Skyrim Chronicles: Blade and Shadow – Part 3

About the Skyrim Permadeath Chronicles

 

Previously

 

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In the morning she found the beggar sleeping in the ruins of a house across the river. As she crept closer, the steady pitch of his breathing halted into a wet-sounding, hacking cough. Heart in her throat, Rohinda froze halfway into taking another step. The beggar’s breathing died back down and he continued sleeping.

Rohinda stood over him for some time, wondering who would bother putting a contract out on a beggar, and why. Had he slept in the wrong ruins? Wouldn’t he die soon enough on his own, living as he was in this chill climate, with ruins for shelter and rags for clothes? His feet were bare and black with grime and he stunk of a latrine that’d been ignored too long. She hadn’t been so very different than this man only weeks ago. Under different circumstances, might it be her sleeping and he with the knife?

Closing her eyes, she said a silent prayer to the gods of her mother. Then she drew the dagger across his throat. His eyes flew open, full of panic and questions. Rohinda backed away but did not leave until he settled back into stillness. If she turned to the side, she could pretend he was still only asleep.
Assassinated!
A memory came to her, a forgotten fragment of time suddenly shoving its way forward. When father used to come home late, back when she had a home, and a father, he’d edge open her bedroom door and stand there listening. Rohinda would pretend at sleep until he started to draw away, and then she’d call out to him. “Papa,” she’d say, as if it were a magical command. And maybe it had been, for wouldn’t he come forward into the room every time? Laying his lips on her hair, his breath full of coal and smoke. It’d been a game they’d played, one they’d both loved. How had she forgotten that?

She’d called for him, long and hard, wailing, in the muddled early days of their flight. But she’d used up all the magic, and he’d never come again.

Blinking furiously, Rohinda sorted through the beggar’s things, thinking perhaps she might pass along word to whatever kin this man had. Would they want his collection of heavily gnawed rodent bones, or the dried, desiccated scraps of fruit?

The sunlight was blinding as she stepped outside the house. The hood offered no relief.

Rohinda was well into the countryside north of Ivarstead before she realized she might’ve been more careful in leaving the scene of her crime. Townsfolk had been everywhere, busy about their early hour chores. Someone had likely seen her leave the ruined house. Some assassin.

The countryside passed without notice. Did the beggar have a family? A little girl? She pictured a child with dirt-stained cheeks, calling endlessly for a father that would never come.

A woman’s cry echoed across the hills. Rohinda startled. Had she really heard that, or merely imagined it? The shout came again, horror and outrage tinged with pain. Ahead, on the side of a hill, a woman fought a huge sabre-tooth tiger with her bare hands.
Bare-Knuckle BadassRohinda sprinted into the fray, heedless of the danger to herself, wishing only to save this brave woman. Funneling all her anger and confusion into her center, the place from which her magical powers flowed, she stoked the inner flames until they manifested, leaping from her fingertips. The tiger’s greasy coat smoked and the cat snarled.
Roasted Kitty
The woman went down on her knees. She tried to crawl away, but the tiger pounced, tearing her apart.

“No!” Tears clouded her vision. Why was she crying? She tried blinking them away, forcing back the black cloud, but the damage was done. Her anger effectively doused, her palms cooled and the stream of flames went out.

The cat turned from its meal, its pink tongue dripping with blood.

Rohinda skittered sideways, putting a large boulder between them. Using her new bow, she sped arrows into the brush. Some hit. The cat circled, snarling. She had a sudden appreciation for the plight of the mouse.

The tiger was persistent but foolish. In the end, enduring one too many arrows, it collapsed. Rohinda took its pelt in payment for her aggravation. Removing it was slow, bloody business, but she was rather becoming used to cutting things and watching them bleed.
PincushionShe burned the woman’s remains before leaving.

The path angled down steeply as it left the mountainous country. The river had paced her since Ivarstead, swelling in size, white-capped and frothing. A stark departure from the calm, modest waters she’d jumped into to avoid the horse. Had the horse returned to his Stormcloak masters, or did he now wander the countryside, an agent of his own fate, treating bears and other hostile wildlife to the hard reality of his hooves? Wherever he was, it was someplace south of her, and there she hoped he stayed. It would strain embarrassment if she had to flee from him again.

The river tumbled over a cliff, falling down into a lush valley. A set of switchbacks led to the bottom, coming out near a broad stone bridge that arced over the churning white waters. Standing on the bridge, a trio of Imperial soldiers traded blows with a snapping pack of wolves. Behind them and looking slightly bored, a tall nord in roughspun, his hands bound, awaited the outcome.

Rohinda came forward to help, but the professional soldiers made quick work of the wolves. The last of the pack slunk off into the brush.

“Hail citizen,” the commander called as she neared. The soldiers had put their weapons away but now hands fell back to hilts and they strained with readiness. Did they fear all travelers upon the roads? “State your business.”
Let's Talk
She looked pointedly at their swords, an eyebrow raised. “Do you make a habit of threatening solitary women you pass in travels?”

The commander had the decency to look chastened. “Dark days have come to Skyrim, and friend often wears the same face as foe. Which are you?”

“Neither. The Empire has done naught to earn my love or scorn. As for the rebels, there are better, more efficient ways to get oneself killed. I am just a woman trying to make her way through the wilderness.” Her eyes hardened. “Do you intend to bar my way?”

“No.” The commander nodded and the soldiers relaxed. “Where are you headed.”

“North to…” She couldn’t remember the town’s name. “Well, north of here.”

“As it happens, we go north too. Shall we share the road?”

“The hospitality of an Imperial escort? How can I resist.” She didn’t think the offer was altruistic, but the idea of traveling in the company of soldiers for a spell wasn’t unappealing. At least she’d be safe from the wild for a while.
Let's WalkThey made good time until about mid-day. The road wandered past the broken ruins of an old castle. A man in dark robes charged out of the entrance as the procession passed, screaming obscenities and hurling lightning. Rohinda and the squad’s archer brought down the mad mage before he reached the road.
Dead Novice Mage
Rohinda bid the soldiers farewell shortly after the attack. She was in no hurry to reach her destination, not with more death awaiting her at the end. But the commander’s glacial pace was death of another kind, and after a while she rather thought that she’d rather kill than spend another moment dragging her feet with this lot.

Rain clouds darkened the sky and thunder rumbled. Rohinda lifted her face, letting her hood fall back. The rain held-off. It, too, seemed content to take its time arriving. She felt certain the downpour would come at the most inopportune time.

A farmer walked the road, recognizable by the slightly-frayed, dirtied rough-spun of a hard life earned. Rohinda hailed him as she neared so as not to frighten him. The farmer half-turned with slow, uncaring ease. A native of Morrowind, like her – handsome and dark. His eyes were pools of midnight, magnetic in their pull.

The farmer favored her with a slight smile. “Hail-o. Care to pass the road in the company of a lowly farmer?”

Rohinda stuttered a reply, her traitorous tongue fat and stiff and stupid. “Erm, yes. I would like that. Thank you, good sir.” Good sir? She wished the horse was here to chase her off before she could die of embarrassment.

The smile broadened, dipping into his eyes. “Sir? Sir. Ha! Can’t say I’ve ever been ‘sirred’ before.”

Blood collected in her cheeks, burning like a brand. “I meant no harm.”

“None taken.” He extended a hand. “Friends call me Stiv.”

Rough from years of work, his hands were warm and strangely gentle. She pulled away quickly, before her face could betray her again. “Rohinda.”

“Sunny days, Rohinda.”

They walked in silence for a time. The sky was dark but quiet, the storm’s building fury temporarily drawn back from the cusp. The air crackled with a sense of tension, of waiting. She could taste the wet on the wind.
A Farmer
“Looks like rain.”

“Huh? Oh – yes.”

Stiv took a deep breath. “Nothing like a good rain. I’ve lived in Skyrim almost twenty years and still haven’t quite gotten used to how often it rains here.”

“Oh.” She racked her brain for something clever to say, but everything sounded boring, and worse, really stupid. “I haven’t been in Skyrim long.”

“Ah – and where did you come from, before?”

Before? Dark caves, the unknown depths echoing with sound. Jostling wagons in the night, hidden under moldy-smelling hay. Roads formed when the earth was still warm, stretching into forever. She was from nowhere. She was from everywhere. Neither was a good answer, but she couldn’t really tell him the truth. He was handsome, yes, and charming and a dark elf like her, a familiar face in an unfamiliar land. But she couldn’t forget that hunters prowled these selfsame roads and that she was their prey.

“Cyrodiil. My father is a carpet-maker in the capital. I’ve come to Skyrim to look into expanding our business north.” Words came easily now. Lying was a fact of life, like breathing, something done without conscious decision. Truth, honesty, matters of the heart – these words were foreign things, muttered incantations that turned her tongue to stone.

The now-familiar refrain of wolves on the prowl sounded nearby, their howls cutting short Stiv’s reply. The farmer tensed. “Wolves.”

Black shapes slunk through the brittle scrub covering the hillside. Rohinda pulled her dagger.

Stiv put a hand on her arm. Or tried to, rather. His fingers brushed the sleeve of her tunic, and then she was gone, darting forward, blade brandished, palm smoking.

The alpha wolf, a massive beast with long scars on its snout, leapt. Crackling flames met wolf. The beast howled in pain, jaws snapping and slobbering. It collapsed into a smoking pile of furs.
Stick to the Fields, DudeThe rest of the pack scattered to the winds. Rohinda sheathed her dagger. Her small, satisfied smile disappeared as she turned back to Stiv.

The handsome farmer stood where she’d left him, his face a shifting mosaic of emotion. The smile was gone from his eyes, replaced by a look she knew all too well – suspicion.

Running came almost as easily as lying. She left Stiv where he stood, her slippers kicking up clouds of dust, her heart a smoldering ruin of self-disgust. She was broken inside, incapable of friendship or love. She felt dead inside, as desolate and dry as the harshest desert.

Predictably, it began to rain. The first drops pattered against her cheeks, the heavens supplying the tears she could not make herself.

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