Jax’s suggestion echoed within her. Perhaps if she could manipulate the Bond, she could help them with the knowledge she could glean, with the powers she gained over the crystals.
With the sun, Vhalla began to feel a rise in other emotions, a dark sea that raged in the back of her mind stirring to life. She rolled away from Aldrik, unable to endure his tender touch a moment longer.
“Vhalla?” he mumbled, pawing at the empty space she left.
“Go back to sleep,” she demanded quietly. “There’s still time yet.”
Aldrik opened a single dark eye, looking up at her skeptically.
Vhalla forced a smile onto her lips. When he still seemed insistent, she rested a palm on his shoulder. “Just the bathroom,” she lied.
How far she had come. She, the library girl who was notorious for being a bad liar, was believed by the silver-tongued prince. Aldrik closed his eye and mumbled something about her coming back soon. Vhalla tugged on her chainmail and left him, hoping he could endure the disappointment of discovering her absence.
A barren land greeted her. The bloodshed from the previous day was still visible in the distance. Carrion birds picked at the remnants. Vhalla turned her eyes away from it and looked southward. That would only be a small portion of the destruction she’d reap. She’d turn Victor’s power against him and take the world from under his feet.
She stood staring at the destruction before her until people began to stir.
Aldrik said nothing about her morning walk as they rode. He attempted to strike up various conversations with her, but none sparked, and he was left talking around her to Jax or Fritz. Elecia was equally quiet, her eyes heavy on Vhalla.
But Vhalla ignored them all. She kept her eyes trained on the great, distant horizon that she suspected would be her final battle field.
They marched through lunch into the afternoon, finally striking camp at dinnertime.
Vhalla sat at their shared campfire for a few moments as everyone eagerly dug into their portions. She passed her meat from hand to hand, and then passed it off to Jax. The man regarded her with concern but didn’t say anything.
“You hardly ate,” Aldrik said when she stood.
“Where are you going, Vhal?” Fritz asked from across the campfire.
“To spar.” Someone would be willing to help her relieve the nervous energy that crawled under her skin.
“You should eat more.” Aldrik caught her wrist.
“I told you, I am not hungry.” There was an edge to his voice that only she seemed able to hear. It was an awful grating sound that didn’t appear to bother anyone else.
“Vhalla, please,” he encouraged.
“I will eat what I please!” She wrenched her hand from his grip. A frown crossed her husband’s face, an expression that Vhalla couldn’t endure. It swayed her mind into more familiar territory. “I just . . . want to work on my swordsmanship.”
Vhalla vanished before any of them could say anything else—hunting down the first partner she could find.
One parry, two, repeat; the pattern rang through her head in time with the steel vibrating in her hand. Turn, dodge, duck, lunge, kick, she was getting better. The unsuspecting swordsman had claimed he would be all too honored to be the Empress’s practice for the night, but he’d bit off more than he could chew against the Windwalker.
Five exhausted partners later, Vhalla sheathed her sword. Sweat rolled off her face, and she panted heavily, but she was no closer to feeling satiated. Victor’s energy still churned underneath her skin.
The next day, her head began to hurt on and off. She could feel Victor’s presence, like a shadow clinging on her back, and it was becoming more and more difficult to sort her emotions from his. This Bond was unlike anything she had felt with Aldrik.
The forest grew denser with each passing day, and the ground began to turn into hills that would later become mountains and valleys. Vhalla kept her eyes down for most of the day, silent, focusing on keeping Victor’s magic contained within her. Closer, she realized. Each sway of the horse was bringing her closer to her goal. Shouldn’t she feel happier?
Happiness was illusive, and her dreams began to occur more regular. No, they weren’t dreams. They were memories. And their assaults were more aggressive than it had ever been with Aldrik.
“What’re you gonna do about it, huh? Man witch?” a boy, barely old enough for a coming of age ceremony, taunted. “Gonna use your magic on us?”
Victor, no older than thirteen, stood with his back against a wall. Based on the construction of the buildings, he appeared to be somewhere in the capital.
“Yeah, magic boy, let’s see it.”
Victor scowled and ran his thumbs over the tips of his fingers. “You wouldn’t want that, I’m warning you.”
“Warnings?” The first boy glanced between his two friends. “I think he’s scared.”
“I’m not scared of a Commons,” Victor swore. “You should be scared of me.”
“We’ll see.” The boy cracked his knuckles and swung.
Victor dodged and put his hand on the boy’s chest. Ice covered his torso, rendering his arms mostly immobile from the elbow up. The second boy stepped forward, and Victor repeated the process with confidence.
“Don’t want to fight me now?” he asked the remaining riff raff.