The baron had only one daughter. No sons, no relatives he felt he could trust to inherit after he died. And die he would, he thought bitterly. Skeletal hands clawed at the heavy velvet of the bed curtains. A wide, hideous smile stretched the paper thin skin of his face. Glazed, bloodshot eyes spun around the room. Where was his daughter? He was dying and it was his duty as the baron of this bitter, blasted land to pass the responsibility of ruling it to his daughter. His only daughter. Where was she?
His crackling breathing and the slight rattling of a silver medical tray held by a frail looking maid were the only sounds echoing in the stately chamber. Heavy, dark wood smoothed the walls that were cold mountain stone underneath. The chill from deep beneath the baron’s keep rose like an unseen mist from the floor and leaned from the walls like an unsmiling ghost. The rattling of the silver tray, however, seemed to be less from the cold, and more from the poorly hidden terror of the maid. The baron could only smile more widely at the fact that the lowly servant’s gaze was fastened not on his desiccated body, but on the door his daughter would soon walk through.
A wisp of wistfulness softened the very edges of his frozen smile. His beloved, his darling wife of the barbarian tribe he had once trafficked with was long passed into the ether of death. She spoke not a word of the civilized tongue, and he would never debase himself so far as to learn so much as a syllable of that gurgling tribal speech, but he loved her all the same. The sophisticated hatred in her eyes had been worthy of the highest rank, and the incredible cruelty she had been capable of inflicting on what he had assumed was her closest kin had surely earned her his undying respect.
The twisted runes she had worn upon her cheeks had marked her as some sort of sorceress, her tribe’s version of what a healer should be, he assumed. The clan of orcs had called this desolate land home for far longer than he had. Indeed, they had scratched their primitive scrawl into the cracked hills and broken stone of what should have been his glorious border sovereignty. Ah, he had been so young then. His father had spoken so often of the glory and splendor of nobility, only to die with a dagger in his stomach. His mother, so weak and useless, had pleaded with his highness, the crown prince for some escape for her son. Foolish woman, he had already been old enough to act his part in the dance of backroom politics. He would have made their name great, he would have ensured vengeance for the father he cared little for, and he would have, perhaps, even twisted the knife in the stomach of that all-too-kind prince.
Ah, what escape his mother had bought him. The nobles who had accompanied him had died one by one, smug and questioning his right to rule them. Ah, he had been so young then, but it was good that the memories of youth could warm him in his old age, ha ha.
A bird fluttered by the thin window, scattering the light and earning an almost-scream from his last maid. She had been the daughter of one of the cooks, if he remembered correctly. Or no, perhaps she had been a child from that band of nomads who had passed too close. Nomads never seemed to know when to pay tribute to their rightful ruler. They, unlike some, had ignorance as their excuse and therefore, deserved a strong warning instead of a swift punishment. He expected them to have nothing of value, naturally, but it was the principle of the matter. The nomad routes must be wider than he thought, however, since they had yet to return. He would have to remind his daughter to collect from them when they did.
His daughter, where was his daughter? Though he had been ever faithful to his beloved wife, he would never have accepted any progeny of hers as his heir, or so he thought. He remembered dimly, far into the past, he had been young and proud. He had strode into the barbaric encampment with his head held high, but he would have been a fool to not have noticed the spooked looks on his orcish allies. They grunted to each other in clumps, glancing at him with fear, as they should, but he was no fool. He could tell when the fear was not directed at him. He followed their almost furtive glances toward the hut set slightly apart from the others. How many years had it been since he had walked before them? Too long, surely, if something else could scare them more than he.
A rattling sound, the bones of some bird strung out and dried as a decoration clacked together against the curtain on the primitive hut’s entrance. My dear wife’s hideous face and beautiful eyes gazed at me, a perfect lady awaiting her husband. She smiled at me, cracked and blackened teeth twisted with twine and bits of meat, some barbaric jewelry, no doubt. Then she stepped forward from the doorway of the hut, and pulled with her a tiny, tiny white hand. I remember thinking that she had some carved bone gift to present to me, when I realized that small hand was connected to a small, thin arm. And then my eyes met the cold, beautiful eyes of my daughter for the first time.
There was no question that she would come with me. She was small and perfect as any marble sculpture ever carved by any court artisan. She had none of the barbaric look that would mark her as an orcish child. I’m sure there were many who wondered from where I had found her, but no. The shape of her face, the delicate hands, there was no question that she was my daughter. She had the same black hair as I once did in my youth, and when she grew, I could see echoes of my own mother in her figure. Every inch the aristocrat, she learned from me all I could teach. My daughter speaks in the refined language of royalty, she walks with all the grace of a queen. She will be a fine baroness, more worthy of the title than those pampered weaklings in that land I left so long ago.
There has always been something… off about my daughter. She was always a quiet girl, from the time she was still small enough to ride in the saddle with me. She is too big for that now; she towers over the servants in both her bearing and her height. I suppose it was wrong to assume that any girl child of mine would turn out the same way as those twittering courtesans in their fluffy, flower-colored dresses. This land is not so rich as to provide such colors for my daughter’s dresses, much as I had often wished otherwise when she was still my tiny daughter to spoil. The dark blues and fur-lined capes suit her now, I see. But nobility is more than the clothes one wears.
How to put into words this strangeness of my daughter’s, I wonder. She was old enough to speak when I first saw her, even though it was in that primitive tongue. She could walk, and glare with the eyes of a judge at those servants who learned their place too slowly. Too long among the orcs, I worried then. But she grew strong and capable. There is no other in whom I would place my trust. The faintest whiff of dried herbs is no more than some obscure perfume, and the murmurs of my servants are unwarranted.
The handle of the chamber door turned, startling the maid again and sending the serving tray to the ground in a clatter of silver and shattering of porcelain. The maid’s stuttering was almost a soothing background noise. The baron’s daughter glided into the room, not a trace of concern on her face. The maid was ignored, she would be punished in due time. This was the baron’s last moment. He grasped at the air above him, and at last a gloved hand grasped his. Her cold hand felt warm to him.
He could barely see her. His vision had faded in his old age, and yet the world had never seemed so dark or shadowed before.
“You…” He rasped.
The air would not come. It seemed as if all the strength he had within him had faded. Once he had been a giant of a man, the great baron of a nearly lifeless land. It had taken him years and years of struggle to build this place, to tear a life for himself from the unwilling earth and carve his will into the very stone, but now… but now it felt like the earth and stone were taking it all back.
He could barely see her face within the darkness, but he had the strength, he must have the strength for one final message. It was the most important message he would ever give his daughter.
“…a fine… baroness.”
And with that, the baron was dead.
The stuttering of the maid had fallen silent at last. The head of staff and her father’s most responsible servant had ushered the silly girl away with the last remains of her father’s medicine. He had lived a long life, especially for one who had once lived in the soft, inner kingdoms with their all luxuries. They say he once fought three white dragons for the stone spire this castle was built on. They say he fought ogres and primitive human raiders to keep it. They say he once even guarded a food caravan himself to insure its precious contents made it to the starving and the sick within the castle walls one cold, cold winter.
He was a great man. He was a brave man.
The new baroness sat silently at her father’s bedside. He seemed thin and frozen as a wight, but she could see the finality of true death in his now empty eyes. The morning sunlight streamed in through the windows, small birds whistling pleasantly to the clear blue sky. There was fresh snow, bright on the hillside, soft and sparkling like the fur on the baroness’ house robe. Her hair was unbound and long. Hanging above her bare feet, the hem of her nightgown could be seen. When her father had worsened in the night, she had not been surprised. Though the servants would no doubt talk of her run from her own quarters on the other side of the castle to her father’s, she was soon enough to hear his last words. That was worth the murmurs of impropriety to her.
There were no tears on the baroness’ cheeks as she stood. She would have to be strong to be the baroness of this unforgiving territory. Her cold eyes swept over the few servants who had dared follow her. They did not meet her eyes. They were frightened of her. But they did not respect her as they respected her father. She was no hero, she had no accomplishments to her name, and she was strange. The witchery her mother had taught her was beyond the comprehension of these purely human folk. Her magic would seem barbaric and unrefined to them. It would cause her only difficulty if they did not respect her as well.
She owed nothing to her subjects. But she would never deny her father’s last words.
It was time for her to have an adventure.