Earth's End

Page 47

Murderers, they were murderers under the command of the greatest murderer of them all.

I can’t, I can’t do this, Aldrik. Vhalla didn’t pull into her body once more; she didn’t go forward, she didn’t do anything.

“You can,” Aldrik encouraged.

We’re taking their home from them!

“Their home is lost,” the prince said grimly. “What do you think will happen if you refuse? Do you think you can stop the inevitable? This was set into motion long before we met, long before you had Awoken to your powers. The North was going to fall from the start. They dragged this out with their resistance.” Of course they did! It’s their home. Vhalla had never imagined she could find any understanding for the people she’d been brought here to kill. But in that moment, she wondered if she would fight with the Northerners if given the choice.

“Their Chieftain did this. She put her people here. And now she’ll see them starve before she forfeits her city.”

Did they have a choice?

“All leaders have the choice to take responsibility for their people,” Aldrik affirmed. “The North is a beast that’s wounded and bleeding. They’ll die with or without you. If they die faster, they’ll suffer less. You can give them that, my love.”

That’s horrible.

“It’s the truth,” Aldrik insisted defensively. But he did not deny that it was horrible.

She knew it was the case, but to hear it from his lips was harder than Vhalla could imagine. This was worse than anything she’d ever been put through, but he didn’t understand. Vhalla had envisioned she would be fighting on a battlefield. In every mental preparation for the battles to come, Vhalla had imagined herself squaring off against a faceless enemy. Something shapeless and corporal, she envisioned herself battling against the North as an entity, not as lay people.

This was an enemy who couldn’t stand. It was an enemy that was bent over and begging. Pleading for the last scraps of happiness they could stitch together with the remnants of their lives. She wasn’t here to be the Empire’s soldier or champion. She was here to be the greatest executioner the Empire Solaris had ever deployed.

It wasn’t war any longer: it was an impending massacre.

“The food stores,” Aldrik reminded, the magical warmth of his palms tingling across her Projected cheeks.

She had to move. He was right. This would end with or without her and she could ease the suffering by hastening it. Vhalla wanted to sob and scream with each step forward. The people were oblivious to the enemy in their midst. Vhalla steeled her heart. She’d learned to do it as Serien and the shadow of the other woman protectively hovered over her.

As Vhalla ventured deeper, searching for a location where they kept their primary food stores, she heard something she hadn’t expected: Southern Common. Vhalla stilled, trying to make out the origin of the familiar words. The speaker was one of the Northerners, judging from their heavy accent.

Vhalla walked unimpeded into one of the massive trees. It reminded her of the Tower of Sorcerers, a large central room and a curving stairway that led up to the next landing. Vhalla followed the sounds upward and across an exterior hall to one of the constructed rooms attached to the outside of the tree.

“... you said they would be dead.” Vhalla passed through a door to see the archer from earlier pacing the small room.

“And you had promised to deliver the Windwalker to us, alive.”

Vhalla’s blood ran cold as she turned her attention to the other half of the space. A Western man, dirty and tired looking, sat one of the low, flat benches. His hair was greasy and his face gaunt. But he didn’t seem uncomfortable. He wasn’t chained nor bound. He sat easy in the Northerner’s company despite his Southern-style armor clashing oddly with his surroundings. “Why do you have such love for the Windwalker?” the woman sneered in her thick accent.

“My men kept their part of the bargain; they disoriented the troops at the Pass despite yours having gone rogue at the Crossroads and deciding to kill the girl after we had so generously hid and tended to them.”

Vhalla’s world stilled as the man spoke.

“Gwaeru,” the woman said a series of impassioned words that Vhalla could only assume were profane.

Vhalla studied the Northerner carefully. Long black hair was coiled into many braids, pulled into an intricate knot at the back of her head. She had skin the hue of dark melted chocolate, rich and glistening with the heat of the day. She wore the similar clothing of the other Northern warriors Vhalla had encountered: wrapped leathers and what seemed like an intricately embroidered pennon with a hole cut for her head, belted at the waist.

Vhalla noted the stony-looking pieces of bark that had been strapped over her shoulders as armor. She’s not a Groundbreaker.

“What was that?” Aldrik’s voice layered over the conversation. Vhalla had forgotten her thoughts would echo back to him. I’ll fill you in soon. I need to listen, Vhalla said hastily, not wanting to miss any more of the discussion before her.

“We will help you see that the Imperial family is slain in their beds as long as you deliver the Windwalker to the Knights of Jadar; this has always been our deal. And need I remind you again before you run off to fire more arrows, we want her alive.” The man leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Any further attempts to kill her and we’ll be forced to assume the deal is off.”

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