside, on top of the wall, and it was freezing. Cold air cut into his lungs, sharp as a knife, and Emmerich coughed, one hand flattening against his chest as his lungs constricted. His left cheek stung, a warm contrast to the rest of his freezing skin, and as usual, Pearce stood before him.

It had happened again.

He and Pearce stood on the pathway that snaked along the top of the wall that bordered the northern edge of the kingdom of Imaria, keeping the elves of Camlien contained in their frigid forests. They were barely a dozen feet from the enormous rend in the wall that nearly split it in two, and Pearce was staring at him like he might make another break for the gap.

“All right?” Pearce asked. He was so close that his misted breath nearly reached Emmerich’s face.

Emmerich nodded, a short, jerky motion. He balled his hands into fists, focusing on the way the wind blew through his thin jacket instead of the worried expression on Pearce’s face. He shivered and clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. Like each time it had happened before, he hadn’t bothered to grab his cloak before he left the tower, leaving him to brave the winter air with only his indoor clothing. He was grateful that it wasn’t sleeting like it had been the last time.

Pearce took his nod as permission and grabbed his arm to haul him toward the tower. The tower was fifty feet or so from the rend. It was square, nearly twice as wide as the wall itself, and several times again as wide. Its peaked roof jutted up toward the sky like a sharp arrow, with a tiny crow’s nest at the top, where a pair of guards kept watch. Emmerich let himself be dragged, stumbling like he’d drunk half a barrel of ale despite his best efforts to walk upright. He dearly wanted to lean into Pearce’s warmth as the wind snaked across the top of the wall, but he wasn’t that desperate yet.

It was the third instance in the last two days. A shiver raked down Emmerich’s spine, this time more to do with the trance than the cold. He blinked rapidly against the frigid wind, trying to pretend that his eyes were watering because of it and not out of frustration and fear. Snow and ice dusted the path at the top of the wall, and Emmerich stared at his feet rather than Pearce or the guards waiting by the tower. He didn’t want to see their pity—or worse, Pearce’s concern.

One of the burly soldiers outside the tower door yanked the heavy metal door open when Emmerich and Pearce drew near. It was etched with the royal family’s seal and weighed enough that under normal circumstances, Emmerich wouldn’t be able to move it on his own. Inside the tower was a small landing about thirty feet square. It was bare except for a small cloak rack hung on the wall inside the door, where several thick cloaks waited for anyone in need to use them. Below the rack was a small bookshelf on which several baskets of candles, chalk, and other casting materials were gathered.

Once inside, Emmerich couldn’t keep back the shivers that wracked him. He felt numb, his frustration and fear lurking beneath a thick layer of exhaustion. Unfortunately, he doubted he’d be getting real rest anytime soon. The tower was huge, built to house hundreds of soldiers, and with the heightened tension with the Camlien elves, the tower was near capacity.

That meant both that Emmerich’s trances had plenty of witnesses and that he and Pearce had been shoved into the same room. To be fair, that was also a precaution in case Emmerich tranced during the night, which he had done plenty of times. Pearce paid the guards they passed no mind, but Emmerich could feel the weight of their stares as they headed down the stairs toward the fourth level.

They had the largest bedchamber the tower had to offer, but the tower had never been meant to host anyone of importance, so large meant it was about the size of Emmerich’s quarters at the palace rather than anything suitable for a prince—let alone a prince and Emmerich. When they’d arrived, there had been nothing but a bed, a battered correspondence desk, and an equally battered chair.

Someone at some point had shoved several extra chairs into the room as well as a small table, and Emmerich’s single trunk and Pearce’s two were crowded into a corner. There were no windows; the only windows in the tower were in designated scouting rooms. The bed itself was large for a soldier’s berth, but small for two people—another thing Emmerich refused to think about, and he wasn’t sure if he should be finding comfort in the fact that he either didn’t sleep, or was so exhausted from not sleeping that he didn’t have to dwell on the torture of sleeping next to Pearce platonically, pretending at an intimacy—or even a friendship—that wasn’t there.

“Sit,” Pearce said, letting go of Emmerich’s arm as he wrestled against the stiff hinges on the door to shut it.

Emmerich followed the command, sitting down heavily in the chair that was closest to the tiny fireplace. That was one of the few perks of the situation; if he were here on his own, he’d be stuffed into the barracks with no chance to get near a fireplace, or stuffed into a tiny single room with several thick walls between him and the closest fire like he had been on his last visit. He slumped into the chair, weariness dragging at him, but an undercurrent of fear kept him from closing his eyes. What if he tranced again?

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