From the depths of darkness, Elinor clawed her way back to consciousness. She took a deep breath and pain flared in her chest, bright and sharp, forcing her eyes wide and causing her to release a strangled gasp.
Her left arm hung limp. She tried pushing herself up, but that motion brought more agony and she bit down hard to keep from screaming. No screams lest her enemies find her.
Elinor had no illusions that surviving the fall meant real safety. A man like Ephed would not assume she was dead until he had her head in his hands. Already, his Razors would be looking to confirm their deaths.
Near her outstretched arm, Tae lay unconscious, breathing softly, the grass beneath her stained red. Everywhere around them, tall, green grass obscured her vision.
Elinor tried to rise. Each breath was a stab of raw agony, and she feared a broken rib might have punctured a lung. She lay back and forced herself to slow her breathing.
Amidst her suffering, one thought echoed relentlessly in her mind.
She had failed.
She had failed Tae. Failed Aebelm. Failed herself.
She had been naive. The old ways were as dead as the old man Aebelm. As dead as his son and the Lady of Timberline. As dead as his granddaughter, Tae, would soon be.
They had put their faith in her, and she had failed them.
“No,” she whispered. There was such fierce anger behind the word that it even surprised her. Her eyes stung with tears.
Tears of rage.
“No,” she said again, and this time she forced a deep breath. Her good hand clenched, gripping at the ground. The feel of cool earth on her skin felt good.
It reminded her that she still lived.
And if she still lived, then she could still fight. Today was no different than any other day. The choice was there. Fight or run. Rise or die.
Elinor’s hand dug into the mud, and slowly, inch by inch, Elinor pulled herself up. Ignoring the pain, ignoring the weakness, she drew herself up until at last she stood tall, looking over the expanse of waving grass.
She steadied herself. Then, opening her eyes, she realized why the bright green stalks of grass seemed so familiar.
It was drowning grass.
An ocean of drowning grass.
Elinor froze, keeping her body as still as possible, willing her wobbling legs to steady themselves. She heard distant voices. They were faint, coming from around the plateau, but distinct nonetheless. Elinor knew their source: Ephed’s Razors.
As quickly as she dared, Elinor moved to Tae. The girl was pale, her skin a chalky white. Blood seeped from her abdomen, and Tae’s chest rose and fell with faint, shallow breaths. Elinor tore strips from her leggings and bound the wound as best she could.
She tried getting Tae onto her back, but it was no use. With only one working arm, she could not lift Tae’s limp body.
The voices of the Razors sounded again, and Elinor saw flaming torches in the fading gray of evening. There was no attempt at subterfuge. She knew the Razors sought to flush them out and rattle them into making a run for it, so they could bring them down like hunting dogs on their prey.
Elinor eased some of the long blades of grass over Tae, hiding her, and set off carefully. A lone tree loomed ahead, its limbs twisting toward the sun. Clearing the distance to it, she climbed atop the giant roots at its base.
Behind her, Elinor heard cruel laughter, and she could see them now.
Razors. Four of them, moving into the grass.
Elinor bared her teeth in an expression of savage rage. She braced her good arm around the tree and slammed her shoulder against the hard wood with a scream of pain and defiance.
There was a sickening pop as her shoulder slipped back into place, and her vision grayed to a dark tunnel.
The Razors rushed toward her.
Reaching down, Elinor drew her officer’s sword. She walked into the grass and raised her blade high.
Still, she told herself. No matter what. Stay still. Stay silent.
The Razors were close enough that Elinor saw the color of their eyes.
Then the earth before her erupted.
A massive form burst from the ground, writhing and screaming like a mountain being birthed. Flying grass and a cascade of dirt blurred her vision, but through this cloud, she caught sight of something that pushed her to the brink of madness.
A giant pillar of flesh, rising higher than the keep’s tower.
Elinor gaped at the impossibility before her. Every fiber of her screamed to run, to flee, but she held her ground, holding her breath in hope she might remain beneath its notice.
Turning in on itself, the creature twisted back down, the front of it opening like a nightmare flower. Within the open maw, writhing tentacles snapped and whipped.
The Razors were scattered by the force of the colossus’s arrival. One man dropped to his knees and screamed incoherently. The others ran.
The first man was taken almost faster than Elinor could track, disappearing in a fountain of dirt and a maelstrom of rippling grass. A massive tentacle reared up, coiling around him and flailing him like a petulant child with a broken toy.
The rendworms she had faced long ago had been terrible creatures, but their barbed tentacles had been about as wide as a rope. The tentacle that gripped the man was the size of a wagon. It swung him high in the air, his screams a horrifying mix of terror and madness.
Not the feared rendworms that descended from them, but an actual Earth Tyrant, the likes of which great Aedan and brave Garhard had bested in the old story.
Elinor watched as a creature of legend fed, tossing her screaming enemies into its maw. The Tyrant devoured the last Razor and then began sliding across the grass in Elinor’s direction.
Elinor held still, forcing even her thoughts quiet. Iron discipline warred with the primal urge to flee, but Elinor kept her place.
Stay still. Stay silent.
The Tyrant slid past her, close enough that its smell, like rich soil and old growth, filled her nostrils. The wake of its passage rolled under her like ocean waves. Then, smoothly and with an undulating grace that belied its enormous size, the Tyrant slid back into the earth. The drowning grass was impossibly pristine, as if Elinor had imagined the entire event.
Of the four Razors who had come to kill her, there was no sign.
Slowly, she raised a hand to wipe away the layer of dirt covering her face. Unbidden, the words of the ancient story came to her lips. “And from the sea of Earth, where the Tyrants ruled, did Aedan and Garhard pass, seeking the Shepherd of Tree and Stone.”
Her mind flashed back to the massive tapestry hanging in the keep. The view depicted there was the same she had stared out upon at the top of the plateau. Suddenly, all of Aebelm’s subtle words and prodding came screaming to the fore of her mind. This was what he had been trying to tell her. Timberline was sacred because it was where myth had one day been truth.
This was the land of the story.
Overcome by this revelation, long moments of silence passed before Elinor moved back to Tae. Though the Razors were gone, she knew Tae would not last much longer. A return to the village was impossible, and crossing the domain of the Tyrant with the girl seemed just as unlikely. There was nowhere to go. No way to save her.
The part of Elinor that had risen from the grass in defiance of death snarled at impossibility. It seized upon the memory of the story, rolling the words around over and over until they slipped from Elinor’s bloodstained lips like a prayer.
The Shepherd of Tree and Stone.
In the story, Aedan had called out to the ancient spirit and it had answered. Elinor felt the blood seeping from her own wounds. It stained her hand red as she clenched it into a fist. Her thoughts coalesced into a crystal-clear idea. It was a foolish idea, an impossible hope from a girl who had read too many stories as a child.
Elinor smiled grimly.
She stood in the Vale of Tyrants, where Aedan himself had walked. This was no time to be cowed by what was deemed possible.
She raised her bloody fist before her. “To the Shepherd of Tree and Stone. I call to you. I stand with blood and earth and call to you.”
With force, she drove her bloody fist into the soft earth, feeling the soil mingle with her blood. Then, she felt it. A thrum, deep and low in the earth.
It came slowly, but more and more steadily. It throbbed across the immense expanse of the drowning grass, causing the tall blades to twitch and shake.
It felt like a heartbeat.
The force of it was powerful. Greater than the Tyrant, greater than storm or sun or wind. It was the slow pounding of stone against stone, coming from the tall cliff of the plateau. As her eyes traced up, boulders shook and tumbled down.
One landed heavily in the drowning grass. Elinor steeled herself for the return of the Tyrant, but there was nothing. Nothing save the beating heart of the world she now felt in her own blood.
A sound that was half-laugh, half-gasp escaped her lips. She felt lightheaded, but whether from injuries or madness, she did not know.
The sheer height of the climb seemed impossible and she would have to carry Tae through the drowning grass even before that. And yet there was no decision to be made.
“I come,” Elinor whispered, her voice thick with exhaustion and amazement.
Elinor picked up Tae’s unconscious form, settling the girl on her back. Closing her eyes, she stepped onto the drowning grass.
She moved steadily, with no stealth or art, one foot after the other into the realm of the Tyrant, but the drowning grass remained calm as she passed. And, as if it knew she answered the invitation of something older than myth, the Tyrant did not return.
Elinor circled the plateau’s wide base and spied a break in the scrub where a path opened. She began the ascent, moving with all the speed she could manage, but the ground was rough and uneven. As she pushed on, her ankle twisted sharply, and she stumbled, screaming in pain from her broken ribs. She stopped to catch her breath but kept climbing.
The sun died as the moon and stars rose high in the night sky. In the pale light, the path was difficult to follow and Elinor’s pace slowed. Tae’s breathing grew shallower as they climbed. Warm blood seeped onto Elinor’s back.
Yet, she pushed on, driven by a faith that transcended rational thought.
Finally, through the trees she caught sight of the ruins. The old man’s body was where she remembered, stretched out by the far edge of the cliff. Even in death, his face was resolute. Elinor bowed her head in deference before moving on.
The stone structure of the ruins was different. A wide, round chasm was now open at the base of the stairs.
Legs shaking with exhaustion, Elinor carried Tae down into the earth. She trudged on, until at last the cavern opened into a massive space. Milky white crystals in the walls bathed everything in a soft light.
As she stepped from the final stair, Elinor collapsed to her knees. Light from crystals illuminated veins of silver, crossing through the rock like a spiderweb of moonlight.
Slowly, a stone began to move across the floor. Another followed it, and then even more. Stones, gems, and the roots of trees flowed and moved in a swirling eddy, like the waves of a great ocean.
There were no words, even if Elinor had the strength to form them. Tears flowed down her face as she stared. Where the Tyrant’s arrival had brought horror and madness, this time there was only awe as stone and earth shaped itself into being. It moved with an almost musical sound, as each piece flowed together, forming a creature of impossible grace and motion.
Finally, the tide of earth and stone receded, drawing up like an immense cresting wave. It towered over Elinor and Tae, threatening to engulf the two in a massive cascade of rock. From within the stone wave, two large crystals flowed to the surface, glowing with milky white light.
The Shepherd of Tree and Stone stared down at them.
Elinor felt the weight of those eyes, like all the mountains of the world pressed down upon her. Slowly, she moved Tae’s limp form forward.
The rolling tide of root and stone flowed, bringing bright, glowing eyes closer to Tae. Then, it was still, and silence filled the room.
“I have brought her here,” Elinor said. “Please. Save her.”
The Shepherd of Tree and Stone swayed back and forth, but it did not move to help her.
“I don’t… I don’t understand. Are you the Shepherd of Tree and Stone?”
The response came as much in her heart and mind as in her ears. “That is what your kind has often called me,” the Shepherd intoned. The powerful response resonated in her very bones.
“She is a daughter of Timberline. Her people have honored you since the days of Aedan. Please, you must save her.”
The immense wall of stone flowed like water once more. Now it resembled a long, arcing neck, its glowing crystal eyes focusing intense light. That feeling in heart and mind came again to Elinor as the spirit spoke, “I can only do what I can do. Nothing more.”
There was a sadness from the otherworldly creature with those words, and Elinor felt it take hold. A sadness and a certainty.
The Shepherd could not save Tae.
“Why?” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “Why did you show me the way here if not to save her?” She shook her head in disbelief. “Why bring me here?”
Images came. Elinor looked down upon herself from a great height, standing in a sea of waving green. She saw herself raise her fist and call out, her voice clear.
“You brought yourself here,” the Shepherd said, the ancient voice filling her.
Elinor sank down as the true weight of loss filled her. “I came here to save her,” she whispered.
In her mind, images coalesced. A swath of forest burned to twisted, black ruins. A delicate natural arch of stone giving way under one final flake of snow. The last leaves clinging to a branch as bitter winds swirled around it.
“Some things cannot be saved,” spoke the Shepherd.
There was a feeling of deep sadness, and it was more than she could bear. Elinor knelt in the shadow of the ancient spirit and wept. Her sobs stole the air from her lungs, and for a brief moment, she could not breathe or speak. Then, she drew in a deep ragged breath and savagely wiped a hand across her eyes.
“No,” Elinor said. “I cannot accept this.”
A feather-light touch caught her attention and she looked down in surprise. Tae was reaching for her hand, small fingers trembling. Elinor grabbed her hand and Tae slowly smiled, her teeth stained with blood.
“It’s all right. I chose this. And now you know,” Tae said, her eyes on the towering shape of the Shepherd. “Now you have seen. I’ve done my part and that’s enough for me.” With that, her eyes began to close.
Elinor felt the flutter of life in her hand fading and she squeezed it between both of her own. “Don’t you give up, Tae. Tae!”
Grief and rage erupted from Elinor. “Do something, damn you! I know you can. I know it.”
The Shepherd did not move, but continued regarding her with unblinking eyes.
“You helped Aedan in the darkest times,” Elinor said, driven by her memories of the stories that had sustained her through her own darkest days. “You performed magic and miracles well beyond what I am asking of you.” She gestured down to Tae. “How can you turn your back now? This girl, her entire family, have given everything to protect you. To serve you!”
“And what have you given?”
The question echoed in her chest, in her mind, and she felt its vibration in her bones and teeth. It stunned her into silence. The Shepherd’s form grew larger, flowing closer to her, until those glowing, crystal eyes were directly in front of her. She became lost in the light of them, the eternity of them.
“There is a balance to all things,” the Shepherd intoned. In her mind, a pristine beach stretched endlessly to the horizon. Then the vision focused down to a single grain of sand. It moved slightly in a breeze, and as it did, the grains next to it shifted, and then more and more moved across the sandy dunes. “What you call magic or miracles is simply the movement of that balance.” And then, just like that, the sand was gone and Elinor was back staring into ancient eyes. “There is always a cost.”
Elinor’s mind was reeling, but in the palm of her hand, she felt Tae’s faint pulse. “Whatever it is. I will pay it.”
“Like him, you are quick to answer.”
She fought to understand the spirit’s words. Was it referring to Aedan? That thought only served to embolden her. “Not quick,” she replied, her voice growing stronger. “Prepared. Tell me what I must do, Old One, and it shall be done.”
Its eyes remained still and unblinking. “That is not for me to decide, Child of Aedan.”
Her mind reached back through the stories and legends she knew so well, and she found the answer: an offering of devotion. A show of worth. That is what had won great Aedan the Shepherd’s favor.
She raised her chin. “I shall finish the fight that has cost Tae and her family so much. I shall give her justice.” She opened her mouth and spoke words that she had once believed only existed in ancient stories, “By blood and water. By breath and wind. By bone and stone. Thrice said, thrice bound. I offer my oath.”
The stone softened and flowed, wrapping the girl’s body as gently as a blanket. In Elinor’s mind, she saw images. In the center of the old ruins, stood a man and a woman. The man wore the colors of Timberline and the woman an old-fashioned dress. They held hands and stared into each other’s eyes. It was the wedding of Lady Lliane and Tae’s father.
The images faded slowly and, as she regained her sight, Elinor saw Tae’s face relax in a gentle smile. Her breathing grew quiet and easy.
Elinor let out a deep breath. “You opened a way for me here. Now, I ask for a way out so that I may fulfill my oath.”
The stone wave shifted, and Tae was gently moved along like a flower petal on the surface of a lake. Across the cavern, there was a hiss of shifting earth. A length of dark tunnel emerged, and at its end, an opening that looked upon a village.
Last Dawn Keep loomed behind it.
“Rest easy, Tae,” she whispered to the air. “This is my fight now.”
Elinor placed her hand on her heart in the old manner, then turned and strode down the tunnel to fulfill her promise.