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The Singer Elizabeth Hunter 2022/7/22 11:38:21

Ava was still sleeping when the car came to a stop. She clenched her eyes shut, holding on to the safety of silence for as long as she could.

Damien knew she was awake. The man had preternatural senses that never switched off. Ava had decided he was like a weird combination of the most overprotective dad and big brother in history. Which, being the only child of a mother who saw her more as a peer than a child, was a new and interesting experience.

She snuggled into the down-filled jacket under her cheek and ignored him.

“Open your eyes. I know you’re awake. It’s going to rain in about fifteen minutes, and I’d like to start up the trail before it pours.”

She lifted her head and turned to him, speaking in a scratchy voice. “I never would have let you talk me into this in Turkey if I hadn’t been such a mess.”

“But you did, and now we’re here. Get your jacket on.”

She caught him looking at his reflection in the rearview mirror. “Looks like someone’s nervous to see the wifey,” she muttered.

“Ah, look. Acid-tongued Ava is back. I missed her so much while she slept.” Damien gave her a droll look. “Wait, no I didn’t.”

“You’re the one who dragged me out here.”

“Would you like to go back to Oslo?” He pulled the keys out of the ignition and tossed them to her. “Go ahead. Hope you can outrun Volund’s Grigori. Maybe you can scream again if they get close. Or maybe not. You’d pass out and hurt yourself if you did that.”

“Or maybe you can follow me and stop acting like a child.”

“Stop trying to manage me,” she croaked, her voice dry from sleep.

“For now you need to be managed.”

She licked her lips and Damien held up a bottle of water. Ava took it, drank, then handed it back, noticing the extra-grim expression on his face. Slightly mollified by the water, she softened her tone.

“Hey, Captain Sunshine, shouldn’t you be happier than this? You’re going to see your wife at the end of that trail.”

Damien only stared into the thick trees that surrounded them. “A piece of advice—Sari doesn’t like the word wife.”

“Why not?” Ava knew the Irin used the word “mate” more than wife, but she’d heard the scribes in Turkey use both on occasion.

“She was born in a time when the human term ‘wife’ implied property.” Then a rare smile flickered at the corner of his mouth. “And Sari is no male’s property. Now get your shoes on and lace them up tight. I don’t know everything that will meet us on that trail, but I do know this: there will be mud.”

They were somewhere in rural Norway, surrounded by blue and green. Steep green mountains laced with waterfalls cut against the clear blue sky. Blue-green water from the glacier melt. Ava knew they were somewhere in the fjords, but she wasn’t sure where.

The plane had taken them to Paris, then Berlin, then Damien had found a car and started driving. He didn’t tell her where, but she could read the signs. They’d headed west, then north. Through Hamburg and into Denmark. They’d taken a ferry that landed them in Bergen, then after a brief sleep in a small hotel, they’d started driving again.

Through mountain highways and on smaller ferries, they’d driven farther and farther into the Scandinavian countryside. Towns were quickly overcome by wilderness and an utter sense of isolation that Ava found comforting and frightening in equal measure. As she stepped out of the car, she felt as if she and Damien were the last two people on earth.

There was nothing but trees, sky, and a biting wind that carried the promise of rain.

She shivered, not only from the cold but also the memories of her dreams. Every night she dreamed of a dark forest. She thought she heard him, calling for her, running through the trees, trying to get back to her. In her dreams, she’d call for him, but no one would come. And then she’d weep the tears she no longer allowed herself in her waking hours. When she woke, they were cold on her face.

Ava locked away her grief and focused on the task ahead. Damien was pulling a backpack from the trunk of the small car they’d pulled over to the side of the road. She looked around into the forest.

“Is the car going to be safe here?”

“It will be fine. She’ll send someone down for it if she decides to let us stay. I know they keep some cars there, so they must have a place to park them out of the weather.”

“What do you mean, ‘if she decides to let us stay’?”

He shrugged. “She’ll allow you to stay, I’m sure, but she won’t want me.” He couldn’t hide the pain that crossed his face as he said, “She’ll be angry I showed up without an invitation.”

“But you said that you wouldn’t leave me here.” A wild flutter of panic filled her chest. Damien might have been the grumpiest travel companion she’d ever had, but she knew him. And she knew he’d saw off his right arm to keep her safe. “You promised—”

“Yes, I did.” He narrowed his eyes. “You let me worry about Sari. I’m not going anywhere.”

He buttoned up his jacket and threw on the pack. Then he walked over and tightened up the drawstring around her neck. “It’s colder here than you’re used to.”

“I’ve been in cold weather before.”

He shook his head. “Not like here.”

Ava batted his hand away and sneered. “Actually, exactly like here. A magazine sent me to the fjords a couple of years ago to cover a new luxury hotel that was built to be completely self-sustaining. And that was in November. I get it. It’s cold and wet and the weather changes in five minutes. Now stop fussing and let’s walk.”

“Good.” Ava couldn’t let his concern weaken her. She’d allowed herself to be soft and trusting with one man. She’d given him everything and he’d died. It wouldn’t happen again.