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 fluttered. There was nothing he had to hide, but there were certainly things he’d prefer to keep to himself.
“So long as he’s competent,” Caldor said as they began to climb the winding staircase up to the council chambers.
The two continued in relative silence, save for the continuous echoing taps of Elora’s cane. Caldor wished he could at least shave before the meeting—his graying beard had grown unkempt in the last few weeks—but he couldn’t delay a council meeting with such a poor excuse.
The door to the council chambers featured the same ornamented raven carving as the entrance to Skelhold, but had been crafted with a far greater eye for detail. The feathers were individually carved pieces of obsidian, layered atop each other in a way that created an illusion of the bird bursting from the door. The chains adorning its wings were made of gold and lined with gems, and its talons were made of fine bronze, each the size of Caldor’s fingers.
Two guards stood near, and as the council members approached, they silently swung open the doors and stepped aside.
The council chamber was a tall, circular room. Five stone, high-backed seats with arm rests had been carved from the walls, decorated with pillows and cloths for comfort and identification’s sake. Each cloth displayed the symbol of an individual position on the council, and currently three of the seats were occupied.
In front of a cloth displaying a single raven wing, paced a middle-aged woman dressed in white armor, fiddling with the clasp of her cloak. Her skin was ruddy and wrinkles stretched under her eyes from constant squinting. She had narrow, blue eyes and short hair that flipped up at the ends in a way that clearly irritated the woman.
Under the cloth displaying spirals of blue energy surrounding the silhouette of a raven, a younger man dozed. He had a wispy mustache and equally wispy black hair. Combined with a face marred by a variety of blemishes, he was by no means an attractive man, but certainly eye-catching.
Beneath the symbol of a raven’s glinting eye, a youthful, well-groomed man with a tight, black ponytail started intently at Caldor and Elora. There was a spark of cunning in his brown-speckled green eyes as he analyzed the two Watchers from behind clasped hands which obscured his lower face.
In the center of the room, a topographical map of the Skels had been carved out of the stone. The peaks of the mountains rose to Caldor’s knee, and small banners signaled which clans owned which castles and towns, dozens of which had been added and removed over the years. The four main isles were separated by a sea made of obsidian, with Skelhold situated directly in the middle of the central isle.
“I apologize for keeping you all waiting,” Elora said. The words started the dozing man from his slumber. “I assumed he would be moving faster than a lame horse when I scheduled the meeting.”
“Good to see you’re all well,” Caldor said as he stepped around the carved map towards his seat. He made eye contact with the stranger in the council. “I’m sorry to hear about Brun, he was a great man.”
“Aye, the greatest mentor I could have had. My name is Alvis, I’ve heard a lot about you, Caldor,” Alvis said, hand extended. He seemed almost nervous to meet Caldor. No, it wasn’t nerves, he was too composed for nerves. He was eager, though his smooth voice concealed it well.
“From what I’ve heard, that’s what this meeting is about,” Caldor replied as he shook the hand and sat in his seat, the outstretched talons of a raven behind him.
The rest of the council waited patiently as Elora made her way to her seat and the doors to the chamber closed.
“That was some stunt you pulled, vanishing for two months,” the white-armored woman said.
Tola was the Raven’s Wing, responsible for teaching Watchers how to survive in the brutal weather of the Skels and ensuring all villages were assigned a Watcher. When villages fell in the path of a Winterstorm, Tola had a penchant for riding out herself to help evacuate them. Aside from being one of Caldor’s oldest friends, she was also the greatest practitioner of mist magic Caldor had ever known.
“And returning with a young winterborn,” Skuli added, picking at one of his blemishes, utterly unconcerned with keeping up appearances. The Raven’s Mind was in charge of crafting and enchanting the magical gear for all Watchers, from crystal blades to crystal shackles. It took a special talent to work magic as subtle as the enchantments Skuli excelled at, and the title of Mind was passed between the most adept mages in the organization.
“A particularly powerful winterborn, if my birds are accurate,” Alvis said. As the Raven’s Eye, he was responsible for the vast network of informants and ravens that allowed the Watchers to stay knowledgeable about the daily occurrences of the Skels.
That sentence irritated Caldor. Not the words themselves, but how they were delivered. Brun had been the Raven’s Eye for over thirty years, and in the span of two months the ravens Brun had raised from the egg and the informants he had found were his birds? Elora was right, he didn’t have respect for his elders.
“Her name is Eira,” Caldor replied. He hated referring to her as a winterborn, it made it sound like she was an object, especially the way Alvis and Skuli said it. The Watchers as an organization were of two minds when it came to winterborns. Some, like Caldor, believed the power they wielded wasn’t inherently good or bad, and that teaching them how to control it was an obligation. Others believed they were too dangerous to be allowed to have free reign over their powers, and that the Watchers should be controllers, not teachers. In Caldor’s eyes, it was ideas like those that created people like Eskil.
“Yes, of course. She is powerful, is she not?” Alvis asked. Caldor could tell he already knew the answer, he was trying to assess whether or not he could believe Caldor. He knew how these kinds of games worked, Brun had loved to play them as well—though those games were more for entertainment. From now on, Caldor had to assume that every question Alvis asked was one he already knew the answer to. The trick was to tell as little as possible while remaining honest.
“From what my birds told me, she helped you kill another winterborn on your way back here, did she not?”
“She ensured my safety, but I did the work.”
Tola let out a half-laugh, half-sigh and massaged her temple. The rest of the council simply stared at Caldor.
“You took a child into combat?” Elora asked.
“An untrained one at that, it’s a miracle no innocents were killed,” Skuli remarked.
“The rogue winterborn’s initial attack wiped out an entire keep. If I hadn’t brought her, I might be dead,” Caldor replied. He could feel his frustration begin to bubble inside. “It’s been my job to hunt down rogue winterborn and train Watchers how to fight for over a decade; I’d ask for some trust when it comes to decisions made during combat.”
“While that is fair, Lord Talon,” Alvis began. Caldor glared at him, no one referred to their titles during meetings. “If there is anything your actions these past two months have made us question, it is your decision-making.”
“Is that so, Alvis? For being the newest member of the council, you seem to be speaking for the others quite a bit.”
“It’s my duty to be the most informed. Additionally, I was tracking your actions during your disappearance long before becoming a member of this council on a direct order from the previous Lord Eye himself. You could say I’m an expert on you, Lord Talon.”
Caldor winced internally at the title, but maintained his composure. If Alvis knew so much about him, he had to know how much Caldor hated his title. That meant either Caldor had to address it directly—and Alvis would know it was getting to him—or he left it alone and it would continue to annoy him. A lose-lose situation.
The haughty manner in which Alvis spoke was beginning to infuriate Caldor. This boy acted as if he were the parent of a naughty child, not a peer talking to another leader of an esteemed order. It was as if every single mannerism was tailored to irritate Caldor. The way he spoke with his head tilted slightly back and chin extended, the pristine robes of someone who had never seen combat, and the twinkle in his eye—one which Caldor was now sure was malicious. Every time he looked, he found something new to dislike.
“I must admit,” Elora said, trying to break the growing tension. “Your actions of late have been concerning.”
“I agree,” Tola said. “But I trust you. Despite being baffled by your recent actions, I trust you.”
“That’s the issue, they all trust you implicitly because they’ve known you for too long. I haven’t. And, to a stranger, your actions reek of suspicion; especially with the recent and dramatic increase in Huntsmen activity.”
Caldor stood to his feet in outrage and the room grew quiet. He had devoted his life to the order, and to have his loyalty questioned by some whelp within minutes of meeting him? It was almost too much.
“Alvis, are you implying Caldor is working with the Huntsmen?” Tola asked.
“This was not the kind of questioning we agreed upon, Lord Eye,” Skuli said, his tone dark.
“Those are very serious claims,” Caldor said, his hand unconsciously moving to his hilt. “Do you have any evidence to back them up?”
“The tension of having to contend with the Huntsmen may have caused you to act irrationally. Malice and irrationality are often impossible to tell apart,” Alvis stated.
Caldor moved his hand from his hilt. Across the room, Tola mirrored his action. The whole room was still, waiting for his reaction. He chuckled.
“That’s a cute trick, boy. Devious too. Imply I’m thinking irrationally due to recent stress in a hope that I second-guess my actions and open myself up to manipulation. A shame that Brun taught me that trick ten years ago,” Caldor stared directly into Alvis’ eyes, and to the boy’s credit he met the gaze well. “Every trick you’ve learned, I knew about before you joined the Watchers, so don’t play games with me. It won’t end well.”
“Forgive me, Lord Talon, that wasn’t at all my intention. I apologize for the insinuation,” Alvis said. For the faintest of moments, Caldor swore he saw a bit of frustration in the boy’s eyes.
“Good. Outlandish claims have no place in these chambers, especially since you already know the reason for my absence, don’t you?” There it was again, the glimmer of frustration in Alvis’ eyes. “Sorry, were you hoping to ambush me with personal questions? That trick won’t work either, but go ahead and ask.”
“Very well,” Alvis said. “Let’s start with a simple one. Why did you leave?”
“I received a letter from my brother. He used to send them regularly, but when I became the Talon, I was always busy, so I stopped responding. He hadn’t sent one in years. From what I can tell, he’s often drunk when he writes them, it’s a large reason I stopped responding. This time, he included something about a daughter, which isn’t anything special, he has two. However, he referred to this one as his curse. It was strange enough to investigate,” Caldor explained. He wanted to overshare just a bit, anything he told Alvis that the he didn’t already know would show the boy his birds weren’t omniscient.
“You thought he had a winterborn daughter he was hiding? From one sentence in a drunken letter?” Skuli asked, more impressed than skeptical.
“Something about it bothered me, call it intuition. I knew that if I was right, she was being mistreated, and we all know what can happen when a winterborn is abused.”
“And?” Alvis said.
“I was right. When I arrived, I searched for her. I found Eira in the cellar, covered in welts. She was tearing the pages out of books and stuffing them in her clothes to keep warm. Apparently, my brother used her to calm himself when he got mad or drunk or both. He cut out her tongue because it had runes on it and he was afraid of her cursing him.”
“Terrible thing,” Elora muttered.