Gathering Dark

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    “Can I ask you something?” Kaidan glanced quickly at Warnulf out of the corner of his eye and turned his attention back to his fish. He and the grizzled caretaker had arranged flat stones in a firepit near the riverbank, and enjoyed an hour of comfortable silence—tankards of mead in hand—while the stones heated. And now, snowy filets of perch and spadetail sizzled away, the spicy seasoning Warnulf had sprinkled over their tops making Kaidan’s mouth water.

     

    Warnulf grunted. “Seems like you just did. But I suppose you can ask something else.”

     

    “It’s about Livia,” Kaidan warned, and watched Warnulf for any hackles rising or jaw tightening. When he didn’t see any obvious signs of danger, he continued. “I’m worried.”

     

    “Probably should be,” Warnulf said, and Kaidan’s eyebrows went up. “Worry about us all, son. Worry about us all.”

     

    Kaidan eyed the large stoneware tankard Warnulf cradled and wondered how much he’d had to drink, for his tongue to loosen so. “Why’s that?”

     

    The caretaker stared balefully out at the water. “So, you didn’t listen to what I told you this morning?”

     

    Kaidan scanned his memory. His argument or disagreement or blow-up—whatever it had been—with Livia at the dock had taken up most of the space in his head, and he had trouble filtering past it. They’d repaired the shed’s roof that morning, he did remember that, and Snow Throat’s snowy peaks stark against blue skies—

     

    “Oh,” Kaidan said, and poked at the fish. “No, I remember. I mentioned it to Livia, matter of fact.” He shook his head at Warnulf’s widened eyes and the red stain creeping above his blond beard. “Not everything. And not that you said anything. Just, you know…I thought maybe what happened the other night wasn’t a storm.”

     

    Warnulf stared into his tankard. “What’d she say to that?”

     

    “She…” Livia’s face swam under his gaze, her shadowed eyes and snarling mouth. The shadow she’d cast as she’d risen from the dock like a storm surge. “Nothing good. I mean, she was…furious. And she didn’t believe it, wouldn’t even hear me out.”

     

    “She wouldn’t. Livia wasn’t raised in the old Nord way. She didn’t grow up hearing the old stories.” Warnulf fixed Kaidan with a level look across the firepit. “You didn’t either, I’ll wager. And you don’t believe me any more than Livia did.”

     

    “Well,” Kaidan chuffed, imagining how many shades of red Livia would have turned had he expanded on Warnulf’s theory, “the end of the world is a pretty tough pill to swallow. I don’t think it was just a storm, but…I don’t know. It bothers me we haven’t seen more people on the road from Riften. ‘Specially with the fire and whatnot in the sky out that way. Something happened, something bad, most like.”

     

    Kaidan picked up his own tankard and took a long drink, hesitating before settling down to the heart. “And something’s wrong with Livia.”

     

    “You think so?”

     

    “I’d bet my life on it,” Kaidan said.

     

    Warnulf shuffled his feet in the sand. “I’ll agree, she’s not been herself lately. But, I can’t say I’m surprised. She’s worn herself out over the past weeks, doing for you, keeping you alive,” he pointed out with a frank stare. “Might be she’s just tired.”

     

    Kaidan hung his head, shamefaced. He’d stayed at Waterview, done all the work he could around the house and the grounds to help Livia, in return for what she’d done. But was it enough? Enough to pay for his life? “I knocked on her door when I came back from the river. She didn’t answer. But maybe you’re right, maybe she’s just taking a nap. I should probably knock again to let her know dinner’s ready.”

     

    Kaidan didn’t move, and after a minute or two, Warnulf chuckled and heaved himself to his feet. “I’ll give it a try,” he said, and clapped Kaidan heavily on his shoulder.

     

    Maybe Livia was right—Warnulf had gone from silent gargoyle to drinking buddy, and all it took was a week of hard labor. Kaidan smiled, a tiny flicker of a smile that died too quickly.

     

    Livia.

     

    Kaidan didn’t know what to make of Livia, much less the way he felt about her. On one hand, it seemed like he’d known her forever. His weeks in the Thalmor prison had dragged on for years, like. And Livia was the only person in his life who’d seen it. She’d been there when he woke, been a constant figure in his life since.

     

    And Kaidan didn’t want that to change.

     

    Laughing about newly-talkative Warnulf wasn’t fun without her there. Fishing hadn’t been fun at all after she’d stormed off, and he’d packed up soon after and returned to Waterview to find it dark and chilly, diminished somehow without her light, her smile.

     

    On the other hand—and the hand reality had dealt—he’d known her for a week. Only a week, and Waterview wasn’t such an idyll given the emotional whiplash wearing him down since the storm. Livia ran hot, she ran cold. One moment’s playful smiles and sweet blushes turned too quickly into the snarls and snaps of an angry wolf.

     

    Or a dragon, he mused, his jaw tight. A volatile personality was nothing but a challenge as far as he was concerned. But he had the strangest feeling—given that he’d only known her for a week—that Livia no more understood what was happening than he did. Kaidan had little evidence at hand, but he knew something was wrong. Livia wasn’t the wolf, or the dragon, and what was wearing him down was doing the same to her, or worse.

     

    The door to Waterview opened. Kaidan’s chest surged and fell as Warnulf came out by himself. He watched the old Nord amble down to the river. “She might be sleeping,” Warnulf said, and shrugged. “Didn’t answer my knock.”

     

    Kaidan poked the fish again, and white flesh flaked over the tines of his fork. He scooped the filets off the stones onto a tray and took a few for himself. “Yeah,” he said. “Probably a good thing if she’s sleeping. She’s, ah…I know she’s not been sleeping well.”

     

    Warnulf slid fish onto his own plate, keeping sharp eyes on Kaidan. “Yeah?”

    “I hear her through the walls,” Kaidan said quickly. “Nightmares, she said.” He hoped it wasn’t too intimate a detail to share. It wasn’t as though she’d shared an embarrassing dream. “About dragons.”

     

    “Dragons? Maybe she remembers something about the old stories, at that.”

     

    “What old stories?” Kaidan popped a bite of flaky fish into his mouth and chewed, replaying Warnulf’s garbled warnings in his head. “You told me this morning that a storm like that on Snow Throat meant the end of the world. Ending where it began, you said. What does that have to do with dragons? Or Livia’s nightmares?”

     

    Warnulf settled in with his plate and took a long drink of mead. “All started with Kyne breathing life into men on top of that mountain,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder toward Snow Throat. “Well, I suppose it goes back further. Akatosh. The dragon.”

     

    Warnulf’s low tones, rich with hints of awe and mysticism, jarred with his gruff, craggy face. Kaidan suppressed a grin. “Akatosh, the dragon?”

     

    “Hm,” Warnulf grunted. “That’s what they say. There’s a statue in the Imperial City—Liv’s father’s seen it—the avatar of Akatosh. What Martin Septim turned into fighting Dagon himself. A damned dragon.”

     

    “So,” Kaidan prompted around another bite of fish.

     

    “Akatosh. And Alduin,” Warnulf said, nodding sagely, “two sides of the same coin. The beginning and the end.”

     

    Warnulf set his tankard down and started on his fish. Kaidan waited patiently for him to continue.

     

    “Akatosh creates, Alduin destroys,” he said, finally. “That was the deal. But stories say Mother Kyne wasn’t fond of the deal.”

     

    “I, ah,” Kaidan began, scratching the back of his neck, “I’ve never heard those stories.”

     

    “My grandfather told ‘em to me, said he heard ‘em from his own.” Warnulf eyed his tankard and swirled it around, taking a drink. “Kyne could create, and she did. On top of that mountain. Men,” he said softly, his chest puffed out and his eyes shining in the fading light. “And when Alduin came to Nirn to destroy, long ago, on top of that mountain, it was men pushed him back.”

     

    Kaidan stared blankly across the firepit. “So you think…”

     

    “That’s what’s happened,” Warnulf clanked his fork on the edge of his plate. “Alduin’s back.”

     

    “Have you told—“

     

    “Livia? No. She wouldn’t care if I did.”

     

    Kaidan scratched his thumb over a rough bunch of threads on the side of his knee. “So you think Alduin is back—Akatosh’s other half, so to speak. And men—ordinary men—are supposed to…fight him?”

     

    “Happened before.” Warnulf wolfed down the rest of his fish and set his plate aside. “And not ordinary men. Ulfric Stormcloak isn’t ordinary. Look at the way he killed Torygg. That wasn’t ordinary, and I—“

     

    “Ulfric Stormcloak…what?” Kaidan jumped and knocked his plate from his lap, spilling the last few bites of fish on the ground. He scooped them up and threw them into the water. “King Torygg is dead?”

     

    Warnulf pulled a pipe out of his tunic and lit it with a bit of straw he’d dipped in the firepit. “I suppose you wouldn’t have known, given where you were when it happened.” Warnulf narrowed his eyes. “Livia didn’t tell you?”

     

    “We’ve been busy,” Kaidan said. But he couldn’t help thinking they’d not been too busy for a piece of news like that. They’d spoken of the weather, fishing…blueberries. Surely regicide and revolution ranked a little higher on the scale. “Are you…messing with me? I was listening, you know, this morning. It’s just been a crazy day.”

     

    Warnulf sucked gently on the pipe and puffed out a foggy exhale. “Nope,” he said, popping his lips around the p.

     

     “But why?” Curiosity won out over the frustration of being kept in the dark. “Why kill the king?”

     

    “Honor. The honor of Skyrim. The honor of Talos,” Warnulf said, shaking his pipe in Kaidan’s direction. “And because we’re sick and tired of knife-ears—murdering bastards—walking our roads and drinking our mead and telling us what to do.”

     

    Kaidan figured no self-respecting Thalmor agent—or any elf for that matter— would have anything to do with Nord mead, but he kept that thought to himself. “So he just—Ulfric, I mean—up and went to Solitude, and—“

     

    “Challenged Skyrim’s king in just combat. For the throne. In the Nord way,” Warnulf said, his expression daring Kaidan to disagree.

     

    Kaidan knew better, even if he had his own misgivings. He’d wait to voice those misgivings when Livia woke up. If she’ll even talk to me. “But,” Kaidan tapped a finger on his knee, “it wasn’t ordinary, you said. The way Ulfric killed Torygg. What wasn’t ordinary?”

     

    “Ulfric shouted the king down,” Warnulf said slowly, and Kaidan’s eyes widened.

     

    “Shout?”

     

    “Spoke in the tongue of dragons, as was the way of Nords in days of old,” Warnulf intoned in a slightly sing-song voice. Kaidan wondered if he’d ever dreamed of becoming a bard, in his youth. “In the last dragon war, against Alduin. The Nord shout is our gift from Kyne, given on that very mountain.”

     

    Kaidan sat in the sand, staring out at the sun setting over the river, everything Warnulf told him clanking around in his head.

     

    Kyne and Snow-Throat. Stormcloak and dragons.

     

    Livia.

     

    She’d kept things from him, he knew. Her theory on the storm, about what happened on the mountain. Why the dragon in her nightmares terrified her so. The jarl of Eastmarch using some sort of ancient dragon magic to kill his own king.

     

    He’d thought nothing of it—they didn’t know each other well, and she was entitled to her privacy. But…

     

    Kaidan thought back to last night before dinner. She’d been at her desk, writing a letter when he’d come inside. A letter she’d hurriedly folded and locked away.

     

    Hurriedly, with pink, flustered cheeks. He shut his eyes, and saw her at the drawer’s lock, her fingers fumbling with the key.

     

    Warnulf finished his pipe and rose to his feet. He yawned and excused himself, ambling back to his bunkhouse. Kaidan nodded and looked over his shoulder toward Waterview. Still dark, still quiet.

     

    Kaidan leaned back on the heels of his hands. Torchbugs floated over dark water, and his heart thudded in his chest. He hung again in his cell, wrists and legs aching. Eyes wrenched wide open and staring at a ball of yellow lantern light floating, disembodied in the dark.

     

    Livia’s cow mooed in its stall and brought Kaidan back to himself. Back to the Rift, the water…back to Livia.

     

    Question was, had he exchanged one prison for another?

     

    Kaidan had listened to his captors speak when he’d been awake and of a mind. Much of what they said while he’d hung on the wall boiled down to a garbled mess of random snips and phrases. But he remembered hearing something about dragons, and blades.

     

    At the time, he’d thought they were talking about arms—swords, daggers, knives—and he’d not given it any thought until Livia’d brought up the Blades—the actual Blades—the night of the storm. She’d asked about his sword, and he’d told her everything he knew.

     

    What did the Blades have to do with dragons? What did his sword have to do with either?

     

    And why was Livia bringing up the very things his captors found so fascinating? Was it really Livia talking, or Warnulf, even? Or was he lost in shadow, still a captive…still hanging on that wall?

     

    I dreamed of a dragon last night. Red eyes and black wings…

     

    Kaidan clenched his jaw and shut his eyes again, this time breathing deep, calming gulps of night air, and letting them go slowly. Brynjar hadn’t been a religious man, but he’d taught Kaidan something of Kyne, himself. Breath is life, he said once. Kaidan had been upset during an archery lesson. He couldn’t get his timing right, and his arrows sailed passed every target. When you think you can’t—breathe. When you’re angry—breathe. You’ll find your center, your balance, every time.

     

    Kaidan remembered. In the prison, when he woke to darkness or worse—to floating yellow light bobbing in his cell—he’d remembered. Breathe. When he’d woken to shadow and pain and wondered what was real and what was illusion. Breathe.

     

    He tried it again, digging his fingers into the sandy bank, and felt his heartbeat slow. And opened his eyes.

    Livia lay awake in the darkness and listened to the door open and shut, and footsteps thud softly toward the guest room.

     

    Kaidan’s room.

     

    But the footsteps didn’t continue inside. Instead, stockinged feet squeaked against the floor, turning around slowly. After a pause, the footsteps sounded again, coming down the hall.

     

    Toward her room.

     

    Her heartbeat quickened. The footsteps grew louder, and stopped at her door. Livia held her breath and waited for the knock.

     

    It didn’t come. A deep sigh broke the silence and another soft squeak of a turn, and the footsteps padded away. Livia held her breath until she heard the guest room door shut.

     

    What had Kaidan wanted? To rail at her again about the storm? To ask if she wanted dinner? Warnulf had already knocked an hour ago to tell her they’d cooked fish, but Livia feigned sleep. She wasn’t sure she ever wanted to look at a fish again.

     

    Livia stared at the ceiling, and her chest tightened. Had Kaidan come to tell her he was leaving?

     

    She knew it was coming, especially after their—disagreement, for lack of a better word—that afternoon. He’d already cleaned and repaired his sword and armor, and was fully healed. Strong and hale a man as she’d ever seen, in fact. Kaidan had stayed the past few days to help clear up after the storm, but as far as she was concerned he owed her nothing. And if he was going to leave, she’d prefer he leave soon.

     

    She was better off without him, she told herself. She would miss him—she could admit it, even with his tendency to nag and harp on things she’d rather not discuss. But the healer in her knew the feeling would pass, that it was probably a combination of her accomplishment—she’d saved a life. The life of someone she’d rescued. It was such a high, that success. And that sort of feeling didn’t come around every day.

     

    Partly that, yes. But much of it, she had to admit again, revolved around the mystery that was Kaidan.

     

    Exactly why she was better off without him. The Thalmor wouldn’t give up when they wanted something, and she didn’t need to run afoul of the Dominion. As well, there was something else.

     

    It’s easy to take a life.

     

    She’d not thought about it before, she’d been too wrapped up in her own guilt. And with the storm, and…everything else, Kaidan’s softly-spoken advice or empathy—whatever it had been—had slipped her mind. But in the past day or so she’d caught herself watching Kaidan and wondering—what sort of man found it easy to take a life?

     

    Was this a man she wanted in her home? In her life?

     

    The answer—what she should want, what she should do— stared her in the face, and even through the darkness, she could see it, plain as day.

     

    No.

     

    Livia groaned and rolled over on her side, tucking her pillow under her neck. Masser’s red glow shone through her window. She stared out into a black velvet sky studded with stars, and closed her eyes.

    You guys know my relationship with lore is shaky at best, so don't act surprised when I step out on it a little...

     

     

     

Comments

5 Comments   |   Paws and 1 other like this.
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  August 15
    I haven't been on the site for a while so this was a nice thing to come back to. Like Phil I really enjoyed the way the oral culture of the Nords is represented here. Warnulf gives off a nice crusty old man feel. Every culture has some variation of that, ...  more
    • ilanisilver
      ilanisilver
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      I haven't been on the site for a while so this was a nice thing to come back to. Like Phil I really enjoyed the way the oral culture of the Nords is represented here. Warnulf gives off a nice crusty old man feel. Every culture has some variation of that, ...  more
        ·  August 15
      I will admit, i pictured Sam Elliott while writing Warnulf. So yeah, crusty but winnable. In this case, with lots of hard work and proof of care. And thanks! I’m trying to put their relationship at the forefront, with everything else in the background for...  more
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  August 12
    A really good chapter, Ilani, one that answered a lot of questions. Kaidan is as confused by Livia's emotional highs and lows as I am, and now has the death of the High King and all the implications of that to work through. On top of that, he's slowly sta...  more
    • Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      Paws
      A really good chapter, Ilani, one that answered a lot of questions. Kaidan is as confused by Livia's emotional highs and lows as I am, and now has the death of the High King and all the implications of that to work through. On top of that, he's slowly sta...  more
        ·  August 12
      At the end there we see Liv has been running away from her feelings, is scared of everything. Terrified the Thalmor were in some way justified, terrified Kaidan might leave, and terrified of the things she's intuiting. Those two need to talk. Like, really...  more
      • ilanisilver
        ilanisilver
        Paws
        Paws
        Paws
        At the end there we see Liv has been running away from her feelings, is scared of everything. Terrified the Thalmor were in some way justified, terrified Kaidan might leave, and terrified of the things she's intuiting. Those two need to talk. Like, really...  more
          ·  August 12
        Oh, that will happen my friend. Talking first, though. Lots of talking and then lots of shit going down because let’s face it, this is Skyrim. And Alduin is a bastard. Yeah, the lore I sort of spun out is absolutely incorrect and I wanted it to be, and yo...  more