She led Baston to the base of a small bluff that curved away from the forest, retracting into a small cove at the water’s edge. It was enough for horse and rider to remain hidden from sight.
Vhalla’s legs almost gave out from exhaustion as she dismounted. Even if she had ridden halfway across the world, what she had just done was a very different type of riding. Her thighs were torn up and sore. Vhalla waded into the water and found it as cool and soothing as she’d hoped.
That was when she noticed that it was fresh. The sea she’d always read about was salty and not potable. But, as Vhalla discovered by dunking her head beneath the glassy surface, the water was indeed easy to drink.
It was a sweet taste that revealed to Vhalla how parched she was, and she struggled not to gulp down too much too quickly. She wouldn’t be able to heed the call of nature riding again and her stomach would be bloated and sick.
Vhalla tilted back her head so she wouldn’t guzzle any more and stared into the bright blue sky. It had been over a week since she’d seen the unbroken sky, and Vhalla hadn’t realized until that moment that her heart had been aching for it.
She dragged her waterlogged feet back toward the beach, collapsing near Baston. The stony emotional protection of Serien fractured and crumbled, leaving Vhalla feeling as though she’d just washed up from the lake. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes.
Vhalla pulled her knees to her chest, resting her forehead on the wet wool. Rather than thinking of the pain she’d been harboring for weeks—the pain of Larel’s death, of being so far from everyone she ever loved and everything she knew, and now of Aldrik’s situation, she thought of maps, of everything she’d ever read about the North.
Vhalla ignored the tingling of her lips when she remembered the kisses she and Aldrik had shared the night before they had entered the North. She thought, instead, about where she must be, deciding upon Lake Io. Vhalla banished the image of Fritz’s worried eyes and tried to recite all the information she had surrounding the largest freshwater lake in the world.
Vhalla didn’t remember falling asleep, but when her eyes blinked open again the sun hung low in the sky. It had been three hours, maybe. Vhalla uncurled her stiff legs with a grimace. It’d have to be enough.
“Aldrik,” she whispered, “I’ll get you help soon.”
The declaration restored her resolve, and Vhalla echoed it in her mind as she forced her muscles back to life. Aldrik, Aldrik, Aldrik. His name punctuated every agonizing movement as Vhalla worked to find her rhythm with Baston once more. All the aches she felt, from her muscles to her heart, she would relish. She didn’t rely on the icy and barbed heart of Serien. Vhalla had to do this on her own. Aldrik’s life would be won by her hand.
Vhalla blindly raced into the day. Baston swerved and dodged around trees and low branches. The horse found a second wind and spurred its feet to a run again. Her Channel still felt weak, but Vhalla used that magic to put the wind at his hooves. She ignored the mental debate of whether she was depriving Aldrik of strength by using her magic. She was damned no matter what she did, so all Vhalla focused on was moving forward.
Dusk came upon her, the day sinking into night, and Vhalla’s eyes began to droop closed. She hadn’t made it away from the fall unscathed, and every wound she’d endured, however superficial, was ripped open and bleeding. Eventually Baston’s and her exhaustion forced them to slow. Vhalla would rather walk or trot if it meant avoiding stopping again completely. The hours she had slept already weighed heavily on her mind.
Blinking away exhaustion, Vhalla tried to find her headway. The canopy was particularly dense and she couldn’t catch one glimmer of light to see by. Tilting her head back, Vhalla looked up to try to find a break in the trees, to see by the light of the moon.
And her heart stopped.
High above, blocking the moon, were the silhouettes of houses and walkways built into the branches and the trees themselves. Vhalla had read about the sky cities of the North. But the books read more like fantasy than fact. Even standing below one, Vhalla couldn’t believe her eyes at the expanse of buildings built in, and around, the treetops.
She slowed Baston to a walk, barely inching the horse forward. Vhalla dared blinking her eyes, shifting into her magic sight, and she choked on shock. High above her, in the darkened outlines of the buildings, was the unmistakable glow of people. Not just a few, but many across every tree and in almost every structure. She was surrounded from all sides in the dead of night.
Slowly drawing on her chainmail hood, she pulled back on the reins. The horse barely inched forward, making almost no sound. Vhalla breathed shallowly and her heart raced frantically.
By the time she was almost out from under the dwellings, her lungs burned from trying to take only shallow breaths despite her panic. Their escape went smoothly until Baston let out a whinny, caused by Vhalla’s nervous tugs on the reins, shaking his head in protest. The clatter from his bridle rang across her ears and seemed to echo for eternity. It echoed into every ear as the people above stirred, lighting fires.
Vhalla snapped the reins and dug her heels into Baston’s sides, forcing him into an all-out run. From above, she heard the shouts of her waking enemy.
Thick and melodic calls erupted in the night, a language completely foreign to Vhalla’s ears. She didn’t have to know the words to know they weren’t friendly, so Vhalla pushed harder, pressing herself to Baston. Vhalla took a breath as she heard arrows being knocked overhead.