“Daniel,” she whispered into the darkness, hoping he was asleep.
“Yes?” he replied.
She swallowed her trepidation. “What are we?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to tell me,” he replied after a long moment. “But I’m not in any hurry.”
He gave a raspy laugh. Vhalla had noticed his voice was more raw these days, as he led more drills than he had on the march. “Why, indeed?” He shifted behind her, and Vhalla felt his thigh brush against hers. He lay a hand’s distance away, as chaste as possible while still offering comfort. “Maybe because I’m afraid if I force you to choose, I won’t like the result.”
Vhalla bit her lip.
“I’d rather have this, whatever this is, than nothing. It’s nice to have someone with me, even if that someone is ‘no one’.” Daniel pressed his forehead between her shoulder blades and Vhalla stiffened briefly at the contact. “Don’t I sound pathetic?” “No ...” Her hands sought out his and their fingers intertwined. “You sound honest.”
His words lingered with her over the next few days. Did she have the strength to accept things as they were? To enjoy them for whatever they could be without care for what tomorrow may bring? It was a luxury she didn’t think she possessed.
Aldrik lingered on the edge of her thoughts. He was there when she saw Erion out of the corners of her eyes, his high cheekbones and black Western hair playing tricks on Vhalla’s mind. He was there when mentioned on the others’ lips. Aldrik was there every dawn and every sunset when Vhalla turned her eyes south, praying to see the host returning.
In some ways, she grew more in two weeks than she had in some years of her life. But no amount of training or mental fortitude could have prepared Vhalla for the night the crown prince returned to her life.
The curtain of Daniel’s shack was thrown back without warning. Vhalla blinked awake, confusion thick in her sleep-hazed mind. Jax stood in the doorway, a small flame burning over his shoulder, and she was instantly grateful it was a night she hadn’t decided to share Daniel’s cot.
“By the Gods, man, what’s wrong with you?” Daniel swore groggily.
“Vhalla Yarl, you must come with me.” There was no familiar glint to Jax’s eyes. Nothing to indicate the friendship she had been building with the man.
“What is it?” Her heart began to race.
“I said come with me, now.” Jax had a conflicted restraint to his movements.
“Where?” Daniel asked on her behalf, sitting.
“The Emperor requests your presence.” Jax was focused only on her. Five words had never brought Vhalla so much hope and dread.
“What’s going on, Jax?” Daniel asked, dropping his voice. “It’s just us, you don’t have to follow his commands like an automaton among friends.”
“I said now.” Jax walked in, grabbing her by the arm and tugging her forward.
“That’s enough, Jax!” Daniel was on his feet.
“Don’t interfere with Imperial orders!” Jax barked back, pushing her out of the shack. Vhalla stumbled but quickly righted herself. Jax didn’t place his hand on her person again, he didn’t need to as Vhalla fell in line obediently.
They were both pawns of the crown, she realized. But there was no time to process that revelation as her eyes fell on the mass of people before the camp palace. She clenched her hands into fists and her heart began to race. If the Emperor was here, then that meant Aldrik would be as well.
Vhalla turned to Jax suddenly. “Before we’re there, tell me, is the crown prince ... is he alive?”
The Head Major of the Black Legion said nothing, but he did not scold her for pausing her forward progress either.
“Jax, tell me, please,” Vhalla pleaded.
“The crown prince lives,” he affirmed with a nod. That was the only hope he gave her before they continued onward.
“The Windwalker!” A soldier noticed her when she drew close to the crowd. It was strange to have someone identify her as Vhalla Yarl on sight. But these soldiers had been present for the fight in the Pass: she had already cast off the guise of Serien before them.
The crowd parted in awe.
“She lives,” someone whispered.
“It’s true: she flew like a bird.”
“The wind protects the crown,” another told their friend proudly.
Vhalla stared at them, shades of the sandstorm returning to her. She didn’t know the cause of their reverence. She had no doubt that these people held little love for Aldrik. But they stared upon the person who had saved their prince as though she were the first ray of dawn.
“Windwalker,” one called as she approached the doors of the camp palace with Jax. Vhalla paused and the Westerner didn’t force her forward. “Will you be able to wake the prince?”
The question was a crushing blow and the person delivered it with so much hope.
“I ...” she faltered in her response.
“The Emperor has demanded the Windwalker’s presence,” Jax announced, sparing her from any explanation as he ushered her into the long hall.
The Emperor stood over one of the tables, alone. “Jax, leave us.” He didn’t even turn to face them.
Jax gave her one more guarded look, and then departed.