The Last Paladin: Chapter Two by David Staiger

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"It seems you have quite the popularity around here," she said, then added, "for someone who does not hail from Baensrook.."

She could feel his body stiffen momentarily at her back. Then he leaned close to speak in her ear. "I am sorry for that, milady. Truly I am. I simply did not believe you would have accepted me for the truth."

"On the contrary," she replied. "I would have respected you for it."

They rode the rest of the way up the hill until they reached the last building. There the road curved sharply to the right, heading up a shallower slope to the great keep itself. To the left Elise noted the old stone grain towers next to a wide pond, and beyond them stretched a wide plateau cultivated with orchards and farm fields. To the west the setting sun began to dip below the high ridge of hills, and turning the corner to face the stronghold now she saw the red-brown stonework practically glowing with the tinted sunlight. Several high, narrow windows gleamed like slivers of yellow-white light, and high above the two far towers the banners of the Lord and his King fluttered valiantly in the strong, upper breeze.

As the path neared the massive stronghold walls it narrowed, fitting snugly between the rocky foundations of the keep and the increasingly steep drop of the hillside. Soon the three horses walked the lane in single file, though there may indeed have been room enough for two horses abreast, and Toman begrudgingly handed Elise back the reins of her mount as he took the lead ahead of her. At the midway point of Baensrook's length, she looked up, craning her neck to see the upper turrets of the central tower nearly three hundred feet above her. Past that the solid wall of ancient stone rose over fifty feet high on her left while to her right she peered over the edge of an almost sheer drop into the forest canopy at least a hundred feet below.

From this vantage the wood outspread like a dark sea of tumultuous green. The shadows from the western hills seemed to crawl forward toward the horizon with every step the horses took. Even from here the lights of distant villages could be seen twinkling out of the ever darkening earth like tiny reminders of a much larger world. It was truly a breathtaking view, and for a moment Elise wanted to just stop and experience it, to watch as the sunlight faded and the veil of stars unfolded. Such a sight renewed her faith in the fundamentals of creation. She put an inconspicuous hand to her chest, felt the tangible security of the silver medallion that touched her breast beneath her shirt—and the ever-present danger that came with it.

When they reached the end of the road, it broadened into a wide flat at the base of looming tower. Set within a deep socket of this tower stood a pair of heavy wooden doors, each bound by intricate ironwork and framed with massive planks of carved oak that covered the hinges completely. Already Elise could determine the advantages of this structural design as well as the keep's layout.

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