Most mornings had started in much the same way. Elsif’s stirring in her furs would rouse me from whatever mangled semblance of a dream had played through my sleeping mind, and I would rise. There would be little conversation while we prepared for the day, but the last two and a half months of it had bred a routine in us so little chatter was needed. Hard drills to start while Elsif prepared something resembling breakfast and packed the rest of my supplies for the day.
It would barely be dawn when she – or rather her clones – led me out to some fresh patch of wilderness so that I could train with my greatsword and what Elsif had started calling my web. I had been getting better at both – my powers were becoming more focused. I couldn’t quite split a pine in half yet, but the increasingly more durable and varied array of illusionary constructs that my mentor was sending at me were nevertheless becoming easier and easier to destroy with a well placed beam. Better still, my web was becoming easier to make, stronger, more responsive.
I wasn’t quite marveling at my new abilities, not quite yet, but the possibilities were thrilling. Every evening I would collapse into the furs, exhausted, but wake with a nearly frantic energy that would push and pull and drag me through the trials of the day. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but the new power was a stimulant. I was almost ready, and the excitement was an exhilarating high.
But today was different.
“Kaede. Wake up.”
Elsif’s voice was barely audible, whispered words carried across by her illusions rather than drifting through the air. Her tone was calm, but there was a tension hidden beneath it, and no-one woke anyone in the middle of the night without reason.
“Two, at least. At the perimeter,” she said, her words a ghost in my ears. “Front and back.”
I came awake immediately, adrenaline building as I came to a silent crouch in my furs. I saw little – the faint outline of the stars and moon shining in through the cracks in the windows and door of Elsif’s lodge, nothing to suggest any threat, but I trusted her over my still-waking mind. It took a moment for my mind to reorient my position in the room, drawing on what it had looked like last night. My sword was in my hand, still sheathed, and I eased my pistol out of its holster with my other, trying to stay as quiet as I rose.
“Take the door, hold fast,” Elsif ordered quietly. Obeying, I crept closer to the door, and our intruders came into my range. Sharp eyes were scanning the lodge, and judging by their sudden rise I could only assume their owner had been crouching.
In the moonlight I could just make out hands – the massive, clawed paws of a charr. The brute glanced over their shoulder and beckoned to the trees, where figures – two, four, then more and more emerged. There were at least three charr, several asura, and a handful of humanoid figures, all moving with practiced ease through the forest, but it was impossible to make out anything more distinct in the darkness.
“A dozen,” I hissed, quietly drawing the hammer back on my pistol. “Maybe more.” Elsif looked at me, and I sidled up against the door as more and more eyes came into range, encircling and approaching the lodge.
There was the crunching of snow, and quiet words exchanged somewhere in the darkness outside as the charr spoke to more human-sized figure in a heavy cloak. The second – a human, I assumed – shook their head, gesturing towards us, and the charr drew a long, brutal looking knife as it turned its gaze back to the lodge. There was another quick gesture, and the band began creeping towards us.
“Weapons,” I whispered. “They’re coming.” I heard my mentor take a long breath.
“You’re in the wrong place, friends!” Elsif called out, and the oncoming band stopped abruptly. Several voices, low and quick, started up in the darkness. The charr was speaking to the hooded human, who seemed to shrug and point back towards the forest. Curt nods were exchanged, and the charr turned back to the lodge.
“Maybe we are,” the charr barked back, his voice gravelly. “Maybe you can help us find the right one.”
“We’re looking for someone,” the human stepped in, cupping a fur-gloved hand beside his mouth to raise his voice.
“Maybe you can help us find them,” the charr went on, “Why not come outside and we can talk about it?”
“Who’re you looking for?” Elsif’s voice was calm, level. Reasonable. Her greatsword, however, was held firmly in her hands, its long blade glinting in the faint light of the moon. “I know these parts and most in them.”
“Come on outside, we can talk about it.” The charr again. “I promise you’ll not be harmed”
“You’ll forgive me for not taking your word for it, friend,” Elsif said.
“We’re wasting time,” the human growled just loudly for us to hear. “Let’s just-” A look from the charr silenced him, the hierarchy between them clear.
“My name is Zakarias,” the charr introduced himself. “We’re looking for some folks, group of norn that might have passed through here a few weeks ago.”
“What kind of ‘group’, Zakarias?” Elsif pressed. “Not a lot of people that come through here, and most of them are traders.”
“They’re no traders, this lot. Or hunters,” he answered, “Servants of Svanir.”
Elsif paused, and I couldn’t blame her. Sons of Svanir. Servants of the Elder Dragon, Jormag, who’d driven the norn out of their ancestral homes. Fanatics. Dangerous zealots. If a band of them were in the area if was definitely something that bore knowing.
“Suggest you move on then,” she said. “Like I said, you’re in the wrong place, and I haven’t heard of a band in the area.”
“Not sure if I can take your word for that,” Zakarias said.
“You’re making this difficult, norn.” The human’s voice was impatient. “Come on out or we’ll come in.”
“Stand down,” Zakarias warned, but the human’s snarled something unintelligible and the two fell into a sharp, whispered bickering before a third voice – cutting in from the woods – silenced them both.
It was a woman’s voice, husky, deep, flavoured with a rich accent I couldn’t place. The rolling timbre reminded me of the Elonian sailors who’d maintained the accent of their homeland. She hadn’t shouted, spoken just loud enough for me to hear, but her words seemed to almost ache with command and authority.
“The Sons of Svanir do not recruit women, they don’t so much as tolerate them,” the woman said as she came forward, hooded against the cold like the others. “So I believe you when you say they’re not here, but it’s late, the night is cold, and we could use directions from someone who knows the area.”
“I don’t know where your group is, whoever you are, so I can’t be of much help to you,” Elsif replied. “I suggest you move on.”
“Your refusal to cooperate is making it difficult to trust you,” the woman said, shaking her cloaked head in the moonlight. “And I’ve met too many mothers and sisters who don’t want me killing their Svanir sons and brothers to trust your word for it. You might not be cultist, but you might be an informant, and I’d rather not leave one of those behind.” I tapped my thumb against my sword to get Elsif’s attention, but she shook her head slowly and gestured for me to stay put.
“You’re going to kill them?”
“Aye,” the woman answered, “but the wind’s been making it hard to track them. My hounds don’t do so well in the cold, but we’ve been following this group for nearly a month now.”
“You’re bounty hunters?”
“Something like that,” the woman answered. I didn’t like the ambiguity of the answer, but it seemed like Elsif relaxed a little. “What’s your name, norn?”
“Good to meet you, Elsif,” she said. “I’m Ciani.” There was a long moment of silence, and Elsif looked at me.
“Ciani, the Fallstar?”
“Have we met?” Ciani asked, an edge of amusement in her in her voice now.
“No,” Elsif said, “But I know of you and yours.”
“Good, then we can skip the rest of the niceties,” Ciani replied. “If you know who we are and you know who I am then you know that I’m no threat to you.”
“And yet only your word that you are who you say you are.”
“Enough.” Caini was clearly out of patience. “Open the door, we can talk like the civilised adults we are or I set fire to your lodge and have my men kill anyone and everything that comes out. I have forty-seven knights here. Even if you were packed to the brim in there you’re outnumbered and you might think you’re scrappy, but take me at my word when I say you don’t want to roll that dice.”
Elsif looked at me, shook her head again, then crossed the lodge and gestured for me to move away from the door. I did, keeping my gun raised ready as I stepped aside, clearing the way. The air shimmered around her, and a perfect replica of the norn unbarred the door, pulled it open, and stepped out into the darkness.
I stayed low, out of sight on the inside of the door as Ciani approached, lowering her hood and stopping just a few paces from my mentor’s clone. She gestured with a hand, and the raised weapons behind her lowered in unison.
“And you are Ciani,” Elsif’s clone said, and the real norn nodded at me, telling me to relax. “The Fallstar, and the Mourn Knights.”
“In the flesh,” Ciani flourished a somewhat exaggerated bow, arms spreading to either side before rising, her expression somewhat bemused. “These are my lieutenants, Jayl and Zakarias.” The human male and the charr both grunted in greeting, the former lowering his own hood.
It was hard to make out details in the moonlight, but Jayl was a rough-skinned man, tanned, bald, and with just a hint of white in his coarse beard. Zakarias had dark fur – deep brown, perhaps – with great white horns that swept forward. The rest of them, moving in the darkness beyond, were less clear and their forms were further obscured by their thick cloaks.
Ciani, on the other hand, was easiest to see. She was tall, and while it was hard to judge from Elsif’s perspective, she might have been taller than even I. Her skin was dark, and in the moonlight it was a deep, almost absolute shade of ebony. Smooth, unmarred, and surprisingly youthful, with eyes glinted like stars in an almost soft face. It wasn’t what I would have expected of someone who commanded a band of bounty hunters.
My surprise at this, however, was entirely swept away by the series of deep, warbling coughs that sounded from somewhere behind Ciani and the three monstrosities that stalked out of the trees to join her.