Vhalla paused, standing at the fork that would carry her around to the back of the camp palace and Aldrik’s window.
“I’m trying to return her things,” the woman explained. “Can I at least bring them here?”
“Do we look like help to you?” The other guard yawned. “You know none of us want this job ...”
“Listen.” The woman took a deep breath and puffed out her chest. “You two are going to help me find the Windwalker. She’s gone long enough without her armor, and I know she’ll want it back.”
“And we told you—”
“You have my armor?” Vhalla called, halfway across the distance.
The woman turned, and a vague recognition crossed Vhalla’s mind at the sight of the woman’s face. She had been one of Vhalla’s doppelgangers. The woman stared at Vhalla like a frightened doe, suddenly stumbling over her words. “It-it’s you.”
“Do you have my armor?” Vhalla repeated.
“I do.” The woman nodded.
“I do! At my tent.”
“Great, you two run along now.” The guards shooed them.
Vhalla shot the offending guard a pointed glare at the wave of his hand. She was surprised when it actually gave the man pause, and he quickly snapped to attention under the weight of her stare.
“You’re really her.” The woman peered at Vhalla from the corners of her eyes as they headed in a direction of camp Vhalla had yet to wander.
Vhalla was less shy about sizing up her companion. “Her?” “Vhalla Yarl,” she spoke as if the fact should’ve been obvious. “We’ve met before,” Vhalla reminded her.
“That didn’t really count though,” the woman mumbled. “You were ...”
“A mess.” Vhalla laughed bitterly at the other woman’s shock toward her self-depreciation. “I lost a dear friend that night.”
Mentioning Larel flashed pain across the scar on Vhalla’s memory. But it felt like the right pain. It felt like a pain that was turning into a bitter ache that would make her stronger, not the crippling sort she’d been wallowing in before.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You know?” Vhalla asked skeptically.
“You, her, the Southerner, the lady ...” It took Vhalla a moment to realize her companion was speaking of Larel, Fritz, and Elecia. “You were the Black Knights.”
“The Black Knights?” Vhalla laughed.
“That’s what the other soldiers called you.” The woman was laughing, too, realizing how silly it sounded as well. “The Black Knights, the start of the dark prince’s personal guard.”
“That’s an interesting thought ...” Vhalla smiled tiredly. She couldn’t imagine Aldrik creating a rival to Prince Baldair’s infamous Golden Guard. “What’s your name, by the way?”
The other woman paused, as if surprised Vhalla didn’t know it. The woman didn’t know Vhalla had made it a point not to learn the names of her doppelgangers. They became people when she did, they became deaths that could hurt and inspire guilt.
Then again, Vhalla inwardly cringed at the memory of the Emperor’s Windwalker look-alike. Dead, shot down, and left to rot in the jungles of the North. She hadn’t known that woman’s name, but the guilt remained. For better or worse, Vhalla realized, she had too much of a soul left to ignore sacrifice. The least she could do was learn the names of those who were making that sacrifice.
“Timanthia,” she said with a small cringe. “But I hate that name; Tim is fine.”
“Tim, then,” Vhalla affirmed with a nod. They’d come to a stop before a small tent.
“I’m glad I could get your armor back to you.” Tim began rummaging through the inside of the tent, passing out the scale mail.
Vhalla ghosted her fingers over the steel. It felt almost warm, as if Aldrik’s forging fire still lived within it. Tim allowed Vhalla a moment, stacking the gauntlets and greaves between where Vhalla knelt and the tent.
“I know it’s important,” Tim’s voice had dropped to a whisper. Vhalla’s eyes flicked up, clearly hearing the underlying current that there was more to be said. Tim paused, caught in conflict at Vhalla’s expectant stare. “He told me he’d made it for you.”
Vhalla’s nails scraped against the armor as she instantly tensed.
“Don’t worry,” Tim reassured her.
Vhalla wondered how much the other woman knew in order to be reassuring her.
“No matter what the rumors are, he only called me to his tent for show.”
The words stung, and Vhalla averted her eyes to hide the warring emotions. Aldrik had been doing what he had to. She’d been doing the same. They were both so guilty they were innocent.
“I want you to know ...” Tim clearly forced herself to continue, she looked as awkward as Vhalla suddenly felt. “If he remembers anything he said when he was halfway into the bottles ...” Tim’s eyes were suddenly shifty. “Like his strange dreams ... Anyways, I won’t tell anyone.”
Vhalla assessed the other woman with a probing stare. She wanted to ask what Tim was talking about specifically, but at the same time she wanted to foremost ensure the woman’s sincerity. Vhalla knew what little love people held for their crown prince. “Why would you protect his secrets?”