“Supreme King Anzbel, he . . .” More raspy laughing. “Enough, I don’t know who or what you really are, but I am getting that horse and I am going. I don’t care if I have to kill her for it!”
“You would shame Baldair’s memory?” Jax exclaimed. No one moved. “Daniel, he gave you an order. He asked you to protect the woman you are threatening to kill, to protect her until your dying breath.”
“Stop . . .” Daniel whispered.
“No! You swore an oath to the guard. As long as your heart beats, you are to honor it,” Jax pressed. The knife at her throat quivered, and Vhalla ignored the pain. “Brother.” The world turned on Jax’s singular word. “Let her go.”
Suddenly, the knife was gone, and his grip went slack. For all of Jax’s words, he clearly didn’t completely trust his brother-in-arms in his present state; he closed the gap between them, grabbing for Vhalla and spinning her half behind him.
Now freed, she could assess the man everyone else had seen all along. The man she was thankful she hadn’t killed. Daniel was haggard. His armor was crusted with blood, and yellow bandages were wrapped around his forearm where a gauntlet was missing. His hair was slick with sweat and grime. The makings of a proper beard crossed his chin.
None of this scared Vhalla. A body could be washed, injuries tended to. It was Daniel’s eyes that broke something in her. There was something deeply wrong down to his very soul, something that no potion or salve could cure.
“Daniel, it’s me.” She finally lowered her hood, studying his expression for some trace of the man whom she had marched with and learned from.
“I-I cut you,” he stammered.
Vhalla raised a hand to her neck. “So you did. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.”
“I was supposed to protect you.” He swayed. “And then, I watched you die.”
“I’m fine.” Vhalla took a step forward. Jax shot her a warning look, and Vhalla replied with a glare. The Western man didn’t stop her, but he stayed near her shoulder as she crossed the gap to Daniel. The man was like a stylelized painting, from far away he may be passible for a man, but the moment she was up close she could see every frayed brushstroke and wavering line. Vhalla boldly took his hands, and he nearly jumped out of his skin at the touch. “See, I’m fine. You, however, are not. Come inside and sit. Get out of the cold.”
Za volunteered that she and Sehra keep watch, casting a leery eye toward Daniel. Even after the Northerners left, it was cramped with the six of them in the small structure. Daniel was jumpy with the proximity to people, his eyes darting wildly.
“Elecia, will you please look at his wounds?” Vhalla asked.
The Western woman looked to Jax and Aldrik, who both gave nods of silent approval. She radiated uncertainty but did her duty as a cleric. Daniel jerked away violently the second Elecia’s hands landed on his forearm.
“No!” He scrambled away. “Don’t-don’t touch me.”
“Daniel, we can’t heal you if—”
“I killed them!” He lunged forward, grabbing Vhalla’s upper arms to the point of bruising. “Don’t fix me, I’m broken.” Daniel shook her, and Vhalla hissed at the pain it caused in her right shoulder.
“Brother, stop.” Jax intervened. “You’re hurting her again.”
Daniel stared in utter horror, then nearly threw Vhalla aside and scrambled away. She stared, heartbroken, as the man brought his knees to his chest, clutching his head.
“I killed, they died, they died, they died, and I killed them, it was—”
Vhalla wrapped her arms around his rocking shoulders. This time he tensed but didn’t lash out at the touch. “Stop,” she breathed. “Let Elecia check you.”
Daniel whimpered and squirmed, but as long as Vhalla held him to her, he let Elecia perform what ministrations she could. It was awkward having to work around Vhalla’s arms, but Elecia had more tact than to point this out.
When Elecia finished, Vhalla loosened her grip and asked, “Why are you here?”
“I-I ran.” Daniel choked on his words, letting out a pained, strangled noise.
“What happened?” Jax pried.
Daniel held his temples and stared at nothing. He cried, rivulets streaking through the blood and grime on his cheeks.
“Soldier.” Aldrik forcefully stepped into the conversation with a single sharp word. Daniel froze. “This is an order from your Emperor: report.”
Vhalla wanted to scold him for taking such a tone, but Aldrik had seen and heard something she hadn’t. The command snapped something back into place, and Daniel’s breathing slowed, his eyes regaining some sanity.
“It-it was only him. He walked right in, and no one even thought of stopping him until the first group of guards died.” No one needed to ask who “he” was. “It should’ve been easy, there was only one man. But every time one fell, he took their eye and turned it into one of those rocks—those crystals.”
Vhalla’s mostly empty stomach churned at the memory of the guard who had walked into the village closest to Fritz’s home.
“They rose. They fought for him. They were dead but kept walking until that awful, awful blue-green light faded.” Daniel turned to her, almost pleading. “What could we have done?”