“You will be Empress?” he whispered.
“She will be,” Aldrik answered this time.
Daniel cackled. “No, no, you won’t be. There is no throne for either of you any longer. Only blood.”
She watched as the shell of her friend, the man who could’ve been her lover, settled back after his decree. Daniel studied them with a wild glint to his eyes. A secret look that spoke of horrors only he knew.
Vhalla’s shoulder was so stiff the next morning that it was practically immobile. She hadn’t thought about how she had slept—pressed against Aldrik, scrunched up all night. She massaged it gingerly.
“What will we do about the horses?” Fritz asked with a glance at Daniel.
“We need to stop somewhere for supplies today,” Vhalla mused aloud. “We’ll see if we can find another.”
“Horses are rare,” Daniel spoke. “With everyone trying to flee the South. It’s why I-I was going to . . .” His eyes looked at the faint red line at her neck, and Daniel swayed, stumbling a half step away. “I’m sorry, Vhalla.”
“It’s fine, Daniel.” She gave him a brave smile and set the example for everyone. A silent reminder that he was part of the group. “We’ll ride to the next village. There’s one near the cut off for the East. We’ll look for supplies and horses there.”
“Until then?” Fritz rephrased his prior question.
“Vhalla and I will share,” Aldrik announced. “We will use Lightning.” He motioned to the horse that Vhalla had been riding, the one she’d ridden on to the end of the continent during the march. “Give Daniel your cloak, Vhalla. You can sit under mine.”
“This, it, it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.” Daniel’s shaking fingers hesitantly accepted the cloak she pressed into his hands. “Thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
“Take the help, brother,” Jax encouraged.
Aldrik swung up into Lightning’s saddle, scooting forward and removing his foot from the stirrup so Vhalla could also mount. She shifted, figuring out how they needed to sit so that they could both fit comfortably.
“Get under my cloak,” Aldrik reminded her.
“But then I can’t see.”
“You are already shivering. And you’re not holding the reins anyway.”
Vhalla gave a silent farewell to her friends and lifted the edge of his cloak to bring it over her head. It completely covered her as she sat flush against him, her arms around his waist. Vhalla rested her cheek flat on his back. He was as warm as ever, her personal pyre, and it was almost comfortable under the heavy fabric. The world vanished into his slow and steady breathing, the sound eroded away her tension in the same fashion as waves on a shore. As Lightning began moving, Vhalla closed her eyes and pretended that they were not on the run, that they were headed off for a grand adventure.
She’d had enough adventures. Vhalla sighed softly. Perhaps they were headed simply to visit her father.
“Will Lightning be all right?” she asked, tilting her head up. The horse wasn’t accustomed to carrying two riders.
“Yes.” Aldrik barely spoke as he lifted his hood. With her ear on his back, Vhalla heard the deep rumble of his voice with perfect clarity. “He’s from the same line as Baston. He’s a strong horse. One generation away from a purebred War Strider.”
“What?” Vhalla was surprised.
“When I knew you would be riding to war, I wanted to trust your horse. It was impossible for me to acquire a proper War Strider on such short notice, especially without question. But Lightning was lithe and fast; he seemed better suited to you, anyway.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“When we first marched I couldn’t find the words to tell you. How would it have looked? Crafting your armor? Choosing your horse? I had no interest in being called puppet master again.”
Vhalla huffed softly in amusement, hearing her words from his mouth. She nuzzled his back gently and felt the small breath of air that started from his stomach and carried a smile up to his lips.
“You’re silly,” she breathed. “Thank you for it. And for your help today with Daniel.”
There was a long pause. “I know he means something to you.”
“He does.” Vhalla didn’t deny it.
“You and him . . .” Aldrik paused, uncertain if he wanted to continue down that line of inquiry.
Vhalla never wanted her love to be insecure, but there was something almost reassuring of the reminder that he was mortal and felt hesitation and jealousy.
“We were nothing,” she reassured her engaged. “We could’ve been, but we weren’t. I had promised my heart to you.”
A hand released the reins to weave its long fingers against hers. Vhalla sighed contentedly. His fingers traced shapes around her wrist as the rocking of the horse lulled her into a hazy state.
“I will never make you regret that decision. Never again,” Aldrik vowed.
“I promise the same.”
Their trek to the Eastern cutoff was blissfully uneventful. They came across another mostly abandoned town where Fritz, the only Southerner of the group, took the risk to barter for supplies. There wasn’t enough food for any of them and hollow stomachs now tested patience. What helped, however, was Vhalla taking the watches at night. Jax protested vehemently after her being nearly killed by Daniel, but Vhalla was insistent. She’d willingly dropped her sword for Daniel. There weren’t many other people who could elicit such a response.