Earth's End

Page 13

A silent knowing gleamed in his eyes, a depth that both stilled and humbled her. His fingers wrapped around hers, closing them around the vial. “Drink, Vhalla Yarl, and get a good night’s sleep. From the looks of you, it’s been a while.”

Jax left her before she could respond. Vhalla stared at the vial in her hand and wondered just what the man could see in her, what the world saw in her now. Her thoughts spun like a top, faster and faster, out of control until she eagerly brought the potion to her lips, drinking it in a gluttonous gulp.

Vhalla collapsed upon the bed, his bed.

It smelled stale. The linens hadn’t been washed in a long time, if ever. They had a dry crunch and gave off a damp and earthy aroma. But somewhere under the musty scent was a musk that Vhalla knew well. She curled in on herself, clutching at the mattress, pillows, and blanket. Leather, steel, eucalyptus, fire and smoke, and a scent that was distinctly Aldrik—a combination that overwhelmed her.

When Vhalla woke next, she expected to have only slept for a few hours. The sun hung low in the sky and the room was dim with the orange light that penetrated the slats of the window shutters. She dragged her feet to the main room; it was mostly empty, save for two men having a drink at the end of one of the long tables.

“Sleeping beauty wakes.” Jax grinned, his hair was loose and it fell straight to his lower chest.

“It hasn’t been that long.” Vhalla sat a good space away from Lord Erion and across from the head major. “Only a day,” Erion mumbled over his drink. “What?”

“You were out a bit. Guess I was right about that whole sleeping thing,” Jax said proudly.

A day ... She had slept for a whole day. Vhalla quickly did the math in her head. “Any word from the riders sent?”

“It’s only been a day. They can’t even be halfway.” Erion set his flagon on the table.

“I made it in two days,” Vhalla felt the need to point out to him.

“Well, you must not be human.” He glanced at her sideways. “Maybe you’re half-wind, Serien.”

Vhalla ran a hand through her hair, checking it from the corners of her eyes to see if the black ink that masked her Eastern brown had washed out from the bath. It hadn’t completely, but it had faded enough to contribute to the Western man’s suspicions. She looked across to Jax, but he had already begun the swift process of changing the topic.

They were both Golden Guard, but Jax hadn’t shared her identity despite Erion’s clear suspicions. Vhalla could guess why it would make sense not to prematurely reveal her true name, but she didn’t have a reason to expect such loyalty from a man she hardly knew. They placed food in front of her, and Vhalla stared at it listlessly. Her mind was full, which meant it silenced the grumbling of her stomach. But Vhalla knew she must be hungry.

Slowly, diligently, she cleaned her plate. In the forests to the south, there was a dying prince depending on her strength. Elecia had said that one person couldn’t sustain two, and Vhalla meant to prove her wrong. At the least, she’d buy them all more time.

Vhalla returned promptly to Aldrik’s bed and buried herself under the blankets. She slept as long as her body demanded, which proved to be a fair deal, and ate everything she could in the following three days. Vhalla worked to restore her strength and conserve her energy, avoiding any undue exertion or risk. It meant most of her time was spent within the camp palace among the other majors, but Vhalla quickly found herself of use.

During the day, she transcribed notes for Jax as he helped manage half the army. He and Erion had been left in command alongside a grizzled old major whom Vhalla had yet to interact with. There were no objections from the majors toward their current commanders in the stead of the Imperial family. The only time questions arose was from trying to decipher Jax’s notes, and thus Vhalla had found an immediate use.

The Black Legion’s Head Major’s penmanship was laughable, and the majors were grateful for Vhalla’s cleaner lines and tidier letters in their ledgers and records. The appreciation was mutual, as it gave Vhalla the opportunity to learn about the siege and the army in a way she never had before. Her prior readings on military tactics and methodologies began to make more sense when given the framework of a real life situation. Vhalla saw how troops were managed on the perimeter. She sat quietly and let the men and women talk about rationing and sending hunting parties into the surrounding woods. She also began to see the lines between theory and actuality. Vhalla repeated in her head the information she gleaned, quickly committing it to memory and filing it away for later use.

Her days were quite full, which only made the empty nights harder. Without distractions her mind began to wander. The silence seemed to stretch into eternity and seeped into her Bond with Aldrik, making her question if it was finally beginning to waver. Nothing about the Channel between her and Aldrik felt as it had been. Like the dormant earth in winter, she had no dreams of his memories and no heartbeat in her ears other than her own.

Vhalla prayed that it was the distance and his weakness taking their toll. But she didn’t know for certain. Not knowing, combined with the emptiness, threatened to drive her mad.

On her fourth day, she’d indulged in a mid-day sleep, only to be woken by trumpets in the late evening. It couldn’t be Aldrik returning, she reasoned. At the earliest, he’d be ten more days, so Vhalla rolled over and pulled the blankets over her head. She felt amazing with all the rest and proper eating, but Vhalla remained determined. The seven days Elecia had promised were almost up and somewhere on the far edge of her consciousness was an exhausted wavering of magic.

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