*From Nienna’s Point of View*
The soft sound of warm, pattering rain filled the air as Dee and I tromped through the Fen in a heavy silence. It was not a surprise to me at how easy it was to think of her as Dee instead of De Koninck and was honestly a little easier on the tongue as well. She didn’t seem to mind it much when I mentioned the change in name and I certainly wasn’t on the receiving end of an airborne object so I took that as a good sign. As we journeyed, I did my best to ignore the silence between us but it was painfully awkward and it stubbornly remained. I could only imagine what was going through her head as some of my secrets started to come into the light. What would she think of me? What would they all think of me?
Why does it matter? Focus on your duty, I thought to myself as I refocused my attention to our general path.
Luckily, my thoughts didn’t have to linger on these thoughts too much longer. A scent carried by a gentle breeze caught my attention and was coupled with an aching chill. I inhaled deeply and detected a sharp coppery smell in the air. Curious as to where the scent led, I slowed my steps and redirected my course without any warning.
“Where are you going?” Dee asked. She sounded more annoyed than intrigued but followed me all the same.
I looked back over my shoulder and flashed Dee a confused glance as I tapped my nose. “Can you smell that?” I had never before been able to pick up the scent of blood from a distance, but for some reason I was able to smell it like a Krytan bloodhound.
Dee shook her head as she drew her greatsword from her back and followed, holding the broad blade firmly in her hands. The large Norn weapon was etched with an array of intersecting lines from hilt to point of blade and was almost as tall as me, but was in perfect proportion to Dee’s large stature. Hearing her steps slow to a halt, I stopped and turned to face her. “What is it?”
The Norn looked down solemnly at her hands holding the large blade. An uncertainty grew in her eyes and for a moment she looked lost. “I feel like I’m missing a limb without Molson. Everything feels off balance.”
A sharp pang cut through my chest and immediately I was filled with guilt. I couldn’t help but feel it was my fault that Molson was gone and my choices that had set these events in motion, but I had to harshly remind myself that there was nothing I could do about it right now. No amount of apologizing was going to help. I offered her a quiet and sympathetic nod.
Harden yourself, Nienna, I reminded myself. You still have a job to do.
Cautiously, we continued on our way as I followed the scent trail. I curled my fingers around my axe’s handle and silently pulled it from its holster in anticipation of the worst. Dee remained behind me and slightly to my left, continuously looking over her shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed. The sweet scent of blood grew strong enough I could taste it on my tongue. Not too long after, we spotted signs of heavy foot traffic.
“Here,” Dee noted as she pointed at a trail of boot prints leading past a low growing broad leaf shrub. Another set of prints joined the first set a few feet down the trail. A couple of the dark leaves from the shrub had been torn from their stalks, likely from a collision with the boots. They must have been in a hurry.
I inhaled deeply and let the sweet smell of blood settle deeper into my senses as we followed the trail. “We’re right on the edge. Look,” I said, quickening my steps. I pointed to a torn piece of rusty leather stomped down hard into the ground in a boot print.
Dee reached down and peeled the piece of material out of the boot print. “This is from Artis’ coat.”
I continued ahead, careful of my footing in case there were any traps left behind. The air felt heavy and cold with the chill of death. Immediately, my anxiety spiked as my thoughts went to the worst possible scenario. I walked through the scene as it opened up before me. The ground was torn up everywhere with boot prints and was drizzled with blood. There were a few bodies on the ground dressed in dark attire but I as I checked their faces, I didn’t recognize any of them and let out a heavy sigh of relief. I assumed they were Alec’s people. Who else would do this?
“Oh no,” Dee murmured. “Little bird-.” The Norn’s words trailed off as she picked up a broken silver wing and held it up for me to see.
My face fell as I looked upon Seren’s broken pauldron. A few dots of red were splattered on the dented silver metal and the wing tips had been broken off. Frantically, I turned from Dee and looked around the battle site to find any other sign of Seren or the others, but all I found was a broken bow. I bent down and picked one of the pieces up, running my hands over the smooth, simply carved wood. It was Quint’s and if he didn’t escape this, then none of them did.
“Do you see any tracks leading away,” I asked Dee and immediately she set to searching.
I walked back to where we entered the area from and found multiple sets of tracks coming in. “They came in this way,” I murmured. I tried keeping my eyes on the tracks and my mind focused on the task but I couldn’t stop from staring at the whole scene.
“All the tracks lead north,” Dee said as she jogged over to me. “I think they took them all. I found most of their tracks, even Clarkus’, but Alena’s isn’t accounted for. She’s so small they might have carried her.”
I nodded but remained silent as I chewed my lower lip. My hands began to tremble so I crossed my arms and held Sir Fendall’s breastplate tightly against my chest.
I shook my head. Deep inside of me, down below where I locked away the pain, memories, and emotion, something started to crack. “What have I done?” I whispered, looking at the aftermath. I couldn’t stop looking at the skirmish site. The others were gone. What if we couldn’t get them back? Would their voices be added to the ones I hear when I gazed into the dark?
Why should I care so much? I have a job to do and they’re merely tools, aren’t they?
“This wasn’t you, Nienna,” Dee answered. Her dark hair hung around her face as she looked down at me. I could feel her bright hazel eyes boring into me but I couldn’t look at them.
“Yes it was,” I argued, my jaw clenched. “Everything that’s happened is my fault. Rhys, Fendall, this, all of you-.” I swallowed hard, letting my words trail off until I picked them back up. “I should have stayed hidden. Safe and hidden and away from all of you!”
“Then why didn’t you?” The Norn asked, her tone bordering on harsh. “Why didn’t you just stay away from everyone if that was so important?”
My eyes began to well up with tears and my hands started to shake, causing Sir Fendall’s breastplate to start to slip from my grasp. Adjusting my hold on the armor piece, I held it up and gazed upon the scuffed metal. I could see myself roughly reflected back and was surprised how worn and tired I looked. “After so many years on my own, I just-.” Before I could stop them, the words rolled out of my mouth. “I just wanted a place to belong.”
“And you found it,” Dee replied and pointed at Sir Fendall’s breast plate. “It started with him and Rhys and then you found us.”
“It didn’t start out the way you think it did,” I confessed. “I saw you all as a means to an end. Tools in this never ending quest of mine. But then I got to know you all and things changed,” I said, letting my gaze fall to the ground. “I ruined it all, Dee,” I confessed, shaking my head and then began nervously pacing around the site. My heart started racing. “They’re gone and who knows what Alec is putting them through. I did this. Me and these…these secrets,” I spat out. “I selfishly thought I could have both of these lives and I couldn’t have been more wrong!” Angrily, I kicked my boot at a fallen over sapling and tore it from its stump.
“I have many things to say and even more questions. And don’t mistake me,” Dee began as she raised an eyebrow. “I’m still angry but instead of standing here debating what could have been, you need to focus on the now and the choices you have laid out before you. You can fix this, Nienna. It’s not too late.”
My mouth fell open as I allowed our gazes to meet. “How can you say that?” I asked, incredulously. “After what happened to Molson.”
The Norn’s eyes fell as she plunged the tip of her greatsword into the ground and rest her hands on the hilt. “As much as it hurts, I know it wasn’t your fault Nienna. You didn’t drive that blade into Molson. That man did,” she growled through clenched teeth as her hazel eyes narrowed. Her grip tightened on her greatsword’s hilt until her knuckles turned white.
“But you threw a jar at me at the Holy Grounds,” I said. “How can you forgive me so easily?”
“Because even though I was angry, I still believe in you, Nienna,” Dee explained, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “When we met, you could have left me behind to die in Mt. Maelstrom, but you didn’t. When the mountain shook and I got pinned by the rocks, you came back for me despite the rising lava. You almost lost your foot for Bear’s sake!”
“I couldn’t just leave you there,” I declared, gesturing in her direction. “I’m not that cold hearted.”
“Whether you accept it or not, you’re my friend.” The Norn replied tenderly and her visage softened as her lips curled into a smile that reached her hazel eyes.
I uttered a surprised laugh. “I don’t know how you can deal with all of this so well,” I said, amazed.
“What I said back home when Rhys was killed,” Dee began, her features warm with understanding. “I wasn’t lying. You aren’t in this alone.”
It wasn’t lost on me that this was what Grenth had wanted after our last conversation and I had to wonder how much of a hand he had in all this. I had expected to be frustrated, even angry that they god got his way, but surprisingly I felt relieved and it caught be off guard a little. Grenth may have wanted me to gather them all together to help me in my journey, but I found myself wanting to gather them together for a different reason.
I cared what happened to them and didn’t want any more harm to come to them. I wanted to keep them safe. I wanted to laugh with them and scoff at their bad jokes. I wanted a family. But first, we had to get them back.
Dee looked down at me, a dark eyebrow raised in suspicion. “Okay? No arguing?”
“No arguing,” I said, making my way to the start of the tracks leading away from the site. “But no more jars, okay.”
The Norn smirked and pulled her greatsword from the ground. “Okay.”