Chaos. Yelling, orders, chaos. Horses rearing back, shaking the wagon, breaking loose. Men leaping over the sides and rushing to meet our ambushers. Blue tabards against silver armor; Stormcloaks. Trembling hands struggling to push Orlof’s body off of my lap, where he had slumped forward, his blood on my dress.
It took everything in me to focus within that chaos. All of my senses felt distant, separated, and each one fought to take control. Between the sounds of battle, the smells of death, the hard taste of Orlof’s blood… My mind could only grasp bits and pieces, the immediate sensations, and I fought so hard to string them all together.
We were outnumbered, I could gather that much, and not nearly as prepared as our ambushers. The Stormcloaks had armor – the Imperials had only disguises and weapons.
Gileva had shown me how to use a dagger to defend myself within the city. Besides my distant experience with a bow, it was the only manner of combat I knew. Still, I dove down to lay on the bottom of the wagon and reached for Orlof’s blade, gripping the hilt between my sweaty hands until I felt it had melded into my skin.
It was a short blade, light enough for me to carry. I dragged it along as I crawled forward, trying to keep my body low while I escaped. Women joined the Legion often and since the other men were disguised as civilians, the Stormcloaks would see me as just another soldier. Better if I kept low and tried to stay out of the way, out of sight.
I fell into the snow. There was blood everywhere. Stormcloak or Imperial, it did not matter; their blood all stained the same. I crawled through it and over bodies, huddling close to the wagon wheels. My head pounded, filled with the voices, the curses, the orders barked by Stormcloak and Imperial alike. The sound of steel hitting steel, of blades dragging against blades, the sickening thunk of a sword striking a body. I heard the snap of bowstrings against wrists, of men crying out in pain as they were struck, of men dying.
I could not hear my own weeping, but I could feel my tears. For all the time I’d tried to hold them back I had finally broken. They were warm on my cheeks, just as warm as Orlof’s blood when it had splattered, fresh, over me.
“Eishilde!” And then he was beside me, Amidius Opsia, the only true friend I had. He was bloody too and I could not tell if it was his blood or that of strangers. “Are you hurt? Can you move?”
I shook my head because words would not come. There were no injuries and I did not think I could move, not with how terribly my legs trembled. Amidius reached for my hand anyway. He pulled me up and guided me forward, then released me as a Nord charged for us.
She was a brutal bitch with a shield on one arm and an ax in her spare hand. Amidius had no shield, but he wielded his sword as if it were a part of him, lifting it to meet the Stormcloak’s ax as she swung the heavy weapon.
“Go!” The Legate demanded. “Go, get out of here!”
But my feet had frozen into the bloodied snow beneath us and I could not move.
“Eish-!” Amidius was too distracted, worrying about me, and the woman he fought took that to her advantage. She thrust her shield forward, knocking the Legate back and forcing him off-balance. He caught himself before he fell over, but it was enough to hold him dazed for just a second too long. She was coming for him, fast and deadly, the eyes beneath her helm ablaze with the glory of battle. If she killed him then she would turn on me, and I’d be a far easier slaughter than a proper soldier.
I do not know what forced me to move. Was it seeing Amidius at the mercy of the Stormcloak, or my own selfish realization that I would die if I did nothing? I neither know nor want to know, for even now I fear the true answer.
Whatever inspired me, in those few precious seconds I broke free of my self-inflicted spell and lunged for her. My blade was raised and it came down hard on her ax-arm. It wasn’t enough to cut the limb cleanly off, but it still cut deep, forcing her arm to hang unnaturally, for her to drop the weapon as her blood spewed from the heavy wound. Seeing it, feeling the way the sword had so easily sunk into her, I felt myself freeze again. I would have puked had the bile not frozen in my throat.
Amidius took that opportunity to finish her off, pushing her body away so that my blade was free.
I was shaking when I met his eyes. He looked as if he wanted to speak, but the battle was still being fought and it was only a matter of seconds before another Stormcloak would pick us out. He wanted me to run and I knew I had no choice. What good was a whore in a bloody battle, anyway? There would be no seducing these Stormcloaks, not now. So I ran. I ran while my feet still had life before the fear could claim and freeze me again. I ran as fast as I could manage, which was never fast enough, for the mounds of snow slowed me down. One of them was deep enough to trip me, and as I fell forward an arrow came flying over my head. I crawled, then. I crawled until I was free of the snow and could stand and flee. And when I fled, I did not look back. Orlof’s sword remained hard in my grasp, for it was the only thing that made me feel safe. I ran until the sounds of battle grew faint and the cold became more bitter. I ran until my legs ached so terribly that I collapsed into darkness.
A wolf howled.
Or perhaps it was only the wind.
The snow was soft, almost comforting, and it was too cold to move anyway. Everything remained dark and I wondered, half-conscious, if I had gone blind. But no… no, there was light on the snow. Pale and silver, touched with shades of blue. It cast a shimmer over the ground.
And then something else, something harsher.
A golden light, a glow that swayed and draped over me. The sound of footsteps, cautious as they crunched closer.
I was moving, but my legs were still. Something rolled and bumped underneath. A horse exhaled a snort, low and weary. A man coughed. The heat of skin and the roughness of course hair graced and scraped against my cheek.
My eyes were slow to open, and for a long moment after my vision remained hazy. There were figures close to me but it took some time before their faces became clear; I recognized none of them.
To my right was a Nordic man and it was against his upper arm that I rested. I tried to lift my head, but it felt too heavy and ached, and so I left it there, using him for support. Across from me sat an Orc, his green arms crossed over a chest covered in rough leathers and furs matted with dirt and something darker. Beside him was another Nord, a woman, who stared at me through narrowed eyes. To my left, guiding the horse that drew our wagon, was a third man. Redguard, he seemed, though I could see only his back.
None of them were dressed in the armor of Imperials or Stormcloaks. Instead, their attire resembled the Orc’s, a mix of leather and fur with cloaks that helped fight off the cold. All of them smelled terrible.
In my dazed state, I worried that the awful scent was actually me. I tried to lift my arm, move it and smell myself, but my hands remained bound behind my back, my wrists scraped by something rough.
Whoever these strangers were, they were not my allies.
“Oi, look who’s finally awake.” The Orc gave a toothy grin, even though several of his yellowed teeth were missing. Beside him, the woman wrinkled her nose and said nothing.
“Wh-” I could get out no more. There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, to find out what had happened, where they were taking me and why. Instead, trying to speak sent me into a fit of dry coughs that caused my throat to ache. How long had I been unconscious, I wondered? How long since I’d last had food or water? I felt neither thirst nor hungry, which was not a good sign.
“Oh give the bitch some ale,” the woman snapped. “Before she attracts every wolf, bear, or guard our way!”
Beside me, the Nord man leaned forward, forcing my head to rise away from his arm. He reached down into the bottom of the wagon to find a bottle that had been rolling about. There were plenty of them, all with worn labels or no labels at all.
“Easy now, lass,” the Nord cautioned as he opened the bottle and guided it to my lips. It was a rough ale that burned as it slid down my parched throat. I hated it, but the more I drank, the easier it became to choke down. It didn’t matter if I drank ale, water or piss. Just having something to quench the dryness helped.
“Don’t let her guzzle the whole damn bottle!” The woman reached over to snatch it from the man’s hand, spilling some of the liquid onto my dress. My eyes dropped to my lap where the stains mingled with the dark splotches of blood.
Bits and pieces of the ambush came back to me, but my memory was muddled with weariness. It made my head spin until I found myself leaning to the right, resting against the Nord’s muscled arm once again. He shifted, but whether it was in his own discomfort or to ease my own, I would not know. My eyes shut and I slept.
The bandits had found me in the snow.
They had thought I was dead.
They had tried to loot my body and found only what few coins were in my pocket and Orlof’s Imperial sword. More than this, they found I was breathing, that I was alive. It was not kindness that urged them to take me. By their account, they had planned to leave me there to freeze and die. But then they saw my amulet of Dibella.
She was what saved me. They decided to take me with them as they journeyed from the Pale, for they recognized me as a whore and thought I could earn them easy gold. I was their prisoner, now, and after-all – did I not owe them? Had they not saved my life? Besides, I carried an Imperial sword and was covered in blood, from my face to the very tip of my blade. If I was a fugitive, surely there would be a reward for turning me in?
They had a chief and a hideout somewhere in Falkreath Hold, more than a week’s journey away, and that was to be our destination. They would tell me nothing else.
I did not fight them. Four bandits against a bound and weaponless prostitute was a laughable thought. Besides, I was tired. Any hope of returning to Solitude, of succeeding in Curician’s fool plan, of earning enough coin to live a life beyond the one I had known… It was gone. All of it, all of the hope, no matter how thin it had been. Gone. There was nothing left. It had all been for nothing. It would have made no difference to me if the bandits kept me a prisoner or decided to kill me.
I gave them nothing. Not my name, not my history. If I spoke, it was only enough to answer a demand or tell them when I needed to relieve myself. They kept me close, not even letting me piss without a guard, and rarely untied my wrists unless they had a blade or bow aimed towards me. For bandits, they were civil only in the sense that they did not force themselves on me. Perhaps it was a lack of privacy that kept them away, or maybe the blood staining my skin and clothes. Maybe they feared I would somehow escape in the middle of it when they were most vulnerable. I would not have run away from them even if they’d given me the chance. There was nowhere to run to in the Pale; at least with the bandits, I stayed alive.
When the icy hold began to fade into the tundra of Whiterun, they forced me to lie in the bottom of the wagon with a rough blanket thrown over me. Keeping to the road was faster and easier, and though they had long since let me wash the dried blood from my face, my clothes were still stained. They could not risk a guard seeing my bloody body and bound wrists. If I cried out, they would have me gutted. So I lay there, except for when they broke off the path to camp, where they could better hide me from sight.
I kept silent.
Days and nights blurred together. It seemed an eternity passed on the road, far longer than I had spent with the Imperial soldiers. With every mile that separated me from the sight of that ambush, I thought about the men more and more often. There was no way to know how the battle ended, to know who was victorious, who lived and died. Mostly I wondered if Amidius lived or if he had fallen soon after ensuring I escaped. As was always the case with Amidius, thinking about everything he had done for me sent my stomach turning with guilt.
He had saved my life, and even though I had kept that one Stormcloak from ending his, I had run. Like a coward, I had fled, knowing I would die if I remained. What sort of Nord abandons the honor of dying in combat, and instead chooses to live as a selfish coward?
When we were well past the town of Whiterun, the bandits blindfolded me.
“Can’t have you seeing our hideout, now can we lass?” the Nord man asked as his calloused hands tied the cloth around my eyes. “You might go tellin’.”
“Who would I tell?” My voice was bitterly defeated and it shamed me.
“Dunno. Say the chief takes you down to Riverwood, finds a fool willing to pay for a romp. It might slip out, eh?”
It didn’t matter where they were taking me and even if given the chance I would not have told anyone. People rarely care to hold a conversation with their whores, not when they’re paying to get off. Who would listen?
Wherever we were, it was cold, but not nearly as frigid as the Pale. It was the wind that truly made it feel harsh, for we had traveled high, likely into some mountains. They had to guide me from the wagon when we reached the end and then up a lengthy set of stairs coated in snow and ice. When we reached the top, a heavy door was opened. The ground beneath us shook and a groan rumbled as stone moved against stone. When it shut behind us I felt warmth.
But it was not a pleasant warmth. This warmth was dark and dead, and it carried a staleness in the air that gave me chills. The bandits guided me only a few steps further before they pushed me forward and unbound my wrists, uncovered my eyes. There they left me, locked within an iron cage, and trapped like an animal.