The air was crisp and cold as Elinor stepped out into the dim light of evening. She had stepped from the stone wall of a watchtower, but there was no hole now, only smooth gray lines separating the wall’s stones.
Elinor approached the village, careful to stay out of the brighter pockets of moonlight. Her shoulder ached and various cuts oozed dark blood. The worst were her broken ribs, still sending stabbing pains every time she took a deep breath.
The streets were quiet and empty as Elinor located Bilia’s house. Her vision was blurry and she swayed unsteadily, but she finally found it. She slumped against the door, knocking weakly.
Elinor slipped forward as the door opened, but Bilia caught her. “What is it, girl? What’s happened?” she asked, struggling to carry Elinor inside.
“Piersym’s men attacked us. Aebelm… Tae… I’m sorry, Bilia,” Elinor said, her eyes filled with tears.
Bilia recoiled like she had been slapped. A strangled gasp escaped her lips before she wrapped Elinor in a tight embrace. “You are hurt,” the old woman managed to say. “Let’s get you inside.”
Bilia set Elinor down on a chair. The old woman stood up, wiped a tear from her cheek, and lit a candle off embers in the fireplace.
“What do you need?” Bilia asked, her voice low and even, a calm veneer over the sorrow in her eyes.
“Con,” Elinor said, gritting through the pain. “I need Conbert here now. And he needs to bring a map of the keep.” She paused to take a few shallow breaths. “And then I will need you to get word to all in the village who you can trust.” She looked Bilia in the eyes. “I failed to save your family, Bilia. I will not fail to see them get justice.”
Bilia nodded before moving to a low shelf by the door. She returned with a needle and fine thread. “Best to get started putting yourself back together then while I go fetch your engineer.” The old woman grabbed a shawl by the door and headed out into the night.
Elinor stitched. The work was slow and her injured left arm was clumsy, but she managed to close up the worst cuts before Bilia returned.
Con entered, his eyes wide. “Aedan’s blood, Elinor!” he gasped, kneeling beside her.
“Ephed. Is he back yet?” Elinor asked.
“I never saw him leave, but he returned with only six of his Razors around sunset. He said you were off dealing with some local matters with Tae and Aebelm.” He frowned, his brow furrowing. “What do you need from me, Elinor?”
“The ceremony. Has it happened yet?”
“Not yet. But Lord Piersym has been raising a fuss, complaining about you going off and demanding that I go through with it as King’s Representative in your place. I’ve been stalling him, though.”
“Good,” Elinor said, closing her eyes. “Then that is where we will take them. When they’re all together and their minds are focused on their victory.”
“Elinor. We cannot take on that many Razors. Not even with the whole village armed and at our backs. It would be a massacre.”
“No. It won’t come to that,” Elinor said. “Did you bring the map?”
Con reached into his satchel and produced a piece of vellum.
Elinor leaned over it. “Where is the most secure point in the keep?” she asked. “If Piersym were threatened, where would he seek refuge?”
“The tallest tower,” Con said, and Bilia nodded.
“Good,” she exhaled.
“What in the hells are you planning, Elinor?” Con asked. “What do you think we have that can stand against so many?”
Elinor closed her eyes and sat back in the chair. “The only thing that’s stronger than a Razor’s steel,” she said. A slight smile tugged at the corner of her mouth when there was no reply.
Bright sunlight shone through the tall windows of the main hall, and loud voices echoed off the high walls. Leaning against the stone alcove, Elinor kept the hood of the robe up over her head and remained out of sight.
The various militia soldiers and hangers-on who had accompanied Piersym to Timberline were in place for the Ceremony of Reclamation that would see him officially installed as the new Lord of Timberline.
Piersym entered, dressed in flowing robes more suitable to a king than the lord of two outlying marches. Ephed walked behind him, wearing the dark maroon of Hearthfire.
To Elinor’s eyes, he looked drenched in old blood.
From outside, there was heavy sound like metal on rock, then a brief grinding. Some of the assembled looked confused, but when the noise faded, they appeared to return their attention to the air of impatience in the room.
After more clangs, Piersym yelled out, “Ephed, go see what that engineer is playing about with out there and get this farce started!”
As Ephed stood to leave, Elinor stepped out of the alcove, the heavy cloak of the king’s black concealing her. She moved to the front of the hall and all attention shifted to her.
Piersym adjusted his heavy robes. “I am not accustomed to being made to wait, Engineer. You would do wise to remember that,” the lord said with menace. “I am a man of great influence.”
“What you are,” Elinor said, pulling back the hood to reveal her face, “is an accomplice to murder and a traitor to the crown.” She threw the cloak aside as her voice rang out in the hall. “Piersym of Hearthfire and Ephed, First Blade, I name you murderers. I name you oathbreakers. You have violated the Covenant of the First Ascended and broken faith with your king. And you shall answer for these crimes.” She gestured to the others in the room. “All of you assembled here. You have one chance to exonerate yourself from complicity in the crimes of these traitors. Leave now or be judged alongside them.”
From across the hall, Ephed glared at her. “You should have had sense enough to die out there, Reaper,” he said slowly while drawing his blade.
Elinor met his gaze and smiled fiercely. “Had you truly been as good as you think you are, Razor, I would have.”
Piersym’s face turned a mottled purple. “Kill her!” he screamed.
The hall sprang into life as Razors drew their weapons and surged forward. The crowd erupted into chaos.
Elinor darted through the alcove and ran up a wide set of stairs. Her ribs screamed in protest as her breath came harsh and ragged. Still, she pushed on, taking steps two at a time. The clang and grind came again, closer now, almost matching the rhythm of her stride.
Behind her, Razors drew closer.
Elinor arrived at a broad stone landing, high up in the keep’s secondary tower. She threw open the door and ran out onto the rampart, sprinting toward the edge.
Tied off there was a thick length of rope that led away from the keep to one of Con’s tall wooden towers. As the first of the pursuing Razors emerged onto the parapet, Elinor grabbed the rope and leaped into the open air. She bit back a scream as her injured body swung across the open space between the two towers.
As she did, there was a final sound like a metal drum being struck and then a sharp series of cracks. A cacophony erupted as the tower she had leaped from tumbled down. Mixed with the roar of falling stone and the twang of pulling ropes, Elinor heard the shocked screams of the Razors as the tower collapsed under them.
Con’s pulleys and ropes were arrayed around the remaining tower like a web, and his work crews ran furiously to and from their stations as they operated the heavy machinery.
Elinor swung the rest of the way to the far tower, reaching out her good arm and grabbing hold of an open window. The sudden arresting of her motion jarred her body and she felt stitches tear free. Warm blood cascaded down, but she pulled herself inside.
Her ears rang with the echo of the tower’s destruction and her body felt strained and worn, but she forced herself to her feet and secured the rope beside the window. The real fight had not begun, and she would not let herself rest yet. She looked around and exhaled, trying to get what breath she could.
The door at the opposite end of the room flew open and Lord Piersym entered. His robes were disheveled, and his face still flushed. “You!” he shouted. “How dare you? Do you know who I am? My blood is the blood of the First Ascended. My lineage extends back to the time of legends! You dare to threaten me?”
Ephed emerged through the door, his blade in hand. “And just when I thought you would cheat me of my pleasure, Reaper, you come here to offer the gift of your death. I am touched you would be so gracious.”
Elinor only half-listened to his threats. More clanking could be heard as the winches around the keep continued their work.
Elinor’s eyes focused on Ephed and she drew her blade, moving into a position of guard. She slashed at him, but he sidestepped, moving closer to her. There was a blur, and she felt a cut open across her side, inches under the cut he had given her at the ruins.
Elinor swung at him again, and this time he met her blade with his own. She snarled as she stabbed at his eyes with her free hand. It forced him back and gave her a brief opening. Her blade scored along his side, drawing blood.
She felt electric flare, bright and hot, as Ephed’s power burned and his speed increased.
What had started as attack shifted into a desperate defense as Elinor fought to keep his blade away. She stepped back, trying to gain space, but Ephed did not press. Instead, he too took a step back.
It was then Elinor noticed he had maneuvered her around so he was by the open window.
Ephed grabbed hold of the rope Elinor had left. “Did you truly think me so stupid, Reaper?” The sounds of the winches and pulleys came faster and the tower shook. Behind her, Elinor heard Piersym whimper.
Ephed smiled. “I could have killed you many times, but the truth is, Reaper, you simply aren’t worth the effort.”
Elinor launched an attack at Ephed, and he raised his blade to turn it aside. As he did, Elinor grabbed his weapon, the keen edge cutting into the flesh of her hand. Blood flowed down her arm as she swung her own blade toward Ephed’s head. It whistled past as he ducked out of the way. He took her legs out with a swift kick, dropping her to the floor. Her broken ribs flared, and she screamed out.
Despite the pain, Elinor looked up in defiance and smiled. “You… lose,” she gasped.
Ephed stared at the length of rope hanging limp in his hand. The rope she had just cut. Beyond the open window, the rest of it glided away, out of reach.
The room shook and groaned.
“You fool,” Ephed spat. “Now we will both die. We all lose!”
Elinor drew herself up tall. “No, murderer, I came here to avenge the death of the Lady Lliane of Timberline and the family of Blades that served her. The men and women you slaughtered.” The floor began to tremble and crack. “And now I have.”
The tower shook and swayed. Then the room split, stone shattering and shrieking as the tower collapsed.
The world pitched and spun as the room crumbled, and they both fell.
She should have said goodbye to Conbert, she thought, as the world collapsed into chaos.
And then, just as she was closing her eyes, she felt a hand grip her arm. She looked, expecting to see Ephed’s snarling face, but instead a thin arm was reaching through a circular hole in the stone wall.
The arm pulled hard, and Elinor slipped into the darkness of the hole.
She found herself once again in the cavern of the Shepherd of Tree and Stone. The roaring destruction of the collapsing keep was gone, replaced with a serene silence. Holding onto her arm, pale and gasping, was Tae.
The girl smiled at Elinor’s confusion. “I will… not… let you fall,” Tae said, and then closed her eyes.