Skyrim Chronicles: Blade and Shadow – Part 2

About the Skyrim Permadeath Chronicles

 

Previously

 

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Rohinda stopped beside a stream and scrubbed the stains out of her clothing. Pink clouds formed in the clear water. So much blood. She been surprised by how much blood had come spurting out of the nord’s throat, getting all over her arms and chest. She splashed water onto her face, into her eyes. Rubbed her cheeks until the skin felt raw. The cold water seemed to shock some sense back into her. She sank back onto her haunches and considered where she’d gone wrong.

Her technique needed work, but that was no surprise, and wasn’t the true problem anyway. The fault was that she let emotion move her dagger in the first place. What if she’d slipped when she’d leapt for the nord’s throat, or had stepped on a twig and alerted the larger woman of the imminent attack? If she was going to see the other end of this, she needed to be cautiously ruthless, spilling blood only when absolutely necessary. Unnecessary risks were just foolish, and she was no fool.

Still. There was little sense in dwelling on such things. Done was done. The nord had been her first victim. It had been good to practice, in the middle of the wild, with nothing but birds and bees for company. But killing couldn’t be something she made a habit of, elsewise she might come to regret what she’d reaped.

Rohinda straightened, watched the clouds of pink water swirl and fade away. Her worst mistake was leaving the nord’s body in the middle of the path so near Falkreath Hold. The bandits located nearby might assume the blame, but if someone instead followed the path east, they’d come up on Rohinda’s back trail. She had enough reasons to look over her shoulder already.

It was too late to turn back and right her mistake, so she pushed on, moving at a brisk pace. The path meandered toward and then through the ruins of Helgen. Rohinda did not care for the smell of the place, acrid and black, nor the way the air felt heavy, like something she needed to push through. She hurried on.

East, Into MountainsA range of mountains stood across the eastern sky like the jagged pickets of some winter god’s fortress. The path gradually inclined, rising to meet the mountains, curling into and continuing directly through them. Rohinda eyed the narrowness of the mountain pass, the way the walls rose high on either side. She was a good climber, but the path into the mountains allowed for only forward and back, not up. It was a place perfectly made for ambushes.

Squatting in the shadow of a tree, she unfurled her small map. The pass was the quickest way through the mountains. She might try going overland, scaling the mountains themselves, but the tall peaks were topped with snow. She might be days at the crossing. Circling to the north or south was worse – it was impossible to accurately measure the distance on the small map, but she thought going around would cost her at least a week.

A Horse, Of CourseAn animal snorted nearby. Rohinda froze. Sinking low, she spied a pair of shaggy mounts standing tethered in a clearing, grazing idly. She crept closer for a look, her slippers whisper-quiet in the brush, her expression speculative. If she had a horse, she need not fear ambush in the pass.

A trio of weather-worn leather tents stood near a small fire. Four men in faded blue sat there, talking quietly. Nearer the horses, a large command pavilion was erected, the flaps folded back. It appeared empty. Perfect.
Stormcloak Camp

Rohinda sidled up to the horses, murmuring softly. She let one of them smell her hand, and then reached into her pack for a green apple. The horse consumed it noisily. Rohinda flinched and crouched down between the horses. When nobody came to investigate, she slipped her dagger through the tether and led the horse down toward the path. It came willingly. She didn’t try mounting until they were clear of the trees. All the while it felt like eyes were upon her back, and she felt certain a shout of alarm would sound at any moment. But none came, and Rohinda rode into the mountains on the back of her new horse.

My Little Pony

Not long into the pass, Rohinda heard the first shouts. She reigned up sharply, listening. The noise was coming from further ahead. Steel rang and men screamed. An ambush already sprung? She didn’t dare go back – the Stormcloaks might already be looking for a horse thief. And, mayhap, further back along the trail Imperials would be looking for a murderer. There was only one way she could truly go. She started forward at a slower clip, hand resting on her dagger’s hilt, ready to urge the horse into a full gallop at the first provocation.

It was no ambush she found in that mountain pass. It was a battle, raging over a mile of narrow, claustrophobic track.
Civil War in the Pass
The first of the combatants came into view, a skirmish of ten men. Imperials and Stormcloaks, bleeding and dying on a narrow stone shelf. Rohinda spurred the horse into a gallop, rushing past the fighters. They didn’t so much as look in her direction.

She discovered another knot of men not forty feet from the first, fighting beside a sentinel green pine. As the horse leapt over the bodies of the fallen, she wondered what strategic value the tree had, if any. Had a side made their stand here, rallying around the tree as the enemy closed in? The tree looked like any other. And probably it was. These men would fight and die whilst the pine stood as mute witness.The Battle Rages On

Why was glory and honor the sole domains of warriors looking for an excuse to draw steel, as though hacking a man apart with a blade was something to aspire to? Where were the songs about the dying mothers, brows slick with cooling sweat, a squalling, bloody newborn held in fading arms? Where was the epithet to the old farmer, his face as broken and lined as the tract of land he somehow managed to eke a meager crop from? Why was blood the only poultice for honor that has been soiled? And how can you possibly foul something that only exists in the heads of men?

It was all too much to think about, and dwelling on it only made her angry besides. Anger clouded her judgement and would see her dead as as surely as upholding honor or pursuing glory had for these soldiers.

The walls narrowed, funneling the pass into a choke point. A trio of men stood there, barring the way. No Imperial or Stormcloak, these. She cautiously rode closer. Thalmar. Bodies littered the ground nearby – Imperial and Stormcloak both. What were the Thalmar doing here, in the midst of this civil war? They stared blatantly as she rode past but did not move to bar her way.
Thalmar in the Pass

The path ran downhill and the walls fell away. Rohinda paused over the last bodies laying in pink snow and looked back toward the Thalmar agents. They stood at the choke point, waiting or watching or something equally mysterious. She considered taking some gear from the dead soldiers. Chances were fair that they’d have gold too, something ever in short supply. But robbing a corpse seemed a dastardly thing, even for one as hard-pressed for coin as she was. And besides, she’d already washed blood from her hands that day and didn’t relish doing so again.

The mountains fell away, replaced by a sparse forest of thin pines. She stuck to the path. It seemed to be leading her in the right direction. Perhaps she should go East as far as East would go, til land met the sea. That’d put her in Morrowind. Home. Or, the closest thing she knew to one. Nomads did not have homes in the traditional sense. The road was her home. She’d been living on her feet since she was a young girl, following Mother all around the world, chasing illusion. Mother had died believing their big break was just around the bend. Rohinda had realized they were only chasing their own shadows long ago, but after burying Mother, hadn’t she continued on that same path? Wasn’t she still on it?

Damn questions.

A heart-shaking howl shattered the calm. The horse whined, dancing sideways. Rohinda realized the horse had been acting skittish for some time now, but she’d been too wrapped-up in her own thoughts to recognize the threat. She put her heels to the horse. “Ya!” The horse didn’t seem to know how to properly gallop, its movements slow and clumsy. “Move!” She wondered if the Stormcloaks were laughing back at their camp – someone had stole the horse too dumb to run. Done them a favor, really. Rohinda, World’s Greatest Horse Thief.

Dark shapes darted from the trees, ribbons of drool strung between sharp teeth. Jaws snapped at their backs. Rohinda kicked the horse in the side with all her might. The horse seemed to slow down, if that was even possible. Mayhap I should get down and push. It was only a matter of time before the wolves brought the horse down, and her with it. The way her luck was running, she’d probably get trapped underneath, perhaps breaking a leg. That’d be a fitting end to the long string of mishaps that measured the span of her life.

A trio of figures stood on a hill partially screened by trees. Rohinda’s heart leapt into her throat. “Help! Over here!”

They rushed toward her, weapons bared to the fading sun. A dog darted ahead of them, its eyes ablaze.
Pursuit!

These were no rescuers. They were in league with the wolves and shared a craving for blood. Vampires. The figures snarled like beasts and joined the pursuit as she rode past. The horse struggled up a rise. Rohinda thought she could feel their foul breath upon the back of her neck.

The horse topped the hill. In the distance, a stout stone bridge traversed a wide river. And beyond the bridge was a small town. Safety.
Ivarstead

Rohinda realized it would be a great cruelty and not altogether unexpected if they pulled her from the saddle within view of rescue. Her dagger came free. They would not have her without a fight.

Somehow, miraculously, the horse reached the bridge. Halfway across, Rohinda reined up. The vampires stood atop the rise, watching. Even across such distance Rohinda could sense their hunger, their spite for life.
A Silent ChallengeFootsteps approached on the bridge behind her. “Hail there. Welcome to Ivarstead,” the guard said.

She didn’t respond. The vampires stood among the trees like statues.

“Er, excuse me?” The guard followed her gaze across the distance. Swearing under his breath, he pulled out his bow and started across the bridge. Rohinda watched, almost bemused. Did he mean to face them on his own, or only warn them off?

The demon dog rushed down the hill to meet the guard. Rohinda swung off the horse. It’d have been easier to just go into town. Through town, even. But something wouldn’t let her flee and leave the guard face them on his own. They had followed her here, after all.

The guard put an arrow into the dog before it reached the bridge. Still it came, snarling and snapping. Rohinda gave it a taste of her cleansing fire. It wasn’t to the dog’s liking.
Death Dog Die

A strangled cry of anguish sounded from the hill as the dog crumbled into a smoldering heap. A lone figure rushed to face them. Rohinda exchanged nods with the guard.

The vampire leapt into them with all the subtlety of a hungry wolf, clawing and biting. The guard held it off with sword and shield while Rohinda circled behind and loosened her flames. Flesh smoking and popping, the vampire quickly succumbed to the assault.Burning the Vamp

“That’ll show them!” The guard enthusiastically stabbed the vampire’s smoking remains.

“There were more. Two others.” Rohinda scanned the area, thinking it was odd that the rest hadn’t come for them. She spied movement among the trees. “There,” she pointed. One of the vampires was battling a raging bear. No sign of the third vampire. Either the bear had done for it or it had run off.
Vamp vs Bear

The guard sheathed his sword. “It’s lucky I wandered out here. Otherwise they might’ve had you.”

Lucky? They’d been holding position on the hill until the guard had wandered too close and provoked the devilish dog. Up until that, Rohinda had been convinced that the vampires weren’t going to pursue her into town. She would sleeper easier this night knowing they were dead, however. “Yes… I am grateful for your help.” The words were heavy and awkward with unfamiliarity, and they rang false to her own ears.

The guard shrugged. “Just doin’ my part ta keep the world…”

A sudden roar at their back drowned out the guard’s words. The bear, of course. It’d been that kind of day.

Rising on its hind legs, the bear towered over them. “What do we do?”

Foolishly, bravely, the guard gave a shout and charged. Stupid men chasing glory.

She rushed to join him, a little unsure why she risked her life. Safety was in the other direction, away from the thing with the sharp teeth. She owed nothing to this faceless guard. He was doing his duty by protecting the town. She should do hers and locate the beggar she’d come to kill. She knew this as truth, and yet she rushed to face the creature anyway. Why? Honor and glory had as much utility in her life as a golden codpiece.

Her palms warmed again as flames erupted outward, engulfing the bear, filling the air with the stink of burnt, greasy hair. Howling in agony, the bear turned to face its tormentor. Rohinda backed into the side of the bridge.
Roast Bear

Hooves rapidly echoed on stone. A shrill whinny pierced the clamor. The horse? It rose on hind legs and bashed the bear in the face with its hooves. As the bear turned to face the new threat, Rohinda realized she’d just been saved from certain death by the world’s slowest horse. Some assassin she turned out to be.

Surrounded on three sides, the bear endured hoof and blade and fire to little effect. It raked the guard with a might blow, driving the man to his knees. Shield split in two, a bloody gash down his forearm, the guard managed a brief scream before the bear’s claws ripped his throat out.

Rohinda’s palms cooled as the streaming flames abruptly went out. She was spent, her magical energies tapped. Only recuperation would restore her powers – she had no potions. The dagger seemed like such a tiny thing, insignificant before so much primal fury.

The horse pummeled the bear with its hooves. While the bear was distracted, Rohinda leapt for its throat. The blade struck true. Warm blood gushed down her hand. The bear sat down heavily, looked confused, then slumped to the side as though taking a nap.

Rohinda sagged against the bridge’s side, slick dagger tumbling from exhausted fingers. The horse came toward her, its fur matted and burnt. Dear thing, she’d not meant to hurt it, but the battle had been chaos and mostly she’d been too busy trying not to die to notice where her flames went. Rohinda put out a hand to stroke its nose.

The horse lowered its shoulder, ramming her in the chest, driving her into the wall. The breath went out of Rohinda in a rush as she crumbled to her knees. The horse lashed out with hooves, striking Rohinda in the face and shoulder. The world went dark around the edges. The horse reared to deliver a final blow.

Rohinda did the only thing she could think of. She leapt over the side of the bridge, crashing into waist-deep water. She gasped at the sudden cold. The world sharpened back into focus.

The horse paced along the shore, unwilling to plunge in after her. Rohinda waded across to the town-side of the river. The horse followed across the bridge. An inn with a long porch stood along the river. Rohinda rushed up the steps, slamming the door behind her, wondering as she did if the horse would leave her alone if she apologized. It had been an accident.

The inn’s occupants looked over, startled at her sudden appearance. A khajiit glanced up from the alchemy table. “May this one be of assistance?”

“No.” She glanced out the window. The horse seemed to be staring back at her. Daring her to step outside. It was a male horse, she noticed. Naturally. He wandered away after a few minutes.

“Are you hiding?”

“No.”

“That kind of day?”

She snorted. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” Hiding from her own horse. Some assassin she was.

Rohinda waited til her heart slowed and went back outside. The horse was casually picking its way back along the path. Rohinda followed out of curiosity but never drew too close, lest it chase her back into the inn. She went as far as the top of the hill, stooping over the fallen vampire to take a bow and quiver of arrows from its shredded body. With a final glance at the horse, she returned to town.
Goodbye, Horse

Night had fallen and the sky was aflame with color. The shifting lights were mysterious and beautiful, unlike anything she’d ever seen before. She felt compelled to stand there for a moment and admire the majesty. Such compulsion seemed like a luxury she could ill-afford, especially after the carnage of the past hours. But then, what better time to admire the beauty of life after witnessing so much death?

Beautiful Night Sky

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