Sir Tromar was getting worried about Anastasia. His young apprentice had repeated the exercise with the egg over and over, for hours, waving off her master’s concerns and glaring at Margrave with furious defiance whenever the pirate suggested that she stop. After a particularly bad attempt, the dwarven paladin had tried suggesting a break.
“Go away,” Ana had snapped and, stiffly, Tromar had done so.
The dwarf was just considering walking back onto the deck when he heard footsteps approaching out of the early morning gloom. Out of the fog came the Scarlet Princess, looking grimy from travel, with exhausted circles beneath her eyes and a distinct limp. Aisling’s blonde hair had been crudely hacked short, revealing pointed, elven ears.
“Wait, you’re -” Tromar began, only to be cut off by an ill-tempered, “Don’t even say it,” from Aisling. She looked down at the dwarf’s offended expression and sighed.
“I’m sorry. It was a long trip,” Aisling apologized. “I don’t like talking about the unavoidable consequences of my parentage, alright? As far as I’m concerned, I’m a human with a persistent youth problem.”
“That’s…an interesting way of putting it,” Sir Tromar granted. He looked down the dock, worriedly, when he heard Anastasia’s screams start up again. “She’s having your madman torture her. This isn’t what I had in mind when you said you’d train her, Aisling.”
“…Me either,” Aisling admitted quietly. “But I notice you haven’t stopped her.”
“Aye,” Tromar answered. “…It’s a strange thing to admit, but if her will is to be tested under torture it’s a bit relieving to have it done under…”
“Controlled circumstances,” Aisling finished. “Same as the poison in the coffee, really. I told her I’d teach her about evil. She’s getting quite an education.” The Scarlet Princess looked thoughtfully into the fog. “Get some sleep, paladin. I’ll go help her.”
Sir Tromar eyed Aisling up and down and then nodded. The two went their separate ways – Sir Tromar to the inn, and Aisling down the docks.
Both, once they were sure the other was not looking, smiled a small little smile of friendly satisfaction.
* * * *
Anastasia swore in three different languages, including Celestial, and threw the shattered remnants of an egg shell to the deck. Tears of frustration ran down the young paladin’s face, and more to bask in her misery than out of any respect, Margrave remained silent.
“This is what fear does to people?” Anastasia half-asked, half demanded. Margrave nodded.
“Fear worms its way into people,” the pirate said in a soft, soothing voice. “They become afraid of the fear as much as they become afraid of the thing causing the fear. They make concessions to get away from it. They give up their possessions, their agency over their own lives, their ethics, their faith. For the weak-willed, or for those with much to lose, fear can control them forever. Even the strong of heart and mind, such as yourself, can be manipulated by it. After all, I’ve made you feel so many other emotions – shame, anger, guilt.”
“That’s because you’re cheating, Margrave,” Aisling said as she ascended the gangplank. “She knows the egg doesn’t matter, so she gives in.”
Anastasia looked sharply when she heard Aisling’s voice. “When did you -“
“Just now,” Aisling interrupted. “And don’t you say a gods-damned thing about my ears. Not one fuckin’ word, you got me?”
Anastasia nodded silently. Aisling drew a dagger from her belt and handed it, hilt-first, to the paladin. The Scarlet Princess knelt before Ana, facing towards Margrave, and gently guided the dagger in Anastasia’s hand to her throat.
“Aisling, what are you doing?” Anastasia asked, nervously.
“Either you’re a paladin for a reason, or you’re not the girl I thought you were when I signed you up for my government. Do it, Margrave.”
The hammer of terror slammed into Anastasia’s mind in a chorus of hateful whispers. Her muscles seized with it, and she could feel the knife shaking in her hands as the unnatural fear took hold, stripping away her divine courage and flaying at her soul beneath. She screamed and screwed her eyes shut, but that brought no relief – a parade of horror danced behind her eyelids, dredged from the depths of her nightmares.
Cut her throat Margrave’s voice whispered in Anastasia’s mind. The paladin yelled incoherently but didn’t move.
Do it or this will only get worse.
“Aisling,” Anastasia begged. “Aisling, move. You’ve got to get away!”
“No,” the Scarlet Princess answered, serenely. “I trust you, Anastasia.”
The paladin’s hand trembled – and then, with an ear-splitting roar, she launched herself out of the chair and tackled Margrave to the deck. Her fist crashed into his jaw in a blind frenzy before she remembered the knife, but just as the blade rose for the killing blow, her wrist was caught by a strong grip.
“Breathe,” Aisling advised gently, her tone full of proud approval. “You win.”
Anastasia took in several deep breaths as the fear and fury drained from her breast. She looked down at the pirate beneath her; Margrave rubbed his jaw gingerly.
“Are you okay?” the paladin asked, sheepishly.
* * * *
New training schedules were hashed out in the morning, with the help of Sir Tromar, though Aisling graciously granted the young paladin the rest of her mentor’s visit as time off from her duties. The dwarf remained quiet and observant through his visit, letting Anastasia show him the city and introduce him to the various people she’d come to know during the course of her first month in Shatterdown.
“Why so quiet?” Anastasia finally asked him. “You usually have an informative comment on…everything.”
“I’m trying to observe without affecting,” Sir Tromar answered, with a shrug. “I want to know the kind of city Aisling has built. I do not wish to taint your impressions with my own, nor do I wish to impose myself upon the people of Shatterdown without knowing them.”
“Yeah, I can get that. They can be…they’re not like the Order, that’s for sure. I never really got how different military life was until I came here, you know? Like, the family we’re going to see now. The thing is, Joreth, the father, he’s…” Anastasia searched for words. “Struggling, with his own problems. But he loves his family, and they’re willing to give him the chance to improve. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound so strange when I say it like that, but – wait, do you smell that?”
Tromar did. The small, one-story home the pair had approached leaned against Shatterdown’s outer wall, near a tannery. The tannery’s own scent had masked anything else, but now that they were at the door the paladins could smell rot and old blood. The door stood slightly ajar; Anastasia pushed in on it, and gagged at what she saw.
Joreth, his wife Mora, and his two children had been butchered, with only their faces left untouched. The rest of their bodies had been opened and devoured, leaving behind only cracked and gnawed bones, as well as the sticky, half-rotten blood that splattered the front room. On the floor, burnt into the blood, was a series of dwarven runes.
“What – what does it say?” Anastasia asked, her voice shaking.
Tromar was silent for a long moment. When he spoke, it was in the soft, rhythmic voice of one quoting poetry.
“Loud bays Garm before Gnipa cave; the bonds shall break, the Wolf run free! Hidden things I know: still onward I see, the Doom of the Powers, the Gods of War.”