Sehra slumped, panting heavily. Za took a half step in front of her charge, sending another arrow flying. It was followed by fire. Vhalla had never seen Aldrik char something so completely. It was as if he unleashed all his rage in one singular burst. The soldier was blackened.
“Don’t let them take me!” Daniel wailed. “I left the king, the one true king! Don’t let them take me.”
“Stop!” Vhalla cried. The man had somehow turned into an octopus, seeming to sprout limbs by which to throw Vhalla off. She took an elbow to the face and a knee to the gut but held fast. “No one is taking you; you’re going home.”
“They will feed on me! They will eat me!” he screamed.
“Stop!” Vhalla scrambled, pinning him down by sitting on his chest and holding down his arms with her knees. “Look at me.” He didn’t stop thrashing, shaking his head back and forth. “Look at me!” she cried, gripping his cheeks. Spit bubbled out of his mouth from his sobs. “No one is taking you! No one. You’re free! You’re going to Paca, where you will eat candied nuts until you’re old and fat.”
Daniel exhaled white puffs of air as he slowly regained control of himself.
“I won’t let them take you,” she whispered. “I promise.”
He choked on the reply, and Vhalla could only give him part of an encouraging smile before she was heaved off.
Jax tossed Vhalla aside and practically lifted Daniel from the ground. “Do you want to get us killed?”
Vhalla had missed the last soldier falling, but the three attacking monsters seemed dead. Then again, they’d been dead to begin with.
“Stop it, Jax.” Vhalla stood, rubbing her shoulder. “You know he didn’t mean it.”
Jax scowled and sighed. “I know, I know.”
“I’m sorry,” Daniel blubbered. “I-I almost got you killed. I almost. Baldair asked me to protect you, and I almost got you killed.”
“Daniel, it’s all right,” she tried to soothe.
“No. No.” Daniel fell to his knees. “I killed them, I killed them.”
His eyes lost clarity as he fumbled around in his armor. Vhalla recognized the blade he drew as the one he’d held against her throat. But this time, he didn’t turn it on anyone else.
“I will only hurt you again. I will only kill again. I have failed Baldair. I have failed my oath to you.”
Vhalla barely had time to think “no” as Daniel turned the blade on himself. She saw what was happening a second too late.
But it didn’t puncture skin.
Aldrik and the Easterner tumbled head over heels. The Emperor was far more coordinated and faster than the crazed and deranged soldier. In a second, he’d wrenched the blade from Daniel’s grasp and punched him clear across the face with the other hand.
Anger and relief flashed across Vhalla’s chest.
“You idiot!” Aldrik shouted. He grabbed Daniel’s collar with a hand, shaking him like a ragdoll. “You are better than this.”
Daniel wanted to object, but Aldrik wouldn’t let him.
“You don’t think so? Then you further shame my brother and that foolish Golden Guard of his. You prove that he picked weak men, easily broken,” Aldrik snarled. “You selfish fool. She’s trying to save you, and you would hurt her with this?”
Both men looked at the discarded knife, the rest of the group forgotten.
Aldrik sighed heavily, and his shoulders slumped with an invisible weight he’d been bearing for a decade. His grip slackened. “I know,” he was half talking to himself. “I have been there. It feels like there is no other choice. That the world is too heavy, too horrible to ever lessen. I know that you will hate me, hate us, hate her, for not letting you sit here and die.
“But someday, when you are happy and content—and I know you will not believe me when I tell you that you will someday be happy and content again—you will thank us. You will thank us for not letting you leave this mortal coil without a fight because you have more to give.”
“Aldrik . . .” Elecia breathed. Her fingertips were pressed against her lips, and Vhalla watched recognition widen her emerald eyes. The woman understood something about her cousin that she had never been told and could suddenly see a cornerstone of the cage of guilt he’d constructed for himself.
“Promise me you will stay alive,” Aldrik demanded. “Promise me that you will fight that man’s darkness. That you will stand with me in the sun.”
Daniel swallowed in shock, in horror. And something moved back into place. Something shifted in his eyes in the right direction. He nodded.
“I give you my word, my lord.”
Daniel’s horrors, his broken mind, could not be fixed with a word. But there was something magical about his agreement with Aldrik. As they travelled on, he had longer moments of clarity. He spoke in short, clipped sentences with Jax. He broke down less.
He still thrashed in his sleep and avoided Vhalla as though it brought him physical pain to look upon her or the bruised eye she sported. But he remained—mostly—stable. As stable as one in his condition could be.
They finally reached the cutoff to the East. Once more, Vhalla saw a patrol in the distance during her watch. But Fritz’s illusion kept them secret, and this time Daniel kept his breakdown to muttering and rocking.