“We go North,” Za announced as they slowed. It stirred Vhalla from sleep, and she roused from under Aldrik’s cloak.
Sehra held Vhalla’s eyes for a long moment. Vhalla nodded in affirmation. “Our deal will stand.”
“I know it will.” The Child of Yargen did something then that Vhalla had not seen once from her. Her mouth curled into the makings of an exhausted, but sincere smile. “My eyes have seen the truth. You will protect this land.”
“I will.” The vow was redundant and unnecessary, but Vhalla said it all the same. She would release that vow into the world as many times as needed until it became true.
Sehra turned to Aldrik. “Entrusting your heart to this woman may be the smartest choice you’ve made, Aldrik Solaris.”
“I would not disagree.” The Emperor gave a small nod of his head. “I will send word when we arrive in Hastan. I hope you will find safer travels in the West.”
“I keep Sehra safe.” Za sat straighter in her saddle. Sehra gave her handler an appreciative look.
“Shaldan has good stock. We will be fine. I will await your word.”
The two Northerners continued parallel to the Great Imperial Way as the six others went along the Eastern cutoff. Vhalla watched until the thinning forest and glare of the sun off a light dusting of snow obscured them from view.
“Do you think they’ll keep their word?” Aldrik whispered uncertainly the moment she was under his cloak once more.
“I do,” Vhalla affirmed with a nod. “The enemy of our enemy is our friend.” She paused, thinking over her next words. “And those friends may have more to give and teach us than we know.”
“If only that relationship hadn’t stared at sword point,” Aldrik mumbled.
Vhalla squeezed him lightly. “An Emperor for peace can focus on healing those wounds.”
“At the cost of the first fourteen years of my firstborn’s life.”
“Wards are not so uncommon,” she tried to soothe. “I left my home at eleven.”
“Don’t pretend that this sits easily for you.”
She had no response to his bitter statement, so Vhalla simply pressed her cheek to his back and closed her eyes.
The forest continued to thin over the coming days. The snow began to melt and disappear until it was just cold, brown grass being crushed beneath the horses’ hooves. The weather warmed the farther they headed, north and the coastal breezes, unbroken by mountains, kept the ominous gray snow clouds in the south.
The first sight of the East nearly brought tears to Vhalla’s eyes. Hills rolled upon themselves like sails in the breeze. There was an earthy smell that lingered on the nose, rising up from the fertile ground.
They rode away from the road and tree coverage lessened. Should one of Victor’s patrols be in the area, they would stick out above the tall grasses. But there weren’t any further patrols. There weren’t many people at all, and that fact began to deeply worry Vhalla. The road was vacant of carts carrying winter harvests to market. Fields were empty. The first abandoned town they rode through made Vhalla realize the foolishness of her notion that Victor had only permeated the South. The man wanted to rule the world.
She chose to ignore the fear in the back of her mind, thoughts that gnawed on her more each day. She feared that Daniel’s family would not be where he had left them. It was not a far spiral for Vhalla to become worried about her own father. Aldrik sensed her concerns and broached them once while riding, but Vhalla didn’t want to speak of it. It was as though saying the words out loud would only increase their likelihood of being real.
Fate cast a small smile upon her. As they pushed on into the heart of the East, signs of Victor’s tyrannical hold began to lessen. The people had a certain edge to them that Vhalla wasn’t accustomed to seeing. But they still went about their days. They still tended to their fields, and the smell of baking bread hovered every time they passed a farmhouse.
Vhalla no longer hid under Aldrik’s cloak. Her amber-hued skin and nut-colored hair blended in with the shades of the East. She was fairer than most of her people, but that came from spending most of her time in libraries and not out in the fields.
The sights and sounds healed Daniel to the point that he actually took the lead. It helped when people began to recognize him. An old man stopped as he was going about his business. A woman called from a nearby field.
Daniel’s voice sounded stronger with every word he spoke, and Vhalla allowed herself a smile. If a random acquaintance could help him that much, she dared hope for what returning to his family could do. Taking him home had been the right decision, she assured herself.
“My home isn’t far now,” he informed the group. “I can go from here.”
“Well, if you insist.” Elecia shrugged.
Vhalla shot her a small glare of frustration. “We will take you there,” Vhalla insisted.
“I-I’ve cause you all enough trouble. Even on foot, it’ll only—”
“No, Daniel,” she interrupted gently. “We will see you to your door.”
All the empty towns and blood-stained homes appeared in her mind. The villagers had told them that they didn’t expect to see any of the guards returning. That the walking horrors had made it this deep into the East and informed the men and women of Victor’s decrees. Vhalla wasn’t going to let Daniel head into the unknown. What if his family had been killed fighting in the memory of a son they believed dead?