Hilda screamed as the wyvern disappeared from beneath her. Wind whipped past her ears. Although she wore borrowed leathers instead of a blanket, her hands were still bound behind her back. Tears leaked from her eyes. Her breath ran out. It was taking a lot longer to fall than she’d thought, although the ground was still rushing up far too quickly.
This was it. She flattened her body out as best she could, as Claude had taught her if she ever fell from a wyvern. It was pointless, though. She was going to die. She never even got to see Claude again.
Hilda craned her neck. A figure dove toward her from above, head pointed downward, limbs tucked in like an arrow. He was catching up.
“Hold on, I’m coming!”
Somehow, he’d drawn even with her. He reached for her and missed. A sob ripped free from her throat, lost on the wind. He bared his teeth and extended his arm. This time, he snagged hold of her jerkin. His knife slashed through the ropes binding her. Gloved hands grabbed hers the moment she was free.
“Spread yourself out,” he shouted.
Hilda obeyed. Her mind was blank, her eyes frozen wide. The wind tore her breath away as they fell.
A huge pale shape streaked past them. The moment it overtook them, Claude grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into his arms. He pointed his legs downward as a white wyvern snapped open its wings below. A grunt left him as he landed in the saddle, her in his lap.
“I’ve got you,” Claude said into her ear, holding her so tightly it hurt. “I’m never going to let you go. You’re safe now.”
Hilda threw her arms around him and burst into tears.
“I’m sorry, my love, I’m sorry,” he murmured over and over again as Pearl banked away from the mountains.
Hilda went to bury her face in his shoulder, but something glinted out of the corner of her eye. Claude grunted as an arrow sprouted from his back, then another. One sped toward Hilda, but he curled around her and took it in the meat of his shoulder. Pearl roared and wheeled around. Another wyvern approached. Claude drew his sword and batted another arrow out of the sky before it could hit them. There was no way he could use his own bow, not with her in his lap.
“Let me go,” Hilda said.
Claude looked at her, expression grim. “I’d rather die.”
He squeezed with his thighs, and Pearl whirled again, this time into a dive. The speed pressed a shriek out of Hilda’s lungs. Claude’s strong arms locked around her. A ballista bolt whizzed past, but it was going the other direction. Another bolt flew by, then another. Hilda peeked at the ground. Mounted soldiers wearing Goneril colors streamed beneath them. The pursuing wyvern bellowed and fell out of the sky like a stone.
Pearl landed behind the troops swarming the fallen wyvern. Hilda trembled in Claude’s arms. Her teeth chattered. His hand smoothed her hair. He murmured in her ear, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.
She blinked. His hands rested on either side of her face. His green eyes peered into hers.
“Hilda. Can you hear me?”
Her mind was blank, still full of rushing wind and the approaching ground. Tears leaked from her eyes.
“Shit.” Claude shrugged out of his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. “You’re all right, my heart. We’re on the ground.”
Hilda raised her hand and brushed her fingers against the blood caking his hair. He had a nasty cut on his scalp just above his ear, and blood soaked his sleeve from the arrow he’d taken for her.
“You’re hurt,” she whispered.
He covered her hand with his and pressed his cheek against her palm, his eyes closed. “As long as you’re safe, I’ll be fine.”
Her head snapped up. A horse galloped toward them. When it pulled up, its rider leaped from the saddle and tore off its helm. Holst rushed toward her and took her into his arms when Claude handed her down, wincing with teeth gritted.
“Holst,” Hilda said, sobbing. “I was so scared. I thought I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do!”
“I know, sugar. I’m so sorry. I have the bad man who did this to you. You’ll be all right. He’ll never hurt you again.”
Claude slid off of Pearl and stood beside them. Holst glanced at him and addressed a nearby soldier. “Get a healer. These two need attention.”
The soldier ran off only to be replaced by another. “Sir! What would you like us to do with the captive?”
“He’s still alive?”
“Claude, the second you stop bleeding, go tell your troops to meet us halfway.”
Claude hesitated, his gaze locked on Hilda. “All right.”
The healer arrived and patched them up. Holst put Hilda up on his horse and mounted behind her. Claude looked up at her. Slowly, he reached out his hand. Hilda gazed at it. The storm in her heart roiled and thundered. The light began to fade from Claude’s eyes. He moved as if to retract his hand, but Hilda brushed her fingers against his. He snatched her hand, closed his eyes, and pressed her knuckles against his lips.
“Later,” Holst said.
Claude took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll be back soon, my heart.”
Holst rode away before Hilda could watch Claude mount, although she caught a glimpse of a streak of white rising into the sky.
“Tell me what happened,” Holst said.
Hilda tried to speak, but her voice got caught in her throat. It was still too fresh. She dissolved into tears.
“I understand.” Holst kissed the top of her head. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Before she knew it, she was in his tent. Time seemed to start and stop in bursts with nothing to connect them. A female soldier helped her use a bucket and cloth to bathe. Someone washed her hair. Somehow, she ended up dressed in a spare, ill-fitting uniform. Food and drink were pressed into her hands as she sat on Holst’s cot, but she wasn’t sure what to do with them. She’d had nothing but water for days.
“I’m going to kill him,” Holst said, voice flat, when he re-entered the tent.
“Don’t hurt Claude.” The words were barely more than a whisper.
Holst’s features softened. “He’s not the one I’m talking about.”
“Is…is the other woman all right?” Hilda asked.
Holst’s nostrils flared as he scowled. “If you mean his fake betrothed, then I don’t know. I’m not sure I care.”
Hilda’s head drooped. Hopefully, Sabiha had survived.
“Oh, sugar.” Holst pulled a stool next to her cot and took her hand. “I’m so sorry you had to go through all that alone.”
She had been alone, for the first time in her life. Up until she broke up with Claude, she’d always had people supporting her. There were people she could depend on. But Claude had lived like that his entire life. Sure, his parents and Nader had cared about him, but nobody looked out for him. No wonder it was so hard for him to trust people. She only endured it for a month, and she found it hard to trust again.
At least now she knew what she could do when she was left to her own devices. Not that she ever wanted to work that hard again. Still, it was comforting to know she could handle herself, even if having friends to rely on was better.
Holst picked up the bowl of porridge and spoon-fed Hilda. “I’m taking you home,” he said. “When we get there, I’m going to spoil you rotten. You won’t have to lift a finger.”
“I like the sound of that.”
Holst smiled, expression soft. “I’m proud of you. You did well. If you ever wanted to become a queen, I think you’d be fantastic.”
Hilda tried to smile, but tears rolled down her face instead. Holst set the porridge aside and held her until she stopped weeping. She was sick of crying, but she didn’t have the strength to put on a cheerful mask.
“Knock knock,” Claude said from outside.
Holst shot Hilda a look, eyebrow raised. She nodded and wiped her eyes.
“Come in,” Holst said.
Claude didn’t appear to have taken any time to tidy himself. Hilda didn’t care. Even though her heart hadn’t yet healed, he was still the most beautiful person she’d ever seen.
“The Almyrans are in position,” Claude said. “Can we expect your troops soon?”
Holst’s expression grew cold. “We’ll be there directly. Do you want to come, sugar?”
“Yes,” Hilda whispered. She couldn’t bear the thought of being away from her brother.
Holst carried her out of the tent and put her on his horse. Claude followed on Pearl as their troops met the Almyrans. Their leader stood in the middle, arms crossed over his chest. Sabiha sat on a camp stool, holding hands with the tall, rangy woman by her side. Sabiha gave Hilda a weak smile. Hilda managed to return it.
A man’s screams cut through the air as one of Holst’s soldiers dragged Ehfaz into the center and dumped him on the ground. It appeared he’d broken both legs when Holst’s troops took down his wyvern. Hilda was sure he was the one who’d hung back and shot at Claude. Ehfaz wasn’t the type to endanger himself. Coward.
Claude stepped forward. “Prince Ehfaz, you are charged with kidnapping and abusing these two women as well as attempting to incite war.” He repeated the phrase in Almyran.
Ehfaz’s face twisted in rage as he snarled something at Claude. Hilda couldn’t understand any of the words, but Claude’s expression grew stonier. “Take him away,” he said.
The Fódlan soldiers who held Ehfaz hoisted him up, but Holst stopped them with a hand. Silence fell as he approached the fallen prince. “You used my letters against her?” Holst said softly. Hilda leaned against Holst’s horse nearby, and she could hardly hear her brother speak.
“It was easy.” Ehfaz laughed, which turned into a cough. Blood stained his teeth. “She wanted to help Khalid so badly she was blind to anything else.”
Holst nodded. He made as if to walk away but turned, drew his axe, and buried it in Ehfaz’s chest all in one motion. Startled cries rose from the Almyrans, followed by angry ones.
“Silence,” Holst boomed, glaring at the Almyran troops as he tore his axe free. “It was my right. I claim a blood price for what he tried to do to my sister and country, and now it’s paid. Be satisfied that’s the extent of my vengeance.”
Claude gazed down at his half-brother. His expression held no anger, only pity as Ehfaz passed on. He knelt and closed Ehfaz’s eyes.
“I order the Almyran troops to consider this matter closed.” Claude repeated it in Almyran. He gave a few more commands, and some of his troops bundled the body away. Sabiha rose from her stool and tottered over to Claude, the tall woman helping to steady her. They exchanged words, and Sabiha kissed Claude once on each cheek. Then she and the tall woman walked hand-in-hand back toward the Almyran camp.
“Thanks for saving me the trouble of having to secretly kill him,” Claude said to Holst when he returned. “He was the sort who would never give up.”
“And your betrothed?” Holst asked. “What about her?”
A crafty smile crossed Claude’s face. “That actually worked out better than expected. Since Esfir saved Sabiha’s life, the Nasirs owe her. She can pretty much ask for anything she wants, including Sabiha’s hand in marriage, and they can’t refuse her.”
His gaze met Hilda’s. “It doesn’t make up for the mistakes I’ve made, but I hope it’s a start. I love you and—”
“Later.” Holst cleaned and secured his axe before helping Hilda back up on the horse. “I’m taking her home now. You can do what you like.”
They rode away before Claude could answer. Hilda glanced over her shoulder as he grew smaller and smaller. Soon she could no longer see him at all.