SotF: Something to Prove

  • III

    ‘Cave in! Cave in!’

     

                The forest of the Rift while beautiful was as wild and unrelenting as the frozen fields of the Pale. Yet again, so are Nords. Ever growing, ever more ambitious the Nords have expanded from their cities, slowly but surely founding new settlements such the camp before them. It was not particularly of note, Falrielle had seen more than a few dozen of fledgling mining camps in the Reach with their rows of tents, furnaces, and carts by the mountainside.

     

                When Falrielle caught the sound of bells ringing erratically, her eyes begun to sting and her throat clenched on the dust that choked the air. She could not make the details but she could tell that guards and labourers alike ran out the mine with the urgency of rats aboard a sinking ship from their confused shouts. She saw them gathering by a stream with their wounded in tow, no doubt where she’d be working with Mentor at the end of the day.

     

                ‘Stand back traveller,’ said a guardsman. The man a simple gambeson with a spear, and a shield that bore two-crossed daggers on a violet field; the arms of the Jarldom of Riften in hand. ‘There has been a cave-on,’ he continued, ‘and unless you have a death wish: stand back.’

     

                Matthias bowed his head and flattened his right palm on his chest. Falrielle stupidly stood there and stammered – a quick bump to the shin and she followed suit.

     

                ‘Hail, guardsman of the Rift. I am Matthias, Senior-Vigilant of Stendarr and my companion here is Falrielle, Initiate of Stendarr. We wish not to die today for we don’t have a death wish but we were passing by and we are oath bound to help whenever we can.’

     

                Falrielle panted, the air was unbearable but she did manage a weak nod. ‘Aye,’ she said as she coughed.

     

                ‘A Vigilant, eh?’ said the guard, turning to his companions before turning back at the two. ‘Them Stendarr people? Daedra hunters and healers all? We’re short on Daedra trouble nor are we looking for priests but if half of the stories of your healing abilities are true...’

     

                Matthias bowed his head lower and said, ‘As true as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west and as snow falling in the winter. Stendarr may of have taught us to be humble in our ways but he also teaches us that falsehood is a sin.’

     

                Falrielle smirked at the last one.

     

                ‘Our offer remains extended and where can we begin?’

     

                The guard paused and turned to his companions before turning back again. ‘Speak to Captain Tyr, the helmet with them ram horns. He be the one in charge.’

     

                Matthias wordless nodded his head and gestured to Falrielle to follow. Closer now to the action, the air was thicker still, and the bell rang louder over the pained moans and panicked shouts of orders and prayers. Battered and bloodied men and women tended to their wounded, offering prayers and aid when they could with what little they had. While there was no battle, it reminded her of one. She let out a small sad smile, it also reminded her of her friends.

     

                As she walked towards where the wounded were gathered, Falrielle heard shouts of an argument. She knew better than to disobey but as the saying goes: ‘The Bosmer have a nose for trouble’.

     

                ‘Let me go! Verner is still in there!’ a woman was shouting with a voice of fury and worry. ‘My legs still work and I’m getting him out!’

     

                ‘It’s too dangerous!’ said one of the miners, his voice sounded like it had just broke. Falrielle figured that he was just a lad. ‘We’ll have to wait until the dust settles before we can send anyone back in. Also you’re-‘

     

                ‘The pox on you, you milk-drinking crow-bearded cravenly sow!’ she said. ‘I’m Nord and my child has more courage than you. So let me go!’ she continued, kicking and screaming.

     

                ‘Hail,’ Falrielle said. ‘This Verner. Who is he to you and what does he look like?’

     

                ‘My husband,’ the woman said, calming down yet Falrielle could sense the desperation in her voice. ‘Red of hair with a scruffy beard and he always wears that ridiculous leather cap.’

     

                Falrielle looked at the mine, seeing that fewer and fewer souls are leaving and then looked at the woman, who was still struggling to break free. A single minded will – Falrielle could respect that if it was a little foolhardy. It reminded her of herself.

     

                ‘I’ll find him and I’ll get him out alive,’ she said, thumbing chest.

     

                ‘Are you insane?’ said the other miner, his voice smooth yet weary. ‘The mine is falling apart and you’d be dead before you even find Verner let alone get him out!’

     

                ‘Perhaps I am insane but at least I am doing something. And unlike she, you don’t know me – so no songs to sing and I am well armed.’

     

                The man looked to the other and said, ‘Stendarr’s mercy. Fine bravado. Truly but we’d not make a corpse out of you stranger. Stand back.’

     

                Falrielle rolled her eyes and sternly said, ‘I’m going in and I don’t need your approval.’

     

                ‘Wait,’ said the younger man. ‘If you’re so keen on dying have it your way. The mine is dug into three tunnels. The leftmost tunnel; the deepest of the three had collapsed. Verner was inspecting it.’

     

                She nodded.

     

                ‘Your name stranger?’ said the woman.

     

                ‘Falrielle’

     

                The woman smiled. ‘Mara watch over you.’

     

                She stood before the mouth of the mine where it seemed to cough out dust in the air. Falrielle took a swig of her canteen before unwrapped the rags around her neck and tied them around her mouth. She gagged and cursed on first breath but powered through; the taste of dead rat may haunt her for dinner but she’d found it preferable than death by Miner’s Lung in the morning. She looked forward again at the mine, its throat seemed darker and more sinister than before. The elf closed her eyes and took a deep breath and made her first step. Finding purchase on solid ground gave her some confidence, she quivered in her boots as she made her second step… and stopped as she felt her shoulder violently jerking back.

     

                ‘What in Mara’s ti-‘ Falrielle cursed only to stop when she saw who it was.

     

                ‘Falrielle!’ shouted Matthias with a fury she had never seen in ages. ‘What in Oblivion’s name do you think you’re doing?’

     

                She winced and answered meekly, ‘I-I-I’m heading into the mine. There’s a woman over there who said that her husband is trapped in one the tunnels and I plan to carry him out.’

     

                ‘Carry him out in a collapsing mine that you have little to knowledge off? I suppose you can see in the dark or that you’re well rested for such an endeavour. At what point did your plan sounded like a good idea? Damn it, Junia!’

     

                Falrielle blinked in confusion.

     

    ‘I take my eyes off you for just one moment and this is what you do? You chose to go on a suicide mission? Have you gone mental?’

     

                ‘Mentor, I-‘ Falrielle said, and then paused. Her hands were clenched into fists only to loosen when she steeled herself to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mentor. I’ve acted rashly.’

     

    Matthias sighed.

     

                ‘Come,’ his tone softened as he placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘I should not of have shouted, I’ll admit. It was unbecoming of me, you have been a good pupil and are not a child.’ He shook his head. ‘Pupil - Falrielle, the wounded needs tending and I need help. Your help. You have steady hands and you work well under pressure. You’d make a fine Vigilant someday and if nothing else, a good healer. Skyrim could use more healers – the world could.’

     

                Falrielle slowly nodded, she agreed that there is truth in his words but she kept her gaze away from Mentor. A voice in her head didn't let her. A voice in her head she called 'Pride'. A good ten paces from the mine, the elf stopped and whispered a curse, ‘Damn’.

     

                She turned and made a mad dash for the mine.

     

    IV

    Breathing was difficult but seeing was impossible. The little lantern she ‘borrowed’ barely illuminated the smothering darkness before her that she had half a mind to drop the iron and travel light. However she knew better than to stumble blind – ‘better to be half blind than full blind’ as the saying goes. She also knew that even with a little lantern, it was only a matter of time before she herself would eventually choke to death in the dark.

     

                Other than the collapse, the mine itself wasn’t anything of note. Like the Silver-Blood Mines of the Reach or the iron mines whom belong to ‘who she never knew’ of the Pale, the passageways of this mine were about three carts wide and a little over four heads tall over her held up by wooden beams, oaken at best and pine if suicidal. On every 10th beam, the miners would tie a bottle to mark distance and she counted three when she had reached her crossroad.

     

                Standing before the three tunnels, Falrielle’s knees began to shake and her heart pounded hard like war drums. Her head was spinning and her mouth. To the left she remembered the miner told her but tried as she might, her legs wouldn’t move.

     

                ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid…’ she chanted to herself, looking at the leftmost tunnel and her voice echoed in the empty mine. She closed her eyes and took as deep of a breathe as she could and her legs buckled like a stubborn mule before they listened.

     

                ‘Problem Initiate.’ She shook her head. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ she continued with a smack to the head and a march into the dark, stopping after a few paces to move piles of rubble out of her way.

     

                ‘Damn it,’ she muttered, her back sore until she heard a faint moan deeper in the mine. During her time with the Silver-Bloods, the miners told her cautionary tales of miners who dug too greedily and too deeply and awoke something terrible in the cold dark crevices of the world. Of course when she asked what they found varied from miner to miner. Old Crognach, veteran as he with the ways of the pick told of a Dwarven ruin he found whilst mining in Morrowind and how the golden statues came to life and massacred his expedition. Dungir’s tale often made her shudder when he claimed that the deep is home to giant worms and flies. Nirena in hushed whispers say that deep below their feet holds a great city of the Falmer; the pale eyeless Snow Elves of old and how the ‘wretched albino cretins’ will one day launch their invasion to reclaim the surface world as their own. Thrilling tales, she’d admit but in the choking darkness, she couldn’t help but wonder.

     

                The air moaned again. Falrielle stood still and massaged her temple, doubting her ears. She couldn’t help but wonder if she was hearing things. She pulled her hood down.

     

                Silence. For a few more agonizing breaths, only silence greeted her. ‘Must be hearin-‘ she said to herself until she heard the moan again but this time it became more coherent, like a cry for help. She gulped and pressed forward.

     

    ‘Help,’ the voice continued, weakly echoing through the tunnel.

     

                The voice made her feel uneasy. Her head was already spinning and her mouth began to foam in the heat. She felt as if she could drop at any moment, and die, alone. She cursed and smacked herself on the head, clearing those doubts.

     

                ‘Is that a light?’ the voice echoed again, this time with a glimmer of hope. ‘Over here, please.’

     

                Falrielle quickened her pace and kept moving forward until she heard a weak cough at her feet. She lowered the lantern and saw a man pinned under a beam; his breathing was laboured, and his body bloodied but he remained conscious and more importantly: he was still alive. She moved the lantern even closer and she could see that the man wore a modest rough spun tunic and a head… kissed by fire. Her spirits soared: she had found her man.

     

                ‘Help,’ the man weakly uttered with a cough at the end.

     

                ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’m going to get you out.’ She began.

     

                ‘I’m going to life the beam on the count of three,’ she said breathless as she braced herself. ‘When I do, you crawl out as fast as you can. Ready?’

     

                The miner nodded.

     

                Falrielle closed her eyes and took deep breaths… and counted to three.

     

                The elf lifted the beam as high as she could with all her might. She gritted her teeth as a white hot flame danced first from her legs then to the rest of her body. She was sure that she was about to breath fire from the pain on her lungs. As soon as the miner was clear, she dropped the beam with a heavy thud and stumbled a few steps back, barely standing on her feet.

     

                ‘Fuck me,’ she said, panting. ‘That was bloody heavy.’

     

                She turned her attention to the miner who was now propped against the wall. She took a knee and unscrewed her canteen. ‘To your health,’ she whispered with a small smile on her face.

     

                ‘Many thanks, stranger…’ said the miner with a cough before he guzzled the canteen.

     

                ‘Verner, right? Your name is Verner?’

     

                ‘That I am,’ he whispered with the strength of a dying man.

     

                Falrielle took a drink herself. ‘A woman outside was asking for you. A fiery one that one. Two men barely held her back.’

     

                ‘Hah!’ said Verner, life returning to him. ‘That’s my Anneke! Ha ha.’

     

                The elf smiled. Even the dying has some hope, she thought. She threw his arm over her shoulder and lifted him up, he was lighter than she guessed. ‘A let us go see her.’

     

                ‘Wait,’ said Verner weakly but firmly. ‘Mara bless you stranger… and if it wasn’t for you I would of have died alone but…’

     

                Falrielle cringed when he heard the word ‘but’. You are to be paid for your good work but. You can have some bread but. You had done good work but.

     

                ‘One of my men was behind me when the ceiling came down on us,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘After that-‘

     

                ‘Save your breath, you’ll need it. I’ll find him,’ she interrupted, speaking through her teeth. ‘Just hold on for a little longer; I will return to get both of you out.’ Falrielle gently slipped Verner on the ground and picked up the lantern.

     

                It has often been said that Wood Elves make poor miners for they are naturally afraid of the underworld where the air lays stale and the sun does not shine. The scores of Wood Elf miners Falrielle had met convinced her to disregard this fishwife’s tale although she had to agree some truth of it. The deeper she went, the weaker her legs were. She was sure that it wasn’t just the air that bothered her, it was something… more.

     

                Her thought wandered back on the Vigil. Despite of all the rules and rigidity of such a life, she on some level enjoyed it. Her question was; would the Vigil enjoy her? Farm boys, city mice, and milk drinkers she called them but at least their hands were clean. Hers she knew very well were drenched in blood. An order of holy warrior would surely prefer someone better yet they took her in, no questions asked. Perhaps they were right, she wondered. She did have a reputation as the Problem Initiate and she was only proving them so.

     

                Before her nerves gave out she had found the other man. Face down under another pile of rubble, Falrielle begun to dig. When she was done she did not bother to check if he was even still alive when she picked him up and threw him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She was running out of time.

     

                For each step she took, the weight on her shoulders felt heavier and heavier to the point where she was sure she than an ox was sitting on her back. The tunnels seemed to grow darker as well and she understood what it meant – it either meant that she was choking out or the lamp was.

     

                When she bent down to catch her breath, the darkness closed in, and her heart skipped a beat.

     

                'No, no, no!’ said Falrielle as she frantically shook the lamp. ‘Just a little longer you piece of crap!’ she continued to no avail. With a disgusted grunt she dropped the lamp and gave it a hard stomp and a good kick. ‘Damn it!’ She buckled and shifted the man on her shoulder and kept walking. It was a mine and there was only one way out, she thought.

     

                Shambling in the dark, her senses came back to her as she slipped, and fell tasting the earth. Groaning in pain, the realisation that she now has to carry two fully grown men hit her harder than the fall itself.

     

                ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid…’ she chanted. She stood up, and threw the miner over her shoulder again. Another revelation hit her: how was she going to find Verner? Did she walked past the man or is he ahead? Which path is ‘ahead’? Doubt clouded her mind again and in the distance, Falrielle saw light. Lights dancing in the other end.

     

                She tried to shout to get the light’s attention but only a croak came out. She tried again but this time she was too tired for even a croak. She could barely talk, let alone shout. Her head darting, Falrielle grabbed hold of her coin pouch and rattled the metal.

     

                It worked. The light came closer and closer but all she could see what a figure of a man.

     

                Through relief and exhaustion, her knees collapsed and she tasted the earth again. Staring at what she thought was the ceiling, the figure knelt down and poured water on her face. The sudden rush of cold cleared her head and her sense returned. Her saviour held the lamp next to his face.

     

                ‘Mentor!’

     

                ‘We’ll talk later,’ said Matthias, pulling Falrielle to her feet. ‘Now we have a job to do – so get your head back into the fight!’

     

                ‘Aye aye, Mentor.’ Falrielle nodded and felt her strength returning. She guessed it was probably a trick of the mind but figured that one mustn’t complain too much on fortuitous tidings. The two bent down and lifted miner off the ground and started walking.

     

                ‘There’s another-‘.

     

                ‘I know. Verner was it? Strong man, still holding on to dear life. He told me you went deeper into the mine and so I went looking. We’ll pick him up on the way out.’

     

                True enough, Verner was not only still alive but awake when the two found him. A strong man, Falrielle thought. He had the heart of a True Nord; a good match with the woman outside. She gave herself a small smile for that one as she lifted him up on her shoulder.

     

                At the first ray of sunlight at the mouth of the tunnel, Falrielle instinctively turned her head away, and shielded her eyes with a hand.

     

                ‘Verner? Verner?!’ cried the woman, running towards them with arms open in embrace. ‘Thank Mara - Thank Akatosh – Thank the Eight that you’re alive!’

     

                ‘Calm down, my love,’ said Verner weakly. ‘Of course I’m alive.’ He chuckled.

     

                A few men took the wounded off them and guided Falrielle to a stool. The elf ripped the mask off and gasped at the taste of fresh air. She could taste waster, fish. She could taste life.

     

                ‘And you!’ said the woman, hugging and giving her a kiss on each cheek. ‘The Gods bless you for what you have done today! Thank you, thank you!’

     

                ‘Anytime…’ Falrielle whispered barely suppressing a smile, tenderly rubbing her cheek, and wondering if her ears were red. A miner walked to Falrielle and gave her a cup of water. With a nod, she thanked the miner, took a drink, and splashed the water on her face.

     

                ‘Initiate!’ bellowed Matthias. Falrielle jumped to her feet. ‘I gave you a direct order and you disobeyed me. What do you have to say for this?’

     

                ‘I-I-I,’ she said, stopping to look at her feet. ‘I have nothing to say.’

     

                Falrielle gritted her teeth, and knotted her fists. She saw it coming, she knew it was coming: a hard smack in the face. That was the usual affair of it: The foreman, Avilsur, the Silver-Bloods. Better than the whip she supposed but they didn’t have a gauntlet on. For a few agonizing seconds she waited but nothing. With every ounce of courage, Falrielle forced herself to look him in the eye and she didn’t like what she saw.

     

                Matthias was giving her a look that cut deeper than any knife, stung harder than any lash of the whip, burned hotter than the brightest flame. It was not a look of rage nor hatred nor disgust, there were none in his sad green eyes. It was something much worse: it was disappointment, and it ate her up inside.

     

                Matthias turned his attention towards the embracing couple and sighed.

     

                ‘We’ll help them in any way we can,’ said Matthias, his tone softened. ‘But we’ll leave in the noon on the morrow for the Keep.’

     

                Her heart sank.

     

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

     

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