Frigid air clawed its way under the pelts piled atop Vhalla Yarl, hunting out her warmth to herd it away only as winter could. She rolled over, jarred awake by a searing pain in her shoulder. Wincing inwardly, she eased off the wound, her hand instinctually reaching to rub it. It throbbed and itched worse with each passing day. Elecia was doing all she could to heal it, but healing supplies were severely limited. Even for a sorcerer of the woman’s caliber, there was only so much that could be done to quicken the healing process.
Vhalla rubbed her eyes and pushed herself to a seated position. Her companions rested where they had finally collapsed the day prior, the after effects of the mental exhaustion. Fritz breathed heavily to her left, huddled against Elecia. Jax lay to Vhalla’s right. The Northern princess and her guard curled in on each other, slumbering in the corner.
Her eyes met the Westerner’s, and Vhalla inquisitively searched his gaze. Jax understood her silent question, snaking a hand out from under the blankets and pointing to the doorway. Vhalla stared at the vacant space to her immediate right, the vacancy that had let the cold in. One of her companions was not as she had left them.
Easing herself slowly up, Vhalla crept out of the bedroom, pulling a heavy blanket around her shoulders. The main room was empty. Fire smoldered in the recesses of the hearth, offering little to ward off the chill. It was easy to take stock of the Charem family home; there was the room in which the guests slept, the loft above that held Fritz’s family, and the main room in which she now stood. Her eyes fell on the boots lined up by the door, and her gaze noted the empty space between two pairs.
Booted and bundled, Vhalla ventured into the early twilight morning. The moon and stars still offered as much light as the early tendrils of dawn. The world of heavy snow and skeleton trees was void of color. It seemed as if it was withholding life until those horrors that had been unleashed upon the land were sorted out.
A line of footprints led away from the front door. Vhalla struggled through the deep snowdrifts on her short legs. She followed the tracks up a short ridge toward a sitting figure looking over the small quick-moving stream that the Charems used as their primary source of water.
The Emperor of Solaris sat as still as a statue. He was cut from midnight shadows and moonlight. The light dusting of snow looked like stars upon a night sky against the dark blanket over his shoulders. His skin was carved from alabaster, not even reddening by the cold. Vhalla wondered if a man with fire in his veins even felt the chill as she did.
She eased down next to him, their sides touching. She followed his line of sight, trying to see what so captivated his attention beyond the early morning’s horizon. She slowly took his hand in hers, lacing her fingers against his.
There was no lightning to his touch now, only heat. But even without the Bond, she knew how his mind worked. She felt his emotions like a phantom limb—a hollow and strange sensation of what should be there, of what her heart knew was there, but wasn’t. Vhalla finally drew her eyes to study his profile.
She had yet to find words to say to him. After the group’s proclamation that he was their true Emperor, he had announced that he was retiring early. Vhalla had gone with him, letting him draw whatever support he could from her presence. He had clung to her throughout the night, but withdrew before the sun rose.
She wanted to find the right words. She wanted to say something to give him strength, to remind him of all he still had. She wanted to say something that wouldn’t echo as a false display of support. But it would all be empty solutions to a problem that they both know couldn’t be fixed. What did one say to a man who had lost everything but gained the world?
“Aldrik,” she began weakly.
“We need to move.” His voice was stronger than she expected, and it gave her pause. “You said there was a messenger.”
Vhalla nodded, though she wasn’t sure how he saw the motion. His eyes still had yet to leave that distant point on the horizon.
“There will be others, many others. Victor is clearly trying to make a quick claim for the Empire, before any have an opportunity to group against him,” he spoke mechanically, emotionlessly. His mind was moving faster than the wind, but his heart seemed like it had stopped altogether.
“Aldrik,” Vhalla tried again, a little stronger.
He continued without giving her his attention, “We need to unite the people faster than he can, under the banner which they have been fighting for—the Solaris banner. We must protect them.”
She tugged firmly on his hand, and his head finally swung to her. His eyes were listless, only the hint of red at the edges betrayed that a piece of his heart had survived the latest blow. A heart that had been shattered with the death of his brother no more than days before.
A weak condolence stopped before it could pass her lips. Vhalla swallowed it down. She pressed her mouth into a firm line, giving him a nod. “We will protect your people.”
The knot in his neck bobbed as he swallowed hard. Her arms slipped out from under the blanket, wrapping tightly around his shoulders and pulling him to her. His hands found life again and tugged her toward him and onto his lap, swaddling her under his blanket against his warmth.
The pads of his fingers dug into her side and shoulder. It felt as though they were trying to meld back into one mind and one body, as they had once before with the Bond. Aldrik’s face buried in the side of her neck, and Vhalla stared at nothing as his breath seeped through her layers to her skin.