This sent the woman into a rage. “You south peoples make no sense!” She stomped around the room. It was strange for Vhalla to hear a Westerner be referred to as southern. “We make new deal. You kill the Solaris family without the Shaldan’s help and take the Demon when she is unprotected. In thanks, Shaldan will give you Achel.”
This made the man pause with thought.
“You have the axe?” he asked with genuine interest.
“Shaldan knows its history. We have not forgotten like southern peoples,” the woman answered cryptically.
Vhalla’s mind made a sudden connection. The axe they were speaking of, it couldn’t be the same one as what Minister Victor had mentioned to her, could it? He had told her it was an axe that could cut through anything, that would make the wielder invincible.
“Why have you not used the axe, if you have it?” The Westerner raised his eyebrows. “The Sword of Jadar helped the knights stave off the Empire for ten years.”
Vhalla had never read of any special sword in the battles of Mhashan.
“You think we keep such a thing here? Inside sacred Soricium?” The woman scoffed, “No, that monstrous blade rests where it should under watchful eyes of ancients.”
“If what you say is true—”
“I speak true.”
“I shall need to consult with my comrades.” The man stood, favoring his right leg. “You will send the message tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow.” The woman nodded and cursed under her breath as she stormed past Vhalla’s Projected form and into the hall, slamming the door behind her.
Vhalla followed the man with her eyes as he walked slowly over to the window, a slight limp to his gait. She raised her hand, seeing his form blurred on the other side. If she could use her magic in this form, she could blow him out the window. She could send him tumbling head over heels down the side of the tree and into the unforgiving ground four stories below.
“Vhalla?” Aldrik distracted her from her murderous thoughts. “Have you found the food stores yet?”
No, I’ll look again. She dragged herself from the room with every ounce of willpower she possessed and back downstairs.
“Again? Have you not been searching for them?” His concern was apparent.
I’ll tell you when I’m no longer Projecting. I’m very tired. Vhalla looked up at the sun when she reemerged on the bottom floor.
She’d spent longer Projected than she had before; returning to her physical body was already going to be difficult. Aldrik stayed silent while she wandered the camp once more. The conversation she’d overheard only served to darken her mood and confuse her feelings further. She was back to loathing the Northerners, but only the select group who furthered the war for their own personal agendas.
Vhalla was discovering that it was not a region or race of people that soured her, it was a type. It was the leaders who would do anything for their legacy. She hated those who clung to the past at the expense of the future. More than anything, she couldn’t stand the type of person who cared only for themselves at the expense of others.
Vhalla wondered which type of person she was. Did her sympathy for the common man absolve her for being the executioner for the crown? Did her hatred for the Emperor expunge the guilt of twisting the knife into the dying belly of the North? Did her love for Aldrik justify accepting his words that this was how it had to be? That the momentum headed toward another slaughter could not be halted?
Vhalla returned to her body slowly. Her head felt heavy and her eyes blurred with tunnel vision. Aldrik was at her bedside, but her ears had yet to click back into alignment and his words were muddled. Vhalla focused on finding her heart, then her lungs, then everything else.
“Aldrik,” she rasped.
“My love,” he whispered, the sun illuminating his face through the open window.
Tears burned up her chest and streamed down her cheeks in rivulets. Vhalla hiccupped and reached for him as Aldrik pulled her into his arms. She clawed for the tightest grip possible on his shirt. Vhalla pressed her face against him and let everything he was engulf her. She drew strength from his warmth, stability from the heart that beat in time with hers, comfort from the way he smelled.
Aldrik said nothing as she cried. He shifted slightly, allowing her to burrow into him, but didn’t try to stop her tears. He knew better; Vhalla realized with a dull ache that there was a time he had cried these tears. He had mourned the loss of his humanity, sacrificed at the altar of duty that forces beyond his control had constructed.
His fingers untangled her hair lovingly, and he kissed the top of her head. Vhalla pulled away, looking at his ghostly white Southern skin turned orange in the light of the setting sun. It was as though the fire within him burned right beneath his flesh, glowing far too beautifully for the ugly corner of the world they found themselves within.
“We must help them,” Vhalla whispered. “The Northerners.” “Vhalla.” Aldrik’s lips parted in surprise.
“We must,” she insisted. “No one else will. I know, Aldrik, I know.” Vhalla shook her head. “But I cannot turn a blind eye to them.”
Aldrik took a slow breath, and Vhalla braced herself for an objection. “What would you have me do? How do you think I can help them?”
His face blurred through her tear-rimmed eyes. He was offering to help. Vhalla had expected to see him withdraw, to insist upon the inevitable. There was a lost sort of confusion on Aldrik’s face, but her prince was sincere.