“Vhalla!” he shouted with a laugh. “You stubborn little Easterner.”
“We Easterners are tougher than we look,” a familiar voice spoke from behind her. Vhalla immediately struggled in Baldair’s arms. The prince put her down and she turned, bracing herself for disappointment.
The front line may have shattered, but the bruised, battered, and bloody Easterner before her had made it out alive. Vhalla took a step toward Daniel. He gave her a lazy smile, and it was all the invitation she needed. Vhalla threw her arms around his neck.
“We Easterners are stubborn!” she laughed.
“And overly affectionate,” Erion drawled, joining the group.
Vhalla released Daniel, beaming at the other Golden Guard and majors whom she had befriended. They had made it. They had done it.
A man whom Vhalla did not recognize cut through them, racing toward the Emperor. He held out a tray of parchment and ink to the man who would soon be the ruler of the whole continent, of the civilized world. Emperor Solaris picked up the quill without a word, beginning to scribble on the paper upon the tray held steady by the soldier.
Folding the paper, the Emperor barked for an archer. They tied the parchment about an arrow. The shot was notched upon the bowstring, the archer pulled their weapon taut, and the paper was sent sailing over the wall.
“This ends today,” he announced. “They will forfeit and bind ties with the Solaris Empire—or they will die.” The Emperor strode off in the direction of the camp palace. “Notify me immediately for any reply,” he announced to the world in general.
Vhalla stared off in the hazy morning light to see that, somehow, the stupid structure had managed to be positioned on a side that had mostly survived the battle. Vhalla stumbled across the carcasses that lined the remains of the camp. She walked between the two silent princes. Relief had faded into the somber and grotesque scene before them. Their lives had been bought with the blood that now stained the earth red, the blood of the unlucky.
The majors broke away to oversee cleanup. Vhalla knew she should feel guilty for retreating back into the privacy of the camp palace when so many did not have a tent left to their name, but she couldn’t find the energy to do so. She simply wanted to collapse, her physical and magical strength depleted.
The Emperor was of a similar mind and was locked away by the time they crossed the threshold. Baldair closed the door behind her and Aldrik. A hand, warm even through armor, closed around hers. Before his brother, but away from the world, the crown prince pulled her to him. A gauntleted fist wrapped around her chin and tilted her face to his. His lips tasted of smoke and blood, but she savored him all the same.
The army had been victorious. They had survived. And her freedom was surely won. In that moment of shared relief and bliss, Vhalla breathed the first breath of the new dawn. She allowed herself to believe in all the prince had said: their future together began in that moment.
THE FOLLOWING DAY was the darkest business of war: the battle’s aftermath. After the rush of glory faded, after the cheers of victory ceased their reverberations, was the inevitable process of picking up the pieces. Tents were strewn, shattered, and trampled. People’s belongings, their meager tokens of home, were lost in the mud and blood of the field.
The first part was tending to the wounded. The clerics set up a triage, conserving their limited supplies for those who were in the most need. Firebearers cauterized particularly bad wounds. Groundbreakers assisted with poison afflictions and concocting new potions with what could be found in the nearby forests—what hadn’t been scorched. There were the inevitable few who were given mercy vials and the hardest choice, the last choice, of their lives.
Those who were not helping with the wounded had countless bodies to pick up. Bodies were stripped of anything that was valuable or reusable, and a tower of armor soon grew tall, void of their owners. Some fallen were lucky enough to have their friends be the ones who found them, others were of noble birth, and a token or two were put aside to return to their families. But more, North and South, were as nameless and faceless as the last.
Six colossal pyres were erected around the camp and bodies were ferried non-stop to them. Firebearers rotated the obligation of keeping the fires burning bright and hot.
In death, the Northerners and Southerners rested together before their bodies turned to ash and their souls departed to the realm of the Father. The pyres put out a thick smoke that reeked of human flesh and fat. Soldiers, no matter where in the camp, wrapped wet cloth around their faces to try to keep out the smoke and smell.
Outside was this grim march of activity, but within the room of the crown prince, the day progressed with relative peace. Aldrik and Vhalla had given just enough time to strip their armor and sponge the blood off their faces and hands before collapsing in the bed, soiled clothes and all.
It was not a beautiful sleep; it was a deep and worn out coma. Vhalla’s face was flat against the pillow, her mouth open, and her breathing deep. Aldrik splayed out on the bed, limbs this way and that, barely fitting alongside her. It was a sleep that rested in the comfort that they had one less thing to fear with the dawn.
Vhalla closed her mouth, wetting her lips. She cracked her eyes. The day’s light crept through the slats in the shutters, casting long, unbroken beams through the smoke that inevitably penetrated the room. She grimaced.
“It stinks,” Vhalla groaned, and Aldrik barely moved.