Getting out of Soppel is harder than getting in. The Trolls are watching every street and alley along the edge of Helssund City, so it’s the rooftops for me. I thank the Gods for my long, athletic legs as I leap from building to building. The roofs are close together since most traffic in Helssund is on foot. It’s the wider streets where horses and oxen pull wagons or where the city planners had hoped for tree-lined avenues that cause a problem. I can avoid most of them, but on more than one attempt, I falter and an unsteady foot slips over the lip of a building. It sends a shock of fear through me, but I recover to do it all again. Finding Aunt Grais is that important to me.
Fear hangs like thick, damp fog, making my shirt stick to my back and my hump itch. I have arrived—the street she always walks down on her way home from her factory job. In the dark of late evening, I lower myself to the street using a rusted drainpipe bolted to the side of an abandoned building. It creaks under the strain of my big body, but my imagination makes it sound louder than it really is. Maybe Ansel is right. I should have stayed in Soppel to wait for more information. If Aunt Grais is in trouble, the Hels might help. I could be making it worse by venturing out on my own. I drop the last meter to the ground and land with bended knees and a head full of doubt.
Footsteps. The staccato ticking of stilettos makes me smile. It’s Aunt Grais. I duck into a dark doorway, out of sight, just in case. The stale smell of old piss burns my nose.
“Where have you been?” says a deep baritone. Apparently, I’m not the only one hiding in wait for my aunt. I push deeper into the doorway.
“You scared me,” gasps Aunt Grais. Her voice quavers with fear.
“I told you to come straight home after work, didn’t I?” It’s Knull. His large, hulking Troll body fills the streetlight and towers over Aunt Grais by almost an arm’s-length. He must be off duty because he’s dressed in regular pants and a leather jacket instead of his Commune Security Patrol uniform. A flat, narrow-rimmed cap covers most of his short, gray-flecked orange hair. Dim, yellow light from the streetlamp reflects off his moist pig-like snout and hides his blotchy, pink flesh. He’s unarmed except for the crowd stick hanging from his belt.
“I, I was just on my way—”
“Shut up! I know where you were. My patrols saw you talking to that traitor Brogan Dock.” Knull hovers over Aunt Grais and the end of his pink snout-like nose wiggles as it sniffs her hair. She takes a small, tentative step back, and his shadow passes over her like an eclipse.
“We were just . . . he’s a friend from work. That’s all,” she sputters. I want to run to her, to protect her. I grab the door’s grimy handle to hold myself back. My other hand drifts to the hilt of my homemade sword. But the time is not right. A fight with Knull now would not end well. I can feel it.
“Grais, you need to stay away from him.” Knull grabs Aunt Grais’ arms to emphasize his point. She winces as if it hurts. “The others won’t understand, not like me. I don’t want you to be mistaken for a Rebel sympathizer when we start the purge. Do you understand?”
Aunt Grais’ curls spring with affirmation. A thin line of saliva hangs from the corner of Knull’s mouth, and I nearly vomit when he leans in to kiss her. My eyelids drop like shutters to block seeing it, but I’ll never be able to un-hear that sloppy wet sound. When I open my eyes, Aunt Grais is alone, looking sad and defeated. Once I’m sure Knull is gone, I step forward. I don’t want to scare her again. Plus, I can’t be sure how she’ll react. What if she shouts? I have to trust her, so I take another step. A small piece of broken glass pops under my boot.
“Aunt Grais,” I say softly. The sound of my voice interrupts her trance, but it takes a minute for her to understand it’s me. I can’t breathe. My heart’s racing. The chill night breeze gives me gooseflesh.
“It’s me, Aunt Grais,” I smile and move slowly forward. My insides lurch when she backs away. Fear of her rejection stops me in my tracks. Time stands still. The future is about to fork. Which way will it go? I slow down my breathing to calm myself, afraid to hear what I fear most.
“They told me you were dead,” she whispers as if that’s enough to make me disappear again. I remain quiet. She looks smaller and frailer than I remember. Her legs wobble as she tries to steady herself on her stilettos. She’s wearing narrow-legged slacks and a knit sweater over her favorite blue blouse, the one I got her for her birthday. Her loose curls sway along with her head as she shakes it in disbelief or fear. I can’t tell which.
“My . . . I stopped when I heard. Just stopped.” She wobbles again on her heels, but still, she stays away.
“I’m here.” I try the smile again. It feels like chipping ice. Little by little Aunt Grais is coming back; I know it. She’s just shocked to see me, that’s all.
“I stopped fearing. I stopped feeling. Before, I was so afraid to lose you,” she murmurs and steps toward me. “My brother, Astrid, you . . . all dead.” Her gaze hardens and she shows a resolve I’ve never seen before; she’s made a decision. “I can’t do it again. I can’t!”
“Aunt Grais, I’m all right. You can come with me. You’ll be safe. I can take you—” I try to grab her hand.
“No! You don’t understand.” She shakes herself out of my grasp. “I stopped . . . I stopped being afraid when they told me you had died! I had no one left to fear losing. I’ve been afraid my whole life; it’s like a cage. The drugs . . . they helped until it was just a different cage. Now, I’m free. I’m not afraid.” She grabs my arm and shakes me like she’s trying to wake me. “I can’t go back to being afraid, Linden. I can’t.” She stares at me, unspeaking, for a long time. There’s something she wants to say. She’s digging deep, searching for her courage. When she’s ready, my heart stops.
“You must be dead to me, or I can’t do what I have to do,” Aunt Grais whispers.
Suddenly, I realize that I’m not chipping ice, I’m digging my grave. How can caring about someone make being without them easier? I don’t understand how she can think this. It’s me! I want to scream and shake her and tell her she can’t leave me, not like this.
Aunt Grais releases my arm with a sob-wracked sigh and walks away. I watch her disappear only to reappear smaller under each streetlight. I’m left standing alone in the center of a damp, oily street when she rounds the corner and the clicking of her stilettos stops, forever.
Damn you, Thor, always pounding me down, one bash after another. Why do you hate me so? I wish you would just strike the fatal blow and get it over with. Aunt Grais is right. It would be better if I were dead.
Thanks for reading more about Linden's adventures in Valhalla. I hope you liked it. Wings of Affliction is almost finished. Stay tuned for more information on how to get your copy. Feel free to share this excerpt with others, but please do not use it for any other purpose. Thanks, Lori