Earth's End

Page 77

She didn’t say anything, however. She kept on her course to the edge of camp and up the rise toward the burnt track that ran around the perimeter. Vhalla wondered briefly what Soricium was like before the military. There must have been trees where the Imperial army now camped. Had it been like the capital in the South with thousands of people making their home around the fortress?

Vhalla would’ve paused to contemplate the idea, but she didn’t want to turn around just yet and give her pursuer knowledge that she was aware of his presence. Vhalla had heard a set of footsteps behind her since shortly after the camp palace. At first, she thought it was just a soldier who happened to have business in the same direction as she, but they had been trailing her too long for it to be mere chance. She clenched her fists, waiting until they had crested the rise and started on the burnt stretch—until they were alone.

She took a deep breath, bracing herself. There was only one explanation for a person tailing her. Whatever the Knights of Jadar were planning, they would not be successful.

Shifting her weight, Vhalla pivoted on one foot, raising a hand across her chest. Magic was swift under her fingers, ready to lash outward. Her whole body froze awkwardly the second her eyes met a familiar set.

“Daniel?” she uttered, confused.

“Where are you headed?” His hand rested on the pommel of his sword, but only lightly. It betrayed his training. If she had lashed out at him, he would’ve been ready. He would’ve dodged and countered before Vhalla had a chance to blink—if she wasn’t leveraging Aldrik’s depth of combat knowledge.

“Where are you headed?” she retorted.

“I asked you first.” It was a childish response, but that didn’t make it any less effective.

Vhalla shifted her balance, dropping her arm. “I have something I need to do.”

“Something reckless,” he clarified for her.

“Perhaps.” Vhalla shrugged. She hadn’t honestly given her course of action much thought. She only knew it needed to be done.

“Perhaps.” Daniel shook his head and chuckled, mostly to himself. His gaze was one that Vhalla hadn’t expected to see ever again. There was a deeply rooted tenderness, an admiration that made Vhalla want to remind him that she was a taken woman.

Her hand went up to her neck, grabbing for Aldrik’s watch. It was under her chainmail, and her fingers rested awkwardly atop the metal.

“I know you.” Daniel took a step closer. “You have this knack for being reckless and attracting danger.”

“So?” She took a step back. “Are you going to force me to go back?”

The Easterner laughed, shaking his head and tossing his brown hair. “Certainly not, your life is yours to live. But I will protect you, if you will have my sword.”

“Because Baldair ordered it?” Vhalla didn’t know why it mattered.

“Have I ever needed an order to be near you?” He had a point Vhalla could not refute.

“He didn’t send you?” Vhalla realized Daniel had thought she was referring to Baldair’s previous, general order of protecting her.

“Baldair?” Daniel was confused now as well. “No, I saw you in camp and decided to see where you were off to.”

“How did you know it was me?”

Daniel crossed the remaining distance and Vhalla waited. He took the half step into the threshold of personal space that was a little too familiar. He was a breath away and, were they not both wearing armor, she would’ve been able to reach out and feel his firm chest, the way the muscles curved under her palm. His hazel eyes were as warm as a summer day.

“I’ve never seen another chainmail like this.” His fingers ran along the edge of the hood.

The rough pad of a finger fell off the chainmail and onto her forehead, lightly running over her skin. Vhalla realized that nothing had changed for Daniel. Even knowing about her and Aldrik, about where Vhalla’s heart was given, he still felt a more than friendly level of ardor for her. But, as he pulled his hand away, he resigned with grace to the role in her life he could play.

It made her heart ache with a conflict.

“So, will you tell me then what you’re out here hoping to achieve?” Daniel took the half step out of her personal space.

“I think the less you know the better,” Vhalla decided after only a moment’s debate. She set out once more for her destination; there wasn’t any time to waste.

“That sounds ominous.” Daniel walked at her side.

Vhalla stared at the structure they were approaching. It was an ominous sort of night. The full moon stared down at them like one wide eye of the Dragon of Chaos that lore said it contained. The closer they neared to the ruins of old Soricium, the more prominent the feeling of being watched became.

It was a feeling that exactly mirrored one she had felt before in the Crossroads, when a Firebearer’s eyes lingered on her for far too long. But they were half a continent away from that curiosity shop now. It was far more likely that the eyes Vhalla felt were those of a waiting enemy.

The ruins were larger than Vhalla remembered. They seemed to almost double in size from one end of the scorched earth to the other. Now they towered taller than any single building she’d ever seen—that wasn’t the palace—and Vhalla felt dwarfed by its presence. The trees and roots that were gnarling their way through the stone seemed to only penetrate so deep. Under the crumbling fa?ade was a deeper layer of smooth stone, much like she’d seen in Soricium.

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