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Skyrim: The Novel

Discussion in 'Skyrim Fan Fiction' started by Neriad13, Jan 31, 2012.

  1. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    At long last, after doggedly working on it for a week and a half, I've finally finished the rough draft of Chapter III. It's one that I'm really excited about. I can't wait to get it edited and out there. It was such a great challenge to write for a character who never really had much to say. I enjoyed it so much that it ended up being double the length of the previous chapters. So, get ready for Skyrim, Chapter III: Lydia. And the wrath of the most politically incorrect statement that will ever be uttered within the pages of this novel!
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  2. Gemini Sierra

    Gemini Sierra Pre-emptive Salvage Specialist

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    Can't wait to read it. Loved the first two chapters. In fact, I think I'll go back and read 'em again while waiting for the next :D

    I can relate to what you mean about getting excited and writing more than you thought. While researching and then writing my first few entries in the RP forum I kind of just wanted to go on writing, but stopped myself. I think I might get to detailed :D LOL

    Anyway can't wait to see your next chapter
  3. Baldr

    Baldr Member

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    It's not how we fall which defines us but how we rise after falling
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  4. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant of House Lannister

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    This is wonderful! More, more!
  5. Ajones2323

    Ajones2323 The Black Knight

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    Brilliant stuff! I cannot wait to read more! :D
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  6. Legolas Auditore

    Legolas Auditore New Member

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    i would quote you, but frankly, its too long :)
    this is frikin awesome! keep at it please!!! for our sake :)
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  7. Phobos

    Phobos Member

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    Its fun reading these right after doing the missions. Just started a new character and had a completely different way to look at the beginning of the game. Great read!
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  8. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    As this next chapter is so ridiculously lengthy and you've all been waiting such a long time for it, I've decided to post Chapter III in pieces, as I finish them.

    Stay tuned for more post edits and I hope you enjoy! :)
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  9. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    Chapter III: Lydia
    Lydia’s heart swelled. She hardly dared believe it. Dragonsreach was behind her now – its housecarl whose cruel red eyes followed her every move, its guards who shot as much slander as they did arrows, its cold and distant jarl who never seemed to have the time of day for outsiders. She was drunk on the joy of it. Her head was so light that she thought it would leap from her neck and blow away on the evening wind.

    The matter at hand drew her blinking dazedly back to reality. Lydia and Tanniel were proceeding down the steps of Dragonsreach at the rate of dripping honey. Tanniel was gasping and wheezing with the effort, leaning heavily on the old broom handle that Gerda had given her when she saw that she had been having trouble. Every step was a nightmare. One slip, one wrong move and she’d go tumbling face-first down the long walkway and crashing into the Gildergreen with its jagged, naked branches so far below.

    Lydia had chosen to take mincing, quiet steps at her heels. Finishing the task of dissipating her momentary burst of joy was the utter uncertainty of what to do next. The one whom the Jarl had called Dragonborn had made it clear that she didn’t want any help. She seemed angry and frustrated and had left the court mage’s study in a huff after his round of intensive questioning. She’d shooed away both Gerda and Fianna when they had tried to help her to the door and just went on, doggedly struggling by herself. Lydia had scurried behind, her thane’s wrecked imperial breastplate slung over one shoulder and her own sack of personal items slung over the other one.

    The housecarl watched her charge closely, measuring her with her eyes, squinting at her heaving back in dim moonlight. Her light heart beginning to sink with the cruel realization that she’d escaped one oath only by succumbing to another. It was true that she was no longer bound by her word to Jarl Balgruuf’s household. But to whom was her life sworn now? She hadn’t a clue. They’d said that this girl had taken down a dragon and stolen its soul. She’d seen her clear a table with the power of her voice. The guards who had been with her during the attack spoke in hushed tones of awe, calling her Ysmir, the Dragon of the North, likening her with quiet amazement to Talos. Lydia didn’t know if she believed any of it. The girl seemed so weak. She hobbled on forward, clutching her walking stick between white knuckles, sweat pouring down her drawn face with the slightest exertion. No, she was nothing whatsoever like the warrior Tiber Septim had been in the stories her father had told her all her life.

    With a start, Lydia suddenly noticed that the girl was gently keeling over, drawn by gravity and weariness inexorably downward. Lydia’s hand shot out, pinching the neck of her borrowed priestess’s robe and drawing her away from the edge so smoothly that Tanniel didn’t even register any notice of the assistance. She couldn’t allow herself to get lost in her thoughts now. There was a task to do – the first real one, she abruptly realized, she’d been given in months. It was nothing so flashy as taking a fort or ambushing a war party. It was a singular, small, all-encompassing one that she had been given – keep the Thane of Whiterun in one piece. If she failed in this task, her honor would be besmirched even more than it already had been. Her skin tingled with this newfound drive. She had to admit that it did feel good to have a sense of purpose again, to have a mission that needed accomplishing, orders that needed following.

    After twenty minutes of the slow creep down the stairs of Dragonsreach, the two of them finally touched their feet to the first landing. Tanniel rested for a minute, her face cradled between her quivering arms, her hands clenched in a death-grip around the broom handle, her knees visibly shaking beneath the brown robe. Carefully, Lydia slunk around her, stretched out a hand and tapped her lightly on the shoulder.

    Tanniel’s head shot up from its resting position with a look of terror on its face, as though she had only just discovered that she wasn’t alone. Lydia knelt in front of her, so as to be level with her eyes.

    “My Thane…” she asked coolly, the words feeling heavy and sharp on her tongue, “…where are we headed?”

    In the chill light of the moons, Lydia got a good look at her face for the very first time. It was haggard and wan, with cavernous bags around its puffy eyes, not at all unlike the waxy facades of draugr she’d encountered when she’d gone barrow-diving once as a child with a group of friends on a dare. The girl coughed and then her cracked lips parted to admit the croak of an answer.

    “H-Hem. T-The Bannered Mare. I…I have a room there.”

    With a great amount of strain, she heaved herself back up to standing position and moved to take another step forward. In the space of a second, her feet flew out from under her, her tailbone slammed against a stone step and a bloodcurdling shriek was loosed in the still night air as gravity swiftly bore down on her. Lydia jerked to attention, seizing the collar of her robe and dragging her, choking, back up to the landing. The broom handle slid from Tanniel’s sweaty hands and went bouncing down the stairs until they heard it land with an audible splash in the keep’s moat. Tanniel sighed, laying back on the cold stone, her breath rattling fearfully in her chest. She was shivering badly and the blanket Lydia pulled out of her sack did nothing to help. For a while, she lay there silently, her eyes squeezed shut in her pale face. A few guards rushed out of Dragonsreach, their weapons drawn and nerves jangled, when they heard the scream, nearly trampling Tanniel in their rush to arrest a criminal. When Lydia reassured them that there was no attacker to apprehend, they turned tail and headed back inside, plainly disappointed about the lack of action to be had tonight.

    Slowly, Tanniel stirred, pulling herself up to sitting position, grasping her rump all the way and gritting her teeth. Lydia hurriedly laid the busted armor aside and tied her own sack to her waist. She crouched in front of the girl and made a motion with her cupped hands.

    “Can you get up, my Thane? I’ll carry you the rest of the way.”

    There was a long moment of hesitation, of stony silence unbroken by any of the quiet night noises of the city. Lydia was about to turn around and demand an answer, when she heard a heavy sigh behind her and the shifting of fabric over pavement. Grunting, she heard Tanniel heave herself forward and felt a small, frail body seat itself on her back.

    Lydia rose to her feet carefully, staggering backwards a little before she shifted Tanniel’s weight so as to make it more comfortable for her. She tested her footing and satisfied that she wasn’t going to finish the job that gravity had begun, began making her way down. She moved swiftly and decisively, covering more ground in five minutes then they’d covered in the past half hour. When she leapt down from the last step with not a little bit of bravado, Tanniel squeaked in her ear and held on to her neck for dear life.

    The girl laughed hoarsely as Lydia propelled her past the Gildergreen, heading toward the brightly-lit marketplace just ahead.

    “You know…” she whispered throatily, her breath smelling of an old shoe as it reached Lydia’s nose, “…I always thought that a Thane could carry herself.”

    Lydia bit her tongue and stiffened her features, saying nothing, though there was a great deal that she had wanted to relate.

    ***​

    The barren plains of Eastmarch stretched before Lydia, strewn with rocks and dried-out shrubs as far as the eye could see. The winter wind howled across the desolate landscape with a mournful and lonely resonance. Not so far in the distance, a giant’s campfire blazed, a bright beacon in the waning day’s dimming light. She could pick out the outline of its shadowy, hulking resident, stoking it with a small tree trunk. And far ahead, a thick blanket of snow clouds churned in the sky, dyed cold shades of pastel by the last rays of the setting sun.

    “It has to be now.” a voice whispered in her ear, “We’ll lose the light in half an hour. Then we won’t even be able to shoot them in the dark.”

    “I know, I know, Gunjar.” Lydia mumbled, squinting at the four figures trudging ahead of them in the twilight, “It’s just that there’s three of them and two of us and Lilija’s stuck in the middle of them. I’ve been puzzling it over all day. Damn, I wish we’d caught up to them sooner. We could’ve found high spot back in the Rift and taken them by surprise.”

    The man sighed and rubbed his stubbly chin. “There’s no sense in thinking of what could have been.”

    Lydia nodded, the sense of hopelessness that she’d been fighting off all day rising back up in her throat. It had crept up on her the second they had walked into that Imperial ambush. They were on their way to lend their aid to a besieged watchtower, moving silently and quickly, slipping down the forested paths of the Rift like shadows. All their stealth meant nothing. The Imperials had known that reinforcements would arrive and were waiting to do battle with them. There had been no way around them and their numbers had been double the amount of the paltry Stormcloak contingent. After the arrows of both sides had been spent in an intricate dance of dodging and firing, axes were drawn and swords were unsheathed. The battle had begun in earnest. Blades met flesh and bodies fell to the blood-soaked grass in the scrum. It all happened within minutes. The Imperials had been better-trained to hold their formation. They had split the Stormcloak forces in two and overwhelmed the smaller party with sheer numbers. When Lydia found herself alone, unable to do anything but block sword-thrusts and axe swings with her shield, she had chosen to run. She had wanted to die in this place – to be cut down in battle like her ancestors, to ascend to Sovngarde and spend her days in the highest company of warriors there was.

    Her legs had thought differently. When it came down to it, they had bolted, leaving her companions behind, racing frantically through the Rift’s golden trees and losing her attackers somewhere in their boughs. Warily, she had decided to head back to the scene of the skirmish, to see if anything could be salvaged from the disaster. Along the way, she had run into Gunjar, a fellow Nord who had never spoken much and seemed to have run from battle, just as Lydia had.

    It was midday when they reached the site of the skirmish. Dead from both sides had covered the still ground. The surviving Imperials seemed to have moved on. They set to work when they thought that it was safe, separating the bodies, tossing the Imperials in a heap to be burned and laying the Stormcloaks in an orderly row. A passing farmer had seen the carnage and was running to Riften to get the city’s priestess of Arkay. In the meantime, Gunjar and Lydia had waited for her to arrive, combating the hungry wolves, foxes and birds that appeared at the site of any battle.

    And then, bored and filled with sorrow, Lydia had counted the bodies of her fallen comrades, naming each of them in her mind. She had come up one short. Unease growing on her, she had circled the site, scavenging for that one remaining body – that of the company’s healer, Lilija. Morosely thinking about it, she couldn’t imagine her surviving. The girl sustained injuries all the time. She couldn’t defend herself and didn’t have any skill with weapons. In all likelihood, she had been the first to die. Being an active healer on the battlefield was no different than painting a target on one’s back.

    Lydia’s heart had stopped cold when she had stepped on the armor. It was a suit of Stormcloak chainmail, tossed aside and crumpled in the grass. Following the trail of disturbed vegetation, she had stumbled similarly upon a pair of boots and a set of gauntlets. A little further and her search yielded up a weathered hide helmet. And then she was standing in a clearing, where it looked like a massive tussle had taken place. The ground was dented with multiple scuff marks. Grass had been torn up by the fistful and the foliage in the area was speckled with a thin layer of blood. Lydia shivered despite herself and the back of her neck prickled ominously. She had bolted from that wretched clearing as if a horde of daedra were on her heels and told Gunjar of her suspicions that Lilija still lived.

    Fearful that they had already wasted too much time, they had jumped on the Imperials’ path immediately, tracking them all through the winding mountain trails of the Rift, lower and lower, until they had arrived on the edge of Eastmarch.

    And here they were, in no better a position than they’d been at the start of the day - hungry, cold, exhausted, sore from injuries that had gone untreated in their rush to catch up to the Imperials ahead of them. Night was fast closing in around them and with it, their last hope of ever freeing Lilija. Lydia couldn’t understand why they had taken her, when everyone else had been killed. She told herself that healers were valuable commodities, that maybe there was someone back at their camp who needed healing. That had to be it. It was certainly it. A darker notion bubbled up from the muck of her thoughts, causing her to grit her teeth and put a hand on her sword. She forced it back down where it belonged and shooed it from her mind.

    The two of them warily peeked out from behind the boulder that was their chosen hiding place. The trio of Imperials was getting so small as they marched onward. Lydia could just pick out the tiny figure of Lilija, being dragged by her bound wrists between them, struggling with every step. She had to be slowing them down now, after nearly a full day of hard travel on foot.

    Lydia scrounged frantically in her head for a battle plan. The element of surprise was on her side. She was reasonably certain that the trio didn’t know that they were being followed – or else they might have taken more cover or abandoned their prisoner for speed. Between the two of them, they had twenty-four unbroken arrows, most of which had been scavenged from the battlefield back in the Rift. It was more than enough to kill three men, provided their aim was good. But the twilight shadows were changing all that, skewing their sight and hiding the quarry in deep purple gloom whenever they passed into one. Lilija was too close for that too. A stray arrow could hit her all too easily and with the extraordinarily bad luck that had been plaguing them all day, it wouldn’t have surprised Lydia in the least. The same problem presented itself when she thought about launching a direct melee attack on them. She could just imagine one of the soldiers seizing Lilija by the shoulders and holding her in front of him as a shield. Besides, they were still outnumbered and now exhausted. It wasn’t a strategy that had held up in the Rift earlier that day.

    Again and again, she ran over the tools that she’d been given to complete this mission, as the Imperial party grew ever smaller in the distance. One axe, one sword, two shields, twenty-four arrows, two bows, two weary bodies. That was it. That was all they had in this moment in time, at this critical junction.

    Or was it? She looked back out across the landscape. The giant’s bonfire looked curiously inviting to her. Any fire would have looked like home at that point. She wanted to curl up beside it, go to sleep and forget that any of this had ever happened. Maybe once she awoke, she’d find that it was a dream. If only its occupants wasn’t so obstinate.

    “Hey…” Lydia suddenly exclaimed, turning back to Gunjar, a smile slowly spreading over her face. “Why don’t you head down to that giant’s camp and send an arrow into his mammoth’s rump?”

    Gunjar rubbed his face sleepily and tried to suppress a yawn, failing miserably in doing so. He looked much older than his true age in this light and his Stormcloak armor was covered in flaking, dried blood.

    “Why would I do that?” he muttered angrily, brushing her off.

    “Because then master and beast will be furious at you.” Lydia went on, her grin steadily widening as the idea took root in her head, “They’ll chase you down and follow you wherever you lead them. And if you lead them right into that Imperial party, well…”

    His droopy eyes widened for a moment and then his face grew stern again. “And then what would I do? There’d still be an angry giant after me.”

    Lydia sighed, wiping the sweat from her forehead with a shaking hand. “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there. Have you any better ideas?”

    “No.”

    “Fine. You get that giant over here and I’ll nab Lilija when the Imperials scatter. And Gunjar?”

    He stopped in his tracks, having taken his bow from his shoulder and already begun the walk to the giant’s camp. Lydia put a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the wan face.

    “Talos speed you.”

    He nodded briskly at Lydia, smiling a wry little smile and slipped away from his hiding place. A moment later and Lydia was gone too, hiding herself as best she could in the shadows of rocks and hills, trying desperately to move silently. Every rattle of her equipment, every crunch of dead grass beneath her feet was multiplied inside her head tenfold. She’d never been alone like this before. There was always a shield-brother or sister at her back, an entire army to go into battle with. She felt naked and sick without them.

    [​IMG]

    At last, Lydia drew close enough to almost reach out and touch the Imperial soldiers passing by. She scarcely dared to breathe from her hiding place in the tall grasses. Lilija was passing right in front of her. Her clothes were torn and bloody. Her wrists were bound in front of her with a length of rough rope. And though it was hard to tell in the changing light, she thought that she spied a ring of bruises like a necklace around her bare throat.

    At that moment, the ground began vibrating under her body. Three large silhouettes were charging fast out of the horizon. A giant and two mammoths. And there, running for his life in front of them, she saw a small figure with a bow in his hand. The Imperial soldiers halted in their tracks. Two of them took off in opposite directions. The third bellowed vain instructions at them and drew his sword, waving it futilely at the oncoming assault. Lilija had fallen to the ground, knocked down by one of the soldiers in his effort to get away and was struggling to get up. This was it!

    Lydia jumped to her feet, bellowing “Skyrim is for the Nords!” and charging with her drawn sword. The last soldier whirled around in surprise which turned to terror as Lydia’s blade sunk into his throat. He fell to the ground gurgling, thick blood spurting from his open wound and clotting in the grass. With her free hand, Lydia hauled Lilija to her feet. For a moment, their eyes met. Lilija’s were wet with tears. “You came…” she croaked.

    “Go!” Lydia shrieked, shoving her hard out of the way.

    Lilija stumbled forwards, nearly falling again, but catching her balance in time and starting to run. Lydia darted after her. The mammoths crashed down the road after them, their mighty footfalls like thunder rolling over the plain. Turning to look at her, Lydai saw that Lilija was struggling with her bonds. She was losing speed and the stampede was catching up to her. When she sighted a small hill ahead, with a cry, she lunged at Lilija, knocking her off the road and into the shadow of the hill. They both lay there, panting, as the mammoths rumbled by and the giant roared his wrath at the hapless figure with his little bow. With a shaking hand, Lydia reached over and cut Lilija’s bonds with her bloody sword.

    Lilija was trying to suppress her sniffles. “Y-You tracked me a-all the way from the R-Rift? I-I t-thought y-you were a-all d-dead, t-that I w-was t-the o-only…”

    Lydia sighed, poking at a crude bandage wrapped around her upper arm. “Gunjar and I made it. No one else survived.”

    “G-Gunjar is here t-too?”

    “Yes.” Lydia answered, standing up. The world wobbled in front of her until she shook her head to clear it up. “I have an idea of how we’re going to save him. But I don’t know if it’ll work. It’s his head that giant is after. You can run?”

    Lilija’s face was set in a stern grimace. She nodded vigorously, following suit. The two of them took off after the raging mammoths. In between their hairy legs, she caught glimpses of Gunjar running ahead of them, still bolting at top speed. He had to be running out of energy soon. Steadily, her heart pounding and her feet pumping beneath her, Lydia drew her bow and fired an arrow into the back of the giant’s thick neck. The monster roared in pain and tripped over his own feet, crashing into one of the mammoths and sending them both to a thundering halt.

    “Dart and weave!” Lydia screeched over the sound, her voice nearly lost in the noise of the remaining mammoth’s footfalls. She saw Gunjar’s head twitch in her direction and to her great relief, he began running in wild zig-zags. She saw him vanish behind a pile of rubble. The mammoth blundered on in confusion, no doubt blinded by the pain in its rump and lost without its master. She made it to that pile of rubble and threw herself, panting, beside him. Lilija joined them a moment later, wiping the sweat from her brow.

    Gunjar was as white as snow and gulping down air as if he’d never breathe again.

    The three of them lay there in silence for a time, watching the sun set and the long shadows darken on the Plains of Eastmarch.

    “Hey.” Lilija whispered, untying Lydia’s bandage, “I’m taking a look at this.”

    “An arrow grazed me.” Lydia mumbled, sinking into the dry grass. Sleep tugged on the corners of her eyes and darkness clouded the edges of her vision. “It was nothing.”

    Lilija took her arm between her cool hands and leaned over it. A warm light emanated from between her fingers and a tingle ran down Lydia’s spine. When she let go and sat back, the edges of the wound had been sealed shut, though a small scar still remained. Lydia smiled sleepily at her and sat up, trying to shake the weariness from her head.

    “We’d never leave behind our priestess.” she murmured, looking down at her still-shaking hands, “Didn’t you know that?”

    Lilija hiccupped. She looked like she was about to start crying again. To her great shock, the girl lurched toward her and flung her arms around her neck. Lydia jerked backwards at the touch, unused to anything that wasn’t a punch or a sword thrust or a blow meant to break her bones. When the healer just kept clinging to her, sniffling in her chest, she made herself relax and patted Lilija’s tawny head stiffly, warily, like one pets an untrained dog.

    Gunjar grunted and rose to his feet. “We have to move. That giant’ll still be out for our heads and there’s at least a couple more Imperials about who won’t be friendly either.”

    “Right.” murmured Lydia, gently untangling Lilija’s limbs from around her shoulders, “We’ll make it to Windhelm if we keep our guard up. It can’t be far off.”

    She stood up slowly, uncertain of whether she could trust her wobbly legs. When they appeared to be capable of supporting her weight, she turned to help Lilija to her feet. The healer’s face was downcast and her countenance was cast in shadow.

    “Hey…” Lydia said cheerily, fighting back the fear that was growing on her, “It’ll be nice to be home after all this time. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in old Windhelm since I became a Stormcloak. What would you think about a proper tour after we get some rest? We’ll see the sights, go shopping, have Elda cook us a feast…what do you say?”

    The tiniest of smiles tugged on the corners of Lilija’s quivering lips. “I would like that.” she whispered, lifting her chin just a little bit.

    “As for me…” Gunjar said firmly, leaping to his feet and cracking his neck with a loud pop, “…there’s a bed in the guard barracks that’s calling my name right this minute.”

    The three of them moved on as quickly as they could, stealing down the slippery banks of the White River, following it north to Windhelm, as far as it would take them. Mud squished in their shoes and shadow-hidden rocks twisted their ankles. They stumbled along stubbornly; fearful of who they might meet on the roads.

    The sky grew overcast as they walked, boiling with ravenous storm clouds and soon dumping flurries of snow on the trio’s despairing bodies. Shortly after the snowfall began, Lydia paused to take a look around and realized that Lilija was no longer by her side. Backtracking frantically, she ran into her a little ways back, trudging slowly along the river’s edge, her hands stuck in her armpits for warmth. Her pace had slowed to a near-crawl. She walked as though she could fall with every stride, testing her footing with chary toes before she dared to take any step.

    “That’s right…” Lydia murmured, mentally berating herself for forgetting something so obvious, “They took your shoes.”

    Lilija had stopped completely before Lydia. Her bottom lip quivered. She saw that her eyes were puffy and her face was streaked with icy tears. With a shaking hand, the healer gingerly touched the ring of bruises around her throat.

    “They took…” she said dreamily, grimacing as she fingered it, “…quite a lot.”

    Her knees buckled under her.

    “Hey!” Lydia gasped, catching her by the shoulders. “Come on! It’s not so far! We’re almost there!”

    The girl didn’t respond. She was heavy and curiously still. A spark of anger burst into flame inside Lydia. She was tired. Her stomach groaned in agony and had set about diligently devouring her insides for the past couple of hours. They’d all come so far and risked so much. In her memory, it all seemed like a blood-filled whirlwind. The distance they’d come seemed impossible. The wintry climes of Eastmarch were so far removed from the golden boughs of the Rift.

    “This isn’t where you stop.” Lydia growled, her voice low. She pulled Lilija upright, holding her up by the shoulders. “I’ll carry you the rest of the way there if I have to. Come on.

    She turned around and arranged Lilija’s unwilling arms around her shoulders. With a grunt, she lifted her off the ground. Ice cracked beneath her boots and snow crunched as she rushed to catch up with Gunjar. She could just see his silhouette ahead, a shadow in the swirling blizzard. With sudden resolve, she set her jaw and picked up speed. A timid, whispered voice in her ear stopped her dead, sliding to a halt on the slick stones of the riverbed.

    “What’ll my parents say?”

    “What?” Lydia asked sharply, caught completely off guard.

    The question wasn’t repeated.

    Lydia trudged onward, turning things over in her mind, dimly following Gunjar’s lead. They soon rose out of the riverbank and a shiver of joy ran through the soles of Lydia’s feet when they touched the smooth stones of the bridge into Windhelm. As they passed the stables and drew closer to the main gate and all the promise held behind it – an answer took hold of Lydia’s thoughts with tightly gripping claws that latched into her brain matter. It was all so clear now.

    “What they’ll say…” Lydia grunted through gritted teeth, as the cold doors of Windhelm loomed before them, “…is that they’re glad you’re safe now.”

    ***​
    The two of them, Housecarl and Thane, stood in front of the Bannered Mare’s front door. The expanse of wood seemed immense and far more foreboding than it had any right to be. Light poured through its seams. Behind it, one could hear the sound of loud singing and the shuffle of many feet. The cacophony was suddenly pierced with the noise of shattering glass. The whooping and laughter that came after it shook the foundations of the building.

    Tanniel was jerked awake by the noise, almost losing her precarious balance and tumbling down the front steps. With a desperate amount of flailing, she slammed a hand on the door frame and gripped it, steadying herself before Lydia could move to intervene.

    She was dead on her feet, hanging off the wooden frame as though it were the last thing between her and a long drop to the bottom of a cliff.

    “My Thane...” Lydia said carefully, picking her words as gently as flowers, “Wouldn’t you rather try the Drunken Huntsman for tonight? It might be – ”

    The door was ripped open in front of them with a force nearly powerful enough to tear it from its hinges. Light and sound spilled into the quiet market square, dazzling Lydia’s eyes as she blinked frenetically, trying to adjust to the change in brightness after she’d been walking in darkness for so long. She felt dozens of eyes directed toward her, poking through her armor, running over her face with razor edges. The sound of applause, punctuated by whistles and cheers pierced her ears.

    “A round of Black-Briar for the Dragonborn!” a hoarse voice screamed amid the clinking of flagons.

    This proclamation brought forth an even greater reaction and a flurry of movement. Lydia stuck her fingers in her ears, a perverse longing for the cool silence of Dragonsreach creeping up on her. Or maybe a bedroll in the open air, alone under the throbbing stars.

    When she opened her eyes and found that she could make out the throng of bodies in the inn, as many as could be crammed in the tight room, it was with a start that she realized that the space next to her was empty. Tanniel was gone, like fog in the morning sunlight. Anxiously, panic rising in her, she whirled around, casting her gaze down the front steps of the inn, thinking that maybe the girl had fallen down them after all and she hadn’t heard the action happening in all the hullabaloo. But the night yawned back at her, as empty and still as it had ever been.

    It was with another start that she found her. Tanniel was surrounded by people and illuminated by the firepit. The light fell softly on her childlike features. She saw her laughing, smiling as a flagon was pressed into her hands. Off-duty city guards stood around her protectively, occasionally moving to pat her on the back heartily or whisper some joke in her ear. She seemed impossibly far away, in her seat of honor by the fire, all eyes in the inn focused intently on her thin body.

    Lydia slid through the crowd, squeezing through the tiny gaps between swinging hips and bent elbows. She bumped into tables and occupied chairs and couldn’t avoid running into the Redguard serving girl and knocking her tray of filled tankards all over the floor. A little confused as to how exactly it had happened, she abruptly found herself alone, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, looking out at the party going on just beyond her reach. It was as good a place to be as any.

    Meat sizzled and popped on the spit behind her. Lydia sighed and fell back into the comparative quiet of the kitchen, among the barrels of fish and vegetables, and dead rabbits dangling by their furry toes from hooks in the ceiling. She felt hopelessly sleepy and found herself suppressing more than one yawn. It was as though she had just marched across the entirety of Skyrim and back. Surely walking down a flight of steps wasn’t such a great distance. The lazy life of living in Dragonsreach must have softened her, she concluded. That was going to change soon, or so she hoped. There was plenty of exercise to be had in trekking up the seven-thousand steps.

    Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted when the Redguard serving girl stumbled in, cursing under her breath and batting at her mead-soaked gown with a rag. Lydia wrinkled her nose at the strong stink of alcohol on her. The stench of mead made her sick, though that wasn’t always the case. It was a cloying, thick sort of smell that crawled down the back of her throat and got on her nerves like nothing else.

    The Redguard looked up, slyly noticing Lydia’s presence in the room with her. Her crystalline eyes, a strangely clear shade of blue that stuck out amid her dark features, narrowed in suspicion.

    “Who are you?” she asked apprehensively, a very slight accent clinging to her clipped words, “I’ve never seen you here before.”

    “I am…” Lydia answered, unable to stop herself from cringing at the thought, “…the Dragonborn’s Housecarl.”

    “Then, should you not be out there with her?”

    “Perhaps.”

    She turned away and drew an apple out of a sack on the floor, biting into it nonchalantly. The Redguard observed her for a moment longer with her eerie, calculating eyes, before turning around, giving her apron one final wipedown and rushing back out into the noise.

    Outside, the party raged on. There was round after round of toasts to the dead and the victorious living. There was wild, drunken dancing that shook the floor beneath Lydia’s feet. Food poured from the kitchen as fast as the serving girl could carry it. As the night wore on, the shelves of the pantry emptied steadily, until they contained nothing but dust with marks in it where bottles had been.

    Lydia had found a spot to rest on the stairs leading up to the innkeeper’s room where no one seemed to bother or take any notice of her. She stayed there, reclining languidly against the building’s wall, counting the minutes as they passed her by. The sounds of the celebration were faraway echoes here, distorted by distance and architecture, reaching her like a half-remembered dream. She found herself dozing, resting her face on her curled knees and dimly marveling at exactly how far she had come to find herself in this exact position. That was why she was so tired, she thought as she wandered alone in the gloom of her partly-sleeping vision. Tanniel hadn’t been so heavy on her strong shoulders and she had never stopped training with the rest of the city’s soldiers in the entire amount of time she had spent in Dragonsreach. The entire affair had just been so unreal and speedy. For such a long time, she had been a loyal soldier to the Stormcloaks’ cause, never believing, never even thinking that she would ever be anything else. In the space of a day it had all been ripped from her grasp and the iron doors of Windhelm slammed forever behind her despairing back.

    And still, that black rage was there, buried deep between the layers she had hidden it under, at the bottom of the shallow grave where it still twitched and dug and clawed its way out with filthy fingernails…

    “Hey!” a voice hissed in her ear. Lydia awoke with a jolt and instantly frowned upon seeing the Redguard’s angry face hovering in front of her.

    “Your Thane’s been looking everywhere for you!” the girl growled, pointing an accusing finger toward the kitchen door, “Get out there!”

    Lydia groaned, nudged the Redguard aside as roughly as she dared, stretched and then jumped to her feet. The celebration had died down considerably and the inn had been left behind in shambles. She stepped carefully around fallen plates and bowls and tiptoed around golden puddles of spilled mead. Tanniel was right where she’d been when she had left her, sitting by the fire with a flagon in her hand, surrounded by a few carousing friends. She looked horrible. The firelight, which had grown harsh now and dim, now that the pile of wood beside it was running out, showed dark circles ringing her eyes. Her face looked skeletal in its pale glow and her flesh seemed to hang off her slender bones. Every so often, she would turn to smile or laugh at some joke, but her facade would fall again as soon as it was over. She cradled the flagon between the palms of her hands, rolling it half-heartedly between them, but never sipping from it.

    Lydia put a hand on her arm and knelt beside her.

    “My Thane,” she asked quietly, swallowing another yawn and hoping that no one had noticed, “Which room is yours?”

    Not saying a word, Tanniel extended her index finger and pointed it upwards. Lydia followed it with her eyes, until they rested on a balcony high above, in the attic of the inn.

    “Stairs…” Lydia murmured under her breath, gritting her teeth. She grabbed Tanniel’s hand and pulled her to her feet. The girl gasped in pain, her mouth opening in a silenced scream as her weight was shifted and she fell helplessly forward to land on Lydia’s armored chest. Lydia grabbed her shoulders, turned her around, slung her limp arm around her own shoulder and gently, the two of them proceeded in the direction of those accursed stairs.

    Tanniel wheezed with every step and grunted and gagged. Her breath stank horribly of the sick scent of mead. There were a few times when she thought that she would throw it all up in a golden lake on the inn floor. But the action thankfully never seemed to materialize beyond the vague threat of vomit. Before long, the girl was quaking with the effort of walking and there were tears running down her face. When they reached the base of the stairs, she let go of Lydia’s shoulder and fell heavily to her knees, panting and shivering, unwilling to move any further.

    A wave of disgust passed through Lydia at the pathetic display. Breathing in slowly to calm herself down, she squeezed her eyes shut, counted to three and shoved it out of her mind.

    A wicked idea coming to her, she glanced clandestinely around the room. The inn was nearly empty. The few revelers that were still hanging about all had their backs turned. It would be best for everyone if no one saw the city’s Thane in this position.

    “Come on.” she whispered, heaving Tanniel off the floor and slinging her over her shoulder as casually as a sack of potatoes. The girl squeaked in terror and tried to wriggle free, but Lydia held on to her, the grip of her steel gauntlet tight. She crept up the stairs unhurriedly, being very careful to keep her balance. With maybe a little more force than was absolutely necessary, she kicked the door open at the top of the stairs and dumped the girl on the green bedspread which presented itself.

    Tanniel groaned and sat up, pressing two fingers into the skin of her forehead. Tentatively, with shaking hands, gritting her teeth, she slowly began to slide her armored boot from her foot. Once it off, it dropped from her hand and hit the floor beside the bed. With a start, Lydia did a double-take. The Thane’s foot looked wrong somehow, too small to support a body and oddly shaped. It was swaddled in tight bandages, which Tanniel set about undoing. Lydia saw that they were spotted with blood as they joined the boot on the floor. She repeated the entire process with her other foot, sighed in relief and rolled over, her eyes closing before her head hit the bed’s pillow.

    Lydia crept closer, her mouth hanging slightly open in shock. The old floorboards of the inn squeaked under her, but the noise didn’t draw the sleeping girl’s attention. The taste of that apple she had eaten earlier was rising in the back of the Housecarl’s throat.

    It was as though someone had taken a battleaxe and bluntly hacked off all of Tanniel’s toes, in one fell swoop. The wounds were held shut with what appeared to be the thin vestiges of crude Restoration magic, but her feet were horribly swollen and her flesh strained at the forces that were binding it. She could see places where the magic had come undone and her open wounds oozed clear liquid.

    Lydia put a hand to her mouth and stumbled away with far less grace than befits a trained soldier. She slammed into the balcony door, nearly flying forward as it opened beneath her weight. Suddenly covered in clammy sweat, her mind whirring like a Dwemer automaton, she fell into a chair that sat beside a table on the balcony.

    Below, in the smoky atmosphere of the Bannered Mare, the bard Mikael was singing a rousing rendition of “Ragnar the Red.” The remains of the party were joining in enthusiastically, their words slurred and extremely off-key. The verses they sang were all turned around and mixed up no matter how hard the bard tried to guide them in their correct order.

    Loathing and pity boiled in tandem in Lydia’s churning stomach.

    ***​
    Candlehearth Hall was unearthly still tonight, excepting the solemn song of the Dunmer bard who sang there every night. There was a blizzard blowing outside, knocking bits of trash through the claustrophobic alleys of Windhelm. Its winds shook the heavy inn doors and made eerie sounds as they whistled around tight corners. Most everyone in the city was tucked safely away in their homes, behind sturdy locks and staunch walls, where the wintry weather couldn’t touch them. A few devoted regulars still milled about in the inn at this late hour, nursing tankards and nibbling half-heartedly at plates of food.

    The tips were very bad for Susanna tonight, no matter what she did. All in all, she’d managed to scrape up only about twenty septims from the quiet crowd. It would buy breakfast, but lunch wasn’t going to pay for itself.

    Everyone’s attention was riveted to the storm. They were nervously squinting through the misty windows at the whirling snow and pricking up their ears at the sound of the wind’s every buffet. Susanna didn’t blame them. She found herself doing the same. Worry gnawed on her with every breath of cold air – after all, she had to walk home through that tonight. She clung to the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, it might die down at least a little when it was time for her to leave. There was always that possibility, far-fetched and senseless as it might be. Or perhaps it would be a better choice to just stay put for tonight. As far as she knew, the spare room downstairs was still empty. Surely Elda wouldn’t mind her spending one night there, so long as she made the bed again when she was done with it. She paced absentmindedly as she thought about it, twisting the golden chain of her necklace playfully around her outstretched fingers.

    It was then that she heard the sound of slow, dragging footsteps coming up the back staircase that led into the kitchen. Another customer at this hour? It certainly didn’t sound like Elda, with her light, quick tread that she knew all too well when she was trying to shirk extra work. She shook the tangled necklace from her anxious fingers and trotted toward the sound, her hopes rising just a little. Perhaps it was some world-weary traveler with stories to share and a purse full of gold to give. The man would certainly need to greeted properly and offered a warm seat by the fire after he’d come in from who-knows-where through that freezing storm. She rearranged her face into the most charming smile she could manage and stood at attention beside the hearth, her hands clasped together.

    Our hero, our hero, claims a warrior’s heart.” the bard sang out, her clear, pure voice carrying throughout the inn like water in parched soil.

    A young woman, dressed in a well-worn suit of fine clothes, her hair still dripping wet from a recent wash, appeared at the top of the stairs and flopped heavily into the nearest chair.

    Susanna chuckled, shaking her head at the ridiculousness of her error and the extent of her false hopes. She crept up behind the girl and tapped her on her muscular shoulder.

    “Hey, stranger.” she said, smiling genuinely at her, “I thought they’d sent you to the Rift.”

    Lydia grinned sleepily back at her, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back in the chair. She looked exhausted. There were dark circles around her eyes and her every movement spoke of terrible fatigue. Looking closer, she saw a thin trickle of dried blood that started from somewhere behind her ear and ran a little ways down the back of her neck.

    “Hey…” Susanna said, worry for her old friend beginning to weigh on her mind. She pulled up an empty chair and perched herself on its edge. “What’s happened?”

    Lydia coughed and rubbed the outsides of her arms for warmth.

    “Oh nothing much…” she answered coolly, closing her eyes and making herself more comfortable, “The usual. Imperials, giants and mammoths, all out for our heads. I don’t even know how we survived.”

    Believe, believe, the Dragonborn comes.” the bard’s languid voice drifted into the ears of the two companions and Lydia snapped awake, suddenly angry.

    “I don’t understand it.” she exclaimed with sudden passion, “Why does Elda even let that Dark Elf in here? Shouldn’t she be singing in that Cornerclub in the Gray Quarter?”

    Susanna bit her tongue and swallowed her harsh words.

    “She brings in a good crowd that comes in to hear her sing.” she answered carefully, not daring to make eye contact with Lydia, “Isn’t her voice beautiful?”

    It’s an end to the evil of all Skyrim’s foes!” the bard sang on with growing ardor, raising her arms up as the verse flowed, smooth as honey from her mouth.

    “I suppose that is true.” Lydia murmured, tenderly rubbing that spot behind her ear.
    The two of them sat in silence for a time, listening to the end of the bard’s song. She bowed as she finished and the few people who had been paying attention to her applauded feebly. Susanna stood up, clapping louder and throwing one of her few septims at the Dunmer’s feet. When she turned back to Lydia, she saw that the space between her eyebrows was wrinkled and that she had bit her bottom lip, though that did nothing to stop it from quivering.

    “There’s so much that I don’t understand.” she murmured softly, staring blankly off into the distance. Her dark eyes were unfathomable voids, deep and prying.

    Susanna had a sudden and driving urge to be anywhere but here. It would be so easy, albeit incredibly impolite, to just get up and run. She twisted her hands in her lap, below the surface of the table where Lydia couldn’t see.

    It was horribly silent in the inn now. The bard had left and taken her voice that had filled the gap between the two girls. Outside, the wind still blew coldly, filling the night with the sound of eerie moaning.

    “He-ey!” Susanna stuttered, cracking a forced smile, “Why…why don’t you have this one on the house?”

    She leaned over and snatched a bottle of mead from another table.

    It had barely left her hand when Lydia snatched it up, ripped out the cork with her teeth and downed the bottle in one swig. She slammed it down, empty, on the table. The entire room jumped at sound and glanced in her direction. Lydia just slumped back in her chair, sorrow taking over her features.

    “So…” Susanna asked, twiddling her thumbs nervously, “I take it you’re staying here tonight?”

    Lydia perked up a tiny bit.

    “Yes. My friend and I are sharing the downstairs room. She’s sleeping there now.”

    And that ended that idea. There wasn’t a spare bed left in the inn. There was nothing for it. She’d have to brave the blizzard home.

    “Well!” Susanna said, a false smile pinned to her face, as she clapped her hands merrily and stood up, “I’d best be heading home now. My shift’s nearly ended and they’re bound to be worried about me.”

    “I could walk you home if you like.” Lydia offered, her joints cracking like an old woman’s as she stood. “Maybe we’ll run into the Butcher and I could get a good fight in before bed.”

    Her hand had moved to the sheathed blade hanging from her waist. She fingered it lovingly, frowning darkly as some shadowed thought drifted through the corridors of her mind.

    “Ahhhh-ha-ha-ha…” Susanna laughed anxiously, endeavoring vainly to break the tension. “It has been a while since you’ve been home, hasn’t it? The Butcher hasn’t killed in months. Really, I don’t even think he exists. I think those killings were ice wraiths or a rogue wolf, skeevers even. You know how those rats nibble at their food.”

    “Maybe so.” Lydia answered, letting go of her sword and smiling weakly, “So, this is where we part then?”

    “So it is. It was…g-good to see you again.” That smile was stretching the corners of her mouth. If she held it any longer, her face would surely be stuck that way.

    The stairway was so close now. Just a few more steps and she’d make it. Lydia and her uncomfortable aura of gloom would be left far behind a wall of howling snow.

    “Hey.”

    The voice stopped her in tracks and set the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. She slowly turned around as Lydia’s heavy footsteps came up behind her. The Stormcloak looked as though she were about to cry. Her cheeks were flushed by the mead she had just downed.

    “I wanted to thank you.” she said softly, leaning in close. “For listening. For…tolerating me. I’m sorry if I was harsh. It’s just been…”

    She stopped to scratch vigorously behind her ear, scowling as she did so. Her fingernails came away encrusted with dried blood. With a confused look on her face, she stared at them for a moment, before appearing to write it off mentally and dropping her hand.

    “…a very trying day.”

    “Right.” Susanna squeaked, her jaw near breaking point. “See you.”

    She rushed away, but not so fast as to be discourteous and breathed a sigh of relief when she was out of range. The walls weren’t closing in anymore. She put a hand on her heart and realized that it had been pounding.

    As she trotted past the spare room, she realized that its door had been left open. A touch of curiosity momentarily overcoming her weariness, she poked her head in and squinted through the darkness. The room was in shambles. There was muddy armor and clothes scattered all around and a washbasin with murky water sat in the middle of the floor. At the far end, she could see a dim shape sleeping in the bed, completely swaddled in blankets, save for the tangled nest of blond hair that poked out from beneath the covers. Alert to every creak of the floor above, she speedily moved on.

    Elda, the innkeeper was lounging sleepily at the front counter. She waved goodbye weakly, yawning as she did so. Susanna said her goodnights and threw her body against the heavy iron door.

    The wind was blowing it shut. Grinding her heels into the floorboards, she braced herself and pushed, finally dislodging it and stumbling down the front steps a little ways before landing knee-first in a snow bank. She heard the door slam behind her, booming hollowly with the finality of a dragon’s jaws.

    Cursing under her breath, she stood up and brushed herself off. She needn’t have bothered. The snow fell as fast she could brush it off. The icy wind blew her skirt up past her knees and every snowflake was like a pinprick on her skin. Sticking her hands in her armpits and shivering, she staggered off blindly into the blizzard.

    ***​
    The room swam before Tanniel’s bleary eyes. For a moment, it looked as though she were underwater, amid shifting currents and lights. But after a few vigorous blinks the effect just about wore off. Her head was throbbing and she was uncomfortably warm as she returned to consciousness, squinting at the ceiling of her room in the Bannered Mare. A low groan escaping her throat before she could do anything to stop it, she slowly sat up and tested her joints. Every single one of them was stiff, her shoulder especially. It was still tender to the touch, though Danica had mended its bones with a touch the day before. She supposed that Restoration magic could only go so far. After that, healing was up to the body itself.

    Her tongue felt thick and heavy and her mouth tasted, peculiarly, of dog hair. She was reasonably certain that there hadn’t been any dogs in the inn last night and if there had been, saw no conceivable way that they’d have anything to do with her mouth. But then again, nothing that had happened in her dim recent memory had been reasonable in the least.

    She decided to try her voice. A word hovered at the back of her dazed mind, glowing in her mind’s eye, though she couldn’t quite put a finger on its origin. It slid out of her lips almost unbidden, its unusual shape strangely familiar on her tongue.

    “Fus.”

    A bottle of wine went flying off the end table to smash itself against the wall of the opposite end of the room. Tanniel’s eyes widened as she watched its amethyst contents dribble down the wall and puddle in the floorboards. Her ears were ringing and all she could hear was their droning whine inside her own head. Terror filling her heart, she jerked backward involuntarily, as though she could run from her own voice or flee from what it could do.

    All thoughts were violently seared from her mind with the intense spasm of pain that crackled through her chest. It was like the steel jaws of a bear trap had clamped around her torso, tearing through flesh and bone. She lay still for a few minutes, gasping for breath and gagging alternately with the sudden wave of nausea that had taken hold of her. When the sensation had subsided, she slowly dared to sit up again, lifting herself up by her elbows and being careful not to disturb the affected area again.

    With shaking hands, she undid her robe and saw the problem immediately. Her torso was ringed with deep purple bruises, in a pattern that suggested the maw of a horrible animal. She smelled the iron tang of blood and the reek of rancid, meaty breath. She saw ivory teeth, like daggers emerging from smoke and whirling ash. A voice, belittling and cruel, inhuman in its tone, laughed at the scope of her failure.

    Memory trickled back into her mind in a slow stream that was gaining volume and pressure as it flowed. The black dread of Bleak Falls Barrow, the terrible wave of heat and power that had erupted from her fingertips, the court wizard’s hand squeezing her wrist so hard that she thought it would snap, the choking smell of sulfur that clogged her nose and made her eyes water, the sound of her own bones being crushed between his steely jaws, the floor in the Temple of Kynareth bucking and rolling beneath her, Jarl Balgruuf’s stern voice breaking through the lethargic haze she’d been in ever since leaving Riverwood in naming her Thane, and then there were so many upturned faces with flushed cheeks, calling her Dragonborn and expecting so much as they raised their flagons and toasted her with eager eyes…

    The nausea came back in full force. She frantically cast about for a nearby bucket. Finding nothing in time, she settled for leaning over the side of the bed and retching in the space between the wall and the bedframe. The memory of the dragon’s teeth ripped through her chest once again as she moved and she lay quaking in that position, the ends of her wild hair dipping down into the puddle on the floor. With a force of sheer willpower, she heaved herself up and lay back against the uncomfortably warm coverlet. Her vision was fuzzy around the edges and her temples still throbbed. She closed her eyes and felt sweet, restful sleep stealing over her. It would have been so nice to sleep for days, to remain comatose until everything that had happened no longer mattered and not a soul in Skyrim remembered who she was.

    It wasn’t to be. The pulsing of her head and the constant dull ache of her bruises drew her back from that realm. She felt like an old rag that had been twisted and squeezed until no moisture was left in it. It had to be nothing less than she deserved.

    It was at that moment that a knock on the door jerked her back into her senses. She sat up as hurriedly as she dared and flipped her robe shut, just as the door was kicked open by a booted foot. A woman she strained to recognize walked in, balancing a large bowl of water between her hands.

    She was tough-looking and muscular and her face betrayed no emotion. Her steel boots clomped on the floor as she walked and her armor rattled as she moved. A sword hung at her waist and a shield was slung over her back. Her nose wrinkled as she entered the room and she saw her gaze languidly pass over the shattered wine bottle and its hopelessly staining contents. Saying nothing, she leaned down and placed the bowl on the floor.

    Tanniel felt awful. She couldn’t remember a thing about this woman, though she had a vague feeling that they’d met before. And that perhaps she’d done something important. That was it. The details were coming back now.

    “You’re…Lydia?” She asked slowly, entirely unsure as to whether she was right or not. Her voice was a rough croak. She coughed upon uttering the words and grimaced at the painful twinge that followed the motion.

    “Yes, my Thane.” Lydia said coldly, standing up and looking her in the eyes, “I am your sword and your shield.”

    As her vision cleared a little, Tanniel saw that she was actually quite young, maybe only a year or two her senior. But her eyes were dead in her youthful face and her stare was icy as it sized her up very much as a farmer weighs a prize ox in his mind.

    “I bought you some medicine from Arcadia.” She went on smoothly, stepping toward the room’s dresser and lifting a bottle from its surface, “This one should help with the pain. She also told me that a bath of a pinch of frost salts dissolved in water should take down the swelling in your feet.”

    “Swelling…?” Tanniel murmured, looking down the bed at her feet. With a start, she noticed that they were bare, their hideous deformity plainly visible in the all-revealing daylight. She abruptly tucked them under her robe, gasping in pain as their tender flesh scraped the covers.

    Lydia set the potion on the vacant end table and then turned away, her footsteps slow, heavy thuds as she walked from the room. “I’ll fetch you some supper, my Thane.” she called back.

    “Supper?” Tanniel squeaked, a realization suddenly dawning on her, “What time is it?”

    “Midday, my Thane.”

    “Ohhhh…” Tanniel groaned, running a hand through her hair, “Now I’ve missed two and a half days of work. Hulda won’t give me room and board if I don’t work.”

    Lydia stopped in her tracks, leaning backwards through the open door, looking at her curiously.

    “I chop firewood for her hearth.” she explained, panic rising in her voice, “And anyone else who’ll pay me. I haven’t worked in so long. I don’t know what I’ll…”

    Lydia picked up the hatchet that was propped up against the wall beside her. She held it at arm’s length, awkward in her hand, as she looked it over.

    “It will be done, my Thane.” she said unenthusiastically, nodding in her direction, before heading out.

    Tanniel sighed in relief when she was gone and had heard her safely reach the bottom of the stairs below. There was something that scared her about Lydia, something about her that was bizarrely unsettling. She couldn’t say why it was so or what exactly it was that rankled her nerves. But the less time they spent together, the better – of that much she was certain.

    She gingerly tossed her feet over the side of the bed and dunked them into the bowl of water. It was cold and soothing and seemed to wash away all the hard miles she’d trodden in the past few days. She hadn’t even realized how bad they’d gotten until she’d found out how good the frost salts felt.

    Relaxing a little, she counted out her financial options. There was always the satchel of barrow-gold and her tiny stash of saved septims, should she be unable to work for much longer. But that was only to be used as a final resort. Those coins and that pouch were everything. Their value far outstripped their weight. Buried in their cold luster was a solid future, a home in a land where she had no roots.

    Satisfied with the conclusion, she let her mind wander. As it was comfortably empty of much else, she examined the new additions to her room. Lydia had set up a bedroll on the opposite side of the chamber and neatly arranged her belongings around it. She had a few potions sitting on an end table, a small stack of books on the floor, a helmet at the foot of her bed, a large sack propped up against the wall and curiously, a gleaming gold necklace that was sitting in a place of honor, its chain carefully laid out so as to not tangle. It was strange. Lydia just hadn’t seemed the type to hold on to pretty things or have anything to do with them, for that matter.

    Shaking the puzzle from her head, she reached over and uncorked Arcadia’s potion with her teeth. The first awful taste caused her to gag again and slap a hand over her untrustworthy mouth. The sensation soon passed and her stomach settled again. Gently, she put the potion back from whence it came. Then, wheezing with effort, she leaned down and opened the end table’s door. Her fingers drew forth a small red vial. She poured a few drops from it onto her tongue, smiling at the liquid’s sweet taste and then tucked it away. Lifting her feet from the basin, she laid back in bed, drawing the covers around her until nothing could be seen of her, but a tuft of a feral blond hair poking out on her pillow.

    The rest of the world sped away so fast. Its sounds, its sights, its smells, its pain. She was dizzy at first and filled with joy. She wanted to leap around the room, to jovially yell “FUS!” at every single object in her path. And then the temptation passed as her limbs grew heavy enough to sink through the floor, to fall to the center of the planet. Sleep came to her at last, deep and dreamless, black as a night in the wilderness.

    ***​

    The skies had cleared in Windhelm with the rising of the sun. The air smelled fresh and bracing, as though the storm of the previous night had cleared away all the soot and hearth smoke that plagued every major city. The sun was bright in the sapphire sky and not a scrap of cloud cover could be seen on the horizon. However, the wind was still chilly and bitter as it blew cruelly between the tight spaces between structures. Windhelm’s residents made do, as they always did, going about their business wrapped in furs, with apple-red cheeks and breath that showed up as fog whenever they opened their mouths to speak.

    The marketplace was already bustling in this early hour. The city’s inhabitants flocked to it, loading their baskets with produce and meat for the meals of the day, pouring over trinkets or haggling over the price of medicine in the alchemist’s shop. The steady, jarring sound of the blacksmiths’ hammers provided a backdrop to the entire scene.

    Lydia waved to one of the blacksmiths as she entered the market. It was a young woman with frizzy hair and a patina of soot on her face. She smiled, her teeth looking pearly white in her dark visage, ceased her work for a moment to wave her hammer in a friendly manner before slamming it back down on the piece of armor she had on the workbench.

    “Heeeeey!” she called out, “How’s that sword working out for you?”

    Lydia drew it from its scabbard and presented it to her, hilt first.

    “I killed a good couple of Imperials with it yesterday.”

    “Damn, I can see that.” Hermir said, turning the blade over in her hands and gawking in awe at the deep scratches along its length, “They weren’t golems by any chance, were they?”

    “One had a warhammer.” she answered sheepishly, suppressing a yawn. The previous night hadn’t been too restful. She’d been kept awake by nightmares and worry. Her bedroll on the hard inn floor hadn’t been any help either.

    Hermir set the sword down on her workbench and looked up at her.

    “Are you going to be in the city long?” she asked earnestly, all business now.

    “I’m not sure.” Lydia answered, scratching her head, “My comrade and I are taking a walk around the city before heading to the Palace of Kings to report in to Galmar Stone-Fist. He’s bound to send us somewhere else.”

    “I’ll make it quick then. I’ll get this all fixed up for you by noon. What do you say?”

    “Deal.”

    They shook on it and Lydia left her with a few septims from her coin purse for her trouble. Hermir waved goodbye with her hammer in her hand and bent obediently back over her work.

    Turning around, she located Lilija admiring a display of jewelry in an Altmer’s stall. The elf was showing her pieces, lifting them as gently as children from the counter, showing them off in the morning light and going into a long-winded explanation about the intricacies of craftsmanship. Lilija was nodding politely, but saying nothing. She looked as though she wanted desperately to move on, but didn’t want to risk offending the elf mid-sentence. Lydia knew that the Imperials they’d fought yesterday had also taken every last septim she had. They were both dining and sleeping on Lydia’s coin. It was obvious that Lilija hated the arrangement and despised being a burden on someone else. Apparently she’d come from some rich family in Riften. Being poor wasn’t something that she had any experience with.

    “Lilija!” Lydia called out, cutting the elf’s speech short as she trotted toward her, “Have you ever been inside the city’s Temple of Talos? Beautiful place. They’ve got a shrine and this massive statue and the entire place is filled with candles. It’s the only place in Skyrim where we can worship him freely. Maybe you’ll get some ideas for your shrine back home, eh?”

    “Oh…” Lilija said nervously, blushing a little, “It’s not my shrine yet. My mother’s the priestess in Riften. When she retires it’ll be my turn to tend it.”

    [​IMG]

    As she talked of home, her face fell. She must be missing it terribly. Lydia couldn’t recall the last time their group had stopped in Riften in all the time they’d spent in the Rift. No, it had all been tents and campsites for them. Remaining concealed from enemy forces was the top priority. Far too many nights had they spent without the use of even a fire, lest the light attract undue attention. It was lucky that the Rift was a more temperate hold than most of the rest of Skyrim.

    “But I do have to say…” Lilija went on, passion slowly building in her words, “…that I wish we didn’t have to hide the shrine in the back end of the city. To think that we’ll be able to praise our god for the Divine that he is at the end of this war! That would be worth everything.”

    “The end?” Lydia chuckled bitterly, “I don’t even know if the end exists.”

    Lilija cocked her head, confusion marking her face.

    “But, you’ve got to have a goal in mind, right? A reason that keeps you going?”

    Lydia crossed her arms and leaned against the city wall.

    “I’m a warrior. A killer. That’s all the reason I need. Like my father before me, I serve Jarl Ulfric to prove my honor. It was my purpose from birth.”

    Lilija was taken aback. “From…birth, now?”

    “Yes.” Lydia said, a fierce smile creeping over her features as she fondly remembered the stories her father had told her, “I was born in the Reach, during the Liberation of Markarth, as the Forsworn set my mother’s tent on fire in an ambush. As I came into the world, the first thing I heard was the sound of my father’s hammer smashing Reachmen skulls. He was a Snow-Hammer of Jarl Ulfric. When he returned to Windhelm, he was made Thane for his prowess in battle. He never left Ulfric’s side – followed him straight through to the beginning of the rebellion.”

    A flicker of sorrow crossed her face and her heart fell as she reached the end of the tale. “He was killed last year. In a skirmish not far from here. Though, he didn’t go to Sovngarde without taking more than a few enemies with him.”

    Slowly, Lilija crept closer and patted her shoulder. Lydia jumped at the touch. She’d never get used to that. It would have scared her less if she had punched her.

    “Talos be with him.” Lilija intoned quietly, bending her head in prayer.

    “Ah…thank you.” Lydia answered awkwardly, unsure of how to act around a priestess, albeit an apprentice one. She’d never spent too much time in temples and the like. Her element was the open road and the windswept plain. Her hands weren’t complete if they weren’t holding a weapon, never mind raised in praise.

    “Hey.” Lydia said softly, shattering the silence between them, “Would you like to see my father’s grave? He’s buried in the city. It’s a peaceful place. Scarcely anyone ever goes in there but old Helgird, the Hall of the Dead’s caretaker. She’s like a mother to me.”

    Lilija looked up and cracked a nervous smile. “I’d like that.”

    “It’s not far off.” Lydia called back, trotting past Hermir and her master pounding away at their bits of metal. The two girls slid through a dark corridor beside the aged smelter as it belched smoke. Lilija gagged on the thick scent of soot as it assaulted her breathing passageways. She backed away from it and fell to her knees gasping and holding her stomach. Lydia quickly helped her up when she had calmed down.

    “Are you all right?” she asked, casting about for a bucket of clean drinking water.

    “Fine, fine.” Lilija coughed, waving a hand dismissively. “I just need to…rest. For a minute.”

    She sat heavily on an icy snowbank that the vendors had piled up in the corner of the marketplace, pressing a hand into her abdomen and squeezing her eyes shut. When she was ready to get up, Lydia extended her hand and she gladly took it.

    “You know…” the healer intoned sadly, her face downcast, “This adventure was nothing like I thought it would be.”

    “Yes…” Lydia breathed, her thoughts going back to the tangled grass in that hidden clearing so far away back in the Rift.

    The space between them stretched for miles and the silence was deafening.

    They headed to the cemetery, chatting about the weather, poking fun at the fat nobility that passed them by, wondering where it was they’d go next for the war effort – anything cheery and mundane to get their minds off the darkness that was lurking in both of them. They shortly reached the steps that led down into the graveyard and Lydia stopped abruptly in her tracks, her spine tingling and the hairs on the back of neck bristling. Lilija skidded to a halt behind the warrior, nearly crashing into her.

    Below them, among the ancient tombstones and weathered walls, a crowd milled about. The air was filled with ominous mumbles and. sideways glances. That sense of unease growing in intensity on her, Lydia jumped down and ran toward the commotion.

    “Helgird!” she cried, spotting the comforting sight of the old woman’s monk robe in the horde, “What is this?”

    Helgird turned around, her wrinkled features heavy with sorrow, “A murder, dear.”

    Lydia’s breath caught in her throat. She pushed past the old priestess a little too roughly than she meant to and stumbled to the front of the pack. The corpse was half-concealed in the fallen snow. It looked as though it had been buried in a snow bank overnight. There was a pile of bloody snow next to it and a shovel propped up against a tombstone. Most likely, Helgird had been digging the graveyard out from under the blizzard’s wrath when she had found the body. Its ghastly skin was shades of blue and black. Its joints were hacked to pieces and its flesh was shredded like stringy stew beef.

    Helgird forced her way through the mass of gawking people, squeezing between them with more dexterity than Lydia thought it possible for a little old woman to have. She knelt on the ground and gently, as though caressing a hurt child, uncovered the corpse’s face. The first thing Lydia saw was the cadaver’s golden hair, gleaming in the morning sun, splayed in disarray around its owner’s head like a halo. Then her eyes were caught by the shimmer of cold metal, a golden necklace gleaming coldly around the body’s breathless throat.

    Against all her warrior training, her hardened instincts and icy heart, her eyes were suddenly stinging with tears.

    “It’s the Butcher, I tell you!” a wheedling voice hissed from inside the crowd.

    Lilija came running up breathlessly behind, her face strangely pale. “What’s the Butcher?”

    Lydia clenched her fists and an expression of animal rage came over features. She growled through gritted teeth. “He’s slime. A killer of defenseless women who walk alone at night.”

    “Everyone!” Helgird screamed over the noise of the crowd, clapping her hands loudly to get the gawkers’ attention. “Move it! I need to bury this poor girl before the rats get to her!”

    Startled out of her thoughts and a tad dazed, Lydia stepped away to let the old priestess out. Ever so tenderly, she saw her lift the cold body from the snow-covered ground and begin to drag it toward the door which led to the Hall of the Dead. She took another step back, wanting to flee the scene but unable to take her eyes off of it, her mind reeling and her fists shaking. She bumped into a man standing behind her, who hastily apologized and then immediately turned back, his eyes following the progress of the body.

    He was someone she’d seen very seldom - an older Imperial man named Calixto Corrium, who’d set up a museum of oddities in his home in the city and charged for tours. She had taken the tour exactly once, back when she was still a child. It had been a disappointing and silly experience. The museum was nothing but a dusty room, filled with rusted artifacts of questionable authenticity. He had a book which was meant to tell the reader’s fate, but when she opened it with eager hands and fumbling thumbs, certain that she would read her destiny on the vellum pages, the exertion yielded nothing but blank leaves from cover to cover. Maybe it was indeed true that one created one’s own destiny, but she had no doubts in her mind that the old man had put a purposefully printed a blank book to get the point across.

    And now she found herself watching him closely, unable to tear her gaze away from him, as his leering gaze followed Susanna’s naked body. There was an untamed and frightening lust in it, a hunger that tugged at the corners of his mouth, a longing that spoke through the hollowness of his cheeks and the rings around his eyes. For a second, she saw his face change to accommodate an expression of bestial triumph. And then he was gone as quickly as he had come, dispersed among the alleys of Windhelm with the rest of the horde.

    A bitter ball of certainty, harder and colder than ice, had taken the place of Lydia’s stomach. Her breath steamed as it poured out of her nostrils. Uncontrollable wrath built up inside her, choking and feral. Her hand had moved to her blade, though she didn’t remember moving it herself, but it touched only her empty scabbard. She suddenly felt undressed and helpless, naked before a disgusting evil.

    She jumped as a soft hand touched her shoulder.

    “Lydia?” Lilija asked gently, her eyes misty, “We need to report in to Galmar Stone-Fist. He’ll be wondering how things went in the Rift.”

    ***​

    The axe was heavy and awkward in her hand. Its balance was all off and it utterly lacked the smooth grace of a sword. But then again, it wasn’t meant to be used as weapon.

    It also didn’t appear to be of much use for chopping wood. Try as she might at the chopping block beside Belethor’s store, Lydia just couldn’t manage to split a log into perfectly even halves. At the last second, as she held the axe above her head and brought it down, her grip always slipped to the side and she ended up with a stick of kindling and a log that was still too big to be of much use to anyone. Worse still, the exercise exerted muscles that she wasn’t used to using and after a few hours of the farce, she was sore and sticky beneath her sweltering armor.

    As time wore on and the boiling sun began its journey into the horizon, she felt a pair of persistent eyes prickling on the back of her neck. When the sensation didn’t end and the solitary presence behind her didn’t lose interest, when her level of annoyance exceeded her will to work, she threw the axe to the ground and whirled around. It was the Bannered Mare’s serving girl from the previous night, with her bossy attitude and eerie crystalline eyes that pierced one like a pair of icy needles. Lydia had an ingrained hatred for her that she couldn’t understand for someone she’d just met. Everything about her rubbed her the wrong way. The way she dressed, the way she balanced on the tips of her toes, the annoying shine on her immaculately and inexplicably manicured fingernails. She had a basket over her arm and a cruel smirk on her dark features.

    “You’re a down on your luck noble, aren’t you?” she asked, a chuckle in her strangely accented voice, “I can see it in the way you carry yourself. I’ll bet that you’ve chopped off a hundred heads and yet not once have you put iron to wood. Am I correct?”

    Lydia leaned against the back wall of Belethor’s shop, crossing her arms and stirring the dusty earth with the toe of her boot.

    “And what of it if you are?” she asked coldly, meeting her gaze.

    “Oh, nothing really.” the girl answered dismissively, waving her free hand. “What is a bit of idle natter between acquaintances? But allow me to introduce myself. The name’s Saadia.”

    She held out her hand. Lydia eyed it like a snake in the grass before shaking it stiffly.

    “Lydia.” she shot back, narrowing her eyes at her.

    Saadia smiled widely, each tooth like a perfect pearl set in her pristine jaw.

    “I do hope that we shall spend pleasant times together. Friendship certainly has a way of taking the chill from these bitter Skyrim winters.”

    “Perhaps.” Lydia muttered, her annoyance growing progressively with every word the girl dropped, “Now, tell me this, how does a Redguard make it to Skyrim? Hammerfell’s a long way away from here.”

    Saadia grinned like a saber-toothed cat.

    “That’s none of your concern, now is it?” she answered, her voice a low purr that could barely be heard above the buzz of the market nearby.

    “Then…” Lydia said, abruptly breaking off from the conversation and bending down to retrieve the axe, “…you need not concern yourself with me.”

    “Fair enough.” Saadia answered, her laughing voice like bells caught on the breeze, “I was very pleased to make your acquaintance today, Lydia Kindling-Wright. I do hope that we shall have many pleasing conversations in the future.”

    Lydia stood still, hardly daring to breathe as she listened to those infuriatingly delicate footsteps walking away behind her. When she was sure that the Redguard had left, she found herself sighing in relief and relaxing muscles she didn’t even know were tense.

    The axe was heavy in her hand again. She stared sadly at it for a moment before setting another log on the chopping block.

    ***​

    The rest of the day had been a disturbingly calm one. Very little of note had happened that could possibly top the events of the morning. Lydia watched it all happening from afar through a long, gray tunnel, as though to someone else. When someone asked her a question, she grunted a half-hearted answer. If she bought something she dumbly handed over the septims. If she was asked to do something, she agreed to it unquestioningly, hardly listening.

    Galmar Stone-Fist was sending Lilija and her to the Reach. It would be a long, hard journey, fraught with danger in merely getting there. They were to head there on foot, keeping out of sight of the Imperial patrols that plagued the area. Judging by the weight of her purse, the two of them would have more than a few cold nights outdoors.

    She’d spent most of the last of her money on a new set of gear for Lilija. The healer had promised that she’d pay her back once she got a letter through to her parents in Riften, but Lydia knew how slowly information traveled in Skyrim and how much slower gold moved in comparison. She might have been angry about spending the last of her inheritance from her father and being left nearly penniless, at the mercy of the charity of the Stormcloak Army, if it all hadn’t been happening so very far away.

    They would spend one more night, in warmth and comfort, within the city’s walls, before trekking to the other end of the province. Thinking that she might as well go all the way if she was to hit rock bottom, Lydia had bought a great feast to mark the occasion. Their little table in the corner of the upper floor of Candlehearth Hall was creaking under the weight of meats, cheeses and plentiful mead.

    Lilija ate heartily and chatted merrily. She was excited about the upcoming journey and exceedingly curious about the Reach, as she’d never been out of the Rift and Eastmarch before. Lydia answered her questions grudgingly, if prodded long enough, providing what little information she knew about the hold from the war stories she’d been told about it.

    She wanted to relax. She wanted to kick back and laugh with Lilija and stuff her face until she couldn’t move any longer. She wanted to be lulled to sleep by that bard’s lilting voice and wake up to a fresh new day in which the possibilities were endless and the horizon had no end.

    But he was here, of all places. In a chair by the fire he sat, nibbling on a honey-nut treat, an open book in his hand. He turned Lydia’s stomach like a rotten piece of meat. He made all the fine inn food before her look cold and unappealing. His presence was like a millstone dangling around her throat, too massive to be ignored and too heavy to withstand.

    With a quick motion, she waved Elda Early-Dawn over, the Candlehearth’s proprietor, doing double duty tonight after the death of her employee, as innkeeper and server. She set another bottle of mead on the table before scurrying off again to tend to someone else. Lydia stared at it for a moment, thumbing the paper label, before twisting its cork free and slamming it back in one gulp. It burned as it slid down her throat, making her eyes water and dulling her senses comfortably. She tossed it on the growing pile on the floor next to her.

    Lilija glanced up at the sound, her mouth full of bread and cheese. She swallowed thickly, a worried expression forming on her face.

    “Come on, Lydia.” she said sweetly, “I know it’s hard. But it’ll be months before we get to eat like this again. From here on out, it’ll be boiled rabbit every day.”

    “Hmmm.” she grunted in answer, locking her hands behind her head and leaning back in her chair. She was studying the back of Calixto’s disheveled gray head intently, burning holes in it with her eyes. Her paid her no mind and just kept turning the pages of his book, taking minute bites of his treat.

    There was no reason why he shouldn’t have been there. By all rights he should have been there – Candlehearth Hall was a gathering place for all the residents of Windhelm and very close to the heart of the city. Elda had told her, when she had asked, that Calixto stopped in most every night. He was nothing but a poor old man, she had said, with no loved ones left in the world and no one waiting for him in his cold, empty house of dusty treasures.

    His benign presence rankled her like nothing else. The night wore on excruciatingly slow. The mead lost all flavor, though it wasn’t for lack of searching. One by one, the other guests left for home. When the bard packed up her flute and meager bucket of tips, the place became eerily silent and the old creaking walls began to close in around the remaining patrons.

    Lydia couldn’t take her eyes off of him. She watched the honey-nut treat vanish in infinitesimal increments beneath his mustached lip. When he had gotten down to four or three more nibbles, a dim realization dawned like a clear beam of light in Lydia’s foggy mind. Once that treat was gone, Calixto would have no reason to stay in the inn any longer. He would pack up his things, take a short walk down the street and head home. Excitement boiling in her belly, she hurriedly jumped to her feet and slammed a steadying hand on the table when the room began spinning around her. Her head was light and her cheeks burned. She slowly stood back up and took hold of the back of her chair, patiently waiting for the walls to stop swaying. Lilija jumped at the sound and looked up from the book she was reading, through the small barrier of mead bottles that separated the halves of the table.

    “Hey…” she mumbled, yawning and stretching her arms above her head, “Do you need any help getting downstairs? I was just going to go to bed myself.”

    Lydia shook her head vigorously and hastily swallowed when she tasted honey-flavored bile rising in the back of her throat.

    “Well, goodnight then.” Lilija answered, shifting her attention back to her book, “I’ll just be a few more minutes. See you in the morning.”

    Lydia cleared her throat and fought with her heavy tongue until it did her bidding.

    “Yes…” she said thickly, feebly waving goodbye, “Goodnight.”

    Tripping over a bucket in her path and nearly walking straight into a wall, she stumbled in the general direction of the back stairs. The pungent smell of dried spices and the rush of cold air in the vacant kitchen refreshed her. After pausing to close her eyes for a moment and breathe it in, she trotted into her rented room, her head a little less hazy.

    She and Lilija had spent part of the day cleaning up the mess they’d left behind from the previous night, when they’d just dumped all their burdens and left them where they had fallen before falling into bed themselves. Everything was neatly in its place now and meticulously organized. Lilija had even put a branch of snowberries that she’d found in a vase on the dresser to brighten the place up. Lydia smiled when she saw it, despite how silly she thought home decoration was. A bedroll to drop into and a fire to sit around – that was all a well-traveled Stormcloak could dare to hope for, if even that. It struck her as a sort of foolishness to think that there might be more to life.

    But that wasn’t what she was here for. Blinking furiously to stop the room from wobbling, she pulled the dresser’s top drawer open. Hermir had kept her promise. She reached in to the drawer and pulled out her repaired sword. Pulling it halfway out of its scabbard, she squinted at its blade, finding it hard to make out the deep scratches that had marred its length this morning. Testing its sharpness with her thumb, its freshly honed edge drew blood. Pleased with the work, she belted it on with unsteady hands and headed out.

    With Hulda still working upstairs, there was no one manning the front counter. She slipped into the icy outdoors unseen.

    Snow was falling again in Windhelm, as it did most nights, year-round. It dropped from the sky like fine powder, carelessly dusting whatever it touched. The light from the torch of a passing guard was caught in the drifting flakes, glowing in a mystical-looking halo that faded away into the dark as he plodded down the road on his nightly patrol. Lydia leaned against the inn’s frozen stone wall, rubbing her arms for warmth.

    Ten minutes passed. She found herself pacing in a circle impatiently; kicking powdery clods of snow off the ledge and watching them fall to the road below. The tips of her fingers were freezing and it had been a while since she could feel her nose. The balmy stupor she’d been lulling herself into all night was beginning to wear off. She felt sick and tired and lonely. Her alcohol-driven burst of courage was wearing thin and the anger she’d felt toward a complete stranger was nearly gone, now that she had spent some time out of sight of him. She didn’t have to confront him, she thought sleepily. He was just an old man. There was no proof that he had ever killed a woman. It was all in her head. She’d seen the body of her slaughtered friend and lost control. It would be so good to spend some time far from home after all this, in the open air, away from yawning graves and claustrophobic walls.

    It was at that moment that the heavy door of the inn swung open with a squeal, emitting light and sound. Calixto walked out, waving goodnight to Elda as he closed the door softly behind him. His book was tucked under his arm and his hoary brow was furrowed in thought. He passed her by with his sorrowful face down-turned, as if no one else existed outside the confines of his own intellect.

    Lydia’s breath steamed. Alcoholic bile rose in her throat. She saw the ancient graveyard of Windhelm, with its weathered stones and blood-smeared snow. Susanna’s naked body loomed large ahead of her, smashed and ripped asunder. She saw the bruises around Lilija’s throat, the imprints of pressing fingers left behind in her skin. She watched the wind disturb the tangled grass of a clearing far away in another hold, in another climate, too silent and still for the magnitude of the crime that had been committed there. Her stomach boiled and her wrath came charging up her throat. On the flawlessly clean and time-honored front step of Candlehearth Hall, she gripped the wall and retched until the golden contents of her full stomach flavored the freshly fallen snow.

    For a split second, as she rose back up, dizzy and nauseous, her vision blurred as she stared at Calixto’s fading back ahead of her. It wasn’t Calixto at all – it was three Imperial soldiers in blood-red armor, walking fast into the sunset, dragging a bound prisoner with them. It was a murderer with red hands, a dagger swinging between his fingers. It was a monster with gaping jaws and a dripping tongue.

    “Caaaalixto Corrium!” she shrieked out in a hoarse voice, twisting her tongue with difficulty around the words, faltering down the steps after him.

    He stopped and turned around groggily, squinting through the veil of snow. Lydia crept closer, a shadow in the flurry. As she drew her blade, the clouds parted for a moment and a glimmer of moonlight caught the weapon’s edge

    “What is it?” Calixto muttered absentmindedly, rubbing his rosy ears for warmth.

    Lydia carefully stepped closer. The ground was spinning beneath her again, whirling so fast she thought it would suck her into its snowy vortex. Her head was pounding, her temples were buzzing. She heard her stomach give an unhappy gurgle.

    “Have you ever…” she asked, sounding out each weighty word, “…fought a woman with the power to fight back?”

    Something flickered across his face and then it was gone before Lydia could get a good grip on it.

    “What did you say? Hmm?” he asked, putting a hand to his ear, “I’m just too old to hear you when you young people mutter.”

    “Butcher!” she hissed seductively, smiling like a lizard and twirling her blade in her hand, “Face me, murderer! Kill me if you can.”

    “Young lady.” he said sternly, narrowing his eyes, wrinkling his nose and putting a hand on the dagger at his waist, “I think you’ve had quite enough to drink. I can get someone to escort you back home.”

    He turned around and walked speedily forward, his fists clenched and pumping at his sides. With a yell, Lydia lurched after him, crossing his throat with her icy blade. He stopped in his tracks, his attention riveted. Slowly, he turned his shaking head to look her in the eyes.

    After seeing her, terror took hold of his features. His eyes bulged and his mouth opened in a cry for help. His knees gave out from under him and he fell like a sack of cabbages to the cobblestone road, slipping on the powdery snow. Lydia let loose a harsh, short laugh which was cut even shorter by the searing pain in her knee. Gasping and staggering backwards, she saw a bloody dagger in Calixto’s quaking hand.

    He jumped to his feet, groaning with the effort and holding the dagger in front of him, waving it threateningly. She charged toward him, slashing his exposed wrist with the tip of her sword. He cried out, dropped the dagger and seized his injured hand.

    “Help!” he bellowed, his voice small and shrill in the gloom, “Please! I’m being attacked!”

    With a snarl, Lydia lunged after him, ignoring the pain in her knee with all her might, her sword the only steady thing in a furiously turning world. She blinked and it was through his chest. He gurgled out words that she couldn’t make out and slumped to the ground when she pulled her blade free. Her sword steamed as the warm blood covering it met the freezing outside air. She stared at it, transfixed by the sight, by the strange beauty and horror of falling snowflakes juxtaposed against ruby fluid.

    She screamed in agony and dropped the weapon as an arrow flew out of the shadows behind her and plunged through her forearm.

    “Murderer!” an awestruck voice screamed out from behind. She heard the sound of a blade being drawn. “What say you in your defense?”

    “P-Please…” Lydia gasped, slowly turning toward the guard, her shaking arms outstretched, “P-Please…just take me away…”
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  10. conchvegas

    conchvegas Aravis, deadly archer

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    Excellent. Keep it up.
  11. Skullrattla

    Skullrattla Button Pusher

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    This is too good for me to actually get into, I'm trying to get off Skyrim and do some work!
  12. Phobos

    Phobos Member

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    Awesome new chapter for me to read later tonight. I wonder what it is going to inspire me to do tomorrow when i play.
  13. Oncefire

    Oncefire New Member

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    This is great! Can't wait to read more. :)
  14. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    And, done. Just got the next scene up. Finally...
  15. conchvegas

    conchvegas Aravis, deadly archer

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    Wow, Tanniel sounds like she's in awful condition. Looking forward to seeing how she improves physically and what kind of new armor she'll be getting.
  16. Thomas Liu

    Thomas Liu tyl089

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    no doubt going to the temple of Kynareth for some well deserved and desperately needed mending.

    What an awesome story.
  17. Neriad13

    Neriad13 Premium Member

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    I recently got three more scenes from Chapter III up. :)

    Tanniel's a bit of a derp and Lydia spills some backstory. ;)
  18. imaginepageant

    imaginepageant of House Lannister

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    OOOOOH. I'm so glad I happened to come back to this thread today! I love seeing some of Windhelm in these scenes, and that you're incorporating the Butcher storyline. Can't wait for more!
  19. Dominico

    Dominico New Member

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    what a vivid imagination. Excellent writing, love it. Its funny I didnt like the name for the companion, then realised its the name from the game lol.
  20. Oncefire

    Oncefire New Member

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    It made my day to see you posted more! Excellent, as always. :)
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