Find the last story in the saga here.
Days after dealing with the rogue winterborn Eskil, Caldor and Eira arrive at their Skelhold, the seat of power for the Watchers.
The entrance to Skelhold was dozens of feet above the sheer face of the mountain from which it was carved. It was a stony semblance of a raven in mid cry, its beak jutting ten feet from the flat, gray rock.
The lift—a rickety pile of wood hoisted by a metal chain—waited for the two as they left the forest path.
In front of him, the thin layer of snow lifted into the air and formed words.
We go in there?
Caldor looked at Eira, whose lips were pinched with worry. He was surprised, not much fazed the girl.
“Skelhold is the safest place in the world for you. You’ll be surrounded by a hundred Watchers and other winterborn. There’s nothing to worry about.”
They passed by the floating flurries and the flakes fell into an inanimate pile. Further ahead more snow lifted up.
Surounded by stone too.
“You missed an r,” Caldor said. Eira huffed and fixed her mistake. “Yes, it’s inside the mountain. Don’t worry, there’s never been a collapse in Skelhold, and the inside is more spacious than you would expect.”
Eira shook her head and more snow popped up around her.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to talk for a bit. I’ll try and finish matters here as fast as I can,” Caldor said. He stooped down and scooped snow into his waterskin. “Keep this on you. You aren’t supposed to use your powers inside, but when it’s just us, you can talk with that.”
Eira clutched the waterskin tight and nodded, and the two climbed onto the lift.
Skelhold was built with one intention in mind: that it would never fall. The forest had been cleared for a quarter mile around the entrance, forcing any potential enemies to march onto an open plain, where defenders could rain death upon them without repercussion. If they managed to ascend the sheer face, underneath which ran dozens of tunnels filled with arrowslits, they would have to enter through a heavily guarded stone corridor—dozens of feet long and so narrow two men could barely stand abreast within it.
Fortunately, Caldor was not an invader, and all he had to do was ride a creaky lift high into the air. He had rode it hundreds of times in his life, and each time he broke into a cold sweat seeing the ground so far below.
Eira seemed to share Caldor’s disdain for the lift, gripping his arm tightly and staring directly up at the approaching stone beak.
The lift brought them inside the beak and the two stepped out, still exposed to the open air that whistled through the sides of the sculpted entrance. Ahead, two Watchers stood guard, and when they recognized Caldor they dropped to their knee.
“Lord Talon, we’ve been expecting you. Welcome home.”
Caldor hated the honorific. He hadn’t been born to a noble family, so there was no need to call him lord. However, after a decade of protest, he had begrudgingly accepted he was unable to change the tradition.
“Good to be back,” Caldor said as he passed the two and entered Skelhold. Eira gripped his hand tightly, and as they entered the stone corridor, Hammond cawed in complaint.
“She can’t talk, what’s your excuse?” Caldor asked.
Hammond fluttered his feathers.
“If you want room to fly, I can stick you in the aviary, with all the other birds.”
The plump raven huffed.
“That’s what I thought.”
The corridor bored deep into the mountain, and led to two large doors almost three times Caldor’s height. Upon them was an engraving of a raven lavished with gold jewelry. It gripped a branch with its adorned talons, and stared forwards with two twinkling pieces of winter crystal. Its wings were fully extended, each the size of a grown man.
As the two approached the door, it opened outwards without a sound, revealing a circular antechamber followed by a smaller, unadorned door guarded by a Watcher.
“You’re late, Lord Talon,” a scratchy voice wheezed from the corner.
Sitting upon one of the stone benches was a woman with cobweb hair. Time had eroded her body and she sat hunched and swaddled in the thick, heavily embroidered robes of a council member.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Elora,” Caldor replied.
“That’s Lady Heart when others are in the room,” Elora said as she eyed the guard near the door.
“Of course. Forgive me, I’m months out of practice. The commonfolk prefer using their given names.”
Elora chuckled, “That’s because the commonfolk don’t have fancy titles to use. It’s good to see you’re safe, and it seems you’ve brought someone with you.”
Caldor glanced down at Eira, who beamed and waved at Elora.
“Aren’t you precious? You remind me of myself when I was a young girl. What’s your name, dear?”
“This is Eira, she’s my charge.”
“Can she not speak?” Elora asked.
Eira shook her head, but her smile didn’t fade.
Elora frowned, “I see. What a terrible thing to happen to a child. Come here, darling.”
Eira approached her, and Elora gave a gummy smile.
“My job is to make sure everyone in Skelhold is safe, and I’m very good at my job. As long as you’re here, you have nothing to fear. Now, Lord Talon and I will have to go to meeting for a bit, but I’m going to send my best guards to escort you to your room. Can you wait here for a moment?”
Caldor watched Eira’s fingers twitch instinctually, but she caught herself and nodded instead.
He approached Elora and held out his hand, “let’s be on our way then.”
She grabbed hold, and with a gentle tug he helped her to her feet. Standing, her hunch was even more noticeable, making her only slightly taller than Eira. She drew a cane from within the folds of her cloak and tapped it onto the stone. Elora made Caldor’s already towering stature appear even more colossal in comparison.
“It was nice meeting you, Eira. Take care.”
Caldor plucked Hammond from his perch and placed the rotund bird on Eira’s shoulder, much to Hammond’s chagrin.
“Keep her company, can’t have you irritating the council.”
The two council members moved towards the exit and the guard opened the door for them, revealing a tall hallway filled with branching corridors and Watchers moving briskly between them. The interior of Skelhold offered precious little protection from the cold, and each Watcher was wrapped in various layers of cloth, fur, and armor.
Elora stopped next to another guard by the door, “tell Venyr and Orn to escort our young winterborn to Lord Talon’s quarters.”
The Watcher nodded and slipped down a hallway while the two council members made their way down to the council chamber at an excruciatingly slow pace. Caldor clenched his fist in an attempt to drive off the mounting impatience. Elora was a dear friend, but her age had caught up to her in the recent years.
All of the hallways were the same smooth, gray stone, dotted with glowing Winter Crystal to bathe them in white-blue light. Once they were away from the central corridor, Elora peeked around to check no one was near, and began to speak in a hushed tone.
“You’re always full of surprises, Caldor. I had assumed your adventuring days were behind you. But suddenly, you leave for months and return with a winterborn in your charge,” Elora chuckled. “At least this will prove to be an interesting meeting, the last few have just been the new Lord Eye prattling on about his ideas.”
“New Lord Eye?” Caldor asked. He had only been away for a few months and already the council had changed? “What happened to Brun?”
“Oh yes, terrible thing. Apparently, he collapsed at the top of a staircase after collecting messages from the ravens. Poor Brun, his age had made him frail, it was only a matter of time.”
Caldor wished the news upset him more than it did. Brun had been a kind and brilliant man, but Caldor had seen too many friends die young to truly mourn someone who had lived such a full life. Regardless, he could feel the pit of loss in his stomach.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here, I know you were close.”
“Oh it’s alright, one of the things you get used to at my age is saying goodbye to friends. Just be thankful he died away from the cold, we’ll see him in the Evershore one day.”
“He must hate it there, I’m sure there aren’t many ravens.”
Elora laughed, “He wouldn’t be truly happy if there wasn’t something to complain about anyways.”
“Who is the new Eye?”
“One of Brun’s assistants, a young lad full of ideals and with something to prove. Very little respect for his elders, unfortunately. Good at his job though, nothing slips past him.” Elora glanced knowingly up at Caldor and his heart fl