Tim surprised her. “Because he’s not like people think, is he?” Vhalla’s mouth dropped open, stunned.
“Sorry, I won’t say anything more; it’s not my place.” Tim stood, dusting off her legs. “I’m glad I could return your things.” “I appreciate it.” Vhalla nodded dumbly. Someone else had seen Aldrik like she had. Another person had burrowed underneath his fiery, arrogant exterior into the man she knew. Part of Vhalla wanted to embrace the woman for it, for being an unlikely companion in a knowledge that was dear to her heart. A very different part wanted to claw Tim’s eyes out and rip the thoughts from her mind.
She wanted to know what Tim was hiding. Vhalla wanted to know if she already knew that secret. But if she didn’t, it could be worse, so Vhalla held her tongue.
The armor Aldrik had made for her was like a safety blanket. Vhalla swaddled herself in it, clipping every clasp with silent reverence. It fit perfectly as it always had, as if to say, you are still the woman you were.
“If you ever need anything, or find yourself in Mosant after the war is over,” Tim was speaking, “don’t hesitate to seek me out.”
“I won’t.” Vhalla took the other woman’s hand, slinging her pack over one shoulder. She wasn’t sure if she’d actually take the woman up on her offer, but it couldn’t hurt to file the information away in the corner of her mind.
As Vhalla turned, a shadow blocked her path, and she instantly recognized the bushy-mustached Western man. He had a smirk pushing up the corner of his most recognizable feature.
“Major Schnurr.” Tim saluted.
Vhalla begrudgingly mirrored Tim’s movements, distinctly remembering the man’s harsh words hours before.
“Lady Yarl.” The title sounded like a slur when it slithered across his lips. “What do you think you’re doing in my ranks?” “I was returning her armor,” Tim spoke easily. It made Vhalla question if the other woman felt the oppressive presence from the man or if it was only Vhalla.
“So I see.” The man raked his eyes from Vhalla’s toes to her forehead.
Vhalla clenched her fists.
“Since you don’t seem to be doing anything at present, you can assist Tim here this evening with her patrol,” Major Schnurr ordered.
“What?” Vhalla blinked.
“Oh-ho, does the Windwalker think herself above some basic labor?” He leaned forward. “Want to enjoy the protection of the army without contributing your share?”
Vhalla smothered a smart remark of how she had contributed quite a bit. She doubted Major Schnurr could tout saving the lives of the Imperial family on his list of accomplishments. As much as she wanted to argue, she saw the sun continuing its downward journey. Aldrik was waiting for her.
“Yarl,” the major folded his arms over his chest. “You misunderstand me. I’m not asking, I’m telling you.”
“Of course,” Vhalla was forced to begrudgingly agree.
“Two rounds for your hesitation,” the major said off-handedly as he walked by.
“Major, she won’t sleep if she does two rounds—” Tim made a weak defense.
“Then the Windwalker will learn not to question her duty to the militia and learn her place.”
Tim asked Vhalla later, during their patrol out along the scorched earth that served as the barrier to the Imperial camp, if Vhalla had done something to offend the major. Seething, Vhalla struggled to find a reason, but couldn’t.
The first time she’d even seen Major Schnurr was during her demonstration for the Emperor at the Crossroads. He had been one of the assembled majors, but he hadn’t said anything then, and she certainly hadn’t paid him any mind. Tim was an archer, so Vhalla had no idea who the major reported to. Likely through Baldair, if she was forced to guess. But Vhalla couldn’t come up with a reason why Baldair would slight her, especially not after how close they’d become.
No, there was only one person Vhalla could think of who would to go to any lengths to make her life as difficult as possible. And that man was above them all. It put Vhalla into a sour silence that Tim futilely tried to battle against with small talk.
Eventually the large, burned track around the outmost upper ridge of the camp curved and Vhalla could see the pale outline of stone ruins illuminated in the moonlight. An overgrown skeleton, half destroyed and reclaimed by time, it was like something from a storybook. The stone felt out of place compared to the wooden structures Vhalla had seen Northerners use for building. As if in agreement, those same trees were determined to take root within it and branch through the ancient construction, returning it to the earth in pieces.
As they drew near, Vhalla asked Tim what she knew about the ruins. In its shadow, there was something uncomfortable that hung in the air, making Vhalla shift her pack on her shoulders. All Tim knew was that the soldiers called it the ruins of “Old Soricium.” But how old was “old” and why it was left to crumble seemed to be a mystery.
As they passed, Vhalla turned her gaze upward at the structure that must have once stood as tall as the giant trees, like the base of a massive pyramid. She wracked her brain for any information she may have gathered while working in the library. But everything Vhalla had ever read on the North spoke of the “sky cities” built within trees. She remembered nothing that would resemble the building before her. It was beyond Southern construction; the stones fitted together so tightly that it was as though it’d been carved from a single piece.