The next day I woke up before the break of dawn with Nina pulling my hair. Everybody else was still sleeping, but I had to commune with Nina to prepare my daily spells. Each morning I spent about an hour meditating in her company to replenish my magic, so I usually was the first one to wake up but the last one to join the group... though Indi usually shared my situation, as his goddess demanded him to commune with her at sunrise. This morning was unusually early, though, and Indi was still sleeping. Lucky him.
When I joined up with the group they were already having breakfast. We had some leftovers from the previous day, Nadya kissed her kids goodbye, and we departed with the first lights of the day. Orm and Mjoli were happy: something they had heard made them believe we were going to bring Thora back, and they missed her. They were also glad to be left with their new friend Indi, who was much funnier than that old boring Kashka, who was always complaining about her aching hips.
With the first lights of the dawn, I chose my three riders for the day: the redhead Nadya was My Red Sun, the sneaky and stealthy Cat was My Black Midnight and Argentea, our knight in bright armor, could only be My Bright Morning. Then, we tied the dogs to the sled and got back on the road.
Nadya knew all the best paths to get to the Pale Tower without being noticed and despite walking through the woods made our trip longer and more exhausting we were rewarded with an uneventful trip, as patrols rarely ventured beyond the roads. We got to our destination by midday, and I was almost blinded by the light the tower reflected. It was, as I had thought, completely sculpted out of ice and surrounded by a wall of pointy icicles about three times our height. The tower itself resembled a giant icicle. One of the first things we noticed as our eyes got used to the reflecting light was that there was a massive flock of black birds (most likely crows) flying around the top of the building.
There was no visible entrance, but there was a trail of footprints and sled tracks in the snow that led directly to the wall, so it wasn't hard to guess that there must be a door. We decided to approach the tower from the main road and try to get anyone who watched the entrance to allow us to pass. We still had part of the gear that we had taken from the guards we had fought at the inn, so we could pass as a returning patrol to anyone who looked at us from a certain distance. Cat's impersonation wasn't very good, as she was really short for a human and her features were clearly elven, so she stayed behind, cloaked, hooded, and covered by the rest of us. Being almost a head taller than my sister, I didn't have the same problem and despite not having an imposing frame as Argentea or, to a minor degree, Nadya had, I had something even better: magic. Since I was a child I had known how to trick people's minds into make them perceive me as an entirely different person. I didn't know where that ability came from, as nobody had taught it to me, but it had proven useful in the past to get free meals. This would be the first time that I put it in a truly serious use and I really wished that it worked. Nadya had been teaching me some words and phrases in Skald and I hoped to be able to speak them correctly and convincingly to reinforce my impersonation. In the end, Skald was kinda similar to Common, as all human languages had a common origin in Ergot, the first human tongue. What really made Skald difficult to understand (and to speak) was the accent: despite having been practicing for the last hours, the heavy consonant sounds still got stuck in my throat.
We approached the wall, with Nadya and me in the lead, and Cat in the back. I was wearing the face of one of Sertane's men, so the guards on the wall could at least see a familiar face. The rest of the group covered their faces with their hoods the best they could. I was relieved to hear that the guard that adressed us spoke in short phrases and cried them out loud and clear: "Who goes there?", "Where do you come from?" So I was able to understand everything with little effort. Nadya and I did all the speaking, though there wasn't too much to do. I repeated my prepared speech and we were allowed to get in without further questioning. Part of the wall lifted like a regular portcullis, through instead of metal bars it was made out of polished icicles. We crossed the gate, and I felt grateful that the guards remained in their places instead of approaching us, as I didn't think our costumes were good enough to hold up to a closer examination.
We got into an open courtyard, dominated by an imposing ice scultpture of a dragon spreading its wings. To its sides, there were seven wooden shacks, and some dogsleds parked near them. As soon as we got out of the sight of the guards at the entrance we peeped inside one of the shacks.
-Dogs- whispered Cat, the first one to look-. But they are dead.
-Are you sure?- asked Argentea, who couldn't see a lot in the dim light inside the shack.
-Yes, unless they like sleeping in a pool of blood with their guts scattered all around the place.
Argentea backed away, deciding she didn't need to see that, and headed towards another shack. She opened the door, took a look inside, closed the door and looked at us with a face that made her look like she smelled rotting fish.
-Nothing to see. Just more dead dogs.
-But who did it? And why?- I asked. Killing the dogs and leaving their remains scattered all over the place made no sense.
I would get an answer to my questions soon, as the next shack we checked was occupied by something quite different from a dog. A large hunched figure approached us as we opened the door. It had a thick blue skin, tiny red eyes and unusually long arms ended in hooked claws. We had fought a troll before, but this one seemed bigger and stronger.
We thought we could avoid a fight by pretending to be guards, but that didn't help. Bordegga, as the troll called herself, had grown tired of being paid in useless metal and gave us an ultimatum: bring me food or become food. Anything as good as the dogs from our sleds would suffice. Even though she effectively mistook us for guards, she didn't show any respect to us, acting in a belligerent way and constantly threatening us. Who was the genius who thought that hiring this troll as a guard was a good idea?
We might have avoided the fight, but after seeing the fate of the dogs in the kennels we weren't willing to sacrifice the ones that came with us. Most humans treated animals under their care like they were slaves or belongings, but Nadya was kind to "her" dogs. Cat and I thought that sacrificing the life of someone under our protection was beyond consideration. Argentea, who couldn't care less about the dogs, thought that Bordegga was dangerous, unpredictable, and would turn against us when she had an opportunity, and there was no point in negotiating with such a creature. She was possibly right, as the first thing Bordegga did after we told her that she couldn't eat the dogs was saying that we would make a better meal and attacking us right away.
Argentea was the target of the first blows, as we were ready for a fight and she had taken a strategic position up in front of us to protect us from being hit. She parried the first attack from the troll's axe, dodged her claw and made her taste the steel of her shield when she attempted to bite her. She had learned from our last time fighting a troll that they liked to bite, and this one seemed to find us especially tasty. Cat got out from behind the wall of the shack, ready to do her thing, but I told her to wait. Trolls had a thick skin and regenerative blood, which could make them formidable adversaries when fighting them with conventional weapons, but they also had a reputation for being rather stupid and weak willed. The trick that I had used against Volan and her men should work with Bordegga too: a couple of words, a simple gesture, and she was put to sleep. Cat was quick to slit her throat with no hesitation, as we knew that it wouldn't kill her but keep her unconscious for a while. According to the legends, even severed heads would grow back or reattach themselves.
-We must kill her- said Nadya, putting an arrow right into Bordegga's eye with surprising accuracy to prevent her from regaining consciousness-. If we don't, she will come after us as soon as she awakens.
-Isn't there a way to prevent that?- I asked- Locking her up in the kennels,maybe?
-Does she look like she would be held back by a thin layer of wood?- smirked Argentea.
She was right. Given some effort and time, even I might be able to knock down the door.
-We gotta be quick- insisted Nadya-. With all this noise, we must have already alerted the guards.
-Fire- I said-. We need something that we can set on fire.
Cat improvised a torch as fast as she could wrapping some cloth around a broken broomstick she found inside the shack. I produced some fire with my magic, just a tiny spark that was only useful to ignite easily flammable things: fire magic wasn't really my speciality. Argentea didn't wait for confirmation, as she knew what she had to do.
-Now!- she cried out as she beheaded the troll, holding her sword with both hands. It wasn't a clear cut: the head was still attached to the body by some sinew and bone, which was quickly regenerating.
Cat didn't hesitate. She pressed the improvised torch against the partially severed head and, with a crispy sound of charred flesh, the troll stopped moving. The wounds were no longer bleeding or regenerating.
-Should we set her on fire to be sure she's dead?- asked my sister, looking at me for an answer, but it was Nadya who spoke:
-No. No time for that.
It was difficult to recognize the sweet and caring mother in the cold and determined hunter that Nadya had become since our departure. Cat and Argentea shared her determination, but while the first's motivation was protecting me and the latter's was duty, Nadya was solely motivated by revenge. And, what would happen when, after having had her revenge, she realized that her daughter was still gone? I was worried for her. Anyway, we did what she said and hurried up. The guards should already be coming... Save they weren't, and they never did. They must have heard the fight. Maybe they'd rather avoid the troll. Maybe they were already used to Bordegga causing trouble and they chose to ignore her. Or maybe they were just incompetent. We never knew. We just found ourselves in front of the icy doors of the Pale Tower with no more opposition. And the doors weren't even locked. We were coming for Nazhena.