She resisted the urge to halt her step and study it further. It held that dangerous kind of beauty that promised problems in exchange for the wonders it whispered. Much like a certain prince she knew.
Aldrik, Vhalla tried to push him from her mind. The thought of her prince waiting up for her made her want to scream and tear at her hair in frustration. Would he worry?
Tim appeared relieved when she left later. Vhalla’s company had turned even more somber and silent the longer her thoughts spiraled around the crown prince. As the archer dragged her feet to bed, Vhalla entertained the idea of asking the other woman to get a message to Aldrik. But Tim had been having such a hard time of convincing the guards at the camp palace to take Vhalla’s things that there would be no way they’d carry a message to the crown prince in the dead of night—not without solid reason. Vhalla wondered if Aldrik somehow thought she’d left him.
Vhalla dragged her feet through the night hours. Her second round companion seemed as thrilled as she was about having the late patrol, and Vhalla didn’t even learn the man’s name. Once he’d gotten over his jumpiness at being around the Windwalker, they both marched in wordless misery.
She could maintain her Channel easily, monitoring the wind for any sounds. For an hour or two, Vhalla tried to identify the patch of forest she had run through, but it was hopeless as all the trees appeared identical—a giant black wall separating them from every remaining Northerner who would cut them down.
Her thoughts jumped from one bitter, exhausted emotion into the next. By the time the sun crested the horizon, Vhalla’s limbs were numb and she was in a foul mood. She dragged her feet toward Fritz’s tent, not even bothering with the camp palace.
Fritz and Elecia were both fast asleep when Vhalla pushed her way into the tent. Throwing her pack into a far corner, she collapsed, armor and all, half on top of the tent’s actual occupants. Fritz didn’t do anything more than groan and roll away. Elecia woke with a start and was ready to choke Vhalla in surprise.
“By the Gods, what’s wrong with you?” Elecia groaned, flopping down indignantly when she realized who had half fallen on her.
“You smell like a dog, and you’re covered in mud.” Elecia sniffed.
It had begun drizzling on and off for the second half of the night. Vhalla had hardly paid it any mind as the air was so thick in the jungle that it always felt damp. But now that she wasn’t moving, she could feel her clothes were soaked and clinging underneath her armor.
“Move,” Vhalla muttered her one word command, sitting. “I need to change.”
Vhalla opened her pack, running her fingers over the leather flap. It felt so good to have it back that she almost forgot the frustrations she’d fostered throughout the evening. The clothes were mostly clean, and they were hers, threadbare holes and all.
She tugged off her armor and peeled the wet tunic off her pale and wrinkled flesh. Elecia raised her eyebrows, glancing at Fritz as Vhalla began to undo the bindings around her breasts. “What?” Vhalla gave Elecia a tired grin. “He’s sleeping, and even if he wasn’t, he’s hardly interested.”
“Even so,” Elecia huffed. “You’re a Duchess of the West; have some modesty.”
“We’re friends, and you’re a woman as well.” Vhalla shrugged and made a show of her changing. The West had their notions of modesty and the South had their ideals of ladyship. Vhalla was Eastern, so she wasn’t constrained by either. More importantly, it annoyed Elecia. And that energized Vhalla’s tired body.
Clipping back into the armor Aldrik had made for her, Vhalla felt more herself than she had in a long time. It wasn’t the same self she’d been the last time she’d worn the clothes. She was different now. Part Serien, part Vhalla, and part a woman who was still emerging.
Elecia waited until Vhalla was done before speaking again, barely audible. “By the way, Aldrik asked me to get this to you.” Elecia held out a small vial. If Vhalla didn’t know better, she’d think it was poison given the nearly murderous glint in the Western woman’s eyes. Vhalla took it hesitantly, raising her eyebrows and waiting for an explanation.
“Elixir of the Moon,” Elecia explained, frowning. Comprehension chased skepticism from Vhalla’s brow. “It’s for—”
“I know what it’s for.” Vhalla grinned at Elecia. The other woman’s cheeks flushed, and Vhalla realized that the noble had yet to have a reason to take the potion herself. Vhalla had only had one real occasion to prior, but she hoped the potion Elecia made tasted better than the sewage she’d forced down before.
It didn’t, and Vhalla grimaced sourly.
“You’ve had it before?” Elecia was too surprised to keep decorum.
“Twice, one man.” Vhalla nodded.
“Low-born Easterners with their affections,” Elecia mumbled. “Does Aldrik know?”
“Of course he does.” She was offended. Did Elecia really think Vhalla wouldn’t tell Aldrik that?
The curly-haired woman shook her head. “Be careful with him, Vhalla.” Elecia glanced over at Fritz to make sure the Southerner was still sleeping. “His heart isn’t as strong as he’d like people to think it is. He’s not actually made of stone and fire.”
Vhalla didn’t know why she was compelled to touch the other woman, but her hand grabbed Elecia’s forearm reassuringly. Aldrik’s cousin met her eyes and searched. “I know he’s not. That’s one of the many reasons why I love him.”