“It had gone away on the march North,” Vhalla tried to explain. “I thought it the same. We hadn’t been eating well, and all the travel, strain . . .”
Elecia pinched the bridge of her nose with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t an illogical leap, and the woman couldn’t immediately refute it. When she opened her mouth to speak, she was cut off by a banging at the door.
“Elecia!” Aldrik was barely keeping his volume under a shout. “By the Mother, open the door.”
“ ‘Cia, are you there?” Fritz called also. “Is Vhalla?”
Elecia looked between the outer door and the bed.
“Don’t—” Vhalla pleaded.
“I’m sorry.” Elecia actually looked it. “But you will appreciate this later.”
“No!” Vhalla tried to swing her feet over the edge of the bed, stopped short by the pain the movement caused.
“Lie down!” Elecia barked.
Vhalla resituated herself and pulled the covers over her head. She didn’t care if she was being childish. She had been strong for so long that all she wanted to do was spend a moment hurting. She wanted to hide from the shame that was about to be heaped upon her the moment she saw Aldrik’s eyes.
“Don’t shout,” Elecia snapped from the outer room, presumably opening the door in the process.
“Is she here?” Aldrik was relentless.
“Where?” Aldrik’s footsteps fell across the floor.
“Aldrik, you need to calm down first.” There was a tone in Elecia’s voice that Vhalla had never heard the woman take with her cousin before. “And Fritz, you should go now.”
“Is she in here?” Aldrik’s voice grew louder, and Vhalla shrunk further into herself.
“Listen to me—” Elecia’s attempt was too late.
A large beam of light stretched across the bed like an accusatory arrow the moment Aldrik opened the wood and paper door between the bedroom and the main room. Vhalla didn’t move, her shoulders trembled, and she hardly breathed. What could she possibly say to him?
“Vhalla,” he breathed, relief saturating her name. It put an aching in her heart that competed with the pain of her middle. “You worried me so much. I woke, and you weren’t there.” She felt his weight as he sat on the edge of the bed. “I couldn’t find you, and when you weren’t in Fritz’s room, I—”
He reached out his hand, barely brushing the blanket that covered her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” She cringed from his reach.
His hand hovered, obliging her wish but clearly uncomfortable with it. “My love . . . What could make you want to shy from my touch?”
“Aldrik . . .” She choked out his name.
“Let me reassure you,” he begged. “Was it a dream? A nightmare? There is nothing to fear.”
Delicately, tentatively, his palm lowered once more. Vhalla whimpered her consent, and it curled around her upper arm. It was equal parts reassurance and turmoil.
“Aldrik,” Elecia started.
“Don’t!” Vhalla sat, clutching the blankets around her.
“Where are your clothes?” Aldrik blinked, staring at her bare back.
“He deserves to know.” Elecia crossed her arms over her chest. “If you don’t tell him, then I will.”
“It is not your place to tell!”
“Then talk to the man who will be your husband!” Elecia slid the door closed so hard Vhalla and Aldrik jumped.
“Tell me what?” He rested his palm on her back, lightly kissing her temple. “Fear not, for whatever it is, we can tackle it together.”
“I-I lost our son,” Vhalla confessed, wide eyed. She remembered the note Aldrik had written, the one she had clutched to her breast. Her, him, their son.
“What are you saying?” Aldrik’s voice had gone monotone.
“We were careless.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
“How were we careless?” He was too smart not to know the answers.
“You know how!” She turned to him, and a particularly sharp pain pulsed from deep within her abdomen. Vhalla collapsed back onto the bed with a choked sob.
Aldrik could only stare at her as it sunk in, and Vhalla avoided his gaze.
“Elecia.” He was on his feet, storming for the doors. “Elecia, tell me—”
“Stop being stupid,” Elecia said curtly, snapping open the doors and allowing herself back into the room. A hand, cooler than Aldrik’s, smoothed over Vhalla’s forehead. “Vhalla, here, drink this. It’ll help things move along.”
“I don’t want it.” She deserved every wave of pain she was to endure.
“Don’t start this. You promised me that your life would—”
“You don’t even know what my life means!” Vhalla twisted, ignoring the pain to stare down the Westerner. “You don’t know the sacrifices I’ve made. You think this—”
A small bottle was unceremoniously shoved into Vhalla’s mouth between words. It clanked against her teeth and her lips wrapped around it as Elecia forced it into her face. Vhalla swallowed the liquid within, resigned.
“Stop. Stop trying to make the illusion of strength. You don’t need it. Not here. Not now. Let yourself be sad until the real strength returns.” The empty bottle was gently pulled from her lips, and Elecia smoothed some of the hair away from Vhalla’s sweat-dotted forehead. It was a tender gesture that had no precedence between them.