“We will rest for two days at the Crossroads to replenish stock and rest the horses,” Aldrik said to no one in particular.
“Then I will tell my people that they will expect to move in about two weeks’ time,” Sehra reasoned. “Have you plans to get through his walls?”
“Was there a crystal one to the north?” Vhalla frowned. Sehra nodded. “How did you get through it?”
“I used the power of Yargen,” Sehra replied, as though that fact would be obvious.
Vhalla accepted it at face value. When the war was over, she was going to ensure she sat down and learned exactly what the power of Yargen was and how it worked.
“But that will not work in the Waste. It is too far from the old trees.”
“I see.” Vhalla adjusted her crown, the jostling of the carriage threatening to throw it off her brow. “Aldrik, has anyone scouted south?”
“We can send someone. It should take—” he was cut short as the carriage came to a sudden stop with a loud whinny.
“Tainted!” Vhalla heard someone scream. “She’s tainted!”
A commotion rose outside the carriage. The four inside shared a brief look before bursting out the doors. Vhalla clenched her fists, prepared for whatever she was about to face.
A group of people blocked the path to the drawbridge of the castle. They surrounded a single horse and rider. Guards lined the drawbridge, swords drawn.
The rider looked as though she had come a long way. Her body was frail and her clothes threadbare. Her shoulders heaved, and her hands shook. Vhalla’s eyes lingered on the woman’s hands. Black veins bulged under the skin, as though trying to break through. Old cuts lingered open, having turned raw and leathery rather than healing. The woman raised her face. What was once Southern eyes had been turned nearly entirely red.
“Take,” she rasped. “Take me—to Vhalla Yarl.”
There was something about the voice that cut deep into Vhalla’s consciousness. Something that was familiar in the most terrible of ways. To everyone else, the woman looked like a tainted monster. Blackened gums receding away from lengthening teeth, blood red eyes and gnarled hands—it all made for a terrifying picture.
But Vhalla mentally smeared away the blood and decay. She imagined the woman’s eyes to be blue and her frame thicker. She imagined her hair was not matted and, after a wash, would be blonde. But not the fair shades of blonde. A darker shade, one that could almost pass for Eastern.
“By the might of the Mother, we will smite you down,” a guard boldly proclaimed.
“Wait!” Vhalla stepped forward, and the crowd melted away from her.
Heat registered next to her as fire crackled around Aldrik’s closed fists.
“What do you want with Vhalla Yarl?” she asked the familiar creature.
There was a delay, and the tainted woman swayed. She looked as though she was about to make an effort to dismount, but gave up halfway through. Her body fell to the road below with a sickening thud.
“Vhalla, stop.” Aldrik caught her wrist, stopping her from running to the prone creature. “Don’t go near it.”
“It’s Tim.” At least, she hoped it was.
Shock relaxed his jaw, and Aldrik looked between the woman he held and the one unmoving on the ground. He squinted, trying to see what she had seen. Vhalla didn’t have time for it.
Wrenching her arm from Aldrik’s, she sprinted over to the prone woman, stopping a step out of her reach. The taint was even worse close-up. It looked as though the very thing that was holding Tim together had somehow turned sour, and now her body was falling apart from the inside.
“Timanthia?” Vhalla breathed.
No one made a sound.
The woman struggled, gasping for air through bleeding gums and black saliva. She half snarled, half cried, as she tried to will her body to move. Vhalla knelt down, hearing Aldrik’s footsteps behind her.
“T-take it. Take it. From him. I came. For you,” Tim’s voice crackled and rasped. She raised an arm weakly.
Vhalla’s hands closed around silver. She felt the etchings along the outside of the bangle, familiar and almost warm to the touch. It was scratched and scuffed. But it was undeniably the token Larel had given to Vhalla years ago.
“Listen to. Listen, and help them,” Tim pleaded. She gripped Vhalla’s skirts, blinking away bloody tears that poured over her cheeks. “Take it and kill me.”
“Can nothing be done for her?” Vhalla whispered to no one. She was unable to tear her eyes away from the other woman’s face. At the grotesque shade that had been cast upon what was once beauty.
“She’s too far gone,” Sehra responded.
Vhalla wanted to scream. She had a thousand questions. How had Tim made it to Norin? Why had she come? How had she survived, and what had she endured? Vhalla needed hours to dissect all the information locked within Tim’s story. And all she was giving Vhalla was a bracelet. Vhalla carefully twisted the bangle and slipped it off while holding Tim’s wrist steady.
“Lady Empress, I don’t think it wise—” the highest ranking guard began cautioning.
“I did not ask what you thought.” She put the jewlery on her own wrist and slowly returned Tim’s arm to the woman’s side. Vhalla stared down at the face of suffering. This was what their time had cost.