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Witchking of Angmar

Civil War Aftermath Chapter 3: Season's End pt3

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Theodore Adrard

Camlorn

Midday

 

 

The King of High Rock arrived in Camlorn to find it just as he left it. The walled city still bustled with merchants crying wares, minstrels flaunting their arts of song and dance, petty magicians performing just as many tricks as actual magical illusions, but few cheered or jeered Theodore as he passed through the streets. This was not a triumphant return from war or diplomacy, but a simple trip to visit a vassal or two. It gave Theodore a sense of thankfulness that none seemed to know just how dire his family’s situation was.

 

He and Sir Maric dismounted inside the walls of Camlorn’s castle. It was relatively new, standing on Cavilstyr Rock for little more than a century. Theodore’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Bedyval, begin building it on the place formerly used for festivals and holidays. It was not a popular move with the peasants, but they soon forgave him when he threw a festival that lasted three months, featuring jousts and melees and all manner of merry making. Unfortunately, the festival and the castle were both major financial burdens, and the family was nearly bankrupt afterward. It wasn’t until Theodore’s grandfather that the Adrard’s regained their wealth, and with it their prestige.

 

The castle itself, though, was worth every septim spent. Thick stone walls towered high above the cathedral-like keep, with guard towers spaced in even intervals along the walls. The gatehouse featured two portcullises and a massive wooden gate, and plenty of murder holes above. From the keep, one massive drum tower complimented two other spire towers, all three of which provided expansive vistas of both Camlorn, the land surrounding it, and the sea that sat directly below the promontory of Cavilstyr Rock.

 

The city itself was arrayed with two main gates, one allowing entrance from the south, the other from the northeast. Because these two roads intersected within Camlorn, the city itself was a hub of trade from the northern cities to Daggerfall. Between the two gates ran the merchant district, while to the west of the southern road is where most of the residences were, as well as the smaller road and gate leading down to the docks below Cavilstyr Rock. The northern edge of the city played host to many other businesses, with the most well known being the Pleasure District, home of brothels and bars.

 

As Theodore dismounted, he could see the city splayed out beneath him through his gatehouse. He gave it one more approving glance before he moved into the castle itself. The great hall of the keep was empty, save for guards who stood at attention in grey suits of armor, the only color coming from their brown bull capes. Theodore passed them with Sir Maric in tow, making for his private chambers, which overlooked the ocean. He found Elayne sitting, staring out the windows toward to rough and rolling sea.

 

“I’ve returned,†Theodore said. He reached out with his hand, but pulled it back, unsure if his touch would be comforting or upsetting.

 

Elayne didn’t speak, but slowly turned in the chair to better face Theodore. She held her hands carefully in her lap, as if she trying very hard to appear formal, unfriendly but not distant.

 

“So I see. I hope it was a successful trip.†There was no warmth in Elayne’s voice, which he’d expected.

 

“I found a way to cure us, and have someone working on doing so. I told you the trip would be worth it, did I not?â€

 

“At what cost, Theodore? While you went off in search of hermits, I sat here, alone, in mourning. I do not need your solace to function, but for you to be so heartless is telling of what your priorities lie.†She turned back to look out the window, her shoulders stooped down, her voice quivering. “Did you even care they died? Or were they just heirs to you?â€

 

Theodore’s face burned, at first in anger, and then in embarrassment when he realized just how easily the emotion came. The stress was wearing on him. He wondered how much his face had given away when talking to Corrick, and to Winvale. “How dare you. Of course I cared, of course I loved them. But I cannot sit idly by while our son, and his child, waste away by some plague. I was called to action, not sadness.â€

 

Elayne scoffed. “My sadness is a weakness, is it? That I showed feeling instead of resolve an indication of my frailty?â€

 

“No, not at all. We bear burdens differently. That is all.â€

 

Elayne’s head came to rest in her hands, as the sobs shook her hunched shoulders. “What are we doing? Killing ourselves, all for the sake of a crown? Is this our punishment, for what we did to Aleron and Lielle?â€

 

Theodore approached, and placed a hand upon her shoulder. “You mustn’t think like that. What we did was right. High Rock could not afford Aleron and Lielle to rule. This…this is some Daedric lord’s petty joke. We won’t let it win, Lielle. We won’t.â€

 

Elayne rose and hugged Theodore tightly. She cried a few more moments, before finally pushing herself away and drying her eyes. “You’re right. We have to be strong. We will be strong. For our sake and our son’s and grandchildren’s. And for High Rock.â€

 

Theodore smiled a small, soft smile, and kissed Elayne upon the cheek. “Together, I promise. No more leaving. From now on, we rule together, from Camlorn, as it was meant to be.â€

 

“Together,†Elayne repeated.

 

**

 

The next three days were punctuated with the arrival of the Lord Councilors, though not so much as to keep Theo from spending time with his family, which he made a concerted effort to do.

 

Lady Gaerhart was already in Camlorn, but on the first of the three days Lord General Estermont and Duke, formerly Sir, Theirry, the Lord Admiral, arrived. Theodore met them on the gallery that looked just over the throne sitting in the great hall. The loft was spacious, with room to hold the council and many more should there be need for an audience. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, each depicting a key scene in Adrard history. Theodore knew them by heart, of course, but neither the general nor the admiral would be much regaled by stuffy old quilts, so instead they went directly to the meeting.

 

Theodore wore a simple brown doublet and a black mourning cloak. He needn’t explain to the lords what it was for, as word had then spread to most of High Rock of the saddening stillbirth. The cloak was fastened with a bull’s head clasp, with a ruby inlaid for the eye. By his side he wore a shortsword, which was more ceremonial than practical, fancy runes and jewels set in the hilt. Though, with all his swords, the pommel was another bull’s head. Theodore reflected that, contrary to his dislike of the animal as his sigil, there seemed to be quite a few in his wardrobe.

 

Lord Estermont took a seat to Theodore’s right, Theirry to his left, as all three men picked at the small tray of berries, cheeses, and cookies laid before them. Estermont bit into a cookie, stroking his beard smooth and displacing crumbs from the greying red bush onto his tunic. The hair atop his head was more evenly red, a shade similar to freshly mined iron ore. He reported first.

 

“My return home through the Wrothgarians resulted in the destruction of many Orcish villages, though several times my outriding parties were attacked and killed. Regardless, the animals stood little chance against the entire Shornish might. They will no longer be a problem,†Estermont said, his lips twisting cruelly as he uttered the final sentence.

 

Theodore of course knew it was a boast. Even with the newest iteration of Orsinium seemingly being a haven, and Estermont’s purge, the Orcs could never truly be wiped out. And so long as they lived, they would plunder and pillage when they pleased.

 

“Excellent work. I thank you for ridding us of those pests. Lord Admiral, how are our naval preparations coming along?â€

 

Duke Theirry wiped his dirty, tattooed hands on his blue tunic, which bore a fleet of ships at sea. His black beard was cropped short to his jutting jaw, and beneath the table this wooden leg tapped the stone floor impatiently.

 

“Too many carracks, not enough galleys and caravels. We can transport the twelve legions right now, but with little enough protection to fend off an angry fisherman. Our sailors are well trained, and we have battlemages, but we need marines for boarding parties, and ships for attack. Though I’ve made sure the Nords won’t be seeing anymore pirates, unless they go picking a fight.â€

 

Theodore gave a slight grin. He knew how much the Nordic High Admiral’s words had injured Theirry’s pride, especially when she dared call out the pirates in Breton waters. He’d likely never forgive her for it, such as he was.

 

“That will be our top priority then. Our navy will never be the largest, but we must be able to protect and maintain our own fleet, in this war and whatever ones may follow. What of Betony? How are you finding your new seat?â€

 

“The island will serve us well as a base for the navy. It provides control of the Iliac as well as approaches to Daggerfall, and should serve well as a defensive position. The cliffs protect the northern, southern, and western approaches, with the east being the only safe harbor. Our fleet will be protected from storms and any enemy ships that might sail in from the south,†Theirry said.

 

In the moment Theirry finished speaking, in walked the Court Wizard, Dryston Winvale. He seemed to be wearing the same forest colored robes as the first time Theo met him, though the cleanliness of these suggested they were a different pair, or had been washed. He still leaned on his crooked wooden staff, and his face was as craggy as canyon land.

 

Theodore rose, and said, “Lord Estermont, Duke Theirry, I have the pleasure of presenting you my Court Wizard, Dryston Winvale. Winvale, this is Lord Estermont of Shornhelm, the Lord General, and Duke Theirry, of Daggerfall vassalage, the Lord Admiral. You and Sir Maric have of course already met.â€

 

Winvale looked at both, his eyes dark and discerning. Theodore held his breath, hoping the indignant man would rein in his harsh tongue, if only to spare Theodore the embarrassment of a chastising from his court mage.

 

“A pleasure, my lords,†Winvale said, bowing his head.

 

Theodore clapped his hands together, and said, “Please, join us. We were just concluding the reports on the army and navy. I assume you found your quarters accommodating.â€

 

Winvale sat, but made no move towards the food. “Yes, they were as spacious as promised. They shall do nicely.â€

 

Estermont turned to face Winvale, now, and asked, “What were you doing before our king found you?â€

 

“Private study. Alteration, mostly. I’ve dabbled in shadow magic, and examined extensively the biology of half creatures,†Winvale said in bored tones.

 

Duke Theirry frowned, his face full of concern. “Is shadow magic not dangerous? I’ve always heard it used by dark mages, and Reachmen, those sorts.â€

 

“Quite dangerous indeed. That is why I find it so useful, Duke,†the wizard answered. “I assume it is the same way with your boats, no?â€

 

Theirry grunted. “I suppose it is.â€

 

Theodore gave another grin, realizing how uninteresting he found these men in a personal context. They all seemingly felt the same way, each one fidgety in their own way.

 

“My lords, if I might excuse this meeting, there are a few things I must attend to. We have no more business for the next few days, so you may enjoy the city as you see fit,†Theodore then rose, and walked back to his room, where he supposed he might nap before dealing with anything of import.

 

Of course, as he rounded the corner approaching his chambers, he found Winvale waiting for him. Already his shadow magic was proving an annoyance. “A word,†he said to the king.

 

“What is it you could not bring up in the meeting?†Theodore asked.

 

Winvale scoffed, and said, “I was attempting to shield those two of knowledge about you buying my service. It is as such that I need another book, on top of the list provided. You’ll find this one with the Sorcerous Society. It is not pressing, though.â€

 

The wizard handed Theodore a piece of paper with a book titled Investigations on the Mating of Centaurs vol. 3. Theodore said, “This one is also closely guarded then.â€

 

“Yes. But I’m sure a king such as yourself can convince them to lend it to you.†Dryston gave a sarcastic curl of his lip, as he walked passed Theodore, his staff tap-tapping down the hallway. It stopped, though, signifying the man had once again disappeared into the shadows.

 

The next day saw the arrival of the Royal Battlemage, Sir Bevyn Virelande, and the Lord Regent, Lord Louise Traven. Both had brief conversation with Theodore, though only Lord Traven’s was interesting, as he also brought along Lord Simon Birian, the traitor whose wife now ruled Jehanna in his stead. Theo talked with him, though it proved nothing more than the man claiming he’d been set up. Regardless of that, though, he was still guilty of treason, and would be executed soon. Lord Traven then excused himself to meet with his youngest sons, the twins Claude and Jean, and his oldest child, Lyenna. The boys were to be fostered in Daggerfall under Lady Gaerhart, but with her serving on the council, they would now be in Camlorn as well.

 

It was also that day that Vanessa Birian arrived. She was to be Theo’s ward, though really a hostage to keep Lady Roain Birian in check. She was a little girl, no older than six, with a practiced curtsey her governess undoubtedly took pride in teaching her. She was accompanied by two guards, though they would be little trouble should Lady Birian decide to turn traitor. It did not surprise Theo when the young girl requested to see her father, and the king relented. She was a hostage, but still a child, and did not likely understand that Lord Birian had betrayed her as well in attempting to marry The Pretender.

 

The newly appointed Lord of Wayrest, and the Lord Treasurer, Henry Leland, arrived on the final day before Theodore’s first open court as king. He was of course bedecked in a horribly extravagant style, his hat full of feathers as gaudy as his clothing. His new sigil, a pile of gold, also lent itself to every bit of his clothing having some gold accent or adornment. He reported on the finances of High Rock, but seemed in rather a rush to leave, evidently eager to visit the brothels in the Pleasure District. Leland was married, but it was political, and he’d never been one to turn away from a whore should he be offered one. Though, from what Theo understood, it mattered not the race or gender of the lovers.

 

On that same day, the, Montclairs and Damon Ivey arrived, to take their place as the bards of the king’s court. They again thanked the king, expressing their gratitude for the opportunity to play for such a high and noble audience.

 

With that, the king’s advisors, and entertainers, were assembled, and the city of Camlorn eagerly awaited the first court of King Adrard.

 

**

 

The next day, Theodore and Elayne rose early. They broke their fast on jam filled pastries, buttered on the outside of the flaky crust. With it, Theodore drank unfermented grape juice, choosing to keep a clear head for the day. He dressed himself in a brown satin doublet with the black outline of the bull’s head sigil. The red eye was inlaid rubies, sewn into the soft fabric. His cape was shimmering black silk, which danced with each step the king took. Theodore’s boots were polished to a shine, so much so he could have shaved by them. His crown was gold with small gems laid around it. It fit perfectly upon Theodore’s bald head.

 

Elayne wore a dark blue satin dress, the sleeves draping low. A bull’s head broach, of ebony, buckled a small black silk cape that balanced just upon her shoulders. Her auburn hair was curled, draping down past her shoulders, with the back tucked into a tight bun. Her crown was the same as her husband’s, only fitted to her smaller head.

 

Together, they left their room. Outside, Sir Maric and three guards waited. They escorted the king and queen into the great hall, where the assembled Council of Lords waited. Once Elayne and Theo were seated upon their thrones, the giant doors at the end of the hall opened, and in poured those seeking the king’s, and queen’s, judgment. Before they began, the Montclairs and Damon Ivey, styling themselves Theo’s Trio of Troubadours, once again played there ballad detailing the king’s rise to power, to much applause.

 

The first half of the day Theodore and Elayne ruled on the problems of the peasantry. Many were petty disputes, dealing with property lines, lost livestock, borrowed and broken things, and many other simple problems. During that time, the Council of Lords sat near the dais, with all the nobles looking uninterested. In truth, Theodore himself was bored, but it was a part of the job he must do.

 

As the problems came and went, more important people filled in along the walls, waiting for their turn. Theodore caught sight of masked mages, mercenaries, and noble representatives. What peaked his interest the most, though, was the appearance of Duke Mon, who stood off to the right near the Montclairs and Damon Ivey. Mon seemed to be speaking amiably with the husband and wife singers, and occasionally making idle conversation with the Altmer as well.

 

The peasants’ complaints were finished by noon, so everyone dispersed for lunch, returning around an hour later. It was then time for the largest complaints, those fielded by organizations and nobles and others of importance.

 

The first group to be sent forth consisted of a Nordic man and woman, twins, Theodore guessed, by their strikingly similar features and matching black hair. Their armor and lack of colors indicated that they were sellswords.
 

Between them was someone who Theodore did recognize. Old and grizzled, with one arm and an eye as faded and white as his hair, Baron Sylon Ashcroft stood straight despite his legs being tied so close that he could only take the smallest of steps.

The Nordic man gave an awkward half-bow that suggested he had little experience with Breton nobility. His unmistakable Skyrim accent confirmed this. "We found this one down near Wayrest."

"Holed up with a bunch of his friends." the woman continued in the same accent after giving an equally unimpressive curtsey. "We came to collect the bounty."

 

Theodore motioned with his hand, and the twins brought the prisoner closer. He looked intently as both the Baron and the Nords, surmising they must be at least marginally skilled to capture and keep alive a man in his mid-eighties. 

"And who are you, that comes to claim the bounty on this traitor's head?" Theodore asked.

 

"Asgen Tyne." said the man.

"Faida Tyne." said the woman.

They glanced at one another before simultaneously adding "Your majesty."

 

"The Tyne Twins, it seems," Theodore said, getting a chuckle from the gallery. "You said he was with friends. I trust you dealt the King's justice to those traitors as well."

 

"Aye." said Asgen. "They're dead. We showed their heads to the Baron down there... Gran-something, his name was. He wore a mask and had a gargoyle coat of arms. The Baron didn't like that too much, so I guess they weren't very important." The Nord smiled, as if the memory was fond to him.

 

"I'm sure Baron Ysciele will get over his disappointment. After all, you two have done High Rock a wonderful service," Theodore said.

Elayne then spoke up, looking directly at Baron Ashcroft. "What do you have to say for yourself, Baron?â€

 

"I have no regrets, My Lady,†said the old noble. His tone was dignified, with no signs of anger or spite. "Birian and her ilk may not know loyalty, but I was brought up better than that. If that earns me the same fate as King Rolston, then so be it."

 

Elayne nodded solemnly. Theodore glanced at her, then back to Ashcroft, and said, "So be it. We hereby sentence you to execution, on grounds of treason. Guards, escort him to the dungeon."

"As for you mercenaries, if you'll go to the Lord Treasurer, he will pay you," Theodore said, motioning to Leland. As he did, he made sure to take a peek at Duke Mon, who he noticed wore a smile. Theodore thought that odd, as he'd hoped to see some jealous reaction from the sniveling nobleman.

 

"Thank you, Your Majesty." said Asgen as he gave another bow while backing away. "We are proud to serve."
 

His sister grabbed his arm and tugged him, rolling her eyes as he grinned. Theodore watched the twins gladly leave their prisoner to the guards to go and collect their payment. As Asgen's back turned to him, Theodore's eyes caught the brown deer symbol of Northpoint painted on his shield.

 

Theodore looked to Lord Traven, whose pinched brow said he knew not where the shield came from. 

"How did you come upon that shield, Mr. Tyne?" Theodore asked, as Leland counted out the coin. Theodore saw Sir Maric stir beside the throne, his hand now loosening his sword in its sheath.

 

"This thing?" Asgen turned completely around so that everyone in the hall could see it. He stopped again, facing Theodore. If the sellsword noticed the sudden tension in the room, he hid the observation well. "I won it playing dice south of Jehanna. Back during the war."

"I do not tolerate gambling in my ranks." Lord Traven said, drawing the twins' gazes his way. "And my men know that."

"Might be you're right, M'Lord. I wouldn't know. It was a Jehannan who I won the shield from. Not one of yours."

 

Theodore stroked his chin, leaning onto his right arm. "You fought for Jehanna then. An ill advised choice of employment."

 

"Aye, Your Majesty." said Asgen. "We were promised a good pay, but it was the wrong side. That's why we swapped colors the moment Lady Birian did."

"There's not a loyal man of High Rock in the ground because of us." Faida added. "Though Lord Traven pardoned my brother and me with all the others who marched south with him."

 

"Then pardoned you are," Theodore said, giving the twins a friendly grin. "You've done a great service in returning Baron Ashcroft to us, and for that I thank you. But I'm afraid we've taken up far too much time, so now we must continue with the other petitioners."

 

"Thank you, Your Majesty." The twins said together as they once again gave their awkward bows before turning to leave.

 

Next came forth a pair of wizards, bedecked in layered robes bearing every color imaginable. The sleeves of their robes dragged behind them, as did the tails of the robes. It was both gorgeous and garish, where some colors matched and others clashed. While one of the mages was a man, and the other a woman, both wore masks, which were cast from silver. They were reflective, almost luminous in their own right. The face was that of an old man, his chin and cheeks covered in thick hair, his eyebrows untrimmed brambles. Upon his forehead was a triangle, perfectly proportioned.

 

Flanking the pair were two knights, their armor engraved with runes so complex in their detail that Theodore couldn’t begin to decipher what purpose they might serve. The face guards of their helmets also bore Julianos’ face, and their capes were white, with a black triangle in the center.

 

The wizards were representatives from the School of Julianos, Theodore knew, the masks bearing the image of their patron deity. The knights were therefore members of the Knights Mentor, the military branch of the School of Julianos. As they approached, they group slightly bowed their heads, an obvious attempt at provoking the royals.

 

“Speak,†Theodore commanded the mages.

 

“Your majesties, I am Cirges Bacqure,†the man said.

 

“And I am Gulitte Rirne,†the woman said. “We are here to voice the School of Julianos’ extreme displeasure at your appointment of that man as your Court Wizard.â€

 

Winvale smirked, looking at the mages with what Theodore could only describe as bemusement.

 

“And what about him so displeases you?†Elayne asked, a smile in her voice.

 

“Your majesty,†Cirges said,  â€œhe is not fit to hold such a high honor. He has never studied under masters at our academies, or any institution of magical learning. He is more hedge mage than learned wizard.â€

 

Theodore stared at the man, his voice rising as he spoke. “You would dare tell me who is fit to sit upon my council? Do you not think I am capable of determining the capabilities of my advisors?â€

 

Gulitte said, “Your majesty, Cleric Bacqure did not mean to insult you. He only meant, might not Arch Cleric Jolvanne have served you better, having taught and studied for many decades as she has?â€

 

“Had she been able to serve me better, I would have chosen her. Just as I would have chosen Master Sage Luseph, or Magister Bellamont, or Grand Wizard Dolbanitte, or Magus Gavonne, had they served me better. There are many qualified mages, no doubt, and I respect their wisdom. But I have chosen, and my mind will not be changed,†Theodore said, his voicing commanding, to the point it was nearly overbearing.

 

“Very well,†Gulitte said. “May the god of wisdom grant you his blessings.â€

 

The mages bowed and turned heel, promptly leaving. Beneath the masks, Theodore did not doubt the duo of wizards made their dissatisfaction plain, as there words had as well. The king knew they would stay in the city, as they were likely to be the permanent representatives from the School to Camlorn, but they thrived upon drama, and so chose to leave the castle rather than mingle and make associates of the other court members. They, as well as the other magical schools, held enough influence to not need new allies.

 

The next petitioner was Duke Mon, who went down to one knee upon approaching the royals. It shocked Theodore to see the man so humbled, much less in Theodore’s presence in the first place.

 

“Rise, Duke,†Elayne said. She looked down at Mon, who wore a cream colored doublet, with an emerald owl sewn in. His green silken cape shimmered in the sunlight that poured in from behind the thrones.

 

“What brings you here?†Theodore asked, hiding his surprise behind a stone face.

 

Mon smiled, though his dark eyes did not. “Your majesties, I come to beg pardon for my daft words.â€

 

“And what words are those?†Theodore asked.

 

“I have shamed myself and my house for my comments pertaining to Lord Leland’s appointment to Lord Treasurer. It was foolish and infantile, and for that I apologize, to you and Lord Leland,†Mon said.

 

Theodore doubted the sincerity of the apology. He knew that Mon was a jealous man, but he had never been one for going against the will of his liege. Maybe he had finally found the right perceived slight that set him off. Yet, here he was, apologizing, and for the life of him Theodore knew not why. It would make him look good, doubtless, though Mon had never been concerned with what others thought of him; only his own power and prestige served to placate his ego.

 

“Well, this is most unexpected,†Lord Leland said. He looked down his pointy nose at Mon, examining the man rather closely. It was more a scrutinizing look, compared to Elayne’s condescension. “I must say, this is very noble of you, and I would be a cold hearted man to not accept your apologies.â€

 

“I’m glad you’ve come to see reason, Duke Mon,†Theodore said, giving a fake smile of his own. “We, like Lord Leland, accept your apology.â€

 

Mon bowed his head. “Thank you, my liege, and thank you, Lord Leland.â€

 

Mon then scurried off, back to his place along the wall by the troubadours. Theodore was left confused, unsure what to think about Mon’s obviously insincere apology. There was clearly an ulterior motive, but beyond its existence Theo had not the slightest clue as to what it was.

 

**

 

"Brenon, stop your sweating and act as if you belong. You are a Breton after all."

 

"Of course, Master Fallo... Brenon the Breton. That's what they call me..." The awkward mage wiped his hands on his robe before the guards of Theodore's court allowed him to open the door. The burly one holding an ornamented halberd moved to ask their purpose, but was overcome with a wave of complacency and peace. So much that drool escaped him as he stood.

 

Your spells are sloppy, Brenon. Do be less heavy handed in your approach or I'll toast you like the last apprentice I took. In fact, let me do the spell weaving for now on, got it?

 

Brenon nodded, though not in his direction. No need. The two made their way down the long entry of High Rock's Royal Court, but made sure to wait till the King took notice and summoned them. Even Fallo was not stupid enough to let his arrogance show, lest he anger the shrewd new Breton King. Things would get messy then, and poor Brenon would be left to pick up the pieces.

 

"What's this Duke look like?" said Fallo. "Show me."

 

Brenon did as he was told, running his hand over his master's arm, allowing his magic to flow through him and showing his thoughts as an illusion before him. He caught a few stares from nobles thinking it odd how he stared so tentatively at nothing before him, but he cared not.

 

"I see, though barely. Your illusions still are not strong enough to effect me thoroughly. Have you been practicing like I told you to, Brenon?"

 

"Yes, master..."

 

"Running spells on whores for your entertainment is not practice, boy."

 

Theodore had not seen the Altmer and his compatriot enter, so busy was he trying to discern Mon's play. But, when he regained focus and looked up, the eyes of the gallery were upon the elf and Breton. He chided himself for not noticing their arrival, and thought it dangerous Mon was as distracting as he was. 

With a wave of his hand, he called them to step forward. Much to his chagrin, he did not know what the Direnni wanted, but thought it likely they where here to complain about mistreatment, given the distrust most Altmer faced these days.

 

"I know, Master Fallo...." said Brenon, rolling his eyes. "All I do is practice my spell work. When I'm not trekking across High Rock to run errands for you."

 

"Quit your complaining. Men would die for a chance to train under the Direnni, and twice more under the likes of us.... Now be quiet and observe."

 

Instead of the Altmer, Theo got Brenon, staggering forward as though someone pushed him in front of the king.

 

"Uh, hello your, um, majesty. I present to you Master Fallo, my Direnni wizard instructor."

 

"Thank you, Brenon... And good evening, King Adrard." Fallo gave him a respectful nod, but didn't bow as his apprentice had. "Thank you for granting me an audience.â€

 

Theodore returned the nod. He was not sure where the Direnni stood, be they allies, enemies, or somewhere between, but at the very least he could show this one dignitary an ounce of respect. With neither warmth nor contempt, he said, "You are welcome, Master Fallo. You may state your business."

 

“I’m afraid I have grave news regarding you and my peoples. For too long have I watched and said nothing as the Direnni consorted with that most vile scum, the Thalmor. I will no longer share a part in my people’s evil plots. Brenon, the letter,†Fallo turned and motioned for the Breton assistant, but from the gallery sprung a robed figure, who stood between Fallo and Brenon. The robe fell away, revealing beneath the clothing of a Thalmor justiciar.

 

Theodore watched the scene unfold, time seemingly slow down as the details played out. Master Fallo recoiled from the two fireballs barreling toward him, his arms covering his face. Someone screamed in the gallery, while another figure moved from one side of the room to the other. Elayne ran down the dais away from the madness. Lady Gaerhart, who had been talking to a raggedy looking man moments before, was now pushing him in front of her, as a shield. Sir Maric dashed forward, sword held up as he prepared to swing. Winvale had vanished, Sir Virelande was preparing his own spells, and Lord Estermont was bellowing out obscenities.

 

When the flames engulfed Master Fallo, the assassin turned to Theodore and yelled, “For the Thalmor!†He then vanished, as Sir Maric’s blade clanged to the ground where the justiciar had stood.

 

A tension filled silence fell over the room, as everyone tried to make sense of what had just happened. Theodore’s eyes scanned the crowd for any other possible agents. He found none. He was at a loss for words, but finally said, “Where is Fallo’s assistant? Bring him forward.â€

 

The assistant did come forward, but it was not the guards who hauled him to the king. Gripping the scrawny mage by the collar was Duke Mon, who threw him down beside the dead Direnni. “My liege, he tried to flee when his master was attacked, but I ran him down.â€

 

Theodore studied those words, his mind automatically assuming Mon was lying. But Theo had seen a figure run across the hall, and it was suspicious that the apprentice would flee rather than help his master.

 

“Search him,†Theodore ordered. Two guards came forward, and ran through the pockets and lining of the skinny Breton’s robes. But it was again Duke Mon that brought forth that which Theo sought.

 

“King Adrard, I also found this in his grasp as he fled,†Mon held up a piece of paper, and before Theo could have it brought to him, Mon began reading it aloud. “’Agent Tauryon, you are under orders from her majesty the Queen of the Direnni to assist Lord Adrard in carrying out his plot. You will give him the poison, diluted so as not to kill him. In exchange for our help and the provision he remains King of High Rock under Thalmor rule, he will undermine the alliance of man and ensure the Direnni peoples are not harmed.’â€

 

The eyes of all assembled turned to Theodore, who for the second time in as many minutes, found himself stunned. It was all lies, of course, but he did not even know of a Tauryon before today, much less get poison from him. And while he did poison himself, that came from the Dark Brotherhood, not the Direnni. And while he would like to see Cyrodiil fall in influence, he was not going to undermine everyone else in the alliance, not with High Rock sitting as one of the weaker members. His mind searched for a reason why this would happen, who would do this, as his eyes settled on the man who had revealed these false accusations.

 

Duke Mon stood there, his skeletal fingers still wrapped around the mage’s robes like a vice. The other hand held that lie filled paper, his grip on that rather delicate in comparison. The mage was sweating profusely, his hands ceaselessly grabbing at his clothes. Mon looked like the picture of calm, his face revealing nothing. But as Theodore glared down at him, Mon’s lip twitched up ever so slightly, the shadow of a smile. And it was then Theodore knew. Mon must be involved, somehow, someway, and he was relishing Theo’s fall. There was the jealous man revealed, the one who wanted Theo humbled.

 

It was a cough, a thunderous, racking cough that sent creeping phlegm up Theodore’s throat that broke his gaze. He pressed a fist to his mouth, stifling it, but that action drew him from his hate filled mind and back into his great hall. There, the crowd still stared at him, wondering just how their king would react to such accusations.

 

King Adrard rose, doing every bit to seem an imposing and towering figure. He wanted nothing more than to arrest Duke Mon, but with so many onlookers, he knew it would only be regarded as him stifling an innocent man who had earlier apologized and bent the knee. He could not afford to be seen as a tyrant who imprisoned his subjects at will.

 

Instead, Theodore said, “Thank you, Duke Mon for brining this apprentice forward, and reading aloud this preposterous letter. Unfortunately, danger may still lurk inside these walls. Sir Maric, lock down the castle and have your men do a full sweep of the interior. I want every corridor checked for Thalmor intruders. If the rest of you will remain in the great hall, I can assure you this ordeal will be over quickly.â€

 

Turning to his lords, Theo said, “We will convene in the secondary hall. We have matters to discuss.â€

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**

 

It was only a few minutes later when the Council of Lords assembled in the smaller great hall, which branched off the main great hall opposite the castle’s rooms and living quarters.  The last to arrive were Sir Maric and Dryston Winvale, who had transported himself to his tower as the madness in the court unfolded. The various nobles were stationed around an oval shaped table, with Theodore and Elayne sitting at the head. To their right sat Lord Traven, the Lord Regent, in charge of laws and council. To their left sat their guard captain, Sir Maric. Beside Sir Maric sat Lady Gaerhart, Lord of Secrets. Beside Lord Traven sat Lord Leland, the Lord Treasurer. Beside him was Duke Theirry, the Lord Admiral, and across from him was Lord Estermont, the Lord General. Beside them, respectively, were Dryston Winvale, the Royal Court Mage, and Sir Bevyn Virelande, the Royal Battlemage. At the end of the table, mirroring Theodore and Elayne, were Roland and a pregnant Lyenna.

 

Theodore gave Winvale a long, hard, disapproving stare, but settled on not saying anything. It would only serve to distract from the main topic, that the royal family was under attack from an unknown someone. Before Theodore could start, though, Lady Gaerhart rose, and asked for the floor.

 

Granted, she said, “I received, shortly before that scene, news which is now extremely pertinent to our discussion. An agent of ours in Duke Mon’s court sent this missive. ‘Two new events in the owl’s roost. Mysterious mage, a skinny Breton, visited. Reasoning unknown. Sellswords came, led by twin sisters. One had a scar on her throat. From the Silver Brigade. Hired to go to Cyrodiil and attack Orcs. Others sellswords already there.’â€

 

Sir Bevyn Virelande spoke up, his heavy jaw jutting out like a mountain cliff. “Could it not be that Mon has some quarrel with the Orcs? I confess ignorance of any previous one, though.â€

 

Lord Estermont huffed. “Why shouldn’t he have quarrel with them? Though the brutes may never have trampled his crops or raided his villages, it would only be the appropriate response to hunt them down like pigs.â€

 

“No,†Elayne said, “I do not think he is seeking vengeance or has any particular fight with the Orcs. I do not know what he might be doing there, and I must say it is secondary to our problem here. Could it not be he was somehow involved in tonight’s attack?â€

 

Theodore rubbed his chin with his hand, and suppressed a sigh. He was frazzled, he knew, and needed to control his emotions. He couldn't let these events, and the plague, get to him. "We will need to send someone to Cyrodiil. I want to know what the true purpose Mon had in sending the Silver Brigade, because it was surely not to hunt Orcs. But our focus should be here, for now. We need to determine who was behind this slander.â€

Directed to his mother-in-law, Theo asked, "Did you get a sense from the Direnni that they were working with the Thalmor?"

Lady Gaerhart, having sat down after reading the letter, said, "When we discussed it, they were adamant that they despised the Thalmor and wouldn’t join them. My spies indicate the same."

"And this Fallo, is he a Direnni?" Theodore asked. 

"I believe so, yes, though I've never heard of the agent mentioned in the letter," Lady Gaerhart said. 

"I want you to contact your sources there and run both names by them. And I want to schedule a meeting with the Queen, these rumors need to be squashed and the easiest way is ruling them out if at all possible," Theodore said.

 

"We still have the mage's apprentice." Lord Traven reminded them. "Perhaps he could shed some light on the situation. For all that we know, he might even be the agent we seek."

 

"He's been taken to a holding cell, for the time being," Sir Maric said to Theo."I can question him, if you'd like."

Theodore knew Sir Maric suggested it only out of curtesy. He wasn't a torturer, but a warrior. Theo said, "I think I can handle it. He doesn't seem too likely to withstand simple questioning."

"I think we also need to address the mercenaries," Roland said. "Even if it is simple Orc hating, he endangers High Rock by sending a foreign force onto Imperial soil."

"I say throw him in a cell as well. Risking too much just to kill some pigs," Duke Theirry said, his voice not hiding his contempt in the least. Theo wasn't aware of any previous feud between Theirry and Mon, though it wouldn't take more than one conversation with Mon to change someone's mind. 

"Surely what he did, while wrong, doesn't warrant imprisonment," Lyenna said. "After all, it could seem paranoid to do so after he just apologized to King and Queen Adrard, and Lord Leland."

 

"I am inclined to agree." Lord Traven said, nodding to his daughter. "Many a Breton noble has waged war against the Orcs without consequence. If Mon was involved in today's plot, we want to expose and punish him for that. It would clear these new allegations in the public's eyes, and be far less suspicious than arresting him for a crime that we have so little knowledge or proof of."

 

Theodore suspected Mon was hiding more than just this mercenary plot, but it was a dangerous road to walk if he imprisoned him for that alone. At best, he was proven right, though other nobles would remember the circumstances of the imprisonment, and the lack of evidence. At worst, he'd been seen as a tyrannical king did as he pleased. 

"I agree as well. I want Mon watched closely, but for now he must go free," Theodore said, somewhat resigned at this being the only real option. 

"I will relay the message," Lady Gaerhart said. 

"Thank you. Now," Theodore looked at the rest of his advisors, "we must deal with the two convicted traitors in our midst. Lord Birian and Baron Ashcroft are to be executed. Are there any objections?"

The assembled lords and ladies made no movement to protest, so Theo said, "Just so. We must be tough on proven traitors and rebels, to discourage those that might consider it."

"Aye, and may those that do rebel rot in the pits of Oblivion," Lord Estermont said. 

"What about the mages?" Roland asked. "Might they stir up trouble?"

Theodore gave Winvale a pointed look, and said, "That is the last thing we need now. The schools may be factious, but they could band together on this."

Winvale snickered. "I apologize that I elicit such passionate responses from those magicians."

Ignoring the old man, Elayne said, "If we are not going to give in to their wishes regarding the council appointment, then we will have to give them something."

 

"My library is among the oldest in High Rock." Traven said. "If you wish to send them a gesture, I could give leave for some of their scholars to visit Northpoint. There are certainly books there that they do not have in their schools. It is not much, but they have done little to deserve even this."

 

"They will have to accept it and get over their bloated egos. Thank you, Lord Traven," Theodore said. He stood to dismiss the council, but before he could, a servant entered. 

"A missive for his majesty," the woman said. 

Theodore took it, and quickly read it over. It was from his cousin, Manis, the ambassador to Cyrodiil. Theodore looked around at those assembled and said, "More bad news. Elder Councilor Quintil Wirich was arrested. He tried to send me a dossier containing the names of the Penitus Oculatus agents in High Rock. The court mage intercepted it. Now the letters of the other Bretons are being read, including, we can expect, this one."

 

"I'll inform Duke Wirich," said Lord Estermont, who the Wirich family swore vassalage to. 

Theodore nodded, and said, "I believe that is all the business we have today. You are dismissed."

With that, the lords and ladies cleared out, leaving Theo alone with Sir Maric. To the guard, he said, "You may let those in the great hall leave."

Sir Maric bowed and said "Yes, my king" before he too left. 

Still standing, Theo slammed his fist on the table and cursed. Sighing, he then left as well.

 

**

After a restless night in which visions of Camlorn castle crumbling to the ground haunted him, Theodore finally decided enough was enough and rose from bed. It was not terribly early, around seven o'clock he guessed, but Theo loathed getting up. After yesterday's debacle, he worried that today would only be worse, and news increasingly worse would arrive. 

He knew he was worrying over nothing, though. No day would likely top those experienced within the last month or so, what with yesterday and his children's death. But with those events came the feeling of the universe going out of its way to harm him. Theo supposed it was only retribution for the string of good luck he'd had with the war and secession. But whatever god or gods doled out this punishment seemed to be going overboard. Given that, Theo could only hope that, eventually, a string of luck would return. 

Could it be that this is all somehow connected? With Peryite already plaguing my family, might he expand his harm to other parts of my life? No, that's preposterous. Even the Daedric lords are not that powerful, surely.

After getting dressed and shaving both his face and his head, Theodore walked into the hallway. There, beside his door, he found Sir Maric standing guard. The knight had an ebony half-helm on, his full helm too restrictive in such close quarters. But because he face was revealed, Theo could see the dark bags beneath his eyes, and the sleepy look they held. 

"Were you here all night?" Theodore asked, not bothering to hide the amazement in his voice. 

"Yes, my liege. I also assigned extra guards to your son's room, as well as few more to guard the mage's assistant's cell," Sir Maric said. 

Theodore gave the knight a slap on the arm, and said, "Thank you, Thomas. Your service is invaluable to my family."

They walked into the secondary hall, where Theodore had breakfast. Lord Estermont was there as well, reading over a letter Theo suspected was from his sons in Shornhelm. 

Theodore asked him, "How are your boys?"

Estermont looked up from the letter and sat down his fork, on which was speared a half eaten sausage. His voice was softer then usual, which Theo had suspected, since he took great pride in his sons. "Dunrick is well. He is a spitting image of myself at that age. He didn't take Delric's death well, as the two were always close. Danric is still adjusting to married life. He likes the Traven girl well enough, though I'm afraid there's will be an impersonal marriage. It cannot be helped, he is too willful, she too much like her father."

Theodore sat down his food as well, and took a drink from his goblet of water. "I was sad to hear Delric succumbed to his injuries. I knew him to be a fine fighter and leader. Another life shortened by Lielle's pride."

"Yes, it was. If only that witch had the brains to know when she was beaten, and just surrendered the city. I would've liked to sack it, while she watched it burn around her. Though I suppose what those sellswords gave her was punishment enough," Estermont said with a cruel laugh. 

Theodore nodded in agreement, and then finished his meal and left. Sir Maric followed him out of the room, and Theo said, "Have the steward find those sellswords from yesterday and bring them to the gallery room. The Tynes, they called themselves."

Sir Maric nodded, but looked uneasy to leave, before he decided to do so without protest. Theodore proceeded to the hall, alone, although he passed several guards posted along hallways and guarding doors. Two were outside the room that overlooked the throne. Earlier in the week he'd met Estermont and Theirry and Winvale there. The king liked it best of all the halls, though it was the smallest. It was more intimate, and he enjoyed the view of his great hall below. 

Sir Maric returned after relaying the message to the steward, and together they waited half an hour for the Tynes to arrive. In the meantime, Theodore wrote back to Manis.

Ambassador Adrard,

After the events in Cyrodiil that you reported to me, I want you to keep the other councillors in check. We need bodies on the council, not in cells. And keep your eyes and ears open for talk of mercenaries killing orcs in Cyrodiil. I'm afraid someone is trying to undermine us, and that may be part of their plot. As always, I value your contributions to High Rock, cousin, and hope that you can further help our homeland now. 

Sincerely, 
King Theodore Adrard


After that, it was only a few minutes before the Tynes arrived, ushered in by the steward. As they approached, the sellswords looked equal parts confused and curious. Cautious as well, in the woman's case. Theodore remembered that her name was Faida, and her brother's, Asgen. 'The Tyne Twins', he had joked. Nordic mercenaries with a very Breton surname.

They wore plain clothes this time, and carried no weapons. Their bow had not improved overnight. If anything, it had worsened, with Asgen moving to kneel while Faida only declined her head. He grinned as he stopped himself midway down only to straighten and mimic his sister. "Your Majesty."

 

"Take a seat, please," Theodore said, motioning to the chairs to his right. Putting on a friendly smile, he said, "For future reference, and because I trust you two will need it, bow to slightly above waist level, like so."

Theodore stood, bending at the waist like a heron bobbing for fish in a pond. He then sat back down, and said, "You must have a few questions about being here."

 

The twins shared a glance, Asgen's lips curling up as if he had been reminded of his favorite inside joke. "Yes, your Grace." he said. "Faida thinks we're in trouble, but I'm-"

"I don't think that." his sister interrupted, shooting Asgen an annoyed gaze. "When your steward summoned us, I very briefly considered the idea that you might have thought we were involved in that Thalmor business yesterday. Which is-"

"Obviously not the case." interjected Asgen, "Or you would have sent guards, not a steward." After another mean look from his sister, he added. "Faida is actually the one who pointed that out."

"So really, I suppose our only big question at the moment is what you want from us."

 

Theodore's smile continued, and he chuckled as he asked, "Do you two always do this back and forth thing? My sister and I bickered some, but you two seem to almost share your thoughts. I'll have to keep my court wizard away, or he might want to experiment on you."

 

"Not always." laughed Faida. "It's like you and your sister, we have a tendency to bicker. And we've a penchant for interrupting."

"And it's not totally unpracticed." Asgen added. "We used to do it to Ma when she had guests. It annoyed her to no end, which was always funny. It may seem like we share thoughts, but the gods are good, so we don't."

 

"And you're from Skyrim, correct?" Theodore asked, as a servant brought in a platter of wine and cheese. "Please, help yourselves," he said, pouring a glass for himself.

 

"Don't mind if I do." said Asgen as he took the pitcher. 

 

"It's from a vineyard near here. Grapes grow well in the Illesan Hills," Theo told Asgen. 

"Thank you." Faida added, though she didn't go for anything herself. "And aye, we're from Skyrim. Nords of the Reach, born and raised."

"That explains your last name, then. Some of our Reachmen are just as Nordic as they are Breton, and there are a fair share of Redguards as well," Theodore said.

 

"Aye, Pa's a Breton." said Asgen after finishing a long drink, "but not of the Reach, oddly enough. That'd be Ma, though she ain't got a clan name, so we decided to take his."

"The Tynes are an old and noble family." Faida said. "Dating back to the second era, we're a family of heroes."

Asgen shifted in his seat and glanced her way. "You can't be doing that here, Sis. Lyin' to a king's gotta be against his laws." Looking back at Theo, he shrugged. "Pa's a smuggler, or perhaps a beggar by now. We don't know. It's been a while."

 

"No, it's quite fine. Our ancestors have a way of becoming larger than life. Those tapestries there," Theodore motion to the two side walls, which were filled with depictions of heroic deeds and political plots, "show my family's history, and I know at least half of them embellish the stories. If you tell people your ancestors were great men and women, sooner or later it becomes the only truth they know. And as far as I'm concerned, there's no harm in it."

 

"That's not the sort of lesson I'd expect to get from a king." Asgen admitted as he poured himself a second glass. "Course I never would've guessed we'd be summoned by one to a private balcony either. But here we are."

 

"Here you are indeed." Theodore sipped his glass of wine. "I suppose we should get down to it, then. I need to hire the both of you, for another bounty."

 

The twins exchanged a glance. "Figured as much." Asgen said, "I take it this ain't the kind of work you could use a knight for."

 

"Precisely. The bounty is on twin sisters, Senna and Sosia Silver. The Sisters of Silver, they're called, and they lead the Silver Brigade. And they're in Cyrodiil," Theodore said, putting on a reassuring smile.

 

"Twins hunting twins." Faida remarked with a smirk. Asgen snorted before she went on. "We know the Sisters, and their Silver Brigade, and we ain't exactly friends-"

"That's putting it mildly." Asgen interrupted. "We've had a few run-ins, and every one of them has ended with jobs being stolen, money being stolen, or in one case, bloodshed."

"Yes," Faida went on. "They hate us. And we hate them. But the last time I saw the Brigade, they were in Evermor with numbers. Numbers ain't our strong suit, so we need to know what we might be dealing with here. First off, how many are in Cyrodiil, and what are they doing there?"

 

"They were hired by another noble to hunt Orcish refugees in Cyrodiil. But I suspect that is only a cover story for another purpose entirely. Not only do I want the Sisters hunted down and brought back to me, I want you to discover what they are really in Cyrodiil for," Theodore said, making sure he retained his pleasant, if not friendly, demeanor. 

"I have previously hired them to clear out some problematic Reachmen, but they suffered considerable casualties. I'd put their numbers no more than three hundred."

 

"Three hundred, eh?" Faida exhaled deeply. She didn't seem particularly pleased by this. "That's a lot more than I'd hoped for."

"But we're only after two." Asgen reminded her. "And three hundred just makes it easier to go unnoticed. I say we do it, Sis."

After a long pause, Faida said, "This is a big job. Lots of expenses in that sort of travel. And we'd be putting ourselves at odds with an army... What's the pay?"

 

"I will pay for passage to Cyrodiil, as well as give two coursers for each of you, assuming you ride. I will then pay one thousand five hundred septims for each sister delivered alive. If both are killed but I get the information, you will get one thousand five hundred septims total. If one is killed but the other is brought to me alive, two thousand septims. If you fail to get the information and both sisters are killed, you will get one thousand septims. In all cases you may keep the horses. I trust that is fair?" Theodore asked, folding his hands together as he waited for the answer.

 

Asgen swallowed and let out a deep breath. He was already nodding. "Yea- Yes. Yes it is! Absolutely fair."

Faida narrowed her eyes at her brother, his grin was that of a child who cast his first spell. Though she tried to hide it, Theodore could see the smile twitching across her lips, trying to break free. "That's a good pay," she said. "We'll take the job."

 

"Excellent," Theodore said, clapping his hands together." Sir Maric here will escort you back to the steward, and relay to him your need for horses. Do you have any questions?"

 

"Yes, your Grace, replied Faida. "Where in Cyrodiil should we begin our search?"

 

"I suspect that, if they've gone by sea, Anvil will be a good starting point. If they went by land, they'd likely head toward Chorrol. If they are hunting Orcs, check the land between Chorrol and Bruma," Theodore answered.

 

"That's a lot of land. But groups this large don't tend to wander countrysides without drawing attention." Faida noted. "And the Orc refugees won't be hard to follow."

 

"My thoughts exactly. Based upon my reports, they should be arriving in Cyrodiil soon, depending on their path. So, I would have you leave today," Theodore said, looking to Faida for the answer, as she seemed to be the dominant personality of the siblings.

 

"That won't be a problem," she answered. "It'll only take an hour to collect our gear back at the inn."

 

"I look forward to your return," Theodore said.

 

The twins both stood and simultaneously bowed, this time, not making a mockery of it. "We won't disappoint you, Your Grace," Asgen said in parting. Sir Maric showed them out, leaving Theodore alone atop the balcony.

 

The woman is cautious, and that will lend to them a sensibility most sellswords don’t posses. The brother seems quick to act, impulsive like most of his kind, but his sister is the dominant of the two, and likely has practice controlling him. Still, I wish I had the ability to contact Manis or Corrick and have them assist the Tynes. Otherwise, I’m putting my hope in two Nordic mercenaries who may very well ride off with my coursers and shirk the bounty altogether. Oh, how the mighty have fallen when they are my best chance.

 

Theodore rose when Sir Maric returned, and left the balcony. Down the steps they went, with the city and castle above pressing down on them like the weight of world upon their shoulders. The dungeons lay deep in Cavilstyr Rock, with only an escape tunnel leading down further. Theo was not particularly fond of them, finding them too morbid, too oppressing. He pitied the man that would end up here, but only for a moment. After all, it was their faulty ideas and ideals that put them in this place.

 

Most of the main cells were empty, while the few with residents held two thieves, a murderer, and an arsonist. The hallway running between the cells was damp and dark. Only a few of the torches were lit, less than half. There was no dungeon master, as the guards took turns rotating in and out of serving as dungeon watchmen. The main cells gave way to another staircase, this one leading down to cells too short to stand in, and not wide enough to lay down. Those residing must sit curled in a ball, unable to stretch their legs or exercise. Inside the first two were Baron Ashcroft and Lord Birian. The third held Brenon, the assistant of the assassinated Direnni.

 

Sir Maric lifted the key and unlocked the heavy metal door. It swung open on creaking hinges, as the room emitted a stench so foul Theodore could not help but gag. In the middle of the room lay Brenon, curled in a ball, a ragged shirt and trousers having replaced his robes. They barely covered his bony frame, not that the robes had been any better. He sat in a puddle of his own filth, either unwilling or unable to extend the effort to use the bucket in his cell. The two guards flanking Sir Maric walked in and hoisted the mage to his feet, dragging him to a table at the end of the hallway. There they clapped his wrists and ankles in iron, though Theo suspected he was so skinny that he could easily slip out of them.

 

Theodore sat down across, watching the man’s eyes twitch around. He seemed to be trying to look at everything at once, though never did they so much as pass over Theo. In truth, he looked and acted no different than when he’d been hauled down here the day before. Even at that time it was as if he’d already been malnourished and anxious, though the trauma of the assassination likely acerbated his jitteriness.

 

Theo reached across and grabbed Brenon by the chin, pointing the man’s gaunt face towards his. “Look at me. Look.â€

 

Brenon did look, slowly at first, focusing on Theo’s chin, then mouth, then finally his eyes. Theodore held them there with an icy gaze. “You will tell me what happened yesterday. Now.â€

 

The prisoner nodded, but though his mouth opened and his lips moved, no words came out. He seemed surprised, his already saucer sized eyes growing even larger. Theodore was unsure what to think, as the man seemed to panic and started moving his lips rapidly, but silently.

 

“What’s wrong with you?†Theodore asked, not bothering to contain his annoyance.

 

Brenon shrugged, his motion still frantic and jerky. He pointed at his throat, and shrugged again, all the while his mouth moving wordlessly. Theodore watched, trying to read the assistant’s lips, but he couldn’t make out any discernable words or phrases. It was if, to his own surprise, Brenon had become a mute overnight.

 

“Fetch Winvale,†Theodore commanded the two guards.

 

When Winvale arrived, Theo was no closer to figuring out what Brenon was trying, and failing, to say. “Do you have any idea what’s wrong with him? He still has his tongue, but he can’t so much as make a sound.â€

 

The court wizard grabbed Brenon’s throat with an arthritic hand, while the other prodded the inside of the boy’s mouth. A faint light emanated from the tip of the prodding finger, and Winvale took his time studying the wet cave that was Brenon’s mouth. He then shocked Brenon, and although Theodore saw all signs of pain upon the prisoner’s face, his screams were silent.

 

Finished with his examination, Winvale wiped his hands on his robes and said, “He’s been muted. A strong spell, likely planted years ago. He couldn’t have cast it himself.â€

 

“Fix it,†Theodore said, waving his hand impatiently.

 

Winvale chuckled to himself, the deep canyons of his wrinkled face giving Theo a condescending smile. “No, I don’t think I will. So far all you’ve done is order me about, and I still don’t have my books. Get those, and we’ll see about getting this boy to talk again.â€

 

Theodore rose, and though he wanted nothing more than to punch the vampire in the face, to yell at him and command he do as he was told, the king restrained himself. He knew it would do no good, and would likely end up being the last thing he ever did. Following Brenon’s lead, Theo said nothing, and left.

 

**

 

Duke Mon

 

 

Wyrd Hill Keep had never looked more pleasant than the day Duke Mon returned from destroying the Adrard dynasty even as it was in its infancy. Every flower seemed brighter, every bird’s song a little more cherry. His wife seemed less plump, his son more capable, and his grandchildren less bothersome. He considered it the greatest day of his life, besides those related to his family.

 

He looked forward to uncorking the bottle of wine in his desk upstairs, the one he bought at considerable cost after he began this venture of revenge. It was from Skingrad, and old vintage, and he would savor every drop. As he opened the door, however, he found himself in the company of a Mer he very much recognized.

 

“Have a seat, Duke,†the justiciar said, having already discovered, and poured, the wine.

 

Mon’s smile evaporated, but the Altmer could not see it as Mon walked round the desk to sit down. When he did, he brought the glass of wine to his mouth, affixing the smile back when he lowered it. The wine wasn’t as sweet as he’d hoped, possessing a considerably tart aftertaste.

 

“You must be the mastermind behind this,†Mon said.

 

The Altmer, whose white hair shimmered in the sunlight, stroked his pointed, clean-shaven chin. “I suppose I would be, yes. Fallo was an unfortunate casualty, but we needed the court to be convinced he really was a Direnni exposing a Thalmor plot. And what better way than to have those same Thalmor kill him?â€

 

Mon nodded with a friendly smile he hoped came across as sincere. He wasn’t happy about this elf being here, thought it dangerous to have them possibly associated, but there was nothing to be done now. “It was quite masterful, I must say.â€

 

The justiciar gave an impish smile. “Let us not forget your part in this. It was a wonderful surprise for my superiors and I to see we have such competent associates. That business with the mercenaries and Orcs is bound to stir up trouble. Well done, Duke.â€

 

Mon couldn’t help but compliment himself, given the opportunity. “It was clever, wasn’t it? Between that and this business with the Direnni, I think we are well on our way to sinking Adrard.â€

 

The justiciar’s smile disappeared as the elf leaned onto the desk, shocking Mon into setting down the glass of wine he was bringing in for a drink. “We would be, were it not for that messenger you let escape. As clever as your plans may be, Mon, he likely now knows something about your Cyrodiil plot. You were sloppy, and should that happen again, we will not hesitate to cut ties with you.â€

 

“I will have you know,†Mon leaned forward as well, putting his face a few inches from the Thalmor’s, “that I was not idle in Camlorn. I hired two agents, stationed in Adrard’s court, who will serve as spies of my own.â€

 

The tightening of the justiciar’s jaw told Mon that revealing his agents was a mistake. “You are a fool. Don motley and dance, then. Do you not see what this does? Should they be caught, you’ve given him a clear path to you, through those spies. I do hope you chose your help wisely.â€

 

Mon, indignant, said, “They are well placed, and will not arouse suspicion. If you doubted me, then you should not have bothered becoming embroiled in this. I did not seek you, remember that.â€

 

The Thalmor narrowed his eyes at Mon as he finished his glass. Rising, he said, “Tread carefully, Duke. It would not serve you well to make enemies out of your only allies.â€

 

With that, a recall spell took the justiciar from the room, leaving Mon’s mood as sour as his wine. 

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Ingun Black-Briar
Riften
Noon

Black-Briars sneaking through Riften. Stranger things have happened.
Ingun had witnessed some of those stranger things herself in the past year, but even counting her time as a hostage to organized bandits led by a Stormcloak, they numbered surprisingly few.

Entering the city had not really been the problem. Two guardsmen had remained to man the northern gate. It had been their warnings that convinced Sibbi to leave behind his armor and don simpler clothes, which one of the guardsmen had graciously fetched for him. Such a disguise was not necessary for Ingun. Her time as a prisoner had left her covered in dirt and filth, with wild and overgrown hair. Where Sibbi appeared a commoner, she more closely resembled a beggar.

The siblings made their way into Riften without incident, but not without worry. It was an old city, and it's people were no strangers to violence or hardship, but not since the reign of Jarl Hosgunn Crossed-Daggers had things been so dire that even the rich were in the streets, calling out in anger. By the time they had passed the Bee and Barb, Ingun could make out the distant execution stand, and, more notably, the bodies hanging from cages on the western wall. One was clearly fat, marking him as well-off. It seems no one is safe when the family goes to war.
Ingun had never thought she would be grateful to appear so rugged. She had no doubt her own fate would be even worse if the townsfolk could get their hands on her.

Ingun and Sibbi walked the main street, across a canal and towards the marketplace. It seemed as though half the city had been gathered here, where they shouted their anger at the deaf walls of Mistveil. "No more corruption!" she heard someone yell. "Justice! Justice!" chanted others.
She even spotted old man Snow-Shod, whose son was a business partner to the family. "Bring in Ulfric!" he screamed, as though the Jarl would obey him. "Show him what has happened here!" The man was a fool if he truly believed that the High King would swoop into the Rift and remove the family that brings Skyrim so much wealth.

Misveil Keep loomed overhead as they pushed into the crowd from the back. Immediately, bodies closed in around them, and Ingun felt Sibbi's fingers lock around her wrist. "Move!" he barked as he shoved through. "Get out of our way!"
One fat man spat at him, and at that, his grip on Ingun tightened so hard that it hurt. She saw her brother's free hand move to the dagger at his belt. Now it was Ingun's turn to grab his wrist. Sibbi looked at her, momentarily furious, before snapping out of it and nodding. "Come on." he breathed, before pushing the spitter out of their way. They shoved and squirmed and trampled their way through the massive throng of peasants until finally, after the most exhausting half hour of Ingun's life, they broke through to the front lines. Here were the boldest and angriest of the protestors, people who had come not just to complain, but fight, if it came down to it. They held daggers and wood axes, and even the occasional sword. Armed even as they were, the front line of protestors kept a comfortable distance from the castle. Mistveil's outer wall was teaming with sellsword archers, and four arrow-riddled corpses dotting its stairs explained the crowd's hesitance.

Sibbi released his grip on her arm, and, side-by-side, the two Black-Briars broke away from the crowd and slowly approached the staircase. Collective gasps could be heard behind them, and a couple of people stupidly cheered them on, but none dared follow as they grew closer and closer to the bodies of others who had gotten too close.
As they stepped over the first of the dead, a Riften guard and a sellsword appeared at the top of the stairs with their weapons drawn, and Ingun could feel the archers' trained eyes following them.
"Turn back!" the guardsman barked, so as to be heard over the roaring crowd. "Due to the current state of things, Jarl Laila is not holding court!"

"What about for Sibbi and Ingun Black-Briar?" Sibbi called back, taking another step.

"You don't look like Black-Briars to me!" the guardsman responded, though he now seemed somewhat hesitant. "How can I know-"

"That's Sibbi!" the sellsword suddenly said, eyes wide. "He ain't dressed normal, but that's him."

"What?!" someone behind them angrily cried out. The roars grew even louder, and Ingun heard more profanities screamed at them in that moment than she had in an entire year living with bandits. An empty mead bottle crashed into the stairs beside them. Sibbi placed himself between Ingun and the crowd, and several guardsmen appeared atop the stairs. Behind them, an old bald man and his rag-wearing friend suddenly charged from the throngs, making a bee-line for the siblings. They closed about half the distance before a volley of arrows put an abrupt end to the charge. In the heat of the moment, almost a dozen others broke ranks and followed. They were quickly fired upon as well. Ingun didn't know what to do besides watch as guardsmen pushed past her to form a shield wall at the base of the stairs. The attackers never stood a chance. After the first six fell, the rest fell back in line, but now the crowd was more furious than ever.

"Come on, Sis." Sibbi said, his breath heavy. "Maven awaits."

There was a low click behind the keep's massive doors, and they slowly creaked open, inviting the Black-Briars in.
The Mistveil throne room was grander and more welcoming than most in Skyrim. While the Jarl's throne was at the back, as per tradition, the center of the hall was dominated by three massive long tables, with one running parallel to the entrance and the other two pointing towards it from the sides, forming a rigid "U" with a large hearth burning at the center.
Jarl Laila straightened in her throne when they arrived. Besides her, the Housecarl, Unmid, and half a dozen Riften guardsmen, the hall was empty.

"Where is Maven?" Sibbi asked the city's ruler as though she were no more important than the sellswords outside.

His tone elicited a growl from Unmid, but Laila answered before the Housecarl could further express his anger. "I have allowed her the use of my balcony upstairs.

Allowed. Yeah right. thought Ingun. More likely, Maven had simply decided that she wanted Laila's view, and told her in no uncertain terms that she was taking over her balcony.
Without asking permission or waiting for further words from the Jarl, Sibbi led the way straight past the throne and into the private quarters behind it.
Laila's chambers were unlocked when they arrived, though two sellswords stood at the entrance, and greeted them with mixed confusion and surprise. The quarters were as exquisitely furnished as one would expect for a Jarl, with southern carpets covering the floor, purple and golden tapestries of the city's crossed daggers, a large fireplace for warming the room, and a big feather bed made up with blankets to match the tapestries. At the back, the doors stood open, letting in the chilly winter air.
And at the center of the balcony, there she was. Even alone with her back turned, Maven somehow seemed powerful. Her hands at the railings, she stood there, staring out over her city.

"Grandmother." Sibbi started. "I've brought-"

"Ingun." Maven said, not sounding at all surprised or even particularly pleased by her granddaughter's homecoming. She turned from the balcony, and her cold judging eyes fell over her granddaughter. "We've been worried about you." she said in a way that suggested nothing of the sort. Maved waved for Ingun to come and stand before her. "It has been a long time."

"It has." Ingun approached cautiously. "And Riften has seen better days."

"Unimportant rabble." Maven said dismissively. "You are free, but the two of you have returned to me alone. I can only assume this means that either Cynric came through, or Maul failed."

"Cynric is dead. It was Maul who freed me, but..."

"The battle is lost." Maven finished for her. "Unfortunate." She turned to Sibbi, "You were given more than sufficient numbers to take the fortress. Even the Stormcloaks were there. What happened?"

"Their defenses were stronger than expected." Sibbi said, "It cost a lot of Stormcloaks, but we broke through. Almost had them, but more bandits arrived. More than we ever thought they had. They flanked us as we pushed into the fort. If anyone else escaped, we didn't encounter them."

"I see." Maven looked annoyed, angry even, but deep in thought. "We do not have the means to defend this city. Not with what remains. Our only options are to remain here and hope Mistveil can hold out under siege, or to leave before the bandits arrive."

"Either way, we'll want Iron-Brow's family here." said Sibbi. "If he's alive, we can use them to keep him at bay."

"Correct." Maven agreed. She motioned for them to come over to the railing. Below them, the masses continued to wait. "Sibbi, how many men would you need to disperse this?"

"More than we've got." he said. "That lot is too angry to role over on command. Unless you want me to start killing them."

"Not an option." Maven said. "You can have thirty. Ten of Laila's guardsmen and twenty of our sellswords. If you truly believe that stopping them is impossible, then we will not be leaving this city. All the more reason to fetch the woman and her brat. Clear yourself a path and bring them here, as quickly as possible."

"I'll see it done."

"Good. You may go."

Ingun watched her brother's eyes narrow, then he nodded and left the room. She didn't envy him, having to go back out there. If anything, the crowd had grown even larger since word had spread that Black-Briars had walked among it. And this time, Ingun would be a target.

"I'm not going to play games with you, child." Maven said, back to looking down below, "We have never been in such a dangerous position. Without Riften or the Stormcloaks of Greenwall, our nearest help is all the way up at Windhelm. It could be a week, at least, before they arrive, and then we will have investigations to contend with. And even that possibility hinges on your brother bringing us those girls."

"You don't think Mistveil can hold?" Ingun asked, moving over to the fireplace.

"Mistveil is a keep built for luxury. The wall has no gate. The windows are low. There is an entrance through the prison. This place was designed by fools, and we now must pay for that. The only thing that we have to keep Boldir from crashing down on this place is his family. He will never attack so long as we hold them."

This is a game that will never end. Ingun realized. How many people have to die while she and Boldir play it? "There is another way that we could end this." Ingun said.

Maven's eyebrow raised. "Oh? And what is this miraculous hidden option that I have apparently missed?"

Here it goes. "We could give Boldir his family back." Maven's so normally cold expression shifted to one of anger as she continued. "We let Sibbi bring them back, and then sue for peace. Make a deal that will allow us to safely leave the city. I know Boldir. He loves his family. I could be the one to go and convince him myself."

Maven was already shaking her head. "This man is a monster." she said, as though she had ever minded 'monsters' in the past. "I don't know how he managed to trick you into thinking otherwise, but Boldir is more twisted a person than any you have met. He would never honor such an agreement, and I have no intention of allowing him to get away with all that he's done."

"He won't." Ingun insisted. "The man killed his own brothers at Faldar's Tooth. He's the most recognizable man in Skyrim. His life will never be normal again. Look, whatever he's done in the past, he isn't like that now. He cares too much for his family to not take the offer."

"Boldir murdered your uncle, Ingun. And did even worse to his daughter. She was younger than you, then. She even had your look."

That took Ingun by surprise. Though it couldn't have been true. And there was no way Maven didn't notice the brief skepticism that crossed her face. "That... That doesn't sound like him. At all."

Maven scowled at that. "You have taken too great a liking for this man if you would try and deny his crimes to me. I knew him when you were still suckling your wet nurse's teats. Do you think I would wage this war, let so many die, risk my own life, over a man who has not severely wronged this family?"

"I didn't mean- I left him, didn't I?"

"So you did. And we have the stronger leverage now that you're back. Hopefully they will keep Boldir at bay until help arrives, and then we can kill them. Their lives for my brother and niece."

"Whatever you believe he did, his family is innocent." Ingun said, her eyes pleading. "We don't need to kill them."

She knew it fell on deaf ears. Murder was nothing to Maven, and yet, her grandmother's scowl lessened as she seemed to contemplate something. "I know what he did. You never knew your cousin, Bjiela, but she was innocent as well. Someone must pay for that, but..." she paused, as if putting on the final touches to whatever scheme she was hatching up. "I have changed my mind. I will do the trade. We leave Riften safely, and he gets his family back."

Ingun didn't know what to say. She hadn't expected it to actually work. There had to be a catch. There was always a catch with Maven. "That's it? You'll let them live?"

"Yes. I do not trust this place to keep us safe, and we have time to make all the necessary arrangements to ensure we can leave safely before we step foot outside, and it will ensure things go over better when this is finished. This way, we are not the murderers. I will explain everything to Ulfric myself, and Boldir will be hunted down for turning his cloak and slaughtering soldiers of Skyrim. It is not the ideal victory over him, but it is a victory nonetheless, and it holds fewer risks."

Even when she had thought it up, the idea had seemed to contain the same amount of risk, if not more, but Ingun did not have the same mind for planning that the family matriarch did. And even the idea that this might not be a lie lifted a heavy weight from her shoulders.
They stood at the balcony, looking out over the city for a couple more minutes. The young noble was about to ask permission to take her leave when she noticed that the crowd below was suddenly growing quiet. She shielded her eyes from the sun and peered down at them. It seemed that something to the west held their attention. The balcony didn't stretch out far from the building, so Ingun had to lean out over the railing to spot what they were looking at. What she saw made her gasp.

"What is it?" Maven asked.

"It's Goldenglow." she answered, watching the black billows reach for the clouds. "They set it on fire."

***

Carlotta

"Well," said Sibbi, as he peered out the upstairs window. "That's as clear a message as I've ever gotten."

The smokestack was the tallest and widest Carlotta had ever seen, a dark black plume, that reached so high it broke through the thickening clouds. "What does it mean?" one of the sellswords asked in his oafish voice. He was the same one who had been their jailer all this time.

Black-Briar sighed. "It means that they're coming for Riften." he answered. "There is only one boat on the island, which means that they're walking. Unless they're in a hurry, they'll be here by nightfall."

You bet they will. Carlotta thought. Seeing the distressed looks on Sibbi and the many sellswords who accompanied him made her smile, and it made Mila smile too, though the girl's seemed a little less certain, as though she wore it only to spite their captors. She's been through too much to get her hopes up. Perhaps I am making a mistake... No. 
Her palm brushed over the tip of the dagger she'd hidden in her sleeve. It had been months since Mila had stolen it from those Stormcloaks. It was a wonder the dimwitted prison guard had not searched her in that time. Whatever else happens, Mila gets out.

"Then we must make haste for the keep." said another of the three hired men in the room. "Lady Maven will want us there."

"Aye, we cannot waste too much time." Sibbi agreed. "But if you thought leaving was difficult, approaching will be worse. Some may see this as their final chance to stop us. One of those Rats may see the girls and decide to play hero. Word is that survivors of the battle have returned to the city. I've sent for them, so now we must wait. Their swords may prove more useful here than they did at Faldar's Tooth."

And so they waited. Carlotta took her seat in a large chair near the window, where Mila joined her, wrapping her arms around Carlotta's own and resting her head on her shoulder. It was exceedingly rare that the two ever got to see one another anymore, let alone embrace, so she savored every second of it.
Most of the Riften guardsmen were outside, having formed a perimeter around the entrance to the manor. The sellswords lounged about downstairs. Only Sibbi and his three most loyal men remained with her and Mila. After half an hour, the Black-Briar left the room, only to return with a finely inlaid, jewel-encrusted flute. He smiled at them when he took his seat at the corner and began to play. It was an upbeat, cheerful song, that Carlotta recognized to be a Nordier version of "Sail on, my Cyrus".
Seeing him play Boldir's flute made her angry, but the way her daughter tensed up beside her, Carlotta could tell that it pushed Mila almost to her limit. She felt something warm on her neck, and realized that tears were welling up in the child's eyes. "Ignore him." she whispered as she squeezed, careful to keep the dagger away form Mila. "Papa is coming."

The girl sniffed and shook her head, but Carlotta could feel her body relax.

It was another half hour before the Riften soldiers arrived. Of the hundreds who had left the city, only thirty made it back. They had no leader. Everyone with any sort of authority had been slain. Carlotta could see the concern in Sibbi's eyes as the information was relayed to him. When asked about Maul, one of the men shook his head and produced a piece of thin metal, about the length of his forearm. She heard Mila gasp. It was her dagger. Sibbi took it and looked over at them. She had expected a smug grin, or perhaps a few boastful words about being the owner of Mila's weapon, but to Carlotta's surprise, Black-Briar gave them neither. It seemed that the news of Maul's death got to him. The kindly mother in Carlotta briefly felt pity for the man, and then she realized what she'd just thought and was sickened by her own instinct. I hope he loses even more friends before he follows in suit. Assuming Sibbi even had other friends.

It wasn't long after the soldiers arrived that they set out. The loud commotion that greeted Carlotta upon leaving the manor caught her off guard. Sibbi had mentioned a crowd, but judging by the sound of it, there must have been hundreds of people in the market, if not more.
The Riften soldiers organized into something of a two-layered ring around them, and the sellswords walked wherever they pleased, which tended to be close to the group. Mila stood beside her. She took her daughter's hand as they began their march.
When they finally drew upon the source of all the commotion, it turned out to be even larger than Carlotta had imagined. Never had she seen of a gathering of so many people.
Hundreds of faces were there, belonging to fishermen and thieves, merchants, beggars, and everything in-between, and all were twisted into scowls. They wore every manner of clothing and carried all manner of arms. The better off among them had axes, but for every person wielding an axe there were ten carrying sickles or daggers. In answer, every guard and sellsword in their party had a hand on his hilt.
"Get out of our damned way!" Shouted a guardsmen at the front. The crowds reluctantly parted, but not without giving choice words of their own.

"I don't like this." a sellsword murmured to Sibbi. "Some of these folk've got death in their eyes."

"You think I don't know what that looks like?" Sibbi responded. "Keep moving." He glanced back at Carlotta and Mila. "No talking. To each other, or otherwise."

"We said, move!" They'd stopped again, and this time, the guards physically shoved the crowds out of their way. "We're under orders from the Jarl!"

"You mean Maven Black-Briar?" someone shouted from way back. The comment was followed by a swarm of insults.

"This isn't good, Sibbi." the sellsword began again. "This is really bad. What if we give them the girls?"

"You think it's the girls they want?" Sibbi chuckled dryly. "Most of them wouldn't know these two if we told them their names."

"What do they want, then? You?"

"Aye, I am a Black-Briar, and the family's done a lot of killing lately." Sibbi looked over at the crowd, and Carlotta caught a glimpse of his expression. The man appeared more thoughtful than scared. "Blood for blood and all that."

"Then what are we going to do?"

"Nothing. They're angry, not stupid. They outnumber us, but they're armored in cloths and rags, and most wield kitchen knives. If they attack us, we'll cut them up like ribbons. Keep your hand on your hilt to remind them of that. But don't give them any reasons."

The people looked like they barely needed one. As the entourage passed into the market square, she even recognized some familiar angry faces. A badly-bruised Bersi Honey-Hand stood next to a spear-wielding Runar the fisherman, and closer to the keep was the stable keeper, who stood between a large woman in iron armor and a Dunmer in a thief's leathers. The Dunmer was the first person in the crowd she noticed to not be sneering. In fact, he was grinning directly at her.
Carlotta blinked and waited for the party to move a little closer. Sure enough, the Dark Elf's red eyes were trained on her, and she saw that he had a bow lowered with an arrow half-nocked. When she met his eyes again, he nodded toward Mila, then back at her. His lips moved in an exaggerated motion in order to form an unmistakable word: "Run."
Carlotta's heart skipped a beat, and she prayed that she wasn't reading him wrong. How could she be? He carried a bow and was looking right at her. This elf wanted to help, and it might be that he and whoever was with him would be her and Mila's last chance. If they made it to Mistveil, odds were that they would not make it back alive.
And so she nodded back. The elf's grin widened, and he motioned at someone else before he slid back, disappearing from her view. Carlotta gave him a few moments to get ready however he planned to, and then eased closer to her daughter.

"Mila, Sweetie." Mila was brave, and her face gave way to no fear, but when Carlotta placed her hand on her daughter's back, she could feel that the girl's whole body was shaking.
"Whatever is about to happen, I want you to run." she whispered. "Okay?"

The girl blinked at her, confused. "What do you-"

"Don't wait for me, brave child. I'll be okay. But here, very soon, I'm going to need you to run through as far from these men as you can get."

"You mean we're escaping?"

"What did Sibbi say about talking?" A large guard slowed down to walk beside them. He was sweaty and nervous. Carlotta could see his hand shaking at his hilt, which he gripped tightly. She readied herself, allowing the dagger to ease down her sleeve until the point touched her palm. "You two shouldn't even be walking together." he said, "One mistake could get us kil-!"

The dagger slid down into Carlotta's hand, and the guard didn't have time to finish his sentence, let alone draw his sword, before she drove it into his neck. The man's eyes told her how shocked and furious he was, but all he could do was cough some blood onto her face before falling forward. She wrenched her weapon free and shoved him to the ground, where he would remain.
Guards around them were already shouting in confusion and to drawing their weapons. With their attention so focused on the outside, the idea of a threat from within caught them by surprise.
Without looking down, Carlotta put her left hand firmly on her daughter's shoulder and said. "Run, Mila!"

Mila ran. And when she did all hell broke loose. Carlotta turned to see the girl slipping through the confused guards and disappearing into the crowd in seconds. The townsfolk roared, guardsmen shouted, and somewhere, weapons were suddenly clashing. Carlotta drove her bloody dagger into the nearest guard's exposed collar. His armor dulled the impact, but the blade was sharp, and she used all her weight to push it down. The man fell to his knees, taking her weapon with him. She took her own advice and turned to run. Strong gauntleted hands grabbed at her shirt from behind, but other hands, the hands of strangers, hacked at those and pulled her away before forgetting her or being cut down themselves. There was chaos all around, and Carlotta frightfully realized that she was standing in the middle of a battle.

"After the girl!" she heard Sibbi barking somewhere off in the midst of it all. "You, with me! We need to find the gods damned daughter!"

The big woman in armor was cleaving through a sellsword's head with a battle axe, and a man who could've only been the eldest Snow-Shod screaming about these "Imp-loving schemers" finally getting what they deserve. Whatever he meant by that, the man may have been speaking too soon. As Carlotta dodged and wove through the chaos, she noticed a good deal more townsfolk on the ground than guardsmen and sellswords. But for every one that fell, it seemed that there were three more in his place. She peered through the crowd, hoping to spot her daughter already far away, but finding her in this was impossible. It'll be just as hard for Sibbi. she told herself.

Carlotta was not as spry as Mila, however, and she found it almost impossible to move more than even ten feet in this chaos. The sellswords were moving off, but guardsmen were still all around her, hacking away at the crowd, no longer keeping themselves in check.
As Carlotta tried to push further away, someone big slammed into her side, knocking her to the ground. She immediately raised her arms to cover her face when she saw all the legs surging this way and that. A boot tripped over her, bringing the entire body of some poorly-dressed Nord crashing down. She shouted and drew her legs out from under him while he himself struggled to rise. A gauntleted hand grabbed Carlotta's arm and a guard grunted as he yanked her up, but this was followed by a high whistle, and the man collapsed with a brown-feathered arrow just under his eye.

She glanced in the direction it came from to spot the same Dunmer from earlier standing atop a merchant crate. He nodded at her even as he readied another arrow. Carlotta began to move toward him, when a large brute of a guard stumbled in front of her. His axe was lodged in some poor elf's arm. When he wrenched it free, the momentum brought his eyes only a foot away from her own. They looked confused for a moment, then suddenly widened in surprise. The man even smiled proudly when he sent his fist crashing into her temple. The fighting wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot. But for Carlotta, that was the moment when everything went black.

***

Runar

The boatman peered back into the fray in one last effort to spot the mother, but it was no use. As horrible as it made him feel, Runar forced her from his mind. Boldir's wife was Arnath's responsibility. Boldir's little girl was his.
"Keep going, child, you're doing great!" he said, his hand on Mila's back as he guided her through the dense crowd. Dilbon followed them with a sword in hand.
The city had lost all sanity. People screamed, dogs barked, and weapons clashed. In the midst of it all, the three of them ran, trying to leave it behind them.
The southern gate was open and undefended by the time they arrived. Just as planned, the three guards who'd been left to man it were filled with arrows, and the culprits behind their deaths, long gone.

The young girl stopped just under the archway to look back. Runar did so as well, and saw that the war zone behind them was just now beginning to thin out. Most citizens were running scared from Black-Briar mercenaries, and those who weren't were clearly on the losing side.
"Where is Mama?" Mila asked, craning her neck in a vain attempt to spot her mother.

"She-" Runar's voice caught in his mouth. For all the worry the girl voiced, her eyes seemed almost too dead to be afraid. The last time he'd seen her, it had been on his fishing boat. Those eyes had been filled with life and excitement as she watched her mother reel in a massive longfin. The thought dampened his spirit. This girl had been through more than anyone ever should, and he didn't have the heart to tell her that her mother was supposed to be with them by now. "She's coming." he said, feeling sick. "We'll be meeting her elsewhere."
"Aye." said Dilbon, whose face was drenched in sweat. "And Arnath's the one we set to savin' her. I grew up with that elf. Trust me, she's safe with him."
It was hard to tell if that assured her, but Runar figured it did, because Mila turned her back on the fighting and once again faced the road south, and then... she didn't move. She just stood there frozen, looking at the road.

"You okay girl?" Dilbon asked. She didn't answer.

"Mila?" Runar put his hand on her shoulder, and she flinched away, glaring at him as though he'd hit her. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to startle you... It's been a long time since you've been outside these walls, I get it, but we've got to go."

She blinked a couple times and nodded. What have they done to you? He gave his best effort to give her a reassuring smile, and, to his surprise, Mila returned it. Though it didn't extend to her eyes. Her smile faded when she said "I want to get far away from here."

"And you will." he promised. "Come on."
The three of them jogged down the empty road to the tree line. The sounds of a city in uproar slowly grew more and more distant, until they were just another sound amidst the forrest's many.
"What do you think will happen to all that gold they'll be leavin' behind?" asked Dilbon after they'd been traveling for a good while in silence. "I mean, yeah the bandits want to take it for themselves, and yeah we volunteered for this, but still, you'd think someone would appreciate all the work we've been doin' inside the city."

"What gold?" Mila asked.

"Maven's gold of course." the thief responded. "The family's got enough to buy two of everything there is. Doesn't seem fair that those of us who've been in the most danger are gettin' zilch while the bandits show up at the end and take it all."

"You've been in the most danger?" The girl's fists balled, and her voice suddenly rose in volume. "Ma and me have been living under her for so long I don't know what year it is! They starved us and hurt us when we made them angry! And you're talking about gold?!"

Dilbon had the decency to look ashamed, but Runar cut in to help him out and calm the girl. "No one can pretend to understand what you've been through, child. But things haven't been great on the outside either. We've been working to fight the Black-Briars for a long time now, but they're the most dangerous sort of enemy for a bunch of criminals. We've been trying to save you and your mother."

"Are you the ones who killed Hemming?"

"Yes." Runar answered. "And Maul's brother, and several others who worked for the family. Why? You didn't sound grateful."

"I'm not."

"I'm sorry. Do you want to tell me why?"

"No."

Normally he'd have been frustrated, but Runar could only feel pity for the girl. Her suffering was not even done yet. Sooner or later, she would find out that her father was a traitor, that her mother may not make it out of the city, that her only consolation might be that those responsible had been killed. A hollow victory. It's her family that she wants, not more death.
It hit Runar just now that saving Mila, while a victory that had been a long time in coming, may be the last one they see. If Carlotta didn't make it, and Boldir is killed for treason, then her only family in the world would be Aerin, a man currently imprisoned beneath Mistveil for assaulting the Housecarl. She would have no one. Which meant she was his responsibility.
And what will I do with her? We can't go back to Riften... Falkreath maybe? He could return home to Falkreath, and bring her with him, teach her to fish. The prospect of having to take care of Mila frightened him almost as much as that of saving her had. "So Mila, do you have any other family?"
"Why? Do you think Mama and Boldir will die?"

Shit... "No," he started, "I..." His voice trailed off, though not for lack of words. Behind them was a faint sound, vicious, hungry, animalistic, and already growing louder.
"Damnit!" he cursed. "They've got dogs. Run!"

And so they ran, bounding through the forests, hopefully southward, but their travel was so chaotic that it was impossible to tell for sure. The sound of barking grew ever louder, and the grim realization hit Runar that the three of them could not hope to outrun their pursuers.
Gasping and huffing for breath, they eventually happened upon a small clearing, where Runar finally came to a stop. When the other two did the same, looking back at him with concerned expressions, he shook his head and waved them on. "Go!"
"They'll kill you!" Mila said.

"Don't worry, I'll be fine." he lied. "I trained with your father."

"Come on." Dilbon said, tugging Mila's arm. Reluctantly, the girl went, giving Runar a final, sad look.

Maybe taking care of you wouldn't have been so bad. he thought, half smiling. The smile had faded by the time he'd turned towards his pursuers and unslung the long steel-tipped spear from his back. Runar waited. Five minutes passed, then ten, and all the while, the barking grew less and less distant. Eventually, it was close enough that he could hear the accompanying hooves beating in the snow. The first rider appeared twenty yards ahead, but within the same second, a dozen more were with him, led by three vicious-looking dogs, covered in thick gray fur and snarling.
One of the sellswords whistled when they drew near Runar, and the dogs halted in front of him, their teeth bared. A shaggy horse with muscular legs and a jet-black coat cantered forward, stopping just out of spear reach. The rider was unmistakable. No man in Riften but Sibbi Black-Briar could afford a suit of ebony armor. The thick fur beneath it was a matching shade of black. "Afternoon." the man said with a mock bow. "I'm looking for a young girl, about fourteen or so. I don't suppose you've seen her?"

Runar answered by raising his spear and assuming a fighting stance.

"Well that was hostile." Sibbi said with a fake pained expression. "Seems these days there's no kindness in the world." He brought a leg over his saddle and hopped down, landing lightly in the soft snow.

"My lord," one of the others said, "the girl isn't here."

"This won't take long." Sibbi said, walking towards Runar and drawing his sword. "You know, what you're doing, it's admirable. Stupid, but admirable. Don't think I don't recognize you, Fisherman. I grew up in Riften too, after all. You had one of the nicest ships on Lake Honrich. I'd wager you were better at fishing than fighting. Look at your stance. How do you expect to kill anyone standing like that?"

Is he saying that to throw me off? Runar wondered, Or am I really standing like a fool? The noble's cocky grin hinted at the former, and so Runar didn't move.

"I've had a rather bad day" Sibbi continued, looking past him, off in the direction Dilbon and Mila had fled. "But that doesn't mean that I can't be reasonable. So I'll tell you what, how about you come with us when we catch the girl, and I let you live? The look on her face will be worth it, I promise you... Actually, so will the 'living' part."

You think I'm not ready to die for this? Runar laughed, it came out dry and humorless. "There's been this trend in my family, of dying pointlessly, even ridiculously. Pa thought we were cursed. I'll gladly be the one to break that trend."

"For what?" Sibbi motioned at the dogs. "I'm only wasting so much time with you because I know it doesn't matter. You stole my prisoner. I'm taking her back."

"And then what?" Runar asked, hoping that he might stall Black-Briar for as long as possible. "You'll kill her? You'd be marking yourself for death."

"Eventually, aye. But For now, she might serve us in other ways."

"You're only giving Boldir more reason to come for you, you know." Runar pointed to the northwest, where even through the trees, the massive smokestack could be seen. "This is a man who took on Stormcloaks and all the strength of Riften and won. If you do not end this soon, he'll kill you."

"You're suggesting that we give him what he wants. Let him walk away with his family so that we may do the same?" Sibbi shook his head. "No. This family's got fire in them. And while Boldir may be wanted, they have powerful friends. As impressive as it would be to see dear Mila return in a year with her Stormcloak uncle and an army of Grim Ones, I'm afraid I prefer my head on my shoulders, which is why hers must eventually be detached." Sibbi stepped forward. "Now, enough of this. You've proven yourself brave, so I'll give you a good death."
Wasting no more time, Runar lunged forward with his spear, narrowly avoiding Sibbi, as the latter brought up an exquisite silver longsword and deflected the jab. Black-Briar raised a fist in the air, and suddenly there was a loud 'twang'. 
The crossbow bolt struck Runar in the chest, easily punching through his thin leather jerkin. The sudden pain dropped him to a knee.
Sibbi shrugged. "I said a good death. Not a good fight." He motioned to his crossbowmen. "Kill him."

Runar forced his way through the pain and lashed out again with a shout of anger. Again, Sibbi easily parried it, and again, a bolt found its way into Runar's torso, inches away from the last. He fell to the ground and looked up at Sibbi, and what he saw brought tears to his eyes.
"Hehehehaha! Hahahaha!" Nothing had ever hurt Runar more than laughing with two bolts in his chest, but he couldn't stop. It was as if he'd been possessed.

Sibbi glanced at one of his sellswords. The man shrugged. "Going mad must be very liberating in your final moments." Black-Briar said, raising his hand to signal for a third bolt to be fired.
Before it could be let off, Runar shook his head and pointed above the trees, still laughing as he did. Sibbi looked. Towering high enough to see from here, a massive black smokestack rose high to the north. This one miles east of Goldenglow.

"That's coming from Riften, M'lord." commented one of the mercenaries.

"I am aware." Sibbi growled, his amusement at the situation suddenly gone.

"They're in the city." Runar cried out. "Good luck getting back in there now. Gods be good. You're too late."
"The Black-Briars are the gods in Riften!" Sibbi spat. He was furious, but Runar saw the flash of doubt in his eyes. That little hint of nervousness that said he had no clue what to do from here. It was all that he had hoped for. Perhaps that doubt would be enough to protect Mila. Perhaps.
Runar closed his eyes, tired and content that he had done all that he possibly could. He barely flinched when Sibbi's sword pierced his heart.

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Boldir Iron-Brow

It was the bandits of Treva's Watch who reached the city first. With hearts still pounding after a bloody victory and the taste of battle still fresh on their lips, the outlaws surged toward Riften with cries of war and greed. Boldir had known they'd be the worst. They would push at the guard with everything they had. Some of them would die, but not many, not enough to make a difference. He'd known that whatever defenses remained wouldn't likely hold back this horde for long, and when the better-trained survivors of Faldar's Tooth followed up at the rear, they would make short work of any stragglers. He was certain that the hardest part would be getting inside the walls.

As it turned out, it was easier than he had ever dreamed. 

Riften required no siege, no storming of the gates, no clever tactics. The walls were unmanned, the front gate, unbarred. Although the streets were bustling with activity, none of it was in the city's defense. The scent of death was in the air, but it was not his bandits who dealt it. They entered the city as if it belonged to them, only to find that the Riften had not waited for their arrival to go completely mad. Corpses already dotted the streets, and masses of townsfolk roared and cheered on the very people who assaulted their city. The outlaws of Treva's Watch didn't know why the townsfolk cheered, but judging by the many dead, it seemed that the people of Riften had taken up arms of their own and been found wanting. Of course, the cheers ended quickly enough once the guards were dead and the bandits began to turn their attention towards the peasants themselves.

Boldir was one of the last to enter the city. He stepped through the gates wearing his old armor for the first time in a year. The evening sun gleamed off of it, casting bright patterns into the shadows around him. He carried his battle-axe as well, though now it seemed unnecessary. Hrokvild's men had done all the work for him. Of that, he was silently grateful. The wound Maul had inflicted had only grown worse on his way to Riften, to the point where every movement was more excruciating than the last. There was no visible bleeding, the enchantment on Mila's dagger had seen to that, but he could feel the damage done inside him. It burned with every breath he took.

But like all other injuries suffered, it did nothing to slow their advance. Hrokvild's second, Grollin, walked alongside him, his left hand clutching his crossbow. The right was in a sling, where three fingers were broken at the joints, and his own arm was broken in at least two spots. The bandit had fallen from the keep of Faldar's Tooth after taking an arrow to the shoulder. Boldir was amazed that the marauder had survived at all, but Grollin was as tough as any Nord.

Now, with a small score of men at his back, Boldir passed through the city with little resistance. Though the sounds of swords clashing echoed from Riften's many alleyways, serving as a reminder that it was far from safe. The market was worse than any other area they passed through. It was littered with corpses, mostly townsfolk, but there were guards among them, and even men who might've been sellswords judging by their gear. Merchant stalls had been knocked over and strewn about, their contents already looted by the time he arrived. According to one of the Treva's Watch bandits, most of the dead here had been killed in whatever fighting had taken place before they reached the city.

Boldir thought about Aerin, and the faction of 'Rats' his brother-in-law had founded. They had claimed credit for the killing of Hemming Black-Briar. Was this their doing as well? If so, the man had come a long way from the do-gooder vigilante he had been a year ago. That, or he was in a position much like Boldir himself, and things had simply gotten too big for him to control.

How did it come to this? Boldir wondered, for the hundredth time. So many people were dead, and plenty more still would die before nightfall. He found himself, for the first time in a long time, thinking back to Whiterun. Not to the pleasant memories of his family and friends, but to a time before that, when Skyrim had been at war with itself, when he and so many others had spilled the blood of their kin. "Iron-Brow!" They had chanted. "Iron-Brow! Iron-Brow!"

Many atrocities had been committed back then, though the perpetrators had been punished. Galmar, Ulfric... Baldur, they had all made certain that those who had committed those vile acts suffered in kind. Boldir could issue no such punishments here. These bandits would plunder, rape, and murder, and then they would leave Riften's carcass to the survivors. There would be no justice. He had known that from the beginning, and yet...

"AAAARRRH!" A brave and stupid townsman rushed him with a rusty iron sword. Boldir's armor would have been more than capable of stopping the blow, but did not need it. His axe knocked the sword from the man's hand, and without thinking, Boldir lunged forward, sending his helmet crashing into his opponent's temple.

"Iron-Brow!" they shouted. "Iron-Brow! Iron-Brow!" It had been his first kill inside Whiterun's walls, and his opponent, an Imperial Commander. He had used his head, forever earning him the name. Even as Whiterun burned around Boldir, he had smiled. He had reveled in the victory. 

I was as much a monster then as I am now. he realized. No. It's for Carlotta and Mila this time. Black-Briar started this. Black-Briar created this. Not me! 

Many of the bandits had halted at the southern end of the market, where it looked like the worst of the fighting between the townsfolk and the guards had taken place. Ahead of them loomed Mistveil Keep, where all of the city's remaining defenders appeared to have gathered. Twenty bowmen lined the battlements, and a wall of shields had formed at the top of the stairs. High above, figures could be seen peeking down below from the keep's many windows and balconies.

Neither force had attacked the other so far. They only gathered and stared, though those bandits assembled rustled impatiently, no doubt eager to see what prized lay within Mistveil's noble halls. Prowling at their helm was Hrokvild. He smiled upon spotting Boldir and Grollin. "HAHA! A fine battle, no? I say this has been a good start on the road towards paying the bastards back for Faldar's Tooth." The chieftain said the words with a grin, but there was something menacing in his tone. "Not a lot left to do but enjoy the fruits of our labor in front of these milk-drinkers. Well, that and take their castle."

"Not yet." Boldir said, in no mood for pretending. "What news of Black-Briar?"

"It is as you suspected. Her house was empty but for three sellsword guards. They didn't last long. I'm a man of my word, Mage-Killer. The place is untouched. You get first pickings."

"Later." Boldir had no intention of looting. Not even from Maven. "And the temple?"

"Should be safe. My boys wouldn't hurt a priestess."

Boldir wondered how true that was. Not all of Hrokvild's fighters were as pious as their chief, and he very much doubted that the Treva's Watch bandits held to such a code. "Then if you'll excuse me, chieftain, I must pray."

Hrokvild raised a bushy red brow. "Never seen you pray before. Very well.  Just don't hurt the witches inside. I will not earn a god's ire." He put a hand on Boldir's shoulder. "Meet me back here in an hour. I have some spoils of my own to collect."

At that, the chieftain twirled his hammer and started back towards the Bee and Barb. As he watched him go, Boldir wondered if the kindly Argonian couple still ran the place.

"You're going to find the healers, right?" Grollin asked. "Get them to fix you up?"

Boldir had hoped the bandit wouldn't put it together. As much as he hated the idea of making demands of priests, he knew he had no choice. It was certainly not something he had hoped to do in front of present company. Drawing attention to the temple could not lead to anything good. "Aye."

"Then I'm in. Can't shoot worth a damn the way I am now."

Boldir sighed. There would be no use in trying to talk Grollin out of this. "Fine. Come on then."

The temple was not far. They found half of Mara's acolytes gathered around a shrine in prayer, and the other half at the back of the room, healing terrified townsfolk. There were six of them, all Nords save for one Dunmer she-elf and the small gray-skinned girl who knelt beside her. It wasn't until Boldir started down the isle that the prayer broke off. The elf squeezed the little one tightly, and one of the Nords stood to face him. "Begone, villains." she shouted in a commanding voice. Her blonde hair reminded him of Annekke's, though it was tied into a tight braid. She spoke without fear, though she might have been half Boldir's age, and even less than half his size. "This is a sacred place!"

Boldir slowed, but did not stop. "I have not come to steal from you." he said, removing his helmet so that she could see what he hoped looked like sincerity in his eyes. "Nor to otherwise harm you. I only want to be healed."

"So you can return to plundering and killing the people of this city?" she asked.

"No. I have no interest in such things." he replied, wishing now more than ever that Grollin had not come. Boldir took a final step, halting just in front of the priestess.

"We're not blind." she said. "Nor are we fools. You stand a head above most men, and try to hide the burn scars beneath your hair. You are the bandit lord people have spoken of, who has terrorized the Rift for almost a year now."

Behind him, Grollin snickered. "Chief wouldn't like to know that you're getting all his credit."

Boldir ignored him, though he could see the anger spread across the young priestess's face. "No," he repeated, struggling to find the right words. "That's not who I am."

Before the Nordic priestess could accuse him further, the Dunmer woman stood up, placing herself in front of the child elf. "Mara loves all." she started, her voice considerably gentler than the Nord's, "She cares for all. But we are here to serve the people of Riften. You must forgive Sister Eldine. One cannot expect another to tolerate the evils that have been committed today."

"The riots..." The Nord priestess muttered. "So much blood had been spilled already, and now your lot is here, piling the bodies higher and higher."

"You come before us armed and armored." said the Dunmer. "But not as a protector of this city."

"I do not come as an assailant either." Boldir said quietly, hoping that Grollin could not hear him from the back of the room.

"I know." She glanced at the blonde Nord before turning back to him. "You are not evil. You are scared. It is written all across your face, your eyes. Your heart screams it loudest of all."

"What's she talkin' about?" Grollin interrupted. "You afraid of some healer witches, Filnjar?"

"It is not us he fears." The elf replied, stepping forward next to her sister. "He fears for someone else. Someone he loves as deeply as you or I can know." Her ash-colored hand reached out and grasped his wrist. Boldir wanted to pull away, but something compelled him to remain still. "And now that fear is coming to a head."

"I'm not afraid." he answered. "I've made it this far. Maven is trapped. I am going to win."

"To win is not to save them. You know this. It has always been so."

Confusion and fear gripped at Boldir's heart, and he knew that the priestess spoke true. Every word. "How can you know? Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I seek to help you. You have killed for jarls, kings, emperors, and friends. It is only now that you kill for love that deaths haunt you." Boldir had never before seen a Dark Elf with eyes that weren't red and fiery, and yet her's were a deep emerald green, soft, kindly. Like Carlotta's. They filled with pity as they met his own. "You still might save them, Boldir."

Save them, Boldir. Save us, Boldir.

Carlotta?! Boldir took a step back, wrenching his arm away. A dizzy sensation washed over him, and the whole room seemed a blur, the candles danced as if touched by a wind, and he could feel every eye in the temple fall upon him. The elven child clutched at an object hanging from her neck. She couldn't have been more than five years old, but when she spoke, it was Mila's voice that came out. "But you must hurry. We're done waiting."

She opened her hand, revealing the object to be a wolf's tooth, carved with runes that he couldn't read: an old Nordic totem of Mara.

Boldir blinked. The dizziness subsided, and the pain in his torso was gone. He was healed. "How..."

"Mara's blessing be upon you." said the Dunmer priestess with smile, her red eyes seemed sad, but knowing. "Now go. We will tend to your friend as well."

"You must leave this place." Boldir said at once. Whatever had just happened... These people were special Good. He could not let them fall prey to the bandits as he had so many others. "Hide somewhere. Others will come. Others who aren't like me."

"Would you have us run into the city? To be cut down in the streets?" She shook her head. "There is nowhere to run. This temple is Mara's home. There is nowhere safer in Riften. And if others come in need of help, someone must be here for them."

Boldir rubbed his temple in frustration. The priestess was right on the first count. There was nowhere in the city that a group this large could break for without drawing attention. But whatever power Mara held here, he doubted it would protect them if one of his men were to arrive. He turned, and his eyes fell on Grollin, who stared on in stunned confusion. "If you cannot leave, then someone must keep you safe... Grollin, Protect them. That's an order."

The bandit seemed lost, and it took a moment for him to even realize that he had been addressed. "Hold on, Filnjar, mind explaining what all just went d-..." He paused for a moment and shook his head. "Wait, no, no. I don't care. I'm not going to give up my chance at the loot to guard a damned temple!"

Boldir didn't have time for this. She told me to hurry. "I'll give you mine."

"You just said you got no interest in looting. I don't know what you're playing at here but I don't believe for a second that you are in this for plunder."

Boldir scowled. "No, I'm not. But the Black-Briar haul remains untouched. It's yours if you will do this for me."

The bandit's eyes lit up with greed. "Black-Briar... Those'll be sweet first pickings." He nodded. "Alright, you got a deal."

"Good." Boldir took one last glance back at the temple. Several of the acolytes who had been kneeling were now moving over to assist the other wounded in the temple. The blonde Nord still eyed them both, no less suspicious than before, and the Dunmer priestess was whispering words of encouragement to the child, who Boldir just now realized was probably her daughter. How did she know who I am? Or was that even her speaking?

He told himself that he would worry about it later, but it was still on his mind as he left the temple, and remained there all the way back to the marketplace, where Mistveil Keep seemed to dominate all of the city below it. Archers still lined the walls, and guards still stood at the base of the stairs. Somewhere in there was his family. You must hurry. We're done waiting.

Apparently, his family were not the only ones who were done, for at that moment, an orange glow appeared in his right peripheral, and he turned to see flames rising high above the walls to the west. Someone had set fire to the docks.

***

Carlotta

Carlotta had only the vaguest recollection of Mistveil Keep approaching her, it's large doors open like a mouth about to swallow her whole. Someone must have been carrying her, but she only remembered the castle. That, a pain in her temple, and the sounds of men dying at her back.

 The next thing she knew, she was in bed. Her head propped up on feather pillows. 

Am I dead? she wondered for a mad moment, as all she could see was the burning light above her. Suddenly, the light went dark, and a black hand reached down toward her.

"No!" Carlotta screamed, raising her arm to bat the figure away, but she was only met with a gentle touch and a soft 'shhh'.

"You'll be alright." said a young woman's voice. "Just rest."

I can't rest. she thought. They're after my daughter. As the blurriness in her vision subsided, Carlotta realized that the light above her was a goat horn chandelier, and it was fairly dim. The dark figure above her became a Nord with dark hair and eyes. She looked familiar. Carlotta's head began to throb. "Mila?"

"We don't know where your daughter is."

Relief washed over her, and she allowed herself to relax a bit. If this was Mistveil, then Mila's absence could only be a good thing. The woman touched the tips of her fingers to Carlotta's forehead, and she felt a different sort of relief, this one cool and smooth, as some sweet remedy subdued the pain that drove into her skull. "What is that?" she asked, suddenly feeling light-headed.

"Essence of mandrake." the woman answered sweetly, or perhaps jokingly. Annoyedly? For some reason, Carlotta found it hard to tell. "Very rare in Skyrim. It'll stifle the pain and heal the wound. But it may make you feel a little... off for a few minutes, so it may be best if you just take it easy."

"Wound?" Carlotta laughed, causing the woman to pull back. "Do you take me for a milk-drinker? I was punched, not stabbed. There is no wound." she paused for a moment, and then narrowed her eyes. "Unless you wounded me!"

"I didn't wound you." said the woman, gently, or maybe forcefully. "You punched by a man wearing a gauntlet. You're lucky he didn't hit you much harder or there would've been lasting damage.

"Oh. That makes sense." Carlotta frowned. Why did this young Nord look so familiar? And for some reason, she felt like it was not in a good way. "So, so you're sure Mila got away?"

"Can you hold your head up, please?" She reached down again, this time with a long white strip in her hand. She began to wrap the bandage around Carlotta's head. "I said that we don't know where your daughter is right now." This time her tone sounded sympathetic, caring even. Carlotta was sure of it.

"Hopefully you don't find her. I bet that dark elf helped her get out. He seemed nice."

"Dark elf? ... Maybe so."

Carlotta smiled. "And maybe he took her to Boldir. She'd be safest with him."

The woman's expression darkened, and that only made her seem all the more familiar. "Not at present, she wouldn't be."

"You're probably right. He's been with all those bandit types lately. I always told him to stay away from the bandits back in Whiterun. But he never listened. And now, this!"

"What was he doing with bandits in Whiterun?" the woman asked with what seemed to be genuine curiosity.

"Killing them. For the Jarl." Carlotta laughed again, and the woman's hand almost slipped as she moved with a dagger to cut the bandage. "I suppose this situation is a little different. Still, the man can't stay out of trouble. You'd think he was actually Mila's father, the way those two go about things."

"I never knew he wasn't."

"Well he treats her like a daughter and that's all that ever mattered to me." Carlotta blinked. "You know, you look really familiar."

"We've never met, but-"

"Hold on a second." Carlotta frowned. I've been blabbering to this woman... she realized. Carlotta also finally realized who she reminded her of. She's younger. She's much younger. But the face, the eyes, the hair. "You're a Black-Briar aren't you?"

The woman's expression gave it away before she answered. "I am. Ingun Black-Briar."

"Ingun?" That's the one Boldir took. "Why have you been talking to me like this?! You drugged me!"

"I healed you. It was a remedy!" Ingun raised her hands apologetically. "And I bear no ill will towards you. I only want to help."

Carlotta's head must have been clearing up, because she now realized how foolish she must have sounded during the past several minutes. "And why did the great Black-Briar tend to me? Why not one of the servants?"

"Because I'm an alchemist. I'm good at these things, and I wanted to help. I even told you that the extract would make you feel off."

Had she? Carlotta couldn't remember, but that sounded right. "Alright then, and just why exactly do you want to help? What does your grandmother have cooked up for you to do to me?"

"Nothing! On my honor, nothing-"

"Black-Briar honor is worth shit!"

Ingun seemed taken aback. If this was an act, it was a good one. "Okay, the family deserves that. But don't. I just want the fighting to end."

Her head still felt somewhat cloudy, and try as she might, Carlotta couldn't think of a good reason for Ingun to be lying to her. There was nothing she could tell her that would help Maven at this point anyway. "If you want the fighting to end, release me. Boldir is only fighting you because your family attacked him and locked up Mila and me."

"And my family attacked Boldir because he killed Maven's brother and his daughter. I'll admit that it was wrong, but Maven isn't so insane that she just kills innocents on whim."

Carlotta remembered the story, though Boldir hadn't mentioned a daughter. Still, Torven Black-Briar had been a vicious criminal, just like his sister and her sons. No doubt his daughter had been of the same ilk. As she opened her mouth to say as much, however, Ingun cut her off. "It doesn't matter. You'll get your wish. By this time tomorrow, your family and mine will be safe and far away from Riften."

Carlotta didn't understand. "Wait, what do you mean? We're leaving?"

"Yes." Ingun said. "I convinced Maven to release you, and in exchange, Boldir will allow us to safely leave Riften."

That didn't make sense. Ingun had said it herself that it was hate that drove Maven to want Boldir dead. She started this. There was no way that she'd end short of victory. And why would the Black-Briar need to leave Riften? Wasn't Mistveil safe? "That doesn't make-"

"Trust me. Maven is working things out as we speak. You just need to-"

The door opened, and a sellsword's gruff voice cut her off. "You're awake. Good. Maven wants to see you."

Ingun scowled at him. "She only just woke up. She needs rest."

Ignoring her, the sellsword scrunched his eyes and glared at Carlotta. "Can you walk?"

Carlotta sat up and placed her feet on the ground. Her head set to spinning, and she gripped the edge of the bed for support. That mandrake extract is strong stuff. Or perhaps it was the injury. She let go and slowly stood. "Aye, I can walk."

The sellsword nodded and looked to Ingun. "Sorry Lady Black-Briar. Err... Lady Black-Briar's orders. Come on." he waved Carlotta to the door.

She looked back at Ingun, who said, "Maven can explain things better than I can. This is almost over for us. You'll see."

For us. Her thoughts still a little jumbled, Carlotta couldn't fully grasp why Ingun said it like that. Though she had forgotten the thought completely by the time she reached the Jarl's corridor. The hallway was covered in exquisite purple banners and paintings of Jarls past, lined with iron frames covered in old Nordic runes. The sellsword stopped at the middle, where a large pair of double doors looked at them. He knocked before entering.

Carlotta had never seen such an ornate room. Fine rugs covered the floor, ancient weapons and decorations lined the walls, a fireplace the size of a tavern hearth warmed the room from the sitting area at the left side, and the bed was more than twice the size of hers back home. On the far wall was another pair of doors, opening up to a large balcony. Maven Black-Briar herself stood by the fireplace, but as Carlotta entered, flanked by the sellsword, the ruler of Riften turned and made for the balcony, motioning for Carlotta to follow.

She hesitated, something that Maven immediately caught. "Come now, don't disappoint me by being afraid. Hallund, wait by the door."

The sellsword pulled back as Carlotta approached. "You know," Maven went on, "this balcony is far superior to my own. Perhaps I should reconsider my decision not to become Jarl. From up here, you truly get a perspective of the state of this city."

Carlotta gasped as she stepped outside. She had thought it was nighttime before, but now she realized that it was smoke that darkened the sky. The docks were aflame, and far across the city, a watchtower burned as well. Orange lights danced against the darkness, creating a hellish illusion of the Deadlands themselves. Armed figures moved throughout the streets. She could see them kicking in doors and occasionally clashing with one another. And the bodies... From the marketplace all the way up to the south end of the Mistveil bridge, the streets were littered with bodies. Even from up here, she could hear the sobs of the ones who had not yet died.  The battle. Where I was wounded... It can't be... Horrified, Carlotta realized that if Mila was among them, it was possible she simply hadn't yet been found.

"You have caused a fuss." Maven said. "No one in the Rift can boast having so many people die for them. Not even me."

Carlotta's heart felt like a rock, and her stomach almost turned on her. So many people, dead. She couldn't find words. 

Maven seemed inexplicably unfazed. "We haven't gotten to speak much, you and I. An odd thing, considering you've lived in my house for over a year now. I'm not used to keeping prisoners there, but I couldn't trust Mistveil's dungeons once members of the Thieves Guild got involved. I'd imagine that you have felt quite the victim. No doubt that makes us the villains here, in your eyes." She shrugged and nodded back down at the city. "But right now, it's your husband who's sacking Riften, who's loosed criminal savages to have their way with the people of this city. Had my forces won at Faldar's Tooth, this would be over, and Riften would be well. Because we didn't, because we failed to stop Boldir Iron-Brow, everyone suffers. I'm curious, because this is a very unique situation that you're in. How does this make you feel?"

Like a murderer. Carlotta thought, but she didn't say it. She didn't need to. Maven made it clear enough that she already knew. 

"That's alright. You'll learn to live with it. Which is exactly what I summoned you to talk about." Maven motioned down at the chaos below. "Your husband and his bandits have made short work of Riften. Mistveil is the only safe haven, but it will not remain so for long. I intend to leave Riften behind, and at this point, the only way to make that happen is to make a trade. I return you to Boldir, and he lets my household walk away."

"What about Mila?"

"Sibbi will find her, if he hasn't already. Perhaps once he does I'll send her to Boldir myself when this is all over, as a showing of good faith. Or perhaps she's dead. Who knows? At this point, your daughter is irrelevant."

Anger flared up inside Carlotta's chest, but she stifled it. "How can you expect me to trust you? Or Boldir? He has no reason to believe you won't stab him in the back."

"Boldir believes that I hold both you and your daughter. He is smart enough to recognize this as his last chance to save you. For him, it will not be a choice at all. As for you, honestly, I don't care if you trust me or not. You are the currency in this deal, not the buyer."

"Then why bring me here at all?"

Maven's smile was faint, but genuine. "Curiosity. I wanted to know what kind of person was worth more than my city."

Carlotta didn't have an answer for that either. But as Maven motioned for the sellsword to remove her, she asked the question that had been on her mind all along, the one that she already knew the answer to. "This isn't going to end after Riften, is it?"

Maven dark eyes flashed, and her smile waned. "No. It isn't."

The walk back down to her chambers was a blur, and the room itself felt smaller than she remembered, the lights, brighter. Outside her window, Riften continued to burn, and outside Riften, Mila was still being hunted. Even if Maven had not lied, and they all went their separate ways, how far would they get before another assassin appeared? Or more sellswords than even Boldir could handle? Carlotta shook her head. Of course Maven wasn't going to let this go. She couldn't afford to at this point. Things had come too far, and the Matriarch had no choice but to see this war through.

It was at that moment that Carlotta knew what she had to do. 

***

Boldir Iron-Brow

Of all the things he had seen during the siege of Whiterun, it was the fires that Boldir remembered best. Time of day or night had been lost to the Stormcloaks in the city as orange flames and black smoke painted the sky like some nightmare. Homes burned, fields burned, and ashes drifted down upon them like snow.

Night had fallen on Riften, and yet here the skies were ablaze with light.

Townsfolk had started the fires, at least according to the bandits. Out of some mad spite, a small group of them had torched the docks rather than allow their invaders to steal from them. According to Hrokvilk, over twenty men of Treva's Watch had been lost in the flames, and the docks and every ship and warehouse with them were completely lost. Boldir would have consoled himself with the fact that at least they were not homes, but already he saw more smoke rising at other points across town. Already, individuals among both the locals and the bandits had taken to fighting those flames that had cropped up inside the walls.

I'm running out of time. After ordering some unhappy men to do what they could to put out the flames inside the walls, Boldir had planted himself at the southern end of the marketplace, in plain view of Mistveil Keep. He did not have to wait long. Within ten minutes, a sellsword descended Mistveil's entrance staircase and approached him with raised hands.

"Don't kill me." the man said in a southern-sounding accent that might've been from Cyrodiil. "Lady Black-Briar sent me with a message." he stopped and looked Boldir up and down. The shadows dancing across the distant orange glows masked most of the man's features. "She said you are Boldir. That so?"

"Aye." he answered.

"That's good to hear. I didn't want to have to go looking for you in all that mess." he said, nodding back at the chaos. "I was supposed to tell you that she wants to make peace."

Underneath his helmet, Boldir's eyes narrowed. "Does she?"

"Yes. She says that there will be a trade, your family for her safe passage out of here. She gave me the terms for this. You must take them or leave them. There will be no negotiating."

"Go on, then."

"You will have your men round up every horse and carriage in the stables and prepare them for travel at the southern gate. You have two hours to do this. After that all of Mistveil's residents will vacate the keep and leave using the caravan you have prepared for them. Your family will remain in the keep under guard. You will wait until dawn to retrieve them, or they will be killed." The sellsword said those last words with such nonchalance that Boldir wanted nothing more than to write a reply with his axe, but the man went on to say, "And you are not to harm me or any other sellswords in her employ if they are found returning to the city. She says that she won't kill them for that, but there will be a lot of pain."

"Why would Maven's sellswords be outside the city?"

"That isn't for me to say." The sellsword turned to head back. "Maven expects you to convey these terms to your men." He glanced back at the chaos beyond. Even as he did, fire erupted from a window of the nearest watchtower, enhancing the orange glow enough to illuminate the front of Mistveil. The sellsword's gaunt face suddenly visible, Boldir saw him smirk, "Good luck with that, Iron-Brow."

'Iron-Brow! Iron-Brow! Iron-Brow!' When Boldir turned back to face the carnage, his face was twisted in disgust. Somewhere in here, Chief Hrokvild was probably enjoying  this as much as anyone. It had been almost an hour since they parted ways, and the chieftain would return soon, and then Boldir could have him send out word of Maven's terms, leaving out of course, the details about his family. Hrokvild and his men were of a dangerous breed, and even now, he still preferred that they know nothing of Carlotta and Mila. If the chieftain were to ask him why they cannot simply attack the castle now, he would lie, and tell him that it was too heavily defended, that the effort would waste too many lives.

Besides, Boldir had a different idea in mind. Whatever Maven was planning, he didn't buy for a second that she intended to let this end with them going their separate ways. She held his family, and so he had to cooperate for now. Likewise, he was the only person who would keep the bandits from slaughtering them, and so Maven could not afford to kill anyone as of yet. They were at a standstill, one that neither of them had the power to end with violence.

But violence is the only way that this can end for good. Maven would never let them walk away. Her first goal after escaping Riften would be to reach safety. Her second would undoubtedly be to use whatever resources she has to hire assassins, more sellswords, soldiers even, to hunt down the 'bandit lord' and his family. They would never know peace until she was dead, and so he knew that, no matter what decision they came to tonight, this war of theirs could only ever end in blood. And that would be where Hrokvild would come in.

His men can lay in wait for her. Boldir knew they could pull off such a trap. They had done so numerous times. I will tell them that she is theirs, a guarded but valuable target on the road, days from the nearest city. It would be a close fight. She would be traveling with all of the forces that remain to Riften, and he would be lucky to gather even a quarter of his own men in such short time. 

You must hurry. We're done waiting. 

"Please, sweetie, just wait a little longer." Boldir whispered. "I'm coming."

***

Ingun Black-Briar

Ingun had never been so nervous. But there was little she could do now but stand at her borrowed window, watching as the city she'd grown up in was pillaged and burned. As far as she could tell, four separate fires had been started now. One at the docks, two among the homes at the northern end of the city, and one at a nearby watchtower. As time passed, she noticed one of the smokestacks to the north turning gray, and figures could be seen carting water to the watchtower. She silently thanked whoever they were. At least somebody is trying to protect this city.

That was more than could be said of the Jarl. Laila Law-giver had become worthless the second Boldir's bandits had arrived. Her fear had grown to the point of madness, and now she only sat on her throne, waiting in vain for her citizens to approach with their concerns. No amount of prodding from her stewardess, housecarl, or even Ingun herself would sway her. And Laila's sons proved no more useful, preferring to retreat to their rooms rather than try and talk some sense into their mother.

What perturbed Ingun the most, however, was Maven. Ingun wanted peace between her family and Boldir's more than anyone, but it seemed like her grandmother had lost all concern for Riften's wellbeing in her haste to leave it behind. Ingun had tried convincing her to send some of her sellswords out to put out the fires. "Boldir promised not to attack them, right?" she had asked. That had been part of the deal, after all. They would be more capable than anyone to help save the city. 

Maven's response had been dismissive, with a claim that the mercenaries were needed here. Ingun quit trying with her after that, and returned to her new room, back to her borrowed window. More bandits were amassed outside the keep than before, she noticed, though she also made out horses and carriage among them as well. They're going through with it! she thought. Ingun wanted to feel happy at the news, but the death and destruction that had been wrought today made such feelings impossible. It only made things worse to know that she was seemingly the only person in this castle who seemed to give a damn.

Well, not the only one. From what Maven had told her, it seemed that Carlotta had not taken the sight of Riften well either. It only made Ingun feel worse to know that their prisoner was far and wide a better person than they were. And we're trading her like coin. Ingun was startled to find that the thought made her chuckle. Nothing had changed. Had she really been gone for so long that she had forgotten how horrible a person Maven could be? How everything was coin to her?

Disgusted again, she turned away from the window and left her room. Ingun wandered the extravagant halls of Mistveil for several minutes, thinking her path was random until it brought her to Carlotta's room. Realizing that this was the only person in the city that she might actually be able to speak to without growing even more frustrated, she ordered the sellsword guard to stand aside. "I am here to check her injury." she lied. "Make sure that she has healed well."

The man consented and opened the door for her. When Ingun stepped inside, her eyes widened. The room was empty and silent, save for a cool breeze that came in through the open window, through which a makeshift rope made from sheets stretched from the bed's sturdy frame. Ingun gasped while the sellsword cursed loudly. Carlotta had escaped.

***

Carlotta

Don't look down... Just don't look-  Far below her, Carlotta could see Mistveil's defenders lined up in front of the keep, waiting for her husband and his bandits to make any sort of move. No doubt Riften's guards were large brutes of Nords, but from here, they might as well have been- Carlotta's breath caught in her throat, and her eyes snapped back to the stone wall in front of her. What happened to DON'T look down?! She inhaled deeply, until her chest pressed tight against her thudding heart.

Mila used to climb Dragonstone at ten years old. You taught her that! You've done this before!

Someone in the distance screamed over the already loud bandit chatter in the market, and somewhere behind her another fire broke out, casting orange light over the stone walls in front of her. Okay, maybe you've never done 'this' before. Carlotta had enjoyed climbing trees as a child, something that, she realized now, was very different from descending castle walls. It's okay, she told herself as she hugged the bedsheets for dear life. It is only a couple feet more. Take your time... No, don't! They can find you out at any time! Hurry... but carefully!

Carlotta loosened her grip on the sheets just enough to slide down a foot, then another, and then once more, until her boot kicked against something that felt like a possible footing. She counted to three, and then made herself look down again, and thanked the gods when she found that it was the top of a window frame. Carefully and methodically, Carlotta eased down onto the windowsill and gently pushed against it. It opened!

She thanked the gods again and entered the room. It was a good deal smaller than the one she had been confined to, and not half as regal. Animal trophies dotted the walls, mostly deer antlers and stuffed birds, though above the door was a mammoth tusk that was longer than she was tall. This was a hunter's room, though, thankfully, said hunter was not here at the moment, and so she made for the wardrobe and quickly changed out of her rags and into a gray woolen tunic and elk fur leggings. Lastly, she donned a gray cloak and pulled up the hood. Now, if anyone saw her, they might just mistake her for... well, Carlotta wasn't sure who they would mistake her for, but she certainly didn't resemble a prisoner. After she was done changing, she found a long, curved hunting knife and tucked it under her belt. Carlotta stuffed her old clothes into the wardrobe and made a quick exit.

Her memory of Mistveil's living halls was fuzzy at best, and even that memory only pertained to the floor above, but the layout seemed to just be one long hallway with lots of doors that likely just led to rooms like the one she had just left. Carlotta followed the quiet hall until she reached the center, where the main stairway awaited. Only one man had passed her on the way, just a servant of the Jarl, no doubt. She turned her head so that the hood hid her features, and more importantly, her bandaged forehead, but the man didn't even seem to care enough to spare her a glance. Even so, Carlotta found that her heart had been pounding, and even more frightening was that her right hand was wrapped around the hilt of the hidden dagger tucked under her belt. She released it and went up the stairs.

Here, the halls were familiar, though only vaguely. Ingun's potions had seen to that. But her destination was not hard to find. The oaken door was the largest, the most central, and the only one with torches on either side. Carlotta pushed it open to reveal a familiar room. She locked the door.

Maven stood exactly where Carlotta had known she would be, on that accursed balcony, watching the chaos below with emotionless eyes. She drew her dagger and took one step forward, and then another.

"What is it now?" Lady Black-Briar demanded, turning to face her. When the Matriarch saw Carlotta there, with dagger in hand, her brow raised ever so slightly. When next she spoke, her tone was no different, but her words came more slowly. "Whatever you intend to do with that knife, I would advise against it."

"All that you have done to my family, and you think I care what you advise?"

"You should." said Black-Briar, "My son still has your daughter."

"You don't know that."

"I do. One of Sibbi's sellswords returned only minutes ago. They caught her in the wilderness south of the city, as I told you they would. Apparently the girl gave quite the chase."

"I don't believe you." Carlotta decided. "You'll say anything to save your life."

"It astounds me, how hard you will work to justify gambling with your daughter's life."

"It's no gamble. If we leave this city as you plan, we will never escape the Rift. You'll see to that yourself. The moment you are safe you will begin your hunt. This won't end with Riften. You told me as much yourself."

There was a gleam in Maven's eye. Not fear, or anger... Was it respect? "So I did."

"Then you know that you were wrong."

"Yes... It seems I was."

Carlotta lunged at Maven. To the Matriarch's credit, she did not cry out or beg. She watched as the dagger plunged into her chest, and even as Carlotta pulled it out and drove it in again, she did not scream. Dark blood seeped from her wounds, and Maven staggered back against the railing. Someone pounded at the door behind them, but Carlotta ignored it. She had to see this through. With one last burst of strength, she threw herself into Maven, lifting the dying noble until she was clear of the rails, and she pushed. Carlotta didn't know if it was Maven or her corpse that toppled from the Jarl's balcony, but she knew which it was by the time it hit the ground. At long last, Maven Black-Briar was dead.

Turning away from Riften, Carlotta felt relieved... for a split second, until the door burst open to reveal the Nordic sellsword behind it. The man stopped in his tracks, his eyes flickering from Carlotta's bloodied dagger to the balcony behind her. "You... you killed-..." His mouth closed tight, and he drew his longsword. Next to that, her dagger didn't look like much. 

"Stop!" someone yelled from the doorway. Carlotta and the sellsword both glanced back to see Ingun Black-Briar waving frantically for him to drop his sword.

The man hesitated, looking back and forth between the two women. Finally, his eyes lowered. "I don't work for you." 

He turned and slashed at Carlotta, who raised her arms to protect her face, only to feel the painful bite of steel cut straight to the bone of her left arm. She cried out in pain and fell to the ground. Through teared eyes, she made out two figures struggling. Ingun was on top of the sellsword with a dagger. He threw her aside and picked his sword up, now moving for her. They were shouting, but Carlotta was in too much pain to make out what was being said. It didn't matter. Casting a weak healing spell, Carlotta stood. She scooped up her knife and jammed it into the assailant's back. Now he was crying out in pain as well, he spun around with steel in his hand, and Carlotta felt its bite once more, this time across her lower torso. It didn't hurt as much as before, but the red all over the floor... was that her's or his?

Carlotta toppled over, shortly followed by her assailant. 

"Carlotta!" Ingun's voice was frantic, but it sounded distant. "Carlotta! Be still, I'll- I'll do something! I need-... I can fix this! I- No no, stay with me... Damnit!

***

Boldir

"Can it be? Is Maven truly dead?"

These were the words on every Riften man's lips. The body had only just fallen, but the guards' reactions had been enough. It seemed that Maven Black-Briar was indeed dead, which meant...

The deal's off. Even if it wasn't, it didn't matter anymore. The most powerful woman in the Rift had apparently been betrayed, and the bandits had lost all patience for negotiations. In their minds, her death meant the end of their false peace, and indeed, many of the sellswords had already fled their posts. Boldir's lie that they could not take Mistveil was no longer relevant.

You must hurry. We're done waiting. Those were the words he had heard. They had been in Mila's voice, clear as day... Would they use this chaos to escape? Was that what the words had meant?

Chief Hrokvild had already sent for the men who had waited on the road to ambush Maven and the Jarl in the event that they left the city, but he had no intention of waiting for them to return before attacking Mistveil.

"My brothers," the bandit chieftain thundered now, "sisters! Our war has been a long one, and hard! Our enemies have made us bleed to near-death, but we survived! Now by Shor, it is time to repay the favor! On me, let's take this castle!"

The bandits roared and cried and the charge began. Boldir moved with them, though it was not he who struck down the guards lining Mistveil. Hrokvild lept clean over their shield wall and began to devastate them from behind. Arrows flew, swords flashed, but with the sellswords fled and the defenders' moral broken, the bandits overwhelmed them in seconds, and the gates of Mistveil yielded easily to the enchanted siege ram Maul had used against Faldar's Tooth.

They were met by a stronger host inside the keep, with Jarl Laila's Housecarl, Unmid standing at the forefront. Amazingly, Laila herself was still seated in her throne at the back of the room. The lead bandits entered cautiously, but both sides remained separate as both Hrokvild and Unmid waved for their men to hold back. The Housecarl was the first to speak.

"Maven Black-Briar is dead!" Unmid shouted, stepping to the front of his men. "Turn away and let this end!"

"I wasn't here for Maven." Hrokvild replied as his men flooded into the great hall. He took a step forward and pointed his hammer at the Jarl. "Even now, when the people you are supposed to defend are lost, you will not even raise a weapon to defend yourself. Pathetic. Ulfric should have scoured this city after the war."

"You are right." said Unmid, "Jarl Lails is no warrior. That is why she has me, and no man will touch her while I live. I say again, turn away!"

The chieftain smirked. "I don't think I will."

Unmid and his men stood ready. "Then meet me and die."

The Nords' battle cries echoed throughout the castle as the two sides clashed. Boldir hung back and watched as Unmid's axe crashed into Hrokvild's hammer, as guardsman swords pierced through bandit furs, and the outlaws' iron smacked against wooden shields.

He noticed movement as a figure darted from behind the throne and into a room to his left. He left the battle to investigate. What he found was a small enchanter's laboratory, with a desk covered in books, scrolls, and alchemy ingredients. Beside the desk, a woman stood with her back to him as she frantically gathered vials and ingredients into a satchel she wore at her side.
"Turn around." he ordered.

The woman obeyed, and to his surprise, he was face-to-face with Ingun Black-Briar. The young woman looked shocked to see him, but she overcame it quickly enough to raise a yellow vial to her lips and drink. Ingun immediately vanished before Boldir's eyes. He wasn't having any of it. The room was small, and he was very large. He rushed the spot where she'd stood, and smacked into a form that he couldn't see. There was a crash as an hourglass was knocked off the desk by an invisible hand. Boldir reached for the noise and closed his fingers around Ingun's arm. She fought back, and even landed a punch against his temple, but that only served to dispel the effects of her potion. Ingun reappeared in front of him just in time to get pinned against the wall.
"Where are Carlotta and Mila?!" growled Boldir.

"I don't know where Mila is!" Ingun cried. "Maven sent Sibbi to fetch them both. He pursed her into the woods!"

"But Maven said-" Oh no... "And Carlotta? Where is my wife?!"

In all her time as his captive, Ingun had never shown sadness. She had been strong by all accounts, but now, she looked to be on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry, Boldir... I tried, I swear I tried-"

"WHAT HAPPENED TO HER?!"

Ingun's eyes met his. "She was caught in the streets. He brought her in and... and she killed Maven."

"What?" For a moment, Boldir thought he had heard her wrong. Carlotta was no killer. She didn't even like to hurt the mice that had gotten into their home. For her to have ended the reign of the most dangerous criminal in Skyrim... Boldir's heart suddenly felt as though it had been frozen in ice. "And then..."

Ingun swallowed, and tears filled her eyes. "A sellsword found her. I swear, I tried to save her. She told me to go... She said they'd kill me if I stayed."

The last time Boldir had thought Carlotta dead, rage had taken hold of him. He had beaten his own fists bloody and ripped a man's head from his shoulders. If what he felt now was anger, it was of a different, colder sort. "Where is the sellsword?"

"Dead. We killed him together... but"

"And my wife?" Boldir could feel his teeth grinding together as he spoke. "Where can I find my wife?"

"The Jarl's quarters... On the top floor."

He would find her, at least. He would save Mila, and kill Sibbi, but before anything, he had to make sure that Carlotta would not be left in this place.
But even before that, there was one matter to contend with. His cold eyes focused once more on Ingun Black-Briar, daughter of Hemming Black-Briar and now one of the last two people alive to carry that cursed name. He had promised that whatever Maven did to his family, he would match with hers. And now there was nothing to hold him back. Ingun knew it too. They looked at one another, sorrowful eyes locked with cold, and Boldir's iron grip around her arms.
He let go. "Get out of here. Drink another potion and run to someplace so far from here that no one will ever wonder who you were."

Ingun nodded, and produced another vial from her satchel. "I'm so sorry." she said as she removed the cork. Those were the last words Boldir heard from her before she disappeared, for good this time.

He stepped out of the enchanter's chambers in time to find Chief Hrokvild standing above a woman on her knees. As he approached, he realized that it was Jarl Laila. Her Housecarl was dead along with all that had remained of Riften's guards.
"You thought you were safe behind the Stormcloaks." the Chieftain's voice boomed. "You thought you were safe behind your army. You thought you were safe behind your walls, and your Housecarl, and even the Black-Briars. You see now, the truth is that weak rulers are never safe. Because the strong will always take from the weak. Now stand, Jarl, and die with some dignity."

Jarl Laila didn't stand. She didn't even look up. The poor woman only knelt before him and sobbed. Boldir turned away to hide his contempt when the Chieftain's hammer ended Jarl Laila's cries. He walked past the grizzly scene, through the once-exquisite corridors of Mistveil while the bandits of Lake Honrich tore through them, pulling out drawers, breaking down doors, and sweeping silverware into sacks. Even the stairs were covered with looters, ripping down the fine purple banners that bore Riften's crossed daggers.

By the time he arrived at the Jarl's chambers, half a dozen of them had already reached it, themselves. They ignored him as he walked by to the balcony. Carlotta awaited him there, propped up against the wall in a red-stained cloak, her dying eyes watching over a dying city. She seemed to awaken when he knelt beside her, when he caressed her cheek in his hand. Carlotta smiled a sad smile, and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I knew you'd come."

"Come on," he said, trying to be gentle as he lifted his wife. Carlotta groaned and he stopped immediately. "I'm sorry, Love, I am. But I have to take you to the temple. The healers there, they can help you."

Carlotta's next breath came staggered, and she pushed his hand away. "No... I won't make it to the temple. I can already see..."

"Baby, no. You're not going to die like this. Not here. We'll find Mila and we're going back to Whiterun, or Kyne's Watch. Wherever you want. That's what's going to happen, do you hear me?"

"Mila." His wife's eyes lit up, and rested on him. "You have to find Mila. She's alone out there."

"Of course! But first I've got to get you-"

"No." Carlotta grunted in pain as she said the word. "Mila comes first. She always comes first. For me, and for you. That's why I chose you, remember? Save her Boldir. You can't save me."

"No!" Boldir held her and rocked, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. "Baby, I was so close, Carlotta. I- I'm so, so sorry."

His wife's hands grasped at his own, they were cold, and the touch was weak. "You've loved us both." she whispered. "More than anyone. Don't be sorry."

More fires had broken out across the city, and it seemed that all attempts to combat them had ceased. The flames danced against Carlotta's emerald green eyes, filling them with life one final time before they shut, never to open again.

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Mila

-Later-

"Keep going! You're doing great!" 

"I think it worked. We threw their trail!"

"Would ya mind slowin' down? I can't keep on- Oh **** it."

"Shit! You hear that? Dogs! They're on us again, run!"

Mila barely heard a word Dilbon said. She just ran, and ran, and ran. Weak from being locked away for almost a year, there was no explanation for how she had not yet collapsed from exhaustion. She hadn't stopped to rest, or think, or even look where they were going. As long as Mila ran, she didn't have to focus on anything else, on her mother, on Boldir, on Runar. None of that would matter until she stopped running, and so she didn't.

The snow grew thicker along with the trees, and the winds picked up as the smokes that hung above Riften grew farther and farther away. It was a lot colder now than it had been near the city, which didn't make sense to Mila. Isn't it colder in the north? 

She blinked and swept that thought aside along with all the others as her aching legs carried her around a frozen pond. Somewhere behind her, Dilbon's footsteps followed, every now and then falling behind and catching up again. He talked a lot, but most of the time she didn't listen. This continued on for what must have been many hours before she felt Dilbon's four-fingered hands take hold of her shoulders and forcibly stop her.

"Why did you do that?!" she had meant to shout the words, but found her voice to be weaker than expected.

Dilbon was panting like a dog, and he looked prepared to kill over. "Mila... We have to stop... Hide somewhere... They'll just follow the tracks..."

"If you can't keep up, then hide yourself. I'm gonna keep going!"

She turned away, only to be yanked back. "Listen to me!" the man snapped. "They'll catch you if you run. The snow's leaving good tracks and they've managed to find our trail twice now. We're well away from the city now, and I can't run no more, and we got to stick together. Hidin' is our best bet."

Even as he said it, the sound of barking arrived again in the distance. Not waiting to see his reaction to that would be, she sank her teeth into his hand.

"OW!" Dilbon cried out as she turned and ran, even deeper into the forrest. That was the last Mila saw of Dilbon. She did not hear him call out to her again, or have to listen to his comments to break her precious silence. Once again, she was running, running...

... Mila awoke to the sounds of distant chatter, the cold touch of snow on her face, and a freezing wet chill soaking into her clothes. Every limb ached, and when she struggled to rise, she fell flat on her face. Mamma...

"I found her! She's over here!"

Footsteps fell in all around her. Some where heavy. Some, light. She smelled horses, heard the snarling of hounds.

"What I tell you? The dogs knew what they smelled."

"But she's been on foot. How did she get this far? The thief was miles behind."

"I don't know. Is she even alive? The snow's practically buried her."

"Go away." Mila mumbled, before slipping unconscious once again. She remembered being thrown over a saddle, and then later into a wagon. Her frozen clothes had been stripped off her and replaced with thick furs fitted for a grown man, and a fire had been lit somewhere nearby.

"Dead? You're certain." asked a familiar voice from miles away.

"Yes." came the reply.

There was a long pause, and then, "What of the other prisoner?"

"I don't know."

"Then we must contend with the girl. Be grateful of the fur in that armor. This storm's only going to get worse."

"Sibbi, I'm sorry for your loss."

A blurry sellsword sat towering over Mila when she next came to. "Her eyes are openin'." he said. She recalled reaching for him from the floor of the carriage, but whether it was to strike him, or to ask for help, the girl could not remember. Snowflakes fell against her shivering face, and Mila's eyes drifted shut once more.

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"Her eyes are openin'." Skeur Ironkettle announced from the front of their party.

"Good." Sibbi replied, shifting atop his black shire. "We need the carriage."

"Wait, no, they shut again."

A collective sigh went out through the group. Every man and woman among them knew why Sibbi wanted to free up the carriage. He had already sent their other two out yesterday, leaving behind only the one transporting the Iron-Brow girl. It was the carriages that would bring back their gold when they reached Bruma. The Black-Briars may have lost everything in Riften, but their empire was far from limited to just one city. It was whispered among the sellswords that even after their losses, they still remained one of the wealthiest families in Skyrim, or more accurately, Sibbi was one of the wealthiest men, now that the rest of his family was gone.

It had been Maven's powerful and commanding presence that had brought all of them to work for the family in the long-term, but it was the hardships they had faced that kept them here now. No one among them was about to walk away at this point without his pay, and it was clear that Sibbi knew that. It was why he had been so quick to send several men to various Black-Briar owned estates and collect enough wealth to fill entire carriages. They would get their pay. They just had to reach the meeting place in Bruma, nice and far from the Rift's bandits or Eastmarch's Stormcloaks, and where the Black-Briar family supposedly had powerful connections that extended to the upper-echelons of the Heartland.

Now, the question that was on Skreur Ironkettle, and no doubt, every other sellsword's mind was whether or not Sibbi could maintain those connections without his grandmother's backing. That would be the determining factor in whether or not many of them would remain by his side after they get paid. There would be little to gain from remaining tied to a man wanted by an entire nation, but the rewards for standing by an absurdly wealthy victim of banditry who has fallen on times where he absolutely needs swords by his side could be greater than any they had worked for before.

Besides, every man among them knew what it meant to cross a Black-Briar. Especially this Black-Briar. Skeur shuddered. There were rumors surrounding Sibbi, of how he murdered the brother of his wife-to-be before butchering the defenseless woman himself, of how he hunted down the family's enemies when they held secrets that a sellsword could not be trusted to keep. Where Maul had been her muscle, her guard dog, Sibbi had been her snake, deadly and precise. It was even said that he was the one who evoked the Black Sacrament when the family had enemies that required very... particular methods of being dealt with.
Of course, Skeur didn't believe that last bit. If the Dark Brotherhood still existed and if the Black-Briars had been able to call on them, Boldir Iron-Brow would never have become such a problem for the family in the first place. Even so, he believed enough of the rumors about Sibbi to know that betraying him would not end well.

"Skeur... Hey, Skeur!"

Skeur Ironkettle blinked and turned around. Black-Briar was there now, riding beside him. "Oh, uhh, sorry Boss. I was just thinkin' 'bout things."

"That's good to know." Sibbi replied with a hint of frustration. "I'll have to add you to my list of brutes capable of thought." He brought his horse closer to the carriage and motioned down at the girl laying on the floor. "She's been out much too long. I think it's time we stop and make camp, see if she's alright. She won't be of any use to us if she dies. Besides, I have need for you and that carriage back in the Rift."

Skeur nodded to the skies to the south, where thick, gray clouds, so dense that they completely hid Jerall Mountains somewhere inside them. The snow their little band was getting now would be a summer flurry compared to what awaited them. "Aye, I'll do it. And I can't say I'll miss that snow. But I'd advise against makin' camp out here, if it's not to much to say. I used to live in the Pale, see? I know storms like that. Those clouds are movin' north, but they stretch way south. I'd suggest using what time you got now to find some shelter and wait it out."

Black-Briar spared the clouds a glance, but little more, before shaking his head. "Thank you, but snow is less of a concern to me than bandits. Even with hard riding, we haven't put enough distance between us and the city. We'll stop tonight, and get the girl on her feet, but then we will continue on. And you'll head back north with Kirta."

Kirta? Skeur knew better than to complain to his employer, but he wasn't at all happy to learn that he'd be traveling with Kirta the Salter. Besides being mean as Mehrunes Dagon and twice as strong, it was said that she still kept to Skyrim's oldest ways, and that to honor her dead old gods, she performed the ancient blood dragon ritual on the backs of her enemies. The woman usually kept to herself, but in truth, she terrified Skeur more than anyone he had ever met. And he didn't scare easy.

"Alright." he answered, not wanting to show his thoughts on the orders. Kirta can't be as bad as those storms. "Am I to meet you in Riften as well?"

"No." Sibbi replied. "You are getting a later start than the others, and no doubt this storm of yours will slow you down even more once you begin south. I do not intend to wait in Bruma for long. You will meet me in the Imperial City."

Skeur's eyes lit up. "The Imperial City? Truly?" He had heard tales of Cyrodiil's capital, of its splendor and riches, and the great white tower that broke the clouds, but it was so far away that he had never dreamed of going himself.

"Yes." the noble replied, rolling his eyes. "Truly. It's a big city, so sit tight when you arrive. Find a place to stay. I will send for you eventually."
With that, Sibbi slowed his horse, and he fell behind the carriage, back beside the 'horseback captains' as Skeur and some of the others had taken to calling Sibbi's lieutenants, given that the five of them were the only ones of their two dozen who were not on foot.

With the clouds came an early nightfall, and so they made camp in a small man-made clearing in the woods. While the others built fires and prepared shelter, Skeur set to counting out enough supplies for two Nords to travel all the way to the Black-Briar estate north of Riften, and then to Falkreath from there. Normally, this wouldn't be much, given that Riften would make for an easy spot to rest and resupply, but right now Riften was the last place they dared go near.

And so they set off. Tired as he was, Skeur offered to take the reigns first. It would be a long night, and he didn't want to anger Kira right at the start. Besides, she had spent the whole day walking, she deserved the rest. 
Hour after uneventful hour passed, and the night grew surprisingly cold. At one point the snow picked up so that it beat across Skeur's face like a thousand tiny frozen slaps, but he was a Nord of the Pale. He had seen far worse winters than this. Kira didn't seem to mind either, given her snores.
The snows had stopped by the time morning came, and Skeur found that he had been dozing at the reigns himself. Luckily, the horses had continued to follow the road. By the time Kira took over the reigns, he was more than ready for a long, hard sleep. It was cut short by a nudging at his shoulder.

"Uhn?" Skeur sat up, disoriented, until Kira pointed to the west, where more smoke than he had ever seen dominated the sky. The billows were humungous, black mountains that were so large they seemed close enough to touch. But Skeur knew that wasn't the case. They were miles from Riften. "They couldn't control the fires." he muttered.

"Or they burned it when they were done." suggested Kira. "What a waste."

"Eastmarch is going to see a new influx of refugees I'll wager." Skeur glanced to the southwest. The winter storms were not as close now as they had been last night, but they were steadily moving this way. "That, or a lot of people are going to freeze to death."

"Go on back to sleep." Kira said. "We'll be there come nightfall. Just thought you'd want to see it."

As it turned out, Skeur had no trouble seeing it from the estate. When they arrived that evening, the black mountain dominated the south, mixing with the gray clouds that surrounded it. The snows will douse the fires. Skeur knew. But they would be too late to save the city. Black-Briar estate was abandoned, but thankfully untouched. Whatever guards Maven might have posted here in the past must have been called to Riften when things got too heated.
Heated. In spite of himself, Skeur chuckled. Poor way of putting it.

The two sellswords spent the evening and a good few hours of the night moving between their carriage and the house's cellar, where most of the wealth could be found. Most of the safes were locked, but heavy enough that Skeur knew them to be nearly full. Those that weren't locked, however...

"We're gonna be rich." Kira exclaimed quietly, after peeking inside one and finding it filled with gold and gems.

Skeur wasn't going to contest her out loud, but he doubted that they'd ever see this much gold again in their lives. It was Sibbi's, after all. They were to deliver it to him, and he would pay them a very small amount. If they stood by him after that, there would be more to come, but even so, they were just sellswords.

He knew that Kira was thinking the same thing he was. We could walk away with all of this. It was a foolish notion, suicidal. If Sibbi's money did not arrive, he would send someone after them, and as much as Skeur doubted his Brotherhood connections, he wasn't in any hurry to test them. The wealthiest sellswords are the ones who don't get greedy.
Kira knew this too. She had worked for the family far longer than Skeur. She had to know better.

It took them several hours, but eventually, the two sellswords had loaded up enough wealth to buy a sizable track of land and a nice house to put on it. It left them exhausted, and neither was in a particular hurry to hop on the carriage and begin the long trek west to Whiterun.

"The family's quarters are upstairs." Kira said, to Skeur's surprise. "I can take Maven's. You can have Hemming's. Ever slept in a noble's bed before?"

He had not, but it made for the soundest and most comfortable sleep Skeur had ever experienced. He dreamt of the gold outside, where they had hidden it in the stable. he dreamt of the Imperial City, with a great white tower that never seemed to end. He dreamt of Riften aflame, with smoke blotting the sky. He dreamt of a large man, armored from head to toe, standing over his bed with a battle-axe pointed below his head....

"Shit."

"That's one word for it." said a deep voice from within the full-face helmet. "Where is Sibbi Black-Briar?"

Skeur stopped himself from swallowing. The axehead was already biting into his neck. "I don't-"

"If you don't know, you're of no use to me. So I would choose my next word carefully."

How did I think staying here was a good idea? Have I really grown so careless? Maybe he had, but Skeur didn't intend to die for it. For all he knew, his assailant had no idea about the carriage. He could still finish the job. Maybe even warn Sibbi. That could net him a nice bonus. But first he had to survive.
"He's south of Riften." he gasped. "On his way to Cyrodiil."

"That it? That's not enough to save you."

"Bruma! He's going to Bruma."

"Better." The axe didn't move. "Anything else?"

"N-"

The axe was sharp. It bit into his neck, just enough to draw blood. He felt the warm trickle down his chest.

"Yes! Yes, yes. He'll be there for a few days, but not long. He's going to the Imperial City. He could be there for years for all I know."

"Thank you." The axe left his neck, and came down again.

"NO!" Skeur winced, and heard the sharp sound of steel meeting steel, followed by a heavy thud. He opened his eyes to find Kira with her sword drawn, grappling with his assailant, who was trying to collect himself after being knocked aside. He wasted no time in joining in, grabbing his axe, Skeur charged the larger man, who threw Kira aside just in time to deflect his blow with surprising speed. The large fist came out of nowhere, and sent Skeur sprawling across the room. Kira was already attacking the man again. Skeur had never seen her fight someone who she did not immediately overwhelm, and yet this man deflected her every blow. She landed one strike against him, but it glanced harmlessly off of his pauldron, and left her chest exposed to be slashed open by a brutal strike from the man's axe. Kira cried out and fell. 
Groggy, Skeur rose and made a break for the door. He did not get far before he heard something whirling after him. The axe took him in his back, and he collapsed, dead.

***

Every hour in Black-Briar's estate had felt wasted. Every hour Boldir spent there, he knew Mila was only getting further away. But this was his only lead. Every one of Maven's ex-employees had agreed that Sibbi would eventually send someone there. After a day of waiting, he had headed back to Riften to search for more clues. As it turned out, Hrokvild's bandits had not wasted any time with the city. Whether the fires were a result of negligence, or a final act of spite, he could not say, for Hrokvild and his bandits had left. Aerin had led the surviving townsfolk to the countryside, but they were a pitiful group, freezing, too large to feed, and with no obvious place to go.

Boldir couldn't bring himself to approach them. With a silent prayer for the lot of them, he set off back to the estate, figuring that he could give it one more try. As it turned out, fortune had finally smiled upon him when he found a Nordic sellsword, brown bearded and covered in furs, hiding a carriage in the otherwise-empty stables. Boldir waited for the man to go inside the estate before investigating.

Sibbi must have sent this man to collect some emergency funds. Boldir had realized. Just as Maven's people had said he would.

Boldir hadn't expected there to be a woman as well, and a talented one at that. But it made no matter. She did nothing to stop him from learning what he needed. After the two sellswords were dealt with, Boldir searched the rest of the house before heading to the cellar, where he found a quiet spot to spread out his bedroll.
It was snowing fairly hard the next morning, and Riften's smokestacks had gone from black to gray. Eying the sky, Boldir packed his few belongings into his new carriage. He was fortunate that it was led by two horses. One alone could not pull all of this weight.

"How kind of them to load the carriage for you." a voice whispered into his ear. It was faint. He doubted that anyone else could ever hear it, understand it the way he could. "This gold can go a long way in helping you find Mila."

"You were always better with money than I was." He nudged his axe. "I've always used this."

"That'll work too." responded Carlotta. There was a malicious humor in her voice.

Tugging at the reigns, Boldir turned his carriage south. He'd never been to Cyrodiil. Never wanted to go, especially not by himself. It would be a long and lonely ride.

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Corrick Tilwald, 2nd of His Name, Baron of Cavern Mount

I decided to start this journal for many reasons, though the chief among those is the ability it gives me to keep King Adrard in check, should he chose to renege upon his promises. I've thrown in my lot with the king, but with the rumors of his past dealings comes worry. I have no doubt he would kill if our alliance becomes unprofitable for him. I will not give him cause to think so, but this will serve as leverage for my family in the event something happens to me. 

I did not come to Cyrodiil as part of a new diplomacy mission. Though I will be meeting with the ambassador, he is not aware of who I am, nor am I going as Baron Corrick Tilwald. I am going as Christoph Sele, an aspiring mage. As with most disguises, hiding behind a bit of truth makes it all the more believable; my own magical aspirations fit that idea. I will seek out the ambassador after gaining entry to his staff as a menial worker, likely a scribe. Once there, I will give to him a letter, which details my mission. Then, he will arrange for me to meet with Endar Drenim, a Telvanni Master Wizard. He will give me the cure to a Daedric disease, which ails King Adrard and his family. It has already claimed the lives of his newborns. Afterwards, I will use a recall scroll and return to High Rock. In return, I will not only gain the favor of the king, but also a future place on his or his son's council, as well as a role to play in the next war. The Tilwald family will be furthered, of that I am sure. 

I write this opening passage as Daggerfall disappears to the north, my trip well underway. Should something happen to me in Cyrodiil, in transit, or upon my return, to my family I write: I love you all, and always remember that I did this for us, so that we can be remembered and respected. Should King Adrard be implicated in my death, use this Daedric plague as leverage against him. Otherwise, never speak of this journal again. 

**

The trip has progressed several days, and we're now sailing down the coast of Hammerfell. Yesterday, a squall came up, but we skirted its edges without issue. I've gotten to know the other passengers better, though most seem to be rather friendly with each other already. They're mercenaries, bound for a contract in Cyrodiil. Of which outfit I do not know, and any prying I did was met with a sudden reluctance to speak with me. 

Still, we get on well enough. They are a brutish bunch, more bandits than knights. They are always going on about their exploits, most of which involve killing in some gory fashion. From what I've discovered, they are surprisingly inept at strategy and tactics, and focus solely on personal combat. All have at least periphery knowledge of magic, but few would be considered adepts. They would undoubtedly serve well as hired killers, but I cannot imagine using them for much else. As guards they seem disloyal, as commanders untrained, and even as scouts they would no doubt rather harass than watch. I will remember that if the hiring of them ever comes up in regards to the next Great War. 

I played dice with them and won my money back after losing it. I won't be playing again tomorrow, as dice is not for me. 

**

I've discovered I have sea legs, thankfully, as the squall we ran into the day before yesterday was just a precursor to a storm that rocked us all day and night. I also discovered Erer is serving as a bit of a good luck charm for the crew, who evidently see his following and landing on the ship as a blessing from the gods. He fishes on his own, though I worry that something larger than he might take him for a snack. Hopefully he keeps to the gulls and stays away from the fish.

I met the captain of the ship yesterday. He is a Redguard, working for the Arthe Merchant Company. He was at the helm, directing a course correction, but soon finished. We spoke at length about the running of a ship, as I had many questions. He answered them, and I thanked him for taking some time to do so.

**

I've decided to jot down a few thoughts I've had about various subjects, mostly those in High Rock. 

Regarding King Adrard: I believe he is a skilled schemer, a good commander, and not above deferring to those whose opinions he trusts. I was impressed with the Council of Lords he created, as well as those men and women he asked to join. He seems politically skilled, and diplomatically sound, though I do question his intentions in ruling. He seems to portray himself as a noble ruler, though it is equally likely in my mind that he is after power for the sake of power. 

Secession: A momentous and unexpected result of the war, though in retrospect inevitable. That King Adrard used the Empire's soldiers and then banished them seems harsh, and his reasoning little more than excuses compared to the higher-minded ideals of Skyrim's rebellion. Still, to pull it off without bloodshed speaks to Adrard's planning skills. I believe that overall, secession allowed High Rock to unify. Though it is just as likely that Adrard's gifting of lordships had as much (if not more) say in the matter. 

The Empire: A sinking ship, unfortunately. I think it was a good thing for High Rock to cast off from Cyrodiil's rotting corpse. We are stronger separate, and more unified. Though the possibility for retaliation exists and cannot be dismissed. I do fear that Cyrodiil will bear the brunt of the Great War casualties, and not just on the battlefield. I expect some sort of power void should the Imperials not proceed with care. And with seemingly weaker rulers than in the past, their chances of survival seem dim. 

**

We will be docking tomorrow, and I am equal parts nervous and excited. Cyrodiil will be the first province I've been to besides High Rock, so it offers me the first look at the world beyond that of the Breton's. I'm eager to see how the commoners get on, with the threat of annihilation just across the border. Is the mood nihilistic, or do they accept is as an aspect of life? 

Over the course of the trip, I've grown out both my hair and my beard, and by the time I reach the Imperial City, I believe both should be sufficiently different that my own grandmother would not recognize me. That, along with the peasant clothes I had made in Daggerfall, should serve as a disguise. I've also practiced the cadence of the Breton peasantry, though have been careful not to overdo it. After all, Christophe Sele is a well-read novice mage, not a common farmhand. 

This will be my final entry, as I plan on having this journal shipped back to High Rock. I will take no chances in something happening between now and arriving at the Imperial City. 

For now, farewell


**

Corrick set the journal down on the small barrel that passed for his desk. Wanting to get into the role of commoner, he'd elected to pay for cheap passage, and so got a hammock shoved off into a corner of the hold. The accommodations were damp, the air humid and stifling. Water sloshed in the hold's lowest point. The hull creaked and groaned with each crashing wave. To Corrick, it sounded like the ocean was trying to rip the boards apart to get to him, but he knew that was nonsense. He spent most of his time on the deck anyway, enjoying the sea breeze and sharp salt air. 

He marveled at the deftness of the sailors' hands as they tied knots and move to take up the sail. Approaching Anvil meant rowing in, so the ship ceased its steady progress, giving way to the jerky lurch of oars. The lurch ended as well, once the rowers found their rhythm. Corrick slipped below decks and found his few belongings. A few books of magic, for study and practice, a few pairs of clothes, an extra pair of show, the recall scroll and letter given to him by Kind Adrard, and a small pouch of septims. He returned to the deck just in time to see the city of Anvil appear through the morning fog. 

The beam of the lighthouse was the first thing he noticed, as it cut through the fog like a knife. The castle came into view next, lying east across the harbor entrance from the lighthouse. The city's red roofs were stood out, and they reminded Corrick of those he'd seen in Hammerfell. He had no doubt there was a shared influence among their architecture. To the southwest of the harbor, several vessels flying Imperial dragon standards seemed engaged in a mock battle of sorts. He watched them as best he could from the distance, but was not able to discern anything specific from the drills. 

Soon, they were docked, and the passengers disembarked before the cargo was unloaded. Some mercenaries waited for more of their comrades to make it ashore, while Corrick headed straight into the city. Erer, he knew, was somewhere behind him, flying high enough to evade notice but always able to keep an eye on Corrick. With a simple hand gesture, drawing an ‘X’ on his neck, he could summon the eagle to his arm instantly. It always instilled in him a certain confidence to have unexpected backup ready at a moment's notice. 

He hiked up his gray woolen robes as he stepped over a puddle, wondering where he could find passage to Kvatch. He planned on traveling as far as possible, wanting to waste no time. It was not a leisurely trip, after all. First, though, he needed to find a courier service. There was one located not far off the docks, close enough to smell the fish from the markets and hear the merchants peddle their wares. He dropped off the notebook and paid for it to be wrapped in a leather sleeve. He expected it would arrive at Cavern Mount as his mission was wrapping up.

Corrick, or Christophe now, headed for the northern gate. Heading he advice of the courier manning the office, he was seeking out the stables there. He found them easily enough, as they lay just outside the city gate. Finding a carriage loaded with a few other passengers, he bought passage himself, and soon they set off.

 

The other passengers were not a talkative bunch, which suited Corrick just fine, as he watched the Gold Coast roll by. He was content to watch this new land unfold before him. The land in the east rose into low hills, some of which were quite rocky. Coastal pines dotted the craggier outcroppings, while large, stouter trees grew at the base and atop the hills. To the north, he could see the land flatten out as it approached Hammerfell. To the south, he saw grassland dotted with trees. Erer always flew nearby, sometimes directly overhead, other times straying off to the side.

The carriage arrived in Kvatch without incident. It was sometime in the evening, and while Corrick would have liked to immediately continue onward, there was no carriage heading toward Skingrad tonight, so he found a tavern near the stables to pass the night in.

It was a simple single story tavern by the name Golden Coast Tavern. No one seemed to notice him entering, but a few moments after he sat down a barmaid came over and took his order. He bought a bowl of soup and a bottle of Anvil Ale, but only sipped it, as it tasted of overripe fruit. There were several other patrons, and most sat alone. An Imperial man was asleep at one table, while a scarred Redguard sellsword counted coin in the corner. An Imperial woman sitting near the hearth munched on an apple. The lute leaning against her chair indicated she was a bard.

Eventually, the passed out drunk awoke and started mumbling something toward the bard, whom he called Isa. She asked him a question, too low to hear, but it must’ve been to his liking, because he called out “That’s it! That’s the one.”

The bard finished off the apple, waved away his impatient mumbling, and struck up a low, slow tune on her lute. Her voice was pleasant enough, and Corrick thought the roughness of it lent itself well to the song. She sang:

This land is ours, said the cats of Leyawiin

We shall burn your homes and kill your men

We shall take your gold and defile your women

So the cats spoke and so they did

Then came a man of the North

Wielding icy blade and magic fire

The cats bent and broke

Then their blood flowed through the streets

as their heads rolled

Yes their blood flowed through the streets

painting Leyawiin red

“The Bloodbath of Leyawiin,” she said as she finished, bowing sarcastically toward the drunk, who’d fallen asleep during the song. She sat back down, nursing a drink of her own.

Corrick thought it rather gruesome, though he supposed it was to be expected. He’d heard of what had happened in Leyawiin, of the faceless mage who wiped out a Khajiit terrorist cell. He wondered how true the song was, but decided there was really no way of knowing, not from any of the patrons here at least.

“What other songs do you know?” Corrick asked the bard.

She turned around in her seat, scrutinizing Corrick as an obvious outsider, since he wasn’t aware of the songs played here. “I’ve got two about the Empress, the Leyawiin one, one about a general, and one about the Thalmor.”

“I’d like to hear one about the Empress,” Corrick said, counting out a few septims to pay her with.

“Which one?” she asked, eyeing the coins. “Ones nice, the other isn’t so much.”

“Lets hear the rude one, then,” Corrick answered. He was curious to hear what exactly the criticisms of Empress Motierre were. He knew what they sang about in High Rock, of her promiscuity, her lack of experience, and her Nordic mage-consort.

Taking one last sip, she struck up a slightly quicker tune, and sang:

The Empress, wicked whore, like her father before,

Seeks to further her own fortune and nothing more.

She led the Talos Inquisition, dragging us from our homes,

Murdered her own in cold blood for the throne.

For her own dark ambition, she donned our sacred crown,

Sating perversions, chasing maidens and virgins,

Dales, the ripper of gowns.

“And that one’s called?” Corrick asked.

“The Wicked Empress,” the bard answered, as she took the septims in hand and inspected them.

A much more specific diatribe, then. No surprise, they are much more in tune than we in High Rock. Still, I would be good to remember this for King Adrard. I’m sure he would love to hear the Montclairs sing this one, Corrick thought with a smirk.

Corrick finished off his meal, paid with a few coins, and then paid for a room. It was a simple room, with a straw mattress bed, with a table at its side and a chest at its feet. He dropped his pack in the chest, along with his clothes, then climbed into bed for the night.

**

The next morning, the carriage left at dawn, so as to make Skingrad before nightfall. Erer was sleeping in a nearby tree, so Corrick woke him with sharp whistle they’d practiced. Once awake, the eagle flew off toward the countryside, eager to catch some breakfast. Corrick went to the carriage and took his seat. There were a few other passengers, including the scarred Redguard, who traveled with a Nord woman. They spent a few minutes reading over a bounty, but after that kept quiet. An Imperial man also rode in the carriage, but he slept most of the trip. Leaving Kvatch, behind, Corrick opened his pack and pulled out one of the magic books. It detailed the effects of illusion spells on the victims. Corrick liked it, though thought it disconcerting how easily powerful mages could permanently alter someone’s mind if repeated illusion spells were used.

Corrick put the book away, deciding to take in the countryside. Skingrad was still far in the distance, but he watched the hills give way to the lightly forested West Weald. Meadows of bright purple flowers and stands of brilliant red oaks replaced the low hills and short pines. Corrick could see some vineyards off in the distance, usually flanked by large manors and smaller farms. About halfway through the trip, based on the map he had, the carriage passed Fort Istrius. It lay south of the road, banners from the towers just visible over the trees. Eventually, though, they came to a rise in the road, and he could see clearly the barricades on the Cyrodiilic side of the Strid River. He wondered how likely an attack was from the river, given how fortified it was, and how vulnerable the attackers would be.

To think, in a year’s time, I could be commanding troops near here. Or wherever King Adrard has us Bretons. Would that we could skip all that death, and end the Thalmor threat another way, Corrick thought with a sigh.

Being a vassal to Lord Estermont had its perks, and while constantly drawing and leading troops was helpful in the event of war, Corrick grew tired of the constant fighting his liege lord seemed to find. Whether it be Orcs or bandits, there was always someone he needed to kill. He half suspected Estermont only joined King Adrard because it gave him the best chance at glorious combat. And now he got that and more as Lord General.

Still, Corrick could not deny the man’s skill at inspiring men and leading them, usually, dangerously, from the front. Foolhardy and brave all the same, Corrick did not expect to lead that way himself. It surprised him when he heard of King Adrard doing just that during the Battle of Evermor.  It seemed unlike everything he’d heard, and again from everything he’d seen when meeting the man. It was curious, then, that Adrard would be so sure of his survival that he would risk open battle when so close to victory. Corrick wondered if it was a fault, perhaps, or a motivational tool for his troops.

The sun had nearly set, so Corrick laid back and watched Erer soar overhead. Without meaning to, he fell asleep, so was awoken by the driver once they arrived at Skingrad. Thanking and paying him, Corrick collected his things and set off to find a tavern. Finding a room at the Hornless Minotaur Tavern, he left his things in his room as he went down to the common area. The tavern was full to the brim, but he found a seat off to the side where he could hear the conversations without being involved. The less attention he drew to himself, the better.

His ears immediately perked up on a table nearby, where a group of older men sat, chugging away ales, talking with a volume that came from drunkenness. They were all Imperials, all Colovians, seemingly well off by their dress. While not fancy, they wore decent clothes, and had an endless supply of ale available. Regulars, too, by the way they dominated the room and talked to the barkeeps whenever one wandered by.

“I say-I say, we send a legion after them,” a silver goateed man said. “No one shits on the dragon and gets a way with it.”

“How do you think that’ll go Ticemius?” a bald, clean-shaven man asked his friend with a goatee. “We got Thalmor breathing down our necks just a stone’s throw away. Unless you want to send Children’s Company after them.”

“Who decided it was a good idea to draft fifteen year olds anyway?” a man with a droopy black mustache asked.

“That Ceno, the one from the Skryim war. Can’t say what good a bunch of boys are going to do. ‘Specially against the Elves,” a horse-faced man said.

“Don’t be such a Nancy,” Ticemius the goateed man said. “We’ll whip ‘em into shape in no time. Then send them after the Bretons!”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” horse face said. “When the Thalmor invade, we’ll be the first to go, and no boys will stop that from happening.”

Corrick grew bored of listening to the, as they started talking about one of the barmaids they liked. He stood up and walked to the bar, where two barmaids were discussing something. After they gave him his ale, he lingered, listening in on their conversation.

“I heard he was part of that Khajiit cell in Leyawiin,” the barmaid with long brown hair said.

“He did seem suspicious whenever he came around here. But his wife was always so nice!” the barmaid with short red hair said.

“Goes to show, you can’t trust any of those cats. I say they got what they deserved from that mage. He should get the pointy eared ones next!” the brown haired barmaid replied.

Judging he’d been standing there long enough, Corrick went back to his table. The four older men were still drunkenly yammering away, but were arguing about taxation. He was about to leave when a bard stood up from a table across the room and, on his flute, started up a fast paced, light tune. When he sang, the old men, and a few others, joined in.

The wicked emperor by daughter’s blade,

Met his end and died in disgrace!

Donning his crown, her bravery would not fade,

Ruling justly, with impeccable grace.

She banished the vile Dominion,

Then survived their poisoned sword.

Secured the Empire’s freed,

And peace that we could afford.

She did not fear their binding chains,

Nor their elven armies.

She cast them out with great disdain,

And restored man’s harmony.

Yes she cast them out with disdain,

And restored man’s harmony.

Corrick was surprised at how different this one was from the song he heard in Kvatch about how evil the Empress was. In High Rock, during King Gaerhart’s reign, there was only ever love for him. Even the nobility was generally in agreement about him. The Adrards weren’t in power enough for negative songs to surface, and Rolston was all but forgotten. The fact the populace was so divided on the Empress was a strange one, but made Corrick think this was probably the rule, not the exception.

He was tired, so he rented a room from the barmaid, who showed him upstairs. It had a window, so he opened it and whistled. A few minutes later, after Corrick had washed up, he turned and saw Erer sitting on the windowsill. Corrick patted the baseboard at the end of the bed, and Erer flew there. He slept easier knowing the eagle was watching over him. As he fell asleep, he thought of Evelyn, his wife, and hoped she didn’t resent him for leaving so soon after their wedding. As his thoughts drifted away, he also hoped she was getting along with her eagle, and that they would become as close as he and Erer.

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Mila
Jerall Mountains

Mila watched her horse's feet trudge through snow drifts that would've passed her knees. They were three days south of Riften now, and it was only on the first of them that the sky had been visible. The snow had started to fall in ernest on the second, not long before they reached the mountains. 
"It won't last long." one of the sellswords had assured her that day, "The Rift don't get much snow."
That had been in the morning. Come that night, the snow was a foot deep. Come the next morning, it was a foot and a half, and the white storm showed no signs of ending.

They spent the third day moving along the base of the mountains. Falkreath and Pale Pass was a long way west, and nobody seemed too keen on following a route that would be so easily scouted. By who? Bandits, apparently, but she did not know much else.
Mila could remember her escape and recapture, the running, the cold. She remembered being in a carriage that the group no longer seemed to have, and then she remembered being given one of the sellsword' horses, and of course she remembered a great smoke stack behind them, the biggest she had ever seen. Her captors whispered that it was Riften, that bandits had attacked while they were gone.
Of course she'd asked about her mother and Boldir. But they'd had no answers. If anyone knew what had happened, it was Sibbi, and Black-Briar had not spoken a word to her since she'd awoken.

The gray sky had grown dark by the time they changed course, turning to the mountains, where the trail turned narrow, and rocks and trees crowded close around them, and the snow was piled so high that every step a man took risked sinking into a lighter patch and sending him falling onto his face and getting stuck. Every time it happened, the entire party had to wait while others carefully fished him out.
One of them came up completely covered in white. The man was a Nord named Aener, who claimed to be from Eastmarch. Mila had no doubt that his brags of being the most cold resistant from his village had some truth to them, but underneath only a single leather jacket and a cloth tunic, the man shivered like a wet khajiit.
Atop her shaggy little mare and wrapped in two layers of furs, Mila had it better than most.

It felt like they hadn't progressed more than a mile by the time night fell. With no good shelter for camp, Sibbi permitted the sellswords to use fires for the first time since they set out. Mila understood why. Besides the cold, they were in the mountains now. The flames would be invisible to Black-Briar's enemies in the Rift.
They spent an hour digging pits in the snow. Mila watched from her horse. Lacking shovels, the men had resorted to plowing the snow with their shields. It would have been a comical sight in less dire circumstances. When they finished, their campsite was spotted with four deep, but relatively dry, pits, and fires had been started in each. The spots they chose were as close to the trunks of various trees as they could get, so that the thick pines could block as much snowfall in the night as possible. In Mila's pit, the sellswords she shared it with donated their outer cloaks to form a makeshift cover to go over the top, with a gap at the center to allow the smoke room to escape. They kept a shift, and every hour or so, someone would leave the pit to retrieve fresh wood to stoke the fire.
That night, Mila was warm for the first time since Riften.

For dinner, they each had half a loaf of bread with some cheese, and roasted the remainder of a deer that Aener bagged the evening prior. Three sellswords shared the pit with her, all huddled closer than would've been comfortable under any other circumstances. They mostly kept quiet, save for basic requests and off-hand remarks, and it seemed a minute could not go by without one of them eyeing Mila uncomfortably. Seemingly far away, other sellswords' loud, boastful voices could be heard escaping from their pits, spinning tales and songs of their own praises. From one of them, a woman could be heard moaning rather loudly. It was a strange sound, one that Mila hadn't heard a person make before. 
It seemed her's was the only pit that was silent. They aren't talking because of me. she realized. I'm the odd one out.
Mila didn't care. In fact, she was grateful for it. She didn't want to listen to their stupid songs and moans.

They seemed to move even more slowly the next day. Distance that would normally take minutes to travel took hours, and judging by the angle of the pass, they were still very much on the northern side of the mountains, with more ahead of them than behind. And still, the snow beat down on them. By now, Mila's outer cloak was soggy and covered in frost, and the inner two seemed to be doing less and less to keep out the cold. At one point, the trail they were following seemingly came to an abrupt end at a mountain slope, forcing them to double back almost a quarter mile to find the correct course. For the first time, Mila heard a few of the sellswords complaining amongst themselves. Not off-handed complaints of cold or tiredness, though she heard her share of those as well, these complaints were spoken in whisper, of how Sibbi would get them all killed. 

When dusk found them, they split into the same groups and dug their pits again. The trees up here were more sparse, and the wood was now so thoroughly soaked that the fires were difficult to start. Even so, Mila's pitmates seemed in high spirits when it was time for supper, not only speaking, but doing so more loudly and jovially than those pits around them. 

"When I get to the Imperial City, I'm gonna get... drunk!" roared a Nord woman named Gretla as she waved around their fifth bottle of Black-Briar mead. "As in, really drunk. And- and- and you know what the very very best part is?" She smiled a big smile. "Sibbi's payin'!" Mila didn't laugh, but it was a statement that the other three seemed to find tremendously funny.

"Aye, he is, gods bless 'im." Another Nord, a broad, hairy old man who proudly called himself Ennaf Long-Spear (even though he carried an axe, which Mila thought was stupid), said before snatching the bottle from her and finishing it off. "Poor bastard's been through a lot. Guy could use a drink 'imself."

"Been through a lot? He now owns half the mead in Skyrim!" Gretla produced another bottle from her pack. "I'da killed my own grandma years ago if it woulda put me where it did him."

The other three immediately shushed her between laughs. And all Mila could do was wonder what kind of life could've possibly bred these horrible people.

As the laughter subsided, the youngest in the pit besides Mila, an archer named Stoit, rummaged through Gretla's pack and found another mead. He popped off the cork before holding it out to Mila. "Fire ain't what it was last night. Drink this. It'll warm you."

Mila was surprised. This was the first time any of the three had addressed her. Indeed, it was one of the very few times that she had been spoken to at all. And for this? She'd never had mead before. Her mother always said that she'd have to wait until she was older. I'm older now. she thought. Mamma wouldn't mind. Not after all that's happened.
Anything to drink other than melted snow sounded nice, and Mila knew that she would cherish any source of warmth she could get. But even so...

"I'm not cold." she lied. These people worked for the family that had taken everything from her. She wasn't going to accept their gifts.

Gretla chuckled, and Stoit continued to hold the bottle in her face. "Me neither." he said. It was hard to tell if he was serious or not. After all, he was a Nord. But in cold like this? Even the man from Eastmarch, Aener, had been reduced to shivering, and that was days ago.

"You're a liar." she said, finally. 

"And you're a hypocrite." he returned, shaking the bottle. "It's freezing out here and we mean to finish these off tonight. You'll wish you'd joined in on the fun when you look back on this moment a couple days from now. You'll be half an icicle, wondering with your last thoughts when the last time it was you felt good."

Ennaf clotted Stoit on the side of his head, causing him to spill some of the mead. "Enough o' that, boy. Now!"

"Wait," Mila stared at the younger Nord while he rubbed his head. "What do you mean my 'last thoughts?' "

Stoit looked apologetically at Ennaf, who shook his head and took another drink. "He's talkin' nonsense, child. Drunken nonsense. Don't mind it."

"Now you're the one who's lying." Mila replied. "What is he talking about? Why are you drinking so much?"

Gretla sighed. "Because we're all gonna die up here. That's why. Storm ain't lettin' up, path ain't even started to get treacherous yet, trees'll run out for fire in a day or two, so no more fire, there ain't much food, and we still got more walkin' ahead than we do behind."

"There was talk of desertion." muttered Stoit.

"Coward talk." Ennaf said immediately. "Foolish, even. Sibbi will put them in their place."

"He ain't Maven." Stoit answered.

"It doesn't matter." said Gretla. "Ain't nobody desertin' at this point."

"Why not?" asked Mila. "Can't you just turn around? Stop following Sibbi? You don't have to die up here." And you could take me with you. Uncle Baldur would pay you. 

Gretla shook her head. "That's why we're drinkin'. Didn't nobody expect the storm to be this bad. Stoit here was sent back to scout behind us. Make sure bandits weren't followin'. Tell 'er what you saw, Stoit."

Stoit chuckled. "I saw about twenty feet of snow piled high in the pass. It was about five miles behind us." Shaking his head, he said. "There was a collapse. We couldn't go back if we wanted to."

The group was silent, and Mila didn't know what to say. At last, she grabbed the bottle from the sellsword's hand and took a swig. It was sweet, sickly so. And bitter too. Mila coughed and almost gagged as the liquid burned its way down her throat, which immediately set the sellswords back to laughter, but as she felt the warmth that came with it, Mila took another drink, and then another.

"Guess we'll be able to finish it after all." laughed Ennaf.
And just like that, the dark tone of the conversation was over. The three sellswords went on to drink as fiercely as they had before, and Gretla began to sing a drunken rendition of Ragnar the Red. 
All the while, Mila downed the bottle she'd been given. Slowly at first, and then more quickly as the grew accustomed to the taste, and then slowly again when her head started to spin. And then...

"Give me another." Mila demanded, to the Ennaf and Stoit's amusement. Her wrists were still bound, so she had to hold the bottle in both hands. As Gretla neared the final verse, Mila racked her brain trying to recall the song. It had been a long time since she had heard the words.

"And the braggart named Ragnar was boastful no mooooore-" sang Gretla,

"-when his ugly red head rolled around on the floor!" Mila broke in, earning surprised and astounded looks from the three sellswords. They laughed and cheered until tears were in their eyes, and even Mila couldn't help but smile. She wasn't sure when the last time she'd laughed, or smiled, or sang was. She did not care. By the time she was well into her second bottle, Mila had done plenty of all three, in spite of the sickly feeling that was beginning to rise in her gut.

As it turned out, Gretla had stocked up quiet a few bottles during her time in Riften. Mila didnt keep didn't count, but between the four of them (especially Ennaf) they finished off every one of them. Mila never made it to her third bottle. She was almost through her second when that sickness she'd felt made its move. Mead tasted even worse coming back up, and they buried her vomit in the snow.
In spite of the lower fire, Mila slept better that night than she had since they took the wagon from her, which was fortunate, because the next morning her head felt like it had been thrust on an anvil and pounded with a hammer. Gretla and Ennaf were already awake and moving when she opened her eyes, and they seemed completely fine, if not a little somber compared to the night before. Judging by his groans, Stoit was not so lucky. After helping her climb out of the pit, the Nord headed off to a nearby bush to take a piss. Looking for a place to do her own business, Mila headed over to where the horses had been tied and found Sibbi arguing with one of his lieutenants. 

"-I've been working for your family for years! It's not fair, Sibbi!"

"Not fair?" Sibbi glanced at Mila. She was shocked to see how unkempt he looked. The noble's beard, no longer tied in a well-groomed knot, now spread across his face, thick and bushy, and his eyes seemed hollow and tired. There wasn't a trace of his old humor in them. "How old do you think the girl is? Thirteen? Fourteen? She's an Imperial, trudging through the snow just like the rest of us, but with bound hands. You think it's fair for her to walk while you ride?"

"But-"

"I won't hear any more. You're on foot now. Deal with it. And while you're dealing with it, go wake the ones in that pit over by the tree. They haven't gotten up yet."

As the sellsword headed off, Sibbi turned to Mila and motioned to the horses. "You notice anything?"

Mila glanced at the stocky beasts. Her's was a gray mare with a black mane. Mila hadn't named her, but she liked to think of the beast as the closest thing she had to a companion these past few days. When she didn't spot it with the others, she began to look around. 

"You won't find it." Sibbi said. "Beast died in its sleep. Nelvar just finished butchering him."

"Her." Mila responded. She wasn't sad, but the horse had been a good steed. Correcting Sibbi felt like the closest thing she could do to thanking the poor animal. 

Black-Briar didn't seem to hear her. "You will be taking Onmald's horse. It's the spotted one. Brown and white."
Sibbi looked like he was about to say something else, but he was interrupted by shouting.

"Sibbi! Sibbi!" The lieutenant apparently named Onmald hollered from the pit he'd been sent to awaken. He looked distressed. 
As it turned out, he had every reason to be.

"How?" Sibbi demanded, as the entire group gathered to see the four dead sellswords huddled together in their pit. Mila recognized one of them as the man from Eastmarch, Aener. He was huddled up close to a woman who looked tiny next to him. Across from the long-extinguished campfire, the other two occupants lay dead in a similar position. All of their eyes were closed, and their faces were completely devoid of color.

"It looks like they froze to death." a man answered.

"I know that." Sibbi said, rubbing his temple. "What I mean is how did they freeze to death? They had a fire. They slept together. They were covered."

"Well Mirtha was a Breton." said Gretla. "Cold was too much for her. And Apele and Sallis were Imperials. Same problem."

"Aye." One of the sellswords agreed, a big man with a thick black beard. "We may be near the border, but this storm is of Skyrim. And so are these mountains. This ain't a place for outlanders. It's harsh and cold. They learned this the hard way."

"And Aener?" asked another. "He never failed to mention that he was a Nord of Eastmarch."

"A braggart who came dressed for summer." said the large Nord. "I'd wager that whoever had a shift to keep the fire stoked fell asleep. A man of Eastmarch should've known better than to trust these three with a task like that. But I've a feeling he was thinking with something other than his head. Breton girl, Mirla, or whatever her name was, she was a pretty lass. How many does this leave us with who are not Nords?"

Everyone knew the answer before Sibbi gave it. As all eyes fell on Mila, the noble said, "Only one."

That day was even worse for the group than the last. Where before they had talked and joked, they now argued. Where they had complained in whisper, they now did so aloud and openly. When she finished her bread around noon, Mila found herself still hungry, even though she knew that she'd been given more than the men and women around her. After lunch, another of the horses, this one belonging to Sibbi's lieutenant Nelvar, stumbled and broke its leg. They stopped long enough for him to butcher the beast before continuing.
"We'll eat tonight, at least." Stoit whispered to Mila as he marched alongside her horse. "Let's just hope we still have wood to cook on." When Mila didn't answer, he went on. "How's your head?"

She narrowed her eyes at the young man, but the look he returned seemed innocent enough. "It's fine."

"Now there you go lying again."

In spite of herself, Mila chuckled. "Alright. It feels like I've been punched by a troll. Is it always like this when people drink?"

Stoit laughed. "It is for me. Some people get used to it. I don't think old Ennaf even feels it anymore."

"I used to hear stories about my aunt." said Mila, recalling the tales Boldir had told her when her mother wasn't around. "She's a sailer. They say can outdrink any man she meets, and do it all again an hour later."

"A sailer, indeed." Stoit grinned. "She sounds very much like someone I'd like to meet."

Mila nodded. "She's the best. I-" her voice trailed off when she realized what she was saying. If Aunt Rebec were to meet this man, she would flay him alive if she was feeling merciful. 
How nice he can be doesn't matter. He works for Sibbi. He helped capture you.
"I hope we have wood to cook on." she agreed, putting an end to the conversation. "I don't want to eat raw horse."

They did have wood to cook on. Mila had never eaten horse before, but it reminded her of venison, though a bit sweeter. It wasn't bad, but the portion could've been a little bigger. That night, Mila noticed the sellswords kept a very careful eye on the fire. Gretla and Ennaf Long-Spear chatted after dinner, albeit not as loudly as the night before, and Stoit was very quiet. Mila was thankful of that. She didn't want him to try to talk with her again. She pretended to go to sleep early, though the cold seeping through her damp furs made actual sleep come with more difficulty than previous nights. When it did, she dreamed of Whiterun, of her friends there, of her mother and Boldir, Baldur and Rebec.

The next morning, she caught Sibbi and Onmald arguing again. This time, she overheard them from behind a bush a little ways from the party. The two of them passed her without noticing, and spoke in hushed tones.
"Are you sure we're even going south at this point?"

"You know I'm not, Onmald. The sky's hidden in cloud and all I can see are mountains. We follow the pass. The others agreed to it-... Look, I need to know you're still on my side in this. Some of these men came to work for us through you. I need your support. They don't all trust me."

"That's because you've led them into a maze of mountains during a blizzard."

"I wasn't alone in that decision."

"Neither was I when I said we should wait it out. Skeur called this thing the second you sent him off with our last carriage."

"If we'd waited it out, our heads would be on spikes outside Riften!"

"We don't know that. I'd rather take my chances in the Rift than up here, where our only apparent option is to wander until we freeze to death! I'm telling you, Sibbi, this storm is a curse from the gods."

"Curse or not, what's done is done. If you've got nothing useful to say, then I'd suggest you gather your things. We've a long way to go yet."

As hard as it was to tell, it felt to Mila as though they made a little more progress on the sixth day than they had on the fifth. The path was straighter and less narrow, and they had no incidences on the trail. At one point, the right side of the path grew steeper and steeper until they were walking along a cliffside, with mountain on their left and a long, deadly fall on their right. Nobody fell, and after several miles the path winded back into its usual, slightly-less treacherous self.
The next morning, however, another horse was dead, leaving Sibbi and Mila as the only two people still mounted. Fortunately, this time the animal's rider did not have to walk, because he was dead too, frozen, as the last four had been. Sibbi gave Mila the dead man's cloak.

"I can trade you." Stoit offered that afternoon. "If you want. Mine is smaller, still too big for you, but a better fit than his. And it comes with the bonus of not coming from a dead man."
In response, Mila pulled the oversized cloak tighter around herself, an action made difficult by the leather straps binding her wrists. Stoit seemed to get the message, and left her alone.

An hour later, the whole group came to a halt. Sibbi's black horse had stumbled in the snow, and Black-Briar had sprained his wrist in the fall. She couldn't see it happen from the back, but when the news reached her, Mila almost fell out of her saddle laughing. 
To make the day even better, they found the entrances to a cave only a couple hours after Sibbi's fall. There were still several hours of daylight left, but given the circumstances, Black-Briar decided that they would shelter here for the night.

The interior was tall and open, and judging from the massive bonfire pile, stone tools, and swirly wall paintings, it was also claimed. 

"This is a giant's cave." Ennaf said loudly as they made their way inside. Several men drew their weapons at that, even though it was obvious that the creature was not home.

"You know much about giants, Ennaf?" Sibbi asked, his voice emitting a slight echo.

"Enough to know not to cross them unprepared." answered the old sellsword. "And enough to know that they sometimes leave their homes for days at a time when they think it's safe, if not weeks. Best thing I know about them is that they always got livestock."

The mood of the room immediately turned brighter. "Livestock?" one sellsword said, "Like cattle?"

"Aye, cattle. And goats. Usually mammoths too."

"I could eat a mammoth right now." Gretla said, licking her lips. "Don't suppose you know where the beastie might keep all these goodies, do you Ennaf?"

"I could guess." The sellswords applauded even as the old Nord raised his hands to calm them. Finally, he gave up trying. Nodding his head as he waited for them to calm down, Ennaf cleared his throat and said, "He'd be keeping them down in the Rift."

That news didn't bring so much cheer. "It took us a week to get this far." one sellsword said. "What's the point of keeping a herd down there?"

"In better weather we could've covered this ground in less than half that time." Sibbi reminded.

"Aye, and a giant can take passes we never could." Ennaf went on. "But one still lives here. No doubt. The wood for this bonfire is not old, and you can smell the cheese pots from here."

"Cheese pots?" said Gretla.

"I was wondering what that smell was." muttered Stoit.

"Aye, cheese pots." Ennaf said with a big grin. "Mammoth cheese. Worst smell in Skyrim with a taste that ain't much better." He walked over to a large table covered by what appeared to be a mammoth hide. "But the giants love the stuff." He took hold of the hide and pulled. He struggled for a moment, and then the entire hide came tumbling down to reveal not a table beneath, but four massive cauldrons containing what must have been the foulest, most vile substance in Tamriel. Everyone in the room save for Ennaf recoiled when the smell first hit them. The old sellsword only laughed.

"We're going to have to eat that?" someone asked in a disgusted voice. 

"Yes." said Sibbi. "At least, those of us who don't want to starve are going to."

That night, they sat around a bonfire the size of a small cottage, enjoying a level of warmth and dryness that they had not known in what seemed like an eternity. And, of course, forcing down healthy helpings of the vile mammoth cheese. They were full, if a little disgusted, and they were content.

Looking out at the entrance, Mila could not believe that they had been out in that storm. Snow piled high at the mouth of the cave, and beyond it was a white flurry so thick that one could barely see the darkness of night behind it.
Mila felt a nudge on her elbow. "Wish we had some of that mead right about now, eh?" Ennaf said with a sly grin. The old Nord chuckled as he drifted away.

She was glad they didn't. As much as she had enjoyed it at the time, Mila could not help but feel ashamed of how easily she had forgotten to hate these people that night. She didn't intend to let that happen again.

It did not take long for people to start going to sleep. With plenty of space and, more importantly, warmth, most of the sellswords sprawled out across the cave, each finding their own nook or rock or corner to call their own. Those still awake sat up in small groups, chatting. Four of them were even gambling off near the entrance. 
Their leader himself sat at the far back wall, leaning back and staring out into the storm. Mila couldn't imagine what was going through Sibbi's head, though honestly, she didn't care. She knew it couldn't be good. With the Black-Briars, it never was.

Stoit came and sat next to her at one point, which she responded to by turning away. When she accidentally glanced over, Mila saw that Sibbi had witnessed the exchange. He seemed to find it amusing.
She scowled. Laugh if you want. I didn't do it for you.

Stoit left as she'd expected. What she had not expected was for him to go over and stand before Sibbi. "Lord Black-Briar, the prisoner seems uncomfortable with her hands bound. It's not like she can go anywhere. Is there really any point in keeping them tied like that?"

Mila gasped, and Sibbi only looked up at him curiously. "I'm sorry, I don't believe I've spoken to you specifically. What is your name again?"

"Stoit, m'lord. No clan name."

"Stoit, eh? You look young. Nothing but whiskers on your cheeks. How old are you, Stoit?"

"Seventeen m'lord." 

"Seventeen? How in Oblivion did Maul come to hiring someone who has seen few enough winters to be my son?"

"Well... I'm a damned good shot, m'lord."

"You must be. Maul wouldn't have brought you in, otherwise. What is this room full of, Stoit?"

The young man looked confused, and then said, "Sellswords."

"Specifically-"

"Sleeping sellswords?"

"Yes. Now look me in the eye, Stoit. If you were the hostage here, and we had ruined your life, how many of us do you think you could strangle in their sleep before someone caught you?"

"M'lord... she's fourteen...."

"And you're seventeen. Answer the question."

"I don't know. One or two."

"One or two deaths that could have easily been avoided. One or two good sellswords who I have lost because I cared too much about my prisoner. The answer is no. Go sleep, or flirt with her, or whatever else you want to do. But I will hear no more of her bonds being removed."

"M'lord." Stoit didn't look at Mila as he went to find a place to sleep, but she looked at him in an entirely new light. Seventeen. She'd thought him older.
Why did he try to help me?
Mila fell asleep wondering that.

~~~

"No. I don't know what- why are you here?"

Her eyes snapped open. It was still nighttime and the cave was quiet, save for the crackling of the bonfire and the snoring of sellswords.

"I can't do that. I'll be killed!"

The voice was barely a whisper, coming from the back of the cave. In the dim lighting, Mila could see Sibbi's form, slumped up against the wall exactly as it had been. His eyes were closed, and his mouth hung slightly open, until it moved.

"You can't threaten me!" he whispered. Soft as he spoke, Black-Briar's tone somehow retained a semblance of authority. 

"I'm Sibbi Black-Briar. I- No!" He lashed out a fist, hitting nothing but air. "What do you want? ... I can't take her back. I won't! You can't make me! ... She must die eventually. Her uncle... she's too danger- No!" 

Sibbi lashed out again, and as suddenly as he did, the bonfire dimmed as if struck by a wind, blanketing the room in darkness. A few of the sellswords stirred, and one even sat up and muttered, asking if everyone was okay. From where he sat, the man could not see Sibbi, but Mila could. She could see his eyes open, she could see the way they snapped straight to her, and she could see the fear in them. In silence, Sibbi and Mila stared at one another for a frighteningly long time. Neither moved. Neither said a word. They only stared.
"Go to sleep, child." whispered a deep voice into her ear. It was familiar, so, so familiar, but distant, and it had no face that she could recall. Mila's eyelids began to feel heavy, and then started to close as drowsiness took her. Oddly enough, the last thing she remembered was the sight of Sibbi's eyes closing at almost the exact same time.

~~~

She awoke feeling unnaturally well rested. Sitting up, she stretched her arms, only to find them unbound. Confused, Mila looked around and spotted an angry-looking Sibbi standing with what remained of his lieutenants, minus Onmald, the one he often argued with. Something was wrong. Not a single sellsword was sitting or otherwise dallying about. Each and every one of them stood at attention. Some of them even had weapons drawn. 
She stood. The closest sellsword who knew her was Gretla, whose normally humorous expression had become all business. When the sellsword spotted Mila, she called her to come stand beside her.

"What happened?" Mila asked, still stretching her arms to get them used to not being drawn together.

"Onmald and five of the others made off into the night." Gretla whispered. "They stole lots of coin and food." She nodded off at a large stone covered in giant paintings. Three men knelt, their arms and legs bound, within the shadow it cast. "Stoit saw them leaving. They didn't get far."

"The other three-"

"Dead. Just like Onmald's gonna be soon. You don't steal a sellsword's coin."

It wasn't long before Sibbi waved for the three survivors to be brought forward. They couldn't easily stand on their own, and the sellsword who watched over them couldn't be bothered to help them up, so he and another man took the prisoners by their collars, and literally dragged them across the room to kneel before Sibbi.

"There is no excuse for what you've done." Black-Briar told them. "Not only have you stolen from me and every man and woman here, but you have also broken your contract, an offense against me personally." He glared at all three of them, but it was a look that only Onmald returned.

"I am glad you take offense." the sellsword answered. "And I hope the gods bore witness to our actions that scorned you. Your arrogance, your family's arrogance, believing yourself gods. Ha! You told that man, the spearman in the woods, before we took the girl, you told him aloud and in front of all that YOU are a god. That your name, Black-Briar, and ALL the wealth that comes with it, is enough to contest the power of Kyne herself! And then you charged into the storm that she sent against you! FOOL!"

He's gone insane. Mila realized.

The madman spat at Sibbi's feet, and even the bound men to his left and right seemed surprised. "Fool! Fool! You're all fools! And I was a fool for following you! Now I reap what was sown, but YOU?" He grinned wide, revealing a number of missing teeth, but the way he smiled... Mila was certain that he believed every word he was saying to the last. "You must suffer still. The storm you've brought on yourself will not stop. It will see no end until you are DEAD!"

With that, Sibbi drew his sword and removed the man's his head from his shoulders. Mila shivered, and for once, it wasn't due to the cold. She had seen plenty of death as of late, but never had the girl witnessed the ramblings of a man whose mind had left him. It was frightening.
The next captive never could bring himself to look at Sibbi. When his eyes left the floor, they went all around the room, but never to the man who stood above him. "Mercy, please!" he cried. "I had no idea he was like that! He tricked me, I swear! I will be loyal, I-"

"Any man so easily tricked is not worth the gold I'm paying him." said Sibbi. For an instant, the kneeling sellsword looked terrified, and then his head was rolling around on the floor with its tongue hanging out.

No words were shared between Sibbi in the third man, who, after a long silence, managed to look up and look Sibbi in the eyes just as the noble raised his sword. Curiously, it gave him pause for a a brief moment. But it was just a moment, and it didn't stop Sibbi from lobbing his head off like the last two. Afterwards, he declared that they would spend another night here. With the mammoth cheese and stockpile of firewood, they could afford to for a time. If they were lucky, and the gods had not cursed them, perhaps the storm would pass. 

"Can you believe it?" Stoit said that afternoon, sitting down beside Mila at the back of the cave, close enough to the mammoth cheese that most of the sellswords kept their distance. "Lord Black-Briar ordered us not to bury them. Said to 'give them to their beloved storm.' "

Mila had been thinking of last night, of the voice she'd heard and she knew Sibbi heard as well. The way he had stared at her... and the way she had stared back. Mila wasn't sure what had been going through her head at the time, but right now, just the image of his face in the dark, unmoving, not angry or hostile, just... staring, as if waiting for her to make a move. Looking back, it frightened her far more than the madman she'd seen get beheaded.
"Why would he bury them?" she asked. "I wouldn't after that. And the snow will do it anyway."

"We've been working with them for a while. Onmald had been one of the family's best for three years. That guy on the left, Umir, he might've been as close a thing Lord Sibbi had to a friend among our lot."

"Friends don't betray each other." said Mila.

"I suppose not. Still, I liked Umir myself. Shame what he did."

Mila disagreed. More of her captors were dead. Was she supposed to be upset? Even so, Stoit was the only one among them who seemed to care about her in the slightest. Why he did, Mila hadn't a clue, but she found herself thankful to have him here. "Why did you ask Sibbi to untie me?" she asked.

"I'd seen you struggling with those bonds. Figured with all that we've been going through it wasn't right that the youngest of us, and an Imperial on top of that, should be the least capable of wrapping herself in a cloak."

"I'm not just some girl who's traveling with you. I'm a prisoner."

"Are you? I hadn't noticed." Stoit grinned. " 'Course Sibbi said 'no' when I asked him, so I can't take credit. But this morning he cut your bonds anyway. He did it right after we caught the deserters. Didn't say a word about it."
Stoit shrugged. "I guess the reason doesn't matter. Just behave, and hopefully you won't have to worry about putting them back on."

"Is that a threat?"

The sellsword looked taken aback. "Not my threat. Look, I don't want to have to hurt-"

"I was joking." Mila cut in, a smirk escaping across her face.

"Oh, ha. ha." He rolled his eyes. "Didn't know you were capable of that sober."

"Capable of joking?"

"Aye, or smiling. Even if it is just to leer at a gullible sellsword."

Mila began to formulate an answer, but was cut short when another man approached her. It was one of the lieutenants, Nelvar. "Come with me." he said to Mila in his deep, throaty voice. "And dress warmly."
One glance at Stoit was enough to tell Mila that he didn't know what this was about, but when both of them rose, Nelvar shook his head at the young archer. "Not you."
Stoit shrugged and sat back down.

Already dreading going back into the cold, Mila slid a fur overshirt over her tunic, and topped that with a thick coat, and then wrapped it all inside the dead man's cloak Sibbi had given her. In spite of all that, a cold gust at the cave entrance made Mila shiver, and she pulled up her hood to cover her ears. "Why are we going out here?" she asked Nelvar.

The big Nord didn't even look at her. "Not for me to say. Come on."

Her time in the cave hadn't been long enough for Mila to forget the freezing bite of snow crystals barraging into her cheeks, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. And with no horse beneath her, the girl found some areas of the snow to be incredibly difficult to tread through. At one point, she stepped too heavy on a patch that was too soft, and found herself buried almost up to her nose. Nelvar pulled her out with ease, but after that, Mila found herself shivering even more fiercely than before.
"Where are we going?" she asked through chattering teeth. It was obvious to her by now that they were moving up the mountain, but not on any clear path.

"We're almost there." came Nelvar's response.

Sure enough, they reached their destination only minutes later, among a grouping of trees, where the snow was not quite as thick. There squatted Sibbi Black-Briar, alone, over five sellsword corpses. "Thank you Nelvar. You can go."
As his henchman plodded off, Sibbi motioned for Mila to come closer. "You can sit. Your thighs must be killing you after all the riding you've done lately."

Mila sat. In truth, Mila's thighs had been very sore after first couple of days, but given that most of them had been afoot, she hadn't seen it worth complaining about. By now, however, she was either used to it or the cold had numbed her to the pain. "Why did you bring me out here?" she asked. Surely Sibbi did not mean to kill her, to leave her body here with the others. He had no reason to do it so secretly.

"I wanted to talk to you. Alone." He prodded one of the bodies. "You know, even with all his complaining, I didn't see this coming from Onmald. He's always served loyally. Whatever madness overtook him last night, it hadn't been there before. Umir too. Never would have expected this from him. As for the others, I should have gotten to know them better. Clearly Maul was not as good at his job as he thought."

"You've marched them up here to die." Mila said, scowling.

"They're dead because they crossed me." replied Black-Briar. "I don't know how many of us will make it out of these mountains, but I do not mean to die out here. I do not mean for you to die out here. And I'll do what I can to keep this group together until we make it through."
There was a determination in his voice that Mila had not heard from the man before, one that wasn't entirely selfish. Even so, when he produced Boldir's flute, she wanted nothing more than to stab him.
"This thing. This blasted thing. Of all the things Boldir did, all the tricks that he could have pulled, this was the most clever."

Mila didn't understand. "If you don't want the flute then you can give it to me. I won't play it. I don't even know how."

Black-Briar looked surprised. "Then you truly don't know. After last night I thought..." He glanced at the instrument again, frowning. "You know what? Maybe this storm is getting to me. I've had strange dreams as of late." He pocketed it again and looked her in the eyes. His own were dark, with lines under them that made him look years older than he had only a week prior. "That is not what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you know why I untied you?"

"Because Stoit asked you to?"

"That kid archer? No. Though that was an interesting thing for him to do, was it not? But never mind that. No, the choice was my own. Maybe it started as a dream, I don't know, but I realized that I don't want to have to keep you bound. Not when you've been so cooperative so far. You know better by now, don't you?"
As much as Mila hated to admit it, even to herself, Sibbi was right. Not once had she considered breaking free. Not out here, where she'd be lucky to survive even one day on her own.
"Please answer me. I need to know that this is not a mistake."

She nodded. "Yes."

He breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good to know. It's funny isn't it, how the cold up here breaks you down? Not as much room to be a prideful little shit when you're counting on help from everyone around you to survive the night." He chuckled. "If you can't tell, this ain't the kind of thing I'm used to doing. Alleys, Sewers, abandoned roads, locked houses. Those are the places where I do my best work. Shady as they were, I always knew what to do."

There was a long silence after that. Mila thought for a moment that he might be done speaking, until the noble said, "I suppose I can pay them all double now. With eleven men dead and thirteen remaining... Do you think that would be enough to make up for all the hardship?"

"You never cared about hardship when it came to me and my Ma." she answered coldly.

"Well that's because I never owed either of you a thing."

"And yet you locked us up anyway. You starved me when I tried to escape!"

He nodded. "Yeah... Yeah I did. It wasn't personal. Maven-"

"Maven hated Boldir, I know. Because he killed her awful brother!" Mila could feel her blood pumping faster, and though she still shivered, her body felt warmer. "It sounded to me like he deserved what he got as much as she did!"

Sibbi seemed surprised. "Is that what you were told? That Maven hated Boldir for killing her brother? I suppose it's partly true. According to her, he also raped and killed her niece, though that part is certainly not true."

"Of course it's not. Boldir would never do that."

"Oh I know. But believe me, Maven's ears would be deaf to such words. Her name was Bjiela. Months after Boldir cut down Maven's brother and disappeared, Bjiela's body was found in a cottage, cut open at the belly. She'd been pregnant, supposedly with Boldir's child. Maven says he raped her. I say that's ridiculous. The two were obviously in love. My grandmother despised Boldir because of what he did to her brother, and everything else he did was twisted into a new reason to hate him. I don't know what became of Boldir and Bjiela's little whelp, but until he showed up with you and your mother, I always sort of assumed that he'd been raising one of my kin in some faraway village. And I honestly hoped we would never see them again."

Mila opened her mouth, but no words came out. Boldir had loved a Black-Briar? Had a child with her? Even if it had been decades ago, the notion seemed too absurd, too off-the-wall to be true. If it was, then the child, grown now, would technically be her family. The more Mila tried to process the information, the stranger it seemed, so she thought instead of how best to respond. He could be lying. He always lies. But why would he? "Why would you help Maven?" Mila finally asked. "Why did you hold Mother and me for so long if you knew she was wrong?"

Sibbi sighed. "Self-interest. I didn't hate your father. I didn't like him either. He was a threat to the family, to our way of life. Nobody likes threats, and unlike most families, mine can always act on them. Boldir was nothing to me, so I did what I could to help defeat him. Even up until Faldar's Tooth, I didn't dream that he would ever accomplish as much as he did. Now Maven is dead. Father is dead... Ingun. I am all that's left of the Black-Briar family, one of the wealthiest men in all of Skyrim, but I have no guidance, no help like my father before me. All that I have are past exploits and mistakes to look back on. It makes me wonder what I ought to do differently from Maven. So that I do not meet the same fate."

"It's too late for that." Mila said. "Boldir will come after you the same way he did Maven."

"Oh I know. But was that the mistake, or was there more to it? If Boldir had fallen, would another have eventually sought our ruin? If I best him, will I have only bought myself some time until someone worse seeks to bring me down?" Sibbi seemed almost lost in the words he was saying, which was probably why they made so little sense to Mila. Who else would try to bring him down besides Boldir? And certainly there was no one more capable of doing so.
"Tell me, Mila, and tell me true, if your father and mother were dead-"

Mila balled her fists. "They're not."

"There was a lot of fighting in Riften. Many people would have died, and this is just saying 'if'-"

" 'If' nothing! My mother has killed three of your men. She's stronger than you are! And everyone in Riften together could not kill Boldir!"

"Where would you go?" Black-Briar asked loudly, "Without them, or me, where would you go?"

Where would I go? Mila almost said Whiterun, but her house there would be taken by the Jarl and held for two years until she came of age. Baldur and Rebec lived as far away in Skyrim as possible, but they were the closest thing to family that she would have left. "Kyne's Watch." she said quietly.

"I thought as much." Sibbi sighed. He looked conflicted. About what, Mila couldn't say. Eventually, he nodded to her and stood. "Let's get back to the cave."

That night, Mila dined with Stoit on mammoth cheese, and slept soundly. She dreamed of a young woman, tall and dark-haired, with icy-blue eyes. She stood in Riften's marketplace, and smiled when she spotted Mila approaching. "Sister!" she said, kneeling down to embrace her. When the hug ended, Mila pulled back to find that the woman was now her mother, smiling sadly. "You're growing up, little fairy." 
With that, flames erupted around them, and Riften burned once more.

"What do I do?" Mila cried out, but her mother had already been engulfed by the flames. "I'm all alone! What do I do?"

"You must figure it out for yourself." said a familiar deep voice from behind her. When Mila spun around, she saw Boldir in full plate, half-hidden in smoke. "We can't help you anymore."

Mila awoke in sweat. The cave was silent, and it seemed that everyone was asleep. Outside, the night sky was dark, and the great red Masser illuminated the cave entrance. Mila's eyes slowly closed again, before snapping back open. "The sky!"

"Eh?" Stoit grumbled a few feet away.

Mila was already on her feet, stepping lightly over sleeping Nords as she made her way to the cave entrance.

"What's going on?" grumbled a sleepy Ennaf. "Is the giant home?"

"No, look!"

The old man gasped. By then, half the party had begun to stir. The sky was as bright and clear as Mila had ever seen it. In fact, she had never seen so many stars in her life, and the moons looked about to crash into Nirn, they were so close. No one said a word, they just stood at the mouth of the cave, staring on as if entranced. For nine days, the sky had attacked them with everything it had, and for nine days, they had preserved. This was their reward.
No doubt to the sellswords this meant they would soon be in Bruma, reaping their rewards, but to Mila, it meant something else. It meant that she had made it. She had suffered the storms of Skyrim and lived. It was a feat even some of the strongest Nords could not boast.

They wasted no time in leaving the next morning. With the air clear around them, it was for the first time possible to see just how high up they were in the vast range of the Jerall Mountains, and how far they had to go. In the distant south, a vast valley was just visible through the sharp cliffs. Mila swore that when she squinted, she could even see some green. Though Stoit said it was just her eyes seeing what they wanted to.
The cold had not left them, of course, but traveling was far more bearable without the perpetual onslaught of snow pounding against their faces and soaking into their clothes. They covered a good distance that day, even though they had five different instances of someone falling and getting stuck due to their new quickened pace. The best part of it all was, of course, that they could finally see the direction in which they were traveling. No longer were they relying on prayer and assumption. Now they could see for themselves that the progress they were making was in fact, progress.

"Funny, isn't it?" Gretla said at one point. "How this is the worst range in Tamriel to cross, but after only knowin' it covered in storms, the thing on a nice day ain't so bad!"

When night came, they were at a lower point than they'd been all day, and the trees were fairly thick. They dug their pits as before, but didn't bother to cover them. The next day went much the same way, as did the day after that. By the thirteenth day of their march, the green of Cyrodiil was very clearly visible in the distance. And they continued to move at a good pace until late morning of the fourteenth day, when Sibbi called for them all to halt. "What is it?" Mila asked, unable to see what stalled them. They had only lunched an hour ago, so they should not be stopping so soon.

"I don't know," Stoit answered. He put a hand on her horse's mane. "Wait here. I'll go check."

Further up, sellswords were whispering and shushing one another, though Mila couldn't see why. The road was narrow, but was a bend ahead, and whatever held their attention seemed to be around it. Mila tried to focus on what the others were saying. The phrase "turn back" was definitely brought up more than once.
Finally, her curiousity got the better of her. She gave her horse a slight tap with her heel, and it started to canter forward. She didn't get far before a massive pile of snow, enough to build four snowmen, came flying through the air, and landed just in front of the helm of their group, causing them to jump back. 
"He's shoveling out his path." she heard Ennaf whisper. "Best if we find away around. We got so much of his cheese."

Cheese? Mila felt a tingle in her stomach. She didn't have to wait long for her guess to be affirmed. A massive bearded face soon poked above the jutting rocks that formed the ridge their trail bent around. Its eyes were brown, and larger than a cow's. They stared at the group with an intelligence that seemed ancient.
"It's a giant!" Mila whispered, half in awe, half in fear. She had seen the creatures in the distance on occasion back when she'd climbed the walls of Whiterun, but never in her wildest dreams had she expected to see one so close.

Sibbi and the others up front quickly backed up as the massive being stepped around the ridge. His feet sunk deep into the snow with every step, and although it almost came up to his knees, he trudged through it with considerable ease. He stopped in front of them and stared. In his right hand was some sort of stone shovel, larger than a grown man. The creature opened his mouth, but only a grunt came out, inhumanly deep.

"We aren't here to quarrel." Sibbi shouted. "We only want to pass through this way." Unsurprisingly, the giant didn't seem to understand, he only tilted his head. And so Sibbi continued. "We're going to go around you."

Nelvar and Ennaf took the lead. Slowly, they began to ease around the massive creature. Sibbi followed, and then Mila and all the other sellswords carefully fell in line. She watched the giant wearily. He seemed to be particularly interested in her horse. "Just stay close." Gretla whispered to her. "Don't look 'im in the eyes."

Mila lowered her gaze, but not before noticing the creature's huge nose flaring as he sniffed the air.
He knows we stole from him. "Sibbi," Mila called, trying to be as quiet as possible. "The flute!"
She remembered a story that had been told to her once, in another life. Of how calming music had been used to lull giants. Of how it had saved lives.

Black-Briar looked back at her with incredulous eyes. "What?"

"The flute." Mila did a fluteplaying motion with her hands to get the point across. "Play Boldir's flute. It'll calm him."

"Do not play the flute." Gretla hissed up at Sibbi. "We're getting by just fine."

Black-Briar looked at Mila, and then at some of the others, all of whom seemed to be of the mindset that Mila's idea was completely mad. He shook his head and resumed working his way around. Just then, the giant roared. It was a monstrous sound, like a cascade of rocks tumbling down a cliff.
When Mila looked at him again, the creature had raised his shovel higher than a tree, and then he brought crashing it down on their group. She held desperately onto her reeling horse's saddle while the sellswords leapt for cover. After a moment, she heard a loud *snap* followed by a rush of wind and an animal's screams. Her horse fell, and her along with it. Mila only just managed to tumble away before the beast would have pinned her down. She could hear men shouting and weapons being drawn as she scrambled through the snow to stand up. 

"Get back!" someone shouted. "Surround him!"

Ennaf Long-Spear drove the head of his battle-axe into the giant's leg, earning the old Nord a backhanded swat for his trouble. It sent him flying across the battlefield, where he crashed into a bank of snow.

"Sovngarde!" a large, black-bearded Nord roared as he charged alongside a smaller man armed with a sword. The black-bearded man ducked the next swing, but it caught his companion in full force, knocking him aside with ease. Black-beard thrust his sword under the giant's left arm, and then slashed across his belly, quicker than the creature could move. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready for it when one of the giant's massive feet burst up from the snow, kicking him hard enough to shatter half the bones in his body.

Unarmed and winded from the fall, Mila hid behind a bush and watched. Everything was absolute chaos. Her horse still screamed, along with an injured man. She saw the creature's shovel suddenly turn red as it struck Gretla so hard that the sellsword disappeared inside the snow. She covered her ears when the giant roared again. An arrow was in his shoulder now. It looked like a sewing needle compared to the beast it had struck.

"Flank! Get behind him!" someone was shouting. The giant smashed the ground again. Mila didn't see who he struck, but the way he buckled under the blow was enough to tell her that he wasn't going to be getting back up.
Somehow, old Ennaf had recovered, and was already charging the beast once more. He scooped up his axe and ducked under a swipe before aiming a powerful strike not at the giant, but at his shovel. The tree trunk handle split halfway down the middle, and when the creature raised it to retaliate, the wood gave out and snapped in half. The business end of the weapon bounced off of the giant's thick skull, dazing the creature, then Ennaf followed up with a powerful swing at his hip, landing it almost simultaneously with an arrow that struck him in the neck.

Mila thought that would be the end of it, but as it turned out, giants were more resilient than she had thought possible. The beast roared and smacked Ennaf and another sellsword aside with his broken club and then broke away from the sellswords in a desperate charge...

...Straight towards Mila. She barely had time to think. She started to run, only for her foot to sink deep into the snow. She could hear the beast's cries of pain and fury now, they were right above her, and then a strong form plowed into her. The wind was knocked from Mila's lungs, and she felt her foot tear from the snow as she and the man who had tackled her tumbled through the snow, just in time to get clear of the giant's path. When her eyes opened, Sibbi looked back, out of breath and scowling. 

The giant spun around now that he was in a safer position, and roared at them once more. This time it was jagged and raspy, and the arrow shaft protruding from his neck bobbed up in down with every vibration. Sibbi climbed off of Mila and put himself between her and the beast. Even as he readied himself, another arrow thudded into the giant's chest, followed by another, and another. All three landed within half a square foot of each other.
The giant staggered, and then took a clumsy step forward, before falling to his knees, sending snow flying in every direction.
Stoit appeared seemingly out of nowhere, another arrow already knocked and pointed toward the giant's heart. He didn't wait for an order, or for the beast to move again. He released, and the final arrow struck just a little higher than the last three. With a low, rumbling groan, the giant collapsed, burying itself in the snow.

As the survivors gathered around the fallen beast, Mila noticed two of them trying to hoist its left foot from the snow. "Giant toes will sell for a fortune to the right alchemist." one of them explained when he saw the strange looks they were getting.

"Aye, and today, that fortune goes to Stoit Giant-Slayer." said Sibbi. "Give him the toes once you've removed them. The rest of you, enough gawking. We need to see to the wounded."

Lacking any healers, mages, or even moderately talented alchemists, there was little that could do for the wounded, of whom there were few enough. Most of those who the giant laid a hand on did not survive the encounter. Of the lieutenants, only Nelvar survived. Of the rest, there were only six, not counting Mila and Sibbi. The giant had reduced their number by almost half.
Amazingly, Ennaf Long-Spear seemed practically unhurt, which was remarkable considering the blow he had taken. He grumbled that he'd had worse before, though Mila doubted that. In fact, Mila suspected that the old Nord was faking how well he faired.

They took some time to bury their fallen and silence Mila's screaming horse. They may have been sellswords, but after all they'd been through together, both actions seemed appropriate. In Gretla's case, it was as simple as shoveling snow on top of the hole she'd made when hit. After that, however, the nine survivors continued on their trail.
Mila was on foot now, but it didn't matter. The giant had plowed most of the snow out of the path they followed, leaving it so shallow that it didn't even reach the top of her boots. And she found that the exercise helped keep her warm. From noon to sundown, they covered record distance. Unfortunately, their path veered away from that which had been cleared on the next day, and soon Mila had to learn to place every step with care, as the sellswords had done the over the previous two weeks. To make matters worse, the pass seemed to grow steeper downhill with every passing hour, and one screwup could mean death.
They camped by a stream that night, in the shadow of a great mountain, and with many, many more at their backs. The following day, the half-hidden trail they'd been following began to widen, and come noon they rounded a bend at the base of the mountain to find themselves staring down into a great forested valley. For miles and miles, the snow-covered trees stretched, but beyond them, Mila could see the green. Even further still, so so far to the west, it strained Mila's eyes to focus on it, stone walls could just be seen sprawling across a wide landscape.

Suddenly warm, Mila shrugged off her oversized cloak, letting it fall to the ground at her feet. To her left, Stoit smiled. To her right, Sibbi muttered something to Nelvar.
"We did it." the noble said aloud to the group. "Welcome to Cyrodiil."

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Skjari awoke from his slumber. He could feel Lilly's body rest partially on top on him on his right side, while Raine's was lying a bit further away to his left, towards Dales' side and in the middle of the large bed. Slowly he opened his eyes and glanced towards the curtains covering the window. A very low light could be seen around it's edges, signalling that dawn would soon be upon them. Skjari closed his eyes again and hugged Lilly closer to him. He knew he would have to get up soon, but he still wanted to sleep a bit more. Maybe even indulge himself some more with Lilly.
"I really am a decadent person." he thought to himself. His thoughts of decadence was then followed by thoughts of what his decadence might cost him in the future. But his self indulgence in the palace was part of why he even stayed in Cyrodiil. So he dismissed the the idea of giving up his lifestyle as little more than a lovely notion for a better world and instead focused on thinking on how it could cost him and what he could do to prevent or minimize the it. 
Seeing as his decadence didn't actually hurt anyone, his biggest worry would be a scandal and slander from people who were, or claimed to be pious and moral. Lilly could probably dig up and expose some secret of theirs. Few would take the word of a hypocrite. Which was also something Skjari would need to avoid looking like. Any talk about Dales he made in public would have to worded carefully.

As his thoughts trailed on and kept him from falling asleep again, the sun out side began to rise and the light around the curtains was growing stronger. He opened his eyes again and saw that he wouldn't be able to get any more sleep before he had to go up. Part of him wanted to go up and get the day over with, the other part wanted to stay just a little longer in the soft bed and cuddle with Lilly a bit more. The first part however won out when Lilly began to drool a little on his chest. A little disgusted he carefully pushed himself from her so that she wouldn't wake, then made his way towards the foot end of the bed and crawled around Lilly to get out of the bed unnoticed.

Once out of the bed he quietly made his way to the wardrobe and picked out some sturdy yet rather nicely tailored clothes in black with some dark red trimmings. It would work for the day's military inspection where he would undoubtedly be treading around in mud and dirt. He donned the clothes along with his usual leather boots, then borrowed a comb from Dales to make him presentable. After that he fetched Nahkriin from the bedside just next to Lilly. There he looked at her, and her blonde hair and nicely shaped body then brought his thoughts to Maggie and he began to wonder what she was up to these days. Though that gave way for a thought that only filled him with anger and jealousy. So instead he leaned over Lilly, brushed hair out of her face and gave her a kiss on the cheek in an attempt to give himself something else to focus on. 
Then with his sword at his side he left the room. With a muffle spell he opened and closed the door without a sound. The palace had yet to wake as he walked through the largely empty corridors with only sleepy guards that were waiting for their night's shift to end. It wasn't much livelier out on the streets of the city. Stars still littered the dark part of the sky that refused to give in to the sun's light in the horizon. The main street Skjari walked on was still rather dark as the sun's light was hidden behind the White Tower. He walked on till he had gone through the city's main gates and reached the stables just outside. While his horse wasn't in the stables, he usually kept it nearby. So with a little magic and a mental signal he sent out a summon for it while he waited for Gracchus to arrive.

Gracchus rode up next to Skjari after a few minutes wait. The High General of the Imperial Legion wore his golden cuirass, with his crimson cape draping from his shoulders to the back of Lil Ceno, his horse. From his belt hung a cavalry cutlass, the one Eduard gave him. The general's black riding boots reached nearly up to his knee. His goatee was now connected by thin strips of white beard to his hair, and though it was early, he was wide awake. Behind him trailed four mounted battlemages, wearing heavy armor and mage hoods. They maintained a respectful distance to give the leaders some privacy.
As the clop of Lil Ceno's hooves stopped, Gracchus looked down to Skjari and said, "Good morning, Lord Snowstrider. How go the wedding preparations?"

"Dales' dress has been delayed. So Dales has forced the tailors to work day and night to make sure it's finished for the wedding. Half the wine shipment is also late. And some of the food we ordered arrived stale. But no other problems have come up that I know of." Skjari replied. A low sound of hooves were heard as Skjari's black horse came walking towards him from behind the stables. 

"It sounds like you two have your hands full with that. I do not envy you. As wonderful as my wedding was, I could not stand to organize another," Gracchus said. "Now, shall we be off? Engineer Hateria said he planned on starting an hour past dawn." 

Skjari mounted his horse and took place besides general Ceno. "Lead the way then."

Gracchus led them north along the Red Ring Road, but not for long. He soon turned them west, toward Chorrol, where the Great Forest enveloped them in darkness. Though the sun had now fully risen, the mighty trees blocked it from sight as they ventured further down the Black Road  

As the group trotted on the stone road, Gracchus turned to Skjari. "Lord Snow-Strider, I was hoping we could discuss your order about the spears. I don't believe it would be beneficial for General Antonia and General Fork-Beard to train their recruits in only short spear tactics. I think it unnecessarily hamstrings them, and limits their usefulness. Instead, might pikes and shortswords work better?"

"I had to make do with half my forces having to use spears." Skjari thought as he reminisced about his old days. Which also brought up the contrast of how much more well equipped and funded the legion was in comparison. But with only Cyrodiil remaining, that seemed like a luxury slowly slipping away from them. 

"If the funds existed I might have considered it. Right now I'm trying to make sure we have an army that doesn't buckle under its own weight. Spears are cheap, but still rather effective for their cost."

"I take it we've already seen the repercussions of High Rock's actions? I'd heard they were taking trade contracts from us, but thought it was just rumor," Gracchus said. 

"Not to forget the yearly tax tribute. But that hasn't been payed by any of the provinces since the civil war in Skyrim began."

"At least we'll have increased trade with the Orcs, now that they're closer. Though, as close allies as we are, that is a poor substitute," Gracchus said.

"Yes, they aren't exactly the wealthiest of allies."

"We may gain a few more soldiers from among their number. Though I fear their centipedes might scare our citizens half to death," Gracchus said, chuckling to himself. 

"Centipedes..." Skjari mumbled as he tried to remember what bell it rang. "Though aren't those unable to leave to the mountains?"

Gracchus stroked his beard. "I couldn't say. Though I suppose if that is the case, they can transport the eggs or larvae. If they produce in that way. I confess I don't know much about the creatures myself."

"Neither do I. I never really cared much about zoology."

"Regardless, I'm sure they'll move them somehow, if they really do rely on them," Gracchus said. 
While they were talking, Gracchus had steered them south, heading down a road that normally would be the same size as the Black Road, but was now wider, as the trees on either side were cleared away. Without anything obstructing their view, the group could see Fort Nikel dead ahead. It was the base for the siege engine building and testing

As Skjari looked to the fort and to some of the carpenters working some logs outside the walls he began to think about what he knew about modern siege machines. Most of what he knew came from an interesting book he had read several years ago. Also one of the few books he had stored in his library. He thought it might be time to reread it. 
"Do you know much about siege engines?" he then asked Gracchus, a little curious to see what the general knew.

"I like to think so, though I have limited field experience. The catapults I oversaw construction on in Falkreath were successful, and they were pieced together. I hope to expand on that and have ready-made ballista, catapults, and battering rams available for the next war," Gracchus said. 

"No so called trebuchets?" Skjari asked. And he pronounced it 'tre-buh-shets' as he had ever only read the word.

"Trebuchets?" Gracchus asked, with the proper inflection. "Those will be built as well. Once the smaller engines are constructed, the engineers will collectively move on to the trebuchets, since the difficulty in constructing them requires more concentrated focus."

"I hope you wont build too many though. I would prefer more engines that can also be used in regular army battles."

"You needn't worry. I plan on making only a few in comparison to the catapults and ballista," Gracchus said.

They had now arrived at the fort, which had a stone base but was rebuilt using wood where the old stone was missing or destroyed. Men worked on various tasks, some hammering out bolts and bracing, others measuring and cutting beams, while others twisted the rope used for the torsion spring. Some tanned leather, which would be fashioned into a sling for the onagers, which was the current project. Elsewhere, guards roamed the edges, on lookout but not particularly attentive  
As the leaders looked on, a skinny man with shaggy black hair approached them. He wore the light leather armor of typical legion foot soldiers, though his was colored grey to signify he was an engineer. "High General, Lord Snow-Strider, I'm glad you could make it. I don't believe we've been introduced, my lord. I am Engineer Valvius Hateria, and I oversee this project."

"Good to meet you." Skjari said with a light bow of the head. "I trust that everything is going as planned."

Valvius returned the bow. "It is, my lord."

"Where are you staging the demonstration?" Gracchus asked.

"The clearing on the other side of the fort. We've used some of the old fort stones to create a wall. We also have straw dummies to fire the ballista and onagers at," the engineer replied.

"So what are we waiting for?" asked Skjari.

The engineer guided them around the fort, where the demonstration waited. It was just as described, with a freestanding wall at the far end, and several catapults and ballista lined up closer to the fort. Straw figures dotted the land between. Two man teams stood at each weapon.
"We have a few different stones for firing," Valvius said. "Regular stones for breaking down walls, fire rune stone for firing into the city, and ice and lightning stones for infantry. The ballista have the same types, but they have to be enchanted, so most are regular bolts."

"Can't you have the ballistae fire smaller runed stones?" asked Skjari.

"When we rediscovered the schematics, they were evidently for smaller ballistae, and so the stones they fire are too small to have runes attached," Valvius said

"Well if you got the resources and time over, maybe yo can make a couple of up-scaled versions. I'm curious to see how they would compare with the onagers."

"The ones we currently have are more accurate than the onagers, but lacking the ability to fire stones, they don't work as well for siege craft," Valvius said.

"Shall we begin the demonstration?" Gracchus asked.

"Of course, High General," the head engineer said. Turning around to the soldiers, he barked, "Ballista crews, fire at the soldiers. Onager crews, at the wall. On my mark-now!"
A storm of stones and arrows flew through the air. The boulders crashed into the wall, knocking some of its stones loose. The ballistae bolts impaled and passed threw the straw men, but hit their targets with a good deal of accuracy. The onagers, less so, but on the successive shots those that fell short or fired too far adjusted and hit their target. 

"I can definitely see how that can be used to hammer an enemy army in submission." said Skjari. "Load up a frost stone and try to hit a group of dummies. I want to see its blast radius and overall impact."

"Move the dummies into a marching formation," Gracchus ordered, while Valvius fetched a cart with the runed stones. 
The dummies were moved into three rows of five, placed near the wall. The stone loaded in the onager's sling, the crew aimed and fired. Unfortunately, it flew too far, and it's explosion of ice spikes did nothing. Winching the firing arm not as far back this time, they reloaded and fired again. This time, the stone landed in the middle of the group, and destroyed every one of the dummies. 

Skjari couldn't help but to crack a little smile as he thought of the possibilities of such destruction. "The machines seems to performing well. Now that's left is drilling the crews manning them." he said. 

"We'll have soldiers from each legion brought here to train. The numbers will depend on how many siege engines we can build," Gracchus said. "My soldiers will be in charge of instruction, while the engineers move on to trebuchet construction."

"How will the machines be distributed among the legions?"

"We hope ten onagers and fifteen ballistae per legion, but the High General and I have discussed distributing them based on the needs of each legion," Valvius said. 

"I guess the onagers will be hard to use for Legions near Valenwood if the enemy stays inside the forest. But it could be a good deterrent to make sure they stay in the forest. Also I think it would be good if a few legions stay rather mobile and not burdened by machines." said Skjari.

"They are relatively mobile, but even still would slow a legion down a bit. Like Valvius said, we've discussed distributing them based on need, and that'll likely be the approach we follow," Gracchus said. "Still, they are far from perfect. Sand and mud will slow them down considerably. We have sleds to set them on, but those will move much more slowly than the wheels."

"I think it may be best if the onagers are given to the legions stationed at or near paved roads that run into Dominion territory and are connected to the Gold Road and Green Road. I think mobility will be the key."

"I agree. But, limiting them to roads means they are increasingly vulnerable to attacks, once the enemy learns where they can and cannot go," Gracchus said. "Because of that, I've instructed Valvius to drill the crews on assembling and disassembling them, so as to make transporting them easier. Hopefully that will further increase mobility."

"I didn't say limiting them, but I think sticking to roads as much as possible would make it quicker to move about. And if they manage to stick in open areas as much as possible, I think anyone wishing to attack these machines will regret it."

"Was there anything else you wished to see, my lord?" Valvius asked.

"I think I've seen enough of the siege engines." said Skjari and then turned back to Gracchus. "So what's next for the inspection?"

"General Fork-Beard is drilling some recruits at Fort Cedrian, if you'd like to check their progress," Gracchus said. 

"Yes. Though lets first check how your units hold up."

"This way," Gracchus said, wheeling Lil Ceno around. They rode back to the fort, then turned south. A well worn road meandered through the forest for about a mile, before the group came upon another clearing. Here wooden palisades protected dozens of tents. In the center of the camp, six large tents stood arrayed in a horseshoe shape, with ample space between where some soldiers meandered around. Outside the wooden walls, in two smaller clearings to the east and west, groups of men drilled under the watch of legates. 

A guard from atop the palisade shouted, "Open the gates for the High General!"

Gracchus returned his salute, then turned to Skjari and asked, "What would you like to inspect first?"

"Lets take a quick tour of the camp and see if everything is in order. Then a quick look at the training." Skjari replied.

"Yes sir," Gracchus said. They rode through the camp, inspecting tents as the passed. Slack tent lines and improperly stored boots were the most numerous offenders, while the most egregious was a campfire build dangerously close to a tent. After quickly dousing it, and giving the soldiers a stern lecture, the group rode into the central horseshoe, where six tents were arrayed. They were the mess, quartermaster's tent, officer's quarters, temple, and general's quarters. Gracchus didn't visit much, but it was only proper to have his place prepared in case. 
"Is there anything here you'd like to inspect?" Gracchus asked. 

"Everything looks tidy enough. And I don't want to waste time looking under people's beds or go through the camp's paperwork, I'll leave that to you. So lets move on." said Skjari.

Gracchus steered them out a side gate, smaller than the main one, and they came upon the edge of a small clearing. There, soldiers practiced a testudo formation, their tower shields forming a tight wall against all arms and projectiles. Officers threw rocks and fired blunted arrows from various angles, but the soldiers held firm. 

"You think your soldiers are alert enough?" asked Skjari. 

"Yes. Though I doubt the Thalmor will stick to rocks." Gracchus conjured up a ball of flame in one hand, and asked, "Shall we give them a real test?"

"Yes. Though make it a test for all. Get the whole legion out and in formation as if meeting an enemy army. I want to see how fast they are to respond."

"Yes sir," Gracchus said. He relayed the message to a legate, who rushed off to amass the entire Sixth Legion. 
They assembled quickly. Gracchus directed them into a large square formation, made up of smaller testudos of individual units. The units at the front and outside of the formation square had tower shields, while those on the inside and back had regular diamond shaped shields. Formations such as this would be used when storming a fortified encampment or gate, or if under heavy bombardment from magic and arrows. 

"I'm rather pleasantly surprised everyone managed get their gear and get into formations without any real hassle." said Skjari, meaning it as a compliment. 

"If the legion is anything, it is well drilled," Gracchus said, his pride evident. 

"Now what did you have in mind for a real test; conjure up a giant snowball and throw at them?" Skjari said humorously. "Which might not be that bad idea if it's densely packed." The idea was so outlandish and somewhat hilarious that part of him wanted to do it just for the sake of it. 

"I didn't take you for a joker, Lord Snow-Strider," Gracchus said with a grin of his own. "As much fun as we'd have with that, I'm not sure how instructive it might be."

"Well it would be a rudimentary test on how well they are able to brace for a large incoming force, such as a cavalry charge."

"I suppose so," Gracchus said. "Let us test them, then."

"So lets begin with your more serious test."

"My idea was to have us and the battlemages shoot fireballs from various angles, to see how well the hood up against magical bombardment."

"Well go ahead then. Though have the mages pick targets at random. The enemy wont let them know when or where they will be attacked."

Gracchus, Skjari, and the battlemages formed a semicircle around the legion, and on his signal began firing fireballs at the soldiers. Momentarily caught off guard, the legionnaire's testudo formation showed gaps, but the officers quickly regained control and tightened the formations up. As their magicka drained, there seemed to be little sign of breaks shield walls. Eventually, Gracchus called a hault to the test, and steered Lil Ceno back to Skjari. 
"They seemed to hold together well," Gracchus said. 

"Yes, it looked that way." Skjari replied as he wondered to himself if he might had gone too easy on them out of fear he might actually cause serious harm. "Shall we throw the snowball at them now?" he then asked. 

"Should we have them change formation to something more suitable to a cavalry charge before?" Gracchus asked. 

"Nah. If they feel the need to change formations, they'll have to do it fast." he said as he began to conjure up some snow in the air that swirled in front of them till a giant snowball, as tall as they were on their horses, had been made. "Lets see how they react to this." He then sent the snowball rolling with great force towards the formation slightly to left of the middle.
The officers shouted orders, and the testudo formations in the immediate path of the snowball moved. Without time to get completely out of the way, they angled inward toward each other, forming a funnel for the snowball. The sides of the snowball scrapped the shields, and slowed down enough that the soldiers behind the funnel stopped it with their planted shields. When it exploded, snow coated those troops like they were stationed in the Jeralls.

"Hmm," Gracchus said. "Not exactly how one deals with cavalry, but a sufficient way to deal with a snowball."

"Yeah. I don't know if I should compliment them for their inventiveness or scold them for not standing up to it." replied Skjari. 

"Had they known the snowball was a stand in for cavalry, I think they would've stood their ground. Without the context, I think their quick reaction is to be applauded," Gracchus said.

"You're probably right. Was a bit of fun though." said Skjari as he looked with a little amused smile at the legionaries trying to get snow out of their armor. 

"I don't think the soldiers enjoyed it as much as we did," Gracchus said, watching the soldiers as well. "Shall we visit Fort Caractacus now?"

"Yes, lets not delay." said Skjari and he began to turn his horse towards the road. "And have the soldiers keep standing in formation till midday."

Gracchus relayed the order to the legates, and then caught back up to Skjari and the battlemages. 
"General Antonia has a large contingent of recruits, though most of the recruits are with General Fork-Beard at Fort Cedrian," Gracchus said.

"Which one has the most newest recruits?"

"General Antonia's 1st Legion."

"How long have they been training?"

"A few months. These are the recruits drafted under the lower age law. From the reports, they are very green."

"We can take a look then. A couple of months should have been enough to make some progress."

"Lets hope General Antonia has whipped them into shape," Gracchus said. 

"Lead the way." said Skjari and motioned for Gracchus to take the lead. 

Gracchus steered the group back to Fort Nikel, past some more tests being run by Valvius. Then they headed back to the Black Road, briefly, before getting on the Red Ruby Road. After that, they headed north and east, toward Fort Caractacus. 

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[Continuation]

After they'd been on the road for several minutes, Gracchus turned to Skjari and asked, "Have you noticed anything odd about the High Admiral? Obviously his imprisonment changed him, but recently he's been even stranger. Angrier, more distant."

"I have noticed." said Skjari. For a second he remained quiet as he thought what and if he should say anything more. Skjari knew thanks to Lilly's eyes and a couple of his own that the Admiral had been visited by some pretty girl, that Tacitus had been oddly calm during her stay, the murder he had committed and that someone from the Council had visited him just after it. 
"What do you think it is?" Skjari then asked, wanting to know what the General knew rather than sharing the fact that he had spies watching others so closely.

"The likeliest answer is he's broken by his imprisonment. I've seen it happen before, similar to this. Or, his mind was warped by the Dominion, but I find that unlikely, as he's yet to do any damage to suggest that," Gracchus said. 

"The man does seem to have anger management issues."

"I think we need to step in, before he hurt himself or someone else."

"Will be difficult to talk to him, I wager. The question will be: Who will he most likely listen to?"

"I know you two haven't seen eye to eye in the past, but I think if we both approached him, together, we could set him straight. If not I worry about his ability to handle the stress of the job."

"Maybe we should. If he doesn't calm down soon, I think he will have to face early retirement."

"Which is unfortunate, because he's been nothing but effective. He drew out a sunbird, after all."

"And lost a lot to it as well. I wonder if it was inevitable, or if Tacitus had simply grown careless and walked into an obvious trap. I do hope we learnt something from the attack though."

"I have faith in Master Drenim's ability to discover a way to beat the sunbirds. If he can't, I doubt it matters who commands the navy."

"If he can't we'll have to find another way."

"Have you come across anything similar to the sunbirds in your studies?" Gracchus asked. 

"Not really. Though I know of a few things that I wager a sunbi