“Major Jax is inside.” Erion dismounted, offering a hand to help her down.
Vhalla ignored it, walking ahead of him past the two confused guards on either sides of the door to the building. The room within was nothing more than makeshift walls and packed dirt, long tables at varying heights flanked either side of the hall. Men and women moved between papers and diagrams, leisurely discussing things. All turned as she entered.
“Head Major Jax,” Vhalla demanded as Erion entered behind her.
“Erion, how many times must I tell you not to bring me wild women until after dark? It’s distracting.” A man grinned wickedly. He had long black hair that was tied up into a bun, black eyes, and olive skin: a textbook Westerner.
Vhalla crossed over quickly, pulling the satchel off her shoulder. She held it out to him with trembling hands, suddenly filled with nervous energy. The head major cocked his head to the side, assessing her before prying it from her white-knuckled grip.
He placed it on the table, pulling out the parchment that was stained red at the edges. Jax moved from one paper to the next with increasing speed, the arrogance and humor of earlier falling from his face in favor of emotions Vhalla would deem far more appropriate.
Two dark eyes snapped up to her. “You ...”
“You have to send help, now.” Vhalla took a step forward. Her whole body had begun shaking. “Send him help. You can, right?”
“Erion, Query, Bolo!” Jax slammed the papers down on the table. “Assemble seven hundred of your best.”
“What?” One of the other majors gasped in shock. “Seven hundred?”
Jax didn’t even indulge the question. “Xilia!” A woman crossed over. “I need these clerical items, in duplicate for good measure.”
“In duplicate?” the woman repeated. Vhalla saw the long list of Elecia’s scribbling.
“Everyone else, go find your fastest, most reckless riders. Bring me the men and women who will put themselves and their mount’s lives last and their mission first.” The room stared at the Western man, open-mouthed. “Now!” Jax shouted, slapping his palm upon the table. “Go now!”
That was the first time Vhalla saw the true diligence of the Imperial army. Despite the confusion, the question, and all the vast unknowns, the soldiers moved. They did as their superior told them, and it was a sight so sweet that it made her want to cry in relief.
“They-they’re going to go?” Vhalla whispered, staring at the doors the last soldier had disappeared from.
“Yes, within the hour.” The major rounded the table slowly.
Exhaustion rode the wave of relief as it crashed upon her and her knees hit the ground. Vhalla braced her fall with an arm, the other clenching her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, but she felt dizzy with air. She wanted to laugh and sob and scream at the same time. She’d made it to the North.
Jax crouched before her. Vhalla’s gaze rose from his boots to his face. The Western man squinted.
“Vhalla Yarl, the Windwalker.” Her name on the lips of a stranger made her uneasy, and Vhalla sat back onto her feet to assess him with equal interest. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t you.”
She laughed bitterly, remembering Elecia’s first unappreciative assessment of her months ago. “Sorry to disappoint.”
The man tilted his head. “You show up as if you materialize from the wind itself, to save the life of the crown prince whom you jumped off the side of the Pass in an attempt to save. You’re unassuming, you’re filthy, and you’re soaked in what I can only presume to be the blood of our enemies.” A grin slowly spread across Jax’s face, like that of a rabid beast. “Who said anything about being disappointed?”
THE WASHROOM IS back here.” Jax led her toward the upper part of the T Vhalla had seen from the outside.
She nodded and followed him mutely. In the wake of accepting her and Aldrik’s death, she was experiencing difficulty processing the concept of salvation. The hall perpendicular to the public area had one door at the end on the left side and two on either wall to Vhalla’s right with a fourth before her. The shoddy construction made it easy to tell that soldiers, not craftsman, had erected the building.
“Not really fitting for a lady, I know,” Jax chuckled. The bathroom was the bare essentials, and he quickly had a large wooden barrel filling with rainwater from a rooftop reservoir.
“I’m not a lady.” Vhalla shook her head. “This reminds me of home, actually.”
As a child, she’d bathed with her mother in a barrel not unlike the one she was faced with now. Thinking about her mother was odd. Vhalla wondered if the woman who had scolded her daughter for climbing too high in the trees and had sung lullabies would recognize the woman Vhalla had become. It was crushing how different Vhalla was from the last time she’d been home.
Jax leaned against the wall by the soaking barrel. “That’s not what Elecia wrote.”
“What isn’t?” She was jarred out of her thoughts.
“She said our Lord Ophain made you a Duchess of the West.” Jax folded his arms.
It took Vhalla too long to remember that Elecia was Lord Ophain’s granddaughter. Of course she would have found out. “A hollow title,” Vhalla laughed.
“And you’re quick to offend.” He stilled her amusement. “I take Western tradition quite seriously, and I will be the first to tell you I’m not alone.”