20. Orm

Willa wore all black, but the hem of her skirt only came to the middle of her thigh. At least she had classed it up a little for the funeral. My eulogy had gone over well, or about as well as a eulogy could go over. Nobody had cried for the Chancellor, and that seemed sad to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to cry for him either.

His funeral had been held in one of the larger meeting rooms in the palace. Black flowers and black candles decorated the room. I’m not sure who had planned the funeral, but it looked like a Goth kid at a Cure concert had thrown up here.

After they took the Chancellor away to bury him in the palace cemetery, most of us stayed behind. He didn’t have any family or friends, and I’m not entirely sure how he got elected in the first place.

The mood was decidedly somber, but I don’t think that actually had much to do with the funeral. All the guests in attendance were muttering, whispering, huddled in corners talking quietly, and they kept glancing at me. I heard the word “painting” floating through the air like a breeze.

I stood off to the side of the room, talking mostly with Willa and Tove. Ordinarily, any of the royals would be eager to make some kind of small talk with me, but today, they all avoided me. Which was just as well. I didn’t have much I wanted to say to any of them.

“When is it polite for us to leave?” Willa asked, swirling her champagne around in her glass. I think she’d already had a couple glasses more than she should have, and she hiccupped daintily before covering her mouth with her hand. “Excuse me.”

“I think we’ve been here long enough.” Tove scanned the room, and some people had already left. His mother and father hadn’t been able to make it at all, and my mother could barely move, so she was still on bed rest.

“Whenever is fine with me,” I said.

“Good.” Willa set her glass on a nearby table, some of the bubbly pink liquid sloshing over the top. She looped her arm through mine, more to steady herself, and we left the room.

 “Well, that went well,” I sighed, plucking a black flower from my hair as we went down the hall.

“Really?” Tove asked. “Because I thought that went horribly.”

“I was being sarcastic.”

“Oh.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked beside me. “It could’ve been worse, I guess.” 

“You should’ve drunk more,” Willa said. “That’s how I made it through that thing. And you’re lucky you’re my best friend, or I wouldn’t have gone at all.”

“You need to start doing more stuff like that, Willa,” I told her. “You’re so good at handling people, and someday you might need to do it.”

“Nope, that’s your job,” she smiled. “I lucked out. I’m free to be the naughty drunk friend.”

I tried to argue with Willa about the merits of being a good Trylle citizen. She schmoozed much better than I ever could, and she was a great ally, when she put her mind to it. But right now, she was too tipsy to see reason in anything.

She was giggling at something I’d said when we reached the rotunda. Garrett was coming down the stairs, but he stopped halfway when he saw us. His hair was a mess, his shirt was untucked, and his eyes were red-rimmed.

As soon as his eyes met mine, I knew.

“Elora,” I breathed.

“Wendy, I’m sorry,” Garrett said, his voice thick with tears, and he shook his head.

I knew he wasn’t lying, but I had to see it for myself. I pulled my arm from Willa’s and lifted my black gown so I could race up the stairs. Garrett tried to reach out for me, but I ran past him. I didn’t slow at all, not until I got to my mother’s room.

She lay in bed, her body more of a skeleton. The sheets were pulled up to her chest, and her hands were folded neatly over her stomach. Even her hair had been brushed and smoothed, shimmering silver around her. Garrett had arranged her the way she would’ve wanted him to.

I knelt down next to her bed. I’m not sure why, except I felt compelled to be near her. I took her hand, cold and stiff in my own, and that’s when it hit me. Like a wave of despair I hadn’t even known I was capable of, I began to sob, burying my face in the blankets beside her.

I hadn’t expected to feel this much. Her death felt as if the ground had been pulled out from under me. Epic blackness stretched on forever to catch me.

There were things her death would signify, consequences I wasn’t ready for, but I didn’t even think about that. Not at first.

I clung to her, sobbing, because I was a daughter who had lost her mother. Despite our rocky relationship, she did love me, and I did love her. She was the only person that knew what it was like to be Queen, to give me advice, to shepherd me into this world, and she was gone.

I allowed myself an afternoon to really feel the loss, to feel the new hole that had been torn inside of me. That was all the time I had to mourn Elora, and then I had so much more I needed to do. But for that one afternoon, I let myself cry over everything we’d never been able to have, and the moments we’d shared that were worth treasuring.

Willa eventually pulled me away from Elora’s body so Garrett could begin the funeral arrangements, and she took me to Matt’s room. He hugged me and let me cry, and I’d never been more grateful for my brother. Without him, I’d feel like an orphan.

Tove stayed with me in Matt’s room, not saying anything, and eventually, Duncan joined us. I sat on the floor with my back leaning against the bed, and Matt sat beside me. Willa had sobered up rather quickly, and she sat on the bed behind me, her long legs draped over the edge.

“I hate to leave you like this, but I think I should I go help my father.” Willa touched my head when she stood up. “He shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“I can help him.” I started to push myself up, but Matt put his hand on my arm.

“You can help tomorrow,” Matt said. “You’re going to have a lot to do. Today, you can be sad.”

“Matt’s right,” Willa said. “I can handle this for now.”

“Alright.” I settled back down and wiped my eyes. “We need to keep this to ourselves if we can. Keep her death quiet, and hold off on the funeral for as long as possible. I don’t want the King to find out.”

“He will eventually,” Willa said gently.

“I know.” I rested my elbows on my knees and turned to Tove. “How long do I have until I’m Queen?”

“Three days,” Tove said. He leaned back against Matt’s dresser, his legs crossed at the ankle. “Then somebody has to be coroneted.”

“So we have three days.” I let out a deep breath, my mind racing with all the things that had to be done.

“We’ll keep this quiet,” Duncan said. “You can arrange a private funeral.”

“We can’t keep the death of the Queen secret forever,” I said. “We have to begin to prepare now.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Willa said, offering me an apologetic smile. “Take care, okay?”

“Of course,” I nodded absently.

She gave Matt a quick kiss before leaving. Duncan came over and crouched down in front of me. His dark eyes were sympathetic, but I saw a fierce determination in them too.

“What do you need me to do, Princess?” Duncan asked.

“Duncan, not now,” Matt said sternly. “Wendy just lost her mother. She’s not in the right frame of mind.”

“I don’t have time to get in the right frame of mind,” I said. “We have three days before I’m Queen. If we’re lucky, we have four or five days until Oren comes to claim his prize. I’ve already taken too much time crying over Elora’s death. When this is all over with, I can mourn her. But now, I need to work.”

“I should tell Thomas,” Tove said. “He needs to have the trackers ready.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “When Willa gets back, she needs to talk to the refugees from Oslinna. I’m sure some of them will want to fight against the Vittra that killed their families and destroyed their town.”

“What are you going to do?” Tove asked.

“I still have to find a way to stop the King,” I said, and I looked up at Duncan. “And Duncan’s going to help me.”

Matt tried to protest. He thought I needed to process what was happening, and maybe he was right. But I didn’t have the time. Duncan took my hand and helped me to my feet. Tove opened the bedroom door to leave, but he stepped aside, letting Finn come into the room.

“Princess,” Finn said, his dark eyes on me. “I came to see if you were alright.”

“Yes.” I smoothed out my black dress, wrinkled from me sitting on the floor for so long.

“I’m going to talk to Thomas,” Tove said.

“I’ll wait outside for you,” Duncan offered. He gave me a small smile before hurrying out after Tove.

Matt, however, stood next to me. His arms were crossed firmly over his chest, and his blue eyes were like ice as he stared at Finn. I was actually grateful for Matt’s distrust. It used to be that I would kill to get a moment alone with Finn, but now I had no idea what to say to him anymore.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother,” Finn said simply.

“Thank you.” I wiped at my eyes again. I’d stopped crying a while ago, but my cheeks were still sticky and damp from tears. 

“She was a great Queen,” Finn said, his words carefully measured. “As you will be.”

“We have yet to see what kind of Queen I will be.” I ran a hand through my curls and gave him a thin smile. “I have much to do before I am to be Queen, and I’m sorry, but I really must get to it now.”

“Yes, of course.” Finn lowered his eyes, but not before I saw the hurt flash in them for a moment. He’d grown accustomed to me turning to him for comfort, but I didn’t need him anymore. “I didn’t mean to keep you.”

“It’s quite alright,” I said and turned to Matt. “Will you accompany me?”

“What?” Matt sounded surprised, probably because I hardly asked him to do anything with me anymore. So much of what I did involved the business of the palace, and I couldn’t let a mänsklig tag along with me.

“I’m going down to the library,” I clarified. “Would you come with me?”

“Yeah, sure,” Matt nodded, almost eagerly. “I’d love to help you any way I can.”

Matt and I left his room, but Finn walked with us because he was going in the same direction. The trackers were doing most of their training in the first floor ballroom since it had the most space. Tove had already gone down to work with them, but Duncan had waited for us.

“How is the training coming?” I asked Finn, since he was beside me, and I needed to fill the space with something.

“It’s going as well as can be expected,” Finn said. “They are learning quickly, which is good.”

“Is Loki being of any help?” I asked, and Finn stiffened at the mention of Loki’s name.

“Yes, surprisingly.” Finn scratched at his temple and seemed reluctant to say anything nice about Loki. “He is much stronger than our trackers, but he’s done a fine job of teaching them how to maneuver. We will be unable to beat the Vittra hobgoblins with our strength, but we have the upper hand with our wits.”

“Good,” I nodded. “You know we only have a few days until the Vittra will come.”

“Yes,” Finn said. “We will work overtime until then.”

“Don’t overwork them,” I said.

“I will try not to.”

“And…” I paused, thinking of exactly how I wanted to phrase it. “If they can’t do it, if you don’t honestly believe they stand a chance against the Vittra, do not let them fight.”

“They stand a chance,” Finn said, slightly offended.

“No, Finn, listen to me.” I stopped and touched his arm, so he would stop and face me. His dark eyes still smoldered with something, but I refused to acknowledge it. “If our Trylle army cannot win against the Vittra, do not send them to fight. I will not let them all go on a suicide mission. Do you understand?”

“Some lives will be lost, Princess,” Finn answered cautiously.

“I know,” I admitted, hating that it was true. “But it is only worth losing some lives if we can win, otherwise the lives were lost for nothing.”

“What do you propose we do then?” Finn asked. “If the troops aren’t ready to fight the Vittra, what will you have us do?”

“You will do nothing,” I said. “I will take care of this.”

“Wendy,” Matt said. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t worry about it.” I started walking again, and they followed more slowly behind me. “I will handle things if it comes to that, but until then, we will continue with the plan. We will ready ourselves for war.”

I marched ahead, walking faster so I didn’t have to argue with Matt or Finn. Both of them wanted to protect me, but they couldn’t. Not anymore.

On the way to the library, we went past the ballroom. Finn went inside to finish the training, and I glanced in. All the trackers were sitting on the floor in a semi-circle around Tove and Loki. They were both talking, explaining what would need to be done.

“Should I go in with them?” Duncan asked, gesturing to the room of trackers.

“No.” I shook my head. “You come with me.”

“Are you sure?” Duncan asked, but he followed me down to the library. “Shouldn’t I be learning how to fight with the rest of them?”

“You won’t be fighting with the rest of them,” I replied simply.

“Why not?” Duncan asked. “I’m a tracker.”

“You’re my tracker,” I said. “I need you with me.” Before he could argue, I turned my attention to my brother. “Matt, we’re looking for books that have anything in them about the Vittra. We need to find their weaknesses.”

“Okay.” He looked around at ceiling-high shelves filled with books. “Where do I start?”

“Pretty much anywhere,” I said. “I’ve barely made a dent in these books.”

Matt climbed one of the ladders to reach the books at the top, and Duncan dutifully went along to start collecting books for himself.

While the history of the Vittra was interesting at times, it was irritating how little we knew about stopping them. So much of the Trylle past had been about avoiding them and making concessions. We’d actually never stood up to them.

By all accounts, Oren was the cruelest King the Vittra had had in centuries, maybe ever. He’d slaughtered the Trylle for sport and executed his own people for simply disagreeing with him. Loki was lucky to even be alive.

“What’s this say?” Matt asked. “It doesn’t even look like words.” He was sitting on one of the chairs on the far side of the room, and he pointed to the open book on his lap.

“Oh that?” Duncan was nearest to him, so he got up and leaned over Matt, looking at the book. “That’s Tryllic. It’s our old language to keep secrets from the Vittra.”

“A lot of the older stuff is written in Tryllic,” I said, but I didn’t get up. I’d found a passage about the Long Winter’s War, and I hoped it would give me something useful.

“What does it say?” Matt asked.

“Um, this one says… something about an ‘orm,’” Duncan said, squinting as he read the text. He didn’t know very much Tryllic, but since he spent so much time researching with me, he’d picked up some.

“What?” I lifted my head, thinking at first that he’d said Oren.

“Orm,” Duncan repeated. “It’s like a snake.” He tapped the pages and straightened up. “I don’t think this will be helpful. It’s a book of old fairy tales.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“We grew up hearing these stories,” Duncan shrugged and sat back down in his chair. “I’ve heard that one a hundred times.”

“What is it?” I pressed. Something about that word, orm, stuck with me.

“It’s supposed to explain how trolls came to be,” Duncan said. “The reason we split up in different tribes. Each of the tribes is represented by a different animal. The Kanin are rabbits, the Omte are birds, the Skojare are fish, the Trylle are foxes, and the Vittra are tigers, or sometimes lions, depending on who tells the story.”

The Kanin, Omte, and Skojare were the other three tribes of trolls, like the Trylle and Vittra. I’d never met any of them. From what I understood, only the Kanin were still doing reasonably well, but they hadn’t thrived as much as the Trylle or even the Vittra. The Skojare were all but extinct.

I’d only heard of five tribes, and all of the tribes were accounted for, yet Duncan had mentioned the orm.

“What about the orm?” I asked. “What tribe does that represent?”

“It doesn’t.” He shook his head. “The orm is the villain of the story. It’s all very Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I can’t tell it with the same flourish as my mom did before I went to bed,” Duncan said. “But the basic idea is that all the animals lived together and worked together. It was peace and harmony. Orm, which was this big snake-like creature, had lived for thousands of years, and he was bored. He watched all the animals living together, and for fun, he decided to mess with them.

“He went to each of the animals, telling them that they had to watch out for their friends,” Duncan went on. “He told the fish that the birds were plotting to eat them, the birds that the fox had set traps to ensnare them, and the rabbits that the birds were eating all their clover.

“Then the orm went to the tiger and told him that he was bigger and stronger than all the other animals, and he could eat them all if he wanted to,” he said. “The tiger realized he was right, and he began hunting the other animals. None of the animals trusted each other anymore, and they scattered.

“The orm thinks this is all funny and great, especially when he sees all the other animals struggling without their friends,” Duncan continued. “They had all been working together, and they couldn’t make it on their own.

“One day, the orm comes across the tiger, who is starving and cold,” Duncan said. “The orm begins to laugh at how pitiful the tiger is doing, and the tiger asks him why he’s laughing. When the orm explains how he tricked the tiger into betraying his friends, the tiger becomes enraged, and using his sharpest claw, he cuts off the orm’s head.

“Usually, the ending is told more dramatically than that, but that’s how it goes,” Duncan shrugged.

“Wait.”  I leaned forward on my book. “The Vittra killed the orm?”

“Well, yeah, the tiger represents the Vittra,” Duncan said. “Or at least that’s what my mom told me. But the tiger is really the only animal capable of cutting off the snake’s head. At best, a fox could just bite it and the birds could peck out its eyes.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” I asked, and it suddenly seemed so obvious to me. I pushed aside my book and jumped up.

“Wendy?” Matt asked, confused. “Where are you going?”

“I have an idea,” I said and ran out of the room.