The frigid evening wind drove The Mourn Knight’s torches to flicker as the mercenaries gathered around the edge of the forest. I watched through Elsif’s eyes as their leader approached us, her own torch crackling in the night.
“Elsif Vremmekind, I want to thank you for your hospitality once again,” Ciani said formally, her eyes glinting from the recesses of her cowl. “It makes me glad to know that your people, more than mine it seems, seem to understand the benefits of such generosity.”
“You made me aware of and assisted in the purging of a blight close to my home,” Elsif returned. “I consider us more than even.” Ciani nodded.
“That is not something I take lightly, thank you.” She extended her arm, and the two clasped wrists. She turned to me, and a smile flashed across her dark rose lips. “Kaede, it’s been a pleasure. I am more than mildly interested in your career as a warrior.” She reached into her robe and produced a small, round cylinder. It gleamed dimly in the firelight – oiled leather, I imagined – and fit easily in her gloved hand. “We have handlers and contact persons all around the world that relay information to us. We use them to screen both potential clients and would-be applicants so that we have a filter between us and those that wouldn’t be worth our attention.” She held the case out to me, and I thought I detected a faint curling in Elsif’s lip as she did. “In here are not only a list of those people, but carries my seal – if you present this to one of them they know to bump you to the top of the list and contact us immediately.”
“You honour me, Fallstar.” I said, falling into the familiar routines of courtesy I’d been raised with as I closed my fingers around the other end of the case, but she didn’t immediately relinquish her grip.
“This is not an invitation to join us, this is not a guarantee that we’ll come running if you need help, nor does it constitute a cheaper fare for our services.” There was a clear, hard-as-steel warning in her tone. “We’ve shared a few nights together and fought a few cultists, but that hardly constitutes friendship – this is simply a way to get a message to us.”
“I understand,” I said. “And I’ll not use it idly.”
“Glad to hear it.” Abruptly, she released the case, surrendering it to me. “For all my words though, I do hope to see you again, Kaede.” She nodded once more at Elsif, then turned and started to head back towards her troops.
Elsif and I watched The Mourn Knights vanish from sight, moving away till they were enveloped by the dark of the woods. “Better this way.” I heard the old norn say, quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“People like The Fallstar aren’t the sort you want to get close to unless you’re prepared for what it means,” she said. “She’s an ember, Kaede, one that could set the whole lodge ablaze if you’re not ready for it.”
“You seemed friendly enough with her,” I retorted, finding the sudden shift in tone odd.
“Of course, I’ve nothing she might want and there’s little I could learn from her,” my mentor said, turning and going back inside the lodge. She waited for me to follow before pulling the heavy wooden door shut against the night wind. “Our interaction is purely warrior to warrior, but you? That’s different.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, sitting myself down across from her as I turned the case in my hands, enjoying the way it felt between my warming fingers. “Ciani’s just a mercenary, perhaps a more famous one, but what’s so special about her that has provoked this from you?” Elsif seemed suddenly frustrated, looking away and chewing on her lower lip.
I had, in the years of knowing her, never seen her like this. I’d seen her fight, I’d seen her kill, I’d seen her bury comrades, but this discomfort was new and somehow irritating. The Mourn Knights were gone, but their presence had not been a bad thing, and we had just come back from a fight that we’d won handily. Why did she have to contaminate what should have been a good evening with a morose attitude?
“What do you think would have happened if I’d refused to let her stay here?”
“She’d have attacked.”
“She’d have killed me,” she corrected. “And it would not have mattered to her in the slightest – not because she’s savage, not because she’s callous, but because she’s utterly neutral.”
“She’s a mercenary captain,” I said. “That’s part of the job.”
“For all her authority, she’s a reactive creature – the Svanir she killed are dead because someone else wanted them dead. She’d have killed me – us – because we chose to stand against her, and that’s how she’d see it. Our choice, not hers.”
I considered this for a moment. If it were true, it did mean that someone like Ciani could justify any action as long as she could see it in a way that she was just reacting. Combine that with a small but highly proficient band of killers and I could understand what Elsif meant, even if I didn’t agree with it. The Fallstar was dangerous, that much I’d realised from the onset, but she was no threat to those that didn’t go against her. It didn’t justify this level of fear.
“She’s just one woman, and she can clearly be reasoned with. If it came to it she could be bought off. Just a sellsword, after all, one with a code.” I raised the scroll case. “And I believe I might be able to find some use for this, some day, to take advantage of that code.”
“You’re thinking of hiring her?” She snorted. “Or do you want to join her, join her band?” Flashes of myself as a Mourn Knight passed through my mind, undeniable in their appeal, and silly, childish thoughts of “Kaede Fallstar” appeared alongside them. I banished them quickly to keep them from my face.
They were somehow more vivid in that moment than the idea of “Preceptor Varr” that had occasionally danced through my fantasies.
“I have money, and I – and the Order – have enemies,” I said, keeping my voice as reasonable sounding as I could. “Having an elite band of mercenaries at my beck and call strikes me as an asset that I would be foolish not to employ.”
“You’re not ready for her, not yet. Not in body, not in mind.” The old, familiar surge of cold anger grew in my gut, but she raised her hand to cut me off before I could speak. “You made an impression, and usually that’s a fine thing but with her it’s dangerous, Kaede. She didn’t hand that to you just because you know how to conjure a surge, but because she saw something she liked.”
“I don’t see how tha-”
“Predators see things they like in their prey,” she cut me off again, raising a hand to stop me. “And you’re not supposed to be prey.” I fell silent, unsure of how I should respond to something that sounded so genuine in its concern. “Just be careful how and when you use it, if at all. You might end up opening a door that is not so easy to close.”
That was, apparently, where she had decided to stop the conversation. Further pressing was met with dismissal, and so, after a frustratingly quiet meal, I followed her into restless sleep.
The days that followed The Mourn Knight’s departure went on as they had before they’d arrived. We would wake, we would train, we would eat, we would bathe, and we would fall into our furs at the end of the night with my muscles still burning.
I worked as hard, learned more, fought as fiercely as ever before with the image of Tatianna ever in my mind. Joined with her was the notion of Ciani, a flash of what I could not deny was a heady combination of jealousy and curiosity for her life, for her upbringing. All it did, however, was push me harder. I had a more immediate goal now – first match Ciani, then humble Tatianna. It was clear, it was perfect, but there was something different in my mentor.
She was both quicker to anger and quicker to concede, becoming wrathful at the slightest imperfection or comment from me, but relenting moments later as if exhausted. She was no easier to impress and was either unusually harsh or unusually gentle in her criticism, as if some storm had swept her middle ground away.
It was unpleasant to deal with – the unpredictability, the uncertainty of her mood, when I could never be sure if an action would be met with warmth or a harsh cold. It wore on me, and as the days turned to weeks with no sign of improvement I began to wonder if perhaps I had not learned enough and that it was time to leave. I had been here for around half a year now, after all, and had more than mastered the basics of the greatsword and a host of other new techniques. What more was there to learn that I could not practice on my own, or when I reunited with Baen?
Perhaps Elsif had taught me all she could, for now. Perhaps her emotional state was due to her coming to terms with the fact that I was beyond her as a student.
But she still conjured a more powerful surge than I. Her illusions were still more solid. She was still stronger, and I couldn’t deny that.
Again, I had the impression that things were happening that I did not see, that something vitally important was unfolding before me but somehow beyond even my sight.