The damp air was heavy as Elinor pulled off her cloak and hung it to dry. A door at the far end of the stable glowed with light. Rich, tantalizing smells drifted through, promising warmth and comfort.
The young girl was brushing down her horse and offered Elinor a smile, which she returned. Though young, the girl carried a blade easily. She had had training; that was clear. But the shield on her back was too big for her. It was well cared for, but the surface was marred and pitted with a legacy of battle. The old man, Aebelm, had carried a similar shield, adorned with the same crest.
Elinor extended a hand to the girl. “I’m Elinor.”
The young girl clasped forearms with Elinor. “Tae,” she said.
“You are a Razor?”
Tae nodded, putting aside the brush.
“You and your… grandfather, Aebelm. You both served Lady Lliane?”
Tae nodded once more, but this time, her eyes fell away. Elinor recognized the weight of grief as it settled onto the girl like a stone as she spoke, “Me, my grandfather, and my father. We all served the lady.”
Elinor bowed her head slightly. “Your father was First Blade then. I am sorry for your loss, Tae.”
Before the girl could respond, a figure entered through the stable door, rain dripping from the dark maroon leather of his coat. He wore an arrogant sneer on his lean, vulpine face, and his cold eyes locked onto hers. Ephed, First Blade to Lord Piersym.
“Showing up the new lord of this land at the moment of his arrival is a display of startling stupidity,” Ephed said. “Even for you.”
Elinor swallowed a retort and ignored him.
“Did you not hear me, Reaper?”
He was baiting her, as he had throughout their trek. She did not rise to it though. She turned pointedly back to Tae. “Would you grab my saddlebags for me, Tae?”
Ephed closed the distance and pushed the girl out of the way, causing her to fall into Elinor’s horse and making the animal rear slightly. Elinor caught Tae’s arm and kept her from falling to the ground.
Elinor rounded on Ephed, the cold blue of her eyes meeting his directly. “I heard you fine, Razor.” She eased Tae away and motioned for her to leave. As Tae disappeared around the corner, Elinor kept her eyes on Ephed. “Your lord was offered an honor. Which he refused. I merely accepted in his stead.”
“You insulted him.” Ephed’s lips shifted into a cold smile. His long, dark hair hung over his eyes. He pulled it back, revealing a V-shaped scar on his throat. The Victory Kiss was a testament to how dangerous he was, but Elinor did not need the mark to know that. She could smell it on him; old blood like beaten copper.
“I did not think the great lord of Hearthfire March was so easily insulted. And as for you, Ephed. I had assumed a Razor of the first rank would be able to handle more.” She smiled. “I apologize if I underestimated your sensitivities, Razor.”
Ephed shook his head, but his cold smile remained. “You have no power here, Reaper. You are merely an accessory. Your pretty uniform, a bit of decoration. It is best you remember your place.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Elinor said without hesitation. “I am the king’s agent. Duly appointed and charged. You and your lord have no power here until after the reclamation ceremony I will preside over. And that is only after I have deemed whether your lord is fit to rule.”
Ephed barked with laughter. “Lord Piersym was hand chosen by the warden. The ceremony is merely a formality.” He clucked his tongue. “I’m disappointed at how short-sighted you are, Reaper. Soon, Piersym will return to Resa, and I will be in control of both Hearthfire and Timberline in his stead. Lord in all but title of this land and its people. It would be wise not to invoke my terrible wrath, don’t you think?”
Elinor knew this man’s type well. She had been facing versions of him since she was a child in the orphanage. A bully, flexing his power.
She stared hard into his eyes. “I serve the king and the king’s law. I am here to serve my duty and nothing else but that. I am not here to indulge your delusions of nobility. There is a difference between being a great man and playing at one, Razor. If there is a problem between us, let us deal with it now. Otherwise, go play your games somewhere else.”
Ephed’s face colored red, causing the scar on his neck to stand out in vivid white. His hand went to the hilt of his blade, and an electric charge filled the air, emanating from him. Razors like Ephed were able to draw upon a power from the world around them, and Elinor had seen them use that power to break the very laws of nature. He was touching that power now.
Elinor stood firm, one hand on the hilt of her blade and the other resting on the short-handled mace that hung at her belt. Her eyes were hard as she stared back.
Ephed smiled, and the throbbing hum in the air died away as he let his power slip away. “I have no intention of delaying my lord’s ascension to Timberline,” he said evenly. “As you say, we must attend to the ceremony. But after…” his voice trailed off and his smile grew even wider. “I am in no rush, Reaper. After all, I plan to be here for a long, long time.” With that, he turned and walked away, whistling tunelessly.
Elinor did not move until he had gone completely, and only then did she unclench her jaw and move her hands from her weapons. A sound came from behind her, and she turned to see the girl, Tae, staring at her. Elinor sighed. “You should have left. You’re lucky he didn’t see you there. That is not a man who would enjoy someone witnessing damage to his pride.”
Tae raised her chin. “I am a Razor of the Aegis school, being trained by the greatest fighters in the kingdom.”
“You are still a student. Untempered. And he is a Razor of the first rank. More than that, he has ten other Razors under his command as part of his lord’s escort. He is not someone to trifle with.”
“Or stare down?” Tae said with a hint of a smile.
Elinor shook her head and kept her eyes hard. “Stay out of his sight until the transfer of power is complete. And even after that, Tae. Stay away from that man.” Elinor walked toward the warmth and light coming from the kitchen. “That’s what I intend to do.”
Rich warmth enveloped Elinor like a blanket. There was something comfortingly familiar about the kitchen. It immediately brought Elinor back to the orphanage where she had lived. Her shifts under Matron Mother Gytha had been her most cherished in the rotation of chores. Now, that sense of home warmed her more than the heat of the roaring fire.
In the center of the controlled chaos, an older woman directed the flow of things. She held a wooden spoon in one hand and used it to command, like a battlefield marshal. Her iron-gray hair was plaited in a long braid down her back and she wore a faded apron.
Aebelm approached Elinor and motioned her forward as the gray-haired woman turned to regard them. “Aebelm,” she said, eyes wide, “what are you doing, leading one of the King’s Own through the mess of my kitchen? Forgive my husband’s foolishness, Officer. Allow me to show you the way back to the main hall.”
“There is no need, Mistress. I am right where I would choose to be.”
“Is that right?” said the older woman, looking her over with a bemused smile. “Perhaps my Aebelm is not such the old fool I think him to be.”
Aebelm folded his arms over his chest. “As I so often remind you, Bilia,” he said in a low rumbling voice.
“Welcome to you,” Bilia said, bowing formally low.
Elinor placed a hand over her heart. “I seek to share the light of your fire, in the dark of the night,” she said. There was a satisfaction and a sense of rightness to giving voice to words and traditions that had long faded from use in the world.
Bilia stood tall before Elinor. “I offer you the gifts of hospitality. Fire against the darkness of the night. Bread and salt against the ravages of the day. Tales and song against the loneliness of the world.”
“I thank you,” Elinor said softly.
“You are a rare find for an army officer indeed,” Bilia said, pulling out a chair.
Elinor sat down and allowed the warmth of the kitchen to soak into her. Bilia resumed her orchestration of the kitchen, preparing the welcoming feast. She did pause long enough to place a warm hunk of dark bread and a slice of cheese before Elinor, which she accepted with a smile.
She had barely finished her last bite when Aebelm approached her. Tae followed behind, her eyes on Elinor.
Aebelm bowed his head. “I am sure you must be weary from the road, Lieutenant. But before we direct you to your chamber, I was wondering if you might enjoy a tour of Last Dawn Keep?”
There was a formality to his words, but there was also a sense of pride and excitement. Elinor smiled at him. “I would love to,” she said, rising to her feet and following them out.
The great hall was still being set. The honored guests had retired to their rooms and servants were preparing for the dinner. Suspended from the high beams of the ceiling were tall banners, their colors faded with age. The soft shadows cast from the hearth made the banners seem to dance. Each bore the crest of one of the First Ascended, the great heroes who stood against the Ruins and other creatures of the Dark to begin the dominion of mankind in Aedaron.
Elinor stared in awe, whispering their names as she looked at each one. The open hand sigil of Garhard. The broken sword of Baheyer. The painted mask of Talan. Finally, the stone crown emblem of Aedan himself. Her words were soft, but they carried in the space of the hall.
Aebelm moved beside her. “Those banners have hung in this hall for as long as my family has been here,” he said. “The tale is that the First Ascended themselves placed them there.” Elinor looked at him and he shrugged. “I used to scoff at that idea, but as I have grown older, I have come to realize that Timberline and this keep are very old. And things that seem impossible to a young man can become quite real in time.”
Elinor raised an eyebrow, wanting him to elaborate further, but the old man moved on. Tae motioned for Elinor to follow.
“If you like that, you will love what is next,” the girl said.
Tae led Elinor into a small vestibule. As Elinor entered, she stopped short, her attention riveted by what was before her.
Covering the entire wall of the chamber was a massive tapestry. It towered over her, the bright colors in sharp contrast to the cold, gray stone wall. In beautiful detail, it captured the legend of the First Trial of Aedan. How, in the darkest times for humanity, he had bested a field of rendworms and climbed the highest peak to meet with a god of the old age, the Shepherd of Tree and Stone.
Elinor approached slowly, taking in the sheer expanse of it. She walked down the length of the woven fabric, her fingertips lightly touching it as she moved. As she did, the words of the old tale came unbidden to her lips.
“And the Shepherd of Tree and Stone took Aedan to the tallest peak, where he looked across the darkness and saw the fires of the tribes of man,” she intoned. “Each was a lonely light flickering in isolation, the dark pressing in to extinguish such defiance. A thousand fires in the night. Separated. Alone. So close to one another and yet so far. And Aedan wept for his people. Not for what they were. But for what he knew they could become. A great fire to drive back the darkness.”
She pulled her hand away from the tapestry and wiped at the tears in her eyes. She looked over to Tae and Aebelm. “I’m sorry,” she said with an embarrassed laugh. “When I was a child in the orphanage, my friends and I would play the roles of these heroes. We would recite these stories to each other.” She shook her head. “They made us feel like we were more than just orphans. Like we were destined for great things.” Elinor laughed and dried her eyes once more. “It was a long time ago.”
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Aebelm said solemnly. “Such reverence for the old ways is nothing to be ashamed of.”
His words touched Elinor, but it also made it all the more important she say what she needed to say next. “I am grateful to have seen what you are showing. And I understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. This place is special. It is a monument to a time of honor and glory. Things that I treasure as well. But I cannot be swayed from my duty. I am sorry, but the keep must fall.”
The old man and his granddaughter exchanged a look that Elinor could not quite figure out, and then Aebelm shook his head. “You are a loyal servant of the king. Something that is all too rare in these times. And duty is something that we in Timberline understand intimately, Lieutenant. If the keep must fall, then so be it.”
Aebelm moved closer, his voice lowering. “But it is not the keep itself that is sacred. It is what it was built to protect that is truly sacred. And not only to Timberline, but to all of Aedaron.” His narrowed eyes held her and Elinor could not look away. “That is why Timberline must not go to the hands of a man like Piersym.”
The clouds of her confusion parted, and her sense for danger, that part of her that always seemed to know exactly when things were about to go wrong, went heavy with dread.
It was Tae who stepped forward now, her wide eyes shining. “Piersym has long desired Timberline. He seeks it for the wealth he can wring from the forests, ignorant of the true treasure of this land. When he learned that the Lady was to be married, he… he struck.” As she spoke, her composure began to crack.
“Married?” Elinor said. Looking from the girl to her grandfather, it suddenly made sense. “Your father. The First Blade. That was who the Lady Lliane was to marry?”
“They did marry!” Tae hissed. “In the old way, with the spirit of the forest as their witness.”
Aebelm nodded. “My granddaughter speaks the truth. By right, Tae is the rightful heir to Timberline March. As you said, Lieutenant. Your duty is to the king, and as the King’s Reaper your task is to ensure the line is ended and usher in the new lord.” He raised his chin in a gesture of defiant pride. “My lady’s line is not ended. It lives, here, with my granddaughter. And you, Lieutenant, have the power to ratify her claim and keep the march out of Piersym’s grasp.”
“Stop!” Elinor said, her voice cracking through the empty room. “Stop and listen very carefully to what I say. Piersym is many things, but he is no fool. He has come here with ten Razors and that vicious bastard, Ephed. At even the merest hint of rebellion, those dogs will be released from their chains and they will kill anyone who is even remotely an inconvenience.”
“We are telling the truth, Elinor!” Tae said.
“The truth will not keep you alive, girl. It could not save your father.” Almost immediately, Elinor regretted her harsh words, seeing the impact of them on the girl. But she did not hold back. These two had to know that what they were considering was utter madness. “The old ways of honor are not made for a world where men like Ephed and Piersym hold power,” she said bitterly.
Tae bristled at her words, but Elinor continued, not allowing either the girl or Aebelm a chance to speak. “There are wolves in your home. You must keep that in mind before you speak. Speak no more of this to anyone. Let this pass. This is not a fight you can hope to win.”
With that, she turned and walked from the room. All the comfort and magic of the place was gone, replaced with cold dread. New world or old, it seemed the stain of treachery and the promise of violence was always near. She just hoped the old man and the girl were smart enough to avoid running headlong into it.