The room instantly noticed the odd exchange, adding their glances and whisperers beneath the conversation that politely continued on. Daniel rounded the table in a daze, his focus only on her as if she was the last thing on the earth. Vhalla swallowed. She didn’t know what he saw—who he saw in her.
Daniel’s feet went from dragging to a near run as he crossed to her in desperately wide steps. His body crashed against hers and his arms swept her into an all-encompassing embrace. Her arms responded before she could think, ready to welcome the only person who had been there when the world had taken everyone else from her.
“You’re alive.” Daniel’s breath was hot on her neck.
“I’m Serien ...” she whispered dumbly, reminding herself and him to play the necessary part.
“I don’t care what name.” He squeezed her tighter, if it were possible. “You’re you, and that’s all I need.”
HOW ARE YOU here?” Daniel pulled away, blinking at her in awe. “They said we were the first group to arrive.”
Vhalla opened her mouth to speak but could only make a strangled, choking noise. The sight of him was wonderfully familiar, so much so that the relief it inspired nearly made her feel guilty. Vhalla stepped away and loosened her grip on him so that she could take his hands.
“Somewhere private,” she whispered, attempting some secrecy. Half the room was close enough to hear.
Daniel nodded. “Erion, Jax, I’ll have that drink with you later.” “The shacks are as you left them.” Erion sipped his drink. He, Raylynn, and Craig were all intently watching Daniel and
Vhalla’s intertwined fingers.
“Our little Danny grew up! Stealing women away!” Jax cheered, and Vhalla’s cheeks burned at the laughter that erupted in the room following such a proclamation.
Daniel quickly led her out, sparing them further embarrassment. The sun had almost completely set and, in the fading light, Vhalla could see his face competing with hers for the deeper shade of red.
“Jax, he’s-he’s a few pieces shy of a whole Carcivi board and he’s like that,” Daniel said quickly and apologetically.
Vhalla nodded, that much had been apparent from the moment she’d met the head major.
“But he’s a good man, truly, just a little ...” Daniel sighed, slowing and turning. As if suddenly remembering he held her hand, he quickly pulled his away, plunging his palms into his pockets.
Vhalla said nothing, staring up at the Eastern lord. “I can’t believe you’re here,” he whispered.
“I’d rather not be ...” Vhalla stared southward.
“Right.” He nodded, catching himself distracted again. “Let’s get somewhere we can talk.”
Daniel proceeded down and to the right of the camp palace. It was the first time Vhalla had walked among the soldiers and, while most were indifferent to her, they were certainly not to Daniel. He did his best to keep their pace, but it took nearly double the time it should’ve to transverse the short walk to a series of shacks with a communal fire pit that had a tarp suspended over it. It seemed every soldier wanted to welcome back the member of the Golden Guard.
Vhalla’s suspicions that these were the temporary homes of the most elite fighting force were validated when Daniel led her into one of the shacks. A curtain was the only barrier between his space and the rest of the world. But Vhalla instantly found herself relaxing.
“It’s not much.” Daniel rubbed the back of his neck.
It was nothing more than four walls and a roof. His supplies had already been dropped, armor on a simple stand, a few personal effects on a small table. His bedroll was open on a low platform, keeping it off the dusty ground.
“It’s perfect,” Vhalla countered.
The room was so far removed from anything she’d ever known that it held no meaning for Vhalla. The camp palace was filled with Aldrik, with why she was in the North. Here was a place where she could be Serien, someone else, or no one—it didn’t matter.
“Why are you here?” he rephrased his earlier question, taking a step toward her.
If Baldair hadn’t known about Aldrik, then it made sense that none of the recent arrivals would.
“There was an attack at the Pass.” She tried to harden herself in the way she’d learned as Serien, to speak as though the memories didn’t threaten to crush her with every word. “Aldrik fell—” Vhalla’s eyes widened realizing that she hadn’t used the crown prince’s title. She shouldn’t have been shocked to see that Daniel was completely unsurprised. He already knew. “I tried to save him, but I couldn’t. He was barely alive and dying. I came ahead for medical supplies.”
Daniel stared at her in shock. “When you say you came ahead ...”
“I ran.” Her words were firm, with a defensive edge in case he challenged her decision. “I rode Baston, put the wind to his hooves until they killed him—”
“Northerners.” Vhalla thought it obvious.
“You faced Northerners?” Daniel took another step closer.
“I fought and I killed them to make it here.” She didn’t have to amplify the truth to feel its gravity. “I’ve been here, alone for days, and I don’t even know if I have anything to show for it. I don’t even know if he’s alive.”