Thor and I didn’t talk on the trip back into Apricum city. Trollhetta mountain was half a days’ walk from the city, but it took us twice that time, because I didn’t want to wear Thor out.
He was uncharacteristically silent, and I wasn’t sure if it was just because he was tired, or if he was ashamed. Either way, I welcomed the silence, as it gave me time to think over what he had told me.
Freyja wanted me to reclaim my throne.
We had talked about it, once, five years ago. We’d both only been fourteen, but the possibility had always been there. Freyja was the only person who knew about who I had once been; as Lilly’s daughter, she’d been in the palace with me, and we’d always been close. I hadn’t known that she had told Thor, though. Both he and Finn had been too young to remember anything. I never told Finn about who our parents were; I just told him that they had been killed when King Vegard invaded - which was true; so many people had died in the first few days of invasion, Finn never questioned it, and telling him would do no good, since there was little that could be done to change our situation.
Well. Little I was willing to do.
Truth was, I had loved my parents very dearly, but the crown was not something I had ever truly wanted. I had accepted it as inevitable - something that would happened, whether I wanted it to or not. Just before the invasion, I had even asked Papa if I could start sitting in on council meetings once I turned thirteen, and asked Mama for help handling the press. I might not want to to rule, but since I had to, I was determined to do a good job at it.
They had died a week after I’d talked to them. I’d never had to start my true Princess Preparation. And although their deaths cut me deeply, a big part of me was relieved to be free of the responsibility. I knew that being an assassin for hire wasn’t exactly ideal, but it gave me the freedom to make my own hours; it made me invisible when I needed to be, and no one cared what I wore, what I said or who I married. As an assassin, I never had to marry if I didn’t want to, and children were so far from being a requirement, it was almost ironic - in my current line on work, they were more hindrance no assassin could afford.
But if Thor knew about me, how long would it be until Finn found out? And what would he say then?
Because much as I was loathe to take on the Royal mantle again, it didn’t have to be me. If Finn truly wanted the crown, I could abdicate for him; but not now. He was too young. Which meant that if he did want to reclaim the throne, I would have to rule for eight years, until he was of age.
The thought made me shudder.
The petty world of royalty was nowhere I wanted Finn to go. The working ladies in the Red District might sell their bodies for a living, but they were a tight-knit group that looked out for each other with a fierce loyalty. They’d taken me and Finn into the fold because of Freyja, and because they all slept better knowing that if there was any problem - any customer that crossed a line, or if a fight broke out between men, with a girl in the middle, I was on hand to help.
Having a renowned assassin looking out for the girls generally meant no one messed with them.
I did worry about the things that Finn saw, but I also hoped that growing up where he did, he might grow to be a more compassionate, a kinder man than the thugs we saw. He always looked scared of the men that walked around at night, but lately I’d seen something other than fear in his eyes that made me believe he was starting to understand better - and his fear was turning into anger.
As we neared the middle of the forest, I told Thor to stop.
“We’ll sleep here for what’s left of the night, then go into the city proper in the day.”
He nodded and sat down, leaning back against a tree trunk.
I studied him, sadly. If there was one thing that I didn’t like about living in the Red District, it was how fast it made the children there grow. There were lines and a weariness in Thor’s face that had no place being on an eleven year old boy.
I sighed. “You okay? Want me to set up a fire?”
He looked at me and shook his head. “It’s warm enough, thanks.” He poked at the ground with a stick, before looking back up at me. “Will you do it?”
I had a feeling he didn’t mean build a fire.
He poked at the ground again, harder this time, and the stick snapped. “Kill King Vegard.”
I looked away, uncomfortable.
“Freyja said you could do it. You’ve killed many people, Helga, why not him?”
It dawned on me that maybe Freyja hadn’t told him about me. He said she’d told her friend I’d ‘change the world’, but never mentioned how. I smiled ruefully and shook my head.
“It’s complicated, Thor.”
I sighed. “If I killed the King, his son would take his place. And I’m not sure that would be much better.”
He shook his head. “Then kill the son too.”
I laughed at that. How simple his world must be. Have a problem? Kill it and be done with it. That should be my new motto.
“Then who would rule?”
Thor looked at me as he settled down on the floor, his head propped up against a root like a pillow. “Dunno,” he mumbled sleepily. His eyes closed, and he smiled softly. “You’d be a cool Queen, Helga.”
I watched him as his breathing evened out and sleep took him before letting out the breath I’d been holding.
A cool Queen. Hear that, Mama? I’d be a cool Queen.
When morning came, it brought the sun with it. I hadn’t slept a wink all night, keeping watch over Thor and thinking about what could be. I spent the night remembering the visit of the family that would slaughter mine, months after their diplomatic visit.
But as the sun peeked out over the top of the mountains, I felt my body grow alert, and my mind snapped to attention, all stray thoughts about a life that was no more, scattering to the wind.
I stood as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and felt like running; anything to get out of the cover of the trees, to stand in the path of the warmth and invigorating energy flowing from the star.
A smile - the first genuine one since I’d woken up in the cell - spread out across my face as rays of light streaked through tree branches, touching the floor, painting the world in golden hues, and filling me with energy.
Oh, I had missed this.
All tiredness and pains from spending the night on the hard forest ground evaporated as my body filled with a humming, electrifying strength and energy. My pores drank up the warmth like a parched man in the deserted when he finds water.
I could have stayed standing there all day, but eventually the rush died down a little, and my mind was able to focus again. I shook Thor awake and we set off. I was acutely aware that while I could go on days with the sun alone sustaining me, Thor would be getting hungry and thirsty.
“We’ll find some food and water on the way,” I told him. We were in the lower part of the fiord, which mean that we’d have to pass by water before we reached the city.
He nodded, looking happy at the thought of food and water.
“Didn’t you bring any provisions with you?” I asked curiously.
“I didn’t think it through properly, I guess,” he said, avoiding my gaze.
I sighed. “Did you even tell Freyja where you were going?”
“Well, sort of. I left her a note.”
I shook my head. “She’s going to murder me.”
“She can try,” she said, smiling.
I levelled him a stern gaze. “And if she does, I’ll let her. If Finn had pulled this shit…”
“You’d kill him, not her.”
“She can’t blame you for my stupidity.”
I didn’t answer. Thor made it no secret that he wanted to follow me into the assassin profession. I wasn’t as sure as he seemed to be that Freyja wouldn’t blame me even a little for not doing less to discourage his aspirations; they had no doubt fuelled his desire to come looking for me - he felt he needed to prove that he could look after himself.
Truth was, killing for hire was as good as any other job out there - and it payed better than most. And while Freyja might not want her little brother to become a killer, I very much doubted she wanted him to follow in her footsteps either. And Thor would never settle for anything as mundane as being a merchant. Maybe a guard, but I don’t think Freyja would allow that on principle alone.
I tried not to think about Finn’s future. I wanted better for him. But he was more subdued than Thor; maybe he’d be happy with a merchant’s job; it paid well enough.
We walked a few more miles before reaching a stream. While Thor drank, I caught two fish, using one of the knives I’d taken from the guards in the cave to gut them, then quickly heated them in my hands.
I didn’t want to stay out in the open for too long, so after I’d had a drink myself, the two of us set off again, eating out fish as we went.
“This is so cool,” Thor said happily, his mouth still half full of fish.
I grimaced at him, and he grinned. “What is?”
“Your powers. I wish I had powers.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, smiling. “What kind of powers would you want to have?”
He thought about while he chewed. “I’d like to be super fast,” he eventually told me.
“So you can win all the races?”
“Well, yeah. But also so I could run away, to another kingdom.”
“What about Freyja?”
“I’d be super strong too and carry her there.”
I smiled. “That sounds lovely.”
“Yeah,” he said, chucking the bones of his fish to the ground. “Shame it’s impossible. Hey, do you think Finn will have powers? Like, did all your family have them?”
I nodded. “It ran in my Papa’s family, it -” I stopped. I’d almost told him that all the original Royal families had powers; if it ran in the King’s family, it was a handy way of identifying offspring, even if it was illegitimate - children of the rayon bloodline always had powers. I sighed. “Yes, I think Finn will have them soon.”
“Cool. Does he know?”
I eyed him. “Of course he knows.”
He nodded. “He’s so lucky. He’ll be able to do whatever he wants, just like you.”
If only you knew what all I could do, Thor. If only you knew.