The first thing that struck me when I entered what I’d come to think of as Rolf’s study was that there was parchment everywhere. I wish that were an exaggeration, but it was on every possible surface of the stone room—tables, walls, benches, and floor included.
The second thing that struck me was that Rolf looked like his blood pressure was just short of stroke-level. His face was purple, his temple veins were standing out and throbbing, and he was pacing, kicking stacks of parchment with reckless abandon as he went.
Wynne, on the other hand, sat on a stool in the corner, studying him coolly. I could tell by the way her arms were clamped tightly to her chest that she was irritated, at the very least. Future couples therapy, I thought. I bet they don’t even realize they’re in love with each other.
It took me a minute to realize they were both staring at me in awkward silence. I shuffled my feet and cleared my throat. "The angry girl with the fussy and borderline psychotic attitude said you wanted to see me?"
Both of them seemed momentarily caught off guard Wynne leveled an amused gaze at me.
"I see the two of you didn’t exactly hit it off."
"No, I don’t think we did. As a matter of fact, Kieran seems to think she’s likely to set me on fire while I sleep. That’s super comforting, just so you know. I love knowing some crazy chick wants to murder me when I’m at my most vulnerable."
"Ah," Rolf murmured, struggling for an appropriate response to the scathing bitterness of my rant.
Wynne stood and closed the distance between us, wrapping her arm around my shoulders in a soothing, motherly gesture. "We probably should have warned you about her...fixation on Sam. I should also have told you about Sam’s tendency to flirt with everything female who moves. When you combine that with the fact that Sam is utterly oblivious to the fact that Tamara is a wee bit obsessed with him, it can cause volatile situations for whoever Sam is focused on at the moment. It will pass. Sam never focuses for long."
I pursed my lips, searching for an answer that wasn’t overwhelmingly sarcastic or filled with pure meanness, and it took me a couple of minutes to find one. "First of all, I wasn’t even aware that Sam was ’flirting’ with me. If I’d noticed, I would have done something to discourage it. Second, has anyone ever thought about correcting this behavior in either Sam or Tamara? Having to work with her is going to be very uncomfortable for me if this crap continues. Third, was there an actual reason you sent for me, or am I just here for kicks and giggles?"
It took me a while to realize I’d fallen into a defensive, cross-armed stance, but I forced myself to drop my arms to my sides. I huffed out a frustrated breath and forced myself to relax my stance as I waited for them to respond.
Rolf was the first to gather himself. "I called you here because I discovered this cache of parchment in a previously unexplored cavern within the fortress. The issue is that they are all prophecies similar to the one we found about you, but there are thousands of them with minute differences. Now we don’t know which one is the correct one, or if you are the person the verses refer to."
"That’s because you’re a bloody idiot!" Rolf and I both jumped at the disembodied shouting brogue, but Wynne seemed unruffled. I backed against the door as Rolf drew his sword, but Wynne dissolved into a fit of helpless giggling.
"Put the sword away, you jumpy dolt," Wynne gasped around peals of laughter. "Mack isn’t going to hurt you."
"Mack? Who the bloody hell is Mack? I think you better start explaining now!" Rolf’s dark eyes fixed on Wynne in a furious, unwavering glare.
Wynne, obviously unconcerned with his temperamental attitude, rolled her eyes. "Mack is the prophet, Rolf. You weren’t supposed to find all his drafts. The only prophecy you needed was the one that I brought you...the one that I said I found when I was exploring the caverns."
She strode over to one of the corners of the rough-hewn room and shoved on what appeared to be a solid stone wall. The portion that she pushed against hissed and slid back, revealing a stout, muscular man with wild sandy brown hair and sharp green eyes. I couldn’t stifle my excitement.
"Oh my God, it’s a real, live dwarf," I squealed with glee.
Rolf stared, wordless and open-mouthed as Mack drew himself up to his full four feet of height and strode into the center of the room, his eyes fixed on me.
"That I am, madam. Wallace MacQueen, at your service." He gave a ridiculously formal bow, and when he straightened up, he beckoned me to him. "Let me have a good look at my promised heroine, young lady."
"I’m nobody’s heroine," I stammered as I walked over to him. "I keep telling everyone that I’m nobody special and that I’m just here by accident, but nobody believes me. I’m willing to try to help however I can, but I feel like everybody counting on me could be a really bad idea, and also a very disappointing one." It all came out in an unstoppable rush, and I was blushing furiously and staring down at Mack’s boots by the time I was finished.
"Nonsense!" His reply was so cheerful it was infuriating. "The Messengers told me all about you when they sent you here. They told me to write a prophecy about you to help get everything moving. You are exactly what the people in this fortress need, and I plan to see to it that you do not disappoint."
"So, the prophecy was just bad poetry concocted to point us in Lauren’s direction," Rolf snapped.
"Quiet down you great lump of a behemoth. I wasn’t talking to you."
I couldn’t stop myself from giggling at the ease with which Mack insulted Rolf. I looked back and forth between the two of them before shifting my gaze to Wynne. "Oh, this is going to be good."
"I think so." The redhead’s grin was pure mischief.
Rolf’s attention remained focused on Wynne, and his glare intensified with our laughter. "None of this is funny, Wynne. You owe me an explanation."
Wynne feigned innocent. "Explanation? Whatever for?"
"I want to know why the hell there is a ’real, live dwarf,’ as Lauren put it, running around Tiernan. I want to know how long he’s been here! How long have you known about him? How long have you been working with him? And just why the hell do you think you can trust him?" Rolf snapped.
It wasn’t hard for me to picture Rolf as a rabid dog. His frenzied tirade had left him close to foaming at the mouth.
Mack reciprocated with equal vigor and an accent that grew increasingly thick as he got louder. "I will not allow you to berate a lady in such a manner in front of me, sir! I saw men castrated for less when I was Queen Morven’s personal valet, and I will personally do the same to you if you continue to treat Wynne as if she’s some sort of witless waif who’d be lost if not for you. She is the only reason you know about Tiernan! She discovered all its secrets before I could stop her. After she told me her plans, I didn’t want to stop her. The Messengers came to me shortly after she arrived. They told me to trust her and help her. I intend to do no less than that, and I swear on all that I hold dear as the last dwarf in Daraglathia that I will end you if you impede me in any way! Do I make myself clear?"
Rolf looked as if he might explode for a moment, but then he deflated. He sank down on a bench with a sigh of defeat and frustration. "Queen Morven’s valet," he muttered, shaking his head. "I forgot that dwarves develop and age even more slowly than elves."
"Wait, what?" I stared at Mack. "Since when do dwarves age more slowly than elves?"
"Since always, young lady," Mack replied with a firm nod. "How do you think we got to be so much more technologically advanced than the elves and humans, as you observed upon your arrival to Tiernan?"
"Makes sense," I nodded, and he gave an approving nod.
"Facts often do."
I had to laugh, and Wynne joined me. The only person who wasn’t amused was Rolf. His gaze, now wounded, had not once wandered from Wynne’s face. His voice was soft, borderline pleading when he spoke to her. "I would like to talk to you privately, please."
Wynne sighed and nodded. "Of course. Mack, will you and Lauren please give us a moment?"
Mack squinted hard at Rolf. "Not one toe out of line, human. I mean it."
Rolf rolled his eyes, but he nodded his assent. I turned my attention to Mack.
"I have about a million questions to ask you."
He held his arm out to me, and I looped mine through it as I led him out the door and latched it behind us.
"So, Mack, what would you like to do now?"
He shrugged and sighed. "Well, since I’m sure word of my existence will spread like wildfire through this fortress, I would like very much to get a breath of fresh air."
Something about the way he said it sounded dark. "Been a while since you’ve been outside?" I was trying for lighthearted.
"I haven’t seen the sun or breathed fresh air in fifteen years."
"Holy crap! That’s such a long time. How did you stand it?"
"I stood it because I had to. Wynne suspected that Rolf would take my existence poorly. You’ve seen for yourself that she wasn’t wrong. Not long after she discovered Tiernan, the Messengers came to me. They told me to go into hiding, and only to communicate with her. So, I listened."
"Why reveal yourself today, then? Did the Messengers tell you to?"
Mack snorted and shook his head. "That bloody fool Rolf wasn’t supposed to find my drafts, and I just couldn’t handle his stupefyingly ridiculous meltdown over it any longer. He’d already been ranting for three hours when you arrived. I suffered a fit of temper and gave myself away. I am confident the Messengers will pay me a visit with their opinions on the matter soon enough."
"Ouch." It was the only thing I could think to say. "There has never been a better time for a stroll outside, then."
"Exactly my thinking, my dear. Shall we?"
"Of course!" I started to lead him back the way I’d come, but he shook his head with a chuckle.
"I know a faster way out."
"Please tell me you mean secret passages, Mack."
"I do, indeed!"
"I knew dwarves were a superior race, but you’re even better than I imagined."
Mack preened at my doting and depressed a hidden pressure switch on the wall. A small section of the wall slid open without a sound, and the dwarf waved me into it ahead of him. For a moment, I was afraid it would be dark and claustrophobic, but all my fears were allayed when I stepped inside and the door closed behind the two of us.
There were large, glowing opals inlaid in the walls at regular intervals like lamps. They were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The soft light had a calming influence on me, and cold air flowed through the passage with surprising regularity.
"Of course," I murmured.
"Of course what?" Mack cocked a bushy, quizzical eyebrow over his shoulder at me as he led the way through the winding passages.
"The secret passages and caverns are ventilated from the outside. Brilliant. I should have expected as much. Everything about the design of this fortress is immaculate and efficient. Even if one part collapses, there is a good chance that the others will survive and remain ventilated well enough for people to find a way out, should anyone be trapped by a collapse. I would even be willing to guess that there are secret passages that lead in and out of the caverns."
Mack chuckled and nodded. "Right you are. And you thought you were the wrong girl for the job."
"Saving the people who’ve built their lives in Tiernan—saving Daraglathia."
"I’m still not so sure about that, Mack. There’s nothing that special about me."
"Is that so?" I could hear admonishment in his tone. "How many young ladies of your age from your world know as much as you do about weapons? How many of them would have been able to assess how technologically advanced my race is compared to others based on the physical evidence in this one fortress alone? How many would feel air moving through a secret passage and be able to infer that the passages and the caverns are ventilated from the outside? I have no doubt whatsoever that you are the right girl for the job of saving Daraglathia from its current state."
"So watching a bunch of TV shows about ancient weaponry, trivia retention, and basic logical skills are what qualified me to save the world? Nice. That really shakes my confidence in the Messengers’ decision-making skills."
"As if you had any to begin with," Mack groused as he opened another secret door on a secluded, overgrown corner of the space between the wall and the fortress.
I opened my mouth to protest for a second but realized he was right and shook my head. "You’re right. I’ve thought they sent the wrong girl from the very beginning. There’s nothing that special about me, I promise."
Mack’s complexion reddened and he wagged a warning finger at me. "I don’t want to hear you speak of yourself that way again, Lauren. How did you come to value yourself so little? You must have had some sort of self-worth at some point. How did you lose that? How did you lose sight of the fact that you are a unique being with unique gifts? How did you forget that you are irreplaceable because no one in all the infinite worlds is just like you? Every individual being is perfect in his or her own way and is the perfect match for their soul mate, but you can’t make comparisons because everyone is unique. You are a perfectly formed being. You always have been. There is nothing wrong with you, I promise. You are brilliant, you are beautiful, and you are special. Please stop putting yourself down. Watching you devalue yourself makes me furious beyond all reason!"
I couldn’t help staring. "You sound just like my Grandpa Alex right now. How do you know me this well?"
"I’ve known you since you were born. That day was the first day the Messengers ever came to me. They allowed me to watch over you through the eyes of your loved ones. I became a so-called seer upon your birth. I have waited eighteen years for you to arrive in Daraglathia. I hoped you would know yourself at least as well as I do. Unfortunately, it seems you don’t know yourself at all. You’ve ignored a billion positive facts about yourself in favor of the lies the world has told you."
"Yes! You’ve been told so many lies over the course of your life, if not from people’s lips, then from their actions. Your father’s self-centered hedonism has led you to believe that you don’t matter. Your mother’s adamant belief that the only thing that matters is a person’s intellect has led you to believe that you’re not beautiful. Your parents’ inability to remain happily married to one another has led you to believe that there is something wrong with you. You think that if you’d just been better or worthy, they would have found a way to make it work. That, too, is a lie. Nothing you could do would have kept them together. Their own respective faults made their marriage fall apart. Their divorce was not a commentary on your worth. Stop letting outside factors dictate your worth to you! You have far more value than you let yourself see, Lauren."
It took me a minute to realize I was crying. I leaned against one of the trees that obscured the entrance to the secret passage and sobbed until my throat was raw. Mack reached up and stroked my hair with soothing, but unintelligible murmurs in what I assume was Dwarvish. It took me what felt like ages to calm down, but when I did, I realized that it was much colder out than it had been the day before.
"Uh-oh," I groaned.
"What?" Mack’s expression was puzzled.
"Sigrid’s mages are changing the weather. She had them send a blizzard after me to slow my escape. I got so caught up with everything that happened after I arrived that I forgot to warn someone that this might be coming."
I strode out from under the thicket of trees and squinted up at the sky. Oppressively thick gray clouds were creeping across the bright blue of the summer sky on bone-piercing cold winds. I spun and nodded at Mack. "We need to tell people to harvest the summer crops while they still can."
Just as Mack was about to respond, there was a commotion at the gate. We headed toward it to see what was going on, warning citizens to harvest their crops and prepare firewood as we went.
The gates were beginning to open when we reached them, and I waved at the closest guard inside the massive stone doors. "What’s going on? What’s all the commotion about?"
"One of the scouts came across a wounded elf who claims she wants to defect."
"Wounded? How? With what? How do we know it’s not some sort of ploy? How do we know she’s not a spy? What does she look like? Why the hell are we letting her in? She’s an elf."
"The majority of us are inclined to agree with you, but the scout insists that she’s on the brink of death and that she could have some valuable information for us. I’m supposed to be taking a message from her to Rolf and Kieran right now. She says her name is Adele, and that she knows them."
"I want to see her," I barked. "After I do, I’ll take the message to Rolf and Kieran myself. As for you, I want you to make sure every citizen in Tiernan gets my message. Tell them Sigrid’s mages are sending a blizzard after us. Tell them to do everything they can to prepare as quickly as possible. They should harvest any crops they can and get them to the store caverns. They should get firewood, too. Tell them to do so discreetly, though. I don’t want this elf to see what’s going on."
For a second, the guard seemed surprised by my assertiveness. However, he nodded and signaled to the scout to remove the bag from the prisoner’s head, which had been used to obscure her vision in case she was a spy.
I instantly regretted demanding to see her. Borderline luminescent white-blond hair cascaded out from under the hood and undulated down her back in perfect waves. Her skin, though pallid from obvious blood loss, was flawless and opalescent. Her form was petite and sprightly, but still somehow intensely feminine and attractive. Her wide blue eyes, though cloudy with exhaustion and framed by dark circles, were a fascinating intoxicant. In an instant, I hated her with every fiber of my being. My eyes fell on the jewel-hilted dagger sticking out of her back, and an unsympathetic smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. She was too perfect to trust, and the thought that Kieran somehow knew her made my blood run colder than the unnatural blizzard marching ever closer to Tiernan.
I spun on my heel and gave Mack a significant look. "What passage will get me back to Kieran and Rolf as quickly as possible? I told the guard I would deliver Adele’s message to them, and I want to see how they react to the news."
I could see the wary expression on his face, but I didn’t waver and he sighed. "Follow me."