Ciani breathed out, released the arrow, and sent it whistling through the early morning mist. It buried itself right beside her first, shaking yet another clump of snow from the wooden dummy she’d borrowed from Elsif. There was an odd, alien elegance to her as she drew another arrow from her quiver, lay it against her bowstring, raised the bow, and drew. I saw her breath rise into the air, curling in front of her dark face like as she released.
The days had turned to weeks since The Mourn Knights had arrived, though they’d frequently come and gone on their forays to track the Svanir group. Thanks to Elsif’s assistance they had now discerned the pack must be hiding in the nearby caves, but there was a veritable labyrinth of ancient caverns beneath the snow-covered peaks to search.
Ciani was patient, however, and I’d not spotted a hint of frustration in her. Every morning she was up before dawn, exercised, then spent time practicing with her bow before one of her men brought her breakfast. Together with Elsif, the lieutenants, and the night time scouts they’d then study maps of the area, dividing up search quadrants with an organised efficiency that reminded me of my mentor’s easily forgotten military background.
The Mourn Knights – with the exception of the now sleeping scouts – would be gone for the day then, hunting, searching, while Elsif and I resumed our training in private. I was becoming stronger every day, honing skills I hadn’t even realised weren’t perfected yet, and I didn’t want Ciani and her ilk slowing down progress, regardless of how fascinated with them I had to admit I was.
“What do you do when you’re not here?” Ciani’s voice broke through my thoughts, just loud enough to be heard over the snow-covered distance between us. She released another arrow, her attention still fixed on the target.
“Odd jobs,” I answered noncommittally.
“You’re not a mercenary or an assassin, at least not in the conventional sense of the word,” Ciani reasoned, and there was a mildly irritating note of certainty in her voice. “You answer to a superior, you belong in a hierarchy. I can tell by the way you and Elsif talk sometimes.”
“Like you and your men.”
“Something like that, I’m sure,” she said, letting fly another arrow before turning to face me. “Nothing against it, but I admit it was never a good fit for me.”
“I was just bad at following,” Ciani said with a snort, coming towards me where I leant against the fence and resting her bow against it. “And you? Do you find taking orders suits you?”
“My life suits me fine,” I answered. “Does yours?”
“Oh, the only thing I ever have to worry about in my line of work is boredom,” I could hear the smile in her voice as she leaned back against the fence beside me, propping her arms up on it. “If me and my men don’t have a good hunt now and again things get bad.”
“So you just roam around looking for challenges, is that it?”
“That’s a way of putting it,” she shrugged. “Reputation is everything for a mercenary, and our reputation for seeking out challenges happen to coincide with our internal policies.” She seemed about to say more when something in the woods caught her eye, and she made a sharp chirping sound.
The three raptors came bounding out of the forest, invisible until they chose to appear, their grey-feathered bodies still wrapped in furs. There was a primal dread in my gut as I watched them come towards us, something instinctive from the most primitive part of my brain that bypassed any reason and just focused on the sheer, savage lethality of those sleek bodies.
“Speaking of challenges… hey girl, having fun?” Ciani said as the lead raptor skidded to a halt in the snow a few paces from her, reptilian eyes going from her to me and back to her. “Behaving yourselves, I hope?”
There was a low clicking from the monster, and Ciani didn’t break eye contact with it for a long moment before it turned away abruptly, snapping at its two mates before taking another step forward. Ciani smiled and patted it on the side of the neck, provoking a low cough, before the three – as one – burst into a run and vanished into the forest again at a dizzying pace.
The creatures reminded me, suddenly, of Tatianna’s lich form, and I quickly pushed the thought away. I had started to realise that it was painful – and worse, unproductive – to dwell on that defeat if I wasn’t in the midst of training.
“Where did you get those?” I asked, wanting to fill the pregnant silence.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” There was genuine affection in her voice. “I found them in eastern Ascalon, as eggs. We formed a bit of a bond, and now they’re my hounds. A tad more impressive than an average mastiff, don’t you think?”
“Indeed,” I said, all too easily imagining the sort of damage even one of the raptors could do to a man.
“They’re loyal, deadly, and could track a skritt through a rat’s nest,” she said, more than a hint of pride in her voice.
“A good way of putting it,” she agreed. “Perks of my life is that I get to choose my own armoury, it’s why I’d never be cut out for regular military life. Regulations, gear assignment, all of that just vexes me.” She paused for a moment, looking over the mist-shrouded treeline. “Soldiers fight better with the weapons that speak to them, I feel. My raptors speak to me, in a manner of speaking.” Her eyes wandered to the sword at my back. “And you?”
“This? I came here to learn how to use it effectively,” I explained, rolling my shoulders. “Normally I prefer a weapon with a little more finesse.”
“I spied a rapier on your belt yesterday,” she said, nodding. “If it speaks to you…” The Fallstar trailed off meaningfully, and I couldn’t help the small, tight smile that crept across my lips.
“Imagine what someone could do with The Eventide if they took a liking to it,” I said, changing the subject. I wasn’t sure if I believed the stories of the weapon or Akio – tales like that tended to be exaggerated – but I’d gathered that Ciani saw them as truth. She grunted.
“The power is appealing, but it’s as close to sacred to me and mine as anything,” she said. “So I won’t touch it.”
“‘Won’t’?” I echoed, my initial surprise at hearing her ascribing spiritual significance to swept away by her choice of words. “You know where it is?”
“Of course,” she said. “A Fallstar is expected to make regular pilgrimages to the tomb where Akio and his companions lie entombed, The Eventide is buried with him.” Something stirred inside me.
“Fallstar!” Zakarias’s voice cut me off as the charr came loping into sight, and Ciani turned to face her lieutenant’s rapidly approaching form.“We found them, sir.”
“Tollia just checked in, found their camp,” the charr reported. “In a cave, just like Elsif said.”
Ciani looked to me, and through Zakarias’s eyes I could see the excited, almost child-like smile that spread across her face. “Want to have some fun?”