Earth's End

Page 87

Shifting her magical vision, she scanned the trees. Her heart almost stopped. There were no more, as far as she could see, no more soldiers waiting in the tree line. There were no more. Her feet moved all the faster. Aldrik, she needed to be with him, to be at his side for the call that was inevitably going to ring through the air of the early dawn.

Her prince threw off an attacker as she reached him. His arms opened to her, and her hands clasped around his forearms as his clasped around hers. They both forbid each other more of an embrace than that.

“You mad woman!” he yelled at her over the noise of dying men and women.

“Perhaps!” she agreed, waving a hand toward a Waterrunner who was having a particularly hard time.

“Do not leave my side again!” he demanded, one arm released her to send a torrent of flame in the face of a Northerner.

“Even if it is to publically save your father?” she asked, turning away from him back to the palace to deflect another wave of arrows. Aldrik’s face snapped to face hers, and she met it with a small, satisfied smirk.

The battle continued to calm until a trumpet echoed across the field and all Southerners paused. Another picked up the call, and then another, before the air was alive with the Southern song of war. Vhalla’s breath caught in her throat. Her eyes scanned the battlefield.

The last of the Northerners were collapsing to their knees before their Southern opponents. The Imperial army wasted no time in putting them to death on the spot. It was carnage unlike she had ever seen before on all sides.

In the calm, she panted, trying to catch her breath. Vhalla returned back to the trees, her eyes scanning them frantically. Her hands were balled into fists, and she stood poised for the next wave. The horn blew out again and a hand clasped over her shoulder, startling her.

“It’s over,” Aldrik said softly. She assessed the blood covering his face and hoped it was only from others. Vhalla scanned the trees again, her heart racing. “Vhalla, it’s done.”

She couldn’t believe it. But the horn rang out once more. The last dying gasp of a Northerner was silenced, and everyone seemed to hold their collective breath. No more raced from the trees. There were no more shouts for war in the night. In that first streak of morning’s light, the South raised their voices in a cheer.

Vhalla couldn’t bring herself to emit sound to join the mad cry. She looked on, stunned. There seemed too little to cheer about with all the dead littering the ground about them. If this was what victory looked like, what was defeat?

Aldrik’s hands caught her shoulders, and she felt dizzy. He admired her as though she was the reason for all their joyous cries, and she met his eyes with a swelling adoration that nearly consumed her sanity. She wanted nothing more in that moment than to sweep him up in her embrace. They had made it. They would meet the dawn together. Somehow, they both refrained from acting on the desires that were so apparent on their faces, though the moment of tension spoke volumes for the want and relief that washed over their exhausted bodies.

The second he released her, she scanned for Fritz, Daniel, Elecia, someone. Her heart stopped when she saw a mass of frizzy and bloodied blonde hair. Vhalla raced to Fritz’s side, laughing with relief as soon as she reached her friend. His eyes were closed, but he breathed, and—given all that had transpired—that was enough. Aldrik called over to Elecia, who seemed equally relieved by Fritz’s stable state, and she immediately began tending to the Southerner.

“Vhalla, come,” the prince commanded softly.

“I want to stay with him.” She held Fritz’s hand in hers.

“I want you to be here for this,” Aldrik insisted.

Vhalla opened her mouth to object.

“If Fritz is lucky, then he’ll continue to sleep until I get him on the mend and the pain dulled,” Elecia interjected with a glance at Vhalla. “Go, Lady Windwalker.”

Vhalla stood in a daze. There was an odd mix of resignation and acceptance to Elecia’s voice. The curly-haired woman nodded, as if acknowledging for the first time the change in Vhalla’s status. As if it were already official by the victory alone.

Vhalla and Aldrik walked together, saying nothing, heading toward the center of camp. As they passed one soldier, then another, the army brought their hands to their chest. As they saluted, their palms fell over the symbol of the Windwalker. Their eyes spoke volumes, as if painting it on their chests had been the thing that had brought victory.

Baldair had beaten them to the center; he was haggard and bloody, cut up in a few places, but by all accounts alive and well. His head turned to them, along with the Emperor’s and other assembled majors. Vhalla saw Baldair’s face break with relief, publically showing an emotion for his brother that she had never openly seen before—love. He stumbled forward to Aldrik, and their hands clasped around each other’s arms.

“Brother,” Baldair croaked.

“Brother,” Aldrik repeated, staring in awe at his younger sibling.

Vhalla paused with a small smile. For all that had transpired between them, they were happy to see each other, undeniably relieved at the other’s survival. It was nice to see them allow themselves that joy.

Baldair turned to her, releasing his brother. He looked up and down her bloody form. Vhalla didn’t even have a moment to brace herself for what happened next. The Heartbreaker Prince’s arms closed around her shoulders, and he lifted her into the air.

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