Skelhold – by Jake Dardzinski

You can find the first story 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.

No snow.

“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.

Raven's Riddle

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.

“Actually, no.”

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.

Raven's Eye

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.

Enmist

“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.

“Aye.”

“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.

“And what happened, after you found her?”

“I immediately took her as my charge.”

“And your brother?”

“Unfortunately, my brother passed during the night,” Caldor said, his gaze locked with Alvis’. “I didn’t want the girls to have to bury their father, so I did. Eira and I then began the journey back here.”

“Incredible that he lasted as long as he did, beating a winterborn like that. They’re often so quick to lash out,” Skuli mumbled.

“Yes, that’s the lesson to take from this,” Caldor replied dryly. Skuli had always been profoundly insensitive.

“My condolences, Lord Talon,” Alvis began, his voice bereft of sympathy. “From what I gathered, he was a fairly wealthy merchant. I suppose his vices caught up to him, yes?”

His words were clearly an attempt to get under Caldor’s skin, and the Watcher was ashamed it worked.

“Alvis, we didn’t gather to talk about Caldor’s brother. We should return to the matter at hand,” Tola spoke as Caldor was about to retort with something nasty. He gave her a nod of thanks.

“You are correct, Lady Wing. Now the question remains: what is to be done about the winterborn in question?”

“Eira will stay as my charge.”

“That is what we’re here to discuss,” Skuli added.

“You are not taking her.”

“That is not your decision to make. She belongs to the Watchers now, not to you. We are a council, we decide as a council,” Alvis replied.

“He’s right, Caldor,” Elora added. “We treat this as every other request for a charge and discuss the benefits and drawbacks.”

Caldor could feel himself growing flustered. It was not something that happened often. If he lost her here, she could fall into the hands of a Watcher who would treat her as a weapon to be honed, or someone to control. It would be like he never rescued her at all.

He looked at Elora, and there was an understanding in her eyes. He knew she was right.

“Fine. The most obvious benefit is that I’m family to her. She’s comfortable around me and right now, I know her better than anyone.”

“And the most obvious drawback—at least to me—is that you’re family. You may not give her the discipline she needs, or be lenient with her training,” Alvis added. “Another issue is that you’ve never had a charge before. If she is as powerful as my birds tell me she is, she should be carefully tested, monitored, and placed with an experienced teacher.”

“I’ve been training Watchers for fifteen years, I know how to teach. I expect the best from all of my students and Eira will be no exception. I’m adept at cryomancy, and haven’t struggled to teach her for the last two months. She’s used to my teaching style, and I’m accustomed to how she learns. Placing her with a new teacher could set her back months.”

“And elevate her far beyond what you are capable of. Just because something is working, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better option,” Skuli said.

“Aside from that, perhaps setting her back is what’s best. Such raw power in the hands of someone so young can be extremely dangerous. If we decide she is not to be your charge, I would recommend dramatically limiting her power until she understands the basic techniques. Years of unrefined practice can lead to habits that could be dangerous to those around her, we need to ensure those are removed,” Alvis said.

Caldor was taking notice of how Skuli and Alvis were consistently on the same page. Skuli had always fought for increasing the control Watchers had over their Winterborn charges; it seemed now he finally had someone else that would echo those sentiments.

“I’ve seen her in combat, and I assure you she has exceptional control of her powers. It’s not a matter of teaching her how to use her powers, but honing them, and I’m confident I can do that.”

“While your word goes a long way, Caldor, we will have to see her strength ourselves before we make a decision based on that point. Perhaps it would be best to suspend this talk until after she has been properly tested?” Skuli offered.

Caldor couldn’t let that happen. Their tests would take weeks, and he couldn’t let Eira rot in some stone room unable to speak for that long. He had promised her they would be here only a short while. There was another way that might work, if he could convince them.

“Send us on a mission,” Caldor said.

“What?”

“You want to see what she can do, I want to prove I’m the best fit for her. The best way to do that is to send us on a mission and watch how we do.”

The four other council members eyed one another and the room was silent.

“Caldor, could you leave the room for a moment,” Tola asked. “I think our debate will be more productive without you here.”

He could not tell if this turn of events was fortunate or not, Tola had always been difficult to read.

“Of course,” Caldor said. He avoided eye contact as he opened the doors and entered the hall, any wayward glances might make him appear desperate.

He watched the door close and waited. And waited. And waited.

He hoped to catch even a word or two; but the chamber doors were thick, and he could pick up little more than vibrations.

After nearly an hour, the door opened once more, and Tola ushered him inside. He tried to gauge the outcome by their faces, but they gave away nothing as he sunk into his seat.

“It’s been decided a mission would be an excellent test,” Alvis stated.

The young council member didn’t appear to be bitter, which was interesting. It would take a majority vote to allow the idea to be passed, and since it had taken an hour for them to come to that conclusion, there must have been a dissenter. He wondered who it was, if not Alvis.

“What do you have in mind?”

“There’s a town at the base of the Crystal Peaks called Valefall. Recently, we received word that there’s a pair of survivalists there who claim to know a reliable way to ascend the peaks. They’re either exceptionally good at what they do, or liars. Your mission is to discover which of those is true.” Alvis said.

The Crystal Peaks were an icon for the Skels. The light emitted from the Winter Crystal coating the tops of the spire-like mountains could be seen for hundreds of miles on clear nights. However, clear nights were the exception near the Peaks, and recently Winterstorms had begun to strike with increasing regularity in the region.

“Why do we care?”

“Much of our Winter Crystal came from the Peaks, and it was harvested centuries ago, before the Winterstorms covered much of the region. These storms are only growing worse, and we’re worried that harvesting the Winter Crystal may soon become impossible. With the Huntsmen growing bolder and giants beginning to raid eastern villages, it is vital our supply be replenished. Huntsmen have also been sighted near the town, and if they are able to secure the Peaks before us, there’s no telling what they would do.

“These survivalists have expressed interest in working with us, for a price. It’s possible they also extended this offer to avatars, curseblades, the Huntsmen, or anyone else who would be interested in such a large amount of Winter Crystal.” Skuli continued.

Caldor felt his chest swell with purpose, and strained to hide his smile. “I’ll make preparations and leave as soon as possible.”

“Very well, I believe there is nothing more to discuss. Thank you, everyone, this meeting has proven to be immensely productive,” Alvis said as everyone stood from their seats and moved towards the exit.

Tola met Caldor’s eyes and motioned for him to stay. He nodded and occupied himself with examining the map before him, plotting his route. Skelhold and the Crystal Peaks were located on the same isle. It would take several weeks of travel, but he wouldn’t have to hire a ship to ferry him, a small blessing.

Eventually, the door slammed shut, and the two council members were left alone.

“You’re a piece of work, you know that?” Tola said. Caldor could immediately tell this wasn’t her usual banter, and he looked up to see her eyes stern.

Caldor shrugged. “I already apologized for leaving unannounced.”

“Not that, you ass. You just volunteered to bring an abused child to a place teeming with people whose only desire in the world is to kill winterborn.”

Well, at least now he knew who voted against the mission. “Eira can hold her—”

“And—I wasn’t finished—and, you were happy when you got the mission. What kind of selfish, inconsiderate, cold—”

Caldor began a retort and Tola held up her hand. The fury in her eyes silenced him immediately.

“Insensitive, heartless person is happy about bringing a child on this kind of mission?”

“What would you have me do? Let that boy take her and claim her as his own?”

“Oh, that’s another thing. You two are council members, not two drunks comparing their manhood.” As Tola spoke she grew louder and moved closer, until their chests were almost touching. “He may have different ideas about how we should treat winterborn—and he may be a tad antagonistic about it—but he’s also half your age. You’re the adult, act like it.”

“How was I immature?”

“Oh, look at me, I’m Caldor. I’m so much smarter than everyone and know all of the mind tricks you’re trying to play because I’m so much better than you. He wasn’t trying to manipulate you, you pompous ass; he’s just a passionate kid who’s suddenly got a lot of responsibilities and is trying to make it work. He probably was just trying to impress you because he looks up to you.”

“If he was, he picked a bad way of showing it,” Caldor replied, raising his voice to her level. “Eira means more to me than you could imagine, and he never even called her by her name. The whole time he was attacking my character and implying she was a threat.”

“Because in his eyes, she is a threat, Caldor. Not everyone sees the winterborn the way we do, and you have to accept that. If all I knew about winterborn were folk tales and reports like what happened at Valdsson’s keep, I’m be afraid of them too. And, if Eira means that much to you, maybe you shouldn’t be so enthusiastic about putting her life in danger.”

“I can protect her!” Caldor shouted. The sudden outburst took Tola aback. He felt bad, that had been building up for longer than he realized. “I’m bringing her with me because the only way I can be sure she’s safe is if she’s with me. Besides, she’s the strongest winterborn I have ever seen, I’ve never once felt like she couldn’t handle herself.”

“Then give her to me,” Tola said, her voice suddenly grew low.

It was Caldor’s turn to be taken aback. “What?”

“If she’s as powerful as you say, let me take her as my charge. I’ve taught winterborn before, and she would be invaluable help when dealing with Winterstorms. I would limit myself to easier missions and spend most of my time away from Skelhold so she can speak, I’m assuming she uses snow and ice to communicate, right?”

Caldor had spent his life in high-stress situations, where the easiest thing in the world would be to panic and lose it all. This was the first time in his life he had frozen. It was an enticing offer, Tola was one of the few people he trusted with his life, and she shared his views on winterborn. There wasn’t anything wrong with what she was offering.
But he couldn’t do it.

“I’m sorry,” he began. He saw her face sink. There wasn’t any frustration, or anger—just disappointment. “She’s blood. I can’t let her go.”

Tola was silent for a while, but Caldor felt like he couldn’t leave until she said her piece.

“Good luck on the mission,” she said quietly.

Caldor nodded his thanks and walked to the door. He had just begun to open it when Tola spoke out again. “If that girl dies, I swear on Vanoc’s return I will never forgive you.”

Caldor didn’t look back, but as the door swung close, he replied, “Neither will I.”

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