The farther I followed Mack through the secret passages to get to Rolf’s office, the more the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Mack must have sensed my distress because he reached back and patted my hand in an instinctive soothing gesture. "Everything will be fine, lass."
"I don’t know, Mack. I hate that she’s here. I don’t trust her. Something about her just doesn’t feel right," I muttered. I was about to continue when the dwarf slowed his pace in front of me. He paused in front of me, and I struggled not to bump into him. "Why are we stopping?"
Mack held his hand up and whispered. "I think we’re going to interrupt an argument. Listen."
I didn’t have to strain to hear Kieran’s indignant tone. “Sam gets friendly with everything female that moves!”
“That’s not our problem," Rolf replied flatly. "Let him be friendly with her. She apparently responds better to his ways than yours.”
I heard a frustrated grunt from the younger man. “Well, should we tell him to make himself useful?”
“No! His knowing that we need whatever information he’s getting out of her will make a real mess of things. He’s egotistical; you, of all people, should know. We’ve got to find a way to use him without feeding his ego.”
I felt my eye start twitching with the rise in my blood pressure.
“Good luck with that." Kieran’s voice was bitter, but that didn’t register to me. I looked over at the dwarf next to me, who seemed unfazed by the conversation.
"Open the door, Mack. I think it’s time to interrupt them."
He nodded and pressed the panel that made the hidden door slide open. I watched with satisfaction as both Rolf and Kieran jumped at our appearance.
"I have a message for both of you." My voice was icy and detached as if I was simply a vessel for the words. "One of the scouts came across a wounded elf while he was gathering intelligence. She claims that she wishes to defect, so he brought her here. She says she knows both of you."
"Who is it? What’s her name?" Kieran’s voice was breathy and strained as if every particle of his body needed to know the answer.
My stomach knotted with violent dread, but I forced myself to say it. "Adele."
Kieran drew in a sharp breath, and Rolf paled. "Are you sure you heard the name right," Rolf prodded.
"I’m positive." I felt sick, but I didn’t let my outer facade of cold control waver.
"You said she’s wounded," Kieran interrupted, his voice needy and shaking, "How bad is it?"
"Someone stabbed her in the back. She’s lost a lot of blood, by the look of her." I tried not to let my enjoyment of that knowledge show through in my words. "In other news, a blizzard is coming. You need to make sure that the people in this fortress are adequately prepared for it. There are crops to save and firewood to gather before it hits. I have one request to make, for the sake of everyone in this fortress who doesn’t know this elf girl of yours—keep her out of the loop. She doesn’t need to know where food and supplies are stored. She doesn’t need to know about our weapons, armor, or the plans for the linothorax. She may be hurt, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hurt us, too."
A shade of rage flitted across Kieran’s face, and he looked at Rolf. "I’m going to make sure Wynne does everything she can to heal Adele. She could be a valuable asset for us."
My hackles rose, but I refused to fight with him about her. I turned my attention to Rolf. "Do I have your word or not?"
"I promise to do as you requested, for the sake of the people of this fortress. Kieran, you may get Adele care, but I expect you to put the safety of the population in Tiernan first. As for me, I am going to see about preparing the fortress for the oncoming blizzard."
"Good luck to you both," I snapped, storming out of the office before they could say another word to me. It took me a moment to realize that Mack was following me with a neutral expression on his face. "I’m headed to my room. I feel like going to bed early could be good for me tonight."
"Very well," Mack said, "And since your around-the-clock bodyguard seems to be distracted by the she-elf’s arrival, I am assigning myself to protect you and be your personal valet."
"That’s a sweet thought, but I’m not sure it’s necessary, Mack." I smiled over at him.
"I am sure it’s necessary. You’ve sensed yourself that there’s an enemy inside the gates, and I intend to see you well protected."
"For all I know, she does want to defect. I don’t know why I hate her so much, Mack. She rubs me the wrong way, but jealousy could be clouding my judgment." I felt a violent blush creep up my cheeks at my accidental admission.
"I understand that you’re jealous," Mack reasoned. "But I have a bad feeling about her, too. So, it’s not just you."
"Thanks for being willing to protect me, Mack. I think she’s too weak to do anything to me right now, though. Why don’t you offer your services to Rolf and help people prepare for the blizzard? Guide them through the secret passages so they can get the crops harvested without Adele seeing where they’re going. You can check in on me all you want and make sure to keep Adele as much out of the loop as possible."
"A wise choice, lass. I’ll see that it gets done immediately." Mack bowed with a flourish and disappeared into a secret passage as I let myself into my room, where I found Gabriel waiting for me. His puppy face was set in a distinct pout.
"Aw, baby boy! I thought you were roaming free and exploring the fortress. Who shut you up in here?"
He gave a dissatisfied snort and looked away.
"You want to go for a walk before bed?"
Gabriel sprang up with an excited bark and wagged his tail. He bounded around the room in frantic circles.
"Come on, then," I cooed, reaching down to stroke him as he came to a stop beside me. "I bet there’s a secret passage we can take so nobody will bother us."
I stroked my hands over the stone walls until I found an area that gave slightly. "Bingo!" I grinned down at the dog and pushed, revealing the hidden passage.
"Help me find a way outside, Gabe."
He immediately trotted into the passage, sniffing as he went. I followed, feeling completely at ease knowing I wouldn’t run into anyone besides Mack in the passages. I took Gabriel for a leisurely walk in the thicket where I’d cried with Mack earlier in the day. We were both significantly happier, worn out, and chilled when we let ourselves back into the secret passage and headed to bed.
When I woke the next day, Mack was asleep on a cot near my door, Gabriel was snuggled up under my arm snoring softly, and I had no idea whatsoever what time it was. The fire looked as if it had been stoked and tended well during the night, and I made a mental note to ask Mack how high up the chimneys in the rooms went. I was willing to bet the dwarves had been wise enough to place the chimney vents above the cloud cover that usually hung around the top of the mountain, regardless of the weather elsewhere. It occurred to me that the constant cloud cover around the peak was probably heavily contributed to by chimney smoke. I wondered, for a fleeting moment, if the Smokey Mountains were inhabited by dwarves, stifled a giggle, and shuffled into my bathroom.
I was startled when I saw a steaming tub of water that must have been placed there recently. There were soft linens folded neatly on the table. I saw clean clothes that seemed to be similar to mine in design, but they were obviously newly sewn, along with various bottles of what turned out to be perfumed oils. I stuck my head out of the bathroom door.
"Mack!" He jumped from a dead sleep to standing at attention beside the cot in an instant.
"What can I do for you, lass?"
"Did you set up the bathroom like this for me, and keep the fire in my room burning, too?"
He blinked at me as if it was a stupid question. "Of course I did. I told you that I’ve decided to be your personal valet when you’re in Daraglathia. Did I miss something? Is there something else I can do for you?"
"Miss anything? Are you serious right now? No, you didn’t miss anything! This is AMAZING! Thank you, Mack. You have no idea how much I appreciate all this."
"I consider it my duty, lass. Nothing more, nothing less."
I couldn’t help grinning at him. "You’re the best. I’m kind of surprised that Gabriel didn’t try to eat you alive when you came in last night. He’s been very protective of me."
Mack shrugged. "The Messengers sent him to you, just as they sent you to me. He recognized a kindred spirit and a common goal when he saw it. We both want to protect you, and we both want to see you succeed here. Of course he doesn’t want to hurt me."
"Now that you’re here, Mack, I finally feel like I have someone who’s really on my side. I feel like you have my best interests at heart. Do you know what Rolf and Kieran have planned for me today?"
He nodded. "Why don’t you take that bath before the water gets cold? I’ll take the pup for a walk and see that he’s fed. Once that’s taken care of, I’ll bring him back up here and brief you on the plans for today. How does that sound?"
I chuckled and nodded. "That sounds like a great plan. I’ll see you when you get back."
When Mack returned with Gabriel, I was clean, dry, dressed, and ready to take on whatever the day had in store for me. I sat on the bed, and Gabriel jumped up in my lap with a wagging tail, and I smiled at Mack. "So, what have they got me slated for today?"
"Burns will be training you in archery."
I frowned, and an involuntary sigh slipped out. "I assume that means Kieran is wrapped up with Adele, then?"
"You guess correctly, my dear. Rolf felt that it might be better to have Kieran keep the she-elf entertained than leave her to her own devices inside the fortress walls."
"It makes sense," I groaned, "But that doesn’t mean I have to like it."
Mack chuckled and gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You remind me so much of Queen Morven, Lauren. Early in her reign, she had a lot to learn, just like you. She learned quickly and was a very successful leader. I think you will be successful in your mission, as well, even if your sweetheart has gone temporarily amiss."
I facepalmed and let out a frustrated grunt. "Is it that obvious that I’m into Kieran?"
"Yes." Mack gave a firm nod. "To everyone in the world except him, as is the custom with men throughout the universe." I laughed so hard it startled Gabriel, my eyes watered, and my ribs hurt. "He did, however, leave a gift for you with me. It’s grown considerably colder. He sent fur-lined gloves, boots, and a cozy cloak to match. He told me to tell you not to have an emotional crisis over the animals because these things belonged to his great-grandmother. What does he mean...emotional crisis?"
I blushed and stared down at my feet. "I may or may not have cried hysterically over some rabbits he killed for dinner when we were on our way here."
"While it’s sweet that you care so much about relatively defenseless creatures, I feel obligated to remind you that people need to eat, and I’ve seen you eat meat before."
"I know," I moaned. "I feel guilty about it every time I eat meat, but it’s easier if it’s an animal that I’m not particularly fond of, like a chicken. Rabbits are just so cute that I can’t bear to eat them. I just can’t do it."
Mack dissolved into a fit of laughter that had tears rolling down his face, accompanied by desperate gasps for air. "And I suppose that if you had to kill your own food, you would not eat meat at all."
"You are one hundred percent correct. I could eat a lot of vegetables, bread, and cheese, though."
"I think I understand," Mack nodded. "In any case, I believe that we’ve left Captain Burns waiting long enough. You should get to your archery lessons, and I should see if there’s anything I can do to smooth things over with Rolf."
"All right," I nodded and smiled. "Come on, Gabe. Let’s go have some outside time."
He gave an excited bark and bounded off the bed, running in excited circles as I put on the gloves, boots, and cloak. I reached down and stroked his back for a moment before I led him out the door and down the hall.
As I strode through the main hall and out onto the chilly grounds, I reflected on how I’d gotten so wrapped up in my own mind that I’d neglected to pay Gabriel the kind of attention he deserved. I stopped short and the dog shot me a confused and semi-reproachful look as if reminding me that I had an appointment to get to. I crouched and he wagged his tail with what I’d come to think of as his little happy puppy smile. I ruffled the thick, downy fur on the top of his head into a faux-hawk and chuckled.
"I’m sorry I’ve been a bad pet parent since we got to Tiernan. There is no excuse for how absent-minded I’ve been when it comes to you. Can you forgive me, Gabe?"
He nuzzled my hand through my fur-lined gloves, and I took that as a yes. I shivered at the piercing cold that had settled in around the fortress and pulled my cloak in tight around me as I stood up. I continued the trek to that training area with Gabe trotting along beside me, his tail wagging all the way.
When I arrived, I was a little disappointed to see Burns awaiting me, rather than Kieran. My disappointment must have shown on my face because Burns gave me an understanding smile in return.
"Sorry, dearie. I know I’m not who you were hoping to see, but I can still teach you a bit about combat, and maybe even cheer you up a bit in the process."
"I don’t know, Captain...it’s going to be pretty hard to cheer me up as long as that she-elf is here. I don’t like her. I don’t trust her. Nothing good can come from her being here."
"I am inclined to agree with you, but Rolf and Kieran don’t seem to see the sense we do when it comes to her, so we’ll just have to tolerate her presence for a while."
"I guess we will. So, what’s on the training agenda for today?"
"I think that could be a worse idea than putting a sword in my hand. Did Kieran not tell you how poorly my sword training went the other day?"
Captain Burns chuckled and shook his head. "No, Kieran didn’t tell me, but I’m pretty sure Sam told literally everyone in the fortress that you kept throwing your sword at Kieran and running away."
I felt a humiliated blush creep up my neck and burn in my cheeks. "I’m going to kill Sam the next time I see him. He better pray I don’t get my hands around his scrawny little neck any time soon because I’m going to squeeze until his head pops off."
"Take it easy, Lauren. Sam didn’t mean any harm by it. Besides, that tendency toward throwing the sword is what gave me the idea to try projectiles with you. You seem to like to keep distance between you and your opponent. That instinct could be an advantage, given some work and fine-tuning."
What Captain Burns called "some work and fine-tuning" turned out to be six hours of extensive training with short, long, and crossbows. I was exhausted by the six-hour mark. My arms burned, my shoulders were tied up in knots, and my fingers were hopelessly cramped when Tamara strode into the training area.
I groaned internally and shot Captain Burns a look that plainly said, "please don’t let this crazy girl kill me," and turned my attention back to Tamara with a stiff smile.
"What can we do for you, Tamara?"
She looked back and forth between Captain Burns and me as if she couldn’t decide to address. "My father, the blacksmith, sent me to tell you that it’s time to work on the Linothorax."
I automatically looked around to make sure Adele was nowhere in the vicinity and let out a sigh of relief when I didn’t see her anywhere.
"We were supposed to work on that at your dad’s forge, right?"
Tamara nodded. "Yes. Why?"
"I don’t think we should work on it there anymore. It’s too obvious a place to produce armor, and I’ve had an uneasy feeling ever since that she-elf friend of Kieran’s showed up here claiming that she wants to defect. Every bit of common sense I have tells me that she’s a spy, and I think we need to produce the Linothorax in secret and be sure to keep her out of the loop. I don’t want her to know about the caverns or the secret passages. I made Kieran swear to keep her out of the loop, for the safety of everyone in the fortress. Unlike the forge, there’s no way Adele could accidentally wander into the secret passages or hidden cavern system. It may just be paranoia on my part, but I would feel better if there were no way for Adele to find out about the Linothorax by happenstance. I think we should tell everyone who knows about the Linothorax that we’re changing the production location and to make sure not to mention it in front of the she-elf."
Tamara studied me for a moment and then smiled at me. "Nice to see you have a good head on your shoulders, Lauren. I agree with you. Personally, I think that a terrible accident should befall the she-elf because she probably is a spy, but Kieran might rip my head off if that happened."
"Or my head," I grinned, "I haven’t exactly been Suzie Sunshine to or about her since she got here, and Kieran noticed."
Tamara nodded. "I’ll tell father and the others who know about the Linothorax what you said about moving production and keeping it a secret. I had my doubts about you before, but after hearing what you had to say about the she-elf, I really believe that you have the best interests of the people in this fortress at heart. Thank you."
"For the most part, the people here have been really kind to me and I intend to do everything in my power to return that favor. I know, somehow, that Adele can’t be trusted. We have to protect everyone and our plans from her because she’s a potential spy. It just makes sense."
"I agree. See you in the caverns in two hours?" Tamara gave me a genuine smile for the first time since my arrival in Tiernan.
"Two hours sounds good. That gives me time to get cleaned up. I’ll see you in the caverns."
She gave a jaunty wave and strode off to update everyone pertinent to the project, and I turned to Captain Burns. "Thanks for the training. How did I do?"
"You did well with the bow, as I expected. Go get cleaned up so you can make it to the caverns on time."
I whistled for Gabe, and he bounded over, wagging his undocked tail with exuberance. "You ready to go back inside, boy?"
He gave an affirmative bark, and we jogged back to the fortress to get out of the increasingly frigid air, both sighing with relief as I pushed the massive oak door open and we ducked inside, slamming it behind us to keep the cold out.
As Mack led me into the caverns, I was flabbergasted by the sheer number of volunteers waiting to help make the Linothorax. There were men, women, children, and elders all waiting to do their part to defend each other. Tamara waved me over to where she was standing with her father.
“Okay, since I don’t really have a bull horn, and I don’t want to be loud at risk of Adele hearing something and finding the secret passages, I’d like to explain this process in full to the best listeners and leaders in the room, and then they can break everyone up into manageable groups and explain the process to everyone else as we go along. These are the basics: we’re going to be creating a lightweight, effective armor out of layers of linen and glue. I did a research paper on it in Advanced Placement History last semester. Yes, I realize that last statement probably means nothing to y’all, but just work with me. I did a lot of research on this armor, and it’s been proven to work well, but I think we can improve on it. Traditional Linothorax only really covers the torso. I think it could be possible for us to create suits of lightweight, effective plate mail armor out of the Linothorax material.
“You’re probably wondering how that can be done, right? Well, if we created molds of the individual pieces that make up a suit of plate mail armor, then we could basically have 3-dimensional pattern pieces to form our Linothorax plate mail in. If each group in here could access one set of plate mail armor from the armory and use it to create molds, we could basically have a factory set up to produce plate mail Linothorax for everyone in this fortress. The dwarves collected suits of armor in all shapes and sizes, both women’s and men’s, even suits of armor for children. I guarantee you that we can produce enough plate mail Linothorax to effectively protect every man, woman, and child in this fortress.
“First, we need each group to head to the armory, and we’ll need a scribe to take notes. Tonight, everyone will try on a suit of plate mail armor, and we will figure out which sizes of armor we need, and how many of each size we need to produce. That way, we only bring the suits of armor that we need to make molds of from the armory to the caverns. Figuring out which suit sizes we need and how many of each size we need will also dictate workflow among the groups. More common sizes will require several more molds per size than the less common sizes and more workers, also. In all likelihood, the volunteers will end up working on the size armor they personally need. Children will work on molding and forming child-sized Linothorax plate mail, and so on. Am I making any sense? Do y’all see where I’m going with this?”
To my surprise, everyone responded with an affirmative nod.
“Aye, it makes an astonishing amount of sense, especially coming from someone whom I originally thought to be a useless liability,” Tamara grinned.
“Okay, good. Now, everyone go and explain the general process to your groups. Also explain that we’ll just be sizing everyone for armor and bringing the suits we need back to the caverns tonight. Sound good?”
There was a chorus of affirmations from everyone who’d listened to my plan, and they scattered among the rest of the volunteers gathered in the caverns, explaining as they went. From somewhere in the crowd, I heard a shouted question.
“How the hell are we supposed to get full suits of plate mail from the armory to these caverns without being seen?”
I couldn’t hold back a victorious smirk. “Well, I’m willing to bet that Mack here knows of a secret passage that runs from these caverns to the armory.”
Mack nodded and beamed with pride. “Aye. There is one, to be sure, and I’ll be happy to lead you there and back, of course.”
I nodded. “Once we’ve figured out which suits of armor we need to mold, we break down the suits of armor and everyone can haul an individual piece of armor back to these caverns. If we lay them out in groups by the size of the suit of armor, each person can start the initial mold on each piece of plate mail we bring over. Once the initial molds are clean and dry, half the volunteers in each group can begin producing Linothorax pieces, while the other half continues to generate more molds and so on until we have enough molds to produce the number of linothorax pieces we need to effectively armor everyone in this fortress. Does that answer your questions?”
“Aye, that’ll do, smart aleck!” The voice from the crowd responded.
“Okay, now that that’s been established, why don’t we let Mack lead us to the armory and get started?”
An affirmative murmur ran through the crowd of volunteers, and we set out following in Mack’s purposeful wake. I sucked in a deep, satisfied breath, and Mack glanced back at me over his shoulder with a proud grin. “I think you’ve really impressed these people tonight, lass.”
I snorted and shook my head. “I’m not here to impress them, Mack. I’m here to save as many of their lives as I can.”
He beamed back at me and nodded. “That’s my girl.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I shrugged it off and stayed on his heels as he led us through several winding passages. It felt like we’d been walking for at least fifteen minutes when we came to what looked like a dead end, until Mack pressed a well-hidden latch in the wall and the stone parted to let us into the lowermost back part of the armory caverns.
It took all night and the better part of the next day for everyone who needed armor to slip into the armory, try armor on, and to make sure that Mack recorded each person’s size. Everyone in the fortress was exhausted, but we all pushed through it, broke down the suits of armor we would need, and hauled the individual pieces back to the caverns where we planned to work. I showed the group leaders the process of making a good mold, and by the time I was finished, I was dead on my feet.
“You need to rest,” Mack urged.
“No,” I shook my head. “I should be here helping everyone prepare the Linothorax.”
Tamara’s father, who was leading the group closest to us, shook his head and spoke up. “You need to sleep. You can barely hold your eyes open. Grab a few hours’ rest and then come back. In fact, I think it would be wiser if we all worked in shifts and got more sleep. We will be useless against Sigrid’s forces if we don’t get enough sleep to sustain us.”
I yawned and nodded. “You’re right. I’m going to crash for a while, but I’ll come back as soon as I wake up. Groups can work out who works what shift amongst themselves, right?”
Tamara’s father--the blacksmith--nodded. “Of course we can. Now, go rest so you can come up with more excellent plans like this one.”
I yawned again, a deep enough yawn that it made my whole body shudder, and glanced over at Mack. “I don’t remember what passage to take to get back to my room. Can you take me there, please?”
“Of course, Lauren. I’m your personal Valet, remember? I’ll be with you around the clock, wherever you are.”
I nodded, mumbled something incoherent and nonsensical, and let the dwarf lead me back to my room, where I face-planted on the bed and fell into a deep, dreamless, exhausted sleep.