Shalendra glanced back at the sky, noticing how the clouds resembled a thick blanket of blackness overhead. Not a single wink of starlight was visible. “Maybe...” She listened to the thudding, even feeling it vibrating the ground under her feet. “All right, let’s go. I don’t think we want to be caught this close to the dwarves’ capital.”

She lowered herself to her hands and knees and crept to the other side of the boulders. Peeking around the last one, she tried to see who or what made all the noise. Blue fire from the top of a golden torch brightened a wide swath of area—and people. Her eyes widened.

Dressed in black tunics and pants, the soldiers’ golden breastplates and arm guards were beautiful, reminding her of old tapestries in the French museums she and Émilien loved to visit. From the number of them pouring into the valley, she and Soliana could be in trouble.

“No, we don’t. Dwarves aren’t nice to elves, even though technically, we are cousins.”

“Slavery will do that. I don’t blame them for their anger,” Shalendra said. “How would you like it if your family forced you into a life of servitude simply because you were different? That’s what the light elves did three millennia ago.”

“Didn’t the black king try to help them?” Soliana asked, her gaze worried.

“Yes. When the black king took over the kingdom after the Great War, he freed them, but it was too late. Now, the only emotion in the dwarves’ hearts is vengeance. Each day, I expect Freyja to tell me another war has begun. Now, no more talking. We’ll cross in total silence.”

“I’m so glad I found you and Émilien after my parents were killed. I can’t imagine how different my life might have been.” Soliana wrapped her arms around Shalendra before pointing to the trees. “Lead the way.”

Walking across the valley, their feet barely touched the grassy surface as they made their way to the stream. Shalendra studied the rocks then reached for her friend’s hand and stepped on the first one. Carefully moving from rock to rock, they made it without mishap to the other side.Only a few more steps...

“Stoðva!”A male voice cried out, commanding them to stop. Instead, Shalendra grabbed Soliana’s arm and pulled her toward the tree line, desperate to get away from the soldier. Without warning, her body slammed into an invisible wall and she froze, unable to move or speak. From far away, she heard another command, and the world around her faded to black.

Shalendra awakened, her brain fuzzy and her body sore as she sat up. Resting her hand on the floor, she jerked it away with a scowl and swiped her hand over her pants, not wanting to think about whatever the slimy stuff was. Now, she did need a bath—a long, hot bath. Trying not to think about what she had been lying on or that the slime was now in her hair, she closed her eyes and pulled in several deep breaths, calming the growing panic like Émilien taught her to do.

A sound caught her attention, low and murmuring, somewhere close by. Straining her ears, she stood. With her hands outstretched so she wouldn’t run into the wall, she made her way toward the voice. Listening for a moment, she whispered, “Who’s there?”

“No one,” a husky male voice said.

She bit back a smile. “Well, Mr. No One, you answered my question, which means you can think and talk, so for me that makes you someone.”

“Not really.”

She decided to change tactics. “Why are you here?”

“Why are you?”

“I’m not sure. I guess they didn’t like the way I looked or that I may have been sneaking into the city. I kind of stick out like a carnation in a poppy field.”

“Welcome to my world. Being different in Svartheimr sucks. That’s why I’m in here.”

“How are you different? Are you super short or more like a giant, like the Jötnar?”

“Neither, I’m afraid. I’m in prison because I like men.”

“Hmm. Well, I like men too, so we’re going to get along very well, I think.” Finally, she heard his deep chuckle and shuffling, which drew closer to where she squatted against the stone wall separating them.

“What’s your name?”

“Shalendra Elasalor, and yours?”

“I am Castien Bloodminer.”

“Bloodminer? Please tell me you don’t actually mine for blood. How is that even possible?”

He chuckled again. “I am what we call a gem caller. There are only two left in the dwarf world who can find the treasured bloodstone, which is sacred to my people.”

“Much better than mining for blood. What does a bloodstone look like?”

“It’s a beautiful green stone with spots of red throughout, giving it the look of blood splatter, hence the name. At one time, every dwarf carried a bloodstone for courage in battle and to help heal wounds.”

“That does sound quite beautiful. I’ve never seen a bloodstone before.” A pale blue light appeared in front of her. Looking closer, she noticed a hole in the stone wall, but when a hand shot through it, she jumped back with a tiny squeal.

Tags: Heidi Vanlandingham Fantasy
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