Crystal Crowned Page 4

 Vhalla unfurled the vise-like grip she held on her reins and raised a hand to her shoulder, soaked through to skin from the heavily falling snow. Her fingers massaged the angry scar tissue. It ached and stung all the way down her arm. The physical pain was a mask for the visceral guilt that tore its way through her.

 This was her fault.

 “He didn’t spare anyone, did he?” Elecia whispered. Whatever had caused the carnage was long gone, but she still kept her voice low, in homage to the dead surrounding them.

 “Why didn’t they kneel?” Aldrik’s brows knotted together, deep lines appearing between them. He asked the question they all were thinking.

 “They never would’ve.” Fritz swayed in the breeze, nearly falling out of his saddle. Vhalla wondered if he’d known people in this town like she’d known people in the neighboring town to Leoul. “For centuries, the eldest in every family went to serve in the Imperial guard, back to when the South was just Lyndum.” The Southerner shook his head. “They’d never accept someone who wasn’t a Solaris on the throne.”

 Aldrik’s mouth pressed together into a scowl. Vhalla struggled to find something to relieve his pain, but there was nothing she could say when her guilt was just as heavy.

 “We’ll rest here until sunset,” Aldrik decided, pointing to a small tavern.

 The seven housed their mounts in the attached stables, alongside a tired-looking pony and a spooked mare. It was expectedly empty inside, void of both corpses and survivors.

 “Well, they still have ale,” Jax revealed from his inspection from behind the bar.

 “Leave it,” Aldrik ordered.

 “Just because you—”

 Aldrik silenced Jax with a pointed look that he quickly abandoned when he pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. “I will have no drunken stupors on this journey.”

 “One drink does not a stupor make.” Jax crossed his arms over his chest; it hid the slight tremble Vhalla had noticed in his hands when he had run them along the bar.

 Aldrik sighed heavily. “Do what you will. We move again at sundown. You should enjoy the beds while we have them.”

 Taking his own advice, Aldrik dragged his feet up the small stairs that presumably led to the inn’s rooms. Concern lined Jax’s forehead as his eyes followed the Emperor’s departure. Vhalla caught his look and gave a nod in affirmation, following on Aldrik’s heels.

 His cloak was already hanging to dry when she poked her nose in the crack of the doorway. Aldrik turned quickly at the sound, nearly crumpling from exhaustion when he saw it was only her. Vhalla eased the door shut behind her and rested her back against it.

 “These people served my family for centuries.” Aldrik started a small fire with a look, and Vhalla was relieved to see that, despite his mood, it did not flare out of control. “A whole town of them, sons and daughters, loyal to the Solaris name until their end. And I-I was never made aware.”

 “We will honor them.”

 “How? With what?” Aldrik’s voice had bite, but his expression was tired and his eyes searching.

 “Until this is over, we will have to carry their memory with us. But when we have fixed all this, we can do more,” she vowed, as much to him as to herself.

 “This is something that cannot be fixed.”

 Vhalla bit her lip thoughtfully. “For those face-first in the snow? No.” She squeezed her eyes closed with a soft sigh. Baldair was behind her eyes as the ghost who rode with them all, the man they’d had no time to properly mourn but were reminded of at every turn. “He seeks to turn the continent into this desolation, Aldrik. It is not too late for everyone still breathing. We fight for them. We honor the dead with a commitment to the living.”

 When Vhalla opened her eyes again, he stood before her. Aldrik considered her for a long moment. His long fingers rose to the ties of her cloak at her neck, and Vhalla let him slip the fabric off her shoulders. She let the warmth of his hands seep as deeply as it could into the icy brambles that had vined around her heart.

 “You’re soaking wet,” he breathed. “Aren’t you cold?”

 “Freezing,” she whispered in reply.

 “Fortunately for you, your future husband happens to command fire with his hands.” Aldrik watched her as his declaration settled onto her shoulders.

 “Truly?” It was hard to believe, even now, with the world as it was.

 “If you do not wish it, now would be the time to tell me.” The words could’ve been a jest, but they carried a serious note.

 Vhalla raised a hand to the watch at her neck. Its chain had barely missed being severed by Victor’s axe, the only pity fate had taken upon her. Aldrik followed her motion to the token he had given her the first time he had asked for her future to be spent at his side.

 “My love,” he sighed in relief, resting his forehead against hers.

 Their noses brushed against each other, and Vhalla pressed an exhausted kiss into his mouth. The day would permit no further affection than that, but she allowed herself to melt into it. Her lord, friend, and lover—if she didn’t ground her heart in something, it wasn’t going to survive the rest of their journey.

 They left promptly at sundown as Aldrik had instructed. Vhalla knew the man had hardly slept at all, but she was in no place to scold him for it, as she had spent most of the hours awake as well, haunted by the town’s stillness. On their departure, Vhalla held them up, insistently searching the town and bodies for a useable sword. When she found one, it was small, and not nearly as fine as anything she had used when training with Daniel, but the cold steel felt reassuring on her hip.

 The next afternoon, they stayed in the woods, which was far less comfortable than sleeping in one of the abandoned rooms of an inn, but it was easier mentally. Periodically throughout the day, Fritz used his Waterrunner abilities to command the snow to shift and hide their tracks, including the last hour or so before they broke camp. They rotated watches and slept huddled against each other.

 One night, they slept against a fallen tree, then in a cave, then out in the open. They passed abandoned homes, slaughtered towns, and places where the people were so silent and still they could have been dead. They walked parallel to the Great Imperial Way, which appeared and disappeared in the distance, through the trees and snowdrifts. But for all of their concerns and careful progress, they never saw another wandering soul.

 As the days and distance slipped by, silence became their primary companion. At first, they didn’t speak out of necessity and nerves, then out of respect for the dead, then out of fear of discovery. But it finally became the way of things, the world too much to be expressed with language. Vhalla began to yearn for Aldrik’s nightly whispers affirming his adoration when he took her into his arms so they could sleep hunched together. It was one of the few things that kept her strong.

 Vhalla lost track of the days. It could have been a week. It could have been a year.

 When they came across a small hunter’s hovel, she wanted to cry with relief. Abandoned, it offered an opportunity for them to get out of the cold and to dry out their boots. The front had mostly collapsed, but the remaining walls supported a pitched roof that stood in defiance of the snow.

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