“How old were you?” Elsif asked, thumbing the blade of her knife to test its edge. Her furs rustled as she leaned forward on her log seat, planting her chin in her free hand as she looked at me, wisps of grey hair whipping in the frigid midnight wind. The knife twirled in her free hand, dancing between her fingers. “When you had your first, I mean.”
“My first?” I asked, tightening my cloak around my shoulders to keep the wind at bay. The fire was helping, but the Shiverpeaks were aptly named, and while Elsif’s cabin was only a few dozen metres behind me, she had elected to accept me out here in the woods for some obscure reason. “Twenty-two.”
“Twenty-two?” She repeated, making a soft clicking sound with her tongue. “I suppose it’s young for a human, particularly one of your family.” She twirled the knife once more in her hand before taking a firm grip on it and leaning forward to begin carving from hunk of spitted meat she’d set to roasting. Fluid hissed and steamed as it dripped onto the flames. My stomach growled. It was a rude meal, but after almost three full days of trekking through the snow to find my old mentor I’d grown more than a little tired of the rations I’d packed. “How much do you remember?”
“Enough,” I said, wondering what the norn was getting at. She’d always had a habit of hiding whatever point she wanted to make in long winded stories and metaphors, and it seemed that hadn’t changed in the years since I’d seen her..
“I was seventeen, I think,” she said, depositing a greasy slab of roasted flesh on a wooden plate and holding it out towards me. “Still know his face, but Raven help me, I cannot remember his name now.” I accepted it, wordlessly, and she turned her attention back to the cooking meat, slicing a piece off for herself as I felt my way for my knife. Together with the battered implement I found on the plate that passed for a fork, I began eating. “My father was a trader,” she went on, “tools and the like, peddling them on the road from Hoelbrak to Lion’s Arch. We stopped at a lodge on our way one night and, while my father did business with a local, I took to drinking. Foolish circumstances, really, but it was a late night, and one set of drinks led to another to another and…” She settled back with her own food, looking into the fire for a moment before generously casting a glance my way to see if I needed her eyes to eat. “Words were spoken, and before I knew it we were rolling outside in the snow.”
I didn’t say anything, waiting for her to continue. The older norn might have been deeply vexing from time to time, but I had studied under her long enough to know that she rarely said or did anything without it having some deeper meaning, and hard lessons under her tutelage had taught me it was worth hearing them out.
“He bled out quickly,” she said, her tone almost whimsical, clearly caught up in the memory of her first time. I could only imagine the pictures that were dancing through her brain right now, but I had to admit there was more than a mild curiosity in me. I’d seen Elsif in action before, and I wondered what she’d been like when she’d still been raw and untrained. It was almost distracting.
I listened, chewing on the surprisingly flavourful meat as she went on recounting the tale, telling me how her father had settled the affair with the local lodgekeeper and she’d suffered no real consequences for the boy’s death. However, rather than ask me for details regarding the first life I’d taken as I’d expected her to, she instead went on to talk about her second, third, and fourth kills. All of them progressively more violent in their context, if not their execution.
She brewed tea for me as she spoke, knowing that I had no taste for the vile excuse for a spirit that the norn favoured. I accepted it gratefully, once I’d finished eating, huddling in the furs as the winter winds seemed to grow harsher. I’d never been one for cold, but Elsif seemed characteristically unaffected. She too was garbed in furs, but far less heavily than I.
For whatever reason, her kind simply ran hotter. The smallest movements warmed their bodies to impressive levels, and I knew how a norn’s skin could almost burn to the touch after strenuous exertion. I’d always assumed it was some sort of ancestral gift from their giant predecessors, something that had allowed them to survive in the bleak cold of the Shiverpeaks for all these centuries. Whatever it was, I was more than a little envious of it now, and I nearly burned my tongue in my eagerness to take in some of the tea’s warmth.
“But my first kill was a fight,” she said, after a long moment of silence, “and he fought, hard. I don’t think either of us thought we were actually fighting for our lives till moments before his ended.” She looked at me for a moment, studying my shivering figure as I huddled against the cold. “But that’s when he started to fight harder too. Those last few moments were his most primal, his most desperate, and also his most powerful.” I saw my own jaw twitch at that. “And that’s what you’re here for, aren’t you?”
“You lost a fight, but you didn’t die,” Elsif said. “You fought for your life, you found yourself pushed to the edge – blood and bristle – fought as hard you could, and still lost, right?” I had the distinct impression she was smiling. It was in her voice, something faintly mocking and yet perversely comforting in just how familiar it was. “It wasn’t enough.”
I had spent my journey debating on how to say it to her, but now that she was actually talking about I realised I didn’t want to say it aloud. I didn’t want to tell her, to tell anyone that Tatianna had been too much for me. I lived only because she had hesitated and Tianne had arrived. The necromancer had been too much for me.
But I was here for a reason.
“It wasn’t enough.” I repeated, quietly, reluctantly.
“And what is ‘it’ to you?” She asked, putting careful emphasis on the word. “Is it what you are, or is it what you did? Or is it who you are? Were your powers not enough, your talents, your training?”
“I…” I shook my head, wishing she would stop staring at me. “I wasn’t ready for her.”
“Tell me about Tatianna.” Something curled in my gut, and she laughed, catching my expression. “You are Agent Varr, girl, secrets are our trade – you’ll never have them for yourself.”
“I did read her report, yes.”
“Well, her report wasn’t exactly comprehensive.” I said, a touch of bitterness welling up and creeping into my tone.
“I’m sure. But I learned what I needed to from it – you were saved, at the end, you and Galmond.”
“We were unprepared.”
“And that’s why you’re here.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“You want what? More training?” She asked, “More sparring, more drills?”
“No,” I said, already shaking my head. “Something new. I cannot match your kind in brute strength, and I watched her tear norn and charr apart like they were wet parchment. I need something that will allow me to hit harder. Force.” She leaned back, realising, I think, what I was talking about. “I need more power.”
“Last we discussed this, you seemed entirely convinced that you didn’t need that – I recall you saying something about being certain grace would outstrip brute force.” I felt a spike of anger of that, but I couldn’t deny it was true.
“Things have changed.”
There had been numerous instructors within and without the Order, but of them only Elsif Vremmekind had been successful in earning my respect and, by my reckoning, teaching me beyond the basics. As her student, however, I had decided against the option of training with a greatsword – I had always and still did considered them brutish weapons, hardly fitting for the elegant talents of a mesmer, but I was beginning to understand that I might need to amend my perspective if it meant fighting foes like the ones I had encountered those six months ago Lion’s Arch.
“I will help you, Kaede, of course I will help you.” She said, and imagined her smiling again, warmly this time, as she looked at me. There was a warm of relief, and I knew I’d underestimated just how concerned I’d been that she might refuse. “But we will start from the basics, then work our way up to what you really want. I need to take your measure once again.”
I was impatient, but I knew there was no sense in arguing – not with Elsif. Questioning her training techniques had never gotten me anywhere in the past and I doubted that had changed.. Besides, I had already decided that I would give myself half a year in order to become proficient with the weapon, so I had time. Once I understood how to use it, once she had taught me the basics, I was confident I could refine its use into something more fitting my personal tastes.
“Come then, Daughter of Varr,” she rose to her full, nine foot height, the fur cloak falling from her shoulders. My muscles tightened as she looked down at me, watching as my blindfolded face looked blankly ahead, my dark hair moving in the evening wind. “There is no better time to learn than the present.”
Then the air around her shimmered, her sword came out, and she was on me in a blur of steel and fell pink light.