Posted by Jennifer
“Andaran atish’an, Ancient One,” Hesthe said formally, bowing with a flourish of robes and thumping his staff loudly against the ground. Juillah frowned as the white-haired Keeper looked up. Even though no living elf could remember her as less than ancient, in some way she didn’t truly look old. Her face was unlined, her shoulders unbowed. She had come to this hidden clearing without even a guard, walking nearly a hundred miles to meet with the two elf mages. It was worrying that she now sat hunched over the fire as though she feared the shadows.
“Do not call me that,” she snapped. “Especially not here.”
Hesthe scowled, so Juillah stepped forward quickly. “We beg your pardon, Keeper.”
“Do not call me that, either. I’ve no wish to be reminded of my titles today. Call me Grandmother, if you must call me anything. Now, sit down and tell me your news.”
Juillah and Hesthe spread their robes and sat cross-legged on the ground, their staves across their laps. “It is much as you feared,” Hesthe said. “The weak places are spreading. Soon even the shemlen mages will be able to feel the disturbance.”
“That, we must avoid at all costs.”
Juillah shook her head. “It is only a matter of time before someone steps through. Our magic is not sufficient to disguise the pockets of flaw that are appearing throughout the mountains.”
“What will happen when the shems discover them?” Hesthe asked.
“There is no way of knowing,” Grandmother replied, sighing heavily. “There has been much disturbance among them over the past few decades. I fear they may be rash.”
“They are always rash,” Hesthe snorted.
“Not always,” Juillah corrected. “If they were, we would not still be alive, cousin.”
“They may not have done you any favors, da’len,” Grandmother intoned ominously. Juillah’s frown deepened.
“Enough of this, Grandmother,” Hesthe growled. “You set us this pointless task with no explanation. What does all of this mean? Is there a Blight coming?”
“There is a Blight coming,” Juillah whispered. “The Wardens are moving; you hear of it everywhere if you bother to listen. They stir like a hive of bees before a thunderstorm.”
“That’s as may be, but it is not our concern,” Grandmother announced.
“Not our concern?” Hesthe demanded. “A Blight not our concern? The last one was centuries ago. The Darkspawn will have grown strong while they waited.”
“It does not concern us because we may not even live to see it,” Grandmother intoned. “I had thought Keeper Zholon would explain the nature of your task to you more thoroughly. He is old enough to remember the last time the Veil spontaneously thinned in this manner.”
“Keeper Zholon is not well, Grandmother,” Juillah said. “He suffered a grave injury and may not survive. His apprentice was killed, also.”
“A landslide, we hear,” Hesthe said.
Grandmother scowled ferociously and the flames of her small fire spat green sparks for a moment. The trees and even the stones surrounding the clearing groaned and shook. Hesthe nudged aside a small sapling that reached out and plucked at his shoulder like a frightened child. “No landslide would touch Keeper Zholon,” Grandmother said. “Even the barest apprentice Keeper could feel such a disturbance in the earth minutes before it cut loose.” Her expression grew hard. “There is no one left to help us, then.”
Juillah glanced at Hesthe nervously. “Keeper Darana . . .”
“Darana is young and knows nothing. Best she remain in that state until she learns caution.” Juillah and Hesthe exchanged another glance. Keeper Darana was nearing sixty—she had been leading her clan for twenty years.
“Just how old is Keeper Zho—“ Hesthe began, shocked.
“Never you mind!”
“How old are you, Grandmother?!” he demanded.
“A great deal older than you will live to be if you do not learn patience,” Grandmother snapped.
“Forgive him, Grandmother,” Juillah said quickly. “We have not slept and Hesthe has borne most of the strain of our research.”
“Stop treating me like a child! I am sick of being ordered here and there and never told what I am doing or why!”
“You are a child!” Grandmother spat. “And I do not tell you because knowing will not help you, it will only teach you to fear and render you incapable of doing what must be done. I must gather the people and begin making preparations for a long winter immediately.”
“Winter?” Juillah asked. “It is hardly autumn yet.”
“The Winter will come swiftly and it will not leave voluntarily. Before, it was defeated by eight Keepers and the full force of the oncoming spring denied too long, but we have no other Keepers and no spring to aid us this time. The clans of the Wilds will not help us; they will be hard pressed to help themselves and they rely too much on their congress with the Witches. There is hardly a Keeper among them worthy of the title these days.”
“We should warn the humans, then,” Juillah said.
Hesthe scowled. “No, they must fend for themselves.”
“No, Juillah. Your cousin is right. Besides, if the Winter swallows them, so much the better. It will at least stop them making things worse.”
“We’ll go back to the mountains, then,” Hesthe said.
“No,” Grandmother told him sternly. “I have another task for you two. You must find my granddaughter. I had hoped she would find my grandson’s father, but I do not think there is enough time left.”