Rikard stood alongside his sister on the ramparts of the stronghold's walls, gazing down at his young daughter riding out of the nearby forest with her mother at her side and a trail of warriors behind. He smirked as the lieutenant raised one hand, signaling for the cavalry to spread out and begin their maneuver. She rode around and over various obstacles on her path to the garrison, shouting commands along the way as her saber flashed in the waning afternoon light.
"Your daughter has learned well during her time with Captain Arayn."
The commander smiled. "Aye, she has. I suppose the Royal Guard never fail to train exceptional soldiers eh?"
Valeri Foren turned to face her brother with a frown. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you resent that."
Rikard scoffed. "And why shouldn't I? My daughter was forced out of her home when she was barely a month old. Her mother and I should have been the ones to train her, and to raise her. Instead she grew up under the cold eyes of the Guard while we fought a war that did nothing more than satisfy the Elves' bloodlust. Now that we have her back, we are forced to open our doors to the very enemy that threatened her life in the first place. Of course I'm resentful."
Valeri crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the parapet. "That's all true, I'll admit. But she is back now, and I had to put up with her excited yapping all the way from the capitol. She yearns for your approval, brother. Your daughter is terrified that she won't be able to earn acceptance into her own family, that she won't fit in. Your resentment and anger will do nothing to assuage that. You should be wary of alienating the little girl you fought so hard to regain."
Rikard grunted and turned back to the tundra and his family. "She has nothing to prove. She is back where she belongs."
"Then why don't you go tell her that?"
The two commanders drifted into silence as snow began to float down from the gray skies. Below them, the cavalry wheeled at the sound of a horn and began the short journey back to the fortress. Rikard's daughter could be seen turned in her saddle, talking animatedly to her mother on the stallion next to her. The knights behind them raised their lances in salute to Rikard as they passed beneath him and through the gates. Valeri rested a hand on Rikard's arm for a moment before turning to walk away.
"Now's your chance, dear brother of mine," she shot over her shoulder.
Rikard remained on the wall for a time, simply watching the snow drift lazily on the breeze. The setting sun blazed low on the heath when he finally pulled his fur tighter across his shoulders and retreated into the tower. The commander found his wife and daughter laughing with the majority of the cavalry detachment in the Feast Hall, meat and mead scattered across the tables. A roar erupted from the gathered riders as Anelia drank yet another of them under the table. Laughter and applause followed the soldier to the floor.
Rikard slid onto the bench next to his red-faced wife and leaned over to plant a kiss on her cheek. "How are my beautiful ladies tonight, eh?" He wrapped an arm around his daughter to pull her into a hug, and in their drunkenness neither mother nor daughter detected the bitterness in his voice.
Anelia leaned into her husband's shoulder and spoke with slurred words, whispering in Rikard's ear. "Our little girl is amazing, husband. She rides like a champion."
Rikard rubbed at the scruff around his jaw and released Iridia from his hold. "Sounds like she takes after you more than me, sweetheart. We both know I could never ride very well." He turned to the young woman at his side. "How do you like the cavalry my dear?"
His daughter's intoxicated smile lit up her face. "These people are amazing father!" a drunken cheer erupted from the riders in earshot and they raised their mugs to her. "Everyone treats me like I'm one of them, like I belong here."
Rikard kissed Iridia's brow and grabbed a tankard for himself, eyeing his wife who was now snoring face down on the table. "You do belong here, little gem. Had the war not put your life in danger you would have grown up here with these men and women as your brothers and sisters. We are all thrilled that you've come home, your mother and I most of all."
The Hall began to slowly empty as soldiers made their way to their homes, many of them carrying friends too drunk to walk. Iridia slumped against her father, mumbling words too quiet for him to hear as her eyes closed and her breathing slowed to an even, sleeper's pace. Her father sighed into his mug before draining it and carefully standing, lifting his slumbering daughter in his arms.
"Whazzit?" Anelia's head shot up, her hair falling loosely around her face. Half empty tankards of ale and mead clattered to the floor as she attempted to stand and stumbled against the table. Bor Stonebreaker stepped out of the shadows cast by the dying fire in the hearth to catch his commander before she fell.
"This one will take the Lady Anelia to bed, Lord. However, this one be needing to inform the Lord Rikard that the Blood Elves be requesting the march north begin in the next few moons. The Prince Kael wished this one to inform the Lord Rikard that the artefact could only be temporarily awakened."
Rikard frowned, the weight of his daughter in his arms urging him to delay the journey as long as possible. His sense of duty warred with the desire to enjoy the feeling of his newly-whole family. The commander grimaced and spoke softly, careful not to wake his daughter. "Thank you Bor. Inform them that we will leave in two days. Put Captains Varan and Korrel and their men on restriction so they can sober up. I'll have Anelia pick out a cavalry company in the morning."
The Warden bowed his head and stalked off, Anelia Sol hanging limply on his arm. Rikard cast a final glance at the embers in the Hearth before carrying Iridia into the darkened fortress.
Over the next two days the celebratory atmosphere of the Last Hearth gave way to a brooding solemnity while the commanders and their selected warriors prepared for the journey northward. Their friends and family took what comfort they could in the knowledge that Commander Foren's Spell-Breakers would be accompanying the party to dampen the Blood Elves' magick and prevent a betrayal. Even still, family members crowded close to their loved ones with tears in their eyes, pressing talismans of carved birch and holly into the hands of Rikard and Anelia's troops. It was their hope that these items, inlaid with small moon stones and rubies, would ward against the Elven flames.
As morning dawned on the chosen day, Rikard strode among his infantry as they conducted final checks on their armor and weapons, oiling their blades to prevent them from sticking in their scabbards. He nodded in acknowledgement of his two captains before proceeding to the front of the column where Anelia sat astride her stallion gazing at the grey sky overhead. Snow drifted around her on the whisper of an unnatural breeze, settling in her auburn hair and covering the fur cloak she wore over her half-plate armor. Hazel eyes gazing in wonder at the rolling clouds that were under lit by the crimson sun just beginning to peek over the horizon, she raised a finger to signal for her husband to remain quiet for a moment longer. Rikard smirked, but did as she asked.
On the other side of the courtyard Iridia strode out of the keep wrapped tightly in layers of furs and carrying her twin naginatas over her shoulders. A group of Rikard's honor guard followed close behind, having been assigned to her personal command. The lieutenant quietly stood next to her father and brushed a hand over the snow collecting in her hair. She leaned close to Rikard and whispered, "What is it she's looking at, father?"
Rikard glanced at his daughter. "The Aether, little one. The realm that connects all beings together, the void where magick is born. Your mother can see the strands that connect us all, and those souls that pass beyond its veil. She has told me it is a beautiful sight."
"How can –"
"I do believe it is time we move on, is it not Commander?" Prince Kael pulled alongside the group. He sat astride a blood bay, with much of its brilliant crimson coat covered in ruthless spiked armor of gold and garnet. He glanced down his hawkish nose at Iridia, sneering. "We should not waste the day to satisfy a child's idle curiosity."
Anelia glared at the Elf before pulling a war horn, carved from the horns of an ox, from a satchel at her hip. With a subtle wink at her husband she brought the horn to her lips and blew a single note that stretched into the frozen morning, hanging on the air like the final toll of a death knell. The soldiers in the column separated themselves from their loved ones, many of them carrying the small pale blue-white frostflowers that only grew in the Nordlands. At Anelia's signal, flags were raised along the column and massive horns in the towers along the wall of the garrison gave a single blast that echoed through the tundra. The towering gate slowly opened with the rattle of chains and the moaning of ancient wood as a great banner unfurled over the entry way.