Another short story based in the world of the Legend of the Stars. This one follows after “Elwyn’s Daughter,” and also focuses on Rayne and Rolf.
The Only Hope
It was still dark outside when Rolf woke to a painful jab in his side. The elf lord groaned, then lifted one eyelid and glanced over at Rayne. The child had come crying some time in the middle of the night, frightened by a nightmare, and Rolf hadn’t found the heart to send her back to her room. Now here she lay, one leg thrown across his chest and a knee in his side as she sprawled horizontally across the mattress. Though the bed was decidedly too big for the child to take up all of it, she certainly didn’t lack for trying.
A movement stirred at Rolf’s feet and he glanced down at Kadin who stretched, yawned, then curled back up in a ball. The pup was, by far, the wisest of the two of them, Rolf thought, for the little creature had conveniently placed himself far out of the way of Rayne’s flailing limbs.
Heaving a sigh, Rolf gently shoved Rayne’s legs away and turned her until her head was back up on the pillow where it belonged. The girl whimpered slightly and buried her face in his shoulder, but it was a moment before he realized his robe sleeve had become wet with freshly-cried tears. Quietly the elf lord moved his arm, reaching around the child’s tiny frame and pulling her close to him, his thumb rubbing across her cheek and wiping away her tears.
It had been about three months since the Stars and their wives had disappeared. Rolf and King Dorrian, and even Sloan, chief of the Valley Elves, had exhausted their resources searching for the missing heroes, but to no avail. Rayne had been remarkably strong so far, no doubt helped along by Kadin’s suggestion that they would eventually go searching for the girl’s missing parents. But it was at night that she broke. This wasn’t the first time the child had come crying because of a nightmare, and Rolf wondered how she would take it when she discovered that her parents had been declared dead. He wasn’t going to tell her that a human spy had found an execution order about a week earlier. No, just telling her they weren’t coming back would be bad enough. Worse still, he had something else to tell her, too: she wasn’t going to be living with him much longer.
With the Stars gone, King Dorrian had met with Rolf to discuss the fate of the children. Cael’s remaining family had chosen to leave his son, Gavin, in the hands of Effie, a close family friend. Delwynn had long ago lost ties with most of his remaining family, and as such, his daughter, Razi, had also been sent to Great Oak Valley to live with Effie. That left the two remaining children, Lance’s 5-year-old son, Eryn, and Elwyn’s 8-year-old daughter, Rayne.
“The children know each other well,” Dorrian had said. “Despite living in various places, the Stars seem to have kept their families in close contact. It would be best, I think, if all four stayed together. Their common experience should also help them to overcome the loss of their parents.”
“What of Rayne?” Rolf had asked, frowning slightly. “She has already lost one home. Would it not be more traumatic if she were moved again?”
“Perhaps for a time,” the king had nodded. “But with her friends there, it should not take long for her to adjust. And besides,” the man leaned forward, lacing his fingers together, his copper brows narrowing in concern, “we have a very serious issue to consider.”
“What kind of serious issue?” Rolf questioned.
“The fact that the Gauls have managed to defeat four powerful warriors,” Dorrian replied. “If they are that strong, our armies may have difficulty facing them in open combat again.”
“I fail to see how this concerns the children.”
“Their fathers were legendary,” the king responded, standing and crossing over to a window, his hands behind his back. “And while their mothers were not magical warriors, they were strong, too. The children, with the right training, could potentially grow into powerful warriors. Perhaps they will even inherit their fathers’ magic abilities. No one knows the true nature of the Star spell, and if the Gauls are truly as strong as we fear, these four could potentially be the only hope we have in defeating Ceallach and his armies.”
“These are children, Dorrian,” Rolf argued. “They are not warriors, and neither were their grandparents. The Stars were unique, their power inherited not by blood but by a spell. There is no guarantee that these children will grow to become that powerful, that they will choose to be warriors, or that Ceallach will wait long enough for them to become a threat. And if Ceallach knows, or if he were to find out about the children’s’ existence, you know their lives would be in danger. He would not wait for them to grow up.”
“As far as I can tell, he knows nothing about them,” Dorrian shrugged. “Of if he does, he certainly shows no interest in them. Besides, if we kept them at my palace and trained them to be knights, they would certainly gain the skills needed to defend themselves.”
“Drumach is the first place Ceallach would go,” Rolf responded with a shake of his head. “Treat them like heroes and they will neither be safe, nor will they grow with the humility and honor of a true hero. Ceallach will know and he will target them, and if it turns out that they are not made of the material you believe they are made of, they will either be crushed by this realization or become insufferably arrogant with the belief that they are greater than they actually are. Furthermore, if you force them to do something they never desired to do, they may learn to resent you, and then they will be no more help to you than they would have been if they were normal children living normal lives.”
“And yet,” Dorrian sighed, “they might also truly turn out to be our only hope. Where would we be if we let this resource slip by us?”
“They are neither resources nor tools.” Rolf could feel himself becoming just the slightest bit angry. “They are children, innocent beings who have been dealt a fate they never deserved. I swore to protect Rayne in particular, and I feel I would be doing her an injustice by treating her in the way you suggest.”
“You know that Rinba would be a target, too,” Dorrian added quietly, turning to look at the elf lord sympathetically. “I know, Rolf, how close you were to Elwyn and that you want the best for his daughter. Believe it or not, I want the best for her, too. For all the children. But you know as well as I do what we are up against. All our victories against the Gauls were due primarily to the efforts of Lance, Elwyn, Cael, and Delwynn. Without the Stars, I don’t know where we stand against Ceallach. My soldiers are scared, Rolf. We have been fighting the Gauls for years, and the loss of the Stars has stolen what little resolve my men originally had. They need hope, Rolf. If the children are to survive, they will need protection, and if they are to be protected, they will need defenders who will not turn tail and flee at the sight of danger.”
Rolf had sighed, then. He knew Dorrian was right. The whole of Livania knew that the heroes had been killed by the Gauls. Fear was a deadly thing, particularly in battle, but the hope of new heroes would give the soldiers the courage they would need to put up a good fight.
“I understand your point,” Rolf said after a few moments of silence. “But perhaps there is another way.”
“What do you suggest?” Dorrian inquired, returning to his seat.
“Effie,” the elf lord responded. “Two of the children are already there. If she is willing to raise the other two as well, the children could stay together but would be well removed from the attention of the world as a whole. They could grow up with as normal lives as possible, and when the time came, they could choose to follow in their parents’ footsteps.”
“They wouldn’t learn to fight, though,” Dorrian frowned. “Nor would they have guards to protect them. Great Oak Valley is incredibly secluded.”
“Precisely,” Rolf nodded. “Secluded, far enough removed from the attention of the public eye, but not so far that the castle and capital city would be out of reach. Don’t worry about their training or protection. I can take care of that, and I’m sure Sloan would be willing to play a part in that, whatever he can do. We can tell the children enough to satisfy them: that their parents were strong soldiers who died fighting the Gauls. As far as I know, the Stars spoke little of their powers. I don’t believe the children know the extent of their fathers’ abilities, and I think it would be best if we kept it that way. As they get older, we can train them if they so desire, and should it appear that they have inherited some special gift, we can send them to train at Drumach or Kelga. For the moment, let them grow up innocent.”
“And what of my men? What should I tell them?”
“Tell them there is still hope, that the stars left us a safeguard that may yet save us should the Gauls decide to invade again. They must trust us despite having no visible proof of protection. If our soldiers do not trust us, how can we call ourselves lord and king? We have been too dependent on four men, men who were great, indeed, but still merely men. We are all mortal, and we all must die eventually. In order to maintain a stable kingdom, we must be able to be courageous and strong with or without magical heroes at our side.”
King Dorrian rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully for several moments, then nodded slowly.
“I can accept that,” he agreed, reaching for a piece of paper and an inkwell with a quill pen protruding from the top. “I will write a letter to Effie explaining our plan. In the mean time, do prepare Rayne for the change. I hear she has become quite attached to you.”
Quite attached, indeed. Rolf had always been fond of Rayne, though his stoic nature had made it difficult to express it. But since the loss of Elwyn, who was at once a friend and a son to him, Rolf and Rayne had nearly become inseparable. Who, then, was more attached, Rolf wondered.
By now, grey morning light was filtering through the bedroom window. The sound of low voices talking out in the hall caught the elf lord’s ears, and quietly he scooted away from the sleeping Rayne, throwing on his outer robe and slipping out of the room. There stood Arin, who was talking quietly with a human man, a royal messenger by all appearances. The pair turned when they heard Rolf’s bedroom door close quietly behind him.
“Father,” Arin said softly. “We have a letter from the king.”
She held up a small sheet of paper that was folded and sealed over with wax drippings.
“Thank you,” Rolf nodded, accepting the letter from his daughter’s hand.
He nodded in acknowledgement to the messenger, then turned down the hall to go to his study. He paused after only a few steps, however, and glanced over his shoulder at the elf girl who watched him closely.
“Arin,” he said in elvish. “Rayne is sleeping in my room. Would you watch over her? I fear she will be frightened if she wakes to find no one there.”
“Was it another nightmare?” Arin questioned, also in elvish.
“She was crying in her sleep, too,” he replied. “Do make sure she is all right.”
Then with that, he turned and continued toward his study.
The servants had already lit the fire in the fireplace by the time Rolf entered his study. He lit a couple of candles on his desk before settling down and opening the letter in his hand. Quietly his eyes scanned over the message, then he set the letter aside and leaned back in his chair, staring absentmindedly at the fireplace nearby.
It was as he had suspected. Effie had been more than willing to agree to Rolf’s plan. Lance’s son, Eryn, had already been moved to Great Oak Valley. All that remained now was for Rolf to bring Rayne.
The elf lord glanced over toward the door in surprise to see Rayne, her small hand in Arin’s, Kadin pressed protectively against the child’s right leg. The girl’s free hand rubbed at one swollen eye, which was as likely swollen from crying as it was from having just woken up.
“She would not go back to sleep,” Arin explained, looking down sympathetically at the little girl at her side. “She must have woken shortly after you left the room.”
Rolf tried not to cringe at the thought. He hoped the child would not hold it against him when he took her to live with Effie.
“It is all right, Banné Rayne,” Rolf said, standing from his seat and walking over to kneel in front of the little girl. He patted Rayne on the head, then offered her his hand, which she readily took.
“Let us go for a walk,” he continued, starting out into the hall.
Quietly he glanced at Arin and nodded as he passed her. She nodded in reply, then turned and headed off in the opposite direction. She knew what his look meant.
“Where are we going, Friend Rolf?” Rayne asked as they stepped out into the front yard of the mansion.
“Oh! Are we going on an adventure?” Kadin yipped as he bounded ahead of them.
“Of sorts, I suppose,” the elf lord nodded.
“An adventure?” Rayne’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. “What kind of adventure?”
“I have some place I wish to show you. A special place.”
“Is it a secret?”
“Right now, it is.”
By this point, the trio had come to the stables, and a whinny met them as they came to a stop next to the open doors. Out stepped a servant leading a black horse with a white star on its forehead. The horse had already been saddled, and the servant bowed when Rolf approached.
“My lord,” the servant said in elvish. “Lady Arin instructed me to saddle a horse after the messenger arrived. She said you might need one.”
Rolf chuckled slightly. Of course. Arin was sharp. She knew what was going on.
“We get to ride a horse?!” Rayne gasped excitedly.
Quickly she released the elf lord’s hand in favor of petting the horse who stood placidly as the child stroked her hand over the white spot on the creature’s forehead.
Rolf turned to see Arin. She held a long bundle in her arms, along with two bed rolls, and there was a satchel slung across her shoulder.
“I have brought what you desired.”
“Thank you, dear one,” Rolf smiled. “We should attach this to the saddle for easier transport.”
Arin nodded, and a moment later the bundles she carried had been secured at the back of the saddle.
Rolf swung up onto the horse’s back as soon as this was done, then he held out an arm toward Arin and Rayne. Quietly the elf girl pulled Rayne into a quick hug, then picked her up and handed her to the elf lord. She then handed Kadin up to Rayne before stepping back.
“Have fun, Little Rayne,” Arin smiled. “Safe travels.”
“Bye, bye, Sister Arin!” Rayne grinned, waving at the elf girl enthusiastically. “See you later!”
Rolf and Arin exchanged glances, then Rolf spurred his mount forward, the horse’s reins clasped in one hand and his opposite arm wrapped tightly around Rayne. It was now or never.
It was several days before the trio at last made it to the top of a hill overlooking a winding valley. A small stream curled like a river along the valley’s grassy floor, and off in the distance Rolf could see the towering branches of a great tree rising above the edges of the surrounding cliffs.
“Shall we rest here?” Rolf asked as he pulled his horse to a stop next to a small brook.
“Yes,” Rayne groaned, drawing out the word dramatically. “We’ve been riding forever.”
Actually, it had only been perhaps an hour since Rayne had insisted on taking a break, but to a child of 8, Rolf supposed an hour might have seemed like forever. And then, of course, there was always the fact that they had been riding, off and on, for 3 days. Even Rolf, who rode consistently every day, was just the least bit sore.
Quietly the elf lord slid from the saddle, then turned and stretched his arms out toward the little girl. Far be it from Rayne, though, to dismount without fanfare. Before Rolf realized what she was up to, the child had coiled up and taken a flying leap into his arms. The elf lord gasped in surprise, quickly reaching out to catch her before she hit the ground or knocked him over.
“That was fun!” the girl giggled as Rolf stumbled back, visibly startled as he wrapped his arms tightly around his young charge, all the while trying not to squish Kadin who Rayne still held firmly in her arms.
“Rather dangerous,” the elf lord replied, setting the girl down on her own two feet.
“I wanna do it again!”
“Best that you don’t.”
Rolf half-expected the child to protest, but already she and Kadin were off exploring, and the elf lord had to quicken his usual pace just to keep up with the pair. He led his horse to the small brook to drink, then stiffened when he spotted Rayne as she climbed up on a boulder that hung over the ledge of a nearby cliff.
“Little Rayne, please be careful,” the elf lord warned, releasing the horse’s bridle and hurrying over to where the child sat.
“That’s a really big tree,” Rayne said in awe, completely ignoring Rolf’s warning as she dangled her legs over the cliff’s edge.
Quietly Rolf knelt beside her, then turned in the direction the girl was looking. Even from this distance, they could see a tall oak, broad branches stretching out left and right, towering to heights that no mortal-made object had ever achieved. The base was a good 50 feet broad, thick roots protruding from the ground only to plunge deep inside the earth again. To one side, smoke curled from a chimney at the oak’s base, and Rolf could just barely make out the shape of a round window on the opposite side from the chimney.
“It is a very big tree,” Rolf agreed, gently taking Rayne by the arm and pulling her away from the ledge. “It’s a special tree, and an old tree.”
“A special tree?” Rayne questioned, Kadin trotting quietly at her heels. The pup was listening intently, no doubt trying to understand the strange language his mistress seemed to prefer to speak.
“Yes, a very special tree,” Rolf nodded, moving over to a pile of dry branches at the forest’s edge. “It was planted by someone very special.”
“You know who planted it?” Rayne asked, eyes wide in wonder as she followed the elf lord like a shadow. “Who?”
“An elvin princess,” Rolf smiled, kneeling and beginning to build a campfire.
A broad grin spread across Rayne’s face, and she squatted next to Rolf, her eyes sparkling with curiosity.
“Tell me, please!”
At this, Kadin yipped.
“Please, what?” the pup asked in elvish. “I want to know what you are talking about.”
Rolf chuckled, then reached into the satchel he had slung over his shoulder and pulled out a striking stone.
“A long time ago, long before the two of you were born, there was an elvin princess who loved adventure,” the elf lord said in elvish, watching as sparks leapt from the striking stone to the pile of leaves he had put beneath the pyramid of sticks. “Her father, the elvin king, worried about her a lot, but even though he told her not to go far, she did not always listen.”
“The elf king sounds like you, Friend Rolf,” Rayne giggled. “You would be him if you were a king. You always worry.”
Rolf smiled softly at this, then sat back as he watched the weak flame before him slowly grow in size and reach out to the branches surrounding it.
“The elf king loved his daughter very much, though,” Rolf continued, reaching out and drawing Rayne close to his side. The girl curled up against him, pulling Kadin into her arms before settling down to listen to the story.
“Her mother loved her very much, too, right?” Rayne asked, looking up at the elf lord. “Did her mother worry?”
Rolf closed his eyes for a moment and heaved a sad sigh. Then he looked back to the fire.
“Yes,” he said softly. “The princess’s mother loved her very much. But the elf queen never worried as much as the king did.”
“I like the elf queen,” Rayne grinned. “I think she would be fun to play with.”
Rolf smiled at this.
“She would have loved to play with you, I think.”
“Did you know her?”
“Did the elf queen help the princess plant the big tree?”
Rolf reached for a thin stick nearby and poked at the fire absentmindedly.
“No, but the princess did not plant the big tree alone. You see, back then, humans and elves did not like each other. The elves believed the humans would hurt them and the humans believed the elves would join with the humans’ enemies to take Ardenia from them. Most humans and elves would not speak to each other, and some even hurt each other because they were angry and afraid. But the princess just wanted to be friends with everyone. She thought her father worried too much, so one night she ran away to the human kingdom to make friends with the humans.”
“Did she find human friends?” Kadin piped up, craning his neck to look at the elf lord. “Were the elves and humans just being silly in not liking each other?”
“Silly, they were,” Rolf nodded, glancing up at the darkening sky above them. “But they very much did not like each other, all the same. Some very mean humans hurt the elf princess and chased her into a valley not far from here.”
Rayne jumped up at this, dropping Kadin in the process, and turned to look at the elf lord with an appalled stare.
“Why did they hurt her?!” she exclaimed incredulously. “She only wanted to be friends.”
“Some people hurt others when they do not like them. There are elves like that, too. Some choose to be mean. I do not know why.”
“Hmph,” Rayne frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. “My father would have scolded them for sure. He always told me that a person’s heart is what matters most.”
“Your father was a wise man,” Rolf replied softly.
“So what happened to the elf princess?” Rayne asked, coming back to sit next to the elf lord.
“A human hunter lived near this valley back then,” Rolf continued. “He rescued the elf princess and hid her so that the bad humans could not find her and hurt her again.”
“So there were nice humans back then, too,” Kadin said, wagging his tail.
“Yes,” Rolf nodded. “Now, this hunter had a daughter who was also very kind, and she and the elf princess became friends. One day, the two went exploring together and they discovered the secret entrance to the place where the valley elves were hiding. They snuck inside, but some guards caught them and took them to their chief. When the chief learned who the princess was, he told her he would let her go free, but the human girl he was going to keep as a prisoner. The elf princess, however, became very angry. She told the chief that what he was doing was wrong, and that if he kept the hunter’s daughter as a prisoner, he would have to keep her as well. The valley elf chief was impressed by what the princess said, and so he let both of them go free. While they were there, though, the two also made friends with the chief’s son, and for a time, he went on adventures with them, too.
“One day, the three friends met a mysterious traveler. He looked hungry and cold, and so the princess and her friends asked him to join them at their campfire and offered him food to eat. In return for their kindness, he gave them an acorn from a far-away land. The acorn, he told them, was from a great old oak that had been planted at the beginning of time and that if they planted the acorn, it would grow into an enchanted tree.
“Now, what the elf princess did not know was that her father had been looking for her all this time. One day, the elf king also met this mysterious traveler, and so he found where the princess had been hiding. When he found her, the elf king told the princess that she had to return home, but she did not want to leave her friends. She also wanted to find the perfect place to plant the acorn, and she wanted to watch it grow into an enchanted tree. And so the elf king found a place in a hidden valley, a valley that was hard to get into by foot. There he let the elf princess and her friends plant the acorn, and he told the princess she could come to that spot whenever she liked.”
“Did the princess ever see her friends again?” Rayne asked worriedly, pulling Kadin back into her arms and close against her chest.
“Yes,” Rolf nodded. “And she also got to watch that acorn grow into the big, strong tree you saw in the valley.”
“Where is the elf princess now?”
“Not far from here.”
“Can I meet her some day?”
“Perhaps. Or, yet, you may have already met her. One day you will see.”
Rayne pouted at this.
“But I want to know now,” the girl protested.
“Ah, but patience will make it that much sweeter.”
“I hate patience. Patience is boring.”
Rolf chuckled at this, then stood up and went to remove the saddle and pack from his horse’s back. He should have known better, he thought later, for when he turned around, Rayne had gone back to the rock hanging over the cliff.
Quickly the elf lord hurried toward the girl, but he hesitated at the far-off look in her eyes.
“I want to see my friends again,” she mumbled quietly as he approached. “Razi would have liked to hear your story.”
A sad expression crossed Rolf’s face, then he held out a hand toward the little girl.
“Banné Rayne,” he called softly, “come here. I have something I need to tell you.”
The girl cast him a quizzical look, then she and Kadin stood and trotted over to him. He didn’t say anything, however, until they were both standing by the campfire and a good space away from the cliff’s edge.
“Little Rayne,” Rolf said, kneeling down on one knee so as to be on eye level with the little girl. “Your friend, Razi, is waiting for you down there in that valley.”
Rayne’s eyes lit up at this.
“Oh! Is that all?” the girl laughed. “Well, why are we not going to find her? Why are we camping here? I thought you were going to tell me something bad. Let us go, Friend Rolf! I want you to tell Razi that story.”
The girl turned to rush off, but Rolf grabbed her by the wrist and gently pulled her back.
“No, Little Rayne, that is not all,” he said softly.
“What do you mean?”
Rolf swallowed hard as he looked into those confused brown eyes. He hated to tell her, but she had to know.
“Little Rayne,” the elf lord spoke slowly, “some very bad people took away your parents, and Razi’s parents, and Gavin and Eryn’s parents. King Dorrian and I have done all we can to find them, but…but Little Rayne, they are not coming back.”
All the excitement in Rayne’s face drained away at this.
“What do you…” she questioned, this time in trade language. “What do you mean? Father and Mother have to come back.”
“They can’t, Rayne. I’m sorry.”
“Then Kadin and I will rescue them.”
“Little Rayne, don’t you think I would rescue them if I could?”
By now, tears were running down Rayne’s face, and she broke down into violent sobs when he said this. Gently, Rolf pulled the girl into his arms and held her there as she cried against his chest.
“Razi, Gavin, and Eryn are all living in that valley now, together, and they are waiting for you to come live with them, too,” the elf lord said softly.
“I don’t want to!” Rayne nearly shrieked, clinging tighter to Rolf’s robes. “I don’t want to. I wanna stay with you. Please, please, can’t I stay with you?”
By now, it was all Rolf could do to keep himself from crying, and he pulled the girl tighter to him, pressing his forehead to the top of her head.
“Little Rayne, I am so, so, so very sorry. But I promised your father that I would make sure you were taken care of, that you would be given the best that I could possibly give you, and this is the best I have. You will have your friends to live with, and you will be safe as you can be there in that valley. I will make sure that you are protected, even if I can’t always be there myself.”
“I don’t wanna leave you,” Rayne cried, shaking her head for emphasis. “Can’t you protect me in Rinba?”
“Not like I can here,” Rolf replied softly. “Don’t worry, little one. I will not be far away, and if you need anything, I will do what I can. I don’t want to let you go, Little Rayne, but I must.”
“Will you and Sister Arin come visit me?” Rayne sniffed, rubbing at the tears in her eyes.
“As often as we can,” Rolf nodded. “You will never be alone, Little Rayne. You will have Kadin and your friends and a whole valley to explore. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“Of course I’ll notice,” the girl whimpered in response.
Rolf sighed, then brushed at the girl’s tears with his thumbs.
“You think that now, but I doubt it. But don’t worry about it too much just yet. We can go say hello in the morning.”
Then with that, Rolf went to retrieve the bed rolls and set them out for the night, all the while keeping an eye on Rayne who sat dejectedly poking a stick into the campfire. He sighed, then smoothed out Rayne’s bed roll next to his own. He hoped he was doing the right thing, but the way he felt right now? Right now, he wasn’t so sure.
The morning was still grey as Rolf and Rayne approached the great old oak in the hidden valley. From up close, it looked even bigger than it had from the previous night’s campsite. That the tree was also a house had not been lost on Rayne, for even her protests on having to leave Rolf had traded themselves out for awed silence.
The pair hadn’t even managed to reach the door when the handle turned and out stepped an older woman with snow-white hair and a youthful face.
“Do you remember the story I told you yesterday?” Rolf asked as he felt Rayne’s grip tighten on his hand.
“Mm-hmm,” the child replied quietly, nodding her head slightly.
“The chief’s son and the hunter’s daughter, the elf princess’s two friends, they fell in love and got married. This woman here is their daughter. Her name is Effie, and she is the one who will be taking care of you.”
Rayne’s jaw dropped at this, and she gawked up at the elf lord for a moment before turning back to stare in awe at the old half-elf before them.
“Good morning, Lord Rolf,” Effie smiled. Then she squatted down to be on Rayne’s level. “And this must be Rayne. Your friends have been so excited to see you.”
At this, a red-headed child appeared in the open doorway. Both Rayne’s and the red-head’s eyes lit up when they saw each other.
“Razi?” Rayne questioned.
Effie stood and backed away as the red-head at the door let out an excited squeal and bolted over to Rayne.
“Rayne! I’m so glad to see you!” Razi gasped. “Come inside! I want to show you the tree house! It’s amazing!”
At first, Rayne hesitated as Razi pulled her toward the door. The girl’s fingers clamped tighter around Rolf’s hand and she glanced back at the elf lord. Quietly, Rolf smiled.
“It’s all right,” he said, giving the girl’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I will see you again.”
Another split second, then Rayne let go and followed after Razi, Kadin loping excitedly at their heels.
Rolf and Effie watched them go, then the woman turned back to the elf lord.
“Do not worry, Lord Rolf,” Effie said softly in the dialect of the Valley Elves. “I will take care of her, and you are welcome to visit at any time.”
“I appreciate that,” Rolf replied, removing the long bundle Arin had given him from where he had slung it across his back and handing it to Effie. “When the time comes, would you give these to her?”
“What is this?” the half-elf questioned, cautiously accepting the bundle handed to her.
“Her father’s old swords, from the time before he was a Star,” Rolf replied quietly. “He inherited them from his adopted father, an old valley elf who lived in a small village to the south. They are of dwarvish make and should serve Rayne well if ever she chooses the path of the warrior.”
“I see,” Effie nodded. “I will put them away for safe-keeping.”
Rolf nodded in reply, then turned to leave. He paused after only a step, however, and glanced over his shoulder at Effie.
“Thank you, Effie,” he said quietly. “If there is anything you need, anything at all, you have but to ask. I may not be able to raise the children myself given the circumstances, but I will do what I can.”
“I know you will, Lord Rolf,” Effie smiled. “Give Arin greetings from myself and my father.”
“I will,” Rolf responded, smiling slightly in reply. “Good day.”
Effie waved, then turned toward the great tree, and Rolf set his gaze toward the sky. The first hints of sunlight had gathered to the east, but the valley still remained shadowed.
Quietly, Rolf climbed up to the top of the cliff where he had left his horse and turned toward the great oak. The tall, spreading branches glittered in gold sunlight at the top, and already Rolf could feel the warmth of the morning sun on his skin. He hated to leave Rayne behind. Every fatherly instinct he had inside him told him to go back and get her. But that was just an emotion, selfishness on his part. He knew that. And as he set off on horseback for home, he couldn’t help but believe he had done the right thing. And right now, that was all that mattered.