Ariella listened patiently as I ran through the security procedures. She already knew them but with recent developments, I wanted to make sure they were sound in her mind. Wordlessly, she nodded at the end of each instruction, her dark eyes looking down at me intently. Her large stature remained still and thankfully shielded me from the afternoon sun. The only movement she ever made was to ever so slightly tilt her head to the side as she listened.
“Liliana will remain here with Tuborg. Clarkus and Alena should be returning soon,” I informed her. “That should be plenty to watch over the hall while we are gone. If a situation arises that is beyond your handling, send up a flare and the Vigil will come.”
When we had established our hall, Sir Fendall had risen in the ranks of the Vigil to Warmaster and managed to form an arrangement for the Vigil to come to our aid should we need it. All we needed to do was send up a red flare and a group of crusaders would come to our aid. We had not needed to send a flare to date and I hoped we would never need to.
I looked over my shoulder to find De Koninck step out the front doors. She had opted to leave behind her long, white coat and instead donned a grey leather sleeveless jerkin and skirt with white trim and a wide white belt that rested low on her curvy hips. A large, etched great sword sat in its holster on her back, the hilt rising up between her broad shoulders. She adjusted her grey and white armguards while waiting for a response. “Where is that bear?” De Koninck muttered to herself. “Molson!”
A large brown bear emerged from the hills, grunting as he quickly made his way down. Dust and dirt wafted up as each of his large, clawed paws struck the ground. Immediately, the great beast lumbered over to De Koninck, rose up on his hind legs, and reached up to place his strong paws on her shoulders.
“Com’ere you big fuzz.” The Norn wrapped her strong arms around her pet as they locked in a quick embrace before Molson returned to walking on all four limbs. De Koninck then gave him a hearty pat on his back.
I smiled at the display of affection between the two. That bear meant everything to De Koninck and she had told me how his companionship had helped her get through some very rough times before we found her and brought her in to the group. “Everything clear?” I asked, turning back to Ariella.
The Norn thief nodded. “Yes, Lady Commander.” She leaned in closer and her visage softened slightly. Perhaps she was picking up on the nerves that I had been trying so hard to contain. Despite her usual silence, Ariella seemed to be quite an intuitive individual. She knew just how to respond to my requests. “Don’t worry.”
Ariella straightened her posture as Quint and Seren came out the front doors to join us. They were both geared for the journey, though neither of them were in the cheeriest of moods. Considering the loss we had all experienced, I understood completely. Quint straightened his moss green long coat after securing an ornately carved red longbow on his back. He offered me a tired nod before putting on a pair of dark tinted glasses.
Seren looked especially grim. I grew concerned that my request to withhold the information about the Inquest device had placed a heavy weight on her shoulders and now she would resent me. I watched her closely as we gathered up our packs for the journey and I could see she was trying very hard to avert my gaze. As she reached down to get her own pack, the afternoon sunlight glinted vividly off of her newly repaired winged shoulder plates. I winced as the bright flash of light blinded me. Reaching back, I pulled my shadow hood over my head. The carved skull covered my head and face and blocked the bright flashes of light from my eyes. It also gave me a chance to avoid any awkward glances from Seren.
We departed and made our way north through the city. It was busy with the bustle of merchants and citizens running errands and closing deals for their wares. As we crossed the bridge at the north entrance of Lion’s Arch and into the Gendarran Fields, Quint let out a piercing whistle. His large red reef drake came waddling hurriedly through the entry way. She spent most of her time near the canals or the beach and this morning the scent of something enticing, most likely a skritt or a very large rat had caught her attention near the north entrance. Her tail swished violently as she hissed at Quint but followed us all the same. Quint smiled and gave her a gentle pet on her head as she wandered next to him down the path leading us west towards Kessex Hills.
“She’s a bit feisty this morning,” De Koninck noted as she looked over her shoulder back at Quint and Seren. Molson let out a grunt, seemingly echoing his master’s comment. The large beast plodded happily next to De Koninck, occasionally sniffing the air and letting out a snort.
Quint smiled and adjusted his glasses. “She’s just speaking her mind like she does,” he replied, patting the drake’s thickly scaled red hide. “Right, Michi?” Michi let out a hiss followed by a few snaps of her jaws.
Despite the quick pace we kept, I was doubtful we would make the destination before evening. If we kept our pace, I figured we could possibly make it to Canvernhold Camp by nightfall and spend the night there. It was almost half a day’s journey and we had left a little later than I had liked. Liliana had insisted she join us and I had wasted precious time convincing her that she was needed more at our hall. Eventually, she reluctantly agreed to stay. If it were possible, I would have let every member be present in his hunt, but our hall was just as important as this hunt was to us all. I could not let it go unprotected.
The lighthearted exchange of words melted away and heavy silence took over our small group as we walked along the road. The nature of our journey was not a happy one but hopefully the results would at least give us some peace and an end to all this. I tried to catch a glimpse of Seren over my shoulder. Her eyes were locked on the road, trying to avoid my gaze again. The Shiverpeak mace which she often brought out on the road with her, swung next to her hip and Seren rested a hand on as she walked. An uneasy energy had settled between us since our conversation earlier in the day. I knew there would be a price to pay for my choices and I feared this would not be the last one. In all my years, I had not wanted to divulge the truth as much as I did while walking with my friends on this road. I had never grown close to anyone in my years traveling, so I could not see the full consequences my life and my secrets did to others.
But now, things were different.
When Rhys, Sir Fendall and I had decided to build our community, we had thought we would be able to build it while housing our secret at the same time. Rhys and Sir Fendall were both able to find a balance connecting with our members while still managing to keep our secret safe. I found it difficult to connect with them all beyond anything superficial, considering the life of self inflicted isolation I had led for over twenty years before. Yet over time, their different personalities, their laughter, and their warmth caused me to let down my guard a little and I would catch myself joining in with their jokes on occasion.
“Copper for your thoughts?”
“Hrm,” I replied, my voice slightly muffled from my hood. I snapped out of my thoughts to find De Koninck studying me while waiting for a reply. “Oh, sorry. I was considering our options when we find who killed Rhys.” I had expected to feel my eyes tear up at saying his name but they did not even gloss over. I was done shedding tears and was ready to shed the blood that was owed.
“And when we find them?” The Norn ranger asked, cocking an eyebrow.
My traveling companions fell silent again and I looked over my shoulder to find Quint and Seren listening intently to what I would say next. I turned, stopped us in the middle of the road, and pulled back my hood. “So it is clear to everyone, when we find who murdered Rhys, we will kill them. However many there are. Death for death.”
De Koninck offered a mighty battle cry but I could see by the uneasy look on Quint’s face and Seren’s raised eyebrows that my plan fell on uncertain ears.
“With all due respect,” Quint began, a slight tinge of apprehensiveness to his gentle tenor tone. “That seems quite extreme. I understand your want for justice but why not bring them to the Seraph for trial and sentencing?”
“Extreme,” I repeated, resting my left hand on the hilt of my axe. My fur-lined skirt swished about me as I strode purposefully over to Quint, anger boiling in my gut. “Do you think whomever did this gave Rhys the same courtesy?” My words rolled off my tongue with intense stability. “They did not. They slaughtered him in his own home.”
“Do we then need to lower ourselves to their tactics?” Quint asked, gesturing outwardly with his hands. Michi emphasized his gestures with sharp hisses and a defined snap of her strong jaws. “Depending on who was responsible, similar actions could bring about worse consequences not only for us but the rest of our guild.”
I could feel myself lose patience with the conversation. “We are not lowering ourselves to their tactics Mr. Blackwell,” I declared, my voice rising. “We are responding appropriately to their actions. They started this by killing Rhys and we will end it. I will see no more come to harm from these murderers!”
“She’s right!” De Koninck agreed firmly. “They need to repay this debt with their life!” Molson pawed at the ground and let out a deep, gruff noise.
“I have agree too,” Seren spoke up softly. “It would be ideal to be able to bring them to the Seraph but let’s face it. There’s a chance they may have connections and someone in high standing could manage to have them set free. We can’t risk that. Who knows what they would do next or who they’d go after. We need to deal with them ourselves.”
I had not expected Seren to enter our conversation, especially after the disagreement earlier and I was relieved to find she had agreed with where I stood on the matter. Quint even seemed satisfied with her answer and set aside his concerns, at least for now. I did not doubt I would be hearing from him again in the near future. Much like Michi, Quint was not afraid to speak his mind. It was something I appreciated because like others in my position of authority, not many were brave enough to challenge my decisions. I was not only a Commander but also a Founder and my say, like Rhys’ or Sir Fendall’s, was final, but I was not infallible and was still a being of this world: flawed and broken.
“We should go,” I advised, noting the position of the sun as it started to hang low in the sky. “You still have your contacts at Cavernhold, Quint?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied.
“Good, we will be making camp there for the night.”
Our journey along the road to Kessex Hills was uneventful and as we continued on, the swamp lands on our left gave way to forested hills which then gave way to more swampland on our right as we crossed into Kessex Hills. The sound of crickets filled the quiet early evening as we passed Black Haven. At our current pace, I figured we would be able to make it to Cavernhold just after dark. It was a little later than I had anticipated but still close enough.
“Do you hear that?” Seren asked, just after we crossed the bridge. Instinctively, the young guardian rest her hand on the pommel of her Shiverstone mace. “Sounds like someone crying.”
Quint remained silent as he stood still, listening and watching intently. He gave Michi a quiet command to guard the area and with a swish of her tail, the red reef drake began moving around the group, searching for anything suspicious.
“I hear it too,” De Koninck noted as she reached for the large Norn blade on her back. Molson’s dark nose stuck up in the air, catching the scent of something nearby.
We searched the area in what dim light we had left before the sun disappeared entirely. Off the road, near the shelter of some thick foliage, was a young boy. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he sat holding his knees tight to his chest. His short mop of dark blonde hair was disheveled and there was dirt smeared lightly along his forehead and chin.
“Are you okay?” Seren asked as she approached him. The child looked up at Seren, his distraught visage starting to shift into something much more sinister.
“Wait Seren,” Quint warned, reaching out for the young guardian.
I felt the point of a blade at the base of my neck.
“That’ll do Rolan,” a sharp voice spoke from behind me. I watched the young boy’s wicked grin turn into one of pride as he hopped up and joined the rest of the bandits emerging from the shadows amongst the foliage.
“Bear’s back,” I heard De Koninck curse.
As the bandits closed in, the four of us stepped closer together, tightening our group. The one holding the sharp blade at my neck moved around to the side, closing the circle they formed around us. I wrapped my fingers around the hilt of my axe while making a mental note to start with him first. Molson and Michi growled and snapped as they guarded us. De Koninck and Seren had drawn their weapons, they too preparing to fight.
“If I may,” Quint began, his voice barely above a whisper as he leaned in close to my ear. “These are likely Jannaj’s men. They take hostages and they may have seen others traveling this way,” he suggested. “And how many.”
“Hmm,” I replied, considering his advice. He was absolutely right. We had no way of knowing who we could be expecting to run into or how many there were. It was not without risk, but this situation could prove to be informative. I looked at our group and then to Quint, offering him a nod.
“Put them down,” I commanded, facing my group. “Put down your weapons.”