The rain came down heavily. The torrent filtered through branches, reducing it to fat drops that beat an irregular staccato on the solid-steel pauldron over Elinor’s left shoulder. Her short blonde hair was tucked inside the hood of an oilskin cloak.
Trees rattled with the heavy patter of rain, but the sound was hard for her to discern, lost amidst the jingle of tack and rattle of wagons carrying engineers and their equipment. Coarse laughter and grumbling from work crews echoed down the column of wagons as they marched through the mud.
Beyond them, the caravan swelled with attendants and toadies of Lord Piersym. Bright colors and gaudy fabric, now stained with mud, made it look more like a bedraggled circus troupe than a lord’s entourage. The sight of it made her already sour mood even worse. It was a reminder of the duty she detested, but had been ordered to perform.
Near the head of the column, Elinor saw Con trying to coordinate the passage of an equipment-laden wagon around a group of horsemen. After some pointed gestures at the riders, Con got the wagon back on its way and then headed back up to Elinor, shaking his head. As he came up, he snapped a sharp salute.
“Lieutenant,” he said formally.
“Journeyman Engineer,” Elinor said as she returned the salute. “Trouble there, Con?”
“You’d think these people had never been out in the rain before.”
“It’s the first time most of them have set foot outside of Resa,” she said easily.
Crossing his arms, Con smirked. “It rains in the capital too.”
“Yes, but there they have all those fine cobbled roads you engineers are always maintaining. No such luxuries out here in the marches.”
He shook his head. “It’s mud and rain, Elinor. They make out like it’s one of the trials of great Aedan himself.” He gestured wide with his arms. “And lo, did great Aedan, unifier of man, face the trial of damp clothing and saddle chafing.”
Elinor laughed. Somehow, Con always had been able to do that. It had been two years since she had seen him, and she realized how much she missed his company.
Con caught her eye and gave her a lopsided grin. “Is that a smile at last? I was beginning to think I was losing my touch.”
Rubbing her horse’s neck and sending fat drops of rain flying, Elinor shook her head. “No. It’s this place. This duty. Taking down these keeps.”
At that, Con’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Reaping? I’d thought you’d be happy to clear these old relics of war.” As she looked back at him, he shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong. I am loathe to destroy such craftsmanship. But if there is no lord to steward them, it’s better they come down than fall into the hands of bandits or whatever else might be lurking out here in the marches.”
“Well, they wouldn’t be abandoned if the lords of the marches didn’t spend all their days locked in the capital, gambling on Razor duels, and drinking and whoring the nights away.”
The words came out more bitterly than intended, and she saw mild surprise on Con’s face, but it shifted to a wry smile. “Well, when you say it like that, you make it sound like no fun at all.”
Elinor chuckled. “Present company excluded, of course, Lord Eylnen. You, my friend, are different.”
“Damn right,” he said, smiling warmly.
The two friends lapsed into silence as they watched the clumsy caravan of hangers-on navigate the mire of the road. At last, Con spoke. “You sure you’re alright? I don’t remember things like this weighing on you as heavily in the past.” He paused. “Of course, I suppose, there were always bigger things to worry about.”
She wanted to explain, but found she couldn’t put everything into words. “That was a long time ago, Con,” she said. “It’s different out here in the marches. You’ll see.” She took a deep breath, forcing the melancholy spirit down and smiled. “But I am glad you are here.”
“Me too,” Con said.
“We are nearing the keep,” Elinor said, nodding ahead. “Now that your engineers are under my command, let’s see if we can bring this rag-tag caravan to its destination in some semblance of order.”
“I’d rather face the rendworms again,” Con said, falling into place beside her. “At least they didn’t complain as much.”
Elinor headed back to the front of the column, smiling to herself the entire way.
The dense trees of the forest gave way to a rolling plain sloping down into a narrow ravine. In the distance, Last Dawn Keep rose in the shadow of the surrounding cliffs. It was tall and narrow at the base, a square of hard, cold stone with two towers reaching into the sky.
The setting sun was sinking into the mountains, casting the keep into shadow and obscuring the small village at its base. A light flickered to life in the distance, just a tiny glimmer. Then a second and third. One after another, torches flared until the entire road, from the village to the keep, was lined with light. It was a beautiful sight, and one she had never seen before.
Conbert watched silently beside her. She knew he was as loathe to ruin the moment with talk as she herself was. Elinor gave him a quick smile and then urged her horse to the village.
What must have been the entire population of the village stood there. Each person held a torch, flames sputtering and hissing in the rain. They stood silently as Elinor and the column passed, but she knew their eyes were only on her.
They were here to witness the officer of the King’s Army, in her somber black and silver, lead the troop of engineers and laborers to the fortified keep that had stood over their homes for generations. The keep where their grandparents and great grandparents had fought and bled for their lord and the land.
The keep that Elinor had been charged with dismantling.
Elinor had seen those faces before. She was used to the looks of sadness and resentment that followed her. They were the same expressions she had found across the kingdom as lords died and their lands were annexed. As she came to destroy a legacy of honor and tradition that she herself admired.
Yet, it had never been like this. Never this procession through the darkness.
It gnawed at her. Pulled at her. Where were the shouts and the curses? Where were the angry threats of violence and retribution? The people had the same look of sadness, but they stood in perfect stillness as she passed.
Before the open gate of the keep, two figures knelt on the stone path. One was an old man in heavy armor, his white hair hanging down lank in the pouring rain. Beside him knelt a young girl, no more than sixteen summers and slight of frame. They wore the blue and gray of the deceased Lady Kian Lliane. Each had a shield placed on the ground before them and their blades were resting across their palms.
Elinor stared open-mouthed. The River of Light. The Offering of Steel. These were ancient traditions performed to welcome esteemed guests to the lands. Gestures of honor long since abandoned in these times. Acts from the storybooks and legends Elinor had studied so intently as a child.
Now she was being honored with them herself.
The old man spoke without raising his head. “I am Aebelm, once First Blade of Timberline. The household of Lady Kian Lliane, blessed daughter of the First Ascended, now lost to this world, welcomes you. We meet you with light in the darkness. We meet you with steel to safeguard you.”
Behind her, Elinor heard the creaking of the carriage door opening. “What is that?” Lord Piersym demanded, leaning out of the carriage. He frowned in the heavy rain and ducked back inside. “Yes, yes,” he said, and a dismissive hand came out from the curtained window of the carriage. “Have them tend to the horses and such. The sooner I am out of this damned weather, the happier I will be.”
Elinor’s face fell in disgust at the lord’s casual disregard, but Aebelm rose silently and sheathed his blade.
“See to the lord and his party,” he said.
The young girl rose to her feet, eyes remaining downcast. She picked up their shields and cleared the path inside. Piersym’s party followed her.
Elinor dismounted and walked to the old man.
“Lieutenant,” he said, his eyes on her silver pin of rank. “Please go inside out of the rain and join the lord. I will see to your mount.”
Elinor slowly drew her own blade and placed it across the palms of her hands. “I walk in the light you provide. I trust your steel in place of my own,” she said, finishing the words of the ancient rite of honor the old man had started.
He gave her a sad smile. “I thank you,” he said.
The sincerity in his voice shook Elinor to the core. The loss of his liege had hurt this man, but his pride and honor shone in his eyes.
“Come inside, soldier,” he said. “Be welcome here in the ancient seat of Timberline.”
Elinor inclined her head. “I would be honored,” she said, then followed the old warrior into the keep that had once been his home.