SotF: Something to Prove

  • I

    Running – that was what she had been doing from the moment she rose from her slumber at dawn and even as the sun was up high with its blazing light shining down on her, she was still running.

     

                Her lungs were on fire, with each breath that she took feeling like a punch to the chest but she ignored it. Her eyes stung from the salt of her sweat and the gleaming sun but she ignored it. Her feet was torn apart from the blisters and the terrain but she ignored it. She ignored the pain and fatigue of her body; after all this was nothing to her for she had endured worse. She even ignored the incessant buzzing of insects that clustered around her like she was their greatest bounty and just kept running.

     

                But what she couldn’t ignore was Senior-Vigilant Matthias, who not only seemed to be fine running in these conditions but also that he was at least thirty paces ahead of her and that gap seemed to widen.

     

                ‘With haste, pupil!’ shouted Matthias as he ran further and further, shrinking into the distance.

     

                The sloshing of water in her canteen and the sound of a nearby river taunted her cracked lips and dry throat, not helped that she was given explicit orders not to drink until their next stop; whenever that was.

     

                ‘The Problem Initiate’ they called her. ‘Out of control’ they said. The boy had left himself open to an attack. How could she not take that chance? She didn’t mean to hurt him and even if she did, she’d rather he be hurt by her than by someone who wanted to kill him. Hard training and an easy battle. Only Senior-Vigilant Matthias defended her for the very least of her intentions than her actions.

     

                The season had been slow for the Vigil; other than a few Daedric leads, most relating to another cannibal cult of Namira, there was nothing much going on. Even the bandits were behaving this season, keeping small enough that the guards of the Hold could handle them without contractor assistance. Her blood boiled in the Keep and it was Carcette’s suggestion that Senior-Vigilant Matthias took her on a general patrol.

     

                ‘Nine curses upon you, you Breton b-‘ muttered Falrielle under her breath only to stop herself when she remembered that she had spent the entire season complaining about nothing to do but to mop floors, count trees, listen to long and dull sermons and peel potatoes.

     

                The eastern realm of the Rift was unlike what she had seen before: not a wash of white and frost of the northern realm of the Pale nor was it a dull grey and rocky crags of the Reach. No, it was but a colourful mix of reds, greens and yellows. The air did not chill the bone as she was accustomed to but it was instead a warm comforting breeze. The Senior-Vigilant told her that it was the coming of autumn and the forests would all soon be painted red and the leaves would be dancing in the wind.

     

                A sight she would be eager to see if it weren’t for one thing: the Rift was too damn hot.

     

                Clad in tunic, tabard, gambeson, and mail in addition to a thick travel coat and a backpack, Falrielle was soaked from top to bottom. Her mind boggled when the Senior-Vigilant had told her that the coming autumn was the coolest one in the last decade and that the locals had to wear thicker clothes to compensate. Even stranger for her, Senior-Vigilant Matthias in addition to what she wore also had a breastplate, a pair of gauntlets, and a heavy leather baldric full of potions and pouches.

     

                The dirt trail they ran was a bit off the main road with the path winding left and right like a snake. Fallen branches and leaves crunched beneath the weight of her boots as Falrielle continued running at full pace without pause. The pressure on her head was immense; her vision blurred and she was sure that she would collapse any moment.

     

                Then Matthias signalled for them to take a short break.

     

                Falrielle’s knees cried out in joy and gave out and the Initiate found herself on the ground, desperately crawling towards a tree for the blessings of a shade. She propped herself up, gasping for air and praying and praising to every god and goddess she knew.

     

                Matthias offered her his canteen and she took a drink with a short nod of thanks.

     

                She then leaned back and poured the canteen over her face. She wished she could pull her hood down and enjoy the summer breeze. She had heard that it was something the southerners enjoy. She wished she could enjoy it too but alas, it was a luxury she could not afford.

     

                ‘Breath and focus, Falrielle. Breath and focus,’ Matthias said. He was quite tall for a Breton man, standing almost as tall as any Nord man albeit not as wide. Nonetheless he was rather well built and his loose tunics hid his lean body well. He was starting to get old by human standards, his slicked hair and trimmed beard had begun to grey and silver. Unremarkable for a common man but for a man of the Vigil, the prospect of growing old is a gift.

     

                ‘Breathe through your belly and not your chest,’ he continued. ‘I’ve noticed that your chest dances but your belly doesn’t when we run; why do you think you tire quickly?’

     

                She stuttered, tempted to say something but decided not to. Not to him anyway, never to Mentor. She took another sip.

     

                Matthias chuckled. ‘Truly, this is the “Snowstorm” and the “White Ghost of the Pale”.’ Names she had been given from her time as a sellsword among the many. ‘The Scrolls do wonder how you lasted so long with your stamina.’

     

                ‘Long enough to take my target down – not to make note of the obvious, Mentor but here I am sitting under a tree making conversation with you. I must be doing something right,’ said Falrielle as she returned the canteen. ‘Besides, am I not the best fighter and the most experienced in combat among my peers? Who are they but farm boys, city mice, and milk drinkers? Perhaps some have been blooded but the rest are so green that they practically piss grass. They came and I’ve always beaten them in the ring.’

     

                ‘Nothing to be proud of considering that “they’re so green that they practically piss grass”,’ Matthias said with a sly smile on his face.

     

                ‘Please do not mock me, Mentor. I have slain many in single combat too.’

     

                ‘Common Men and Mer: those were your opponents. They were not monsters.’

     

                ‘Monsters some of them,’ said Falrielle, her voice low.

     

                ‘Men and Mer all the same. As a Vigilant, we have to sometimes face something much more than that – creatures and beings born of nightmares and magic. Creatures beyond our understanding and this world. I have stared down Wraiths and Chaurii. I have seen friends torn apart by savage beasts and flesh eaters. I have even survived the brutality of Daedra. We fight beings that move faster than a mere mortal could comprehend and fight with the viciousness of a raging flame – a force of nature as it were.’

     

                Falrielle smiled and thumbed her chest ‘But is it not through such adversities, that blood and glory are what songs and legends are made of? No one remembers the tale of Falrielle: the slayer and skinner of rabbits and the chopper of wood. No, Mentor. People remember the story of how the White Ghost of the Pale snuck into a camp of Rathborn the Fearsome at night and returned with his head in the morning. They also sang songs of the Snowstorm and how a little elf took down some of the best fighters in Markarth with only her fists. Blood and glory. How else do we truly prove ourselves but through combat?’

     

                ‘There is more to life than the fighting,’ said Matthias as he took a sip.

     

               ‘Aye, that may be so but is it not of the love of combat is what defines us Nords? Oh yes, I may be elf by birth but my heart is Nord. More than I can say of those perfumed ponces in Solitude! Even as a girl I dreamt of being a shield-sister of the Companions. Don’t judge me – I’m not the only one.’

     

                Matthias laughed. ‘They why join the Vigil? We are not people of glory. We have been around for the past three centuries yet no songs or tales of us. No drinks to our triumphs.’

     

                ‘Perhaps it’s because we have done nothing worthy enough of such praise… And I seek to change that,’ Falrielle said, her smile widening. ‘Every True Nord has heard and remembered the legend of Ysgramor and his brave Five-Hundred Companions.’

     

                ‘If I were a Companion, I would just be living under their shadow. On my victories and achievements, they would say: “Oh that little elf of the North! What luck has she to be a shield-sister of Ysgramor’s that little elf! Oh what luck!” That was what they would say.’ She spat. ‘No, if I were to test my mettle. If I were to prove myself it would be because of me – and not because of the name of the Companions. My sweat, my blood, my skill, my own.’

     

                ‘And so they are,’ said Matthias. Falrielle could detect a hint of disapproval in his voice. “Bread. Eat.’

     

                Black bread. Tough and stale but cheap and plentiful. She’d prefer wheat but it was better than more barley porridge or rats on a stick.

     

                ‘Take your boots off,’ he continued.

     

                Falrielle stopped chewing and stared at his general direction in confusion, only able to mutter a weak ‘What?’

     

                ‘You had been limping for the past few miles.’ Falrielle blushed. She had hoped that he did not notice. ‘Take off your boots and let me see.’

     

               The Initiate shrugged and did as she was told. However taking off her boots was harder than she thought it would, grimacing through the whole process. Her ordeal was not over as once the boots were off, her nose was assaulted with the stench of a drowned corpse.

     

               Matthias knelt down and carefully unwrapped the soiled rags off her feet, revealing them to be wrinkled, bloodied and blistered. An unpleasant sight but not something she hadn’t seen before.

     

               ‘When was the last time you changed your rags?’ said Matthias, opening a small metal box he kept on his waist. The Senior-Vigilant pulled out a dark vial, a candle and a steel needle.

     

               ‘Just before we left the Keep.’

     

    Matthias propped her foot on his knee and lit the candle.

     

               ‘Make it a habit to change it with fresh rags for every stop we make. Tie the wet ones around your neck and let them dry. Tolerate the smell – you’d sooner regret Traveller’s Foot and a bone saw if you didn’t.’

     

    Matthias then readied the needle. Falrielle flinched.

     

               ‘So how long have you-Ah. How long have you been in the Vigil? You look old enough to pass off as my father. Ow. If he were human. No offence.’

     

                ‘None taken and maybe 30 winters total.’

     

                ‘Total? What do you mean by that?’

     

                ‘I wasn’t always in the Skyrim Chapter of the Vigil. It was in Cyrodiil where I took my first steps on this path.’

     

                She shrugged. ‘So you’re-Ah- not from Skyrim?’

     

                Matthias let out a small chuckle as she held the needle over the candle again and shook his head.

     

                ‘Need I remind you that Skyrim isn’t the only province in Tamriel, lass? But no, I’m not a native - I hail from Kvatch down south and stop squirming. The needle or Traveller’s foot, speak now and decide. Good, now stop squirming. Where was I? I joined the Vigil as soon as I was of age. Spent the better part of twenty years before I left for Skyrim.’

     

                ‘So how old are you again?’

     

                ‘Hmm… about forty winters. Perhaps. Maybe. I’ve forgotten the exact number but age isn’t important as long as I can fight.’

     

               ‘And let me guess, you left before the War and because of the War?’ she said surely. It was a common tale during her sellsword days.

     

               Matthias paused for a moment to clean the needle before continuing.

     

               ‘Yes and no. I had left Cyrodiil before the War but I didn’t leave because of the War.’

     

               Her body jolted. Both at his answer and the prick of a needle. ‘Then why-Ah. Why did you leave?’

     

               He stopped what he was doing again looked at Falrielle with sad smile.

     

               ‘You know down south in Cyrodiil there is a popular saying, “The Bosmer have a nose for trouble.” Quite accurate from experience, the Wood Elves I’ve met have a seemingly never-ending supply of curiosity to put themselves in trouble. I once knew one who decided to stick his head in the maw of a bear just to see how the roof of the beast’s mouth looked like. You can guess what happened next – true story but I digress. Why did I leave?’ He sighed. ‘That is a story for another time. Though it’s no tale of Queen Potema if that’s what you’re hoping for. Perhaps I’ll tell you when you’re a Vigilant, if you’re still interested. Perhaps.’

     

               Matthias popped another blister and drained the pus. Falrielle gritted her teeth, thanking the gods for giving her eyes that could barely see further from her nose for she’d rather not remember the butcher shop of her feet right now. She even went as far as making oaths to be virtuous and pious only to quietly swear in their name when the needle popped another blister.

     

                ‘Almost done.’ Matthias washed her feet and dripped some ointment between her toes, leaving a tingling sensation. ‘Essence of wormwood. Fantastic for cleaning out infections but remember to wash your hands before you eat unless seizures, nightmares and pissing blood sounds pleasant,’ he continued, dressing her feet with bandages. ‘Remember the mantra: what can cure in small doses can kill in higher.’

     

                ‘Duly noted,’ said as Falrielle and reached for her canteen for a drink and relief. Her head was spinning from the heat and even more so when Mentor was trying to light his pipe with a flint and a small pile of dried grass as tinder. In the North, one would only smoke to keep warm. She’d on a few occasions indulged but the smell and the light-headed sensation was too much for her. However here in the South, smoking seemed to be the norm amongst the farmers on a sunny afternoon and Mentor would never let it down on her reaction at the border.

     

                She leaned back, closed her eyes, and sighed. ‘Mentor,’ she began. ‘How long will we be in the Rift?’

     

                Matthias blew a puff of smoke in the other direction, Falrielle appreciative of the gesture. ‘We go where we are needed and we’ll help who we can in any way we can. But to answer your question it could be a few months – half a year perhaps if you want a number.’

     

                Falrielle grumbled to herself.

     

                ‘Come now,’ he continued, his tone light and jovial. ‘The South is not so bad once you’re used to it. Skyrim is full of beauty if you allow it.’

     

                ‘But it’s all so damn hot!’ she blurted on reflex, splashing her face with water.

     

                ‘And the rest of Tamriel complains that the North is too damn cold.’ He let loose another puff. ‘Save your water, you’d never know when the next chance you’ll get for clean water and the heat will be worse when you’re wet.’

     

                She opened her eyes and gave Matthias an accusatory glare. He shrugged.

     

                The wind shifted and Falrielle caught a sent. She stood up and stuck her nose out, her eyes closed and sniffed the air as her instincts took over.

     

                She wondered what her nose found. It was like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles, to find a specific smell in a chaotic storm of smells. She could smell the leaves, branches, seeds, and saplings of oak, birch, beech, and linden and the birds that sang in them. She could smell the flow of the rivers, the scent of melted snow from the mountain and of the fish that swam in it. She could smell it all, the Rift was in her nose but no, it was not the Rift that she smelt. It was something else, something more familiar.

     

                ‘What is it?’ said Matthias. ‘What do you smell?’

     

                The Initiate raised her hand and silenced her Mentor.

     

                ‘Death. Carrion. A little more than a day old,’ she said as she sniffed again. “I smell… farm animals. Goat or cow? I’m not too sure, it has been awhile.’

                                                          

                She took a deep sniff and opened her eyes.

     

                ‘I smell a man. East of us.’

     

                ‘Take one last drink and slip on your boots, we’re moving out.’

     

    II

    The path they took was a road less travelled, away from the beaten path of civilisation and into the forest and stopped by a clearing where the black birds circled. The sight of two heavily armed warriors was enough to convince the birds to disperse and it was there where they saw the corpses immediately – the first was a pile of littered amongst the tall grass; bits of goats each undergoing different states of decay.

     

                The Vigilant and the Initiate approached with weapons in hand, heads kept low and eyes scanning the edges of the clearing for any movement – naught but wind and birds but they kept to their guard; bears and wolves infest the Rift.

     

                Falrielle bent low and found bells around the necks of the goats. Farm animals she assumed, that meant that there was a settlement nearby. She knelt down for a closer inspection but something caught her eye.

     

                By a tree laid another body – this time it was a man’s. Falrielle walked over and retched for a few seconds before she composed herself. The smell was unlike anything she had experienced before. The years may have hardened her but it was not enough for this.

     

                The man had his face to the ground. He was wearing a woollen tunic and a pair of brown trousers or rather he would have been if it weren’t for his wounds. He was messily torn in half by his midsection and his chest, arms, and legs mere missing sizable chunks. She found it difficult to examine the corpse in detail – the scavengers had already done their work picking him apart but he had enough pieces on him for her to notice something strange.

     

                On his bloody neck were clear bite marks and they were big. Far too big for a common wolf and his body bore multiple claw marks as well.

     

                ‘Mentor,’ she said. ‘I found something.’

     

                Matthias walked over and knelt down. She found it worrying that he was seemingly unbothered by the sight.

     

                ‘A wolf perhaps: a really big one? I’m not sure,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders. ‘I mean I’ve heard of stories of wolves as big as cows – Dire Wolves they call it but the stories always came from the mouths of drunkards and skooma addicts as well was old druids and nannies.’

     

                ‘A wolf you say?’ he said with a small smile on his face. ‘What makes you think so?’

     

                ‘See here,’ she gestured at the corpse’s neck. ‘This one looks like a tear, a rip. Sabre cat wounds are more of a puncture than a tear and he still has too little of himself for it to be a bear; humans apparently taste disgusting to them, so wolf it is. Problem is, I’ve never seen a bite that big and it’s only one bite; wolves hunt in packs and I’ve met many wolf attack victims.’

     

               She opened and closed her hands in imitation of a wolf’s head.

     

               ‘Bites everywhere, not very pretty but this one only has the one on the neck. Also whatever that attacked him had claws to hold him down and I don’t remember wolves tearing things apart like that. They also don’t look like crow pecks and his flesh has yet to turn green, so that leaves out scavenger damage.’

     

               Matthias nodded his head and placed a hand on the corpse’s shoulder. He turned the body and Falrielle flinched.

     

               The man barely had a face. Most of his jaw was missing along with his nose and throat. She was certain that he at least had part of an eye in his socket but she couldn’t be sure with the gore and rot. His ribs were snapped outwards, as if something was helping itself to his insides. There were also the maggots, hundreds upon thousands of maggots writhing all in a sea of white and yellow grains that sent a chill up her spine and made her hair stand on its ends.

     

    In the corner of her eye, Mentor was unfastening his gauntlet and rolling up his sleeve. She resisted the urge to gag when Mentor gave her a sly wink.

     

               Falrielle turned her attention to the man’s lower half where his belt still clung on his waist, if only barely. She lifted his thigh and found a tattered and caked cloth purse. The elf paused for a moment and cracked a half smile, remembering her days of looting which she was explicitly forbidden to do so now.

     

               She opened the purse and found the typical trinkets inside: a handful of Septims, a button, a small amulet of Talos, sealing-wax, and a tinderbox. She also found a folded letter damp with rain and blood, ineligible except for a faded sigil at the top. She had to press the letter against her nose to see it properly, it was of two pickaxes crossed wreathed in twinflower leaves. A miner she figured, a Southern miner for the Miner’s Guild in the Pale was mostly the same except that the pickaxes were wreathed with the leaves and flowers of Alessia’s Tears.

     

               She was for a moment baffled for she did not recall seeing any mining settlements on the map in the Keep before they left. She lifted the man’s right hand. Mostly intact sans defensive wounds and the man’s calluses were thicker than tanned leather. On his swollen finger he wore a brass ring that bore the same sigil on his letter. With a knife, Falrielle removed his finger, and pocketed the ring.

     

               Taking a closer look at the finger, she scraped the residue under his nails and took a sniff. She could detect traces wool, and dirt but the dirt had the smell of mountain on them similar to the mines of the Reach.

     

               ‘Whatever killed him was thorough,’ said Matthias as he wiped his hand on his tabard. ‘Most of his organs are missing, barely any left for the crows but not precise enough for it to be the work of a dark mage’s morbid experiments.’

     

               ‘So, pupil,’ he continued. ‘What did you think happened here? Who did you think he was? How and what killed him and why? Let me hear your thoughts.’

     

               Falrielle paused for a moment to think. He was certainly testing her and she rather not disappoint. ‘From his ring and the letter he bore and from his calloused hands, I guess that this man is a miner. Where I can’t say, there were no mines listed on the maps in the Keep but it has been some time since they’ve been drawn. He certainly fought back but not for long – as soon as the creature sunk its fangs into his neck he was as good as dead and he died about – two or three days ago, I can’t tell in this heat. It was no bear nor wolf nor a sabre cat, we’ve established that but it probably wasn’t a vampire. Feral vampires go only for the heart and liver while higher ones drain the victim’s life force itself.’

     

              She fiddled with the ring and said, ‘If I were a betting elf – that which I am, I would put my money on a werewolf. The wound profile fits and werewolves are known for their ravenous hunger leaving little to nothing behind for the scavengers. The goats make sense, it was probably having them as a snack before he came along and that could be how he came across the werewolf; he drew the short straw to chase away the “bandit”. But there is one problem.’

     

               Falrielle scanned the treeline again.

     

               ‘There are no werewolves in the Rift,’ she continued, pointing west. ‘The only reports of werewolves in Skyrim are from Falkreath and between Falkreath and the Rift is the Throat of the World. Too damn high, too damn cold, and barely anything to eat nevermind the bears. Bears are no friend to werewolves or so Senior-Vigilant Jorunn says.’

     

               ‘There are no werewolves in the Rift,’ Matthias repeated. ‘And there are no mines yet here is a miner.’

     

               She shrugged, conceding to his point. Then her ears twitched.

     

               ‘Did you hear that?’

     

    ************************

    Author's Note(s): Experimenting with a new format to post these things.

     

    Previous Chapter: Just a Formality III                                                                                                          Next Chapter: Something to Prove (III - IV)

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