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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.7
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.7

           Elise Kova
 

  “Kill the wind bitch!” Two strong hands grabbed her.

  Vhalla struggled valiantly against the man’s hold on her. She watched as the axe-wielding Knight raised it. If only she had her magic.

  Fire suddenly erupted over their shoulders at the door.

  “What the?” The men turned.

  “Get that under control!”

  A man held out his hand, and the flames swayed as they roared against his command.

  “I said put it out!”

  “I’m trying!” the sorcerer struggled.

  The fire was magic, Vhalla blinked at its warm heat. A Firebearer would be able to assume control of any normal flame without any trouble. But a flame created by another sorcerer became a battle of power, and clearly these flames were crafted by a Firebearer of fearsome skill.

  The flames caught the dry grain, and the wooden inside of the windmill was quickly going up like kindling. The men scrambled like rats, trapped between stone and flame.

  It was impossible. Vhalla blinked as more of the room caught. She’d been forgotten about as the men tried to charge for the door, for escape. They sweated, they screamed, they shied from the heat. Vhalla watched them as they burned, even the Firebearer overcome by the magical inferno.

  And she felt little more than heat.

  Vhalla walked toward the flames that blocked the door—there was no change. There was only one man’s flames that wouldn’t harm her, but it couldn’t be him. Aldrik couldn’t be here. She was so entranced by the predicament that she didn’t notice the structure beginning to collapse around her until a large beam cracked.

  She snatched up the axe from where it sat in the fire, ignoring the charred remains of the Knights. Vhalla plunged herself into the flames. It licked around her, it burned her clothes, but it didn’t singe her skin even slightly. It allowed her to pass unharmed into the chill night beyond.

  Immediately outside, Vhalla looked frantically for him. She cleared the structurally compromised windmill, starting for the horses before they could all spook and flee. The whole time Vhalla’s eyes searched the dark forest around her.

  “Aldrik?” she dared to call into the darkness.

  There was no reply.

  Vhalla stashed the axe into a saddlebag, gripping a horse’s reigns with white knuckles. The rush of her escape was already fleeting, aches and pains were appearing in its wake. Vhalla mounted the horse, stalling long enough to give someone a chance to come forward, for an explanation to the miracle she had just witnessed.

  A flash of red caught her eyes and Vhalla peered into the blackness. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as though there was unseen electricity crackling through the air. Barely discernable from the shadow was the outline of a woman, cowled and mostly hidden by the brush of the woods. Her eyes flashed red for one long moment before vanishing.

  THREE DAYS HAD passed since she collapsed in the center of the small town known as Mosant. After riding through the woods with a burning windmill at her back, Vhalla’s energy gave out, and she was forced to rely on the care of the townsfolk. However, she’d forgotten that she’d once met a woman who hailed from the mountain town she now sought shelter in.

  Vhalla sat on the opposite side of a table from a woman she’d never expected to see again. Her fingers curled and uncurled around the steaming mug, from which she happily leeched warmth. Wool covered her arms and legs, basic clothing that offered her a deep comfort.

  “If you go back, the Senate will jail you.” Tim was a lovely young woman, pretty enough that Vhalla wondered how Tim had managed to masquerade as her. Though, they had all been wearing a thicker coating of grime during the march North.

  Vhalla had grown to love her too-slender proportions and less than ideal hair and height. She’d encountered people who had found her beautiful in spite of those facts and had learned to foster her own love for herself by learning what they saw. But Vhalla knew she wasn’t going to win any broad-strokes beauty contests.

  Where Vhalla had been cut and carved into harsh lines and a strong presence, Tim had been left to develop naturally to be soft and graceful. Neither of them were wrong, neither right. Simply different.

  “They’ve already jailed me,” Vhalla reminded.

  “You could flee to the coast. Or live here; no one will ever turn you in. Not after what you did for all the soldiers in the North and especially not after killing Knights of Jadar; they’ve always been a menace to our town. Or, go back to the East, maybe?” Tim suggested.

  The offer was heartwarming, and Vhalla appreciated it deeply. But she’d made up her mind while recovering and lying low from her ordeal with the Knights. The days that had passed had given time for messengers to arrive and announce that the Lady Vhalla Yarl, the Windwalker, was wanted for murder of Western lords. Should she be found, she was to be turned in for Imperial justice. Vhalla burst out laughing at the thought and shook her head at the curious look from Tim. One would think they would’ve learned from the first time she’d been falsely accused of murder.

  “I need to return to the capital.” Vhalla sipped on her tea. The lemongrass and honey reminded her of summer despite the world beginning its shift to winter.

  “The Knights of Jadar are demanding your death.” Tim sighed. “But the messengers said the crown prince decreed that if the Windwalker were to come forward, he would see to it that she received a fair trial.”

  Vhalla turned the idea over in her head. Aldrik was protecting her, in his own way. She heard his message loud and clear: Return to me and I will keep you safe.

  Her chair scraped against the hard dirt floor as she stood. She walked over to the fire, still nursing the steaming tea. Vhalla watched the flames dance, her mind replaying the night with the burning windmill. She’d looked for the person who started the fire that saved her life. But Vhalla saw no one in her flight through the forest that night.

  That wasn’t entirely true. Vhalla remembered the shadowy outline of the woman, the glowing red eyes. But the night was already a hazy memory becoming more dream-like with each passing day. She knew who had to have made the flames, but the logic didn’t add up. Only one person’s fire couldn’t burn her—Aldrik’s. But he was certainly in the South.

  How would his fire look to her now? She wondered if his magic would still sparkle for her as it once had. She was certainly no longer the girl who had been lost in rose gardens, enthralled by tongues of flame slithering between his fingers.

  “I suppose,” Vhalla whispered, “I’ve run long enough.”

  The axe was hidden along with the cuffs within a saddlebag in the corner of the room, the only good idea Schnurr had ever had. Vhalla considered the unassuming bag for a long moment. The longer she had the axe in her possession, the more she realized that she needed to bring it to Victor. He had been the one who had trusted her to bring it South; he’d know what needed to be done to hide or destroy it for good.

  “You’re going back?” Tim was surprised, but not that surprised.

  “It’s time.” Vhalla would go, but not because she needed a prince to keep her safe. She hadn’t shown the Senate the product of their efforts yet, the weapon they’d forged out of a library apprentice. “I will need something before I ride.”

  “What is it?” Tim was ever-helpful. Vhalla had expected the people of the valley to shun her and her magic, but time and tales had healed the reputation of the Windwalker, rebuilding Vhalla in the eyes of the Southerners as their chosen champion. Furthermore, according to Tim, the Knights of Jadar had plagued the citizens of Mosant for decades as the town was on the route from the Crossroads to the Crystal Caverns. They would rather harbor a criminal than do anything that could remotely please the Western group.

  “I need a cape.” Vhalla thought of the symbol she’d donned at the warfront. If she was the South’s war hero, she’d look the part. “I need a black cape with a silver wing on the back.”

  Vhalla turned to meet Tim’s eyes. The woman wore a mischievous grin. Vhalla smiled bac
k. To Tim, it was a game, a fantasy she was playing a part in. But Vhalla’s life wasn’t a storybook. She was returning to the South and showing herself as more than a piece on the carcivi boards of powerful men and women—she was a player.

  She rested for two more days before finally leaving. As soon as the seamstress had finished Vhalla’s cape, Vhalla announced her intention. The Festival of the Sun was starting, and the last thing Vhalla wanted to do was engage in the revelries. Spending her time on the road, away from the celebrations, was a far better use of her days.

  It was a gray morning when Vhalla said her goodbyes and set off on her mount, stolen from the dead Knights.

  “Is it all right?” Tim asked. The white puffs of their breath became fainter as the chill of the dawn slipped away.

  “It is.” Vhalla gripped the reins and adjusted her cape again. The cloak was a heavy wool, sturdy, made for the mountains in winter, and long enough to drape over the haunch of the horse. For the first time, Vhalla looked like a noble on a journey. Her hand went up to her watch, caressing it thoughtfully.

  “I trust you have a plan.” Tim settled into her saddle. “A plan to not be marching to your death?”

  Under the tall pine trees, the soft clanking sound of the stirrups filled the silence as Vhalla mused over how to respond. “Not really.”

  “So, you’re going to ride back into the capital with a target on your back and deliver yourself neatly?”

  “That’s as far as I’ve made it in my head,” Vhalla affirmed. She really didn’t have an idea of how returning to the capital would go. All she knew was that she wanted a public stage to put the Knights in their place once and for all. What better place than the greatest stage in the world?

  Tim let the silence linger, but Vhalla could almost hear the woman shouting her unasked questions. They’d been together for a few days, but Tim had kept her inquisitions fairly tame.

  Vhalla sighed softly. “Go ahead, ask what you want.”

  “What?” Tim squeaked, startled.

  “We have a long ride, and since you’ve chosen to come with me, I’m not going to have it be filled with awkward silences,” Vhalla explained.

  “Oh, sorry.” Tim laughed uncomfortably, passing her reins from hand to hand. “I suppose I want to know what everyone else wants to know.”

  “I don’t know what that is.” Vhalla could guess, but she wasn’t going to hand Tim information mindlessly.

  “After the battle, you left. Where did you go?”

  “The Crossroads.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I wanted to.” Vhalla saw Tim’s expression deflate from the corners of her eyes. She wasn’t talking with Ophain or Aldrik, just an average woman with no experience in subtlety. “I wanted to escape everything for a bit,” Vhalla explained further. “I needed to be no one.”

  “So then, did you really kill those Western Lords there?” Tim ventured.

  “I did.” Tim’s eyes were wide at Vhalla’s response. “They would’ve killed me, or worse, if I hadn’t fought them. They weren’t just lords; they were Knights of Jadar trying to use my powers to start a new war. More of the same ilk that died at the windmill.”

  “Oh, that’s different then.” The woman easily shrugged off the idea of Vhalla committing murder in self-defense.

  Vhalla appraised her traveling companion. Tim was soft-looking and girlish, but she had been in war as well. She had killed and carried invisible scars just as ugly as all soldiers did. Yet, despite that fact, Vhalla withheld the information that she’d killed Tim’s direct superior, Major Schnurr.

  “Why are you really going back to the capital?” Vhalla asked her own unsaid question.

  Tim sucked on her teeth in thought. “I want to train with the archers in the guard. They said there’d be a position for me.”

  “They told you that after the war was over,” Vhalla pointed out. “You chose to go back to Mosant instead.”

  “Oh, fine,” Tim laughed. “I want to travel with you.”

  “That may not be the best idea,” Vhalla remarked dryly, watching the trail curve ahead of them.

  “Maybe not,” Vhalla’s companion agreed. “But I feel like my fate is linked with yours.” The statement stilled Vhalla. “For a time, I was you. I saw and heard things I’d never seen or heard before. I was there to watch the rise of the Windwalker. Then I found you again. This is your story, but I want to see how it ends.”

  It would likely end with a violent death. Vhalla spared Tim any further warning and kept the thought to herself.

  “Plus,” Tim added, “you’re a Lady of the Court now, right? If you build out your household, maybe you’ll find a place for my set of hands.” Tim laughed brightly.

  Vhalla cracked a small smile.

  The woman’s company proved to be more welcome than Vhalla ever expected. Tim already knew much about Vhalla, so when they broke for camp, Vhalla spent the majority of the time learning about Tim. The young woman was transparent, and it was a welcome reprieve for Vhalla’s mind. It wasn’t necessary to exhaust herself quizzing or dancing with words to find the truth.

  The two women spent the night huddled together under a single blanket for warmth, and as time went on, Vhalla allowed the young woman to snuggle closer and closer. Sometimes, she’d lie awake, listening to Tim breathe in harmony with the sounds of the forest at night. Tim was warm, but not nearly as warm as Aldrik.

  At a leisurely pace, it only took three days to reach the capital. Vhalla hoped she’d missed all the festivities of the Festival of the Sun. They paused at the intersection of the Great Imperial Way and the Capital Road. High above them, the palace glittered despite the perpetually graying sky as winter drew nearer.

  “You’re sure about this?” Tim asked once more.

  Vhalla adjusted her cloak, making sure it was splayed just so over the horse’s haunches. “Very.”

  As they ascended the mountain, it didn’t take long for Vhalla to be noticed. Citizens stared in slack-jawed awe at the woman wearing the black cloak. Vhalla held her head high, prepared for their judgment.

  After the first series of houses, people began running alongside and ahead of her. More citizens lined the street, but none stopped her.

  Word spread far enough ahead that a man had time to prepare to address her. “Is it true?” he called from a second-floor window of a tavern. Vhalla pulled on the reins, slowing her mount, prompting him to continue. “Are you her? Are you the Windwalker?”

  “I am,” Vhalla announced.

  Murmurs rippled through the people lining the road. Vhalla nudged her horse, pushing it forward again. They didn’t spout words of hate. Instead, Vhalla’s ears picked up words like hero and champion.

  How fickle people were, she smirked to herself. Sorcerers were scary; she still had no doubt that such was the reigning perception in the South. There was too much history surrounding the Crystal Caverns that she was beginning to understand better for that hate to root into. But she had become something more than a sorcerer. She’d become the Windwalker. Which was something different than all who had ever come before her and had a reputation to match.

  By the time she was crossing the gate of the capital city of the Solaris Empire, horns were heralding her arrival. Vhalla was certain it was in warning, she knew guards were being called for her arrest. This only forced her to ride faster into the city.

  Men and women blurred together, but no one stopped her. Vhalla saw bold black pennons bearing the silver wing displayed, like she had seen in the Crossroads. She wondered if the soldiers who had returned home from the war had kept the mantra that the winds of the Windwalker were lucky.

  Vhalla was nearly standing in her saddle now. Her heart racing as she sped through the streets. She was over halfway to her chosen destination when a guard made a dash to try to stop her.

  Tim sped up and stopped, blocking the man’s progress to Vhalla. “Go on!” she called.

  Wind picked up the mountainside behind her as Vha
lla crossed under an archway to her final destination. Her gamble had paid off, and she pulled hard on her reins, stopping the horse with a whinny and a loud clamor of hooves before the sunlit stage. A long row of guards were positioned before the stage, blocking the path between her and the Imperial family.

  Emperor Solaris stood center. Baldair and his mother stood back and to his left, a Northern girl hovering half a step away. Guilt surged through Vhalla at the sight of Baldair. She wondered if Jax’s body was ever found or if the Knights of Jadar had hidden it. She’d have to tell the prince the fate of his loyal guard herself, but now was not that time. Vhalla’s eyes swept to the Emperor’s right.

  There he was.

  He looked nothing like the haggard man she’d dreamt about. His hair was not only styled, but it had been cut as well to taper neatly at the nape of his neck. His face seemed less gaunt, though there were still dark circles beneath his eyes. Vhalla suppressed insane laughter. He wore the same coat as when they had first met.

  “Emperor Solaris!” Vhalla shouted, using her magic to amplify her voice so the mass of commoners could hear her. “I have come for my justice.”

  The Emperor’s eye twitched slightly at her getting in the first word. “For your justice?”

  “The Knights of Jadar have laid false accusations against my name.” Vhalla sat tall in her saddle. “As a Lady of the Court, I demand a fair trial before the Mother to prove my innocence.”

  Just as the Emperor was about to speak, a man entered the stage, followed by several others. Vhalla’s eyes narrowed slightly as the Head of Senate stepped into the sun. He regarded her with equal disdain, and Vhalla seriously weighed the options of freedom and justice versus the satisfaction of killing him on the spot.

  “Senators,” she addressed those who had just arrived. “I have come to prove my innocence.”

  “Guards, arrest this woman!” A Western man stepped forward, casting his finger toward her. “She is a slayer of lords and ladies! A wind witch!”

 
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