The surprise was a burlap sack filled with snow, hanging from a limb.
"Gee, Cadeon. I didn't get you anything."
"It's for sword practice."
She collected his sword with a long-suffering sigh, though she secretly enjoyed this training.
As he cleaned his catch, he instructed her. "Thrust, parry, counterthrust, twisting block, strike. Nice. That's it, halfling."
Even in the dry, arctic air, she was working up a sweat. Her sparring was improving. He'd even said that she was better than some warriors he'd faced on the battlefield.
Holly didn't know if that was true, but she knew she wasn't laughable anymore.
"Underhanded sword fighting techniques," he said. "Give me two."
As she continued working on slashing attacks, she said, "Obscure my enemy's vision by throwing something like my jacket over his face or sand in his eyes. And second, I could wound my opponent's advancing leg."
"To take blood any way I can - because blood equals strength."
"Very good. Here's a new one. Sometimes you can take a hit in order to see what your opponent's got, or to let them think you're weak," he continued. "They'll get overconfident, 'specially with a tiny chit like yourself."
"Or you can fake an injury. Like dragging your leg to lull a predator. So you give a little to get a lot."
She froze, her mind whirring. "Oh, my God, that's it!"
"My code - how to identify foes from friendlies. Give a little! In quantum cryptography no measurement or detection can be done to a two-party dialogue without disturbing the system, thereby giving the outsider away...."
"If you know the hacker's there, you let him in! You let him take information! He'll get more aggressive, then come with BFC, and you shut them all down. You don't have to have an unbreakable code. You just have to infect your own data, designing it so that when it leaves your system's environment, it can't survive. It will wipe itself out, along with everything around it."
"Go!" he ordered. "Stop gabbing and get it into your computer then."
With a laugh she ran for her laptop.
"But remember," he called, "clearly, sex helps math. Ergo..."
Later that night, they lay bundled up in the small bed together. Running her fingers up and down his chest, she said, "You're dragging your feet to get to Groot's."
"I was rushing for your sake before. We've got days before the full moon deadline. And it'll only take a day of hard driving to get there. Now that you want to stay a Valkyrie, we have time."
"Then talk to me. Tell me more about yourself, such as why you would think you'd lost your brother's crown."
He liked how she worded that - as if she didn't believe it. "I was supposed to go to Tornin, Rothkalina's capital, to stand as head of state until Rydstrom returned from war with the Vampire Horde. I didn't. I was content with my foster family, and they needed me."
"That's why you got blamed?" she asked in disbelief.
"Omort saw this as a sign of weakness and attacked." Cade had tried to shed the guilt, telling himself that there had been a thousand factors in play. Yet over these long years, he continually saw examples of catastrophes caused by the smallest choice or action.
"Wait, you said your foster family? Did you have foster brothers and sisters?"
"I did." He swallowed. "But they were all murdered by Omort's army."
"Oh, God, Cadeon, I'm so sorry."
"Revenants attacked our farmstead."
"I read about them. A sorcerer reanimates a corpse, raising it from the dead, right?"
He nodded. "Since the creature's already dead, it can't be killed."
"How do you fight them?"
"Only when you kill the sorcerer can they be destroyed. Which is a problem since Omort can't be killed by beheading or unnatural heat."
She asked, "Do you blame yourself for your foster family's deaths as well?"
He gave her a grim nod.
Her eyes were sad when she said, "You've been carrying around all this guilt for nine hundred years? What about the saying time heals all wounds?"
He met her gaze. "That one's a lie."
"I want to fight," he told Rök after she'd fallen asleep. "Get mobilized."
"Are you sure? Think of how many ways this attack can get botched up. You'd be risking your brother's life and your kingdom's freedom for a woman."
"Not just a woman. My woman." He'd realized tonight that if Holly got hurt on his watch, then he would have done the same thing he'd blamed himself for a thousand times - failing his own.
"Give me one more night," Rök said. "We can get to your coordinates in fourteen hours if we have to."
Continue to search for the mortal, or go forward? "No, we're out of time," Cade said. "I can't chance it. We're going to war."
After he hung up, Cade joined Holly in bed once more, gazing down at her, sleeping peacefully.
What was going on in that incredible mind of hers as she turned to him so trustingly? Was she dreaming about warrior codes and formulas?
Could she be dreaming about him?
Holly slept deeply, assured he would keep her safe. Stroking the backs of his claws over her arm, he murmured, "I'm going to fight for you."
"What the hell do you mean, can't get up here?" Cade bellowed into the phone. The deal expired tomorrow. "You're fucking mercenaries; I'm ready to go to war."
"The ice road is completely blown out," Rök said, having to yell over what sounded like gusting wind. "That's the only way from here to there."
"What about heading west, then coming up north?" Cade paced in the snow, winding around spruce trees.
"We could, but we'd never make it in time."
"Trace the distance - "
"We can only trace as far as we can see, which is about two feet right now," Rök said. Cade heard a door slam, and then the background noise dimmed. "The snow drifts have killed visibility. And I've already checked on a chopper. It'd take a day just to get one up here."
Cade punched a tree.
"I'm sorry, friend, but you're on your own. You've got to take your female to Groot to get that sword. You don't have a choice."
I do have a bloody choice. Fuck nobility. Fuck selflessness. This isn't my life. He would turn his back just like before. I want to run with her.
Cade could find another way to free Rydstrom from Sabine. Then his brother would finally just have to learn how to live without his crown.
Rök said, "I'm not suggesting that you should actually turn Holly over."
"If I even bring her near Groot, I risk her life. I can't jeopardize her like this. I won't - "
"Look, I didn't want to tell you this, but there's more on the line than you think. News of Rydstrom's disappearance and your quest has gotten out. Demons in the kingdom are awaiting your results. Cade, they're ready to war again."
"What do you mean?" Their people had been so brutalized that they had no heart for revolutions.
"If you can claim that sword, they'll view it as a sign that a revolt could be possible. The sword has become symbolic now, a rallying point. They want to see that if one half of the Woede is compromised, the other can still take care of business, as it were."
As if there weren't enough pressure...
"And I have to tell you - the betting's rampant over whether the black sheep will come through. So here's the strategy: You'll have to convince Groot that you're only there to drop off the goods, get your pay in return, and get out, or he won't give the sword to you. So convince him, then smite him with his own weapon."
"Do you know how many things can go wrong with that plan?"
"All right, say he gets suspicious and has his guards escort you out," Rök said. "You'll be able to go fully demonic now, changing to protect your female. In that state you could take on an army. You'd be able to get her out of there."
Act like I'm making the trade, get the sword, kill Groot - it sounded so easy. "And if any of this goes south, Holly's going to be the one to pay for it," Cade said, scrubbing a hand over his face. "You would do this in my position?"
"You shouldn't ask me. I can't really comprehend what you're feeling for her that would make you even think about choosing her over a kingdom of people - much less over your brother's life."
Cade had been born to protect her, and yet he was considering placing her directly in harm's way. He was debating the ultimate betrayal.
To persuade Groot that this was merely one business transaction among many, Cade would have to act like a callous mercenary. One who'd tricked a naïve young woman.
Which was true in many ways.
Rök added, "Since your exile, you haven't returned to Rothkalina, but I have. It's...not good. There are a lot of people counting on you."
Cade swallowed. Now, at last, after all these years, is my chance to atone.
"Rydstrom's counting on you, too. Right now your brother's somewhere secretly praying that you'll come through. Even as he's certain you won't."
Unbidden, a memory arose in Cade's mind of a night so long ago - a night of anguish and guilt, of pain as he'd never known.
When Cade had been burying his foster family, Rydstrom had found him. Without a word, he'd taken up another shovel. Shoulder to shoulder, they'd worked together.
Cade had just cost Rydstrom his throne, and yet his brother had silently helped him get through the hardest thing Cade had ever had to do....
When Cadeon returned, he stretched out behind Holly, wrapping his warm, naked body around hers.
He tucked her tightly against him as he always did. Outside, the winds howled down from the Arctic, whipping over their cabin, but she felt so safe, protected by her big demon.
She couldn't imagine ever sleeping without him again. Before she drifted off, she thought, I'm in love with Cadeon Woede.
They'd started out early in the morning, speaking little over the first couple of hours they'd been slogging north.
"What's wrong?" Cade finally asked her. "You've been quiet." He wondered if she suspected anything. She'd been wary of him in the past. But he sensed that she'd jumped in with both feet with him, deciding to trust him completely.
Which would make this all the more devastating to her.
"I'm just sad to leave," she said. "Maybe we can hole up here for another week on the way down? You can teach me to ice fish."
With his eyes averted, he said, "Yeah, maybe so. Did Nïx ever give you a way to contact her?"
"Wouldn't mind some Monday morning quarterbacking, except in advance." His gut was tied in knots as he wondered if this was the right move. Was there a right move? At any turn, Cade would fail someone. It felt wrong to deceive and hurt Holly, wrong to risk his brother's freedom, wrong to ignore the needs of an entire kingdom.
He could already see the betrayed look on Holly's face. Would he be able to keep up the charade of indifference, when he wanted her more than he'd wanted anything in his entire life...?
Whatever road there had been initially deteriorated into a primitive trail as the terrain grew more mountainous. Every few miles, Cade had to drag trees out of their way.
He'd cut this journey so close that anything could set them back. Part of him wished they would miss the deadline, hoping for something, anything, that would prevent him from having to turn her over - to take the matter out of his hands, so it wouldn't be his decision either way.
Then Cade would think of his brother, and the guilt would assail him.
Holly perked up. After hours of grueling four-wheel driving deeper into the mountains, the trail had finally begun improving.
By the time it actually resembled a road, the dense forest of spruce opened up into a small valley.
It was just before two, which meant that the sun hadn't yet set, so they were able to see some of the spectacular scenery. A whitewater river etched its way through the valley. Mist swirled above them, like a gossamer lid over all.
Cadeon leaned forward on the steering wheel. "This area should be bare, the river frozen."
Instead birch and aspen trees still had their leaves, and there was not a single patch of snow.
"Maybe it has its own microclimate? I've read that hot springs can melt the area around them."
"Yeah, that's probably it," he said, but he was distracted.
They followed the road as it ran parallel to the river. "Look, it's a little town," Holly said, then frowned. "A ghost town." And she didn't use that term lightly anymore.
"It's an old coal mining village. I saw the entrance to a shaft a while back. Groot must have set up here so he could have fuel for his forge."
They passed a startlingly well-preserved sign that read: Prosperity, NWT, est. 1902, pop. 333.
Along the water stood forty or fifty abandoned buildings, each appearing to be from the early nineteen hundreds. They had wood shingles for the siding and roofing and were austere, built in that creepy, unadorned Quaker style.
Though there was no snow, a crystal clear sheen of ice covered everything, like a varnish. "This place literally looks frozen in time. Why did the residents leave? Did the mine go bust?"
"They didn't leave," he said quietly, turning onto the main street.
It was then that she noticed doors were wide open, or hanging at odd angles, attached to stretched hinges. She spied a pair of antique-looking bicycles, turned on their sides in the middle of the street, as if they'd been abandoned in a panic.
"Cadeon, what is this?"
"Wendigo. They attacked here. I've heard these mountains are teeming with them. They act as a natural boundary for Groot."
"I read about them. They used to be humans, but were turned into cannibals. They eat corpses. They even...eat people alive."
He nodded. "Cousin to the ghoul, ravenous for flesh and highly contagious - even to other immortals. All it takes is one bite or scratch."
"A toxin emitted from the claws and fangs."
"How long does the transition take?"
"Three to four days," he answered. "Long enough for a victim to realize what's happened, to come to terms with it, and then to decide what has to be done."
"What? What has to be done?"
In answer, Cadeon pointed off to the side of the street to a towering birch tree. Tattered nooses swayed from its limbs.
"Are the Wendigo still here after all this time?"
"Probably. They can survive on animal flesh if they have to."
They neared the town's church. "Is that what I think it is on the chapel?" The building was still eerily pristine - on its sides. Across the front, ruddy spatter stretched in distinct arcs at least fifteen feet high.
He nodded. "It's blood."
"The villagers still living and uninfected probably barricaded themselves in that church. The windows are boarded on the inside."
The front doors hung askew. Just past them, Holly spied stacked pews. She could imagine the scene all too clearly. Once the front blockade had fallen, the people inside had been trapped by their own defenses. The Wendigo likely dragged out screaming villagers, tossing them to the waiting pack....
"Cadeon, even if I'm not interested in being human again, I'm glad you brought me."
"How could you be?" His tone was almost sharp.
"Just in case you need me to get your back," she said, frowning when she saw his knuckles go white on the steering wheel.
Just as she parted her lips to ask him what was wrong, he said, "There's Groot's fortress."
As the mist began to clear, she glimpsed a magnificent waterfall, at least four hundred feet high. Directly atop it was...a castle, built at the fall's edge.
Five towers all conjoined to a central keep over the water. Above it, a stone smokeshaft billowed gray smoke. Even from this distance, the mighty forge was visible.
"That's why the river isn't frozen and why there's so much mist," he said. "It heats the water - "
"Cadeon!" She swallowed. "Down a side street. I think I just saw something running!"
Cade had spotted them, too. Wendigo hunted in packs - and they were stalking them.
"Are they still following us?" she asked, eyes darting.
The road continued up the escarpment, taking them ever higher and closer to the keep. He turned on the wipers when mist from the falls became as thick as rain, until they climbed above it.
The sun had set, and the full moon had begun to rise by the time they came upon a perimeter fence. Metal spikes pointed outward like old-fashioned bulwarks, yet he could see that they were fastened to gears. Cade suspected that they would move if disturbed.
The front gate was towering and complex. One section rolled on a rail to the side, and another could be raised and lowered. When the truck was directly in front of it, the two components opened to allow just enough space for him to ease through, then both closed inches from his back bumper.
They were in. Minutes till show time.
"There's no way Wendigo can get past that gate. You can relax now," he said, inwardly wincing.
This part of the drive seemed endless to Cade. His hands were damp on the steering wheel, and at every instant, he was tempted to turn around.
But he didn't turn around, instead parking in front of two colossal entry doors. Made of iron, they stood at least a couple of stories high and were flanked by flaming torches the size of a man.
When Cade grabbed his sword sheath to strap over his back, she raised her brows. "Just in case we have to depart quick-like."