The next afternoon, they stayed in the woods, which was far less comfortable than sleeping in one of the abandoned rooms of an inn, but it was easier mentally. Periodically throughout the day, Fritz used his Waterrunner abilities to command the snow to shift and hide their tracks, including the last hour or so before they broke camp. They rotated watches and slept huddled against each other.
One night, they slept against a fallen tree, then in a cave, then out in the open. They passed abandoned homes, slaughtered towns, and places where the people were so silent and still they could have been dead. They walked parallel to the Great Imperial Way, which appeared and disappeared in the distance, through the trees and snowdrifts. But for all of their concerns and careful progress, they never saw another wandering soul.
As the days and distance slipped by, silence became their primary companion. At first, they didn’t speak out of necessity and nerves, then out of respect for the dead, then out of fear of discovery. But it finally became the way of things, the world too much to be expressed with language. Vhalla began to yearn for Aldrik’s nightly whispers affirming his adoration when he took her into his arms so they could sleep hunched together. It was one of the few things that kept her strong.
Vhalla lost track of the days. It could have been a week. It could have been a year.
When they came across a small hunter’s hovel, she wanted to cry with relief. Abandoned, it offered an opportunity for them to get out of the cold and to dry out their boots. The front had mostly collapsed, but the remaining walls supported a pitched roof that stood in defiance of the snow.
“I’ll give it a look.” Jax swung down off his horse, quickly inspecting the structure and deeming it stable enough for them to spend the night.
“Is it too close to the road?” Elecia glanced nervously at the Imperial Way, barely visible through the trees.
“We haven’t seen anyone for days,” Fritz groaned. “I want a roof.”
“It’s not going to be any warmer than sleeping outside; half the front is missing,” Elecia pointed out.
“If we hang up our cloaks to dry on the walls, it could block the light from a small fire and keep us warm enough.” Jax turned to Aldrik, who remained mounted at Vhalla’s left. “What do you say?”
Aldrik glanced back to the road, clearly weighing the options. “If we don’t get out of the cold, one of us will fall ill, and that would be worse,” he decided.
They dismounted and tied their horses to the closest tree. Fritz led the charge for “making house” and quickly demanded everyone’s cloak. Elecia helped alongside Jax. Though the Western man never let Vhalla out of his sight for very long—her new shadow.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Vhalla offered with a yawn.
“Are you sure?” Aldrik asked.
“I’ve been getting the most sleep; it’s my turn to watch.”
“I’m fine.” Vhalla rubbed her shoulder for emphasis. It was still tender, but the skin grew stronger by the day. She knew the ache she felt would always be there. It would be there until Victor died, and it would be there every moment afterward. “Rest, Aldrik.”
Her Emperor conceded, disappearing under the cloak Jax was using to close up the gaping hole in the building’s front. Vhalla’s attention shifted to the two who remained in the snow.
Sehra walked to a tree and placed both her palms on it. She did this every day, regardless of when they stopped, dawn or sunset. Vhalla watched as the young woman brought her forehead to the icy bark and remained still and reverent.
None of the group had questioned or stopped the Northerners. Vhalla looked on, curiosity finally getting the better of her.
“What are you doing?” she asked when the two women headed toward their sleeping place for the night.
Za and Sehra looked at each other, momentarily startled. Sehra studied Vhalla for a tense moment. Whatever test she had been silently administering, Vhalla passed.
“I’m looking for traces of crystal magic,” she answered.
“You can do that?” Vhalla blurted in surprise.
Momentarily wearing a small satisfied smile, Sehra answered, “I can.”
“You doubt Sehra?” Za asked defensively.
“She doesn’t,” Sehra answered before Vhalla could. “She just doesn’t understand. Crystal magic is much like the old magic. Similar, but different. Like light and darkness, two halves to a whole. One knows of the other, even if they cannot command it.”
The princess’s explanation could’ve been condescending but wasn’t, Vhalla noted. She considered this for a long moment. She understood what the princess said, but she still had no concept of what made crystal magic and “old magic” different.
“And you can do this because you are a Child of Yargen?”
The smile Sehra gave then was certainly genuine. The young woman had been schooled in diplomacy and it showed. But her youth also betrayed her in moments when she felt as though she could relax. Vhalla filed this information away in case she needed to capitalize on it in the future, and hated herself for doing so.
“That is so,” Sehra affirmed.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I am chosen to wield Yargen’s power and be an overseer of fate.” The way Sehra spoke showed she believed every word of what she was saying, no matter how fantastical it sounded.