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Dawns in Fire

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Loredas, 13th of Heartfire

 

The bed was hot when I woke, even though the fireplace embers died down in the night and left the room cool and dark. A gentle glow lingered beneath the layers of ash and crisp wood; like the light of the rising sun brushing over snow-kissed pines. For a while I laid there, watching the glow become fainter while the early morning gradually drew closer to dawn.

 

The room did not belong to me and I wasn’t alone. A man laid on the other side of the bed, breathing deeply and steadily. Under an emerald blanket we were both nude. One of his arms was draped over my waist, though his fingers fell lower, barely touching the thick curls that crowned my sex. Nothing about the man was familiar, though I did remember his eyes; dark, cold, sharp as spears. They had found me in the night and pinned me in place; I could not have said no if I’d wanted to.

 

A firm strength graced the sculpture of his jaw, even while he slept. He bore the muscles of a fighter, of a soldier, but not the build of a mighty Nord, nor the lithe frame of an elf. No, the dark hair upon his head and the sharpness of his features marked him as Imperial. It was always the Imperials who chose me. Even though I shared half their blood, my Nord roots grew deeper and stronger; some Imperials loved to feel powerful over my mighty kinsmen, even with the whores.

 

Beyond the inn-room window the world was dim and gray, but Solitude’s streets would be filled with light soon enough. I’d have been expected home the night before, but while the evening had not seen me drunk enough to grow ill, it had left me exhausted and forgetful. The sooner I made it back the better.

 

A low groan escaped the bed as I tried to move, the wood shifting beneath my weight. It stirred my companion enough for his arm to grow heavy and possessive, pressing into the fat of my belly. The heat of his breath seared my shoulder as his hand dipped lower, vanishing beneath the blanket to run through the mess of coarse black coils. Out of instinct my thighs parted just enough for him to continue his descent. A single stroke of his palm between my legs was enough to make him harden against my thigh.

 

I didn’t want him on top of me, but the man didn’t care about that. In his half-sleep the Imperial soldier moved to cover me with his body, forcing my legs to spread wider. Every movement he made was clumsy, barely conscious enough to know what he was doing. I reached down to take hold of him, stroking him once, twice, before guiding his way into me. Even if I didn’t want it there wasn’t much choice, and it was always better to be done quickly so I could leave in peace. Still, the moment he leaned down, face buried into my neck, and thrust into my body- I shivered.

 

I gasped against his neck when he thrust again; once, twice, three times. With every rut the bed moved and the wooden headboard thudded against the wall. Four, five – I counted the beats, steady and distracting. Seven, eight – if whoever slept in the room beside ours was not yet awake, they soon would be. Ten, eleven – his hips slammed forward on the twelfth thrust and he hilted, stiff and sweaty.

 

It took him a minute or two to finish, and while he came I moaned into his ear, pretending that I enjoyed the feel of his body crushing mine and the sticky mess he had made of us both. To him, what more mattered to an average whore? Why should I care for anything else?

 

I fought back the urge to sigh in relief when he pulled out, still half-hard, and stumbled from the bed. With a groggy grunt he found the chamberpot left in a corner and began to piss. I pushed myself up to the tinkling sound of piss hitting iron and pressed my feet to the cool wooden floor. I could have pissed, too, but not with him watching, so instead I reached for a dress draped over a table chair. The hem of it was dirtied and frayed, while the pale red cloth had been dulled even more from age and wear. I pulled it over my head quickly while my patron from the night before dressed himself. Not a word was shared between us.

 

Once my feet were covered by cloth shoes, I slipped my hands into my dress pockets. Coins clinked together at my fingertips, coins I was certain had been paid to me the night before. Satisfied, I headed for the door.



“What was your name again?” the man asked. They usually don’t care to know, so the question caught me off-guard. His voice, however, kept me frozen; it was sharp, like his eyes, and as deadly as arrows. Without turning to look at him, I answered.

 

“Eishilde.”

 

A breath of a laugh left his lips. His eyes cut into my spine, but still I refused to turn around, lest I be speared again and dragged into his bed.

 

So I left him with that, knowing well that he would forget my face and name by midday.

 

The Winking Skeever was mostly dim and empty at that early hour, with only Corpulus, his son, and a bard yet awake. Every morning Sorex would begin his day by lighting the candles and lanterns and stoking the hearthfire. Afterward he would go to sweep the floors while his father cooked the day’s meals. Already the inn was warm with the heat and scent of stew boiling in an iron pot.



The bard plucked at her lute, quietly practicing a familiar tune. She wasn’t the usual entertainer, but the inn often welcomed new students from the college, giving them a chance to earn experience. That morning the bard was a woman much younger than I was, and at the sound of my faint steps descending the stairs she glanced up and scowled.




It never failed to take me by surprise how easily a stranger could look at me once and know what I was. The usual bard was a much older man named Boturd who had a voice like gentle thunder. He knew I was a whore, but not once had he ever proposition me, nor treated me like I was worth little more than dirt. I missed his tender eyes that morning; the disapproving glare from the new bard was uncomfortable.



My steps hastened to get past her and disappear into the city streets, though I could feel Corpulus eying me as well. He had a deal with my employer, an Argonian woman named Gileva. She paid him a fee and he allowed the use of his inn to her girls. It was never clear to me if he really approved of it, but like anyone he enjoyed his coin and wasn’t above most means of getting it. He’d never come to me for sex, though I couldn’t speak for the other girls; perhaps it would have painted too poor an image of him if he did. His son, however, had lesser concerns.




Sorex never failed to stop me before I reached the door, oftentimes with a piece of bread or cheese in hand. That day he had a special treat, a fresh and sticky sweetroll. We both glanced towards the bar when he offered it, but his father had returned to the hearth to stir his stew; he didn’t like it when Sorex gave away free food.

 

“Thank you,” I whispered with a genuine smile. The roll was hot and moist, and my tongue watered before I even realized I was hungry.

 

“Will you be back tonight?” He kept his voice hushed, even though the bard had begun to pluck at her lute again and stifled our words with her music. The question drew my lips down, weakening my smile; I’d have liked to call Sorex a friend, if he’d cared for more than my ass and tits.

 

“I don’t know. I’ll try if Gileva doesn’t have work for me.” That pleased him enough to return to his work, and left me free to escape into the cold morning air.

 

The sky was still gray and the streets of Solitude dim, though the sun would fully rise within the hour and paint the city with a pale touch of gold. It would be fleeting and faint, providing little to no warmth to combat the chilling wind that often moved down from the mountainside. With how thickly the clouds formed overhead, the lampposts that lined the city streets would remain lit for most – if not all – of the day. I’d always managed to find beauty in Solitude’s dreariness, but on that morning the air felt especially bleak.

 

“Now, I know you can afford a spare septim or two…” Noster grinned at me from his favorite bench. It was in a prime spot for begging, right outside of the inn and beside a garden of lavenders and dragon’s tongue. The sweet perfume of the flowers masked his own scent of filth and liquor.

Not everyone was kind enough to even look at the old veteran, but I was fond of him; he had a lot of stories to tell, with few ears to tell them to.

 

“You’ve caught me,” I chuckled while reaching into my dress-pocket. The coins inside jingled with their own laughter before two were drawn and dropped into Noster Eagle-Eye’s open hand. Gileva wouldn’t be pleased, but she could just subtract it from my cut. She always said one day Noster would have enough of my gold to buy me for an hour, and then I’d earn it all back and make no profit; I wasn’t so sure he could stop buying mead to ever get that far.

 

“Ah, Divines bless you! You’re the kindest half-Imperial in this city!” He lifted a coin to inspect it with his one good eye, even though the light was still too dim to see such small details.

 

“Maybe that’s just my Nord blood. Here.” Noster tore his gaze away from the coin to study the warm sweetroll as I offered it to him. Steam still rose in thin wisps that he inhaled with a blissful sigh. Each of Noster’s fingers closed tightly and protectively around the two precious coins while his right hand claimed the treat.

 

“You’re too good to me, Miss Eish.”

 

“Just make sure you eat quickly. If Corpulus or Sorex walk out and see you with it, they’ll know where it came from and stop giving them to me.” Noster took a large bite of the sticky roll in response, and with a wink I turned to continue on my way.

 

The dangling lanterns and hanging signposts of the nearby shops swayed and groaned as a sudden wind claimed the street. It lingered only a few short moments, but even when it passed I remained where I stood, shivering. Instinct lured my gaze up, towards the Winking Skeever. A window overlooking the street was opened in one of the upstairs rooms, and behind its frame stood a shadowed figured. I didn’t need to see him to know who’s coal black eyes watched me, though not knowing how long he had been watching prickled my spine.




My feet began to move before I could manage to tear my gaze away from him, and as I departed I wondered what had convinced me to sleep with that Imperial soldier at all. Maybe it was simply the same thing that then urged me to hasten home: his eyes. They were a trap and I was easily ensnared – and once caught a prey has little hope of fleeing.

 

And though I fled, I did not feel free of his stare until the inn was well out of sight and the first glow of the sun painted yellow streaks over the cobblestone.

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“One night. One man. And this is all he paid?” Gileva eyed me suspiciously while tapping the meager stack of septims with a clawed finger.

 

“He paid the full price for a night. If I hadn’t fallen asleep I’d have been back sooner. Besides, I gave Noster two coins. Take it from my share.”

 

“Oh, I plan to!” Gileva’s eyes narrowed before they fell to the gold, her fingers counting and separating them into two piles. “Are you sure he didn’t get more than he paid for?”

 

She’d asked twice since I’d made it home, knowing well how hard it is for me to keep a lie. As usual, by the third question, I was squirming on the wooden stool by her desk, fighting to hold her gaze without averting my own.

 

“… He took me again this morning.” Her nostrils flared. “It only lasted a few minutes, he was barely conscious!”

 

“A few minutes is at least worth another septim! I’m taking that out of your share, too.” A green finger moved one final coin out of my dwindling pile of earnings and combined it with her much larger cut. Usually Gileva gives her girls a fair share of what they earn, but usually her girls aren’t as foolish as I am, nor so willing to spare a few coins for a poor beggar. For such a long night there was little to show for it, and when the coins were returned to my pocket their chime was much fainter than they’d been that morning.

 

“Go clean yourself up and get some rest,” the Argonian madame added with a softness to her otherwise painfully hoarse voice. “You’re working tonight.”

 

Gileva kept a small home nestled in the less populated section of the city. Most of the buildings were old, but none of them run-down or unpleasant to look at; Solitude took pride in its appearance, even among the poor. Even so the home was cramped with Gileva and her girls; we all shared one room and slept two girls to a bed. With the cold nights, no one minded the cramped conditions.

 

There were five of us in total – six, including Gileva, but she had stopped working as often in favor of managing her girls. That’s what we were called: Gileva’s Girls. Of the five of us, one was Argonian, one Breton, two Nord and then me, the Halfling.

 

The Argonian, Erh-Na, was missing that late morning but the others were there. Luclia, the Breton, was asleep beside one of the Nords, Alfene. Sigra, the other Nord, had claimed the tub and was quietly washing herself. Gileva usually shared a bed with her, while Erh-Na was my bed-mate; it was easier for them to fit beside Sigra and I, with their more slender frames and our stouter, Nordic builds.

 

Sigra looked up from her washing to greet me with a tired smile. “Be done soon, Eish,” she said quietly. I returned her smile but said nothing, just to keep from disturbing the others.

 

My bed was nothing compared to those in the Winking Skeever. Layers of straw atop a wooden frame were covered by only a cheap pelt and a simple blanket. Even so it felt good to lay on it again; it always did after a full night away.

 

Despite having slept well the night before, my body felt heavy and weary. It might have been from too much to drink, even though the Nord in me required quite a bit more to feel weighed down by her drinking.

 

“Think I’ll nap a bit,” I whispered to Sigra. “So take your time.” It was unlikely Gileva would need me for a job before the evening, if she needed me at all until the morning, so I could afford to rest a while. Even though she said I’d be working, those jobs would probably go to the other girls first; they always did when Gileva was angry with me.

 


 

“Eishilde! Wake up!”

 

The orange glow of the late afternoon sun turned Gileva’s reptilian skin into a shimmering canvas of greens and golds. For a moment I just laid there, both blinded and mesmerized by the dazzling light before my vision cleared – and Gileva’s sharp grasp stabbed my arm.

 

“Ow! Wha–?”

 

“Whatever you did, it’s on you!” she hissed. Her nails ripped into the arm of my dress as she pulled me to my feet.

 

The others were in the room, too, their eyes wide and locked on me. Even Erh-Na had come back during the few hours I’d slept, but she kept clear of our shared bed; clear of me. They were afraid and that fear twisted my gut. I wanted to ask what was going on, but the words felt dry and dead in my throat. So instead I followed Gileva into the main room of our tiny home, where three Imperial soldiers stood waiting.

 

Two of them kept their faces hidden behind masks of iron, while the third man between them wore no helm. His face was bare and open, his dark eyes of black ice and steel freezing me where I stood.

 

“Eishilde, you’ll be coming with us.” The chill in his gaze did not warm, not even to match his hint of a disarming smirk.

 

“What for?” The question fell from my tongue in a whisper, but it was enough to give my voice strength. “I haven’t done anything!”

 

The man – I didn’t even know his name, or at least didn’t remember it if he’d ever told me – held his unwavering stare. “Let’s go.”

 

His boots scraped against the wooden floor when he turned, but mine remained as still as stone. I could feel the eyes of Gileva and her girls on my back, and when I turned to look at them – for perhaps the last time – the two other soldiers moved forward to grab my arms. They had to drag me to the door before my feet remembered how to walk.

 

We moved in a line. The soldier who’s coin still clinked in my pocket took point, with me directly behind him. One of the others marched at my back, while the third man kept to the right. With every step my mind turned to chaos, trying to understand what I had done to warrant this. My work was not illegal, no matter how some looked down on us for it. Had I said something during the night while drunk? What could I have even said that could get me arrested? Was this even an arrest?

 

There were no clear answers, and after a while I stopped trying to find any and instead focused on the steady rhythm of my steps. For every footfall my heart seemed to pound a thousand beats faster, unable to be distracted by the rhythm of my feet.

 

Its pace only quickened as Castle Dour loomed closer.

 

Eyes and whispers followed us; a ripple of excitement always moved through the streets when the guards escorted someone to the castle. I tried not to listen, to catch their questions of whether or not there’d be a beheading soon. At the very least their voices were silenced when we passed under a stone archway and moved across the courtyard. A fire pit still burned at the center, though the flames had lowered to thin wisps of fire rising up from the charred wood and ash. The heat of it enveloped us when we passed, but by the time we reached a wooden door and stepped into the castle itself there was only the cold.

 

 

Chapter Text

We didn’t go far. The door opened into an entry-hall that was just barely lit by candlelight; there were no windows to bring in light from the outside. Imperial flags hung from the walls, but otherwise there was little in terms of décor. Directly across from the door we’d entered through was an open room with a long table set at the very center. Maps were spread upon the surface, many of them marked with flags no larger than a finger; some of them red as blood, others as blue as ice. Four people dressed in Imperial armor stood around it, though one of them was half-hidden behind the large build of a Nord woman. They all turned to look at us when we entered.

 

    An older man had been gripping the edge of the table, leaning over one of the maps, just before we made our appearance. From afar I thought him to be General Tullius, but when he turned to greet us with a pair of weary hazel eyes it was clear that he was not.

    The Nord woman stood opposite him, on the other side of the table. She had hair as warm as the sun, and eyes hard and gray as iron. But while her gaze was cold it did not hold the same chill as the black-eyed soldier; her eyes held a ferocity I could respect.

    Another Nord was seated at the end of the table, a man with a copper beard that covered most of his face and matched a shaggy mess upon his head.

    The seated fourth man I could not see fully from behind the woman’s standing figure.

 

    “Curician,” the older man greeted the soldier before me. “Is this her?”

 

    “It is, Lieutenant.” Curician exposed me by stepping to the side. The man in charge regarded me with the same look he might one of his men, which did little to ease my discomfort. It wasn’t a look of contempt; rather he seemed to be sizing up my worth.

 

    “You aren’t seriously considering this, Lieutenant…” the woman stated.

 

    “Why shouldn’t he, Rikke?” It was the other Nord who answered, while the Lieutenant seemed more focused on staring me down. “If it fails, what do we lose? Nothing!”

 

    “We lose a life.” The voice came from behind the woman named Rikke. It was followed by the scraping of a chair against stone, and then the clanking of armor as a man stepped around the Nord and into view. “Possibly more than one.”

    Of everyone in the room his eyes were the softest and when they met mine he smiled. They were as pale blue as the sky in Evening Star, a beautiful contrast to Curician’s dark gaze. Like most Imperial men his head was covered in coal curls while his face was fully shaved; he was young, a bit older than I, but his lack of facial hair made him look even younger than he probably was.

 

    “You’re probably very confused, aren’t you Miss…?”

 

    “Eishilde.” It was a wonder I could speak at all, but the young soldier’s gentle demeanor made it easier. “And yes, just a bit.”

 

    “Eishilde,” he repeated. “I am Legate Amidius Opsia.”

 

    “Legate Rikke,” the woman introduced herself, though her tone was far from friendly.

 

    “She doesn’t need to know who we are,” the bearded Nord growled. “I wouldn’t trust a whore with more than my cock.”

 

    Legate Opsia’s nose wrinkled. “And that would be Tribune Burund.”

 

    “You can call me Lieutenant Jureus,” the older man added. “And if we’re done with introductions, we need to get this over with. Eishilde, I’m certain you’re not unaware of the state this war has left us in.” He paused for a few seconds so I nodded, even though I didn’t give a skeever’s ass about the war.

“Good. Without sharing more than you’re qualified to know, the Legion is in need of some help. Our scouts and intel keep going cold, and as of right now the less information we have, the more precarious our situation becomes.”

 

    “What does that have to do with me?” The war had never been my biggest concern. Living in Solitude did not mean I had to side with the Legion, but nor did it mean I had to oppose them; I simply didn’t care, and until that moment never needed to.

 

    Lieutenant Jureus flicked his eyes to Curician and exhaled a sigh before he answered. “One of Ulfric’s officers is well known for his addiction to sex and mead.”

 

    “Huh!” Legate Rikke scoffed. “He’s bought out entire taverns, both of ale and whores.”

 

    “That being said…” The Lieutenant continued. “He has an encampment west of Windhelm and south of Dawnstar; it’s been impossible for our scouts to get near or even past it.” The man looked to Curician again, and though I kept my gaze on the Lieutenant I could feel the chill of his soldier’s eyes on me.

 

    “We’ll keep it simple. We want you to travel east and offer your services to this officer and his men, and in doing so find out some information you might easily slip into an undercover Imperial’s ear.”

 

    “Do you expect me to fuck the Imperial, too?” I spat, without thinking to control my tone. The very idea was ridiculous and by the looks on the others faces they seemed to agree. Only Curician appeared even remotely amused.

 

    “If that’s what it takes,” my lover from the night before smirked. “You do it so well.”

 

    “This is a joke, right?” I looked to the other four, seeking any sign that they weren’t serious. “This has to be a joke. This can’t work!”

 

    “At least she has some sense,” Rikke shrugged.

 

    “I wish we were joking,” said the Lieutenant. “But in the General’s absence things have gone south for us, fast.”    

 

    “Curician came in this morning and mentioned you specifically,” Opsia explained with an uncomfortable glance to the man. “You are Nord, and Captain Olafinn- Ulfric’s man – won’t go near any woman who isn’t a Nord.”

 

    “So it could have been anyone standing here,” I began, turning to fix Curician with a bitter glare; in that moment not even his dark eyes could freeze my anger. “But I was just lucky enough to get you as a client first.”

Curician took the sarcasm with a small shrug. “I suppose so.”

 

    Most of the time I tried to avoid the soldiers, unless they were willing to hire me. More than once I’d witnessed a man in uniform lash out needlessly for a petty crime or inconvenience. I’d never wanted to be at the receiving end of their wrath… but now they were all at the end of mine.

 

    “This is mad. Surely any attempt to fuck information out of this Stormcloak will be suspicious. What makes you think he or any of his men will not see past the lie? Did you know that I am half-Imperial? What if he looks at me and sees, not a Nord, but a fat Imperial instead? What will stop him from slicing off my head then?” The more I spoke, the louder my voice grew. “You are asking me to walk to my death on the slim chance that I might be useful to you as a spy. No one has ever proposed something so ridiculous!”

 

    “Well,” Legate Rikke chuckled. “For being half-Imperial she certainly has a Nord’s temper.”

 

    “And one’s build, if not the height,” Jureus stated, as if nothing I said even mattered. “Fair complexion, too.”

 

    “She does have a point, though.” Opsia looked to them as he spoke, though he glanced to me occasionally as if to keep me a part of the discussion; at least someone listened to me at all. “Her face looks a bit more Imperial than Nord, and that might be all it takes to give her away.”

 

    “Not if she plays her part well.” Tribune Burund had been quiet throughout most of this, and were it not for his unimpressed gaze I might’ve forgotten he was there. “And doesn’t fuck it up while he’s fucking her.”

 

    “And if I don’t agree to this?” I asked. “It’s my life, so surely I have a say.”

 

    No one said a word for a few moments while I looked between each of them, but their silence was the only answer needed. “You can’t force me to do this, it’s not my war!”

 

    “This is everyone’s war!” Lieutenant Jureus brought his hand down hard upon the table, knocking a few of the flags free of their places. The room remained silent in wake of his voice. “The Jarl has been considering putting an end to prostitution in this city for a while now. She’s been focused on other matters lately, but she could be convinced to act on it sooner rather than later.”

 

    “You’d be out of work,” Curician sneered at his superior’s threat. “And a former whore might struggle to find another profession.”

 

    “If you do this and succeed,” Jureus continued. “You’ll be paid enough to never have to sell yourself again. Consider that, Miss Eishilde, and consider it quickly. We don’t have time to wait. We’re already preparing wagons and men to head out for The Pale in the morning. We’d be sending you with them.”

 

    I didn’t know what to say. All of them looked at me expectantly, but there was no immediate answer to give. Prostitution had been my only source of money for years. I’d known many cruel clients, but my life hadn’t been terrible. I had a home, but would Gileva still let her girls stay if she could no longer use them? Would she turn us out? Expect us to leave? There wasn’t enough money to my name to afford to leave Solitude. Most of my earnings went to necessities; Gileva expected us to all help buy food, and anything else we needed was to come from our own pockets – never hers.

    They weren’t forcing me, but it still felt as if I had no choice. If I stayed I would face the chance of losing my work and my home, possibly ending up a beggar like Noster. If I agreed and left, I would face the chance of being killed for spying – or being paid enough to do anything I wanted. I’d never really considered what more I might have wanted…

Uncertainty still settled in the pit of my stomach and gave my voice a tremor when I answered. “Fine. I’ll do it. So what now?”

Chapter Text

 

Sundas, 14th of Heartfire

They kept me in Castle Dour for the rest of the day and night, to both go over what was expected of me and to ensure I didn’t run. With as many guards as there were in Solitude, running wouldn’t have been an option anyway. A guard returned to Gileva’s to collect my belongings, even though there was little I owned; a spare dress, a linen cloak, leather boots that were much warmer than my usual cloth shoes, and a pendant of Dibella that had been Gileva’s first gift to me; her only gift to me. The guard hadn’t found the septims I’d saved, so I assumed Gileva had already taken them, thinking I wouldn’t be returning. All I had were the few coins from the night before, but the Lieutenant had ensured me they would take care of travel expenses.

 

I hated the castle. It felt like a prison; all it was missing were cold and heavy chains to bind my wrists. By dawn I was more than ready to leave, if only to be free of the confining castle and inhale the open Skyrim air.

There were three wagons prepared outside of the city gates to take me and several Imperial men to the Pale, though they had their own tasks I was not privy to. One of the wagons carried supplies while the other two were to carry us. It would be a long and difficult journey, made even longer by the limitations of horse-drawn wagons and Skyrim’s harsh environment.

 

    Of the Imperial soldiers present it was a relief to see that Curician was not among them. Neither was Legate Rikke or the bearded Nord who’s name had already slipped my mind. Legate Opsia, however, was.  

 

    “Are you ready?” he asked me with his disarming smile and gentle gaze. Having him there instead of any of the others was somewhat a comfort, but even so I didn’t want to trust his kindness. Few men had been so kind to me without wanting something more in exchange.

 

    “No,” I answered, as cold as the gray mountains looming behind the city. “But here I am.”

 

    He smirked a bit at that. “We’ll ride together. The men have been ordered to leave you alone… Unless you will them not to, of course. I’m not permitted to tell you any details about their mission, but before we reach Morthal we’ll all be changing from our uniforms for more common clothing. Going into Stormcloak territory in Imperial armor is just asking for an ambush.”

 

    While he spoke, Legate Opsia guided me over to one of the wagons, within which three other soldiers were already settled and waiting. They gave us a quick glance and a curt nod to the Legate, who climbed upon the back of the wagon and then offered me his hand. I hesitated before placing my palm lightly over his own. The Nord blood in my veins had given me a Nord’s build, albeit one more plump than muscled. I wasn’t a light weighing woman, but the man somehow managed to pull me up with little trouble anyway.

 

    “Thank you, Legate Opsia,” I murmured, taking a seat at his side.

The other men eyed me curiously. One or two had the look of a potential client, and the hunger in their gazes urged me cover myself more fully with my cloak; I wasn’t on that wagon looking for work.

When the horses finally began to move I looked back at Solitude’s gates and didn’t look away until the wagons rounded a corner and mountainous trees began stifling my view. Legate Opsia had been watching the city, too, but then he looked at me with a half-smile.

 

“It’s not my home city,” he explained quietly. “But I grew to love it.”

 

“You say that as if you won’t see it again.”

 

Sadness settled into his eyes, even if his small smile lingered. “Every time we leave the city there is no guarantee we will return.”

“Why do you fight, then? If the thought of leaving and never making it back saddens you so.”

 

“Because it’s our duty,” one of the Nords seated across from us growled. I knew better than to ever question a Nord’s sense of duty, so I only nodded in understanding.

 

“My father was an Imperial soldier,” the Legate added. “And my uncle is the Lieutenant. When my father died, I took up his sword. It is my duty as well.” Opsia – Amidius, he’d said his first name was – looked down at his hands for a moment. “What about you? Why did you agree to this?”

 

I huffed a quiet laugh. “You heard the lieutenant’s threat. I’d have no work if I stayed.”

 

“But surely someone would hire you for something else. It’s a large city.”

 

My head shook. “No. Even if someone didn’t know about my history they’d learn it soon enough from those who do.”

 

“You could have left, found work in another city or town.”

 

“It would take more coin than I have to buy me a ride somewhere else.” I smiled a little. “Besides, thanks to your uncle and that sleazy Curician, now I get to travel for free.”

 

Now it was Amidius Opsia’s turn to laugh. “Free and in good company, I hope. We’ll have to get you some warmer clothes soon, though.”

 

“What for?” My dress and cloak were warm enough, and I’d worn my leather boots instead of the cloth shoes. I was used to the weather in Falkreath, The Reach and Haafingar; the cold was my favorite.

 

“You ever been to The Pale, girl?” the same Nord who had spoken before asked me. He laughed heartily as I shook my head. I’d traveled a lot as a child, but never into the frigid Pale. “You wear a dress like that and you’ll freeze your balls off in minutes.”

 

“Suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have balls, then.”

 

“To be on this wagon, going where we’re going? I’d say you have bigger balls than half the men here.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Tirdas, 16th of Heartfire

Dragon’s Bridge was our first real stop, and I was more than grateful for it. We’d paused along the way to let the horses rest, but for the most part we’d tried to reach the Outpost as soon as possible. Even so, it took over two and a half days. We all slept when we could, making camp twice during that time. They’d let me have my own tent since I was the only woman among them, but sleeping alone was strange and cold. For years I’d had someone beside me, either a client or Erh-Na. Even before I came to Solitude I was never alone. But I couldn’t crawl into the tent or bedroll of one of the men, not without giving them the wrong idea – and I wasn’t about to lay with any of them for free.

 

It was also freezing, which I should have expected from mid-Heartfire weather. Amidius was right about me needing warmer clothes, but Dragon’s Bridge didn’t exactly have any shops. It may have been a small town, but was mostly a Penitus Oculatus Outpost; I was surprised it even had an Inn.

Faida owned the Inn, The Four Shields Tavern, and she gave the soldiers free board for the night. We didn’t plan to stay longer than that, but while our break was short it was nice to spend an evening beside a warm fire with fresh food and mead.

 

Middas, 17th of Heartfire

 

The sun had yet to rise by the time we did. Faida treated us to a breakfast of hot bread and honeynut treats, with milk to wash it all down; some of the Nord paid for ale instead and muttered that the rest of us were ‘milk-drinkers’. I left one of my few precious coins on her counter in thanks before we stepped away from the hearth and out into the chilly morning.

“This is the last stop with an inn before we reach Morthal,” Amidius explained with groggy eyes and a groggier voice while we helped load the supply wagon; I was no guest on this journey and knew to pull my weight where I could. “Take advantage of what you can before we leave.”

    I’d made certain to take full advantage of a real chamberpot before leaving my room. For the two days of travel before we reached the Outpost I’d nearly frozen my ass off every time I had to piss off the side of the road; trying to keep out of sight of the men was difficult enough. A bath would have been even better, but that was a luxury I wouldn’t have for some time.

  Gileva had always insisted her girls bathe frequently, to keep us smelling and looking nice for the men and women who paid for us. Sometimes we’d go pick flowers to use in the bathwater, or buy oils from Angeline’s. Bathing became a convenience I hadn’t been prepared to miss so soon.

    By the seventh morning hour we were ready to go. The air was frigid, but I managed to keep warmer while sitting between the larger men on the wagon. It would only grow colder from that point onward, though, and eventually I would need better clothes. The men had spares they’d let me use; they intended to change from their armor in Morthal to disguise themselves the closer we traveled towards The Pale. For a while, though, we’d be spared the biting chill that would surround the marshy capital of Hjaalmarch.

    Time passed slowly. We had to stop often to let the horses drink from the streams and graze upon the grass, as before long there would be only ice and snow. Once we came upon a log blocking the road and were forced to move around it. So close to the water, the earth was wet and slippery with mud, and the wheel of one wagon got stuck. It took an hour or so to get it free. We had to remove the horse from the wagon to keep from harming or startling the beast, and then attempt to tug the wheel free without breaking it. Not long after that we found a quiet and open space just off the road to make camp and dry off.

    “Can you shoot?” Amidius asked me after the tents and fires had been set up and the soldiers were beginning to settle. I was sitting on a stump near a muscled mare, watching her idly nibble at the tall blades of grass and weeds. The Legate carried two strung Imperial bows, with two full quivers dangling by straps from his shoulders.

“My mother taught me to hunt, but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve used a bow.” The man grinned and handed me one of the sleek limbs and a quiver.

“Good. We could use more meat for the rest of the journey, and having a pelt or two will make us look more like merchants.”

The quiver strap felt tight across my chest while the stack of arrows itself was heavy against my back. Even the bow sat awkwardly in my grasp, unlike Amidius’. His fingers held onto the grip tightly and surely, as comfortable with the weapon as with his own skin. In contrast, I had been hesitant to accept the weapon at all.

We were quiet for a while. I followed him through the surrounding wilderness, out of sight and range of the camp – trusting that he knew his way back. Any notable landmarks were kept to my memory, such as the gnarled and upturned roots of an old tree or the mound of mossy rocks set in an open space; anything to guide us back if we needed it. Amidius focused more on tracking our prey, but within an hour he stopped and we settled down by a tree to rest.

“So,” he began in a hushed tone. “Your mother taught you to hunt. She is Nord?”

I set my bow down across my lap and reached for a small, smooth pebble lying upon the ground beside me. Comforting a presence as Amidius had, there was still something awkward about wandering the wilderness with him, carrying a bow I barely recalled how to use. Fiddling with a pebble kept me distracted. “Yes.”

“And that would make your father the Imperial. Where are they both now?”

My lips pursed at the question; it wasn’t one I was used to being asked. “I don’t know. Gone. Dead, probably.”

I cast him a glance, just in time to see his face furrow with sympathy; mine furrowed with irritation. Any perceptive person would have realized this wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, but he looked away too soon to hide his own expression.

“Were you born in Skyrim?” The interrogation continued.

“I was born in Cyrodiil, and before you ask no – I don’t know where it was and I don’t remember what it was like.”

Amidius exhaled a breath of a chuckle and drew his gaze upward, to the sunlight drifting through the trees. “Well, now I have to think of more questions.”

“Why?” It was my turn to ask him something, even if it wasn’t his life I was curious about. “Why do you want to know anything about me?”

“Shouldn’t I?” His blue eyes fell to me, a brow quirked. “We’re going to be traveling together for a while. I just thought I’d get to know you a bit during that time.”

    “But why? Why does it matter? None of the other men even try to speak to me, let alone act so kindly. If you want me to sleep with you I’d rather you just say it, don’t try to get to know me first.” His eyes darkened before he looked away, and I knew I had offended him. Maybe I was wrong about him, but I’d never known a young men who really cared about more than getting me in bed. Some of them even turned cruel when I insisted they pay up.

    But Amidius wasn’t cruel. He didn’t look at me like he was starved and I was fresh meat. He didn’t eye me up and down like some of the other soldiers did. It wasn’t even that I was attractive at all, but just knowing there was a whore nearby who might fuck the entire lot of them for the right amount of septims was enough to make most of the men stare.

    Not Amidius, though… Unless he was just damn good at hiding it.

    The man sighed and pushed himself to his feet.

“We should go.” He turned away from me to start heading off into the woods again. I hesitated a few moments, weighed down by sudden guilt, before rising to follow. The pebble was slipped into my dress pocket.


    We returned to the camp with a small stag to show for our efforts. One of my arrows had found his back leg and weakened the graceful beast enough for Amidius to get a clean kill. It wasn’t big enough to provide an impressive amount of meat, but it would suit our wagon room better than larger game might have.   

Some of the other men handled the messier work of skinning and cutting up the meat, while Amidius wandered off to speak with whoever was cooking that night. That left me on my own, mostly. There was little work to be done in the camp and I didn’t feel like I knew anyone well enough to sit and have a conversation. So instead I watched. Even though I had skinned my share of kills in my youth, it was difficult to watch the men cutting up the meat. The smell of blood was strong and nauseating in the cold air, but no one else seemed troubled by it. Perhaps they were accustomed to the heavy aroma from their battles.

Despite the guilt my eyes wandered mostly to Amidius. The way he moved amongst the men, issuing orders and chatting about the journey, was natural and intriguing. He never had to raise his voice to get their attention, and for an Imperial the Nords amongst them respected him as one of their own. Only once did I see Amidius grow cross with the other men. It wasn’t long after we’d returned from our hunt. Several of the men had glanced my way, though whatever was said earned them a disapproving glare from the Legate. It didn’t take much imagination to consider what was discussed.

Chapter Text

Loredus, 20th of Heartfire

 

For the rest of our journey, Amidius only spoke to me when necessary. Otherwise, he kept his distance, though that did not stop him from berating the other men if they bothered me. At first, they were mostly decent, but as the long hours of riding and camping dragged on they allowed that decency to ebb. 

It was nothing I could not handle. A few suggestive remarks here and there was a welcome reprieve compared to what I’d endured in the city. I’d made it clear enough that I had no interest in conversing with them more than was needed and so beyond those few remarks, they did not try. But they were less polite in other ways. 

Some of the men were loud and bold, caring not that they traveled in a woman’s company. They would piss where they pleased and if the weather was fair - which it rarely was - they would bathe in the closest body of water. More than this, they cared little to hide their nudity. It hardly mattered to me how they chose to act in my presence, but at times I did wonder if they thought to attract me with their cocks flopping about as they were. Unfortunately for them if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Desire was a frayed mask that I no longer wore for my own pleasure. 

There was not often a chance for me to enjoy the water and bathe myself, not without drawing their eyes. Instead, I settled on a rag to wash what I could in what few private moments were allowed to me. 

 

Instead of waiting until we reached Morthal to change from their armor and into more common clothing, the men did so well before we reached the town. The Jarl, Idgrod Ravencrone, kept a neutral stance on the war, but that did not mean there were no Stormcloak sympathizers among her people. Our supplies were separated, with half remaining on the supply wagon and the rest split up between the other two. Several of the soldiers continued onward with the supply wagon to scout ahead of Morthal and await the rest of us in Stonehills. A smaller group of travelers would be less suspicious, they reasoned. 

 

Morthal greeted us by midday. As our horses pulled our two wagons down a snowy slope, my eyes wandered to the plants that grew along the path. The stems were a dark green and bent over at the top, where a cluster of violet petals grew in the shape of a drooping bell. Against the white of the frosted earth, the blooms were vibrant and beautiful. There was something familiar about the flowers, but if ever I had known their name, it escaped me then. Whatever they were, the sight of them made my stomach twist in dread. 

 

I had never been to Morthal before, but I was certain there couldn’t be a more miserable place. The dreariness of that frozen swamp lingered in the long faces of its people, and those faces watched us arrive with nothing short of suspicion. Only the innkeeper of the Moorside Inn seemed pleased at all by our presence. 

 

“Finally, someone comes in,” she greeted kindly once we had settled our horses and wagons and entered the warmth. “Kick off your boots, stay awhile. Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with. I got nothing but time these days.” 

 

We were all happy to do just that. It felt good to be indoors, by a blazing hearth and with the promise of a bed to rest in that night, rather than a hard cot in a small tent. I, especially, was eager to keep myself warm by the fire. Amidius had been right about me needing warmer clothing. With every mile traveled from Solitude to Morthal, the air grew colder. My poor dress and cloak already struggled to keep me from freezing, and if the road ahead was to be as frigid as they claimed, then there would be nothing left of me but ice before long. 

 

“Eishilde.” Amidius’ tone was stiff and formal as he stood beside me. He held out his hands towards the hearth to warm them. “I spoke to the innkeeper, Jonna, about finding you warmer clothes. She said a local woman might have some to spare.” 

 

It was kind of him to handle that for me, but for some reason, it filled me with irritation rather than gratitude. “I could have managed that on my own,” I snapped quietly, and much too quickly to stop myself. I felt his eyes fall over me, but after a moment he only walked away without another word. 



A child brought me clothes sometime later in the afternoon. They were folded neatly and held close to her chest as she slipped into the inn, moving between the patrons like a wisp. I watched her as she paused, eyes scanning the inn before they landed on Jonna. The woman gave the child a nod in my direction, directing the girl’s eyes over to me. 

I had been leaning against a post, nursing a cup of ale and keeping my distance from the others. Most of the men had already taken to filling their bellies with food and drink, warming themselves inside and out. My own cup was still nearly full, but I moved to set it on a table before the child approached me. 

 

“Hello, miss,” she smiled. “Mama said you can have these. They’re a little old, she said, but they’re warm.” 

 

“Give your mother my thanks.” I returned her smile and accepted the bundle, even though it bothered me to take a stranger’s clothing without payment. Of course it would not have surprised me if Amidius paid her for them without my knowing. “And also, thank you for delivering them…”

 

“Helgi, miss!” 

 

“Thank you, Helgi.” 

 

She was sweet, this child, and before I could stop myself I found my fingers reaching into my dress pocket for one of my few precious coins. Helgi’s face brightened when I handed it to her. In her excitement, the girl let out a jumbled thanks and turned to rush off, vanishing just as wispily as she arrived. 

I could almost hear Gileva’s voice scolding me for giving the coin away, as she always did when I spared one or two for Noster. We always split our pay evenly with her, but if we dared to spend a single coin before delivering our earnings, then she’d take an extra for her own share. I was the only one of her Girls foolish enough to give money away. 

 

But none of that mattered anymore. 

 

I pushed thoughts of Gileva from my mind and made my way to the small room I’d been given for the night. 

 

Helgi’s mother had given me a plain and old dress, but one that fit me well enough, save for a bit of extra room around the belly. It was brown and ugly by Solitude’s standards, and it did nothing to accentuate my body - something Gileva had always insisted our clothes needed to do. But it was warm and so long as I wouldn’t freeze in it, I would be glad to wear it. 

Besides the dress, I’d been given a pair of gloves, a hooded cloak that had been patched in several places, and a pair of thick stockings to keep my legs covered from the chill. 

As much as it annoyed me to think, I hoped Amidius did send payment to the woman; her generosity might very well keep me alive. 

 




“What a lucky girl.” 

 

The voice nearly made me jump. In the loud inn, I hadn’t heard anyone approach, and the woman’s presence had slithered up as silently as a snake. I wasn’t even sure when she’d arrived, as I hadn’t seen her during the day and she wasn’t someone easy to overlook. 

She was beautiful in a way that stilled my tongue and rekindled the unease in my stomach. Her dress was revealing, styled similarly to the dresses sometimes worn by Gileva’s Girls when the weather was fair. Those dresses were meant to show off our curves, to entice potential patrons, just as this woman’s dress accentuated her own. Perhaps she was a whore, too, which would explain the way her dark eyes stared at me; as if I had encroached upon her territory. She kept her stare fixed on me for so long that I almost forgot she’d said anything at all. 

 

“I’m sorry?” 

 

“I said, you’re a lucky girl… traveling with so many men. Pretty thing like you, I bet you never want for a warm embrace and bed.” 

 

She looked away, those predatory eyes scanning the rest of the inn. Some of the locals had entered for the evening and most of the men - those of Morthal and the soldiers - glanced towards this mysterious woman often. For the first time since our journey began, the men I traveled with paid me no mind. It was not hard to see why, with my plain dress compared to her seductive garments. 

 

I did not like it. 

 

Back in Solitude, Gileva’s Girls had been like a family. We were never jealous of one another for Gileva ensured we all had work and never made one whore seem better than the others. We shared the city, our territory; we never had to compete. 

 

But Solitude and my sisters were too far away and for the first time, I felt a tug of competition with this dangerously tempting woman. 

 

“Yes,” I replied, my own eyes scanning the men with her. “I’ve never been luckier.” 

 

A week had come and gone since I’d lain with Curician in the Winking Skeever. A week was the longest I’d ever gone without selling myself. I’d avoided the men’s advances during that time, mostly out of stubborn anger for the situation I’d been forced into. 

 

I do not know if it was my own longing or my competitive drive that urged me to approach one of them. I didn’t know his name and I did not care - I had never bothered to learn any of their names. He was Nord, large and study with a beard of coal and eyes half-dazed with drink. He had been among the more brazen soldiers, the ones who’d wander our camps nude, exposed before me. Even at his softest, he was larger than Curician had been; Nord men always are. 

 

“Ten Septims,” I whispered to him. “In the woods.” 



In the woods, my back against the sturdy bark of a tree, the man’s breath hot in my face, my ass supported by a firm grasp of his hands… I felt a fleeting pleasure. He was strong to keep me lifted with my legs around his waist as he thrust. I kept my arms around his neck and gazed off into the distant darkness behind him, enjoying - however briefly - the blissful ache he delivered. 

 

And then the mist moved in. It was low and faint at first, creeping over the moor in tendrils. I tried to ignore it, to shut my eyes and focus only on the haggard breaths of my brief lover, but some gnawing fear kept my lids open. Something lurked in the mist. I did not know what, but I could feel the presence, feel the eyes watching us fuck beneath the dark limbs of a tree. Any pleasure I’d felt fled. 

 

I squeezed my legs more tightly around him, trying to force us closer, to urge him to finish quickly. The mist had not reached us yet, but it would before long, and I did not wish to see what waited in its hold. I could not focus on anything else.

Chapter Text

Perhaps the Divines were watching over me, for my lover came well before the mist reached us. He never once noticed it creeping nor seemed to sense what I did. Even so, we hastened back to town, eager for the warmth, ale, and - in my case - safety of the inn. 

 

Once we had crossed over the bridge that connected the lumber mill to the town, I paused; the man with a beard of coal did not wait for me. 

 

Something urged me to look back. I do not know what I expected to see in the darkness, but nothing leapt out from the mist to attack, despite my fears. Instead the mist lingered just beyond the outskirts of Morthal, not quite trespassing beyond the border of the woods. Content, I turned away from the shadows, but not before my eyes caught sight of those violet blossoms growing beside bridge. 

When we arrived in Morthal, I hadn’t known a name for the drooping plants, even though I felt some tug of familiarity. As I stood there in the darkness, with the dreaded woods and mist behind me, I suddenly remembered. 

 

I had seen them before, many times, in a book that Gileva kept in the brothel. It was called An Herbalist’s Guide to Skyrim, and though none of us were particularly skilled with herbs and alchemy, we knew a few tricks to keep our wombs bare. When I first joined her girls, Gileva had made me study the herbs and concoctions to ensure I did not carry or keep any unwanted child. It was during those studies that I happened to see an entry for the violet blossoms that grew in plentitude throughout Morthal. 

 

They were Deathbell, a wicked plant used for poisons, believed to lure people to their doom. 







Sundas, 21st of Heartfire

 

My sleep that night was restless, my dreams tainted. I saw myself in the dark marsh, bedding Stormcloaks against rotten trees while Imperials moved in from the mist, blades raised. I watched them behead me, but instead of blood, my neck spilled the violet blossoms of Deathbell. When I woke I was trembling and breathless, my fingers grasping my throat just to ensure it remained attached. 

 

The sun had yet to rise, though it would in a few hours. We wouldn’t leave until there was enough light to guide our way and warm our journey, even if the heat of the sun would do little the further north we traveled. I did not need to be awake that early, but with little hope of gaining peaceful sleep, I decided to dress myself anyway. Outside my little room, the inn was dim and quiet; not even Jonna had stirred for the morning, though the hearth remained warm enough with lingering embers. Compared to the loud and lively evening, the quiet unsettled me, like the quiet from the marshy forest the night before. 

 

As if leaving the inn could banish the nightmares from my mind, I pushed open the door and stepped out into the chilled morning. A couple of the Imperials were already awake and preparing the wagons to depart, Amidius among them. He had watched one of his fellow men return with me last night, our faces flushed from the cold and rough lovemaking in the woods. I had avoided his gaze then and gone straight to my bed, and would have liked to slip back into the inn to continue avoiding him… But the inn door creaked when I stepped outside and he glanced up. 

 

He spoke quietly to the other men, but their words did not reach me on the porch. I moved to the side, leaning against the wooden railing that overlooked the icy water over which Morthal was partly built. I watched the men finish their tasks before they - groggy and cold - retreated quietly back inside. Amidius remained, choosing to stand beside me and watch the frigid and grey morning instead of returning to the warmth of the inn and his bed. 

 

“We still have a few hours,” he began, breaking the awkward silence. “You should go inside and rest while you can. It’s only going to get colder and more miserable from here.” 

 

I did not respond and neither of us moved. A wind moved through the town, bringing with it light snow from the nearby mountains. The Moorside Inn signpost groaned as it was forced to swing, its hinges protesting sharply; the only sound to drift through Morthal at that hour. 

 

Only when the wind passed and everything grew still again did I speak. 



    “Do you really think this plan will work?” 

 

    It hadn’t been discussed since we left the war-room at Castle Dour. I’d mostly tried not to think about it, but my nightmares refused to let my mind rest. 

 

    Amidius glanced around us, ensuring no one else was near enough to overhear. When he answered, he brought his face low and close, his voice hushed. 

 

    “No. No, I really don’t.” 

 

    It should not have been such a shock. Had I not already decided, long before I accepted it, that it was a fool’s plan? That my life was already forfeit? Apparently some small part of me had held onto a bit of hope, hope that was shattered by the Legate’s response. 

 

    “Look,” he continued when I did not reply. “My uncle is desperate, he’ll do anything to ensure the General is given good news upon his return to Solitude. I don’t know what game Curician is playing, what possessed him to think of this plan, but neither Rikke nor I trust it… And neither should you.” 

 

    There were a thousand curses I wanted to spit on Curician and Lieutenant Jureus’ names, but I bit them back. 

 

“If two Imperial Legates do not trust the plan, why would the Lieutenant ever agree?” 

 

    “Desperate men never listen to reason.” Even in the morning darkness, I could see him scowl, but when his gaze fell over me, his expression softened. “Try not to worry about this. Curician is in Solitude and has no control over what happens now and I plan to get you out of this and somewhere safe before it becomes an issue.” 

 

   


   

    Morndas, 22nd of Heartfire 

 

I’d never liked relying on people. At a young age I learned that nothing comes free and most acts of kindness come with strings attached. Maybe that’s why I’d always been quick to spare a coin for a beggar, even if I’d never accept a coin in return; why I’d given Helgi a few coins in exchange for her mother’s unwanted clothes. Maybe some part of me wanted to be different, to be the broken link in that chain of expectations. 

 

    Maybe I’ve just always been softer on the inside than I want to admit. 

 

   

    It is easier when one knows what is expected of them in return for a coin, a gift, or just a simple kindness. Working as a whore, I always knew what was expected: a few coins for a quick fuck, or more if the patron was so inclined and willing to pay. Even the treats Sorex would slip me back in the Winking Skeever came with an expectation - to put him at the top of my list the following night or sometimes charge him a little less than usual.  

 

    With Amidius Opsia I did not know what to expect and I hated knowing that my life was in his hands. 

 

    “Try not to worry,” he had said to me. “I will get you out of this.” 

 

    Even a day and a half later, squished between two large Nords in the back of a wagon, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the Legate said… And no amount of thinking made me like it any more. 

 

    There wasn’t much talking from Morthal to Stonehills. The air was biting and left everyone but the Nords irritable. Even for my kinsmen the frigid journey was unpleasant, but at the very least our blood helped us fight the chill. 

 

    Stonehills was an encampment for miners who worked in Rockwallow Mine, which was owned by the very Thane of Solitude, Bryling. The plan was to stay there for a night and continue on the next morning. From there I was not sure where we would go. The men knew only enough about my presence and purpose to keep them from questioning it, but I still knew nothing about their own mission in the Pale. I hadn’t cared much either, at least not until Amidius suggested my part in this was some scheme of Curician’s. 

   

    It infuriated me to think that my life had been forced upside down for nothing. 

 

    But I tried not to think about Curician and what was to come. Instead I thought of Morthal and, despite its eeriness, how much warmer it had been than Stonehills. Even with the threat of those murky woods behind the town, I would have gladly traded my small tent for the comfort of Moorside Inn. I would have gladly abandoned the fool’s plot in which I was trapped and remained in Morthal, serving the lonely men and women for a few simple coins a night. 

 

    Ah, but there I was, thinking of everything I had tried so hard to put from my mind. 

   

    Curician could not be banished, not from my mind, not from my rage, nor - as we learned later that night, sitting around a fire over which a pot was hung to cook our dinner - from our presence. 

 

    Amidius moved to greet the man as he dismounted his steed, dressed in the same civilian attire as the rest of the men. The Legate did not seem pleased as he ushered Curician aside, speaking to his fellow Imperial in quiet tones. The rest of the soldiers were too tired or cold or hungry to care about Curician’s sudden appearance, but I could not keep from straining to hear what was said, to know why he was here. 

 

    “If ye get too cold, lass…” A man, the soldier with a beard of coal who’s coins I still kept, eased himself down by my side. “There’s plenty’a room in my bedroll tonight.” 

 

    The other men around the fire chuckled. 

 

“She’s got her pick of bedrolls, Orlof,” one of them teased. “Bigger ones than yours!” 

 

“I think I’ll keep to my own bed, thank you…” I rose but none of the men paid any attention to me. They had all erupted into an argument over the size of their bedrolls, a conversation that meant nothing to me. 

 

Unfortunately, I had missed every bit of Amidius and Curician’s discussion. The Legate had vanished, perhaps to his own tent, but Curician still stood off to the side, his sharp gaze watching me just as he had the morning I’d left his inn room at the Winking Skeever. It had frightened me then, urged me home as if my life depended on it; now I felt only anger. 

 

“Why are you here?” 

 

He met my demand with a smirk and glanced over my shoulder, towards the soldiers. “Growing close to the men, I see. Unsurprising. Which one is your favorite, I wonder? Legate Opsia seems especially eager to see to your safety, I can only imagine what has swayed his fondness.” 

 

My fingers curled into fists. “Answer my question.” 

 

“Demanding for a whore. Isn’t your job to serve men, not make demands of them?” 

 

    Curician gave a dark chuckle. 

 

    And I silenced it with my fist.

Chapter Text

Curician was thinner than me, but he was also toned, trained and swift. In the time it took me to realize I had just struck an Imperial Soldier, he managed to recover and lunged for me. His hand smothered my mouth and nostrils before I could cry out, though I do not know if I would have given him that satisfaction anyway. He had my back against his chest, his strong arm around my waist, just as heavy as it had been the morning after I first lay with him.

The other men did not notice. It was dark and we were a good distance from the fire. Over the sounds of their laughter, their jesting with one another, our struggle went unheard.

But would they have dared to stop Curician if they did see?

He pulled me further away, away from the heat of the campfire and the safety of ears and eyes. He pulled me down the path that led up into Stonehills and out onto the main road. Across from it lay woods, dark and cold and just as unsettling as the moor behind Morthal.

My heart wanted to burst and despite the cold I felt sweat form over my skin. He was going to take me into that darkness, rape and murder me, and leave my body to freeze beneath the snow.

Gileva had told us stories about the tragic deaths of whores. No one would have cared if a drunk or vicious patron took out their rage on us. The Argonian Mistress taught us to be wise, to read our lovers and settings before we acted. She taught us when to fight back and how, when to run, when to scream, and – perhaps most importantly – she taught us when to just give in.

As Curician shoved me down into a mound of snow I forgot all but the last of Gileva’s teachings. I forgot how to even think or breathe. I lay there, stiff and mute, and knew only how to give in to him.

He had me face down, a hand behind my head while he straddled my back and kept me pinned. I felt him, heard him struggle with his belt, having only one hand to work with; so intent was he to keep my face against the cold ground, blinded by snow.

I couldn’t even cry, but some part of me was glad of that. Having Curician force himself on me would not have felt as shameful as letting him see me cry. He could fuck me to death, but I would die gladly so long as I gave him no weakness, did not let him see me shatter.

He had his breeches undone and I tried to focus only on the beat of my heart, counting each rapid thump, and not on the feel of him inching down my back. It was impossible to ignore the way he hoisted up my skirt and yanked down my stockings; the cold was harsh on my bare skin. I braced myself for the feel of him. In all my years as a prostitute, never had I been raped.

And that night was not to be the first.

Yellow light burned over the white road as the shadow of a figure moved hastily into view. The lantern he carried swayed and tossed light over us, exposing Curician before his crime was committed.

“Captain Runal,” Amidius Opsia’s voice carried down to us. “What do you think you’re doing.”

Of course it would be him. I’d heard him speak firmly to the other men at times, but I had never heard the Legate talk with such restrained venom. Against me, Curician stiffened and cursed. He remained still for a moment and then leaned forward, bringing his lips close to my ear.

“Consider this a warning,” the man growled.

And then he released the back of my head and clumsily forced himself up. As soon as I was free, I moved, pushing myself to my knees where I could adjust my stockings and dress. But it was only when he began to approach Amidius that I dared to stand.

“You ought to keep better control of your whore, Legate,” my would-be rapist growled to my savior. “She assaulted an officer of the Legion.”

“Did she? From the looks of it, Captain, any acts of violence on her part could be considered self-defense. But we can discuss this back in Solitude with my uncle, should you disagree.”

The two men stared hard at one another in some unspoken challenge before Captain Curician Runal muttered something inaudible and moved past the Legate. Amidius and I both watched him ascend the path to the camp, but neither of us chose to follow until he was out of sight.

No matter how bold I’d tried to remain, my legs trembled. I knew in the glow of Amidius’ lantern I must have looked like a frightened fawn who had barely escaped the jaws of a savage wolf.

“Did he hurt you?” he asked, stepping towards me. If I opened my mouth I knew I would break, and so I only shook my head and skirted around the Legate without a word. I left him in the road, felt his eyes on my back where the heat of Curician’s body still lingered, and disappeared into my tent for the rest of the night.


Tirdas, 23 of Heartfire

Curician was gone in the morning. He had ridden ahead with one of our wagons that served to scout the roads. By nightfall we would no longer be within Imperial territory, so there was no guarantee that the rest of our journey would be safe.

Everyone was in a sour mood. I had slept poorly that night, my dreams stolen by visions of Curician entering my tent to finish what he had begun. With him there was always Deathbell, lurking in the shadows, growing over my body, pouring from the dark wickedness of his eyes. By dawn I was miserable.

The cold was what stirred the unrest in my companions. It was a dim and grey morning with heavy clouds that promised heavier snow later on. Piles of it covered the road, making our journey more difficult and slow. The horses could push through or step over the mounds easily enough, but the wagons were not so lucky. Often we were forced to stop and shovel the snow out of the way so that we could continue onward.

Another force to reckon with was the wind. As the day wore on, it became more daring, blowing down from the mountains to sting our skin with its claws. I felt for those few among us who were not Nord. The cold was harsh even for my kinsmen, but we bore it easier than the others. It was one of few traits I inherited from my mother that left me grateful to her.

I tried to think about my mother as we rode along, but her face was a blur in my memory. What felt like ages ago, though it had only been a little over a week past, Amidius had asked about past and my family. He had asked about me and I’d shut him out. Ever since the moment I’d been forced into Castle Dour, he had been the one person on my side, who had not sought to use or harm me. More than this, he had just kept Curician from raping me. Divines knew I hated it, but I owed the man. More than I could give, most likely.

By midday we stopped to eat and let the horses rest, and I decided I would give Amidius the one thing he had asked for and been denied – the chance to know me better, even if only a little.

He was seeing to the supply wagon, ensuring everything was secure after our bumpy journey. He did not notice me approach until I cleared my throat, to which the man looked up in surprise.

“Eishilde,” he greeted, eying me over in the daylight. I hadn’t spoken to him at all and from his gaze I could tell the night before still weighed on his mind. But he could see I was unharmed and with Curician gone my fears had settled.

“Legate Opsia.” The wind moved between us. Amidius shivered and wrapped his cloak tighter around himself. I only crossed my arms over my chest and let the wind tug and toy with my cloak before it settled down. His eyes remained on me for those few brief seconds, but I could not keep my own gaze steady. Instead I turned it towards the road and broke the awkward quiet that had followed the wind.

“Some time ago you asked about me.” The words came out slow and uncertain. It wasn’t so much talking to him that had me unnerved, but the fact that I planned to tell him about myself… That was what I struggled with.

“Aye, I did.”

“Ask me again. Anything you want to know, I’ll answer.” My eyes returned to him, studying the small smile that had formed at his lips, trying to read his thoughts. When he replied, his voice was as soft as his gaze, but his expression, despite his smile, was solemn.

“How about you tell whatever you feel like sharing, and if that is nothing then you need not tell me a single thing.”

I would have preferred an interrogation, just as he had the day we hunted…

“Very well. I told you my mother was Nord.”

He nodded.

“And my father Imperial. I was born in Cyrodiil, educated there, but I was only… Eleven or twelve when my mother and I left. My father thought we’d be better off in Skyrim, safer and happier. He promised to join us later.”

I let my gaze fall away from Amidius again, this time settling on the ground. The wagon wheels had left imprints in the snow that left a trail along the road. They brought me pack to the past, to my time as a child, watching the wagon wheels leave small trenches in the mud as mother and I were carried into the Rift. We’d paid the carriage driver a heavy sum to get us there, most of what little father had sent with us. It was raining that day but I ignored the discomfort by watching the road and the mud… By watching the miles stretch between us and my father.

“We didn’t have much money. We ended up in Riften where mother sought work. All she found were thieves. Then one day she told me to wait, to sleep in the local stable. She said she’d be back soon. She lied.”

That memory wasn’t so vivid. My mother had hugged me goodbye and told me to be brave. If I had known it was the last time I’d see her, I would have paid more attention. I would have committed her face, her hair, her clothes, her scent… All of it to memory. But I didn’t know. I was cold and hungry and tired. I was angry, too, that she would leave me. I did not want to look at her. Now, when I try to think of that day and remember my mother, I recall only her voice and the hurt I felt at her leaving. I remember only my anger and the loneliness that followed. I remember the hunger and exhaustion. But I barely remember her, not as a child should remember their mother.

“I wasn’t left alone for too long. A Khajiit caravan made their way to Riften and one of them noticed me, a woman named Dra’hashi. The Khajiit could not enter Riften, but she told me I went inside for them, tried to sell some jewelry she had… Or if I could just spread the word that the caravan was there with wares to sell… They would give me food.”

Amidius had been quiet so far, but at this he spoke. “I take it you did?”

“Of course, I would have done anything for food. I sold one of their rings for a price Dra’hashi later told me was too low. But she liked me. They gave me food and when the time came for the Khajiit to pack up and leave, they took me with them. They taught me to sell and haggle. We drifted from Riften to Falkreath. I would enter the towns for the Khajiit, sell what I could and convince people to visit the caravan. In exchange they kept me fed, gave me a home. Dra’hashi took care of me.”

When I try to think of my mother, to remember her, I always end up remembering Dra’hashi instead. I was never so foolish to believe the Khajiit kept me around simply because they were fond of me. Even as a child I knew that I could stay only so long as I earned my keep. Despite that, Dra’hashi did seem to care for me. She cared for everyone. The others called her ‘Dra’ for she was wise, the matron of their caravan. Mother.

“How did you end up in Solitude?” Amidius’ voice pulled me from the memories.

“The caravan wasn’t doing well. I was around fifteen then. Wares weren’t sell and Dra’hashi had grown ill. The others wanted to take her back to their homeland, they thought the cold of Skyrim would kill her. But I wasn’t ready to leave.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “Maybe some part of me hoped I’d see my real family again. Maybe the Nord blood in me had grown too attached to this frozen province.”

Truthfully, I do not know what kept me in Skyrim when the only friends and family I had were leaving, for good. I remember seeing Solitude’s walls and thinking they looked safe and sturdy. I remember feeling some urge to linger, as if my feet had grown roots that settled beneath Skyrim’s soil and refused to let me go. It was a feeling I did not mind, at the time.

“We parted ways outside of Solitude,” I continued. “by then I was fairly grown, at least in body. That’s when Gileva found me.”

“And Gileva was…?”

“The woman who made me a whore? Yes.”

Amidius frowned at that, but I ignored his disapproval. “She treated me well. She spent a year teaching me… Well, training me, I guess. I didn’t get my first job until after I turned sixteen. That was an expensive night, my being a virgin and everything.”

The Legate’s frown lingered and beneath his gaze my fingers rose idly to my chest, where the amulet of Dibella lay beneath the layers of my cloak and dress. It was an old piece of jewelry, the colors faded and pieces both worn and tired. Gileva had gifted it to me before my first night. It was supposed to be a symbol of my position, a way for the men and women of Solitude to know that I was willing and available to serve. Over the years, however, it became something of a comfort to me. I almost always wore it, even when I wasn’t working. To me, Dibella was more than a symbol of a whore; I suppose some part of me wanted to hope I could be more, too.

Touching the necklace, even through my clothes, I realized it was time to end our conversation. The more I talked about my past, the more uncomfortable it made me, and Amidius seemed to notice. After a quiet moment he smiled.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice as kind as ever. “I am glad you trusted me to talk. I’ll have to return the favor the next time we stop.”


The rest of the day stretched on. It was hard to tell the time since the sun was never visible behind the snow clouds. I tried to get a sense for it as we traveled, but after a while my mind drifted and I lost track. The air became colder the closer we drew to the Pale and so I could not rely on the dropping temperature to guess how close it was to evening. Eventually I gave up and settled on listening to the horses snort and trudge through the snow. 

None of the men cared to talk and that was perfectly fine with me. Even Amidius remained quiet, his focus on the road ahead. Curician had not ridden back, which either meant the road ahead was safe or trouble had struck. If he had run into trouble, then I felt no concern for the man. My unease was only for my companions and I, who would run into the same trouble if not given a warning.

But a warning did come.

“Woah girl,” the man driving the carriage ahead of ours reined his horse back, forcing the rest of us to halt as well.

“What is it, Hermen?” Amidius asked the Nord. The man motioned to the path ahead and while the Legate and a few other soldiers climbed out of the wagons to investigate, the rest of us leaned forward to peer at the obstacle.

A wagon lay in the road, toppled over, the contents spilled all over the snow and into the surrounding brush. Near it lay a dead horse, the snow painted red with its blood. There were other mounds scattered around the wagon, but if they were bodies or just piles of snow, I could not see. Above the area a crow circled twice before it drifted into the trees, landing upon a limb. It watched, just as we watched, while Amidius and the men inspected the scene from a distance.

It was probably a bandit trap. They had spoken of the possibility when we left Solitude, had warned me to stay back if something like this ever came up on the journey.

But if this was a bandit trap, then it was a hastily made one.

For that wagon was one of our own.

A pulse moved through all of us. I felt the weight of the situation, the urgency and fear, and I knew the men around me felt it too. But unlike me, they were trained for this. They knew what to do. I could only and wait and pray that my heart did not pound out of my chest.

The Legate uttered an order to the men who had followed him and all at once they began to hurry back. Weapons were drawn from our wagons once they reached them, swords and bows with quivers full of arrows. There was no time to don proper armor.

Across from me sat Orlof. His blade lay on the floor of our wagon and as the other men began to ready theirs, he bent over to grab his own. I’d never used a sword in my life, but Divines, how I longed for one then!

“Orlof?” The man sat up and met my eyes. Gone was the drunk, boastful man who had offered me a place in his bedroll last night. Gone was the warmth that had held me against a tree outside of Morthal. Now his eyes were hard and serious, focused in a manner that near frightened me and kept my tongue still. I wanted to ask him for a blade of my own, for anything that might help me feel safe.

But then there was an arrow through his neck. On my silent tongue, between my parted lips, I tasted the heat of his blood.

Chapter Text

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.

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.

Moonlight.

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.

Then nothing.


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.

Rope.

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.

Chapter Text

We were in a ruin. There was little light, but I could see just enough to determine that. The bandits had a small camp set away from my cage, barely out of earshot, and the light of their fire illuminated the aged stone, exposing Nord symbols etched into the walls and pillars. Cracks in the ceiling let in small ribbons of light and snow, but we were mostly spared from the chill. 

My cage was large enough to stand in and move about, but only just. There was straw on the ground, dry and brittle and mostly bundled up in the corner for a bed. A bucket had been left behind too, for relieving oneself; a courteous addition for bandits. Another cage stood directly adjacent to mine, practically attached together. A figure lay within it, curled up on their side and facing away from me. They did not appear to be moving and so I assumed them dead.

It was a long while before the bandits returned. In the time they left me alone, I watched the light through the cracks grow dim until there was only darkness beyond. My stomach rumbled in the quiet and once it settled I heard the breaths of the person in the cell beside mine. They shifted and sighed, but did not turn over or stir from their sleep.

And so I took to watching them, to get an idea of my fellow prisoner. It was dark, but their closeness made it easier to see them. 

They wore the robes of a novice mage, similar to those used by the students from Winterhold’s College. It was rare, but every so often we would see a student in Solitude, traveling for their various studies. Their robes were always a dull shade of blue, though this stranger’s seemed darker, closer to black. Like the students, the prisoner also kept a hood pulled up over their head, hiding any hint of their features from sight. 

 It seemed odd to me that a mage could so easily be captured by bandits… But then again, I knew nothing about magic. Perhaps it wasn’t so far-fetched after-all.

Voices carried from deeper within the ruins and drew my gaze from the sleeping mage. They were followed by footfalls as bandits emerged, passing by the dwindling campfire to approach our cages. A woman was at the front, her steps swift and gaze critical. It was too dark to tell what she was, but by her confident gait and the harshness I felt beneath her stare, I assumed Nord.  Behind her trailed the four bandits who had found and kidnapped me. More than a week of traveling together and I never bothered to learn their names; no more than I’d bothered to learn those of the Imperials, who had made far better companions.

“I sent you bastards to find treasure and you bring me back a bloody whore?”

So this was the bandit chief.

“Y’see boss,” the Orc began. We were just thinking -” 

“I know what you idiots were thinking and you sure as fuck weren’t doing it with your brains!” 

Beside me, the sleeping mage snorted.

“You’d better hope she makes us gold,” the chief continued. “Or I’ll be locking the lot of you down there with the Draugr!” 

“We’ll get her cleaned up and take her into town tomorrow night, Chief.” 

    “No, you won’t. Not until Arvel makes it back. Damn idiot may have blown our cover in Riverwood, so no one is leaving here until he comes back, dead or alive.” 

    The bandits began to move away, forgetting all about me while they argued amongst themselves. I wouldn’t have minded going ignored, but as soon as they were out of earshot, my stomach began to groan again. 

    “They’ll bring us food.”

The figure in my adjoining cell shifted and I turned to meet the grinning, golden face of a High Elf. For a prisoner, his amber eyes were bright and lively beneath his hood; they were the warmest thing in that ruin. 

“You’ve no idea how boring it’s been here,” he said, followed by a small yawn as he stood and stretched, raising his arms as high as they could fit within the cramped quarters. “Bandits are the worst for conversation. They haven’t cut out your tongue, have they?” 

I shook my head. 

“Oh, thank the gods! That would be just my luck, imprisoned with a mute. Not that there’s anything wrong with being mute, mind, but it wouldn’t help the whole conversation issue.”

He was unlike any Altmer I had ever seen. There were plenty of them in Solitude, both as citizens and visiting Thalmor. Never would they have engaged with someone like me or any of Gileva’s Girls. I had heard them talk from a distance and watched the way they moved through the city, as if the ancient stone upon which Solitude was built was no better than filth beneath their slippers and expensive boots.

In-comparison to those High Elves, this man was like an imposter in Altmer skin. His features, from what I could tell, were as sharp and strangely handsome as most of his kind, but that was where the similarities ended.

“Name’s Celeon Faelock, by the way,” he continued. “College failure turned bandit prisoner. What about you?” His arm was just thin enough to fit between the bars of our cages, and in so doing he reached into mine, offering his hand. I took it hesitantly. 

“I am Eishilde. Just Eishilde. Whore from Solitude.”

“A whore from Solitude!” Celeon chuckled as he shook my hand and released it. “Would never have guessed, what with all that dried blood you’re wearing. I suppose that’s more impressive than getting kicked out of the College of Winterhold, though. It must take a lot of willpower, suffering those insufferable city gits long enough to bed them.”

“Most of them aren’t so bad.” It was true, but a small voice told me I only believed it because I was so used to the regulars. Would I have ever willingly fucked any of them as real lovers, rather than paying customers? Maybe one or two…

The Altmer quirked a disbelieving brow, followed with a half-shrug. “I’ll just take your word for it. So, how did you end up here, miss Eishilde? All the way from Solitude?” 

He leaned against the side of his cage and crossed his arms over his chest, watching me with a half-smile, seemingly sincere in his curiosity. I struggled to understand how anyone could be so… Jovial. We were trapped in bandit cages, locked in some Nord ruin, but this Elf wanted to chat like it was just an average day in the market. It was baffling.

His question brought to mind the faces of my former companions, however, all of those Imperial soldiers who I’d never really bothered to know. Mostly I thought of Orlof and the way his focused eyes had lost their light seconds after that arrow pierced his throat. I thought of Amidius, too, and the brutish Stormcloak who’d nearly killed him… 

“The bandits found me in the Pale,” I answered, choosing to forego the full story. “They kept me from freezing to death and decided to drag me here. What about you? How long have you been here and how does a mage even get captured by bandits?”

 “Well, look at me.” Celeon shifted away from the cage wall and opened his arms, gesturing to his body. “I’m a thin elf with no armor against a band of bandits out on the road. Magic can only do so much. But as to your first question, I’ve only been here a few days, if that.”

That probably explained why he remained so light-hearted. Surely if he’d been near the bandits as long as I had, that joy would drain right out of him.

 “Why didn’t they just kill you? Or do they plan to whore you out alongside me?”

“Ha!” I didn’t think his eyes could get any brighter, but with his laughter the corners of them creased and their amber hue shifted, ever so briefly, to a radiant gold. “Somehow I don’t think they’d have much luck with that. No, they kept me alive because one of them had the brilliant idea of sending a ransom to the Thalmor headquarters. Their leader has a bit more sense, though. Called them all idiots and made the very true point that the Thalmor, and I quote, ‘wouldn’t give a giant’s rotting shit about that skinny elf whelpling’. I’m only still here because they think I can magic them through some puzzles and traps down in these ruins.”

“What sort of traps and puzzles?” There were stories about ancient Nord ruins and the many obstacles my ancestors placed within them. Along with the sacred dead, they buried treasure, weapons, relics… It made sense that they would seek to protect those things, too. I’d never really believed in Draugr or in the presumed traps that littered Nord resting places, but the idea still intrigued me; more-so now that I was trapped in such a ruin.

“Wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. Fortunately I’ve yet to be given the chance. Some of their members rushed off ahead to scout the ruins and their chief is waiting on their return. She’ll get fed up eventually, I’m sure, and decide they’re all dead. Until then I’m just stuck here. Oh look, dinner!”

I followed Celeon’s gaze which had drifted past me and settled on a pair of men approaching the cells. They each carried a hunk of bread and a small wedge of cheese. It was far from a filling meal, but at that point my stomach would have gladly taken charred Skeever tails. The bread and cheese left my mouth watering.

“Hope yer hungry, Thalmor bastard,” one of the men said as he moved to Celeon’s cell. “Rations’re gettin’ low. Might be the last meal ye get for a while.” 

“I don’t know how many times I have to say it,” the Elf sighed as the food was shoved through his bars. “But just because I have the skin of a banana, that does not make me a Thalmor.”

 “Th’fuck is a banana?” If the bandit really cared, he didn’t linger by Celeon’s cage long enough to learn, and the Elf made no attempt to explain. He was already digging into his bread and I watched with envy before turning to the man with my food.

“I’d love to feed you lass,” he said with a smirk. “But you’ve got to earn it first.” 

Pride urged me to ignore them, but hunger spoke louder. “How?”

“Nothin’ too hard… Maybe just show us your tits right quick. Easy, eh?”

Easy. I’d done it before, exposed my chest for a coin or two. Of course, it usually involved a bit more than just showing and I’d never been forced to do it in exchange for food. That humiliated me more than having my breasts bared for all of them to see. But embarrassed or not, I was hungry and hunger has a way of forcing one’s hand. After everything, this seemed a small price to pay for a bit of bread and cheese. 

“Fine. It’s not like you’re the first men to see them, anyway.”

They watched like eager pups while I removed my cloak, untied the front of my dress, and slid the sleeves from my shoulders. They stared as if they hadn’t seen a pair of tits in months, though with a female boss as tough as theirs, perhaps that wasn’t too far from the mark.

I made sure to keep toward the back of the cage and out of their reach while I pulled the dress down, exposing my chest in full. They could look all they pleased, but it would take more than some stale bread and cheese if they wanted to touch. My pride wouldn’t give in that easily. 

The bandits took their time staring and while I waited for them to have their fill, I glanced to Celeon’s cage. I was curious to see what he thought of the exchange and if he, too, felt any need to appraise my tits like the idiots in front of me. The mage, however, kept his gaze down, focused only on his food. 

At least until one of the bandits noticed my glance.

“Oi, elf!” The man who had delivered Celeon’s dinner banged his palm against the cage, as if the Altmer truly was an animal. In response, he lifted his hooded head, but kept his amber eyes locked on the men rather than on me. “Go on then, elf, have a good luck. Better than your Thalmor wenches, I bet.”

With a patient obedience, Celeon turned to look at me. His eyes met mine only briefly before they dropped, taking in the same scene as our captors. Something about his gaze bothered me, though I couldn’t quite place what and why. He had seemed so unlike the bandits, so intent to simply eat and keep his gaze averted. Having him stare like the other men clumped the strange Altmer with them, at least in my mind. He was odd, but still a man, and I shouldn’t expect anything less. 

I watched him stare, his expression unreadable and my own just as hard, but after a moment the Altmer simply looked away.

 “Honestly, lads, I’ve seen better. You really ought to find a better hobby.”

In Solitude, people had stared. Sometimes in lust, sometimes in disgust, but there were always eyes. Whether clothed or nude, there were eyes on me. 

Always.

My body stopped belonging to me when I was sixteen and Gileva sold me to the highest bidder. I learned that it didn’t matter how I looked. If someone wanted me, then they wanted me, no matter how appealing parts of me were to them. Never had I wondered if I was pretty or lovely or as enthralling as Dibella Herself. Never had I cared.

But with Celeon’s remark, an unexpected heat rose in my cheeks. My fingers fidgeted with the dress as I held it in place, just under my breasts. I turned away from all three men, keeping to an angle where they could not watch as I pulled my dress back up and covered myself again. 

“Oi!” One of the bandits snapped. “We weren’t done lookin’!”

I shot a glare to the man with my food and reached for my cloak, wrapping it around my shoulders. “Piss off.”

“Suit yourself, sweetheart.”

And they were gone, taking my food with them.

My cheeks still burned as I slumped down onto my bed of straw. I drew my knees up and wrapped my arms around them, making myself as small as I could manage. Beside me, Celeon moved, inching closer to the bars that separated us. I felt his presence reach between our cages and lay something within mine, close to my feet.

But I refused to look at him. My head and eyes remained turned, watching the distant glow of the bandit’s campfire. Whatever food he offered me, I would not accept. Even with my growling stomach and wounded pride, I did not want it. 

 I didn’t want anything from anyone.


Celeon’s food – the rest of his bread and half of his cheese – still lay on the floor of my cage when I woke. The mage himself was curled up again, seemingly asleep, but facing away. With his back turned, I reached for the morsels and devoured them so quickly that my belly ached once I finished. A bottle had been left in my cage, too, likely from the bandits. It held water which helped to wash down the dryness of the bread and cheese, and then eased some of the ache in my stomach. 

The cracks in the stone ceiling were still dark and the bandit’s fire had dwindled down to nothing. I could just barely make out lumps around it, the outline of sleeping bodies. There was nothing to do but lay back down as well and try to sleep.


When I awoke a second time, it was to arguing. The bandit chief had returned and was in the midst of a heated discussion with her followers. I couldn’t quite make out everything she said, but the gist of it seemed to be that they had all messed up. The ones who delved into the ruins weren’t coming back and it was too dangerous to go after them for “the claw” – whatever that meant. So they would leave, find another hideout and seek better treasure elsewhere. The chief wouldn’t trust anyone but herself to find somewhere knew and she already had a location in mind. So she left on her own, but not without giving her crew orders.

“Kill the prisoners. They’re a waste of food and effort.” 

Death had followed me ever since I left Solitude, so the idea of being killed by these bandits did not frighten me. Compared to everything else, death would be a welcome comfort. Maybe I was just too tired and weak to care and protest. There was no excuse I could give to make the bandits spare me and there was no will left in me to try.

But Celeon Faelock would not give in so easily.

“Wait – Wait!” he called to the chief as she passed by our cages, but the woman was as hard as the iron that imprisoned us. Not even a look was spared our way before she vanished beyond the ruin doors

He looked to me with nothing short of desperation, but I only looked away and waited for the inevitable.

Chapter Text

“You lot, over here! I’ve got something to say!” Celeon had been trying to get the attention of the other bandits since the moment their Chief left, but the dirty bastards were doing a damn good job of ignoring him. In-fact, their ability to pretend he didn’t exist was beginning to annoy me; I could only dream of being so lucky. When he wasn’t calling out to the drinking bandits, then the High Elf was shaking the bars of his cage, making the old iron rattle and groan.

I’d done my best to ignore him and instead prepare for my death. There wasn’t much to do, besides mentally steeling my nerves for everything to end. Before leaving Solitude, dying had rarely crossed my mind. I knew it would happen someday, somehow, but it was never so important, so present… At least, not until the moment Curician stole me from Gileva’s and I feared an execution.

There was no fear, now. Just a pulsing headache and my own silent prayers, begging Arkay for the mercy of a bandit’s dagger.

“You could help, you know,” Celeon snapped towards me.

“And you could shut up and wait to die with some dignity.” I turned to face the Elf, having avoided his gaze, and found his amber eyes as hot as fire.

“You Nords and your bloody sense of honor and dignity! What good is any of it if you’re dead?”

“And what good is trying to bargain with bandits? What do you expect, that they’ll just let us go?” I glared back at him, arms folded over my chest. “What do you even want me to do, flash my tits again? Maybe let them all fuck me at once, right here? Do you think that will earn our lives and freedom? I’d sooner die.”

His nostrils flared. “You’ll show off your breasts for food, but not to save your own skin? You’ll lay with anyone for the right coin, but not to stay alive?”

Like the bellows in a forge, his words only fueled my own anger.

“Yes. I may be a whore, mage, but I still have my pride. Far more than you.”

“Oi!” One of the bandits, the sole Orc among them, called out. “Shut up! Your bickerin’ makes the mead taste like piss!”

“I’ll shut up when one of you listens to me!” With at least one bandit’s attention, Celeon gripped the bars of his cage and stared past me, forgetting our brief argument. “I know every word to Ragnar the Red and can’t hold a tune for the life of me, but I will sing that bloody song until it echoes if you don’t hear what I have to say!”

With a huff, I moved aside, leaning against the back of my cage where I could watch the Elf and Orc. The latter had risen from his seat by the fire and abandoned his fellows to approach us, dagger in hand.

“How about I just drive this ‘ere blade in your neck instead?”

“Or that,” Celeon shrugged. “But killing me would be a very, very poor choice.”

“Aye? Seems like it’s the only choice our boss gave us.” The Orc reached our cages and moved to stand in front of them. He twisted the dagger between his green fingers. “Seems to me ignoring ‘er order is a poorer choice.”

“Well, sure, if her order wasn’t so half-brained and lacking in vision. Listen, we are a much better use to you lot alive than dead.”

We?

The Orc narrowed his eyes and even I stood straighter to fix the Elf with my full glare and attention.

“You’ve got about three minutes to explain, Elf-scum, before I cut off your ears.”

Celeon cleared his throat, remarkably confident. “It’s obvious, really. Your chief doesn’t think any of you can get to the treasure buried in these ruins, aye? Well she’s right, you can’t. I, however, can.”

The Orc gave a low grunt. “Go on.”

“Your friend, Arvie, Arvel… Whatever. He has the claw, yes? Well, assuming he’s not dead, it’s going to take a few ancient Nord traps and puzzles to get to the right door. Obviously I, a mage, have an advantage there. But let us say he gets to the door. Then he has to figure out how to use the claw to open it. Now, I don’t want to make any assumptions, but you bandit types are usually lacking in the… Well.”

Celeon lifted a hand to tap at his skull; the Orc growled.

“Maybe Arvie figured it out, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’s still down there scratching his head over a puzzle, maybe he’s dead. Point is, none of you know for sure and none of you can know unless you go down into that crypt and search. So here’s my proposition… You take us…”

The Elf gestured to me.

“… out of these cages. You lead us as far down into these ruins as you like. Leave us a few weapons, maybe some food. Then you turn around, scurry back up to safety, and let us search for your comrades and this treasure. If we find them, if we find it, then we’ll come back and make you rich. If we get slaughtered mercilessly by rotting Draugr… Well, then I guess you didn’t disobey your boss after all.”

It was the stupidest idea I had ever heard, even rivaling Curician’s fool plot to have me seduce a Stormcloak officer.

“What’s to stop you two from escaping once we leave you down there?”

Celeon exhaled a sigh. “Friend, it is a crypt. There’s only one way in and one way out. If there was an escape route hidden down there, then we’d have Draugr in the bloody roads.”

The Orc furrowed his brow and licked at one of his tusks in thought. I held my breath, expecting that dagger to go get plunged into Celeon’s gut any second. Instead, the bandit nodded as if every ridiculous word that left Celeon’s mouth actually made a bit of sense.

“Fine. You’d rather face Draugr than my blade? Be my guest. But if you find anything down there, you bring it straight to me. Got it?”

The Elf held up his hands. “I assure you, I’d sooner be alive and free than rich. All of the treasure is yours.”

A snort served as the Orc’s reply, as if the very idea of craving life over gold was idiotic. With the agreement settled, he wandered off, leaving us alone again. In our brief solitude, I turned to approach where our cages met.

“You could have asked me first.”

“Do you really want me to believe that you’d rather have your throat slit than a chance at freedom?”

“What freedom? It is a crypt. Starving to death down there will be a much slower death. I don’t want to die in misery.”

“The only misery you’ll feel is from being stuck by me down there. Besides, don’t be so sure there’s no way out.” The Elf flashed me a quick grin. I opened my mouth to question his confidence, but the sound of the Orc returning kept us both silent.

He had brought one of the Nords back with him, and together they opened our cages and forced our wrists behind our backs, tying them with rope. It was only while bound that they would guide us into the ruins.

The other bandits watched us pass by the heat of their campfire, most of them smirking. Maybe they assumed we’d be dead within the hour; maybe we would be. It seemed fate was keen on thrusting me from one foolish plot into another, teasing me with death. Had I been capable of feeling anything beyond a frustrated numbness, maybe I would have laughed about it all.

But maybe there was some truth to the Elf’s words. Maybe we could find a way out of the crypt… Or perhaps if we could manage to survive long enough, the bandits would pack up and leave, and we could simply walk out the way we’d come in. Of course, that could take weeks. Unless we dared to eat the rotten remains of those buried below, I doubted we could manage for that long.

Maybe there would be dead Skeever to eat.

I’d eaten Skeever before, when I was a child traveling with the Khajiit. But it had been years since then and the meat had been well-cooked. We’d have to eat it raw down in the ruins… And my nose wrinkled at the thought. I wasn’t sure if it was the idea of raw Skeever that disturbed me so, or if it was simply the knowledge that I’d eat it without question if given no choice.

Maybe it was better to not think about food.

The deeper we delved into the ruins, the harder it became to maneuver. If the stone below wasn’t broken and unsteady, then it was draped in endless tendrils of roots and cobwebs. There were iron stands holding thick candles, most of which had long ago been burned low; the wax had formed a solid pool around the iron base. The bandits had lit the candles, but they barely cast a light through the darkness.

Ahead of us lay a brighter glow that flickered and danced through the shadows. We followed it down a set of root-covered steps and into a small hall that was lit by a brazier. The embers illuminated two ledges upon which sat closed coffins, surrounded by urns. Beside these urns waited weapons.

There was a pair of twin daggers and a single short-sword; nothing else.

“There’s your weapons,” the Orc stated as he and his companion began to unbind our wrists. “Don’t even think about turning them on us. We’ll have you outnumbered and dead before you can even make it up the stairs.”

“Leave the mage’s,” the Nord added nervously. “Don’t want this elf bastard using his magic on us. You, whore. You untie him once we’re gone.”

Celeon let out an impatient sigh.

I said nothing as the men untied me, though some dark part of my instinct urged me to reach for the blade and plunge it into at least one of the bandits. They would kill me for it, most certainly, but at least I’d have the satisfaction of dying in self-defense… But I remained caught in this thought for too long. The Orc and Nord had me untied and turned back to the stairs, departing in haste; leaving me alone in the orange light with Celeon Faelock.

“I hope you actually have a better plan than exploring some old ruins until we drop.” I stared at the Elf, leaving the rope around his wrists.

“You know,” Celeon began. “I bet you’d actually enjoy yourself if you would just trust that I know what I’m doing and will get us out of here alive.”

“How you can be so sure there’s a way out?”

“There is always a way out. Several of them, usually. I’ve been in enough Nord crypts to know.”

This was certainly a surprise. Sometimes rumors spread across Skyrim about the College of Winterhold excavating Nord ruins and burial grounds. Usually those rumors were met with scorn, but they were rare enough to hear in Solitude and the city is so far from Winterhold itself that the rumors never carried much weight.

“So you have experience with this?”

“Yes!” For not the first time, Celeon’s eyes seemed to light up. “Lots of experience, actually. Your ancestors were not too creative and most of these ruins look the same, lacking variety in traps. Now, will you please untie me?”

I stared hard at the Elf for a long moment before I nodded.

“Fine. But I get the blade.”


It was surprisingly fortunate that the bandits had bothered to explore at least a ways further into the ruins. More candles and even some torches had been lit past the hallway with urns, and with nothing to douse the flames, they offered just enough light to guide us along. Neither Celeon nor I spoke, and besides the sounds of our steps and the occasional crackle of embers burning in a brazier, the ruins were quiet.

This I found to be more unsettling than the shadows or the fact that we were steadily wandering deeper underground than I’d ever cared to be. I was used to noise. Living in Solitude, there was rarely a quiet day or night; even less so in my profession. Voices always carried in the streets, in the tavern. Even in the early hours, there would be chickens clucking or goats braying. During the day, the market was alive with chatter and haggling, sometimes even the solemn mutterings after a recent execution. The voices of guards carried through the streets, reminding the children to stop running; the children’s laughter always drowned out the warnings. And for me there was always noise, always the groan of a bed or the breaths of my lovers, before and after they’d been given their coin’s worth.

In the Nord crypt the lack of noise felt suffocating.

Celeon had taken point, guiding us deeper and focusing solely on our path ahead. One of the daggers he carried in his hand while the other remained tucked under his belt. With my sword, I felt better armed than the Altmer, though he had magic on his side, too. I only had my stubborn anger and weariness. The new sword was heavier than Orlof’s had been, and my limited strength was starting to feel the strain of the past few weeks.

The Elf did not say a word until we came to an open room. A lever was set in the center with a closed gate on the opposite wall. Beside the lever lay the body of a man, one of the bandits if his leather attire was anything to go by. Arrows dotted his body, but the blood on his skin was long dried.

To the left of the room were three pillars, each depicting the image of a different animal: a snake, a hawk and a whale.

“Mm, a shame,” Celeon murmured as he approached the bandit. He crouched beside the corpse and began fiddling with the body, searching in the deceased’s pockets. On the bandit’s back he’d worn a fur pack, and once Celeon had thoroughly searched the man’s pockets, he unceremoniously rolled the hefty bandit over to steal the pack from his body.

My lips pursed as I watched him, but when he had finished and the pack lay nestled against his own spine, the Elf met my gaze and shrugged, shameless. “We might need this. You never know what we’ll find down here.”

I only shook my head and turned towards the animal pillars. “What are those?”

“Those are a puzzle. Here, look.” Celeon slid his other dagger between his hip and belt, and then placed both of his hands on my shoulders, guiding me from behind to face the gate. With how close he stood, I noticed just how much taller the Elf really was compared to me. Altmer usually are tall and I’m not quite as tall as most Nords… his closeness made me feel small and I stiffened; he did not notice.

“Look up there.” He reached over my shoulder to point to the wall above the gate. Two images were carved into the stone, one depicting a snake and the other a whale. Between the two, however, the wall had broken away, leaving an empty gap. “That is our answer to the puzzle. The middle image…”

Celeon lowered his finger to point to the ground near the gate, where a pile of stone lay in a rubble. One smooth stone was broken in half, with only the upper portion visible. It showed the head of a snake.

“… Is right there,” I noted.

“Yes and sadly our friend here wasn’t quite clever enough to look up. He probably ignored the pillars entirely, leaving them turned to the wrong sequence. Then he pulled the lever and arrows shot him dead… As they would do to you, if you didn’t have me.”

“Oh really?” I huffed. “This puzzle wasn’t difficult at all, I could have figured it out on my own!”

“Oh yes, because you Nords are certainly known for your brains…”

It took a lot of willpower to not elbow the arrogant ass in the gut. Instead I shrugged his hands off of my shoulders and strode over to the pillars. The first already displayed a snake, but the middle showed the image of a hawk. Placing my sword on the ground, I pressed both of my palms against the pillar and pushed.

“I’m only half-Nord, by the way,” I grunted as the pillar began to turn. It wasn’t particularly heavy, but it still took some effort.

“Only half?” The Elf approached the third pillar to turn it. “Well, don’t leave me in suspense. What’s the rest of you?”

“Imperial.”

Celeon gave a low hum in response. Our pillars settled into place, mimicking the carvings upon the wall: Snake, Snake, Whale.

“Would you care to do the honors?” My companion asked, gesturing to the lever.

“Oh no, I think this one is all yours. Try not to get shot.”

I reclaimed my sword as Celeon flashed me a confident grin and moved to pull the lever. For a moment my heart stopped, expecting the foolish Elf to have misunderstood the puzzle. The walls trembled around us and I tore my gaze away from him, searching the surrounding stone for hidden niches that might propel arrow after arrow.

But none came. Iron groaned as the gate across the way opened.

“Tadah! Just like magic. Come along, Eishilde, we have a crypt to explore!”

And then Celeon near-skipped his way around the lever and toward the gate, happier than a child with a sweet roll.

I decided then that I hated the jovial Altmer and his stupid plan.

More than this, I hated knowing he was my best chance of making it out of the crypt alive.

Chapter Text

Our progress slowed after the puzzle room. Celeon insisted we move carefully, keeping a close eye on the stone beneath our feet.

“It’s all too easy to overlook a loose rock, not realizing it is a pressure plate that triggers a deadly trap. I have a few scars to prove that.”

So we continued on with caution. I let the Elf take point, considering he had more knowledge about Nord ruins than I.

By that point, I had come to accept that I might survive. Celeon’s confidence was infectious and every time I brought up my skepticism, he would flash me a charming smile and say: “I cannot wait to see the look on your face once you realize I’m right.”

It was infuriating.

Neither of us knew how much time had passed since the bandits abandoned us to the crypt, but we couldn’t have been wandering for more than a few short hours before we heard the voice. It was a desperate sound, even before the words became coherent. They echoed against the stone walls, urging us to slow our pace.

“Is… is someone coming?” the voice called out. “Is that you Harknir? Bjorn? Soling?”

Celeon paused and looked to me with a small nod. He continued to take the lead, guiding me through the darkness and into a hall adorned with draping spiderwebs.

“You’re not afraid of spiders, are you Eishilde?” the Elf asked, almost too casually. Ahead of us, the voice still spoke, spewing some nonsense about claws.

“Not really,” I answered. When the weather was cold and the hearths warm, spiders often scuttled inside. Gileva had been fond of collecting them, saving them for a snack. I’d learned to co-exist, even if I could never stomach the idea of eating the creatures.

Celeon watched me for a moment longer, his eyes searching before he responded.

“Good.” There was no warmth or amusement in his tone; whatever spiders lurked in the crypt were clearly no average house-spider.

The webs began to grow more abundant as we crept along, proving that point. It wasn’t quite enough to keep our feet stuck to the ground, but it was more than enough to make my skin crawl. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but even then there were too many shadows, too many crevices for something to lurk…

We paused only when we reached an open archway that had been completely sealed by webs. Celeon lifted his dagger and began to cut some of the threads away, but they were thick and sticky and made his progress slow. Muttering a curse, the mage withdrew his blade and lifted his fist, conjuring fire that engulfed his fingers.

I stepped back, both in awe and fear of the magic before me. The Elf used his flames to burn away the webbings, and with each broken thread, I began to better understand why he had asked if I feared spiders. Suddenly the flames did not unnerve me quite as much as whatever lay beyond the wall of silk.

“Is it too late to change my mind?” He had only just managed to burn an opening for us to pass through when I asked.

Celeon cast me a grim look. “You just worry about cutting off any legs if it gets too close, and whatever you to do, don’t let it spit on you.”

Part of me wanted to ask, but I held my tongue. Celeon went through first and I followed close behind.

The room we entered was a nightmare. More webs coated the floor and walls, and scattered around us were the mounds of bodies woven within silk cocoons. Light spilled down from the ceiling through cracks in the stone, but they were so high up that we could not see where the light even began. It reached us in dim ribbons, mostly blocked by what I hoped were webs up in the shadows. Across from us, on the other side of the room, was another passageway blocked by webs – and caught within them was a living Dunmer man.

“What?” The man, the voice we had heard in the passageway, continued. “Who are you? Oh, never mind, cut me down before that thing gets us!”

“’Who are you’?” Celeon repeated; his fist still burned with fire. “Really, Arvie? I’m a bit offended you’ve forgotten my handsome face already. Not that it matters… Where is the claw?”

“Oh. Oh, it’s you…” The Dunmer bandit struggled within the web. “Of all the bloody rotten luck… Alright, fine, fine! The claw. Yes, I have it and I know how it works. Just cut me down and I’ll show you!”

Celeon made a show of tapping his chin with the flat side of his dagger. “Hm… I don’t know. I could just leave you here, come back in a bit for the claw…”

“No! Don’t leave me, for Arkay’s sake!” The bandit’s struggling continued, but the web refused to give him up. “I’m sorry I stole it from you! There, happy? Now cut me down, please!”

Celeon kept on tapping his chin, unsatisfied with the man’s pleas. He probably would have stood there and let the bandit suffer for hours, but I wasn’t about to wait around for the damned spider to show up.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I had my sword, surely it could cut through the web better than a dagger.

“Eish, wait-!”

I was only a few steps past the Altmer when a dark shadow clouded what little light spilled down from above.

“No, not again!” The bandit yelled. HELP!”

Everything in me urged me not to do it, but even that was not enough. I looked up, just in time to see several large eyes focus directly on me as the massive spider made its descent. My body froze, just as it had that day in the Pale when the Stormcloak attacked Amidius. I couldn’t even manage to scream as eight legs were unfurled…

But then Celeon was there, shoving me back as his fist erupted into a ball of fire. I did not see the fire strike the spider’s face as I fell, but I heard the awful shriek and sizzling pop of a few eyes bursting from the intense heat. It staggered the beast, but Celeon’s flames would not be enough to slay it.

The ground below was sticky and clung to my hair and dress, but it was not enough to hold me down. While the Elf kept the spider busy, I forced myself back onto my feet.

When I’d frozen during the Stormcloak ambush, I had felt life return to me when Amidius was in danger. For the second time, I felt that surge of strength rush through my veins as I watched Celeon face the spider alone. Divines knew I hadn’t clue what I was doing, but as much as I disliked the Elf, I couldn’t leave him to be slaughtered by the eight-legged horror. Dealing with the guilt of fleeing the battle and Amidius was difficult enough; if I survived this, I didn’t want to add the Altmer’s blood to that guilt.

So I charged forward and swung my sword, slicing into one of the spider’s many limbs. A furious yell rang in my ears, but it wasn’t until I felt the sickening weight of the blade cutting into the leg that I realized I was the one crying out.

It was easier than it had been against the Stormcloak. This time there was no bone to slow my hack. The sword went straight through, sending a hairy leg twitching away from its body. The attack drew the spider’s ire and attention onto me, just long enough for Celeon to get his bearings. What few of its eyes remained were fixed on me while it tried to recover from the loss of a limb. It didn’t lunge for me, but I watched as its fangs began to drip with a dark liquid.

Don’t let it spit on you.

The spider lifted its head, ready to spit whatever foul venom secreted from its fangs.

I turned to run, even knowing the spider would be faster.

But I was wrong.

Celeon was faster than the spider.

He had foregone his fire and instead wielded a blade made of shadows and magic. With it, he fended off the spider, slicing through more of its eyes while trying desperately to evade the creature’s fangs. With the beast distracted, I rushed in to join him, angling my own sword towards one of its legs.

“No, stab it!” The Altmer demanded. He managed to slice off one of the front legs as the spider reared up.

Behind us, the bandit had begun to weep and pray. I could barely focus on his words, but the hopeless fear in his voice, the desperation… Something about it guided my hand. I felt the strength in his prayers and plunged my blade into the spider’s middle. My wrist turned and I had to bite back vomit that threatened to rise from the disgusting crunch of the sword ripping through the spider’s innards. It wasn’t quite dead yet, so I yanked the blade back, bringing with it a mess of mush, and lifted the sword high. I brought it down, hacking into the spine of the beast while Celeon’s magic blade severed the spider’s head.

It was done.

The creature collapsed in a mess of its own gore, its legs twitching for several seconds before it lay still.

My chest ached and my breaths were heavy from the struggle. While I caught my breath, I tried to let it sink in that we had just fought and slain a giant spider, but it was all too fresh. My veins burned with the adrenaline and my mind refused to settle. So I stood there, bent over, breathing hard, and tried not to stare too hard or long at the dead spider.

Celeon took only a few moments to gather his composure before he stood tall, abandoning his magic blade with that disarming smile of his. His hood had fallen back during the fight, exposing long threads of golden hair. Somehow they still remained straight and neat.

“Now…” He tucked a strand behind his ear and moved to approach the trapped Dunmer. “Where were we?”

“You were gonna cut me down!” The bandit answered. “And I was going to show you the Hall of Stories, with the door and the claw…”

“Oh yes, the claw!” Celeon clapped his hands together. “The claw you stole from me, Arvie, just before your little friends tossed me into a cage.”

“It’s Arvel, thank you very much, and it ain’t stealing if you stole it in the first place!”

“Wait-” I still hadn’t caught my breath, but that didn’t keep me from standing straight and approaching the two men. “You’re a thief?”

“Oho!” Arvel’s laughter shook the webbings around him. “Didn’t you know, lass? Golden Boy ‘ere went and stole this pretty claw from the Riverwood shopkeeper.”

“You stole from a shop.” There were many things I could ignore in a person, but thievery was not something I had ever looked on favorably. The Khajiit were always accused of theft and dishonesty, even though they were more honest than most people I’ve met. When I was a child, I had to watch again and again as the caravan was insulted and made to look like criminals. I hated to see people steal, only for others to take the blame.

I wanted to hate the Altmer for his cocky, jovial nature; hating him for being a thief was easier.

“Well I was going to give it back!” Celeon explained with a shrug. “I only need it for the door.”

“What door?”

“THE door!” Both men answered at once.

“The claw is a key to a door,” Celeon elaborated. “Beyond the door lies a treasure. So you see? I needed the key. I had to steal it!”

“Right, because stealing from a shop just so you can steal from the dead makes this much, much better.”

His eyes locked onto mine and for a few long seconds, we fought with our glares.

“Can… Can someone just cut me down!?”

I was too stubborn to break away first, but I was also unwilling to give any more spiders a chance to find us. With a frustrated sigh I shattered my hold on Celeon’s gaze and turned to Arvel. My blade was still covered in spider guts, but it managed to cut through the web decently well.

“Sweet breath of Arkay, thank you.”

“Don’t get any bold ideas, Arvie,” Celeon remarked by my side. “We cut you down, you hand over the claw.”

“Yes, yes, just get me out first! I can feel it coming loose!”

The Altmer didn’t bother to help me cut the Dunmer free, which was smart of him; I might’ve aimed for one of his fingers if he had. It didn’t take long to cut the bandit free, and once he was, he dropped to his knees to catch his breath. He was slow to rise, but once he did, there was a dagger in his hand.

“You fools. Why should I share the treasure with anyone?” And then he turned and dashed off, moving into the dark tunnels beyond the webbed doorway like a swift-footed fox.

“Damn it!” Celeon growled. “Never trust a bandit, Eishilde, lesson number one!”

“How about I just never trust a man?”

He shot me a cold look, but this time the treasure was far more important to the Elf than battling me with silent glares. Without another word he turned to chase after the bandit.

I glanced back the way we had come, beyond the dead spider, and briefly considered retreating…

But no. We’d come this far and if the bandits were still in the ruins above, they’d never let me pass alive. I’d already decided to follow and trust the Elf, against my better judgment and pride. So I pushed forward, brushing aside the lingering webs to follow after Celeon the Thief.

There was so much to think about and no time to actually stop and think. All I could do was focus on the sound of Celeon’s steps, which echoed against the cold stone and served as a guide. The webs began to ebb and the tunnels grew darker, though in some corners, set upon their thrones of iron, candles had been lit. Light spilled from them, illuminating just enough to chase off the shadows. Grateful as I was for the light, the candles unnerved me. Who had lit them? Surely not the bandits, as I could not imagine any had made it further than Arvel. The Dunmer himself wouldn’t have had time to pause and light the way, not with Celeon so close… But that did leave Celeon, a mage with a fist of fire, who could easily kindle the wicks in passing.

Maybe he had lit them for me, but that was a thought I pushed aside, lest it softened my opinion of him.

My feet slowed only when the walls began to shift, unveiling large niches carved into the stone, within which lay the long rotted remains of ancient Nords. Something in the air grew heavy with a strange musk and the weight of decay. The corpses were nothing more than bone and frayed fabric, but their presence demanded a sense of quiet and respect that I was willing to provide.

But that quiet was quickly shattered when the hall rang out with the sound of iron hitting stone, punctuated by an agonizing cry.

My pace quickened. It had not sounded like Celeon’s voice, but I could not be sure until I rounded a corner and found the Altmer crouched over a fallen body. At the sound of my steps, Celeon lifted a hand and flicked a spark towards an unlit candle, igniting it in soft flame. The light spilled over the Elf’s golden head, but it also exposed the body of Arvel laying at Celeon’s feet, and dark splotches staining the ground.

“Mind the stone,” the mage muttered as I moved closer. He was busy rummaging through Arvel’s belongings, but spared a quick nod towards a raised stone in front of the Dunmer’s body. It wasn’t quite like the rest of the floor, though I would have overlooked it had I been on my own. It blended well, despite the blood that stained it and a strange design carved into the surface.

“A trap?”

“A trap,” Celeon confirmed. He raised his hand again, though instead of fire he conjured a glowing orb that hovered a few paces ahead. It illuminated the walls of a tunnel, but more specifically an iron gate that loomed, near hidden, just out of sight. Covering the iron were thick spikes, not quite large enough to impale, but more than enough to kill someone if struck at a violent speed.

I glanced down at the fallen Dunmer. “A better death than giant spiders, I suppose.”

“Certainly quicker… Aha!” Celeon grinned as he pulled something from Arvel’s pack. It was exactly what he and the bandit had called it – a claw made of gold that nearly covered the entirety of Celeon’s hand. “Finally, back where it belongs.”

“So says the thief.” I shook my head as Celeon rose, stuffing the claw into this own pack – which he had also stolen from a dead bandit.

Celeon’s lips pursed. “I told you, once I’ve used it, I’ll return it.”

“You’ll just ‘give it back’? And if they have you arrested?”

Somehow this brightened the mage’s expression as he fixed me with one of his damned grins. “They would, if they knew I was the one who stole it. I imagine the shopkeeper is offering a reward to anyone who fetches this beauty from the bandits. Which, might I add, we just did!”

Despite the instinctive reverence I felt amidst the deceased Nords, my voice raised. “So you stole it and plan to reap the rewards of returning it, after you’ve used it to steal even more gold from a crypt? You really are despicable, I hope you know that.”

He shrugged, and with that I turned to step carefully around the raised stone and follow the hall forward. The orb of light he had conjured followed him, hovering just over my head to bathe me and the path in light. The walls became more narrow the further I walked until they opened in a small circular space, centered by a stone pillar. More skeletons lay resting within the walls, though one was stood upright, on display within a tall alcove. Right beside it was an archway and a slope that dipped down into a darkness my eyes could not quite penetrate.

“You know,” Celeon began, coming up behind me. “For a whore, you are surprisingly law-abiding.”

I turned to face him. “And? Prostitution isn’t legal, at least not in Solitude.”

“No, but think about it. How many men or women have you lain with that had spouses at home? Families? Loyalties and promises that you helped break?” Celeon quirked a brow. “Can you truly call that ‘honest’ work?”

“Yes!” My grip on the sword tightened. “It’s more honest than thievery, and far more honest than you’ve been to me. What other lies do you hold, I wonder?”

Celeon’s eyes flicked to my blade. Without realizing it, I had lifted the weapon just slightly… It felt good to have it in hand and knowing the mage felt even a hint of threat by my frustration helped to relax me. I would have gladly kept my weapon raised, but with a heavy sigh I lowered it.

“I suppose…” The Altmer raised a hand to rub the back of his head. “Well, I suppose I do owe you some honesty. I mentioned that I was a student at the College of Winterhold, yes?”

I nodded.

“Right, well… I lied. I was never a student, just a remarkably gifted thief. But! I will have you know, I usually only steal from crypts. The claw was a special circumstance.”

“Anything else?”

“Hm…” The Altmer wrinkled his nose in thought. “Ah, yes! The thing I said to the bandits, about your tits! That was also a lie, they are quite lovely.

Gods,” he breathed a sigh of relief. “It feels good to get that one off my chest.”

Divines, what I would have given to just stab him.