It begins like this.
Slow, measured strokes ease the blood from the blade. The flickering firelight illuminates a face as smooth and expressionless as a statue. Long ages ago, she had wept during this ritual – purging kindred blood, night after night, from a blade stained with terrible deeds, wondering whether anything could be worth the destruction they had caused. But it is many years since Nirhen has allowed herself to weep.
The scent of food rising above the fire makes her stomach turn. She shifts position carefully, still maintaining her steady, smooth cleaning of the sword. Tindir's companion offers a wine-skin – the staining on the mouth dark as blood – it is no hardship to shake her head, with a spike of displeasure that causes the elleth to turn away with a shrug, expression dismissive. She is glad. She has seen the looks on their faces, both this warden and the cook she brings with her, expressions of dismay and disgust at her work, and she knows that it will prevent them from coming too close, becoming too involved. Let them look, as long as they know that she will do what they will not.
Although she does not turn to him, she can feel the eyes of another on her, across the fire. He looks at her when they plan to take more prisoners, and again when they discuss what will be done with them. She does not look up, dark eyes fixed on the slow, patient work before her. Her control has been forged in generations of fire and blood, but even she has limits. Tonight's work, and his regard, bring them closer than she would like.
Estarfin's steady gaze and talk of honour bring ghosts crowding into this camp. She does not remember if she has travelled in these lands before, yet these ghosts are not bound by location. They come flocking back to share their once-common purpose, to hunt once more, they are the captains with promises to ease the hurt, the soldiers who pretend not to hear the note of desperation in their tones.
“It will all be worth it, when we find him.”
Nirhen wonders whether she had sat as Estarfin does now, staring across the fire at these captains sworn to dishonour, dismay warring with distaste in her heart. She does not think so. Even then, they had travelled too far behind that promise to believe it. They had killed their own, sacked the cities of their kin, promising themselves that once it was over, once the Oath was fulfilled, it would be worth what they had done. They had seen the grief in the eyes of their Lord every time a new strife arose, heard the laments which stole across the camp and seemed to echo inside their very souls. But at least, when the promises had failed, they had had him, their proud, beautiful Lord. At least they could point to him and say that he was worth anything he might ask of them, and more that he could not. Even as they had known that he could never forgive what they did in his name, what they undertook to find him once more.
Like the fire suddenly flaring bright, she can feel a flash of that ever-present rage stirring within the cold embers of her heart, doused by tonight's blood. Her companions now are not these understanding ghosts, they were fools and children, swearing to do 'anything' but not willing to truly honour that promise. They preserved their own honour by denying her hers, bought the fate of their lord with another's coin. Yet they sit here making plans of what 'they' will do next, none of them mentioning that it will not be their task to bear the cost of their noble-sounding declarations. It will not be these children who stand before Lord Anglachelm and map out paths drawn in blood, in his name.
The conversation draws to a close, and she is gone, rising with the grace that anger brings, silent, unmarked. Tonight, she will seek the company of the dead, who understand the cost and will not begrudge her paying it on their behalf. Wrapped in their silence, she will rebuild her walls, kindle anger into strength, turn everything jagged outwards, until it cannot be felt. When morning comes, she will go on.
There is blood on her hands, drying into flakes which rub off and lie disregarded on the grass. There is blood on her hauberk, even on her face. But her weapons are clean, sharp, no trace of the night's work left staining the blades. Ready to begin once more.