It’s cover reveal time! Today, we’re revealing the cover for Andrea Robertson’s Cast in Secrets and Shadows. Game of Thrones meets An Ember in the Ashes in the second book in this action-packed fantasy from Andrea Robertson, the internationally bestselling author of the Nightshade series.
Following the events of Forged in Fire and Stars, Ara has taken up her mantle as the Loresmith–but her journey is far from over. After suffering betrayals and losses, Ara, Nimhea, Lahvja, and Teth must try to come together and find the Loreknights across the kingdom. The Loreknights are their only hope in overthrowing the evil Vokkans and putting Nimhea on the throne for good. But their journey will put Ara and her companions in grave danger–from the endless pursuit of the Vokkans to perilous encounters with the gods, and the near impossible trials they face along the way–will they be able to survive long enough to help the rebellion?
And through it all the Vokkans are expanding their reach throughout Saetlund, putting everyone Ara and her friends love at risk. Only Ara can forge a way forward, take up her powers, and fight to change the world–no matter what it costs.
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Clangs of steel on steel announced the arrival of the blacksmith’s fate. Yos Steelring passed a borrowed quarterstaff from hand to hand, trying to grow accustomed to its weight and balance. It was a sorry replacement for his usual stave, having none of the life nor familiarity of that rare weapon. Nothing to be done about it. The Loresmith stave—better known by its storied name, Ironbranch—could not be among the Vokkans’ spoils, which meant Yos’s companion of so many years was far from the palace and his grip.
Sounds of battle were closer now, much closer. Worse than the ring and scrape of steel were the screams followed by wet, guttural moans. Yos knew that those who remained of the palace guard had attempted to barricade themselves behind broken furniture, blocking the path to the royal apartments. That pitiful bulwark must have fallen, leaving only Yos between the soldiers and their prize.
Despite his determination to hold his post, Yos couldn’t keep fear-borne doubt from wriggling into his thoughts.
Is there honor in laying down one’s life for a king who brought his people to ruin?
Yos ground his teeth at the question. Too many times he’d thought of what his life might have been outside of the palace and city of Five Rivers. The Loresmith hadn’t always served in court. Generations ago the Loresmith roamed the provinces of Saetlund, offering aid where it was needed and joining the Loreknights in times of trouble. Together, smith and warriors had quelled threats, thwarted invasions, and crushed enemies of the kingdom.
Yos shook his head, pinpointing the moment in history when it had all fallen apart. The moment that King Nirn made the fateful declaration centuries ago. Loreknights would no longer be chosen from among the people of each province, but would instead be appointed by the monarch and take their place at the royal court. With that decree, Nirn had riddled the foundation of Saetlund’s defenses with cracks. Those cracks had widened over the years, becoming fissures and faults.
Today the walls had crumbled.
Yos was close to sinking into despair.
He reminded himself it wasn’t the current fool of a king, Dentroth, behind the door over which he stood watch. The royal twin toddlers were innocent and deserved his protection. If all had gone as planned, they were no longer in the nursery at Yos’s back. They should be miles from the city in care of their guardians. Their destination: Port Pilgrim, a ship, and obscurity. The little princess and prince would be exiles, but they would be safe.
Yos continued to guard the room he hoped was now empty. Every minute he defended the door was another minute bought for the twins’ escape. He had prayed for their safety, but most of his pleas to the gods begged for the salvation of an unborn child and its mother.
A tear rolled down Yos’s cheek as he thought of his wife, Lira. It had been five years since they’d first met, but the memory of that day was so clear he felt like he could step into it.
He had been in the market district, on his way to the tanner’s. The time had come to retire his smithing apron, and he wanted an exact re-creation of the garment that had served him so well. Yos had been to the tanner’s before, but he took a wrong turn and found himself on a street he didn’t recognize.
“Are you lost, blacksmith?” A young woman was watching him from a few feet away. She had pale pink skin and sable hair that fell down her back in a single long plait.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on this street,” Yos admitted.
“That’s your loss,” she said, walking toward him. “The finest weaver in Saetlund has a shop on this street.”
He could see now that her eyes were lavender-gray, a shade he’d never seen before. “Your shop, I assume?”
She tsk’d. “My mother’s shop. Elke Silverthread. She creates exceptional fabrics. You could ask any of the ladies at court and they would tell you all their dresses are made of Silverthread fabrics.”
“Why do you think I’d know the ladies at court?” Yos’s face clouded. He wasn’t dressed for court. He’d come straight from his workshop, and his clothing showed it.
Buds of blush appeared on the woman’s cheeks. “I know who you are, Yos Steelring. My father is a blacksmith and a great admirer of your craft. He has pointed you out to me many times. And speaks of your generosity in sharing your knowledge with the guild, despite the king’s disapproval.”
“My thanks to your father for his kind words,” Yos said, feeling his own cheeks redden. He cleared his throat. “As you already have my name, may I ask yours?”
“I’m Lira,” she told him. “Lira Silverthread.”
“Lira.” For some reason, Yos could say nothing but her name. An awkward quiet stretched between them as he tried to remember how to speak. He couldn’t stop staring at her, and he was horrified by his uncouth behavior.
“Tanner!” he blurted.
Lira looked startled, and Yos hurried to say, “I was on my way to the tanner.”
“Ah.” She nodded. Her lips quirked as she returned his gaze.
“Come to the shop first,” Lira coaxed. “We will find the most beautiful scarf for your beloved.”
Yos was startled to find himself blushing again. “I don’t have a beloved.”
She smiled at him then, and Yos knew his heart would belong to no one else.
That first meeting led to a second, a third, and before Yos knew what was happening he found himself deeply in love. He wanted to marry her, but to do so would likely put them both at risk—Lira particularly.
For years, King Dentroth had been suggesting, loudly and often, that Yos should marry. The king had taken to ushering various high-born ladies into Yos’s company. He knew Dentroth was serious. Yos’s parents’ marriage had been arranged by the previous king. He believed King Dentroth would not go so far as to force him to marry, but he had no doubt the king would be furious if he married into a merchant family after rejecting the royal preferences.
Despite the risk, Yos and Lira did marry in secret, in the old way, at a shrine of Nava. They kept their marriage hidden from all but Lira’s parents. Even if the king had welcomed Lira to court and given their union his blessing, Yos knew Dentroth would lay claim to any child of the Loresmith. The line was hereditary. Neither Lira nor Yos was willing to hand their child’s fate over to the ruler of Saetlund.
Lira was six months pregnant with their first child when word of the Vokkan landings at Daefrit and Kelden reached the palace. Panic gripped the city. Given the state of Saetlund’s army and the size of the invading forces, Yos knew the enemy would reach Five Rivers within a week. Though he longed to flee the city with his wife, he couldn’t bear the dishonor of foreswearing his oaths. For three days, Yos and Lira had planned, debated, fought, and held each other until they came to an agreement. Those had been the worst three days of Yos’s life.
The Vokkan warriors appeared from the side corridor. They were laughing. Clapping one another on the shoulder. Smiling. Yos saw splashes of red on their lips and teeth.
Servants of the Devourer.
He imagined the royal toddlers mangled and bloody; he needed to give their guardians more time. With a ragged war cry, Yos made the second-hardest choice of his life. He charged at the blood-soaked soldiers.
Having waded through so many blades and bodies to reach this corridor, the Vokkans were taken aback by this lone man’s wild attack. Surely a person outnumbered ten to one would surrender rather than fight.
Their brief hesitation gave Yos the few seconds he required to sweep his quarterstaff through the first three soldiers, cracking skulls. He took some satisfaction in watching them crumple. Then, as he expected, a shudder swept through his limbs, followed by an emptiness that felt like grief.
“I am Loresmith no more,” he murmured. It would mean nothing to the invaders, so Yos had indulged the impulse to speak the words aloud.
He didn’t feel the sharpness of the first blade that pierced his abdomen, only a sudden pressure and the inability to draw breath.
Yos fell to his knees. Death blows came but didn’t surprise him, who had known that this would be the ending to his tale. His heart had already left this room, and his mind chased after it till both reached the same place. The memory of his wife’s face and his hand upon the roundness of her belly as the sun rose, after another sleepless night, when they agreed she must leave Five Rivers and go into hiding with her parents—taking Yos’s stave and their unborn child with her.
The hardest choice he had ever made. In saving their lives, he’d accepted the necessity of his own death.
Had he gone with them, they all would have been hunted. The Vokkans not only conquered lands, but had gained infamy for mining the mystic of each society they consumed. Emperor Fauld craved anything with a whiff of occult power; possessing the Loresmith of Saetlund had become his obsession. If the coveted blacksmith couldn’t be chased, Lira and Yos’s child would disappear. Lira would be safe in the anonymity of a tiny mountain village. Their baby would be cherished by a mother and grandparents. That knowledge brought Yos comfort.
His mind remained fixed there as his life drained onto the stone floor. He took no notice of the soldiers standing over him while his blood pooled at their feet.
The soldiers did not understand whom they had killed. They could not foresee their torment and death awaiting at the hands of their emperor. As they screamed and groaned and begged while Fauld the Ever-Living watched, they still did not grasp the reason for their suffering.
What the soldiers saw as a brief skirmish, the Vokkan emperor judged an intolerable failure. It mattered not that the soldiers had been following their orders—to find and seize the young royals at whatever cost—only that in doing so they had robbed their master of another treasure.
The twins’ escape gave Fauld ample reason to punish his men, though he had little concern for the toddlers who carried the blood of a pathetic king.
The emperor’s real rage at his soldiers reflected fury at himself he would never admit to, nor take responsibility for. Fauld had assumed that one man facing insurmountable odds would surrender. When his soldiers insisted that the man had attacked them and not the reverse, Fauld called them liars and ordered their execution. He couldn’t believe the Loresmith would raise arms against an enemy when it meant forsaking unfathomable power.
The soldiers’ slow deaths brought the emperor no succor. He had conquered the kingdom he so desired, but its most precious jewel had eluded him, and the truth of it gnawed upon his soul.
The Loresmith was no more.
Fifteen years later
By the time Ara’s fate came for her she’d stopped believing in it.
Outside the smithy a wintry wind shrieked ceaselessly. Gust-driven snow flew, swirled, and shuddered with each frigid blast. All the while beads of sweat formed on Ara’s forehead. Nothing existed for her but the forge, the anvil, the hammer, the heat.
Strike. Spark. Smoke.
To Ara it was a song, the smithing of metal.
Ring. Roar. Whisper.
Heat so intense it kissed the air with shimmering ripples.
Ara’s hammer met the smoldering metal. Iron alive with fire. Along with the vibrations from the hammer, Ara could feel that life, that burning force racing up fingertips, coursing into her arms, her shoulders, and finally, her heart, where it continued to dance to the rhythm of her craft.
That morning Ara had the smithy to herself. When great storms swept over the village, Old Imgar’s joints complained and kept him inside seeking relief using hot compresses.
Spring storms could be the most violent. Winter lashing out in its death throes. The blizzard at Ara’s back was a blinding one. The sort that necessitated following the rope, hand over hand, that stretched the short distance between her grandmother’s stone cottage and the smithy. On a summer day the walk from the front door to the forge would be no more than fifteen steps. A fool might assume those steps could be easily made without the rope guide. That fool would discover how easily the currents of snowdrifts pull a person from the safety of the shore. That fool would too late regret dismissing local tales of folk found frozen in place, shrouded by snow, only a few feet from shelter.
Ara was no fool. She’d been taught to revere nature’s power from the moment she could comprehend it. She knew everyone in the village would be huddled in their houses, taking comfort from a warm hearth and hot spiced tea.
She had no reason to peer into the white whirlwinds, searching for danger. She thought not of attuning her ears to sounds outside the smithy.
When shadowy figures moved within the blasts of ice and snow, Ara had not seen them. When footsteps sank into the deep powder banks forming along the walls of the smithy, Ara had not heard them. Nor had she sensed the presence of another joining her in the sweltering room.
Ara remembered the viselike arm around her waist and the damp cloth pressed over her nose and mouth, its cloying scent as she drew a startled breath. Then there had been only darkness.
Steady murmuring roused Ara from a swampy sleep. Perhaps a creek bubbling over sticks and pebbles. As her mind began to clear, Ara could pick out variations in the noise—breaks, hesitations. A rise and fall of pitch. Not running water.
Ara went rigid, but not with fear. Fear took time, demanded awareness. Ara hadn’t gotten past disbelief.
Has it happened? she thought. Has it actually happened?
She remembered that first warning from her grandmother. It had come on the eve of Ara’s fifth birthday.
“Ara.” Her grandmother had given Ara a wooden mug of warm milk, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon and pepper. “You’ve reached an age where there are things I must tell you. Some are very nice things. Others are unpleasant. There are too many things to say all at once, so tonight I’m going to tell you one nice thing and one not so nice thing.”
Ara still remembered the warmth of the milk in her belly, the way the spices tingled on her tongue and throat.
“What’s the nice thing?” she asked her grandmother.
The older woman smiled. “Your father left you a gift.”
With glances searching the room, Ara asked, “Where is it? Do you have it?”
“It isn’t something you can hold.” Her grandmother laughed gently. “It’s already inside you, waiting for you to learn how to use it.”
Little Ara looked down at her belly, giving it a curious poke. “Inside?”
“Your father’s gift is part of you,” her grandmother answered. “And will always be with you.”
Then the older woman’s face creased with regret. “Your father was meant to teach you about this gift, but your grandfather and I will begin teaching you in his place. You have much to learn.”
While Ara puzzled over how a gift could be something learned instead of an object, the lines in her grandmother’s face grew even deeper.
“It is now time for what is unpleasant,” she said with a sigh.
To Ara, it appeared her grandmother’s gray eyes suddenly turned a darker shade, like clouds heavy with rain.
“There are people who are jealous of your gift,” she told Ara. “Who want it for themselves. Your father died to keep them from taking it.”
A rock-hard lump lodged in Ara’s throat, and the milk in her stomach no longer felt so comforting.
“Did they kill my father because he wouldn’t give it to them?” Ara knew her father died fighting in the Vokkan conquest, but nothing beyond that fact.
Her grandmother’s lips pressed together. “In a way.”
“Do they want to kill me?” Tears pricked at Ara’s eyes, and she was ashamed that fear could so easily make her cry.
“No,” her grandmother said firmly, and she placed her hands on Ara’s shoulders. Ara was comforted until her grandmother added, “They want to take you.”
The memory hung in Ara’s mind, glaring and insistent, but she couldn’t accept that it was real. That everything she’d been told was true.
It can’t be, she argued with the past. There’s another explanation.
If you are ever taken, her grandmother had instructed, learn all you can before you act.
Perhaps that advice could get Ara out of this mess and back to the world she understood. After all, her kidnappers could be bandits taking advantage of the storm—though outlaws in the highlands were rare. Almost unheard of in winter.
She’d have no answers until she discovered where she was and who her captors were.
As far as Ara could tell, she wasn’t hurt aside from a dull ache at the back of her skull. Keeping still, Ara used her gaze to search the space. The air was hazy and irritated her eyes. A familiar scent told her woodsmoke was the culprit.
Above her, Ara could make out a rock ceiling. To her right, pale light barely reached her eyes, and a trickle of cool air touched her cheek. From her left side came a warm, flickering glow.
Outside to the right, fire to the left—Ara knew she was in a cave. But what cave?
In this storm, Ara doubted it could be far from Rill’s Pass. There were several caves to the north and west of the village.
The voices came from the direction of the fire. Ara risked turning her head, very carefully, to the right. Two cloaked figures: one hunched and huddled close to the flames, the second kneeling close by.
“We should have waited.” The kneeling person had a low female voice.
A reedy male voice replied. “I-i-i-it was ou-ou-our b-best ch-chance.” His teeth chattered so violently that Ara could barely make out his words.
Both sounded young—girl and boy rather than woman and man.
A low noise of disapproval came out of the girl’s throat. “You can’t be exposed like that. You’re too weak.”
“I-I-I’m fine,” he argued. “I j-just need t-t-tea.”
“It’s almost ready.” She sounded apologetic.
After wrapping her hand in cloth, the girl lifted a small kettle from the fire; then she uncorked a jar and tapped some of its contents into the kettle.
“P-pour me a cup,” the boy begged.
The girl didn’t look at him. “It has to steep.”
“P-please.” The desperation in his voice made Ara wince.
“This wasn’t worth the risk,” the girl said. “I don’t think she can be the one.”
Ara heard the sound of tea pouring into a cup.
“It has to be her,” the boy said. “There’s no one else.”
Maybe the cave was farther from Rill’s Pass than she thought. The boy’s pleas seemed evidence of the north’s cruelest punishments: purple-black toes that couldn’t be saved, clipped ears, and blunted noses. To thaw what could be saved, the sufferer had to endure a warm bath that felt like being boiled alive, so Ara had been told. Those were the warnings children received lest they underestimate the dangers of the dark season.
Despite her predicament, Ara found herself wishing she could help them. They spoke with an accent unfamiliar to her. Their fire had been poorly constructed and placed, so it lost heat quickly and smoked too much.
Ara’s brow crinkled as she watched the girl lift a wooden cup to the boy’s lips.
Why these two?
They didn’t look like bandits. Nor did they resemble any of the nightmares that had plagued Ara’s childhood. Her dreams had conjured hordes of Vokkan soldiers. Or worse, a Wizard of Vokk, murmuring spells over her bed.
Ara had never imagined the evil coming to take her would be a girl and a boy, shivering from the cold.
She considered running. Having the advantage of surprise, Ara could get a strong head start on the girl. The boy was in no condition to give chase.
The storm quashed Ara’s hope of escape. She might evade her captors, but she’d be as good as dead without a clear path home. She had no way of knowing when the blizzard would end. Spring squalls brought storms that came and went in the space of an hour, but also those that lingered for days. Ara hoped that this bout of weather would quiet before dusk. If she didn’t return home by dark, her grandmother would call a search. The whole of the village would risk their lives looking for Ara. She couldn’t bear the thought that anyone might be hurt on her behalf.
Ara eased onto her left side. The girl’s attention remained focused on the boy. Slowly, Ara pushed herself up to sitting and felt no twinges of pain nor the burn of frostbite. She was still wearing her leather apron, but had none of her tools. Searching around the space in her immediate reach, Ara found nothing that would serve as a weapon.
The nape of her neck tingled, the hairs there standing at sudden attention.
Ara looked back at the fire.
The girl was staring at her.
Ara moved into a crouch, muscles taut. Running might be futile, but it might also be her only choice.
The girl stood up. She was very tall. Something glinted in the firelight. Ara saw the sword hilt. The girl’s hand on it.
About to bolt, Ara was stopped by the boy’s abrupt lurching to his feet.
The girl abandoned her aggressive stance to steady the boy.
“Please,” he called again to Ara. “We need your help.”
When Ara didn’t move, the boy straightened. At full height, he was still a few inches shorter than the girl. His hair was a pile of soft brown curls that would not take kindly to a comb. He had wide, dark eyes.
“Take off your sword,” he said to the tall girl.
She gave him an incredulous look.
“Do it.” The boy’s voice could be very firm when he wanted it to be.
Grumbling, the girl unbuckled her sword then tossed the belt and scabbard aside.
Ara stood up, perplexed by the unfolding situation. “Who are you?”
Now that she faced them, Ara saw that both had umber skin and bore a strong resemblance to each other. Brother and sister?
They could not be bandits. Now that they stood in front of her, Ara could see their clothing beneath their cloaks. Instead of patched trousers and spotted shirts, this boy and girl wore belted tunics of fine wool, his dyed deep blue and hers a delicate shade of green. Their legs were clad in soft leather breeches, and the cut of their boots showed impeccable craftsmanship. No one in Ara’s life boasted such a luxurious wardrobe.
“My name is Eamon,” the boy said.
His voice was steady now. The tea had done its work. He looked at the girl with adoring eyes.
Her hands clasped opposite elbows and her body tightened. “Please don’t say it.”
“You know I have to,” he replied before rolling his shoulders back and addressing Ara. “This is my sister Nimhea, eldest child of Dentroth crowned by flame, son of Emrisa, daughter of Rea, daughter of Polit, son of Trin, son of Vinnea, daughter of Hessa, daughter of Imlo, son of Gright, son of Penla, daughter of Terr, son of Olnea—first of the Flamecrowned dynasty. Princess Nimhea, daughter of fire, heir to the River Throne of Saetlund. The—”
“There is no River Throne.” Ara’s voice was flat. Her bones felt hollow, as if they sensed Ara was about to be flooded with knowledge she didn’t want.
Nimhea’s expression shifted from hostile to curious, while a flustered Eamon groped for a response.
“Of course, after the conquest the Vokkans declared the end of Dentroth’s line,” Eamon said. “But that was—”
Ara cut him off again. “Why should I believe anything you’re saying?”
Eamon elbowed Nimhea.
“Really?” She gave him a sidelong glance that hinted of disdain.
When he gestured for her to act, she sighed then reached up and pushed back the hood of her cloak.
Ara had to stop herself from gasping.
Thick curls were caught back from Nimhea’s face, held by a gold cuff at the base of her skull. Its length fell to the small of her back in a sectioned twist held by three additional golden cuffs. The style was like nothing Ara had seen, but it was the color that held her gaze.
Nimhea’s hair glowed in the firelight; her locks had living flames within each strand. Red, gold, copper. Its hue was ever-changing. Mesmerizing. Made even more so by its contrast to her thundercloud eyes. Fire and storm.
Ara stared at the Nimhea’s long twist of flame-red hair. Something about it nagged her, like a word on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t recall.
Eldest child of Dentroth.
Ara’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Crowned by flame.”
Eamon beamed at her, but Nimhea pressed her lips together and averted her eyes.
Crowned by flame. It was a phrase that made Old Imgar snort with disgust or, if he was particularly irritable, spit.
“When folks decided only a special head o’ hair and a certain name made a king, that’s when Saetlund was doomed.”
Inevitably, the soured blacksmith would launch into a history lecture Ara had heard dozens of times before.
“Saetlund didn’t always have a hereditary monarch, you know. Did fine for centuries, with a king and queen chosen by the people,” Imgar would grumble, and return to work. That hadn’t meant he’d stop talking. “Then there was the provincial council. Also chosen by the people. Their job to make sure the king and queen kept the good of all the provinces at the fore.”
At that point Old Imgar would stop and jab whatever tool was in his hand at Ara to get her attention. “You know why it all fell apart?”
He never let her answer.
“Because people are greedy bastards.” He continued to jab the air in front of Ara. “Had to ruin a perfectly good kingdom. Nava’s wrath upon them, I say. She knows they deserve it. Now where are those nails I asked for, girl?”
Ara had heard Imgar’s rant so many times she could recite it word for word. Those greedy bastards he hated so much. They were Nimhea’s bloodline. Eamon’s too.
The thought of Imgar getting the chance to jab tools and lecture at them filled Ara with a mad desire to laugh. But the stark reality of the situation quelled her glee before it could make any sound.
Ara didn’t know if the Flamecrowned Dynasty had always been corrupt. Or if the seed of deceit planted at its origin had simply sprouted through generations, roots going deeper and deeper. By the time of Ara’s birth, most of Saetlund accepted that it had always been that way. Only curmudgeons like Imgar railed against the system. And curmudgeons tended to be cursed at, then ignored.
How the first king and queen of that line had ensured that their child would be the next to take the throne, Ara wasn’t sure. Nor did she know the details of how, over time, all key positions in the government—including the Provincial Council—became royal appointments. She’d heard court at the Five Rivers palace consisted almost exclusively of citizens from Sola and Ofrit.
Ara did recall reading that the name Flamecrowned wasn’t coined until five generations into their rule; a result of that striking shade of red appearing with regular frequency in the royal nursery. It was widely acknowledged—to the point of being mentioned in history books—that in subsequent generations a few Dentroth monarchs had used crushed beetle shells and ochre to coax their tresses toward the royal hue.
What stood out the most clearly in Ara’s mind was the reason Imgar had such vitriol for Dentroth and his ancestors. They’d let their kingdom bloat, allowed its bones to become weak and brittle. When the enemy arrived, Saetlund could do nothing but collapse.
There was no restoration. No revolt against the Vokkan Empire.
How could there be when the heir to the throne had been lost? But here she was.
More importantly, the Loresmith was gone. Would never return—so most of Saetlund believed.
But the truth coursed through Ara’s veins. The blood of her father, who had been slain by the empire. She had the potential to become the next Loresmith.
I have the chance to know my father, she thought, and trembled when sorrow and anticipation mingled within her. The only way to know who he was and what he died for.
There was only one reason the children of Dentroth would come to a village this small and remote.
Ara hadn’t wanted to accept she’d been taken. But something more astounding had happened. She’d been found.
Nimhea and Eamon tethered the horses to a tree behind the cottage where Ara lived with her grandmother. It had taken arguing, cajoling, and finally outright demanding that the royal twins should return to Rill’s Pass with Ara. Despite her assurances to Nimhea that everyone in the village could be trusted, Ara admitted it would be better if no one spotted strangers for now. They entered the cottage through the cellar. In the dark, Ara guided their way around shelves, casks, and crates. Eamon kept one hand on Ara’s shoulder, and Nimhea held on to Eamon’s shoulder to avoid obstacles.
Ara’s pulse quickened as she climbed the stairs. A heaviness on her chest was making it hard to breathe. She had the overwhelming sense that everything in her life was about to change. It felt like impending doom.
She opened the cellar door and stepped into the larder. It was almost as dark as the basement.
Ara heard a familiar whistling, and instinct made her drop to a crouch.
Crack! The sound of splintering wood came from above and to the right.
“Grandmother! It’s me!”
“Ara?” Her grandmother sounded relieved, but annoyed. “Why are you creeping up the steps like a thief?”
“I have a good reason,” Ara said defensively. “I’m not alone.”
She moved away from the doorframe. “It’s all right; you can come up.”
Eamon edged into the room, followed by Nimhea, who had half drawn her sword.
Ara’s grandmother huffed, squinting in the dim light. “Who are they?”
“Let’s go to the hearth,” Ara said. “I can barely see.”
“Why do you think I nearly clubbed you?” Her grandmother shoved something into her hands. “Take this.”
The familiar weight of Ironbranch was both comforting and jarring. Her fingers closed around the stave that lay at the heart of everything she feared and hoped for.
Ara’s grandmother was already hanging a kettle over the hearth when Ara led Eamon and Nimhea into the room.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” Ara’s grandmother told the twins. “Let no one claim Elke Silverthread is a poor hostess.”
Eamon whispered the name as if it were sacred. “Silverthread.”
“That’s the family name,” Elke replied as she measured tea leaves into mugs. She cast a sidelong glance at Ara. “They don’t know your name?”
Slumping into a chair, Nimhea said to Eamon, “I told you this was a fool’s errand.”
“No.” Eamon shook his head. “I’m not wrong about this, I’m not. I told you, Silverthread is one of the names I looked for.”
“But not the name,” Nimhea snapped. Then she snarled at Ara. “Let me guess, you withheld your name because you’re loyal to the Vokkans. Will you send for Emperor Fauld’s cronies now?” She laughed harshly. “That’s fine. I’m too tired to do anything about it.”
Nimhea’s words shook Ara. The princess looked like she’d lost a battle; her face was drawn with exhaustion. All the fight had gone out of her.
Eamon knelt by his sister. “Don’t say that.”
Ara’s grandmother was holding a steaming mug and staring at the twins. Color leached from her cheeks.
“It can’t be.” Elke’s hand began to tremble.
Turning to look at the old woman, Eamon went from crestfallen to hopeful. As he gazed at Ara’s grandmother his eyes filled with fiery resolve.
“You know,” Eamon said quietly.
Elke opened her mouth then closed it again.
“Nimhea.” Eamon said the name like it was an order.
Nimhea slowly straightened in her chair, looking from her brother to Elke. “Are you sure?”
Reaching up, Nimhea pulled her hair free of its covering.
Ara’s grandmother gasped. The ceramic mug shattered when it hit the floor.
“Grandmother!” Ara rushed to the older woman’s side, worried her grandmother might have been scalded by the splatter of tea.
Elke didn’t react when Ara put an arm around her shoulders. She continued to stare at Nimhea.
Witnessing Nimhea’s revelation a second time, Ara understood why the princess doubted Ara was the Loresmith. Nimhea was everything an heir to the throne should be: tall with a proud bearing and a ready sword hand. She was statuesque in figure and observed everything around her with falcon’s focus.
Ara was none of these things. The twins likely expected a brawny mountain youth with a broad back and muscles that strained the stitching of his shirtsleeves. Instead they’d come across a girl who was petite, but her stature belied her strength. Ara’s hair didn’t rival the fires of a forge. Her locks were dark as coal and always worn in intricate braids that kept her safe from the odd spark and were a herald of Fjeri highland traditions. Her skin never glowed like deep bronze in candlelight. She was pale as ice except for the perpetual slap of windburn on her cheeks, proving she’d danced with mountain gales.
The cottage door burst open. “Elke!”
Old Imgar’s thick beard and bushy eyebrows were crusted with ice. “Something’s happened to Ara. The smithy’s a disaster!”
He stopped, taking in the scene. “Gods.”
Nimhea was on her feet, all signs of despondence gone. She eyed Imgar warily.
“Friend.” Ara threw the word at Nimhea. Imgar’s craggy face, mad hair, and hulking shape could easily be taken as a threat.
“Imgar,” Ara’s grandmother spoke commandingly. “Close the door and lock it.”
The old man did Elke’s bidding, then shrugged off his cloak.
A flash of metal caught Ara’s eye. It wasn’t the ax Imgar took with him when he went south to fell trees. Ara hadn’t seen this ax before. She immediately wanted to hold it, examine it. From across the room she could tell it was very fine. Not an ax made for chopping wood. But how had Old Imgar come to possess such an ax? He certainly didn’t craft such fine weapons at his forge.
It’s not the name. Nimhea’s words sounded in Ara’s mind, and she knew the time for hiding has passed.
She stepped forward, facing Nimhea and Eamon. “My name is Ara Silverthread. My father’s name was Yos Steelring.”
Eamon drew a sharp breath. “I knew it was you.” His whole body seemed to vibrate with silent exultation.
Nimhea’s gaze revealed nothing, but she responded to Ara’s words with a slow half smile. “Then we have a lot to talk about.”
Dusting off any shock she felt, Ara’s grandmother returned to directing her household.
“Ara, collect everyone’s cloaks and hang them,” Elke ordered. “Imgar, clean up this mess at my feet, then bring in the bedroom chairs. After that go to the cellar and fetch a cask of mead. I don’t think tea will suffice.”
Imgar grumbled, “Maybe something stronger than mead.”
“Mead will do,” Elke said firmly.
Out of habit, the two of them set about Elke’s tasks.
As Ara hung cloaks, she almost laughed at the banality of it. Her life had been upended, but some things—like following her grandmother’s orders without question—hadn’t changed at all. She didn’t think they ever would. Ara tucked that little truth away, knowing she could call on it if needed.
A few moments later the five of them had gathered near the warm hearth, wooden cups of mead in their hands.
Old Imgar lifted his cup. Ice had fallen from his beard in chunks, revealing the gray-streaked, dark brown hair beneath. “To Saetlund.”
“To Saetlund,” the rest of them echoed.
After draining his cup, Imgar said to Nimhea, “We had no word you were crossing the sea. Why is that?”
Ara sat up straight. What Imgar had just said implied that he should have known the twins would arrive in Rill’s Pass. And that meant he’d been in contact with them before.
For how long? Ara wondered. And why had neither Imgar nor her grandmother talked about Nimhea and Eamon’s existence as other than something hoped for?
Nimhea’s eyes shifted to her brother.
“Our friends don’t know we’re here,” Eamon told Imgar. “We still plan to rendezvous with them at the designated time and place.”
Imgar’s heavy brow rose in surprise. “A bit risky that . . . venturing north on your own.”
Straightening, Nimhea met the old man’s eyes with defiance. “We’ve proven we’re capable by making it here.”
Ara recognized the look on Old Imgar’s face. He hadn’t made a judgement about Nimhea yet. Imgar usually took the measure of a person in the first moments after meeting. His indecisiveness about the princess confused Ara.
So Imgar hasn’t been communicating with the twins, Ara decided. But he’s been in contact with the rebellion.
She’d expected clarity from her grandmother and Imgar. Instead, things were getting murkier.
Imgar nodded, but his eyes showed doubt. “Why don’t they know you’re here?”
“It’s my fault,” Eamon rushed to answer. “I’ve been working on something independent of our main efforts—I’ve kept it to myself. I wanted to be sure before . . .”
His attention fell on Ara.
“You came looking for Ara,” her grandmother finished. “How did you know where to find her?”
A slight blush colored Eamon’s cheeks. “I combed through everything I could find on the fall of the River Throne. The people who raised us have contacts at Saetlund’s universities. They were able to get me copies of letters, diaries, and personal notes that were salvaged from the palace.”
Throwing an apologetic look at Ara, he continued, “Yos and Lira did their best to hide their relationship, but I found bits of gossip about Yos avoiding the marriage King Dentroth wanted to make for him. One rejected noble lady had a servant follow Yos to the merchant quarter. The spy didn’t witness anything to confirm a secret rendezvous, but the lady did note in her diary that Yos had visited the Silverthread weavers’ shop.”
“That’s a tiny piece on the way to completing a puzzle,” Elke remarked.
“I chased after any clue I found,” Eamon said with a shrug. “Most didn’t lead me anywhere. But that jilted woman’s brief pursuit of Ara’s father was enough to have me send someone to Rill’s Pass looking for a girl with the name Steelring. They reported back that there was no Steelring, but they had found a girl of the right age being raised by her grandmother—whose name was Silverthread.”
“You sent a spy to our village?!”
Cold grasped Ara’s throat, making it hard to swallow. A diary. A jotted sentence.
“As far as they knew,” Eamon continued, “Ara could never become a true Loresmith. Her father died in the conquest; thus, she had no one to teach her. When he died, the line died.”
“But that’s true,” Ara interjected. Her initial excitement at the possibility of taking on her father’s role had been tempered by the doubts she’d been harboring of late. She couldn’t become Loresmith without a teacher. No ordinary blacksmith could pass on the knowledge that had been lost with her father. That fact had been at the center of her souring on anything to do with her supposed fate.
“It was true.” Eamon moved to the edge of his seat. He looked so eager, Ara worried he might jump on her like an excited puppy. “But I’ve spent years looking for an answer to the problem, and I found one.”
“Years?” Imgar sized up Eamon. “You’re hardly more than a child.”
“He has spent years on this research,” Nimhea shot back. “I was there.”
Eamon offered his sister a grateful smile. “And I’m not a child; we’re eighteen.”
Ara puzzled at Eamon not being able to say his age without including his twin.
“You know a way for Ara to come into her power?” Elke’s voice was shaky.
Placing her hand over her grandmother’s, Ara asked, “Do you feel unwell?”
Elke shook her head. “Not at all. It’s just . . . this is all I’ve ever hoped for. And everything I’ve always feared.”
“It could make an all-out rebellion viable.” Imgar scratched his beard, and more ice plunked onto the floor. “The Loresmith was the spoke around which the Loreknights turned, serving as the bridge between the gods and their chosen warriors. The Loresmith not only forged god-touched weapons, but also guided the Loreknights—the heart and spirit of all they represented. If Ara brought back the Loreknights, it would provide Saetlund a near invincible force. The only real chance of driving out the empire.”
Ara’s pulse quickened. The gathering of Loreknights was where many of her favorite fireside tales began. How astonishing it would be to take counsel with the gods and seek out the most worthy. She suddenly felt a longing for that life.
“How?” Elke demanded of Eamon. “How could my granddaughter become Loresmith?”
Eamon quailed slightly at the force of her question. “I’m still working out the specificities, but, in short, she needs to petition the gods.”
Silence overtook the room. Even the fire appeared to die down.
Ara’s throat closed. Petition the gods? Such a thing isn’t possible.
A chiding voice in her mind pointed out that Ara had little business declaring what was and was not possible considering the current state of affairs. She was finding it hard to sit still. Her limbs were abuzz with these new revelations.
“I found the solution within the origin of the Loresmith,” Eamon continued nervously. “There are clues distributed through all the myths and legends. If you know what to look for they read like instructions from the gods.”
“You know the tale?” Elke asked softly. “An old story, that is.”
“I studied as many legends of Saetlund as I could,” Eamon replied. “I had to.”
Ara’s grandmother nodded. “I’d like to hear that story and I’d like you to tell it.”
“But—” Ara began. She stopped when Imgar gave a brief shake of his head.
The request made no sense at all. Ara knew the story by heart because she’d heard it so many times. From Elke. She wished she could speak to Eamon alone and ask every question she had. But Ara had been raised to respect her elders, so she held her tongue and sat on her hands to keep her fidgeting in check.
Eamon cleared his throat and began to speak:
In the first era, Saetlund’s people prospered and the world was good.
The abundance was so great, it drew another god to the land.
The gods of Saetlund knew him, for he was their kin. Vokk, also called the Devourer, had not yet claimed a land or people for his own. He had searched the universe, but none had pleased him.
The gods gathered to greet their brother.
“We welcome you, Vokk,” Eni said.
Vokk smiled his spike-toothed smile. “I thank you for your welcome.”
“Why have you come to us?” Ayre and Syre asked, their light and dark always shifting, changing places.
“Stop that,” Vokk complained. “You have always made me dizzy with your inconstant being.”
“It is their nature,” said Wuldr. The god of the hunt put his hand on the head of Senn, his great hound, to keep the beast from bristling. “Now tell us, brother, what has brought you here?”
Vokk sighed a heavy sigh, and the mountains trembled with his sorrow. “I have traveled the universe and found no people to call my own. I long for purpose. I see your people and my heart fills with envy.”
“We are humbled by your admiration,” Eni replied.
“It is I who should be humbled,” Vokk told Eni. “To gaze upon my kindred’s works and witness their mastery.”
The gods murmured their thanks, but they were not at peace.
Vokk continued to speak. “I have looked beyond your land and know that this world is broad and deep and has many other lands you have not claimed.”
“We need nothing more than this land, these people,” said Nava, her abundant form rippling like fields of wheat as she moved.
“I marvel at your contentment.” Vokk bowed deeply to her. “My only wish is to find the same.”
He paused, stretching his taloned fingers. “I beg your leave, my kin, to claim the great continent on the opposite side of your world. The land is mountainous and harsh, its people are lost and need strength and tenacity to survive. I would help them, should it not displease you.”
The gods of Saetlund knew one another’s minds, and Eni spoke for all of them.
“We grant your wish, Vokk,” Eni pronounced. “May you find your purpose in guiding the people of the great continent of this sphere.”
“You are generous and I thank you.” Vokk bowed once more and was gone.
At the tale’s outset, Eamon had been focused and alert. Now his eyes were half closed. His words flowed in a steady rhythm.
With their brother departed, the gods were troubled.
Ofrit, with his shrewd mind, voiced what the others feared. “A neighbor like Vokk will not forever stay away.”
“He hungers for war and conquest,” the Twins said as one. “If he cannot be sated, he will surely devour all the peoples of this world.”
Nava spoke. “We could not deny him. He is our kin.”
“It is true,” Eni said. “We could not deny him. But we also cannot leave our people at risk.”
The gods had shaped their followers toward a kingdom of cooperation and peace, discouraging any passion for battle and blood. Saetlund’s people knew not how to make war.
“How do we help them?” asked Ayre and Syre. “To make them warlike would be to cut the bonds that tie us. We would no longer be gods of this land.”
“We do not need to make warriors of them,” Ofrit told the others. “Our gift to them must be one of defense. A bastion to stay Vokk should his hunger for this land overwhelm him.”
The gods agreed that Ofrit’s suggestion was good; thus the Loresmith came to be.
Eni searched the world for a person who embodied the best aspects of the gods:
The wisdom of the Twins.
The steadfastness of Wuldr.
The cleverness of Ofrit.
The generosity of Nava.
And Eni’s own curiosity and cunning.
They were all leaning toward Eamon, enraptured by his telling.
In the land of Vijeri, Eni found a boy. The youngest of five siblings, who longed to know the world beyond his village. The boy’s heart was true, his mind sharp, his curiosity boundless.
The gods visited this boy’s dreams and told him what he must do to fulfill a great purpose.
Thus, the boy began his great journey: seeking and finding each of the gods to receive their wisdom in turn. To aid and instruct him, Ofrit and Eni together crafted the boy a stave infused with their magic and named it Ironbranch. When they gifted Ironbranch to the boy, they told him thusly:
He would become the first Loresmith, forger of weapons blessed by the gods, the wellspring of Saetlund’s defense against all enemies.
The Loresmith’s skill would surpass that of all blacksmiths, but must never forge a weapon for themself. They would manifest the protection of the gods in the form of weapons and armor, but must not be lured by the power begotten in battle, nor be consumed by vengeance, nor driven by rage. The Loresmith must shun violence and champion restoration. Should the Loresmith strike with a weapon, except in defense, their power would be taken from them.
The wielders of the Loresmith’s great weapons would be chosen by the people, two from each province of Saetlund, and they would be called Loreknights—only these ten chosen could wield weapons forged by the Loresmith. The Loreknights became the invincible defenders of the people.
But neither Loresmith nor Loreknights would be immortal. All would live and die as the universe demands, but the gods-gifted protection would carry on with each new generation.
The Loresmith’s legacy would be their children, one of whom would be named heir to the gods’ gift, and taught the secrets of their divine craft.
The ritual of choosing two Loreknights from each province would continue, binding all the peoples of Saetlund together and to the gods.
In this way the great heroes of Saetlund were created.
After Eamon’s last words came a long quiet. Ara sat very still, her eyes on the fire. Her mind transfixed by the story. Why did it suddenly feel as if she’d heard it for the first time?
Eni found a boy . . . who longed to know the world beyond his village.
I’m the same, Ara thought. More than anything I’ve wished to leave the bounds of Rill’s Pass. I have longed to know the world.
The flames in the hearth blazed. Amid the spikes of orange and gold, Ara saw a picture formed of smoke and shadow. A smith at the anvil. She heard each strike of hammer upon iron. The smith paused, as if knowing that Ara watched. When the smith turned and met her gaze, Ara saw her own face.
Father? Ara’s throat closed.
A small sound caught Ara’s attention. Her grandmother had been watching her. Elke’s hand covered her mouth—the source of the little noise.
“You understand now,” her grandmother said softly.
Ara nodded, but she didn’t, not completely. She did understand that her path was now the path of the Loresmith and that her father wanted her to follow in his stead. The consequences of that understanding were unknowable.
“I will not deny the power of this tale.” Imgar scratched his thicket of a beard. “But the gods have faded from Saetlund. How can Ara petition them when they’ve left us?”
“I believe it’s possible to find them,” Eamon answered.
“How? Where are they?” Elke said with a gasp.
Eamon started to speak, but Imgar cut him off.
“No.” The sun having set, only the firelight reached Old Imgar’s face, enhancing the deep crevices time had worn into his features.
“The less we know the better,” Imgar said. He pointed a finger at Nimhea. “That goes for your allies, too. Until it’s fulfilled, Ara’s task must be kept quiet.”
“I can accept that,” Nimhea replied, but her forehead crinkled. “You know more about the rebellion than I would have expected. Who are you?”
Old Imgar grinned at her. “An old man with opinions that some people want to listen to.”
Nimhea pursed her lips, unsatisfied with his answer, but Imgar offered nothing further. Giving up on that front, she said, “To make our rendezvous we’ll need to leave tomorrow.”
Nodding, Imgar said, “We can provision you for the journey.”
“Imgar.” Ara’s grandmother gestured to the twins. “Take them to the inn. Mol and Hiffa will see that they’re fed and have a comfortable place to sleep.”
The old man nodded. “Get your cloaks and follow me.”
Nimhea and Eamon did as they were bidden.
Ara leaned toward Imgar and whispered, “The horses are in the stand of pines behind the house.”
Imgar winked at her and trudged out the door.
Ara watched him go, letting out a long sigh.
“You’re troubled.” Elke had been eyeing her granddaughter. “You’re at a crossroads; a young person finding the way to live life on their own terms.”
“Except I can’t.” Ara frowned. “That’s what fate is, isn’t it? I’m not in control of my future.”
Her grandmother shrugged. “I don’t think of it that way. The gods always give us a choice. They didn’t want to be forgotten. But they were. Because we had the freedom to stop believing. I often think of how great their sorrow must be. To be loved and then abandoned is a terrible thing.”
Ara pondered her grandmother’s words. She’d only considered the gods for their marvelous feats and incredible powers. It hadn’t occurred to her that gods could be vulnerable, even heartbroken. She also saw grief that must equal the gods’ etched upon her grandmother’s papery skin. There had been so much loss in Elke’s life. Five years after Ara’s father died a great fever swept across Saetlund, taking both Elke’s daughter and her husband. She’d been left to raise a child on her own.
“You can choose not to be the Loresmith,” Elke continued. “Whatever tasks the gods set before you, only you can complete or turn away from.”
“But that would be selfish,” Ara replied. “The Loresmith serves the people! If I become the Loresmith, I’m not just Ara Silverthread. A part of me belongs to the gods.”
With a quiet laugh, her grandmother said, “I take issue with the idea that there is anything mundane or lacking in being ‘just Ara Silverthread.’ I know no matter the choices you make, you will always do right by your family and honor the gods.”
Ara’s face heated. She was ashamed of doubting the stories and for losing faith in the gods.
“You know,” Elke whispered, “I don’t think the gods are going to hold that against you. I know I won’t.”
That made Ara laugh, despite being embarrassed that her feelings were so plain.
“I confess,” her grandmother said, “I prayed that this day wouldn’t come.”
Ara stepped back, not believing what she’d heard. “No you didn’t.”
“I did.” Elke was nodding. “Accepting the role of Loresmith is an incredible honor. It’s also a burden that most people couldn’t bear. I would never wish such a difficult life on my granddaughter.”
“But you always taught me about the necessity of the Loresmith,” Ara countered. “You told me it was a gift.”
“It is a gift,” her grandmother replied. “But gifts from the gods are complicated. Nothing guarantees a life of ease or happiness. It would have been simpler if you could remain in Rill’s Pass, marry, and surround me with great-grandchildren. That was the bliss I wanted for you.”
Ara’s heart swelled even as her thoughts were muddled. She had always known her grandmother loved her, but this dream for her, imagining that should could thrive in a simpler life, made that love palpable.
Taking her grandmother’s hand, Ara said, “I want to become the Loresmith.”
“And that’s why you will.” Elke squeezed her fingers.
Old Imgar stomped back into the room, clearing his throat loudly. “Don’t mean to interrupt.”
“Of course you do, old man,” Elke said tartly, and released Ara’s fingers.
Ara felt a bit of relief at Imgar’s return. The well of emotions raised in the last few minutes was deep enough to drown in. She was thankful as well for the reminder that she wouldn’t be leaving her grandmother alone. Imgar had arrived in Rill’s Pass the summer after Elke had buried her daughter and husband. Taking Ara’s grandfather’s place as the village blacksmith, Imgar became a fixture in both of their lives.
Ara knew he’d been in the war, her grandmother told her as much, and he had scars on his neck and arms that hadn’t come from a smithy. It had been obvious her grandmother knew him through some past connection, but she never explained how.
When Ara asked, Elke simply replied, “Another life.”
For his part, Imgar carved out a place for himself in the village as a cantankerous bachelor who was good with a hammer. After a day’s work at the forge he invited himself to supper in Elke’s cottage and complained about the aches in his joints. That irked Ara’s grandmother, given that Imgar was ten or more years her junior, so she’d taken to calling him “old man.” The first time little Ara had called him “Old Imgar,” Elke and Imgar laughed until tears leaked from their eyes. The name stuck.
Imgar had stuck too. He’d been something in between father and grandfather as Ara grew. He’d taught her as much, if not more, about lore and the gods as her grandmother had. While Elke trained Ara with Ironbranch, Imgar had taken her deep into the highlands to seek out hidden shrines. He taught her to hunt and trap, all the while showing her how to honor Wuldr. She learned winter camping and wilderness survival at Imgar’s side, and he shared stories of Eni, who watched over all travelers.
When Ara had proclaimed she would soon make the pilgrimage to the Well sacred to the twins—and set high among the cliffs of the highlands’ tallest peaks—Elke had given Imgar the responsibility of explaining to the enthusiastic, if naive, young girl that such a trip was ill advised. At least for the time being.
She would miss him. Even his grumpiness. But Ara didn’t want to show him. She’d had enough of sentiment for one day. She didn’t mind sentiment, but it was draining.
Ara crossed her arms over her chest and rounded on an unsuspecting Imgar.
“Why aren’t you angry at them?”
“Angry at who?” Imgar poured himself a cup, then looked at Elke. “Another?”
“No thank you,” she replied.
When he turned to Ara, Elke shook her head. “None for her either. I won’t have my granddaughter miserable when she rides out of Rill’s Pass. I’ll make some tea.”
Ara wasn’t bothered by her grandmother’s insistence on tea. The flurry of thoughts in Ara’s mind wouldn’t be helped by the fuzziness of drink.
“I can’t remember a day when you didn’t complain about King Dentroth,” Ara told Imgar. “I could list every reason you said he was a terrible king.”
Imgar dropped into a chair with his cup of mead and set the cask at his feet. “He was a terrible king.”
“Then why are you helping his children?” Ara asked.
“I don’t know his children.” Imgar took a swallow of mead. “I won’t judge the princess and prince until I know who they truly are—no matter how badly their father behaved.”
With a nod, Ara said, “I suppose that’s fair.”
“I think so.” He smiled slowly. “But that’s not the whole reason I’m going easy on them.”
Ara recognized the gleam of mischief in Old Imgar’s eyes.
Stretching his feet toward the fire, Imgar said, “Overthrowing the Vokkans is no small feat. It won’t happen if we only have a like-minded group of people, even if it’s enough to form an army. People need something to follow. A symbol of what was taken from them.”
“Nimhea,” Ara said.
“The hardest part of forming the Resistance,” Imgar said, “is finding a way to unify four provinces that have been driven apart. That’s why they need the heir to the River Throne. That’s why they need you.”
Ara considered that before returning to a point Imgar had raised before. “Does the Resistance have enough like-minded people for an army?”
He gave Ara a long look. While she’d known of the rebellion, Imgar had always dodged any specific questions about his allies.
Imgar nodded as if he’d come to an agreement with himself and took a long drink from his cup.
“No,” he admitted. “There are rebel militias in each province—most have committed to the Resistance, some still operate independently. It’s another reason we need the twins. We hope their return, once it’s revealed, will significantly increase our ranks.”
“Aren’t you worried Nimhea will turn out like her father as soon as she’s taken the throne?” Ara accepted a mug of tea from her grandmother, who snuggled into a fur-laden chair on the other side of the hearth.
“I’ve plenty to worry about before we come to that question.” Imgar snorted. “If we get there.”
“Don’t scare her,” Elke chided.
Imgar scrunched his face up. “Honesty can be scary.”
Elke sighed and sipped her tea.
After another slug of mead, Imgar told Ara, “What you’re forgetting is that Nimhea isn’t taking her place in an unbroken dynasty. She has to lead a revolution. That will forge a different kind of ruler. The better kind.”
“How do you know that?” Ara countered.
Old Imgar grunted as he bent down to retrieve the cask.
“Imgar, your liver,” Elke said pointedly.
“Don’t you remember that I replaced my old liver with an iron one years ago?” Imgar waggled his eyebrows at her as he filled his cup.
“You’re impossible,” Elke said with exasperation.
He feigned sorrow. “And here I thought I was brimming with the possible.”
She ignored him, and he looked at Ara. “How are you feeling about all this?”
“I’m not sure,” Ara admitted.
“That’s very sensible of you,” Imgar said. “Tell me about the things you’re less sure about.”
It was a relief to have permission to voice her doubts. “Traveling. The twins appear . . . unseasoned when it comes to a long journey.”
Imgar nodded. “You’ll catch them up.”
“I don’t know—” Ara was confident in her own skills, but she’d seen how ill-suited Nimhea and Eamon were for traveling rough.
“I do,” Imgar stopped her. “I taught you myself. You have all the skills you need to turn those two into rangers.”
Ara laughed and spilled some of her tea. Elke clucked her tongue and went to get a rag.
“What else are you worried about?” Imgar pressed.
“Everything.” Ara took the damp rag her grandmother offered and mopped up tea.
“Here’s my advice about that.” Imgar dragged his feet away from the hearth and sat up straight. “The world is made to drown people. It’s the ocean. Don’t swim out there. Take your problems one puddle at a time.”
“One puddle at a time,” Ara repeated. She liked the sound of that.