“And you listened to him?” Ridley asked, unable to hide the incredulity in his voice. “Why?”
“Because he voiced what I’d already been feeling,” Linnea explained with a half-shrug. “I didn’t feel safe in the palace, and he’d confirmed my fears.”
“And you told no one?” I asked.
“No.” She frowned. “I didn’t think I had time. I wanted to tell Mikko and my grandma. They must be worried sick.” She perked up then. “Have you talked to either of them? How are they doing?”
“We were in Storvatten helping the search for you, and we saw them both. They’re doing fine.” I glossed over it. I didn’t want to share my concerns about her husband, at least not until I heard everything she had to say.
“How did you escape from the palace without being seen?” Ridley returned to the subject at hand.
“The palace has a freshwater pool that connects to Lake Superior by a tunnel, so I just swam out that way. Since no one had spotted me coming out of my chambers, it was fairly easy,” Linnea said. “Once I was out in the lake, I had no idea where to go, so I just kept swimming. Then I remembered the stories my grandma had told me about Lake Isolera, so I decided to try to find it.”
“So you’ve been out here for…” I paused, trying to remember when Linnea had gone missing. “Ten days? How have you survived? What have you eaten?”
“I don’t know.” That seemed to puzzle her too. “I haven’t been hungry. I didn’t even realize it had been ten days. I thought maybe two or three.”
I glanced out at the lake behind her and remembered a line that Ridley had read from the fairy tale book on the train. The water of Isolera will sustain all who dream of it. There was some serious magic here. Maybe it was the near drowning, but its power had begun to unnerve me.
“Did you call for me?” I asked Linnea, pulling my gaze from the lake back to her. “In the lysa?”
“Yes!” Linnea beamed. “And I am so happy it worked! My grandma had trained me to use it in case of an emergency, but I’d never been very good. It uses so much energy, but I think the magic of this place helped strengthen me.”
“But why me?” I shook my head. “Why not your grandma or your husband?”
“I was afraid that if I got to Mikko or Nana, they would mistakenly alert the guards to search for me, and I don’t trust the guards,” Linnea explained. “I wasn’t sure if anyone without Skojare blood would be able to find Lake Isolera, and you were the only Skojare I knew who wasn’t connected with Storvatten.”
“So what do you want to do now?” Ridley asked. “Do you plan to go back to Storvatten?”
Linnea let out a heavy sigh, and for a moment she looked much older. “I don’t know. I know that I can’t stay here forever, and I miss Mikko desperately.”
She was staring down at the sand beneath her toes, which allowed Ridley and me to exchange a look. We were both surprised to hear that she missed Mikko. So far, our impression had been that she was in a marriage of obligation.
“Why don’t you come back with us to Doldastam?” Ridley suggested. “Once we get there, we can contact your family and decide what to do.”
I was eager to get going, so as soon as Linnea agreed, I went over to gather our winter clothes. They had completely dried, and when I looked up, I realized the sun had moved all the way across the sky. It felt like we’d been here for maybe 15 minutes, but it must’ve been much, much longer than that.
Linnea had swum here from Storvatten, so she had only her swimsuit. Fortunately, when she’d made the trek across land a week and a half ago, the weather had been a bit warmer, but I still wasn’t sure how she had made it.
I supposed she was like my mother—much tougher than she appeared. Skojare like my mom and Linnea had to be in order handle the harsh temperatures of swimming in a freezing lake during the winter.
Ridley gave her his jacket, and I gave her my jeans. That meant I’d be venturing out in only my leggings, which wasn’t ideal, but I would make due.
When we pushed through the branches the way we had come in, it was the strangest feeling. It was almost like a dream within a dream, where even after you awake, you’re still dreaming. It was totally dark when we emerged from Lake Isolera, which was very disorienting since the sun had somehow still been up there.
Fortunately, the snow had stopped. The moon was only a sliver, but the fresh snow reflected it, making it appear brighter. Thanks to the strings and broken branches I’d left behind on our trail, we were able to make it back to the SUV with relative ease.
But by the time we reached it, I could barely remember what Lake Isolera had looked like.
It was very late on Monday night when Ridley pulled the SUV in front of the palace in Doldastam. Ridley and I had taken shifts driving on the way back, the same way we had on the way there, but we were both tired and sore from the long journey. Linnea, on the other hand, sat up in the backseat, wide eyed and excited the whole time.
She’d hardly seen any of the world outside of Storvatten, and even though most of our trip involved empty roads and wide open spaces, Linnea still watched out the window with rapt interest. For what little interaction she had with the human world—when we’d stopped at gas stations and boarded the train—she almost exploded with delight.
We’d disguised her gills as best we could by giving her a scarf to wrap around her neck, and she’d worn one of my hoodies and a pair of jeans. My clothes were a bit big on her, but that worked in the case of the sweatshirt. It gave the hood ample room to cover her curls and drape over her gills.
Two Högdragen stood guard just outside the front door of the palace—a new feature since the whole “war” had started—and they stopped us, as if Viktor Dålig would knock politely on the front door if he came to assassinate the King.
One of the Högdragen was Kasper Abbott, Tilda’s boyfriend—well, fiancé now. The streetlamps made the silver flourishes on his black uniform shimmer. His black curls were gelled perfectly into place, and his beard was immaculately groomed. He stood at attention, but he gave me a quizzical look as Ridley, Linnea, and I approached them.
“The palace is closed for the night,” the first guard informed us.
“We have business with the King,” Ridley replied.
“What business do you have with the King?” Kasper asked, and he glanced away from me over to Linnea, who was still hidden in the oversized hooded sweatshirt.