“They’re not knights as you might understand them,” Elsif explained to me as Ciani’s men were setting up camp. “Closer to mercenaries, but not quite that either.”
“Then what?” I asked. We stood in the lodge, away from the band, speaking quietly to avoid being heard.
“They take contracts as sellswords or assassins, but they’re known for being extraordinarily selective in which ones they take on,” Elsif replied. “There’re centuries of tradition tied to the process, but from what I’ve heard they’ll turn down any job that they don’t consider challenging enough.” She crossed her arms, leaning back against the doorframe. “Their history isn’t exactly well documented, even by the Order, but they – or at least a Fallstar – have fought in just about every major conflict since The Searing.”
“Family business then?”
“Almost, but Fallstar is a title, not a name. There’s always been a one in charge of or at least part of the Knights, I believe,” Elsif said. “Far as I understand it, new ones are chosen through combat – defeat one, become one.”
I watched through Elsif’s eyes as Ciani directed her men to rig tents and stoke fires. They moved with a practiced, ready efficiency. There was little chatter, and I wondered if this was just part of the way these Mourn Knights operated or if they were just exhausted from however long they’d been hiking through the frigid night.
I’d been surprised at how readily Elsif had agreed to let them set up camp around her lodge, but I supposed it made sense. Ciani hadn’t been bluffing about her numbers – had they wanted to take the lodge by force, they could have. Further, if this group was as renown in certain circles as the norn said they were it made sense not to make enemies of them.
“What about her?”
“Ciani?” Elsif sighed. “I don’t know much, but I know she’s been Fallstar for at least fifteen years. Think about what that means, Kaede, and you will know everything you need to about her.”
I had been thinking it already – if this band was as dangerous as their reputation and apparent history claimed, what kind of a warrior would it take to be their leader? With her hood down, I had to say I she didn’t quite look the part. Her hair was glossy and short, her dark skin was unmarred, her smile was easy and somewhat playful. But if they chose that leader through combat, how many challengers had this Ciani seen off? There were more than a few charr and norn in her warband – how many of them had she defeated in single combat without them leaving so much as a mark?
Further, what kind of woman was she to tame the monstrous things that now crouched low beside the large fires?
They stood nearly two metres tall at the shoulder, with sleek, streamlined bodies that started with long, narrow reptilian heads and terminated in a muscular, thick tail. Forearms, tipped with three fingered claws, were tucked against their sides, drawing almost as much attention as the massive, wicked hook of a claw that rose from each taloned foot like a scimitar.
Ciani had wrapped them in furs to shield them from harshness of the Shiverpeaks, but she’d removed the protective garments when the fires had started and I could now see that some loathsome combination of scales and dark feathers covered their six metre long bodies.
I knew a raptor for what it was, but these were larger and far more vicious looking than any accounting of the reptilian avians that were said to still wander the less populated areas of Kryta suggested. I had never heard of anyone taming one, much less three, but the way that Ciani patted them affectionately made it obvious that she, apparently, had.
“The Fallstar invites you to come join us for a somewhat late dinner,” Zakarias said, approaching the door but stopping a respectful distance away as he interrupted my thoughts. It seemed oddly polite for the heavy charr, at odds with his overall appearance. “In gratitude for your hospitality and aid,” he glanced at me, as if surprised. “Your companion too, of course.”
Elsif looked at me, then back at the charr and nodded slowly. “Lead the way.”
Furs had been laid out on the ground by Ciani’s fire, where she sat cross legged among her three monsters, and at Zakarias’s invitation we settled down across from her. I did my best not to appear unnerved by the beasts, but I couldn’t deny there was something deeply unsettling about the reptilian eyes and the alien, predatory looks they gave us. I was grateful for the fire between us.
“Elsif, you’ve not introduced your… friend,” Ciani said with a smile that seemed somehow warm and faintly bemused all at once.
“My name is Kaede,” I cut in, grateful that my dark spectacles hid my eyes.
“Kaede?” Ciani arched an eyebrow. “Kah-eh-duh…” She sounded the word out slowly, pronouncing it as only my mother had, letting the syllables roll off of her richly accented tongue. The Fallstar nodded, her expression growing pensive as she studied me. “A Canthan name, and… yes, I can see it. There is some Kurzick in you, isn’t there?” She turned to my mentor. “You’ve excellent taste in companions, Elsif.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, perhaps a little more quickly than I’d intended.
“Just what it sounds likes,” Ciani said with an easy smile. “There aren’t a lot of beautiful things in the world, they’re to be enjoyed where you can find them.” She looked directly in my eyes, and while what I assumed was the intended effect was mostly lost on me I pretended that the spreading warmth came from the fire.
“You’re hunting Sons of Svanir,” I said, changing the subject. “Is that right?”
“A band of them – nearly two score – were driven out of Hoelbrak a few months ago,” Zakarias answered, dropping to the floor beside Ciani. One of the raptors gave him a low hiss, and he growled back before returning his attention to Elsif and I. “We were in the area, heard about it, picked up a contract to handle it.”
“We’ve tracked them to this general region, but the wind’s been making it impossible to pick up a trail,” Ciani went on. “Taken to questioning locals, but so far as I know you’re one of the only one of those.”
“Not many,” Elsif agreed. “Which is one of the reasons why we few do live up here.”
“So you’ve heard nothing about a band? Nothing at all?” Elsif was already shaking her head before Zakarias had finished speaking.
“If a group that large were in the area I can’t imagine I wouldn’t know about it,” she said. “Five or ten might slip through the valley unnoticed, but forty? Impossible.” Ciani and Zakarias shared a look, and finally the Fallstar sighed.
“Any theories then as to where they could have gone?” Zakarias asked, and the two fell into a discussion of the local topography and the ways to hide forty norn.
Ciani, it seemed, was content to let them talk, leaning forward lift a small black sphere from the fire with a pair of metal tongs. She set it down in the snow, letting it hiss and steam as she produced a patch of thick fur and metal spoon from a small leather case. Rising to her feet, she stepped around the fire before crouching in front of me.
“Here,” she offered me the scrap of fur. I took it, uncertain what to do with it, but when she reached back to the tongs and lifted the steaming sphere into the air I understood what she meant and let the fur act as a buffer to keep it from burning my hands as she lowered it gingerly into my palm. Shifting her grip on the tongs, she twisted the top of the sphere open to release a waft of rich smelling steam.
Inside, as far as I could tell, was some kind of thick, deep red stew. I smelled thyme, rosemary, and other, more foreign scents that I couldn’t place. Red wine. Slow cooked meat. Once Ciani’d pressed the spoon into my hand before moving on to pull another globe out of the fire first for Elsif and then one for herself I took a tentative spoonful.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” Ciani asked, watching me from across the fire.
“Very, thank you.” It was, in fact. Warm, nourishing, rich. Closer in quality to the fine foods I enjoyed at home than anything I’d ever had on the road.
“It’s an old trick one of my predecessors came up with.”
“You’ve heard of us?” Ciani leaned back with a smile, taking another spoonful as she rested herself against a raptor’s flank. “I won’t say it dates back as far as Akio, but somewhere down the line someone picked it up.”
“The first Fallstar,” she explained. “Legendary warrior, by all accounts, but not the type to have invented such culinary tricks, I think.”
“How many of you have there been?” I asked, and Ciani smiled, as if pleased by my curiosity.
“Fallstars? Thirty-eight since the time of Akio,” she said. “He’s the one who arranged our system, sometime around 1080AE, all to keep his legacy as focused as possible.”
1080. That’d been before the rise of the Elder Dragons, when the civil war in Kryta had just ended with the defeat of the White Mantle. Two-hundred-and-sixty years of warrior tradition all running to the woman who now sat across from me.
“That’s quite an inheritance,” I said at last, realising Ciani was looking at me expectantly.
“After Akio there was a period of some… uncertainty regarding the worthiness of his successor,” she went on, apparently pleased to be telling this story. “This was a man who had walked The Desolation on bare feet, fought Destroyers and Titans and even wandered the Realm of Torment, or at least such were the stories. He had declared that any that should bear his name must prove themselves by defeating the previous Fallstar in single combat across a full season, but when he died there was dispute amongst his followers as to who should have the right to bear the mantle.”
“How did he died then?”
“He was killed in battle, outside of the system he had built,” she said, almost flippantly. “But since he was never defeated by any challenger, it left the knights – though they weren’t called that at the time – in a bit of an odd position. They all agreed that none of them were worthy of carrying The Eventide, but the title was-”
“‘The Eventide’?” I interrupted her, and she blinked, then nodded.
“His weapon,” she explained. “Different legends say different things about it – that he won it from or had it forged by an ancient djinn he encountered somewhere in Elona, that it was a gift from the goddesses Lyssa, or that he ripped it from the Realm of Torment. Either way, as legends around weapons tend to go, it was rumoured to make its wielder more powerful, and with a warrior as peerless as Akio… well, stories have a way of evolving.”
“And none of the would-be Fallstars thought to take it?”
“Like I said, none of them considered themselves worthy of it – and perhaps rightly so, it was believed that the weapon would reject anyone not strong enough to have earned it,” Ciani said. “Regardless of the reason, they fell into infighting for a few years before they set their differences aside and reformed into what would become the Mourn Knights.”
The story went on for some time. While I’d never been particularly fascinated by history, I couldn’t deny that the idea of a legacy of warriors such as this one drew me in. The rich, rolling accent of Ciani’s warm, deep tones did nothing to detract from her telling, but more than once, I felt a stab of jealousy. What could I have been if my family had trained me from a younger age? What could I have become if I had such a legacy behind me, or with a weapon like The Eventide, if it had truly existed? How deadly, how powerful, how much more could I have been?
It wasn’t fair.