Below the Surface

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    “So we’re just going to sit here on the dock and wait for dragonflies?”

     

    “Mm,” Kaidan mumbled, knotting a torn place in the net. He lowered it to his lap and felt a grin slide across his face at her bewildered expression. “You’ve never been fishing before?”

     

    “I’ve fished,” Livia said, absently looping her fingers in and out of her own net. “Sort of. My dad took us to Leyawiin when I was a kid. House on the bay and all that. But all I did was stand in the water and pick flowers and complain about my dress getting wet. My brother caught the fish.”

     

    Kaidan watched Livia yawn and stretch. The shade under their birch highlighted white circles and dark shadows around her eyes. She’d not slept well for the last few nights; none of them had, not even Warnulf, whose own yawns and stretches and stumbling steps were the reason Livia and Kaidan relaxed in midday dappled sunlight in the first place.

     

    The caretaker needed a nap. And by his own rule—and Warnulf’s rules were everyone’s rules—if he was too tired to swing an axe and pull a saw, the rest of them were as well. So they were done clearing and cleaning for the afternoon, and if the sun continued its fiery climb into the sky, scorching everything not touched by shade, they might just be done for the day. Or at least until dusk.

     

    “Well, the dragonflies love all this still water,” Kaidan said, gazing down at silvery wings hovering over the inlet around the dock. “And fish love dragonflies. So yes, we wait.”

     

    He finished tying his net and scrambled to his knees. “On your belly,” he directed Livia, and lowered himself onto his elbows, his net slung over the dock, “and watch.”

     

    Shimmer and shadow flashed below the surface, and the dragonflies swarmed. “See that muck, there?”

     

    Kaidan bumped his shoulder against Livia’s, and pointed out patches of brown and greenish sludge floating on top of the water.

     

    “It gathers around the pillars, gets stuck. Pieces of plant, tiny bugs. What the dragonflies eat,” he explained, and shook his net out, slowly lowering it just above the surface. Several dragonflies dipped down, nudging at their food and making slow ripples around the pillars. Kaidan waited for the fish to take the bait. When sunlight flashed on silver scales, he angled his net into the pool, quickly and efficiently, with very little splash. When he brought it up again, two perch wriggled amid the twine.

     

    “Neat trick,” she said, and took the net, peering at the fish before sitting up and emptying them into a bucket of water on the other side of the dock. A few drops splashed over Kaidan’s sword. Livia dried it with the hem of her skirt. “I can use their scales, too. Adds a little oomph to my potions.”

     

    Livia’s jaw popped around another yawn, and Kaidan chuckled. “You need one of those, looks like,” he said, heaving himself up to wait for more dragonflies to gather. Wind gusted suddenly off the river and set the birch’s apple-green branches to swinging like whips over their heads.

     

    A burst of laughter boomed not far away, north of the dock, toward Waterview. The laughter of a group, voices blending and rising and falling. Livia jumped to her feet quickly, Kaidan thought, for a woman who’d nearly split her jaw in two yawning. He rose silently to stand beside her and they listened. The laughter faded out, replaced by cracking leaves and branches under heavy footsteps on the road just over the hill from the dock.

     

    Kaidan tilted an ear toward the sound. “I think it’s a hunting party,” he whispered, and held his sword in an arc over his hips, one fist closed over the lacquered sheath. “They’re dragging something. Listen.”

     

    Livia shrugged. “They might have news, then,” she said and frowned. “Why are you holding your sword like that?”

     

    “They might not be friendly,” Kaidan said, softly. “Could be hunters, could be thugs, you never know. But they’ll be ‘round that bend of trees in a moment.” He searched the dock and the trees. The hunting party, if that’s what it was, lay between them and Waterview, so if shelter was needed, they’d have to make do with what they had. “Get ready to run when I tell you to.”

     

    “You think a bunch of thugs are dragging dead bodies past my house?” Livia snorted. “Guards patrol this road all the time.”

     

    Her assurance didn’t make Kaidan feel any more secure. He’d known too many guards in his day who’d ignore their duties for the sake of ease. Or gold. The noise booming through the forest grew louder, and as the first traveler rounded the bend in the road, Livia puffed out a loud exhale and nudged Kaidan with her elbow. “Lower your sword,” she said. “It’s safe. Just follow my lead.”

     

    Kaidan was right—it was a hunting party. A band of orc rangers armed to the teeth, and as their number crested the bend, he saw what it was they dragged behind them—a giant. “Orcs,” Kaidan whispered. “They’re orcs. And they killed a giant. Are you sure they’re safe?”

     

    “Shhh…” Livia held up one palm in greeting and nodded. “Their stronghold isn’t far from Waterview. We’ve traded potions, and I’ve healed them from time to time, so they know me. We’re not what you’d call friends, but they’re definitely not thugs, so put your sword down.”

     

    Kaidan didn’t immediately obey. One of the orcs spoke to the group and broke off through the woods, heading their way. Livia placed a hand on Kaidan’s sword and pushed it away. “Her name’s Ugor. She left her spear. She just wants to talk or she wouldn’t come unarmed.”

     

    The orc stopped ten feet from where Kaidan and Livia stood. “We were hunting near the border of Eastmarch,” she said without preamble or greeting, meeting Livia’s eye and studiously ignoring Kaidan. “There was a storm. Orange clouds and great wind. The earth shook.”

     

    Livia nodded. “That happened here, too.”

     

    Ugor made a rumbling noise under her breath. “We sheltered in a dugout under a cliff,” she said, and jerked a thumb over her shoulder toward the dead giant. “That thing came running out of the darkness swinging his club at the trees. At the air, at nothing, maybe. We didn’t know what his problem was. But he ran toward us, and we defended ourselves. He is our kill.”

     

    The orc turned her flinty blue gaze his way; it sounded like a challenge…or a threat. He is our kill. Kaidan wasn’t sure what would count as an acceptable response, so he nodded once, slowly, and stooped to lay his sword back on the dock.

     

    Livia cleared her throat. “Where did the giant come from? They don’t usually leave Eastmarch, their mammoth—“

     

    “This one came alone, without his herd.” Ugor scratched behind an ear, her large hand tipped with sharp nails. “Confusing behavior for a giant. This is why I stopped to speak with you,” she said, narrowing her eyes and peering up at the sky, “we’ve seen other strange things. Bears attacked our party, unprovoked. Their minds should be on mating, but they charged us on the road. And deer and elk are scarce. Too scarce.”

     

    Kaidan frowned. If the forest seemed especially quiet and empty, he’d not noticed. “I’ll keep an eye out, Ugor,” Livia said, and nodded. “Thank you for letting me know.”

     

    Ugor nodded in return and rejoined her party. Kaidan watched them shuffle down the road toward their stronghold, the giant bobbing and bumping in their wake. He clambered over limbs and brush on his way to the road, marveling how the female orc managed to traverse the same path so gracefully, and scanned the forest. It was early in the afternoon for elk and deer to be out in the open, so their absence didn’t bother him. But the orc—Ugor, he reminded himself—had a point. Leaves rustled in the breeze blowing off the river, but aside from that, the woods were still.

     

    Quiet, when they should have been alive with birdsong and the flutter of wings, the skritch and chatter of foxes or squirrels or the occasional skeever. Kaidan called out on his way back to Livia. “I don’t see anything too alarming. But if you want to go back home, we can.”

     

    Livia stared past him for a brief moment, her eyes wide and vacant. Then she blinked and shook her head. “Nonsense,” she said. “We don’t have enough fish yet, and I haven’t had a chance to try.”

     

    Their steps thumped on the dock’s wooden planks. Dragonflies swarmed and scattered away over the river. “Have a seat,” Kaidan said, and grinned at Livia’s pout. “They’ll be back once we quiet down a bit.”

     

    The planks creaked as they sat facing each other, their legs crossed on the narrow pier. Like Ugor, Kaidan narrowed his eyes and peered up and around, scanning sky and river and wood.

     

    Too quiet.

     

    “What do you think, then?” Livia’s eyes snapped up to his, and Kaidan hesitated before finishing his question. “About…about what your orc friend said?”

     

    “What about it?”

     

    “Well, she seems to think something weird’s going on. Like maybe,” Kaidan paused again and considered his words. Livia’d already dismissed his suspicions earlier, over breakfast, and Kaidan had been content to let the matter lie. But Ugor’s news spurred him on. “Like maybe what happened wasn’t an ordinary storm. Maybe it wasn’t a storm at all.”

     

    Livia shrugged, and Kaidan could almost see a veil slide over her face. It didn’t obscure her features, of course, but took every bit of expression instead. “We’ve already been over this, Kaidan. Of course it was a storm. What else could it have been?”

     

    “I told you, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. And, have you ever seen a storm like that? I haven’t, not even on Vvardenfell,” Kaidan said, sneaking a look over his shoulder at the water. The dragonflies hadn’t made it back their way. “And you’d think with all that ash in the skies, that would be the place to see red and orange clouds. Not in the Rift, not even over Snow Throat.”

     

    Livia perked up. “You’ve been on Vvardenfell?”

     

    “I have. Spent some time…” Kaiden pursed his lips and did some mental calculations. “Be thirteen years ago come Heartfire. Celebrated my sixteenth birthday out there.”

     

    “Well, happy early birthday,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes.

     

    “Thanks.” Kaidan grinned, but the grin fractured quickly. He wondered where he’d be when Heartfire rolled around. Where Livia would be, what they’d be doing. Separately, of course, once he got back on the road, and she was back doing…whatever it was she did. The life of a country healer, he supposed.

     

    Livia leaned on her palms and arched her back, rolling her neck slowly left to right. “How’s your head?” Kaidan asked, watching leaf-shaped shadows dance across her shoulders.

     

    “Fine.” Livia really did sound fine, but Kaidan couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. It wasn’t her weary spells, or the fact that she’d screamed like she’d been stabbed right before she fainted dead away the other night, or how snappish she’d been the past two days. It wasn’t even her reluctance to talk about what happened, or the nightmares she’d had every night since.

     

    It wasn’t any one of those things, but all of them, and more besides. Kaidan was damned if he could figure it out, but he felt sure it had something to do with the storm, as Livia insisted on naming it.

     

    “I don’t think it was a storm,” he said, scratching a half-moon into a soft spot in the plank with his fingernail. “The earth doesn’t usually shake during storms does it?”

     

    “Could have been thunder. But even if the earth doesn’t usually shake during storms, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I’ve never seen a…a dragon,” Livia stammered, picking at a loose thread on her tunic. “But it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.”

     

    Kaidan snorted. “A dragon?”

     

    Livia nodded quickly. “Yeah. There’s burial mounds all over Skyrim. Aeries on mountaintops too big to belong to birds, surrounded by petrified mammoth bones. Tiber Septim controlled a dragon, you know. People wrote books about it. It’s not like it’s pre-history.”

     

    “I’m not so well read as you.” Kaidan frowned. He didn’t want to talk about dragons, and Livia’s attempt to change the subject to something so odd only made him want to dig deeper. “But to me, it looked like—“

     

    “Just a storm,” Livia said shortly, and turned a too-bright smile on Kaidan. She flopped back on her belly. “I want to try. Now.”

     

    Kaidan sighed and gave up. He couldn’t have a one-sided conversation anyway. “Ok.” He watched Livia hold her net over the water. “Just wait until the dragonflies come back. They always do. And then,” he said, rotating his wrist quickly so his net flicked through the air, “when you see the fish come to the surface…”

     

    Livia mimicked his movements twice, then stilled and concentrated on the water. “Oh,” she said, after a minute of silence. “I see one.”

     

    “Let the little bugs gather a bit more. Wait until it almost looks like scum on top of the water, and you’ll have a better chance.”

     

    “Ew,” Livia said, and grimaced, but obeyed.

     

    When the water finally slowed its flow and enough tiny insects collected in the pool, the dragonflies followed, buzzing and nipping at the surface. Kaidan watched Livia ready her net. A shimmer caught his eye, and he bent toward the fish swimming up for their lunch just as Livia slammed her net down, splashing cool water over Kaidan’s face and down the front of his tunic.

     

    Kaidan spluttered and wiped his face with his sleeve, and blinked. Livia stared at him with wide eyes, her lips clamped so tightly they trembled. Dimples formed conical hollows at the corners of her mouth.

     

    “Go ahead,” he said, rolling his eyes. He was just glad to see a real smile on her face, even at his expense. “Let it out. Wouldn’t want you to explode.”

     

    Livia did laugh then, her cheeks pink and her brown eyes golden in the sun. Kaidan joined in despite the prickles of unease still squirming in his gut. “Let’s try that again.”

     

     

    An hour later, Livia still hadn’t managed to catch a fish. Thanks to Kaidan, eight perch and three spadetails swam happily in their bucket on the dock, but Livia couldn’t get the hang of angling her net into the water without creating a splash and scaring everything away. So she contented herself with lying on her back on the dock, her knees bent and her hands folded across her belly, and letting Kaidan catch their dinner.

     

    After all, if he stayed busy with his net, he was much less likely to nag her about the storm.

     

    That’s all it had been, of course. Just a bad storm, and one that, in the heat of another beautiful day, seemed far away. She stared up through waving branches at blue skies and snow-white clouds. The nightmares that had shaken her awake the past few nights seemed far away, too.

     

    She clenched her hands into fists at her sides, and let her lids fall. It didn’t take long—blue skies darkened to black, and fluffy clouds whirled and spun and burned orange and red. Blackened branches grasped at the air and reached their gnarled fingers toward the dock. Livia gasped and her eyes flew open.

     

    “D’you fall asleep there?” Kaidan’s calm voice broke the choppy rhythm of her breath. Livia raised an arm and flopped it over her eyes. “Nice shade for a nap.”

     

    She latched onto his voice in the darkness—as good a distraction as any— and listened to its dropped consonants and soft, curvy vowels. Wondered where he’d picked up such a…beguiling way of speaking. He’d lived in Skyrim, High Rock, Vvardenfell...

     

    The dock creaked under his weight. “Livia? Something wrong?”

     

    Lee-vya, soomthin’ roong?

     

    …and who knew where else. She didn’t know.

     

    A shapeless, nameless void uncoiled itself in her chest. His voice was as mysterious as the rest of him, yet she’d let him in. A stranger. She’d fainted right outside her own door, and he’d been there to catch her.

     

    “Are you alright?”

     

    Y’alrigh’?

     

    Kaidan—what sort of name was Kaidan, anyway?

     

    She’d let him guide her back into the house, after the winds died down. Allowed him to take her arm and place his hand at the small of her back and walk her to her bedroom. And when she’d finally crawled between the sheets, he’d come to check on her. He’d even brought her a tankard of well-watered wine.

     

    She’d drained the whole thing. Sleep claimed her quickly—a deep, cloying sleep, but one that wouldn’t last. And Kaidan—he knew about the nightmares. Heard her cry out. He knew…

     

    “I dreamed about a dragon,” she blurted out.

     

    The dock creaked again. A droplet of water splashed on Livia’s cheek. She lowered her arm to swipe it away and slowly opened her eyes. Blue skies. Fluffy white clouds. And green and gray branches waving gently overhead. She closed her eyes again and waited.

     

    Nothing. She very nearly groaned in relief.

     

    “You…you did?”

     

    “Mm.” Livia inhaled, deep into her belly, and blew it out a little at a time. You need to talk about your bad dreams, her mother used to say. Nightmares don’t like it. Talking about them makes them run scared.

     

    Livia hadn’t wanted to talk about this one; she hoped she’d just forget. But every time she closed her eyes, there it was. Like a cornered serpent waiting to strike. “Black wings, red eyes. It set the forest on fire and roared like thunder, like the world shaking apart.”

     

    Livia listened to Kaidan’s steady breath. “Red eyes?”

     

    “Yeah,” she said, and sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees.

     

    Kaidan blinked. “Sounds like the resemblance was uncanny.”

     

    Livia scrunched her face up in a puzzled frown. “Resemblance to—“

     

    But her eyes rose to meet Kaidan’s and he laughed, his own red eyes crinkling and nearly meeting the edge of his cheekbones. Livia managed a shaky smile, her chin resting on her knees. Her chest tightened.

     

    Who are you?

     

    Kaidan’s laughter faded. “Do you really—really—think that was only a storm—“

     

    She let go of her knees and uncoiled from the dock, standing with clenched, trembling fists. “That’s enough, Kaidan,” she snapped, looking down into his face. His eyes searched hers, and Livia’s frown deepened. His preoccupation with the storm wasn’t mere, idle curiosity. He studied her with concern. Maybe even fear, she thought, and a shiver tickled at her spine.

     

    “Livia,” he said, rising to stand beside her, “there’s something—“

     

    “No.” Her voice sank to a whisper, and her eyes burned into Kaidan’s. “It was only a storm,” she said, and stumbled backwards onto the little path on the bank leading home. Her palms flew out to ward off his advance. His help, his damned concern. She didn’t need it, she snarled to herself and spun on her heel, walking quickly out of his reach.

     

    Red eyes blazed at her back. “Only a stupid dream,” she said, and blinked. Red eyes seared her vision, and she gathered up her skirts and ran.

     

    Art Credit: The Rift by Silvana Sobral

     

     

     

Comments

4 Comments   |   The Sunflower Manual and 1 other like this.
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  August 10
    It was the Orcs for me, Ilani. That whole scene is a delight. I can picture it so easily and hear the noise of their passage as they celebrate their victory while returning to their stronghold, but above all that is your portrayal of them and their cultur...  more
    • ilanisilver
      ilanisilver
      Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      It was the Orcs for me, Ilani. That whole scene is a delight. I can picture it so easily and hear the noise of their passage as they celebrate their victory while returning to their stronghold, but above all that is your portrayal of them and their cultur...  more
        ·  August 10
      When I wrote Ugor, funny enough I was thinking of the Winterhold librarian and how possessive he is about his books. His territory, his place, his home. So orcs in the Rift, which is really just the ultimate in nature, for me, I mean, that attitude about ...  more
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  August 10
    I really liked the reference to Nafaalilargus. And Kaidan's rapidly becoming dad material with his fishing already - that's a common thing for American dads to do, right? I only know that from Calvin and Hobbes.
    • ilanisilver
      ilanisilver
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      I really liked the reference to Nafaalilargus. And Kaidan's rapidly becoming dad material with his fishing already - that's a common thing for American dads to do, right? I only know that from Calvin and Hobbes.
        ·  August 10
      I have never had a dad take me fishing, so maybe? ;)