Finding North

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    I.

     

    The notice came across my desk late Morndas evening after it made its rudimentary rounds through the other chains in the command. A list of names -- Imperial soldiers -- given leave to Solitude from Fort Greenwall for two weeks. I didn’t expect my Benjor to be included on that list, my position notwithstanding. A favor was a politician’s shadowed blade and murder was never a trivial matter.

     

    Politics never stop and neither did my work; but if my work was never to stop, then it would not matter if I did. Sunup or sundown, there was always something to officiate, but the letter of the soldiers’ return was the most urgent business I had received in hours.

     

    I fastened the robes to my royal blue palace clothes while I made my escape through the empty upper halls of the Blue Palace. As late as it was, only Jarl Elisif and Falk typically remained, often chatting and laughing over Firebrand Wine. Eavesdroppers milled about clandestine lovers, but we all knew the importance of good company in these times. Elisif especially.

     

    She called out to me from her cozy table as I turned the corner into the throne room, her wine in hand and Falk seated across from her. They were more quiet that night -- or perhaps I was more distracted.

     

    “Leaving so soon, Arianna?”

     

    “Oh, I -”

     

    Jarl Elisif smiled at me from under her kind, blue eyes. Rarely had I seen her look at anyone without kindness. Rarer still did she speak with a tone that betrayed her beauty, but it was that grace, that sense of still waters, that gave her words such crashing force when the situation demanded it.

     

    “Headed home to see Benjor?” she asked, mindlessly tracing the engravings of her silver goblet as Falk watched me from over his shoulder, no doubt anticipating their return to privacy. “He arrived not long ago, I’m sure he’d love to see you.”

     

    I smiled back. “Thank you, Jarl.” And left the two in peace. I hurried out into the night, a salty sea of fog illuminated by the occasional wisps of orange light. Home was but a few dozen meters from the Palace doors, on the north side of the stone path that cut its way through the city. The Palace loomed over my home but I didn’t mind.

     

    It was majestic down to every surface detail, stealing the awe of passerbys with with azurite towers and vigilant stone walls. Only below its artisan-crafted armor, when seen naked and posed, did every affair, every order, every detail of every innerworking of the city and and its people - every flaw - demonstrate its true beauty.

     

    But it always came second to Benjor. I caught his spicy sweet scent -- dragon’s tongue and cinnamon -- lingering outside my door. The hearth fire was already roaring when I stepped in. Benjor was lying on the hardwood floor next to it, wearing nothing but his favorite bear pelt pants with limbs splayed out, eyes closed, and a smile on his face. He opened one eye to my arrival and his smile stretched even further.

     

    “Hey, Ari,” he said in his cool, relaxed tone.

     

    “Hey, Benjor,” I replied, with lips pulled taught and my pink face turned a bright red. I pulled off my boots and slung my robe over the back of a chair placed at the room’s central dining table. I still wore a light layer of fabrics, royal blue as the robes, with gold embroidery on the seams. It was by no means understated, but I dressed for the part.

     

    “You should come over here,” he said, knowing full well I was on my way. “It’s nice and warm. Don’t even need a proper bed.”

     

    I stood above him, leaning back on the table. Other Nords called him skinny. But he was a strong man, even by Nord standards. He even had as much hair as most. Thick brown hair protected his head and neck, and his knotted beard kept his face warm. I safely assumed his chest, arms, and legs were kept quite warm as well. I never understood how he wore fur on top of his own, so comfortably, so close to the fire.

     

    He smiled, both eyes open and gazing into mine. Pine green? Sea green? I could never quite place what color they were but they were his and I was lucky to get to look into them.

     

    “Would you like to join me?” He shifted himself closer to the fire and patted the floor to his right, near my feet.

     

    “I don’t know,” I replied. “Wouldn’t you rather lay in bed?”

     

    “You should see what passes for bed at the fort. This is already an improvement.”

     

    I chuckled, all too aware of the accommodations afforded to our soldiers.

     

    “Come on,” I said.

     

    I stepped over him and reached down to pull him up by the arms but he pulled me down instead. Still he wore that stupid grin.

     

    “Fine, have it your way,” I said, the ends of my hair brushing his cheeks. “We’ll stay down here.”

     

    I pushed my lips to his in a moment apart from time. I couldn’t tell if I forgot to breathe or if his indulgent lips stole the breath from me. I only remember that it was gone. His eyes were still closed when I pulled back, but he knew there was more to come. I pushed myself up on his chest and ran my hands over him, pressing into his muscles and running my fingers through his hair, feeling his heartbeat. He ran his hands over my hips and along my back, gently tracing the curves with his fingertips.

     

    He was quiet. He wanted to keep our moment - as did I -  but he had something to say. It would come, I knew, so I kept my hands and eyes on him and waited patiently.

     

    “Ari.” He spoke softly, just above the crackling fire. I brushed my hair back and kept his eyes locked to mine. “Captain Kainin is sending me and few others on a mission tomorrow.”

     

    “What?” I replied. “I didn’t hear about this. Nothing came across my desk.”

     

    He sighed and looked into the fire.

     

    “Captain says it’s ‘community service’ - off the books. Says we still need to serve our people on leave.”

     

    I sighed and kept running my hands over him.

     

    “What’s the mission?”

     

    “Something to do with one of those old Nord crypts. Some folk have been reporting strange activity and Captain thinks movement this close to the city might be bandits.”

     

    “I saw those reports. One was a superstitious hoax and the other was from a courier, probably just scared by footsteps in the snow. It’s nothing to be worried about.”

     

    “Whatever it is, we’re going in to stop it tomorrow morning.”

     

    “Do you know where?”

     

    “West. Or, northwest of here. Close. Out of the way, but close. Captain says I’m leading since our navigator stayed at the fort. And since I’m ‘the Nord’, I should ‘know the lands’.”

     

    “The Captain said that? But you’ve never even been in one of those crypts.”

     

    “I told him so. He said he ‘hopes my ancestral blood can find north’.”

     

    I stopped my hands and stared distantly into the fire, wishing I could have forgotten for just that night.

     

    “Love,” he took my hand and brought it to his lips. “It’ll be okay. Three days at most and I’ll be back.”

     

    “You promise?”

     

    He pulled me down close with his hand on my cheek and kissed me.

     

    “I promise.”

     

    “Good”.

     

    “Oh.” Benjors eyes widened and he gasped. “I got you something. There.”

     

    He pointed to the leather knapsack under the edge of the table. I leaned off of him and reached for it, pulling it back by its strap.

     

    “What is it?” I asked. He only looked at me, smiling.

     

    The bag was fairly light, though obtuse. I opened it, holding back my expectant smile until I ran out of strength and it burst forth across my face.

     

    A bountiful harvest of mountain flowers, dragon’s tongue, torchbugs, juniper berries, jazbay grapes, and even a briar heart all sat together in an array of brilliant color and soothing scents.

     

    “For your aromatics,” he said. “And for me to wear of course.”

     

    That damned smile.

     

    His scent still tinged my nostrils with warmth and excitement and the rest of my body followed suit. With his hands still around my waist, he pulled my royal blue threads up over my head, tossing them to the top of the knapsack. The heat was intense, yet Benjor’s hands warmed me more than the fire, wiping away the thin layer of sweat that dripped from my skin.

     

    I didn’t have to say a word, but he always loved when I whispered them.

     

    “Make me yours tonight,” I told him, nibbling at his ear, feeling the bear rise beneath me.

     

    He pushed us both up and guided me backwards to the floor.

     

    “You’re mine every night,” he said, those unplaceable, beautiful eyes watching mine. “From now til Sovngarde, and beyond.”  

     

    If the Bards threw a ball that night, we didn’t notice. Far too consuming was his breath in my ear, my panting screams, and the final howl of the rugged animal that ravished me. He was a very strong man.



    II.

     

    I woke up in bed with Benjor wrapped around me from behind, my hands clasped around his. A soft rain pattered against the window near our bed, soothing me in and out of sleep. No part of me wanted to leave, but I had to before he did. Luckily, Benjor also slept like a bear and I was able to slip out from underneath him, dress myself in a hurry, and head out into the crisp morning.

     

    I picked a single nightshade from the bloom beside my doorstep on my way to Bits and Pieces, charmed by the beads of water that dripped from its vivid purple petals. I once read that the average Nord kept his distance from the lovely flower, yet their abundance in the city streets told a different tale.

     

    I found only a locked door at the shop, and even the most skilled Steward couldn’t persuade a lock open. I paced the stones underneath the cover of Radiant Raiments with my arms held close and the flower tucked into my ear. Even as the air warmed, I still shook, anxious to get back to Benjor.

     

    As the sun rose over the mountains and the rain subsided, a Redguard woman strolled down the ramp from Beirand the blacksmith’s home. She smoothed her dress as she walked down at a brisk pace and did her best to make order of her hair.

     

    The importance of good company. I smiled at the thought.

     

    Sayma approached me with a quizzical look.

     

    “Good morning, Arianna. Is something the matter?” I could never guess how old Sayma was. Her voice was soft and steady, and even if her hair had lost some of its color, there was no mistaking the youthful spirit that messed it.

     

    “No, nothing is the matter. I was only hoping to make a purchase this morning, it’s quite urgent.”

     

    “Oh, of course, come in.” She unlocked the door and led me into her shop. Modest for Solitude -- nothing like Radiant Raiments. Wooden tables sat on the edges of the room, sparsely decorated with silver vases and the occasional flower. Most of the attraction called from the shelves behind her counter and even then, most of her stock was kept locked away or stored out of sight.

     

    “What are you looking for?” she asked.

     

    “I need a compass.”

     

    “A compass? I might have one of those.” Sayma walked to the small alcove behind her counter, speaking over sounds of metal, glass, stone, and all material of junk being moved and mixed over one another. “I don’t get many compasses. Soldiers like to keep those after discharge.” I walked around the counter and watched her dig through boxes, her back turned to me.

     

    “If I can’t find one, you should ask Captain Kainin, I think he knows a navigator or two.”

     

    “They had to stay behind at Fort Greenwall.”

     

    Sayma paused and looked back over her shoulder.

     

    “Oh. Maybe Beirand has one you can use?”

     

    “Maybe.”

     

    “But,” Sayma stood up and turned back to me. “You won’t need to ask him. Will this do?.”

     

    She thrust her arm forward and handed me the dirty bronze compass she pulled from the bottom of a wooden crate. It was dark, a smudged golden brown with a smooth back and a hinged cover. A folding sundial sat on top with the corresponding hours etched into the face, and a small button flipped the cover open to reveal the red-tipped needle. All of it dangled from a stout chain latched into a ring around the button.

     

    I set it on the counter and watched the needle twitch back and forth, finding its way to north.

     

    “It’s beautiful,” I remarked.

     

    “It’s a tad dirty but it should clean up fine. I can’t remember who I bought it from. It certainly wasn’t an Imperial. At least, it isn’t one of ours.”

     

    “No, it isn’t.” The needle steadied and I rotated the compass to make sure. True north. “How much would you like for it?”

     

    “Let me see.” Sayma pulled a long piece of parchment from the highest shelf on the inside of her counter - her business ledger of buys, sells, profits, and goals - a confused mess of crooked columns and charcoal scratches. “For you, 75 gold.”

     

    “Done. Could I borrow your charcoal and some parchment?”

     

    “Yes, of course,” Sayma replied as she handed me both.  

     

    I scrawled out my name, her name, the owed amount, and signed it. I was not one to talk about a mess of scratches.

     

    “Here’s a letter of debt. Bring this to the Palace later, give it to Falk or to me - we’ll see that you’re paid immediately.”

     

    I handed the paper to Sayma who, somewhat confused, reluctantly took the paper and gave me a polite smile and nod, which I returned.

     

    “Thank you, Sayma.”

     

    “Glad I could help. Come back any time.”

     

    Benjor had already gathered in the training yard with his three companions by the time I headed back. Captain Kainin was there too, standing around, watching the men. “Supervising.” They were all dressed in chainmail with thick layers of fur on top, sporting the traditional Imperial red, save for Captain Kainin who all-to-proudly wore his weather-exposed heavy armor. It looked like they were checking and securing their packs that would tightly bind their rations, water, bed rolls, and presumably mead, to their backs during the trip.

     

    “Benjor!” I called out, jogging up to him. My call broke his stern concentration and he greeted with that same big-toothed grin.

     

    “I missed you this morning,” he said as I threw myself into his arms and pressed my head into his chest.

     

    “I’m sorry,” I said, my words muffled. “I meant to get back before you woke up but I had to go somewhere.”

     

    “The court has you running around this early?”

     

    “No,” I said, releasing my hold and bringing my hands to bear. “I went to get you this.”

     

    I opened my hands to show him the compass that took on a golden brilliance in the morning sun. He took it in his hands and inspected it, running his fingers over every surface and flipping open the top to reveal the dial and its small red tip that jittered back and forth. I watched his smile return, this time slowly and more thoughtful.

     

    “Do you like it?” I asked, hands clasped under my chin.

     

    He looked at me and snapped the lid shut with a satisfying click.

     

    “I love it. Thank you.”

     

    “I wanted to make sure you didn’t get lost out there.” I moved in closer to him and pulled his face to mine.

     

    “And this way,” I spoke so only he could hear, “you’ll always find your way back to me.”

     

    However cold my hands were that morning, his face warmed them enough in that moment that I forgot we lived in the biting cold of Skyrim. He brushed my hair back near my ear, pinching one of the petals of the nightshade.

     

    “I like your flower,” he said. “I hope you’re not planning on planting one for me.”

     

    “Never.”

     

    A final kiss from my love and I departed to the sounds of Captain Kainin bellowing his speech about Imperial pride and civic duty. I turned back to watch from the arched gateway on the opposite end of the training yard as my Benjor gave me one final wave and smile.

     

    Three days. That was all I had to endure.



    III.

     

    I was startled awake by the pounding at my door in the infant hours of the morning. I reached for Benjor and grasped only bedding, so I took my sword out of the rack next to the bed and hastily threw on the blue robes I had left on the floor.

     

    The pounding echoed through the house and I tried to mask my footsteps with the sounds, but as I got closer and it grew more impatient, I heard a voice shouting my name.

     

    That it knew my name didn’t matter. That it shouted, “Captain,” did. I rushed to the door and threw it open. Captain Kainin stood towering above me, mountainous in his armor. He stood two heads taller than I did and rarely expressed more than some variation of somber from behind his long, untamed beard and weathered face.

     

    I looked up at him, waiting for him to say something.

     

    “Well?” I snapped.

     

    “Benjor is back. You need to come with me.”

     

    I set my sword down, locked my door, and followed Captain Kainin out to the stone path and up to the Temple of the Divines in only my dirty robes.

     

    “When did he get back?”

     

    “Last night.”

     

    “And you’re just now coming to get me?”

     

    He remained stoic and kept walking at his steady pace that betrayed any sense of emergency in his mind.

     

    Even though I struggled to match his pace, I managed to grab him by the shoulder and pull him around to face me.

     

    “Kainin!”

     

    He looked straight at me, his face rigidly fixed into its authoritative slant.

     

    “He’s my soldier, Arianna. You will not tell me how conduct myself or my men.”

     

    For a moment I regretted not taking my sword. But I still needed to see Benjor and I wouldn’t let anyone get in my way. I stormed out in front of Kainin towards the temple on my own, though he caught up in just a few paces.

     

    “What happened?” I asked, not looking up from the cold stones still wet in patches from the last night’s rain.

     

    We walked in silence for a few paces more, the temple doors coming into view as we passed underneath the wide, semicircular arch -- gateway to the temple and its humble courtyard decorated with twin pews and flowers.

     

    “They were overwhelmed by draugr. One man was lost, three injured.”

     

    Kainin’s graveled voice didn’t carry a hint of remorse, nor did his vague recount of the attack provide me any comfort. I sped up past him and shoved open the diamond debossed iron door, letting it slam closed against him as he followed me in.

     

    I heard the desperation before I saw it. Frantic whispers spoken to the Nine pleaded for liberation. Priests in pale golden robes scrambled through the main area that had had its pews dragged to the sides of the room to make space for bedrolls and one frame. They kept the candles lit and the medical supplies near the beds stocked. Abrupt flashes of yellow light discharged from the hands of the priests kneeling over two of the three men lying wrapped in bloody bandages.

     

    Two in bedrolls and one-

     

    “Benjor.” The one in the bed. I rushed to Benjor’s side, pushing aside his clothes and the pile of medical supplies on the floor next to the frame.

     

    He laid on his left and the bandage covering his shoulder was dark red and thoroughly soaked with blood. A small stream dripped down his chest, almost black. Even I had seen blood in the moonlight, and it was never so dark.

     

    I tried to comfort him, I tried to stroke his hair but he recoiled and tucked his head.

     

    “Benjor, no.” I could barely speak. My throat closed, blocking words but allowing gasps of air. My tears were lost in the straw of his bed.

     

    I tried again to comfort him, to steady my hand well enough to be strong for him but he shook me off again. I buried my head in my arms on his bed and I wept. I couldn’t do anything else.

     

    Only days ago did I feel his skin against mine, feel him so close that I felt we were one. The chill of rejection, of fear from someone who held me close and told me I was his alone through life and beyond was colder than any stone, and deeper than any cut.

     

    Someone approached me from the side and searched through the pile of supplies. I looked up to see a priest - the head priest - Rorlund. The man was distraught, perhaps more than I, though I didn’t care to see a reflection of my pain.

     

    “I’m sorry Arianna,” he said. I didn’t respond. I only looked at Benjor. “I need to change his bandages.”

     

    I dragged myself to the foot of the bed and allowed him the room.

     

    “I would not wish you to see this,” he said. But I needed to see what ill had befallen Benjor. He knew blood and I were well acquainted. He would not have warned me from mere blood.

     

    I shook my head and remained, resolute. He understood and proceeded.

     

    Perhaps Rorlund was right. I might have been better off never having seen it. It was a vile wound. I was no healer, I had no experience in medicine, but I knew it was not normal. How deep the cut was in his shoulder, I never asked nor checked for myself. But even the deepest cuts I had seen never looked so evil.

     

    His blood had thickened, coagulated at the cut, slowing the bleeding. But what good news could I have received on that day that did not levy a heavy tax of suffering? The blood itself that sealed the cut turned black, and the skin around his wound was dead, peeling off in decrepit strips.

     

    Even in the erratic light of the temple, I saw the white face of Rorlund. The sweat that trickled down his head and the shaking hands with which he sutured the wound spoke of a fear I had never seen from a priest who saw more blighted and rived bodies than most soldiers. Priests were fueled by hope, by saviorism. And Rorlund seemed hauntingly devoid of it all in that moment.

     

    I forced out three words to Rorlund. I don’t know how he heard them but I suspect he was asking himself the same question.

     

    “What is it?”

     

    “I -,” he hesitated. But he had already said it.

     

    “I don’t know.”

     

    My heart beat faster than I could think. Or my thoughts were too fast to comprehend. He read the next question straight through my eyes.

     

    “We’ll do what we can. It’s progressed slowly so far.”

     

    ‘We’ll do what we can’. I moved back to Benjor’s head, pushing aside Rorlund, moving my head close to the bed frame and looking up, searching for Benjor’s eyes/ He would not meet mine.

     

    “Benjor, please,” I pleaded under my breath. I reached for his chin and he lurched backwards.

     

    “Don’t.” His voice was raspy, barely present.

     

    “What? No, Benjor, please, I-”

     

    He groaned and contorted his face, squeezing his eyes shut even harder. “Don’t touch me.”

     

    My limbs went cold and my neck grew hot. I pushed myself up and stormed past Benjor, past the other men, and the priests, and the candles, to the door where Kainin still stood, supervising as he did so well. All of my sorrow, all of my fear and dread twisted into malice.

     

    I shoved him into the doorframe, knocking the air from his lungs, causing him to lurch forward and grasp his knees. His head swung down to mine and I threw my fist into the side of his face, bloodying my knuckles on the first swing. When I drew back for another, he grabbed me by the arm and opposite shoulder and held me in place, unspeaking.

     

    The sounds of the priests’ shuffling subsided, for only a second. I wrenched myself from his grip and screamed at him through spit and tears.

     

    “This is your fault. If Benjor dies, I will have your head.”



    IV.

     

    Weeks passed in a torrential haze of time. The days were short and fraught, the nights were long and unbearable, and my daily visits to Benjor were agonizingly forlorn. No response. Only further decay and fewer words. I always sat with him, though always in silence. He never spoke to me and never acknowledged my visits. Three weeks was all I could endure.

     

    The priests were useless and I told them as much. Sybille was my final hope. The frigid Court Mage carried my respect, as I carried hers. We understood each other, and I never feared her eyes. After requesting her to look at Benjor’s affliction, she sent for two acquaintances -- alchemists pulled from the caverns beneath the underbrush whose skills were spurned and underutilized by the ‘civilized’. She assured me they would present themselves within a day. I never asked how. I only thanked her.

     

    On the night of their arrival, after hours spent pacing Sybille’s room, watching her grind, pour, mix, and inspect potions and ingredients of all different colors and scents, both luminous and bright, joyous and dull, rich, savory, sweet, pungent, and familiar, we left for the temple. Two figures in Imperial armors, furs, and hoods sat on the pews outside the temple and followed us in. I didn’t fear their eyes either.

     

    I watched out of sight of Benjor as they sidled up behind him, inspected and wrapped his wound, gestured, nodded, and spoke in whispers. The other men were gone, full recoveries. I went above Kainin and granted them an extra month of leave.

     

    Sybille and her two associates approached me and told me what they needed. The flesh of a draugr and, if at all possible, the sword that cut into Benjor. What was I to do but agree? That night, I pulled the heavy steel armor embellished in red from my wardrobe, ensured its fit, and prepared the rest of my supplies for the following morning: heavy furs including a hood, and my sword whose chips along the blade belied the purity of the edge, and a waist-slung satchel for the flesh I would rip from a walking corpse.

     

    Sleep was a tumultuous chore, to say the least.

     

    The soft patter of rain on my bedroom window woke me up from the sleep I thought I’d never get. Benjor’s warm scent still clung to my pillow despite the tears and sweat poured into its fabrics. Standing in that silence that morning, on the precipice of all I held dear and all I had to lose, when the gods plucked the strings of Nirn to cause me a heartache so great that I was to collapse and concede to cruel fate or harden my spirit and fight for everything I knew I would lose regardless, I knew I had to fight. And if I had to die, I would die with pride as Arianna Silvertooth.



    With my armor strapped on, skin protected from the cold, and hand on the hilt of my sword in its sheath, I stepped into the wet, windswept morning. I paused on my doorstep and watched the world with tired eyes, scanning over the bloom of nightshade by my door that whipped in the wind, firmly rooted in the soil.

     

    “Never,” I told him. I grabbed the bushel of flowers and tore them up all at once, snapping the stems at the roots. Into the wind, I threw them up over the wall to hurtle down the cliff into the sea.

     

    Never.

     

    Two men approached me from behind while I still faced the cliffside wall. I turned to see it was the two men that returned with Benjor -- and they were as armed and prepared as I was. They straightened up as I came face to face with them. The one on the left spoke first.

     

    “Lady Silvertooth.” he spoke with the wary cadence of a soldier feigning confidence. “We wish to help.” Yet his eyes, pale green and as wide as the canyons of the Reach, held mine with the vulnerability of sincerity. I looked to his partner, who was just as young but exuded more resolve. That one looked more Redguard and had the deep brown eyes to match; the first one looked Imperial. But both expressed the same desire.

     

    “You want to go back?” I asked, testing them. “I would understand if you never did.”

     

    The one on the left spoke again. “Benjor rescued us ma’am. We would not have made it back were it not for him.”

     

    The other nodded in agreement. “We would have no greater honor than helping you, ma’am.”

     

    I studied them for a moment in silence. They did not waver.

     

    “What are your names?”

     

    “Dralin,” said the left one.

     

    “Miran,” said the right.

     

    “I’m happy to have you two. Are you prepared?”

     

    I saw that both had as much as I did, save for two torches wrapped in cloth and soaked in pine resin. Light. Of course. None of us intended to stay overnight.

     

    They nodded in response, I gestured for them to follow, and they lined up behind me on either side of my flank as we walked down the stone path, out of the city gates, and into the memories of a mission gone wrong.



    V.

     

    The arched black megalith materialized more with each step up the snowy hill trapped in a whirlwind blizzard. I followed closely behind Dralin and Miran, looking to the ragged flags stuck in the snow with torn fabrics and furs tied around them. The wind was suffocating, but the augury of ruin that stood through time commanded attention. I stole glances as I could, holding my hood tight around my face until we made it onto level ground inside inside the crypt’s sparsely walled entrance where the wind whistled through oblique holes carved through the stone.

     

    "Was the storm this bad last time?" I asked through harried breath.

     

    "Only on the way out," said Dralin, pulling down his hood. "But we know the route now."

     

    Miran pushed on the double metal doors, swinging them open with a lazy creak.

     

    “Will you two be okay?” I asked. “You’ve been quiet.”

     

    Miran glanced at me then averted his gaze to the ground.

    “Yes.” He looked to Dralin who rested his hand on the other door.

     

    “Yes, ma’am,” Dralin agreed.

     

    They pushed open the doors and Dralin stepped just inside. He removed the torch from the sling on his back and held the end over his right hand that sputtered with orange sparks and grew into small stack of flame. The fire snapped to the torch and he lowered his hand, shaking it out.

     

    I stared at him wide-eyed.

     

    “I didn’t know you could do that.”

     

    “It’s harder than you think to make it so small. But some folk only care how big it is. No respect for control.”

     

    I glanced to Miran who shook his head to signal me to let it go.

     

    “Well I think it’s impressive.”

     

    He looked back at me, his smirk souring his humility.

     

    “Thank you, ma’am.” Dralin let out a sigh. “Let’s move on then.”

     

    Miran held the door as I entered and walked in behind me, closing it with a gap left between the doors. I missed the cold. The small bursts of air that passed through the crack in the doors were the only relief from the stale, humid air that hung thick with death. I drew my sword and the men followed suit. We inched forward down the stairs, onto the floor of the narrow hallway that cornered right a dozen meters in front of us. Dralin’s torch illuminated the carvings in the black stone walls, playing shadow puppets with ancient legends. I whispered to them but it was lost in the echoes of our footsteps and crackling of the torch, so I reached out and tapped Dralin on the shoulder. He jumped, nearly dropping his torch. I couldn’t tell if it was me or the fire that made him sweat.

     

    “Sorry,’ I said. “I have questions.”

     

    He nodded.

     

    “Do you rememb-”

     

    Miran thrust his torch out beside my head.

     

    “Dralin,” he said. “I’ll cover the rear.”

     

    Dralin brought his torch to Miran’s and it ignited, further pushing back the shadows on the walls.

     

    “Do you remember your way through here?” I continued. “How many you killed? Traps?”

     

    “I think so,” said Dralin. “Benjor lead us through mostly. Miran took care of traps. We killed a lotta sleeping ones but I guess we woke up a few .”

     

    Dralin shifted back and forth, glancing over his shoulder while he spoke.

     

    “Miran,” he whispered. “You remember the traps?”

     

    “Yes. I should lead, the draugr may have reset them.”

     

    The two switched spots, circling around me in the tunnel that didn’t have room enough to allow me to hold my sword out straight from wall to wall.

     

    I stepped out from between the two, close to the wall, to address them both.

     

    “Do these tunnels ever widen?”

     

    Miran pursed his lips and shook his head. “What’s your reach?”

     

    I moved in between the two, motioning for them to space out, and faced the wall, holding out my sword in a straight line from my wrist to my left shoulder.

     

    Miran nodded. “We keep this distance. I cover the front, Dralin covers the rear, you cover our backs.”

     

    “You got-”

     

    “If that’s okay with you, ma’am,” he added.

     

    “Yes, of course. You two have the experience here, you have the lead. I have one more question, though.”

     

    “Hm?”

     

    I stepped back again and looked at them both.

     

    “You two were saying that Benjor led you to safety. How?”

     

    “He had a compass,” said Miran.

     

    “I helped light it when we ran back through the storm,” said Dralin.

     

    “He asked you too,” replied Miran.

     

    “Yes…”

     

    “He told me to mark trees on our way down,” said Miran. “And plant flags.”

     

    Miran and Dralin were too kind to comment on the tear that escaped my eye.

     

    “Do you know if he still has it?”

     

    The two looked at each other, searching for certainty in their answer.

     

    “We…” Dralin said, “don’t know. We lost the rest of our supplies on the way down and he was pretty hurt. Once we hit dry ground, we rushed to Solitude. We don’t even know where he got it.”

     

    “Okay”. I wiped my face and nodded to them to continue.

     

    Our footsteps and crackling flames filled the hall again and each of us stayed on high alert, double checking that every shadow wasn’t a corporeal death walker. The hallway cornered left and the carvings were replaced by long rectangular holes cut into the walls filled with grey emaciated bodies. Miran moved forward, ignoring them. I glanced back and saw Dralin keeping pace but watching every corpse we passed. The torchlight licked at the husks, briefly illuminating crooked necks, lipless smiles, and hollow eyes. They didn’t disturb me as deeply as the empty spaces. Empty spaces with no reason to be empty, like the bodies that once filled them were chosen randomly and forced to their feet. I hoped the ancient Nords were simply terrible planners but my all else spoke to the contrary.

     

    Miran stopped just short of a corpse that laid at the entrance of a larger square room with walls embedded with sarcophagi. Three stood open, their stone doors lying broken on the floor. Miran beckoned us closer, warning our feet over the dead draugr and leading us into the room.

     

    “This was the first fight,” he said, pacing the room, recalling the events.  

     

    Dralin passed me and stuck near Miran, watching the body on the floor.

     

    “Was that the only one?” I asked.

     

    “In here,” responded Miran. “We fought two more ahead.”

     

    “How many did you have to fight through?” I walked around the room, inspecting the floor, walls, and ceiling. Whatever stone the ancient Nords used for their burials and art looked much stronger than the stone they used for their architecture. Pale brown stone made up most of the interior. It was falling apart, cracked, chipped away by the chisel of time. I flinched at a drop of water that hit my forehead while I looked up at the ceiling.

     

    “Four, I think,” responded Miran.

     

    “It was the fourth one that did in Celan,” said Dralin.

     

    “And the one that hurt Benjor?” I asked.

     

    “No.” said Miran. “That one still walks.”

     

    “Would you know which one it is?”

     

    “I think so. It should be the one missing an arm.”

     

    I cocked my head and squinted my eyes at him.

     

    “It was reactionary, ma’am,” said Miran. “I swung and took its arm off at the elbow. Then we ran.”

     

    “Was that before or after Celan’s death?”

     

    “Right after, ma’am.”

     

    “No, before,” Dralin whispered.

     

    Miran looked at him and then back to me.

     

    “We were ambushed by five at least. Benjor killed the one that took Celan. The rest overwhelmed us.”

     

    “You two got cut too, right?”

     

    “Yes, ma’am.”

     

    “But you didn’t suffer the same affliction as Benjor?” I moved closer to them to force myself to speak more quietly.

     

    “No.”

     

    “Why not?”

     

    They stood silently, shifting again, avoiding my gaze. I couldn’t raise my voice without compromising the mission then and there so I stepped even closer, within the range of my reach. I needed only to raise the point of my sword past my waist for Dralin to speak to Miran in a frantic tone.

     

    “Let’s just tell her.”

     

    Miran grit his teeth and cursed under his breath.

     

    “We didn’t get infected because we didn’t get grabbed.”

     

    I stood, unwavering, letting him continue.

     

    “There’s a room a couple hallways up. Big room, lots of tombs. Celan kept pushing in front of Benjor, despite his orders not to. He walked us right into the ambush.”

     

    Dralin kept silent but stiffly nodded along.

     

    “He rushed in and draugr swarmed us. Dralin and I were rushing after Benjor who was chasing after Celan. One attacked Celan and got him pretty bad. Benjor cared too much, he went to defend him but got hit from behind. That’s when I came in and cut off that bastard’s arm.”

     

    “And the part where Benjor got grabbed?” My hand tightened around my hilt, the leather wrap squelching.

     

    “Celan panicked, he ran and shoved Benjor behind him as he did. That Draugr grabbed him, pushed its fingers into Benjor’s wound.”

     

    Miran paused, choking on his words.

     

    “It laughed,” finished Dralin. “Benjor screamed so loud and it just laughed.”

     

    My breath trembled and my whole chest heaved at the thought.

     

    “Benjor fought, though. He took his sword in his other hand and put it right through the throat of the beast.”

     

    “And Celan?” I forced out through angry tears.

     

    Dralin looked up at me with eyes just as teary.

     

    “I tripped him. And I kicked him until Miran and Benjor made it past.”

     

    “I helped Benjor out.” said Miran, “We both stepped over Celan.”

     

    “He said it was okay,” sobbed Dralin. “He said he was a coward and a traitor.”

     

    “But we couldn’t let go of the guilt. We used him as bait to get away. Our own soldier.”

     

    “We were afraid you’d have us sent to the executioner for treachery.”

     

    I loosened my grip and lowered my sword, turning and stepping away briefly before stepping back up to them.

     

    “He was right.”

     

    They both jolted upwards ever so slightly. It was wise to hide such excitement.

     

    “He was a coward and a traitor. You two finish this mission with me and I’ll keep your secret.”

     

    They nodded obediently and tried to step forward. I stopped them in their tracks with the tip of my blade raised to their heads.

     

    “But you will never lie to me again. Do you understand?”

     

    “Yes ma’am” they said in unison.

     

    “Good”. I lowered my sword and looked behind me to the halls ahead. “Miran. Take the lead. I need the hand of that draugr.”

     

    “Yes, ma’am.” He straightened up and rushed to the front.

     

    “Dralin. Can you handle the back?”

     

    He wiped his eyes and rekindled the flame they reflected back in Solitude. “Absolutely ma’am.”

     

    “Then let’s get that hand and get the fuck out of here.”

     

    The two readied their torches and swords and we pushed on. I still fought to find a steady rhythm of breath as we moved. I never found it. As we rounded the corner of the hall that led from the small square room, the smell his us all at once. It was a sickening, putrid stench as if all of the Empire’s waste had been funneled into that tunnel all at once. Even if any of us could stop gagging long enough to speak, no one needed to confirm that it was Celan’s putrefying corpse. I traipsed through the hall, expecting to trip over his liquefying remains with each step, but he was still several halls down.

     

    On our way, we stepped over two more draugr corpses - we didn’t stop to discuss their end. We had almost rounded the final corner to the ambush room when a growl from around the corner stopped us in our tracks.

     

    Miran backed off from the corner to keep the light from shining too far around it. I motioned for them to huddle up. The two men held their torches high above their heads to get in close enough to whisper. We choked on our words but accepted the foul stench for the moment, keeping our words brief.

     

    “There’s one there,” said Miran.

     

    “I’ll look,” I replied.

     

    “No.” Dralin was incredulous. “I will.”

     

    “One of us.” Miran gestured to the torches.

     

    “Then…” I paused to think. “Phalanx,” I said, motioning them to line up. I stepped out in front of them and gestured towards myself and the corner, then for them to follow behind.

     

    Their furrowed brows sat heavy on their faces, accentuated by the torches’ light. Dralin bit his bottom lip and acquiesced, nodding. Miran nodded too.

     

    They lined up side by side in the hall, keeping their torches held high above their heads and held out in front of them. I crouched down a few paces ahead of them at the edge of their light with my hand against the wall for balance and began moving forward. They followed my pace, keeping me just within the ring of light with every step.

     

    The growling grew louder as I neared, like a bear under threat, but more hoarse, more dry -- like two hollow stones rubbing against one another. Yet I heard something else. Something wet.

     

    I wrapped my hand around the corner and paused to make sure it hadn’t seen my fingers sneak around the wall. It hadn’t, as far as I could tell. I motioned for the men to move up a pace more, then held up the back of my hand to signal them to stop.

     

    Slowly, I pulled myself closer to the edge and peeked my head around the corner. The light was just enough to illuminate the silhouettes of the mangled body of Celan, torn open from end to end, and the draugr that knelt above his corpse, its filthy hands digging through the rotting flesh. I choked on the air and the draugr shot its head up, flashing me the malevolent blue orbs of magic that lived in its eye sockets.

     

    It wrenched its hands from Celan with a repulsive suction and lurched to its feet, drawing its sword and shambling towards the corner. I jumped to my feet, exposing myself long enough for it to see me, then retreated back to Miran and Dralin.

     

    “It’s coming.”

     

    I squeezed myself in between them and lined my swords with theirs.

     

    “Forward,” I ordered. The draugr sped up its pace and we hadn’t made it two steps before it barreled around the corner.

     

    “Now!” I yelled, far too loud for safety. We thrust our swords forward together and impaled the the bastard in place, two in its chest and one in its throat. It screeched in unholy dissonance -- its eyes dimmed -- and it became just another lifeless corpse, hitting the ground with thud that echoed through the halls.

     

    We remained still and silent, listening for any more for as long as it took for my back to stiffen up and my arm to tire, but we heard nothing. I lowered my sword and stepped out from between the two, kicking the dead draugr out of my way. I covered my nose and mouth with my free hand to speak.

     

    “This is the room?” I asked.

     

    “Yes,” said Miran, doing the same. “That’s it.”

     

    I sighed heavily into my hand and pointed around the corner. Any smell was more pleasant than the one clinging to the walls of that crypt.

     

    “Celan.”

     

    All I could do was shake my head. They looked down in understanding but they wouldn’t truly. Not until they saw. But I didn’t want them to. I moved to Miran and grasped his torch, looking him in the eye.

     

    “I’ll go. Where is it?”

     

    He still held on.

     

    “The one that grabbed Benjor?”

     

    I nodded.

     

    “To the right. Check the throat.” He let go of the torch and I took it around the corner, leaving them with what peace of mind they could still salvage. As I approached what remained of Celan, I knew I made the right call. They wouldn’t have recognized him except for the shreds of armor and fur beneath him, matted with his innards. His heart was missing -- I  couldn’t fathom what else the draugr was digging for. Or why it wanted the heart in the first place.

     

    My stomach turned when my foot crunched bone fragments in the gelatinous pile of what I conceded used to be his head. I gathered myself and pushed on. Time was not on our side. I sidestepped the rest of his remains as best I could and made it into the large room, crouching down once more to avoid waking any others. I waved the torch in a wide arc in front of me to quickly hunt down the body I sought. The torch’s light didn’t even reach to the walls of the room. I felt like I had stepped into an abyss.

     

    Lucky for me, just as Miran said, a draugr laid prostrate on the hard stone floor just to the right of the door, and it had thin, wide, angled cut right through its throat. That was the one. I carefully laid the torch across its legs and pulled the satchel over my head, unbuttoning it. Only then did I realize I didn’t know which hand to take.

     

    So I kicked out both of its arms, held my breath, and in two swings, severed both of its hands. I turned the satchel inside out, grabbed one hand, stacked it on the other, then pulled both through into the bag, sealed it, and slung it back around my waist. My skin crawled at the feeling of the disgusting things protruding into my side.

     

    I picked up the torch and took one last look around the immediate area. There was a lot of blood. I could only guess which stain belonged to Benjor but trying to imagine that day was too painful, too easy to get wrapped up in. He still needed me, even if he didn’t want me.

     

    We burned every corpse we came across when we left. They ignited with ease. I don’t know what retribution it provided me. Perhaps it was closure. Maybe it was erasure. Whatever it was, it felt good. Miran shut the iron doors shut behind us, sealing in the trail of burning corpses and smoke. We followed the flags back down through the setting sun, to the gashes in the trees, and finally to the stone path, where we walked in silence back to Solitude.



    VI.

     

    We stormed through the Solitude gates while the city was going to sleep and the citizens were wide awake, spilling out of the Winking Skeever in huddles, gathered underneath the inn’s street lantern. Many were soldiers, some in uniform, most out, but all drank along to the bard’s instrumental cheer. A voice with a hidden face called to us from the fray in a friendly, if ignorant tone.

     

    “Hey! Miran! Dralin! Go wake Benjor up, get yer hides in here!”

     

    We kept our pace and continued towards the church, looking over our shoulders every few paces to check if the man had followed us. No one seemed walk after us and none of the soldiers we passed on the way to the temple acknowledged us.

     

    The inside of the temple looked like it had for weeks and smelled vaguely of the crypt we’d just returned from. Miran and Dralin flinched at the stench, as did I. Sybille sat behind Benjor, watching him, eyeing his wound. The cracked black, oozing infection spread down to his elbow. I sighed, rubbing my hand across my mouth as I walked straight up to Sybille.

     

    “Sybille,” I spoke softly as not to wake Benjor, though I knew it didn’t matter. “Here.”

     

    She turned her head to me, sniffing the air, and I planted the satchel in her lap.

     

    “You smell of death,” she said.

     

    I looked at the satchel then back to her.

     

    “Some of your Dragon’s Spice should cover that right up, hm?” She picked the satchel up out of her lap.

     

    “It’s heavy,” she said, unbuttoning it. “Hm. Yes, this will do. Did you get the sword?”

     

    “I did. But it wasn’t a sword that did this to him. The draugr dug its claws into his wound. That’s what infected him.”

     

    I looked back to Miran and Dralin who stared back at me with conviction. They lied to me once, but their gazes were stalwart, exactly how they looked at me when they offered to help.

     

    Sybille crooked her head to the side. “Then keep it. As a trophy.”

     

    “When will I know?” I asked.

     

    Sybille stood up, walking to the doors, clutching the satchel in her hand.

     

    “Give us one day, meet us back here tomorrow night.”

     

    “Thank you, Sybille,” I called after her.

     

    “Of course, dear,” she said, disappearing into the night.

     

    I stood looking down at Benjor in the silence of the temple. Dralin and Miran shuffled behind me, maybe looking for something to say, maybe looking for a way to excuse themselves. It was hard to tell. I wanted to tell them they could go but my voice was sealed away somewhere deep in a cage without a key.

     

    Footsteps on the upper level broke me free of my trance and I snapped my head up to see a bobbing, balding head in gold robes come marching down the stairs.

     

    “Arianna.” Rorlund greeted me with a bowed head and clasped hands. “I’m glad to see you’re still in good health. And you two as well.”

     

    I walked up to him through the pews that had been replaced on the right side of the room, taking his hands into my own. “Thank you for watching over him,” I said. “I’m glad you were here.”

     

    “It is my duty and my pleasure. I hope that the gods will help see him through this.”

     

    “Be sure to thank Sybille when he does.”

     

    “Yes, of course. And ma’am, if I am not out of line in saying so-”

     

    I raised my eyebrows a hair, giving him room to speak, though cautiously.

     

    “You smell dreadful.”

     

    I never thought I would smile so close to the thing that I thought stole it for good.

     

    “I’ll take care of it, Rorlund.”

     

    He smiled back.

     

    “Once Benjor recovers,” he said, “I would greatly appreciate any more of that lavender and snowberry fragrance you mix. It’s quite efficacious for peace during prayer.”

     

    “Of course, yes.”

     

    We exchanged one more smile and delicate hug and I looked once more at Benjor before leaving with Dralin and Miran in tow. I stopped them in the courtyard and looked up to the sky, a canvas of black dripped with the thousand white dots of the gods’ leftover paint.  

     

    I drew a long breath, deeper than any I remembered taking in those weeks.

     

    “Thank you both for your help,” I said. “I know Benjor would be proud.” I turned to face them. “Will you be here tomorrow night?”

     

    “They won’t be going anywhere,” growled a voice from behind me.

     

    I spun around to see the silhouette of a fully armored Kainin entering through the arched gateway, coming into view under the courtyard torches.  The left side of his face was blotched with dark purple and red.

     

    “You stole my men. You have no authority to order them.” He moved past me and stepped in between me and the pair.

     

    “I didn’t steal them.” I tried to sidestep Kainin but he kept Dralin and Miran hidden behind his back like a child selfishly clinging to a toy.

     

    “They volunteered to finish the suicide mission that you sent them on, only to help a friend.”

     

    “Then they will be punished for insubordination and you will be tried as an accessory.”

     

    Dralin and Miran stepped out from behind Kainin on either side, boxing him in between us.

     

    “You threw away lives for this,” said Dralin. “You killed Celan!”

     

    “Arianna is more soldier than you’ll ever be,” said Miran.

     

    “Both of you fall in line immediately! General Tullius will not stand for such insubordination in his ranks. You’ll be shoveling cow shit until you learn to respect your superiors.”

     

    The red blood wells in Kainin’s face stood out against the darkness, even in the orange light and thick black contrasts of the courtyard.

     

    I stepped up to Kainin, craning my neck up to meet the mountain’s eyes, speaking as cold and clear as the breeze that bit at our skins.

     

    “You are responsible for one death and three injuries. You failed to lead these men. Your sword was comfortably sheathed when theirs were drawn, fighting for ‘Imperial pride’, and ‘civic duty’.”

     

    I spit on his boots.

     

    “I know enough to make you a pariah. Not even the Stormcloaks will want you. Drop it and leave, or this gets worse.”

     

    Kainin eyed me steadily, his bruised face wrinkled in anger like Morihaus standing on the precipice of battle.

     

    “I should kill you for your treachery.”

     

    A glint of white light crossed my vision; Dralin was quietly drawing his sword.

     

    “Attacking me is good way die,” I said, holding his gaze. “You’re a beast with no honor.”

     

    A beast I wasn’t afraid to taunt.

     

    “And I’ll make sure everyone knows it.”

     

    His anger grew into frustration and I felt the heat pouring off of him, saw the veins in his neck and forehead stretching his skin in rapid pulsations. All he mustered was an animalistic grunt before he whipped around towards the opposite archway.

     

    Dralin jumped and fully drew his sword, though he meekly held it out in front of him as a barrier between him and Kainin.

     

    The beast I only just subdued drew his sword in response and swung at Dralin. Dralin braced his sword, deflecting the blow. The night rang with the sounds of the daytime training yard.

     

    Miran rushed up behind Kainin and kicked out his knee, attempting to hold him in a headlock, but Kainin blocked Miran’s grasp with his arm.

     

    Kaining lunged after Dralin, sloppily thrusting his sword at him.

     

    Dralin sprung back, arching his gut away from Kainin’s sword.

     

    Miran wrenched Kainin’s head up and back to try to separate it from his guard, yet Kainin continued to lurch at Dralin like a feral beast.

     

    I threw myself in front of Dralin, kicking Kainin’s sword away, and beat him across the face with the full force of my fist, gashing his face and my knuckles.

     

    “You bitch!” he sputtered through a swollen and foaming mouth. “I’ll have you all killed!”

     

    “Miran!” I said, holding back my strikes. Kainin’s left eye swelled shut and blood dripped to the concrete from his face and my fist. I moved around him and stepped on the back of Kainin’s other knee, pinning him.

     

    Miran reached across Kainin’s face and pressed his fingers into his open wounds. Kainin screamed in incoherent swears that echoed through the courtyard, giving Miran the room to slip his arm around Kainin’s neck and lock it on on his other arm, squeezing the blood away from Kainin’s brain, who berated and threatened us until his eyes fluttered shut and he fell silent.

     

    Miran released his grasp and let Kainin collapse to the hard ground in a puddle of his own seepage. I stepped off him and checked his pulse - he was still alive.

     

    I panted, as did the other two, eyes affixed on the unconscious tower of vitriol.

     

    “Are you two okay?” I asked.

     

    They nodded in response. Dralin sheathed his sword, missing the first few times, unable to hold his hands steady. Miran paced back and forth between the temple doors and the body of Kainin.

     

    “What do we do?” asked Dralin.

     

    I thought for a moment, but a moment was too long. Three guards rushed in from the opposite archway, swords drawn. Miran stepped forward, but he and Dralin were pushed back by the advancing guards.

     

    “Guards!” Miran said, standing steadfast at the point of all three swords. “The Captain attempted to assault Lady Silvertooth. She defended herself and I subdued him.”

     

    I watched him with my mouth agape for seconds before remembering my sovereign mein.

     

    I straightened myself and faced the guards.

     

    “It’s true. This man attacked me and these two protected me.”

     

    One of the guards stepped forward, a rugged looking man with a scar across the bridge of his nose that extended to his cheek, sword still drawn.

     

    “You three look prepared for battle. You all do! ‘Splain that.”

     

    “We-” Miran started.

     

    “We just came back from battle,” I interrupted. “Kainin sent these men into a crypt with inadequate preparations and I took them back in to finish the job. Don’t believe me?”

     

    I stepped over Kainin’s body with my hands raised to confront the scarred guard.

     

    “I carry the scent of Celan, the soldier that Kainin sent to his death.”

     

    The guard leaned forward slowly and recoiled back twice as far, holding his nose.

     

    “He attacked me out of shame of his failure,” I said. “The man is unstable.”

     

    Another guard, a younger, more fresh-faced one that stood closest to Dralin spoke in a humble tone.

     

    “You found Celan?”

     

    “Don’t be stupid,” said the scarred guard. “That could be anyone’s death on her.”  

     

    They kept their swords raised, yet shifted back and forth on their feet. We all remained silent, at the mercy of their judgement. Proving our innocence could cost us our lives.

     

    “We’re telling the truth,” I said, pointing down towards my waist. “Draw my sword.”

     

    He looked at me with disbelief, hesitating.

     

    “The bottom one” I said, keeping a cool tone.

     

    He inched towards me and ran his hand over my furs to find the handle of the blade. When he found it, he drew it, and held it up in the light.

     

    “Gods,” he said.

     

    “That’s one of the swords the draugr carry,” said the young guard. He couldn’t peel his eyes from the blade. “I heard they’re hooked like that to pull out the guts.”

     

    “You took this?” asked the scarred guard. “You went into that place?”

     

    “Yes,” I replied, gesturing to Kainin. “To clean up after him.”

     

    “You do smell like skeever dung,” said the scarred guard. “That smell follows you for weeks.”

     

    He studied me for a few seconds then sheathed his sword. The other two guards followed suit.

     

    “We’ll lock him up for now, let Tullius decide what to do with him in the mornin. Or the Imperial Steward.”

     

    “Who’s that?” asked the third guard, a stout middle aged man with a clean shaven head and face.

     

    “The one who manages our branch in Solitude when Tullius is too tired or too old to do it ‘imself,” replied the scarred guard.

     

    “Yeah, but who is that?”

     

    “That would be me,” I replied, putting my hands down. “Arianna Silvertooth.”

     

    The men looked at each other then back to me and gave comprehending grunts.

     

    “Oh,” said the young guard.

     

    “Our apologies ma’am,” said the scarred guard. “Didn’t know who ya were.”

     

    “It’s okay,” I replied. “We’ll get out of your way. But I’ll be taking that sword.”

     

    “Ah, yes,” he said, handing the sword to me horizontally in both hands, like a gift. “Apologies.”

     

    I sheathed the sword, stepped over Kainin, and waited at the other archway for Dralin and Miran before we walked off towards my home down the cold stone walkway.

     

    Were they escorting me or did they have nowhere else to go? I suppose it didn’t matter.

     

    “Would you two be my guests tonight?” I asked. I looked at them both, one after the other, each one seemingly unsure how to answer. “I would greatly appreciate both your company tonight.”

     

    “We would be honored, ma’am,” said Miran in a tone almost as cool as Benjor’s used to be.

     

    “Yes,” agreed Dralin, his voice still shaking. “We would.”

     

    “Thank you.”

     

    We walked the rest of the way to my door in the the fresh night air and the quiet of the crickets accompanied by the distant sounds of heart-felt plucking backed by tribal drums and cheering patrons. Worlds of dejection and joy existed side by side, yet only one was ever aware of the other. How I longed to be unaware.



    VII.

     

    The following night arrived more slowly than the passing of every week since Benjor’s injury. I didn’t sleep and neither did my housemates. We stayed up late drinking, talking, and crying. Even Miran expressed his sorrow once he made it deep enough into a bottle of Firebrand. We washed and changed and I gave them a tour, even showed them my aromatics.

     

    “So that’s why Benjor is always picking flowers,” Miran remarked.

     

    We fell asleep at the table beside the fire in a mess of bottles, flowers, and tears and woke up the next day dreading the wait. Dralin kept pleading to go to the temple to watch over Benjor but I insisted otherwise and dragged them to the Blue Palace in the late hours of the morning to write out and hand down an official demotion and probation missive for one former Captain Kainin, approved and signed by Elisif herself. “Shoveling cow shit,” I believe were his exact words.  

     

    The afternoon was a hot and humid travail spent wandering the shore near the docks with Dralin and Miran, searching for peace in the rhythmic waves that soothed away the daggers that struck at our hearts from the dark corners of our minds. A single sundried nightshade laid on the beach, brittle to the touch. The flower turned to dust in my fist and I released the last of seductively morbid petals the into the wind, into the sea.

     

    When sundown came, we made our way back to the temple. We were early but none of us could bear the wait any longer. We entered the temple to find Sybille and her two hooded associates huddled over Benjor. Rorlund watched them from the distance on the second floor balcony. Sybille broke the huddle when we entered and approached me at quick pace.

     

    “I know I’m early but-”

     

    She held up her hand to stop me.

     

    “The tonic has taken. His arm may be lost but we stopped the decay before it reached his heart.”

     

    I couldn’t hold back the welling tears if I wanted to.

     

    “His wound is now healing properly,” she said.  

     

    My lips quivered and my words were astray. I threw my arms around Sybille and hugged her with all the strength I had left. She even briefly held me back.

     

    “You’re welcome, Ari. Take your time with him. He’s still unresponsive.”

     

    I let her go as her associates left Benjor’s side and joined Sybille to walk out of the temple and back into their hideaways. Their eyes glinted above their hood-cloaked smiles and I always remained thankful for those silent healers with the friendly orange eyes.

     

    Dralin and Miran approached me from behind after they left.

     

    “You should speak to him first, ma’am,” said Miran. “We’ll give you your privacy. Dralin nodded in agreement and the two exited the temple. I heard a heavy door upstairs shut and saw Rorlund had removed himself as well. It was only me and Benjor left.

     

    I pulled up a nearby chair to the side of his bed, facing him as I had done weeks before.

     

    “Hi, Benjor,” I said, smiling at him.

     

    “I don’t know if you can hear me.” I paused, taking my time with my words.

     

    “I went into that crypt. I saw the monsters. I heard what they did to you.”

     

    The tears began again but I spoke through my choked words.

     

    “You were so brave.”

     

    My body grew weak and I lowered my head into my hands, sobbing, my elbows planted in my knees.

     

    “I’m so sorry. I should have done more. I should have gone with.”

     

    Benjor remained still.

     

    “I wish I could have done more. I would give anything to have you back but I don’t think I ever will.  I don’t know if you even want me here anymore.”

     

    I wished that stubborn man would wake up and flash me that big stupid grin. I wished it would all go back to how it used to be in that moment.

     

    “I just need you to know,” I reached out, but pulled back before I touched him, “how proud of you I am. For saving your men. For always being you and having such an unbreakable will.”

     

    I lost my breath and the heartache overtook me. It was all too much.

     

    “I will always love you, Benjor.”

     

    I stood up out of my chair and turned to the door when I heard a faint whisper of a word.

     

    “Ari.”

     

    My heart skipped and I threw myself back to his side, leaning down near Benjor, hands clasped, hoping I had heard more than the last dying whispers of hope in my mind. He moved his head up and my eyes met his. Those mysterious green eyes still had fight left in them. He moved as best he could, pointing weakly with his left hand towards the end of his bed.

     

    I looked over to his pile of furs and armor, the only things there. I didn’t even know what I was looking for or if he just wanted the furs for warmth but something about his eyes told me what I needed to find.

     

    Pocket after empty pocket, I turned out everything I could find until I pulled his outer fur coat from the bottom of the pile and pushed my hand into the inner left breast pocket.

     

    My hand found a cold, round piece of metal strung to a stout chain. I pulled out the compass and turned back to Benjor who moved his finger around in small circles.

     

    I flipped the compass over and saw the smooth back had been carved into. I ran my thumb over the rough and jagged letters as I read it.

     

    From now, until Sovngarde.

     

    He held out his left hand and looked into the flooded whites of my eyes. I placed the compass in his palm and held it there. He wrapped his fingers across the back of my shaking hand and I clasped my other hand over both of ours.

     

    Slowly, in a raspy but cool tone that was all his own, he spoke to me.

     

    “I’ll always find my way back to you.”

Comments

3 Comments   |   The Wolf Of Atmora and 4 others like this.
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  May 1
    It took me a while to get to this but by
    Hircine's claws it was worth it.

     

    I pushed my lips to his in a moment apart
    from time. I couldn’t tell if I forgot to breathe or if his indulgent lips
    stol...  more
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  April 10
    Spellbinding! Normally i take big Altmer to the tub with me, but today's ablutions were accompanied by Ms Silvertooth and two legionaries. Chapter one had me reaching for the kleenex. Is that too much info? Dude, way to demonstrate the Imperial Legion in ...  more
    • Legion
      Legion
      Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      Spellbinding! Normally i take big Altmer to the tub with me, but today's ablutions were accompanied by Ms Silvertooth and two legionaries. Chapter one had me reaching for the kleenex. Is that too much info? Dude, way to demonstrate the Imperial Legion in ...  more
        ·  April 14
      That's just the right amount of info! Means I did my job well. Thank you though, I did enjoy writing this whole piece. It is, admittedly, the furthest I've strayed from strictly ES writing, my world interpretations bordering on the blasphemous. It's proba...  more