Earth's End Page 4

“To show you that if you don’t do this, he will die,” Elecia whispered. “Your attempt is foolish and very likely to kill you and him. He would be upset with me for supporting it. But I value his life far more than yours.”

Vhalla gave a weak little chuckle. “We have more in common than we previously thought.” She smiled and received a small smile in return.

“I will hold up my end of the bargain; I will keep him alive for seven more days, at least. You have my word,” Elecia vowed. “It won’t be that long.” Vhalla stared at her prince, her chest filling with painful longing. She cupped his cheek gently, but he didn’t stir. “I will be the wind.”

“Here.” Elecia held out a few papers. “That’s what I need from the first riders and the main host behind them. Take that to Head Major Jax; no one else.”

Vhalla recognized the name of the Head Major of the Black Legion and accepted the parchment along with a compass.

“Jax will take care of Aldrik. I trust him.” Elecia’s confidence made Vhalla take note of this person. Clearly he had passed some tests with this woman, a woman with whom Vhalla was working to build a rapport.

The Windwalker turned once more to the comatose prince. She wasn’t going to say that fateful word of farewell. Instead, boldly, Vhalla leaned forward and placed a kiss on his chapped and broken lips. Elecia didn’t move or make comment, her silence speaking volumes of her acceptance of Vhalla’s relationship with the crown prince.

Baston was kept on the edge of camp, and Vhalla walked from Aldrik’s tent in dread-filled silence. There was a woman in Vhalla who was self-assured, confident, and capable. It was a woman who would save her prince—again—and conquer the North. She clashed starkly with the girl who wanted to hide her grief-filled face from the world, to curl under Aldrik’s blankets and leave their fate to the Gods. If they lived or died they would do it at each other’s side.

The War-strider didn’t neigh or stomp as Vhalla approached. She held out her hand and it waited expectantly. Her palm rested on Baston’s large nose, dwarfed by its size. The horse huffed impatiently. Vhalla’s mouth curled upward in sorrowful understanding. She was impatient as well.

“I’ve never seen him let another approach him,” a woman whispered in the night.

Vhalla and Elecia turned, panicking that they had been discovered. Major Reale stood a few steps away, her arms laden with chainmail and a small messenger bag. Neither said anything to the older woman.

“You think you can go like that?” The major assessed Vhalla with her one good eye. “The Northerners will strike you down in no time.”

“I’m lighter this way.” Vhalla remained by Baston’s side, ready to mount and run if the woman before her was some kind of trap.

“Wouldn’t you rather have the chainmail he crafted protecting you, at least?”

Vhalla’s hands froze.

Major Reale laughed deeply but kept her voice hushed. “You think we haven’t put two and two together? We’re all loyal to the prince, but I’m not sure if any of us would jump off a cliff for someone we weren’t in love with.” She crossed to Vhalla, handing over the chainmail Aldrik had made before Vhalla left the palace.

“Where did you get this?” Vhalla whispered.

“Our fake Windwalker has your armor,” Major Reale explained. Vhalla was shocked to hear one of her doppelgangers was still alive. “I’ve been in the Tower for some time—many of us older sorcerers have. I helped train Aldrik when he was a boy.”

Surprise stilled her. It was always strange to think of Aldrik as anything other than the stoic prince she’d come to know.

“I’ve seen our prince grow. I’ve seen him high and low, strong and not as strong as he wanted people to think.” There was a glimmer of truth in the major’s Southern blue eye. “I have never seen him act as he does around you, Vhalla Yarl. And I am smart enough to know that you also happen to be our best chance of saving his life.”

Vhalla put on her chainmail in numb humility. It still fit her perfectly.

The major handed her the bag next. “A small bit of food—don’t worry, not enough to laden you—and a message from me for Major Jax.” At Vhalla’s inquisitive stare, Major Reale explained, “I want to make it well known what you did—are doing—for our prince.”

Vhalla was putting Elecia’s note and compass in the bag as her eyes caught a glint of silver.

“And a weapon.”

Vhalla retrieved the small throwing dagger she had purchased with Daniel in the Crossroads. Elecia quickly helped her strap it to her arm.

“Why are you doing all this?” Vhalla whispered. This was more than a subject’s love for their prince. Major Reale knew she would face the Emperor’s displeasure for helping Vhalla run.

“Because no matter how far we go, the Tower takes care of its own.”

The major’s words stilled the tempest of emotion in Vhalla’s heart, just for one moment. The soldiers on both sides of the tent, Elecia, and now the major; Vhalla had no idea how many countless others were fighting their own battle as sorcerers in a world that held no love for them. She clenched her fists.

“Now, go.” Major Reale gave a quick glance over her shoulder. “Everyone will wake when that monster stomps out of here. But you don’t look back, Yarl, do you understand me?”

Vhalla nodded, swinging up into Baston’s saddle. It felt like she was on the back of a giant. The War-strider was taller than some men she had known, and the power beneath her was reassuring.

“Keep your word,” Elecia whispered as she stepped away. “You keep yours.” Vhalla met those emerald eyes for one last moment as she and Elecia sealed their pact for the prince’s life.

Major Reale and Elecia quickly disappeared under brush cover, leaving Vhalla alone. Vhalla took the reins in her hands, gathering her courage with them. She gave one last glance to the makeshift shelter where the crown prince rested. Her heart pumped the pain and guilt from her chest into her veins and Vhalla felt it bubble throughout her body with agonizing speed.

She kicked Baston’s sides and felt the horse sway as Vhalla put the wind under his hooves. But the War-strider was a smart beast, quick to trust the rider he had deemed worthy, and he carried Vhalla away from the camp that was quickly waking into chaos, past the black-plated solders on the perimeter, and into the dark unknown.

THE DENSE FOREST canopy barely allowed any moonlight to reach the floor below. Tree branches scratched Vhalla’s legs through her clothes as she rode, nearly blind, away from camp and into the dark wood. The noises of the Imperial soldiers waking were quickly left behind, their echoes fading into the whizzing of underbrush on either side.

Vhalla’s heart competed with Baston’s hooves for the loudest sound in the forest. This was either the smartest or the dumbest thing she had ever done. Vhalla pressed closer to Baston, trying to make herself as small as possible to avoid being de-horsed by a low tree limb. She was abandoning her post; she was ignoring the will of the Emperor—the man who owned her.

One act of defiance after the next, she had made her choice. From the moment she had rallied the troops at the Pass, she had drawn a line in the sand between her and the Emperor. He may own her physical being, but he did not own her heart or mind.

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