• Four days since the storm, four days with no word from anyone but the Largashbur orcs, and Livia was starting to feel the least bit isolated. She’d always considered her little slice of the Treva Valley charming for all its solitude and hushed wilderness, not to mention its distance from Riften—she loved her family, but had no interest in being forever under their noses.


    But she needed news.


    The western courier was due two days ago, and the eastern courier yesterday. Livia’d kept letters to J’Zargo and one to her mother tucked into the pocket of her dress in anticipation. But neither had come, and the road remained eerily empty—no courier, no guards, no travelers at all from Riften or Ivarstead.


    Livia’d kept busy, pacing through the morning hours. Pots of raspberries and strawberries and sugar simmered, hanging on a spit over the fireplace, and her bookshelves boasted cobweb-free rows ordered by subject and author. Her floors shone like poured honey. A roast chicken stuffed with rosemary, onions, and apples rested near the oven.


    For the last quarter hour, she’d sat hunched over her desk, her quill scratching across the letter she’d steamed open over her alembic, adding a postscript. She’d decided to forego pride, or fear of the acerbic cat’s ribbing, in the face of growing curiosity and frayed nerves. What had they seen in Winterhold? Had they noticed fiery clouds over Snow Throat? Had they felt the ground shake?


    Livia leaned back in her chair and bit the end of her quill, taking a deep breath. Her kitchen smelled of onions and herbs, sweet berries and polishing oil— scents of home and comfort and…safety. But she couldn’t beat back the twinges of worry that twined like thorns in her gut.


    The back door creaked open, and Kaidan stood in the threshold, blinking and rubbing his eyes. Livia had every window thrown open against the twin fires in the kitchen, but the sun was fierce in its late-morning crest, and walking inside—especially off the river—often felt like venturing into a cave.


    He pulled a small towel from his back pocket and swiped it over his face and forehead and draped it around his neck. The ends rested on his bare chest. Livia let her eyes flick briefly over his neck and torso, lingering for mere seconds on the curves and lines of his warrior’s physique and landing, eventually, on his scars.


    Kaidan cleared his throat. Livia snapped her eyes back to his face. A half-smile curved his lips.


    “I, ah…” she stammered, dropping her gaze to her letter and folding it with trembling fingers, “your scars seem to be smoothing a bit.” She fumbled with her seal, but finally got the letter closed again. She tucked it into her desk drawer and turned the lock. “That’s good.”


    Kaidan’s smile was gone when she looked back up, replaced by a bleak sort of stare. Livia suspected hunger and fatigue from the sun. As well, plain weariness. He’d been up and outside swinging his axe by the time Livia’d pulled herself out of bed, long after sunrise.


    Cold realization spilled down Livia’s spine as she thought of another reason for Kaidan’s gloom—she’d not apologized for her behavior, yesterday at the dock.  


    She’d drifted off to sleep last night in a nest of confusion and fear, but also one pillowed by righteous indignation. How dare Kaidan—someone she barely knew—harp on about some mundane summer storm when he knew—he had to know—she didn’t want to talk about it? It was a storm, that was all. She’d fainted, that was all.


    But she’d awakened with a weight on her chest, dragging her down—probably why she’d slept so late in the first place. Guilt, of course. She’d taken her frustrations out on a virtual stranger—how could Kaidan know? She’d certainly not been forthcoming. It wasn’t his fault she couldn’t sleep through the night, and felt so tired during the day she couldn’t think. It wasn’t his fault she flew high above the forest every night in her dreams, her black wings rimed with frost, exulting in screams that floated up amid roaring gouts of flame—


    Livia stumbled as she stood and shoved back her chair. “Warnulf go in for lunch?” She headed to a small stone-walled room just off the kitchen—her makeshift buttery— where she kept pitchers of water and wine insulated from the fire’s heat. She breathed deeply of the cooler air and let the memory of her dreams slowly fade, and poured two stoneware goblets of well-watered wine.


    “Hm.” Kaidan seemed to hesitate, eyeing the goblet Livia offered, but took it after a second or two and tipped it up for a quick drink. “Figured it was time to break, too.”


    Livia’s stomach clenched at his hesitation and clipped tones. She should have apologized last night, when she’d heard him come in. Or this morning, before she’d gotten busy and distracted. But she hadn’t, and now it felt wrong…forced. “I’ll have lunch on the table in a few minutes,” she said softly, and lowered her eyes to her goblet.


    Kaidan turned wordlessly and walked to his room—the guest room, Livia chided herself. Or, it would be soon enough. She sighed and plodded back to the kitchen to check her preserves—they were ready to come off the heat, and she covered the fire with ashes. The house felt measurably—blessedly—cooler as she worked in the path of a breeze sliding off the river, and dished up plates of roast chicken, potatoes, and carrots.


    A floorboard creaked in the silence. Kaidan stood near the kitchen table wearing a clean blue tunic, a fresh, damp towel around his neck. He’d braided his hair back from his face in the Nord style, leaving the rest to cascade like a dark waterfall down his back. Livia forced a smile across her face and grabbed a basket of crusty bread from the sideboard on her way to the table.

    Kaidan heaved his hammer over his head and slammed it down, splitting the fat, upright log in two. He’d made his way through half the fallen cedar since lunch, and if he could keep it up, he’d have the entire mess split and stacked for firewood by nightfall.


    That is, he thought, his stomach churning, if he stayed at all. Livia’s flushed cheeks and fingers fumbling at her locked desk drawer flashed behind his eyes. The first time he’d caught her hiding her letters, he’d nearly convinced himself that he’d imagined it. Imagined her secrecy, imagined her nervousness—her pursed lips and averted eyes, but he hadn’t imagined it today.


    A line of sweat curved from his temple to his cheek, and Kaidan swiped at it with a linen towel. He braced another log upright, tapped the wedge into place, and swung his hammer.


    He’d not imagined her gaze, either, drifting from his chest down to his stomach, and the unmistakable spark of appreciation he’d seen there. For a moment, he’d thought…


    Kaidan’s face burned as he split another log. No, never mind what he thought. He was wrong—she’d merely examined his scars. Just acting as his healer—or playing at one. But none of that mattered; he hadn’t stayed for her appreciation. He stayed because he was a man who paid his debts. And he owed plenty.


    Or at least, he’d thought he did.


    Livia’d explained how she’d killed his Thalmor captors, and pulled him from their hidden torture chamber in the middle of nowhere. In the wilds of Eastmarch, of all places. He’d seen her depleted potions stores—depleted for care of him. He’d watched her spend hours in her hot, stuffy kitchen, and he’d been dazed by her smile as she’d served the best cakes and stews and breads he’d ever tasted.


    Kaidan pictured the wine goblet she’d offered him at lunch, remembered sipping from it over his plate of roast chicken and potatoes. He’d worried with every sip, every bite, imagining himself growing drowsy and warm, the room spinning, his vision darkening.


    His head hitting the table.


    And awakening, cozy and comfortable in Livia’s bed, staring up into the golden eyes of the black-robed wizard. 


    Kaidan didn’t have the means to dispute any of it, but he couldn’t help thinking—especially over the last day or so—about letters. Locked drawers. Conversations about dragons and the Blades. And the woman who could smile and crook her pretty finger and ask him anything—anything—and he’d be hard pressed to hold back a single word.


    Something crawled just above the nape of his neck. Kaidan lifted a hand to brush away the fly or mosquito or whatever bug had flown in off the river. His fingers touched nothing but bare skin. He felt it again—slithering, boring into the apex of his spine, and stilled, his hammer hanging limply at his side.


    It wasn’t a bug on his skin, but a shadow just at the edge of his mind that caught his attention. Something—some fact, something he’d overlooked, something he needed to know—nagged at a foggy corner of his awareness. His thoughts raced, but the more he looked for the sneaky little demon, the further it slipped away.


    Kaidan swore under his breath and threw the hammer to one side. He picked up an axe, lining it up over one of the half-logs he’d split.




    No. The word screamed its way into his mind, and he straightened and scrubbed the towel over his face. Cold sweat drenched his back and bile rose in his throat. No, Livia couldn’t.


    She couldn’t.


    Kaidan tucked the towel into his waistband and swung the axe over his shoulder and drove it into the log. He was an idiot for even thinking it. He owed the woman his life, didn’t he?


    Kaidan swung the axe and missed the center. The log skewed like a rogue arrow, off to the right. He swore again, and set it back up.


    He’d had every opportunity to tell her—to thank her for what she’d done—over the past week. But every time he’d allowed himself to process the feelings tumbling about in his brain, the words turned to useless breath before they reached his mouth. It was her eyes—soft and hypnotic, even when they flashed in anger—her eyes finished him, slayed him, stole every thought in his head. It was for the best, he told himself, after he’d let her go, after each and every failure. If nothing he could say would ever be enough, it was best he remain silent.


    The shadow in his mind twitched again, and turned, and Kaidan followed its lead. Livia’s eyes opened—cool and calculating—in his memory.


    I’ve seen pictures of old katanas. Weapons the Blades used back in the old Empire.


    Smoke and shadow slid away from him again, and he chased it, following its winding course. Livia came into focus again, looming over his bedside, her sweet voice lined with steel.


    Brynjar? Is your name Brynjar?


    Darkness swelled, memories whirling within, like thorny vines caught in a cyclone. One, sharper than the rest, rose higher and higher, tantalizing and tempting in its path. Kaidan closed his eyes and reached


    … hidden torture chamber in the middle of nowhere. In the wilds of Eastmarch, of all places.…


    His hand clenched around it, and pain bloomed, twining up his arms and around his chest and, finally, piercing his heart.


    It clarified, that pain, exploding from his heart and washing him clean. Clean of doubt, clear of sight. He opened his eyes, and the world righted around him.


    He hadn’t stopped himself speaking to Livia—thanking her—because his words were inadequate. He’d stayed his gratitude because his words were false. Because in truth, he owed her nothing. He’d been a fool to let himself trust her. A fool to think her his friend.


    And every day he stayed, he fooled himself a little bit more.


    Anger and fear and something else—something dark and sucking and volatile—welled up in Kaidan’s chest. A hoarse, hollow yell tore from his throat, and he heaved the axe over his head one last time and drove it through the log and into the ground.






3 Comments   |   The Sunflower Manual and 1 other like this.
  • ilanisilver
    ilanisilver   ·  August 16, 2019
    Thanks you guys!! I love writing this and digging deep and everything, but I’m looking so forward to them getting to happier times. 
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  August 16, 2019
    I agree with the Harrow. They both have these thorns that are getting under their skin, vines of doubt and paranoia wrapping themselves around each of their minds. One is running in fear, overwhelmed by the emotions of new experiences, the other has seen ...  more
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  August 15, 2019
    Well, these two are just a regular bundle of issues now, aren't they? The chapter name is as fitting a name as anyone can think of. It's easy to forget that both of them have really only known each other for a week or so. Sure, they have a connection, but...  more