“Well, be sure you do,” Elecia said in a haughty tone. Vhalla shared a small smile with the woman before she turned her focus back to the road.
“Vhalla,” Aldrik summoned her attention quietly. “I would also be careful about letting people know our movements.”
She thought a moment. “You mean saying we were headed to Hastan.”
“We’re fairly easy targets right now. The more people who know we’re alive, the more people who will be hunting us.”
“I’ll be more careful,” she vowed. Vhalla wouldn’t apologize again. Apologies meant nothing, and they weren’t going to help them. She simply had to be better than she had ever been before. It was a journey she had been on for some time now, and Vhalla was discovering that the path to being the person she wanted to be had no end point. That there would always be room for her to adapt, to change, and to improve.
“Well.” Aldrik shifted in his saddle, casting off the weight of the morning. “You were never in any real danger. Those scraps of sorcerers can’t stand up to me.”
Vhalla laughed for the first time in weeks. “I forgot I rode with the Fire Lord.”
“Fire Lord,” Elecia snorted. “What a ridiculous title.”
“We could think of a title for you as well, ‘Cia.” Aldrik paused a moment. “Stone-Skinned Lady?”
“More like Stone-Hearted,” Jax sniggered.
“There is only one title I’m interested in,” Elecia spoke only once she was assured she had stalled long enough for everyone’s attention. “The Lady of the West.”
“We’ll see about that,” Aldrik chuckled. “Does your grandfather know you’re vying to overthrow him?”
“I’d never,” Elecia gasped.
“It’s nice to see you smile,” Fritz remarked to Vhalla from her left. “I haven’t seen it in I don’t remember how long.”
Vhalla shrugged. “There haven’t been many things to smile about.”
“There are, though. Don’t you think?” Fritz wore a small expression of joy himself. It was small, but it was there. “We’re all alive, aren’t we?”
“That we are.”
“I think we’ll likely give your father cause to smile as well, with his daughter coming back from the grave.” Fritz combed his fingers through his steadily lengthening hair.
That was something Vhalla hadn’t thought about. They had known in Paca of Victor’s claims of her death. Fear gripped her. What if her father thought her dead and had left to flee Victor’s slow encroachment north?
Vhalla looked ahead. This far into the middle of the continent, the hills by the southern mountains had begun to flatten, and there was at most a small slope to the land. She could see a far distance, but her home was still well out of sight.
They rode the day with the wind on her cheeks. There was no spark, no magic calling to her in it. Once in a while, she’d clench her hands into fists, foolishly thinking that her magic would return simply by being in the East. But her magic would not return to her unless there was enough to restore the flow to her Channel.
They saw an old road sign that was the first marker of Leoul. The dusty road and worn fences, which penned in livestock and pastures, began to look familiar to her. It all began to connect like a puzzle of memories, and Vhalla could suddenly recall obscure details like how many trees one farmer had in their field, or how many windows another home had.
A child-like squeal rose up in her throat as Vhalla shot out her finger, pointing at a lone tree in the distance. “My farm!” She clutched the reins tightly. “Can we go faster?”
“Works for me!” Fritz cheered and kicked his horse into a lively trot.
The rest of them did the same. The old gnarled oak still stood tall and laden with leaves, even during the winter months. It sat between two large fields that looked a lot smaller than she remembered. Her home came into view.
And Vhalla’s heart stopped.
It was exactly as she’d left it. The thatched roof that looked thinner by the year. The barn with the broken door that had never been fixed. The weeds determined to crawl up the flagstone. Her eyes had seen horror and blood, but somehow they could still look upon the structure that had given her eleven happy years without it spontaneously combusting from being under her stare.
Smoke rose cheerfully from the chimney. The smell of bread wafted in the air as they drew closer. Vhalla glanced over her shoulders, making sure everyone was still with her. The logical part of her brain warned her that this could be a trap. That it could all be a plot to ensnare them.
Vhalla dismounted quickly and paused for a breath at the door, listening to the shuffling within. Her tensions broke, and she knocked feverishly.
“Father!” she called, keeping her voice barely under control. There was a clamor from within. “Papa!”
Casting aside her hesitations and fears, Vhalla pushed open the door, only to have it pulled the rest of the way.
Her father stood on the other side. Of average height and muscled even in age, the rich tone of his skin betrayed every hour he spent in the field. Hair that matched hers in color and tone spilled down in a mess to the bottom of his ears.
“Vhalla?” He blinked, as though she was about to disappear.
“Papa!” The child within her was unleashed, that little girl who desperately wanted her father to hold her and say everything was all right. The girl who had been thrust into the world fearful and unknown. That girl finally won for the first time in months, and tears spilled onto Vhalla’s cheeks. “Papa, Papa, Papa. . .”