A letter, to one Wintering in Fort Alliance...

Bri Bedore

A small kestrel alights beside you, a tightly wound letter attached to its leg. You recognize the tiny falcon as Baroness Gwenevere Thane’s personal bird, and can see that the rolled letter is stamped with her signature red and silver wax. The bird waits patiently for you to remove its little paper burden, and once you have the letter it hops back and forth a few times, but doesn’t fly away.

It watches you with one keen eye as you break the seal and read Gwen’s familiar, curling script:

My beloved friend,

When I was growing up in the Krag, I used to write my letters every afternoon sitting in a puddle of rose-gold sunlight, nestled on a chaise beside my easterly windows. I had no one to write to, so I would practice the lady-like art of correspondence by writing to characters from my favorite books. (They neglected to respond, alas, due to the constraint of being fictional persons.) I imagined that someday, when I claimed my birthright and became a Great Lady, out at last in the society of my noble peerage, that I would have all manner of lofty friends to whom I could write lofty things from my sunlit, pillowed pedestal.

Turns out, not everything in life pans out the way we imagine. Thank goodness.

I write to you now, scrunched up by the cook-fire, a mantle of snow crusting over my shoulders, my much-practiced penmanship crumpling in the frozen grip of my gauntleted hand. One of my glass inkwells shattered in the cold, making quite a perplexing mess of ichorous, black snow, and my sealing wax snapped off in my hand.

And I’m having a wonderful time.

I’m more at home in a company of soldiers, roughing it through the ashy, muddy snow, than I ever was playing debutante in a grand palace.

Some of my advisors insist that I should be back at the Krag, safe, warm, holding my ancestral seat of power as a symbol of hope or somesuch nonsense... I haven’t set foot in the old fortress even after our troops reclaimed it.

What would I do there? Air out my old dresses and wait for my husband to come back?

No thank you.

And so, myself, a company of Ashen Maidens, and what soldiers we could trust, rode away from our ‘victory’ at the Krag to hunt down Herod’s retreating forces. I left Sir Dietrich--a Grey Knight and formerly Von Heissel’s steward--in charge of the fortress, who I’m sure will care for it more competently than I could, at present.

Herod’s soldiers crawl through the valleys and hide in the canyons throughout the country, trying to maintain their foothold of fear. Towns and principalities who profess loyalty to Herod are spared, but are forced to shelter their spies and quarter the soldiers, completely bled dry of food and resources. Those towns who dare refute the tyrant are put to the torch and pillaged.

We root out these brigands and intercept them wherever we can, but we’ve just about exhausted ourselves keeping up. Thankfully the winter is slowing them down. It’s been a long, long few months.

I can feel your concern all the way from my encampment, I know what you’d say--I’m exposed, running around like a common soldier, what if Herod captures me again, or I fall in combat.

Don’t fret so much.

First of all, I don’t think my dear, doting husband would recognize me even if I fell into his lap. And as we travel, there’s no way to distinguish me from any other armored Ashen Maiden, as I keep my helm’s visor down. Domneva and Glenn are always practically in arm’s reach, and I think they would brutally murder an errant mosquito if it got any ideas of harming me. I’m quite safe.

Rather, spend your concern on the people of Litimore, and the other vulnerable Baronies of Helios.

I’ll root out Herod’s army from Litimore, I’ll reclaim my lands from the tyrant. But when the civil war is finally over, I’m not sure what Litimore’s fate will be. We were once the military power of the Empire, the source of troops, the prestigious seat of officer training and a bastion of defense. It was the source of our political clout among the other Baronies and the center of our economy. We will be vulnerable now, we won’t be able to trade with our neighbors in the same way. I’m worried that this will begin a cycle of dependency for my people… I wish I could give them the same strength and independence that your courage and friendship has given me.

Forgive me for rambling at your expense.

It’s easy to believe that there is a shadow to every victory, isn’t it?

It’s difficult to watch the skies darken earlier and earlier, to leave friends behind, to know that even heroes can become villains… It’s difficult, sometimes, to see all that we have seen and not despair.

But I remember my friends in Dragonhold--the way you’ve grown, triumphed, sacrificed, and loved--and I know that there are those who are striving to make our world a better place.

Thank you for teaching me to fight against fate, to become the woman I am today. Thank you for teaching me that no one needs remain a victim, that even someone such as I was, weak and whimpering, can grow into someone capable of protecting others.

You protected me when I couldn’t protect myself, and now I journey through the charred remnants of my lands, rescuing those who cannot rescue themselves.

Even when all seems cold and dark, there’s still light to be found. Even if it’s just a humble cookfire, where you can warm up and write a letter to an old friend.

Until we meet again, hold fast to what hope you find.

Hope is never in vain.

Ever your friend,

Future Widow of Gaius Herod,
The Steelhearted Baroness of Litimore,
Gwenevere Thane

PS: If you send a letter back with my kestrel, I’ll do my best to respond when next we come to a lull in our hunt.

When you look up, the kestrel is still watching you, clearly expecting either a treat, or a written response.