“We all thought she was suicidal.” He began speaking more to the rest of the group than to her. “I was in the late prince’s legion, but in the back. So not really that far from where our Empress rode.”
Everyone seemed more interested in the man’s story than the woman who was the living topic of the tale, but Vhalla was content to let them tell it as they saw fit. Fritz still got great amusement at all the embellishments the men would include, and Vhalla elbowed him in the side more than once to curb his snickering.
“I knew then,” the man wrapped up his tale. “I said to my mates, ‘This woman is special.’ I knew she was far better than I saw others giving her credit for. But the prince, now the crown prince is a man with a good head on his shoulders. Well learned. He sees it.”
Vhalla tore off a strip of dried meat and chewed it to tenderness. That was another recent hobby, soldiers and nobility claiming that they knew her and Aldrik would be together. Certainly the support pleased her, but it rested uneasily in Vhalla’s heart. She had no doubt some of them had seen it, but she also had no doubt that many of them had spoken ill of their former dark prince.
She kept her feelings to herself, except for Aldrik. He agreed with her that it was a relief to have the soldiers supporting them. It helped keep a balance. Whatever issues the nobility still harbored toward her, the common man’s love kept their lips still.
Golden wings and suns were emblazoned upon nearly every breast. They looked to her for strength; they believed her wings would never be still, that she really had risen from the dead. It was a mantle she never wanted but had no choice in wearing. There was precious little hope, and, as the giant crystal wall closing the border of South and West came into view, Vhalla knew they needed all the hope they could get.
The weather had begun to chill, the heat of the Western Waste giving way to firmer ground and the cool winds of the South. The army halted for the majors to convene, to discuss the best plan of attack. Scouts with telescopic lenses peered at the wall, reporting what they could discern.
Five hideous crystal beasts prowled the wall’s top. Vhalla knew that if they could see the creatures, the creatures and their all-seeing eyes could see her. That was the most immediate threat. Then came opening the gate. This wasn’t like the East where they only needed to slip a few horses through. The army needed the doors to be wide open and hold that way. Finally, logic dictated that Victor had more forces on the other side of the wall, bracing for such an occasion.
It would need to be a three phase attack. The first would focus on the monsters. If they were lucky, the forces on the other side of the wall would be slow or dumb, or both, and the army could pick off the abominations.
When the creatures were gone, they would need to open—or destroy—the gate. Vhalla volunteered herself to investigate it first. She could practically feel Aldrik bristling at the notion, but he held his tongue. They had gone through too many conversations over the weeks regarding her necessity to the war. She was the only one who could manage crystals and was brave, or stupid, enough to do so with reckless abandon.
Once the gates were opened, the army would tackle whatever else Victor had waiting for them and venture forward into the largely unknown southern territory. The meeting with the majors ran late in the day. They carefully watched and planned.
Whatever the beasts were, they didn’t seem particularly intelligent. They remained stoic guardians as the army moved forward. Archers lined up on command, Vhalla at their center point. Jax, not Aldrik, was at her side. The Emperor was positioned not far off with the Black Legion—a term they were already discussing retiring in light of Victor’s naming system.
“I will dislodge the beasts from the walls.” Vhalla rode down the ranks, reminding the soldiers of the plans their leaders should’ve trickled down to them. “One or two, I will pin to the ground for the swordsmen and pole arms. While I do this, you will need to fend off the others in the sky.”
The Black Legion was lined behind the archers, and they all gave her their full attention.
“Archers, sorcerers, even if your attacks do not hit their mark, so long as you keep them at bay, you have been successful.”
Vhalla paused her mount, her eyes meeting Aldrik’s. The Emperor gave her a small nod, and Vhalla adjusted her grip on the reins. Her heart willed him to be safe in the impending skirmish.
“He doesn’t want you here,” Jax spoke only for her ears.
“No, he would rather I was still in Norin,” Vhalla agreed.
“Well, I want you to know that I told him he need not worry.” Jax sat back in his saddle, adjusting the high bun on his head. “For I will protect our delicate and most innocent Empress.”
Vhalla snorted in amusement. Laughter was a precious commodity these days. And if Jax was good for anything, it was creating that rare resource in droves.
Clenching her fists, she opened her Channels, directing her attention to the beasts. Raising her hands, she felt the world for miles around. The winds of the Western Waste had always been a monster of their own. Now it was time to pit monster against monster.
Dropping her hands suddenly, and with a grunt at the magical exertion, two of the crystal abominations were sent crashing from their perches by the sudden and unseen force of her wind. Vhalla pulled toward her, the wind literally tugging at her taut fingers. The beasts tumbled awkwardly in their struggle to become airborne.