In the distance, Vhalla saw an empty clearing that she could only hope was their goal. Vhalla praised the Mother that it was not a windy day. Otherwise keeping the giant wall steady may have proved impossible. She was exhausted.
“Vhalla!” Daniel called. “Here, put it down here.”
The tower groaned loudly as she returned it to the ground. Vhalla held out her hands for half a breath before dropping them limply at her sides. Daniel began walking back to her, clapping his hands slowly. She tilted her head up to the sun with a small laugh of triumph—and relief.
The soldiers surrounding her burst into applause, and Vhalla smiled brightly. Her eyes met a familiar set as she scanned the gathered crowd. The Emperor and Aldrik had joined them at some point during her slow walk, and they stood surrounded by the majors. Emperor Solaris had donned his full armor, and the white of his helm glistened in the sun.
“Well done, Miss Yarl.” The praise was cheap on his lips, and Vhalla found more satisfaction in the fact that he was forced to give it.
“I live to serve.” She gave a small bow.
A sharp whizzing sound cut the air. Time felt like it slowed around her. Her head dropped backward as she twisted and her hand swung up. Vhalla inhaled sharply. The Emperor’s words and the distance across camp had hidden the twang of the bowstring. The arrow shot upward, grazing her fingertips and leaving a dark trail of blood. She fought to catch her balance after such a wild dodge.
Daniel’s arm caught her shoulders and he knelt, allowing her to fall backwards into his arms to rest delicately on his knee. Tucking her head to his chest, he placed his armored body between her exposed head and neck and the fortress. Another arrow clanged loudly as it lodged itself between his breastplate and pauldron.
“Daniel!” Vhalla struggled to stand, to fight. Her heart was racing.
“I’m fine, it’s just stuck. It didn’t get through the chainmail.” Daniel stared with surprise at her fear-stricken eyes. Fear for him. “You stay down.”
Vhalla heard another bowstring on the wind, and she struggled to figure out how she could deflect the arrow. Everything was happening too fast. People were moving, but they seemed sluggish and useless with shock.
The arrow fizzled in the wall of fire that suddenly surrounded her and Daniel. Aldrik stepped through the flames in a truly fearsome display. It licked around his face and armor, so he was beautifully illuminated and completely unburnt.
“My lady,” Aldrik forced through clenched teeth as he extended a hand to her. Daniel sat back, beads of sweat rolling off his cheeks and neck as if he was cooking alive in his armor. Vhalla accepted Aldrik’s hand and stood. The prince half pulled her to him.
They were in their own world. Even the sizzle of one last arrow flying uselessly into the fire didn’t distract any of them. Daniel stared at her dry brow, how the flames didn’t burn her as they crackled around Aldrik’s fingers, fingers she held. He was no fool.
“Thank you, Lord Taffl,” Aldrik said with forced formality.
“It is a pleasure to do my duty, my prince,” Daniel returned, finding a chill even within the inferno.
“You are dismissed.” Aldrik had yet to let go of her hand, and
Vhalla withdrew it slowly.
The flames shrunk to a wall facing the fortress and Daniel stepped away.
Aldrik motioned for her to fall in at his side. “My lady.” Vhalla fell into step with him and the fire wall followed as they walked.
“Do not waste your arrows and efforts,” Aldrik commanded the soldiers who had scrambled into battle ready positions. “They are not making an attack. They were after the Windwalker.”
One by one people seemed to relax, though they continued to stare. Vhalla focused forward, her eyes fixated on the prince’s back, making a futile attempt to still the racing of her heart. The romance, the joy had made her forget the truth: she was death.
She could’ve killed Daniel. Vhalla clenched her fists. She hated it, she hated it all. There would never be an escape from who she was; all that was left was to embrace it, to wear it like the tattered cape upon her shoulders.
Aldrik paused briefly, giving a pointed look at his father. Somewhere in their nonverbal exchange Vhalla could almost hear the challenge from the prince, the invitation for the Emperor to say or do anything against his open display of affection for her. The muscles in the Emperor’s face spasmed as he tightened his jaw.
Aldrik continued onward in silence.
The people parted for them as he escorted her back to the camp palace. The prince maintained the flame wall the entire time. Vhalla hardly noticed the increasing distance between her and the walled city of Soricium. Her hands trembled from squeezing them so tightly.
“Raise your hood.”
Vhalla obliged, pulling the heavy chainmail hood over her head. It was something she should’ve done from the start, she scolded herself angrily. Aldrik finally relaxed the flames a few steps away from the entrance to the camp palace. He ushered her within quickly, and she let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. It quivered, barely.
She struggled to keep up with his long strides as the room of majors and tables passed in a blur. They were suddenly in his room. Aldrik hastily closing the door behind her. His palms clasped over her trembling shoulders.
“Vhalla, my lady, my love, you’re fine now,” he soothed. She shook her head. “I may be, but they will not be.” Aldrik rounded her, staring into her tearless eyes.