“I ought to skin you alive and make socks of your fur for all the ones you’ve stolen from me!” a tall Norn woman threatened. She wore a long sleeveless cream-colored coat with a metal center plate on her chest, over dark brown breeches and dark brown studded boots. Like many Norn, she bore traditional tattoo markings on her body in the form of intricate lines marked on her shoulders, her upper arms, as well as at her collarbone. The woman had her hands firmly clenched into fists and shook them furiously at the recipient of her rage. Her long ponytail of earthen hair swung back and forth with every move as she shifted her weight and stance. A petite snowy owl had perched on her shoulder but took to flight when the woman gestured violently.
In response, a deep, guttural growl echoed in the small, but surprisingly spacious main hall. A large Charr warrior stood opposite the Norn woman, standing at equal height but with a much broader frame. His fur coat was an intricate pattern of brown and black stripes and he had a pair of long horns reaching to the back of his large head. He also had a second, smaller set of horns which were as long as his two sets of keen hearing ears. He wore large, spiked pauldrons on his broad, muscular shoulders and thick leather and metal straps crossed his furred chest. He swished his tail sharply back and forth and his armored legs clanged as he shifted his edgy stance. He pointed directly at the Norn, Liliana, with a long, sharp claw. “They were left in the hall scattered about, free to claim!” He wrinkled his nose and let out a frustrated huff as he narrowed his pale green eyes.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and let out a heavy sigh. Yes, we had a small guild full of goodhearted people, but that did not mean we were without the occasional quarrel. We were all united under common ideas but still all very different beings and that lead to differences of opinion and sometimes a scrap or two.
“Now hold on, Clarkus,” a third voice chimed in, trying to diffuse the situation. It was our Adviser, Quint Blackwell. He was a tall man with an athletic frame yet the other two towered over him in comparison. His salt and peppery hair was combed back and he wore a well-kept moss green long coat with brown leather panels over a white tunic, purple embroidered vest, and grey breeches. On his feet, he wore a pair of brown leather boots with embroidered panels which reached over the knee. A large female red reef drake stood on edge next to Quint, whipping her tail back and forth. She let out a hiss and chomped her strong jaws together as a warning to the arguing pair.
I knew this dance all too well. “Clarkus! Liliana!” I scolded as I wrenched out the heavy axe from the door with both my hands. I approached them, holding the weapon in my white-knuckled grip. I must have been a scary sight to see between the exhaustion, which I was sure was quite visible on my face, and the large axe in my hand because all three immediately stopped and slowly turned to me with wide eyes.
“I know you are new here, Clarkus,” I began as I pointed at the Charr warrior with the axe. “But we have been through this before. You cannot go around claiming socks that are left out in the hallway without first trying to find the owner. It’s likely they do have an owner who simply misplaced them and will be very happy to have them back.”
I caught a glance of Liliana flashing a snide look towards Clarkus. “Sock stealer,” she muttered.
“And you!” I shifted the axe, which was hers, in Liliana’s direction. She met my gaze with startled, wide emerald-colored eyes. “Anger and frustration is not a good enough reason to be putting gouges into our walls and doors. Save that for an actual attack.” I handed the Norn ranger her axe and then added, “And stop leaving your socks in the hall!” I placed my hands firmly on my hips. “You are both on cleanup duty in the dining room for the next week.”
While I watched both Clarkus and Liliana grumble under their breath and retreat, I looked up at Quint who stood almost a foot over me. My short stature made it possible for most people to tower over me but my height, or lack of, never felt like an inadequacy. “Thank you for trying to calm that situation. They are both good-natured at their core but are strong fighters and always butting heads.”
He nodded. “I don’t think they would’ve harmed each other physically.”
“It is possible they would not,” I began while looking at the new gouge in the door and sighed tiredly, my shoulders slumping. “But still, a heated discussion left unresolved could lead to something worse.” I turned back to Quint. “Speaking of heated discussions, we need to have one right now. Follow me please.”
“Melandru save me,” I heard him utter under his breath. With a whistle and a gesture, he ordered the red drake to stay put and she found herself a cozy corner by the stairs to curl up and wait patiently in until something caught her attention.
We passed a few sets of doors on each side in the northern hallway before we reached a single door at the very end of the hall. I opened it and we stepped into my dimly lit workspace. I chose to have my quarters at the end, away from everyone, because I enjoyed a quiet space and our home, as enjoyable as it could be, was not always quiet.
I opened the shutters to let in the light and squinted my eyes as they adjusted to the bright light. There was a thin layer of dust beginning to form on most surfaces in my office, including my ornately carved hardwood desk. It was an old piece of furniture and it looked it from the wear. The tree trunks carved into the thick legs of the desk had scratches and dings from moving it in and the countless times I had bumped into them with my boots while in a hurry. The edges of the rectangular desk top were beginning to smooth and show wear from the many times I had rubbed against the edges while walking by it or from sitting on the desk, which I was prone to do. Despite its appearance, it was strong and sturdy and I would not trade it for any other. It was a gift from Rhys and Sir Fendall when we first established our hall and it held much sentiment for me.
I tossed my pack on the floor next to my desk and leaned against its sturdy frame. “You had me followed again,” I began bluntly.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he hung his head and sighed. “She told you?”
“Of course she did. She’s honest to a fault,” he said.
“Her honesty is one of the reasons why I like her and why I pushed for her to join us,” I confessed. “But that is not the point. You did not need to send her to look after me.”
“Nienna, it’s dangerous out there and new dangers seem to be popping up almost every day. There’s a reason why no one goes out alone anymore,” he argued but I held up my hand to stop him.
“Quint,” I said sternly. “When leadership moved to appoint you as our Adviser, it was so you could advise us. It did not come with a license to have me, or anyone else, followed at your discretion.”
“Please understand that it was only for your safety,” Quint tried to explain. “I’ve noticed that your solo expeditions have increased lately. I just wanted to make sure you were safe.”
Remembering Seren’s request, I took in a deep breath to try to disperse my frustrations. I let my breath out slowly before answering. “I understand,” I began as gently as I could. “And appreciate the gesture but please, no more. I do not need a shadow.”
He nodded. I could see a mix of understanding and defeat in his eyes and for a brief moment, I felt a stabbing pain of guilt. Before it could take effect on me, I swallowed it down. I could not allow guilt to overcome a decision that needed to be made for everyone’s safety.
“You do not need to worry about me,” I assured him firmly. “I can take care of myself. I think everyone learned that last spring.”
“That was quite a tournament.” I watched him reach for his throat. “I still remember our match. Vividly.”
“Good. Now no more tails,” I ordered, clenching my jaw. “I don’t want to have this conversation a fourth time.”
“Understood,” Quint replied, but I could hear the false sense of finality in his voice. I knew we would be having this conversation again. Ever since the incident in Fireheart Rise, he had grown watchful and protective. I had gotten trapped and pinned down by a group of Flame Legion due to some neglectful reconnaissance on my part, something I would never let happen again. Quint was already on his way to meet up, to help me assist a group of Ash Legion with an encroaching group of Blood Legion. He was in the area and within earshot of my cries. I could have become a heap of charred remains if he hadn’t been there. Since then, I have had to endure the shadows he sends after me.
“Everything go well in the north?” I asked, immediately changing the subject.
“Yes, all matters were resolved quickly,” he began to explain. ” When we arrived, De Koninck informed us that a Svanir shaman had been growing his power to help spread Jormag’s corruption. We managed to rally enough people to take him down and his totem which severed the connection to his ice elemental. The Norn people should be safe now.”
“I am sure she appreciated the assistance,” I replied.
“Indeed. The Norn were also very grateful and insisted on throwing a moot. As if they really needed a reason,” he chuckled. “De Koninck and the others stayed behind and should return home tomorrow,” he said.
“No celebrating for you?” I asked.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he replied. “At least, not this time. Too much to do here at home.”
I forced a polite smile, despite my exhaustion and gently pushed myself away from my desk. “Well, then do not let me keep you from your duties. If you will excuse me,” I began as I made my way to the door. “It has been a long journey.”
“Of course.” Quint excused himself and made for the door but stopped in the entry way. “By the way, Tuborg was asking about when you were coming back.”
“I will let him know I am back. Do you know where he is?” I asked.
Quint replied, “I haven’t seen him this morning so far. You could check the usual places. If I see him, I’ll let you know you’re looking for him.”
I thanked Quint as he left and closed the door. With a weary sigh, I stretched my arms above my head as I tiredly strode over to my pack and slung it over my shoulder. I opened a pair of side doors in my workspace and stepped into my private quarters. My eyes adjusted to the dim light but I could see the outlines of my canopy bed in front of me near my bookcases. Heavy red curtains hung gathered at the posts with braided rope ties. A table and chairs sat on the right near the fireplace, two armoires stood on opposite walls, and the basin and tub were resting in the far corner. I did not really need any light to know where everything was. After two years, I could maneuver through my room without my sight if I needed to.
I opened the shutters over my windows and shut my eyes, shocked with the brilliant morning light. Blinking, I let my eyes adjust and then continued settling in. I opened a large armoire to reveal my collection of weapons. I dropped my pack onto the bottom shelf and it landed on the wood plank with a loud thud. Unhooking my Ambrite axe from my belt, I hung it up next to my ornate Ascalonian axe that I had acquired while on an expedition in the Ascalonian Catacombs. Reaching down, I replaced my old Vanguard dagger on a lower hook, next to its mate. I was never in the Vanguard itself, but I had always enjoyed the blade’s winged design.
Just on the edge of my field of vision, I spied my old etched dagger laying on its side on the bottom shelf. I could barely bring myself to look at it. The old cloth I had wrapped it in had fallen partially off and trying not to look at it, I quickly covered it back up. I did not want to revisit that memory right now.
I closed the armoire, turned to the identical one across the room and opened it. I pulled out a soft robe and tossed it over my shoulder before turning to my tub. I turned the copper handle next to the spout and filled up the deep copper tub with warm water heated in the large water tank secured in a chamber under the floor. We managed to finish installing plumbing in our guild home shortly before I had left on my journey to Malchor’s Leap and I was very happy to return to it.
I pinned up my hair and then soaked for awhile, letting the warm water coax the tension from my muscles. I scrubbed with a bar of cinnamon infused soap and a soft cloth until I was satisfied, before I got out and donned my robe. I quickly got dressed into a pair of red leg wraps with a fur lined red over-skirt, a matching fur lined chest piece, and soft-soled boots. I combed my hair back from my face and secured it with a silver clip. I took a moment to look at my reflection in my small oval mirror hanging on the wall, something I rarely did anymore. As I narrowed my eyes, I could see the small creases around them deepen even more. I poked at them as I opened them wide and then squinted. Upon further examination of my appearance, I spotted a few more grey hairs anchored along the front edge of my hair line. I sighed and chuckled.
“When did I get so old?” I muttered to myself.
As I looked into the deep green eyes looking back at me in the mirror, I felt a cascading shower of memories wash over me. I could hear their voices screaming and echoing in my ears again. No! Please, do not do this! My smile fell as I felt my hands began to shake. I tore my gaze away from the mirror. I could feel my body break out in a cold sweat so I sat in one of my chairs by the fireplace and focused on my breathing. This had not been the first time I suffered an attack. They triggered occasionally with a recall of memory from times past and this one was no different. Since I found the grave disturbed, I felt my troubles resurfacing. Feeling my heartbeat quicken, I closed my eyes and bowed my head as I took in deep, even breaths. I wanted to run. I wanted to run as far away as I could but I needed to keep myself in check. It was imperative the others never saw me like this. They may start asking questions and it was a road I did not want any of them to travel down.
The question of who disturbed the grave plagued my mind heavily and so I focused on it as a task, a puzzle that needed to be solved. I could feel the memories fade away as I buried them under my new task at hand. Perhaps either Sir Fendall or Rhys felt it necessary to disturb the site and had not contacted me about it yet. Forcing my heavy lidded eyes to stay open, I let them remain unfocused as I continued to mentally calm myself. I leaned back in the chair and looked off into the distance while in thought. Rhys was located closer to our hall than Sir Fendall. I would pay him a visit first…after I rested my eyes for a moment.