The major’s words stilled the tempest of emotion in Vhalla’s heart, just for one moment. The soldiers on both sides of the tent, Elecia, and now the major; Vhalla had no idea how many countless others were fighting their own battle as sorcerers in a world that held no love for them. She clenched her fists.
“Now, go.” Major Reale gave a quick glance over her shoulder. “Everyone will wake when that monster stomps out of here. But you don’t look back, Yarl, do you understand me?”
Vhalla nodded, swinging up into Baston’s saddle. It felt like she was on the back of a giant. The War-strider was taller than some men she had known, and the power beneath her was reassuring.
“Keep your word,” Elecia whispered as she stepped away. “You keep yours.” Vhalla met those emerald eyes for one last moment as she and Elecia sealed their pact for the prince’s life.
Major Reale and Elecia quickly disappeared under brush cover, leaving Vhalla alone. Vhalla took the reins in her hands, gathering her courage with them. She gave one last glance to the makeshift shelter where the crown prince rested. Her heart pumped the pain and guilt from her chest into her veins and Vhalla felt it bubble throughout her body with agonizing speed.
She kicked Baston’s sides and felt the horse sway as Vhalla put the wind under his hooves. But the War-strider was a smart beast, quick to trust the rider he had deemed worthy, and he carried Vhalla away from the camp that was quickly waking into chaos, past the black-plated solders on the perimeter, and into the dark unknown.
THE DENSE FOREST canopy barely allowed any moonlight to reach the floor below. Tree branches scratched Vhalla’s legs through her clothes as she rode, nearly blind, away from camp and into the dark wood. The noises of the Imperial soldiers waking were quickly left behind, their echoes fading into the whizzing of underbrush on either side.
Vhalla’s heart competed with Baston’s hooves for the loudest sound in the forest. This was either the smartest or the dumbest thing she had ever done. Vhalla pressed closer to Baston, trying to make herself as small as possible to avoid being de-horsed by a low tree limb. She was abandoning her post; she was ignoring the will of the Emperor—the man who owned her.
One act of defiance after the next, she had made her choice. From the moment she had rallied the troops at the Pass, she had drawn a line in the sand between her and the Emperor. He may own her physical being, but he did not own her heart or mind.
The terms of her sentence echoed in her ears. If she should run she would be put to death by Aldrik’s hand, a hand that couldn’t actually harm her due to the magical Bond that existed between them. Vhalla clenched her palms tightly, opening her Channel as much as possible. She would succeed and they would live, or she would fail and they would both die. There was no third option.
She wasn’t worried about the noise of the horse through the dense brush. Vhalla was certain it sounded like thunder and felt like an earthquake. But she was nothing more than a black streak in the night. Nothing would catch them with the wind beneath them.
Vhalla pulled the compass from her bag, waiting for a glint of moonlight to check her heading—due north, she confirmed. If a host of people could make it in seven days she’d make it in three. Vhalla shook her head, disagreeing with herself. She’d make it in two.
At the pit of her stomach a seed had begun to take root, a seed of doubt watered by fear. If she wasn’t fast enough, if Elecia couldn’t keep her vow, then Aldrik would die. The first man she ever truly loved would die while she was days away. He’d die without her ever saying goodbye.
She shook the treacherous thoughts from her mind. No! He would live. Every pulsing beat of her heart told her so. She felt his heartbeat through their Bond, a reassuring response to her desperation. The Joining still lived, the Bond still lived, and thus Vhalla knew he still lived.
Baston ran hard through the night. The horse seemed tireless, allowing Vhalla to succumb to twilight exhaustion in the saddle without stopping. She watched the branches of the giant trees above her blaze with the morning sun, the colors fading into oranges and daylight. Vhalla didn’t relent.
She kicked the horse’s sides again, snapping the reins. By daylight, they had to go even faster. Doubly noticeable with sight and sound, they were forced to outpace any potential foe.
The sun was beginning its journey downward when the trees began to thin and Vhalla was forced to slow Baston. Vhalla stared in shock at the water that stretched into the horizion, rocky finger jutting out into its mirror-still surface. Frantically, she checked the compass. But her eyes had been obsessive on the needle all day and she hadn’t gone off her heading.
Was it the coast? Vhalla had heard stories of the sea. A vast body of water so large it was incomprehensible. Sailors told stories of its dangers, waves big enough to swallow a ship when they broke, sea monsters, and the pirates that lurked on the outer isles between the mainland Empire and the savage Crescent Continent. Some sailors even said there was more than that to the world, but most regarded such ideas as an impossibility.
Horse and rider were mortal, and they both needed to rest. She could tell by Baston’s heaving sides that the horse was nearing his limits. Vhalla blinked her eyes, activating her magic sight.
The world rebuilt itself around her, the trees and plants appearing in hazy shades of gray. She didn’t see any movement, Commons or sorcerer, anywhere near her. Vhalla braved out onto the open rocky beach.