Straag Rod: Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 4

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    Straag Rod Book 1: Fate Goes Ever as it Must, Part 1

    Chapter 4: The Stone

     

    “I cannot believe they did not even think to set you free.” Ralof frowned, reaching for Äelberon’s bound hands in the gloom of the Keep. They were crouched in a corner, close to a locked wrought iron door, the torchlight from the hallway beyond providing them with a meager light that barely outlined their features. At least for the Nord, Elven eyes are inherently better, not as strong in the dark as a Khajiit, but better than a human. His irises were probably nearly black now, the pupils dilated fully to allow the precious light in. He could see better than the Nord, but his hands were not positioned to cut off the binds himself. Vingalmo had seen to that.

     

    “I think everyone was a bit occupied, Ralof.”

     

    Both immediately tensed and looked towards the Keep’s ceiling when beast’s roars thundered through the thick stone walls, making it shake. Some splinters of wood fell from the ceiling’s support beams and there was an audible crack.  The roar died away, making them release their breath in unison.

     

    “It’ll cave the roof in if it makes another pass.”

     

    “Aye.” Replied Äelberon, his eyes still cautiously on the ceiling.

     

    “This’ll hurt, the rope’s cutting into the skin…” Ralof explained, wedging the blade of his dagger between the binds and the raw skin of Äelberon’s wrists. Another curse flew from the Nord’s lips.

     

    “The dagger is dull.” He focused on Ralof’s hands while the Nord worked.

     

    “I know. Everything is dull, fucking Imperial bullshit can barely cut butter...  I’m just glad Ulfric managed to retrieve his sword in the confusion. It’s belonged in his family for many generations. Now that would make short work of thi—”  

     

    Äelberon clenched his jaw and blinked, releasing a soft grunt of pain when Ralof’s cutting skimmed flesh instead of rope. A warm wetness seeped into the fibers.  More blood.

     

    “Shit, sorry.” The Nord grumbled. “Can barely see.”

     

    “It is alright. Just a wee nick.  Keep working.” Äelberon reassured. “And thank you.”

     

    “It’s nothing.” The Nord muttered, not even looking up.

     

    “It is something.”

     

    “No one should die in binds. That is all.”

     

    Äelberon waited.

     

    “What kind of fucking knots are these?” Ralof growled a moment later, giving a tug on a particularly stubborn one while he assumed a cross-legged position to giving him a better work angle. He then positioned Äelberon’s hands roughly to rest on his thigh. The stretching of his back aggravated the lashes, but he understood what Ralof was trying to do and suffered in silence. “We were not bound like this. They really didn’t want you escaping, did they?”

     

    “Once bitten, twice shy.” Äelberon managed a wily smile, looking up at the Nord from his lower angle. He felt the knife cut through some the rope. Slowly but surely, Ralof’s persistence was paying off.

     

    The Nord looked from his work, and nodded, a small smirk forming on his mouth. “I can see that.” Another piece of rope gave and Ralof used his forearm to wipe the sooty sweat from his brow before he continued. “One day, you and Jarl Ulfric will have to sit me down and tell me that story. Preferably over some mead served by the lovely Suzanna over at the Candlehearth in Windhelm. So hungry and thirsty, we should search the Keep for food.”

     

    “Just keep cutting and we will see. At this point, I would be happy to wipe my own nose.” 

     

    The Nord chuckled, but the nosebleed bothered Äelberon. It was an indicator that things were not well, and he knew that using the ward to save the group from the beast’s fire had cost him dearly. The bodily repairs that were steadily being conducted since the cart ride from Darkwater had abruptly ceased. The magicka was simply gone and there would be no more healing until he could properly rest. Of course, he would continue to try because no magicka put his body in a dangerous situation. Already his temperature was beginning a slow ascent, forced to fight the infection that was now spreading throughout the open lash marks, feeling the congestion building in his sinuses and lungs from days of brutal exposure to the elements. He was sick, something an Altmer almost never was. You did not want the child to die, you stupid old Knight.

     

    His gasp of relief when the binds finally fell from his hands was quickly replaced by a stifled moan of pain. The skin was on fire and he could smell the sickly clear liquid that had beaded upon the raw skin where the rope had been merciless. Äelberon swallowed. Now was not the time to dwell on his injuries.  

     

    “You alright?” Ralof asked.

     

    “Aye.” With his typical Dusken fortitude, Äelberon willed himself to a seated position, looking around the room, smelling blood besides his own and Ralof’s. Fresh blood. There was death here and it was not by the beast.

     

    Dragon, it is a dragon, Äelberon mused, still in awe of it all. The terrified screams of Helgen’s villagers said as much.  They all ran like mice scattering when one enters a dark barn with a torch, the smell of fear not this keen since the Great Anguish when the skies of his Homeland burned.  And it was… beautiful. He shook his head, almost ashamed of his assessment after having seen so many people die, burned into nothing, or ripped asunder. It was a horrible creature, unlike any demon he had ever seen, but he could not help but marvel at it as it flew, colored like burning coal, glowing hot under the jet black gloss of its scales. The horns and spikes many, pointed, and cruel, surrounded a face that he could not place within all Tamriel, for no creature possessed its likeness. The hard lines of a wamasu, the hooked snout of a gryphon, the teeth, more plentiful and sharper than a crocodile’s.  And its eyes. Intelligent fearless eyes, like two jewels of the purest fire.  Larger than any creature he had ever seen and by far, more powerful, more graceful. It was more than Bet and Bet had been almost unreal in his power. This thing made old Bet look like a damn toy. He had bloody thrown everything into that ward, every drop of magicka he had left. Another pass and they all would have died. But then it left them, in what was almost a capricious action. Like they were not even worth the trouble to it.

     

    Äelberon shrugged off his speculation and continued his survey of the room while Ralof stood, sheathing the dagger. Cloth to bind his wrists would be ideal, weapons, and aye, the lad was right, food, and drink. He did not have much strength left in him and hoped there would be no more combat. He turned when the Human shook the barred door again, knowing they were locked, but Äelberon understood. It was something to do.

     

    “We need a key.” Ralof observed, giving the door a final frustrated shake. “It is like we are prisoners yet again.” He griped.

     

    It was Äelberon’s sense of smell as much as his vision that eventually led him to two bodies, partially obscured by an overturned table and broken chair, close to the back of the circular room, where the torch hastily lit on the wall revealed burn marks from recently cast spells. One body clearly belonged to a Stormcloak soldier and when Ralof turned to follow Äelberon motions, his pained cry and sudden dash towards the bodies gave the Mer more than enough information.  

     

    He knew the Nord. It was to be expected in war. How many bodies had Äelberon seen in his day that revealed themselves to be a person known? Far too many, he scowled in his mind.

     

    “Gunjar…” Spoke Ralof as he knelt by the body, his blue eyes beginning to mist when he turned the Nord over. Äelberon knew he was truly sick when his stomach turned over at the sight. He swallowed, fighting his nausea. Nearly half the face was rendered a blistering, bleeding mess, the melting skin and tissue exposing the jawbone and teeth, and the left eyeball to the socket. The dragon only grazed him. Yet he managed to live long enough to give the other body an axe to the chest. “By Talos, he’s still warm… ah,” Ralof’s put his face to his palm, trying to rub some of the tension away. “If only you had waited for me.”

     

    Äelberon furrowed his brow. What can you offer the lad?  An ‘I am sorry’ is so cheap and mundane. Circumstances beyond their control willed the Nord dead, willed him to Kyne’s final kiss, just as it willed the death of the Imperial lying next to him, just as it willed him to follow Ralof instead of the Nord Hadvar. Both had called him, both beckoned with the promise of releasing him from his bonds.

     

    No, it was the dragon. The great black beast landed right between he and Hadvar after they worked to move several more away from its destructive path.  In the flickering light, he studied the dead Nord’s mangled face. You knew him too. Laughing grey eyes, despite everything, laughing eyes. From the campfire as they traveled from Darkwater to their deaths. Now lifeless. He even laughed at several of your lousy jokes, old Mer.

     

    “He understood the risks of the Arena.” He finally spoke, choosing his words carefully. “We all do when we choose to battle in it.”

     

    Ralof glanced at him, the reddening eyes quickly regaining their resolve, and he nodded. The Nord then began rummaging through the Gunjar’s body, searching. “Let’s see if he swiped anything from the Imperials before he died.”

     

    The lad’s realism would have phased a normal Altmer, but Äelberon understood. “I will search the other.”

     

    That got a surprised look from the Nord and Äelberon responded with a knowing smirk. “I am a priest, Ralof, but I am practical. Too many years in the wilds. Too many years running. You become very resourceful.”  

     

    “Just the damn axe.” Ralof grumbled after a few moments yielded nothing, yanking it off the other body and almost throwing the weapon down. The Nord rubbed his face.  “At least he put it to good use.”

     

    The Nord would, of course, ignore the bow, the real prize, and what looked like a ring from the Imperial’s middle finger that was faintly glowing... “This ring seems like it is enchanted and...” He murmured, while taking the ring from the body’s finger. “There is a bow.”

     

    “A bow?” The Nord made a sour face.

     

    “What is wrong with a bow? Surely you hunt with them? It is not like you go around swinging your warhammers at a deer, do you?” Ralof’s pregnant pause made Äelberon’s eyebrow slowly raise. You cannot be serious, lad.

     

    “Hunting is one thing, fighting is another. Hmph. Scouts have their place, I do not deny that, but there is less honor attacking from a distance.” Ralof finally scoffed, giving Äelberon a once over, though the Mer admitted, he was relieved that Nords were not actually stupid enough to hunt with warhammers. He shook his head, you are just being silly now, Old Mer. “Every time you give me a reason to think you could well be a Nord, you give me two more reasons why you are a bloody Elf. A magic ring, A bow. Ooooooo, Orial send me to Aetherius! I’m so happy to find these things! What a boon! Grace of the Gods! Orial’s bow be praised forever and ever!” He grumbled, doing an imitation of Äelberon’s ‘snide’ voice that was actually not half bad. “We need a bloody key… not magicks, Knife Ears.”

     

    Äelberon shook his head, narrowing his eyes. He almost took the bait and said something snarky, only to set his jaw. He cut your bonds, clearly, he does not totally despise you, Knife Ears. He grunted and picked up the bow and a nearby quiver, taking them to the light from the wrought iron door to have a better look.

     

    Another dragon roar made him quicken his pace.

     

    “We still need to find a key.”

     

    “I know, I know…” 

     

    The Human is practically jumping out of his skin for that bloody key. Bah, cut him some slack, you are both on edge and you want out too.

     

    Äelberon’s enthusiasm dampened upon closer inspection of the bow.  It was a bit of a wonky-looking weapon, as if the Imperial had hit it against the wall when he was pushed perhaps? A recurve bow of official Imperial Legion design, but not of the best construction, slipshod. The quiver was no better, yielding what was perhaps the worst made steel arrows he had ever seen. Who is being a snotty shit now, eh? It was human craftmanship, that was all. There was nothing they could do about it; they simply lacked Altmeri patience and the obsessive attention to detail. The craftmanship, to human eyes, would have been more than satisfactory. To a human, this was a solid weapon. But humans are not bound to the bow as the Merish are.

     

    “Hmm…” Ralof murmured.

     

    Äelberon faced the Nord, testing the bow’s draw strength. He was not impressed, but it would have to do. “What?”

     

    The Stormcloak gave Äelberon another once over.

     

    “What? Is something wrong?”

     

    “I don’t think those rags of yours will last, the leg is already almost as shredded as your tunic and I can bloody see your underbreeches. And that is more than I ever want to see from an Old Mary.” With those words, Ralof knelt next to the Imperial and started to strip the body, switching his focus from his grisly task to Äelberon, as if he were studying the Mer’s body. “In all my days… never thought I’d be doing this.” He mumbled while he worked. “Built like a fucking ox… or an Orc.”  After a moment, Ralof let the now half naked Imperial fall unceremoniously back to the floor with a hard thud. “None of his shit will fit you. I guess you’re back to being a Nord, Knife Ears. Never seen an Elf so big.” He eyed Gunjar’s body and shook his head. “Fuck…”

     

    Ralof was clearly hesitant to do the same to Gunjar.

     

    Äelberon leaned towards Gunjar, his hands reaching for the dead Nord’s arm. “Want me to—”

     

    “Don’t you dare touch him!” The Nord snapped. He then sat, leaning back heavily against the stone wall, looking suddenly quite tired. “I’m sorry. It’s… it’s…”

     

    “I understand.” Äelberon replied, moving back to rest on his haunches, keeping his distance.

     

    It was unspoken and deep, the hatred between Men and Mer and Äelberon did understand. He knew such hatred in his life, felt it rage within himself. And such things were hard to overcome. Or they are never overcome, he thought grimly, picturing the bastard Vingalmo’s smug smile.

     

    “I will manage with what I have.”  Äelberon offered.

     

    “No.” Ralof said quietly, willing himself from against the wall.  “You will learn that we are an honorable people, Knife Ears, even to our enemies.” He scooted towards his comrade’s body, placing a hand on the dead Nord’s chest. “Gunjar was always fucking cold, damn milk-drinker, wore padded wool under his armor. You are almost the same in the chest. Not the legs though and damn, you’ve got big feet.”  Ralof swallowed, holding back clear grief as he began to unfasten Gunjar’s Stormcloak cuirass, first removing the blood-stained steel blue sash that once proudly showed the man’s colors. “I will keep this.” He murmured, almost to himself, making sure that the cloth was nowhere near Äelberon. “Find his kin, see it to them. Somehow…” Ralof then undid the buckles and clasps of the thick leather jerkin. That, and the short-sleeved mail coat were slid almost reverently from Gunjar’s shoulders and torso, revealing the Nord’s padded dull wool gambeson, which he also took. “Sorry, friend, we’ll laugh about this when we meet again in Sovngarde, over a pint or two in Shor’s Golden Hall. Only time you can ever say a man stripped you.” He said as he pulled off Gunjar’s soft skin leather trousers. Ralof then crossed the Nord’s arms over his chest, placing the war axe in his right hand.

     

    “A Kiss at the End, my brother.” Ralof whispered with great emotion, closing the Nord’s eyes before his lips tenderly kissed Gunjar’s bloody brow.  

     

    It was sacrilegious to bring an Altmer to a Nord funeral in Cyrodiil and he had missed many a Fighter’s Guild friends’ funerals as a result, forced to pay his respects from an acceptable distance. Especially since the Great War when Nordic ritual was under such close scrutiny. That Ralof let him see this showed… It shows that the Nord was at least not willing to shove ya out the door back to the dragon.  

     

    The clothes and armor were then shoved towards Äelberon.  “Try them.” Nord said coldly, turning away to give Äelberon some privacy, his face stoic.

     

    His felt his face go white with pain when the wool fabric scraped against his festering wounds, and he struggled with both the mail and the jerkin, eventually forced to abandon the mail when the pain became unbearable.

     

    “I cannot wear the mail.” He gasped as he secured the jerkin as tight as he dared. “Not now.”

     

    “Take it anyway, it’s expensive. It can be sold.”

     

    “Alright. Ready.”

     

    Ralof’s sarcastic snort when he again faced Äelberon was utterly predictable, even by Human standards, though his eyes betrayed a deeper sadness. The Nord did not want him wearing Gunjar’s gear. “Stupid long white legs.”

     

    Äelberon looked down and aye, the trousers, though loose on his waist – lost some weight there, old Mer – were about three pertans too short on the legs, revealing the white skin of his ankles to comical effect. The rest fit adequately enough, albeit tight around the chest, shoulders, and back, though again, he was too long of arm. ‘Like a colt you are, boy, all limb’, he could hear his Ata say in his head. 

     

    “You will not fit in his boots, and I do not love that you are in his armor, you profane him by wearing it, I hope you know that, Knife Ears, but like I said, you have a right to defend yourself too. Gunjar was an honorable man and would want a person to have a fair chance.” The Nord shrugged. “Sorry. I know that you are not like them, but then I see your ears and your alien eyes. It is hard not to hate. They have a lot to answer for.” Quietly, Ralof folded Gunjar’s colors and managed to tuck it under the belt of his jerkin. “We’ll need to find a sack or something for this. A pack. I do not want it to get filthy here.”

     

    “I understand.”

     

    Ralof cleared his throat. “Let’s see if we can get out of here before the damn dragon crashes the Keep upon our heads. The end times… what a fucking mess…”

     

    They both froze when voices came from the heavy wrought iron gate opposite the more slender iron door on the other side of the Keep’s circular hallway, followed by the hurried footsteps clad in Imperial amor.

     

    “Bet they can hear them coming from fucking Summerset, eh?” Ralof whispered, giving Äelberon a sidelong glance while they crouched low by the Keep’s entrance. “Clank like a damn kitchen.” 

     

    “Get this gate open! I heard voices.” Barked a command. The Captain, from the execution, Äelberon recognized the voice that condemned him to the block. He and Ralof exchanged looks and Äelberon lifted his bow to indicate that he would give Ralof cover during the Nord’s charge. The Nord scoffed and shrugged his approval, making Äelberon roll his eyes when Ralof turned his back to him to edge his way closer to the edge of the Keep’s archway.

     

    “Yes Captain.” Another voice. He made out two sets of footfalls.

     

    “Be ready to engage any hostiles. We know some Stormcloaks escaped in the chaos.”

     

    They heard a heavy lever being pulled.

     

    “Should we try talking to them?”  The hard look on Ralof’s face made Äelberon immediately regret his question.

     

    “Not if you want to continue wearing Gunjar’s armor, Knife Ears.” The Nord snarled, drawing his own war axe. “Ready that stupid bow, we will fight our way out of this Keep. Take back what they have taken from us.” Ralof’s features darkened. “Or I’ll strip Gunjar’s armor from your dead body myself.”

     

    It was better to remain silent after Ralof’s threat. Dragon be damned, they were still going to fight this war. Äelberon nocked an arrow and practiced another draw while the footsteps drew closer, leaning against the Keep’s wall, towards the darkness. It hurt like bloody Oblivion to draw. It will have to do, Old Mer, he thought, knowing his face was changing, the worn survivalist beginning to manifest in his features, his eyes becoming like steel, his countenance hard. He said a speedy prayer, but Auri-El already knew the drill, knew it for as long as they became servant and Master. He would take life, according to the strict ethics of his Order, but he would still take life. Because it was part of Survival.  

     

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    In all his days, rain never felt so good. It was a heavy storm, soaking him to the bone, but Äelberon did not care. While his eyes adjusted to the daylight, the pupils going from wide to nearly pin points to account for the intense flood of light, he let the rainwater fall cool and refreshing upon his fevered face, his tangled hair, streaking his warpaint, rinsing the blood and grime from his body. The renewal that is rain. He felt like he wanted to stand there for hours and just let it wash away the past several days, let him start over, fix his mistakes. Cleanse him. He did not care that the two Nords with him were gawking at him like he was a crazy Mer, he just wanted the water.

     

    The dragon’s sudden roar brought him back and Ralof yanked him down behind the glacier boulders just in front of the cave’s entrance, next to Jyta, a young Shield-Maiden they encountered deeper within the Keep. “Stupid, Knife Ears, what do you want to do, invite him to attack? Ysmir’s bloody beard!”

     

    So they hid, like the sorry insects of the earth before a walking god, because all three knew when to pick a battle and when not to.

     

    “Stay low, Priest.” Jyta whispered, still sounding tired. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her reach for a dingy red wool cloak with an Imperial insignia she was carrying under her arm and drape it over his back. “The rain will do you no good, Priest.” He turned his head to her, and she released a sad, ragged sigh, laced with fresh mourning.

     

    “Thank you.” He said quietly.

     

    “Your kind will not like our weather, Priest. Too cold.”

     

    Of course, she did not know he was living in Bruma prior to all of this.

     

    ‘Priest’ was what she called him and she treated him with great compassion. After she had watched him attempt to heal her dying brother, unable to accept any more death today. That she even let him touch her brother was extraordinary. He was a Witch Elf to them.

     

    Erald was his name, blond and blue-eyed with barely a beard, like so many who fought for Ulfric Stormcloak, like Jyta herself. They all looked similar to him to some extent, especially when they were blond. Their racial uniformity more like Altmer than they perhaps cared to admit.

     

    The lad had an arrow in the chest and he thought that maybe he could save just one. But the magicks would not come and his nose bled anew. Undaunted, he then tried more conventional medicine, tried to staunch the bleeding, relieve the pressure on the lad’s collapsing lung, even daring to puncture a small hole in his chest so that the pressure could escape. That seemed to help initially, the breathing grew easier, the lad even joking with his sister.  They had some time together before he yielded to injuries that Äelberon could not have seen without better equipment or magicks. Guilty for giving her hope, all he could do was offer the brave Shield-Maiden some comfort while she gave her brother his final Kiss. 

     

    It had been a slaughter, a brutal skirmish within a large cavern that was a marriage between Keep and cave.  Newly freed prisoners battled against a small company of Imperial soldiers, all on edge from the dragon attack, all still Oblivion-bent on continuing Skyrim’s Civil war, despite the Keep crumbling all about them. Courage and Nord fortitude proved little match for a well-coordinated ranged attack, one of the many things the Imperial Legion excelled at. It would have been a different situation in the wilds of Falkreath. The Imperials would have been slaughtered, falling to the Nord’s greater knowledge of the terrain and their superior asymmetrical warfare tactics, but the Legion always knew how to fight defensive battles within their own Keeps.

     

    Äelberon had held his own throughout the skirmish, his own strength with the bow used to methodically break through the Imperial archery line. A conservative, patient sort of fighting that must have infuriated his fellow prisoners, but he was in no condition to engage in hand to hand, his body already beginning to give, the poison slowly working through his body through a fateful slash to the side.

     

    A mage’s last defense, Rynandor used to tell him. He was now paying for the decision to not wear the mail.

     

    He thought he was going to die in that chamber. He had made his peace with his Lord and with all his many failures.

     

    The dragon then must have either landed or used its strange magicks because the ceiling of the cave partially collapsed without warning, rending the Imperial’s staunch defense of their Keep a moot point. Just like that, they were all dead, crushed bodies under rubble. A keen disadvantage to sticking together.  A Stormcloak victory in Helgen. Ralof and Jyta of Riverwood, the only survivors to tell the tale to Jarl Ulfric, now had their passage to freedom. And Äelberon had his.

     

    They did not notice that he scanned the bodies for the other Nord, the Imperial soldier Hadvar.

     

    He was not among the dead.

     

    From the safety of the rocks, the three watched the great black dragon circle the sky a final time before it flew to the mountains in the Northwest.

     

    How dragons change things, Äelberon mused, wiping the sweat from his brow.  He pressed his forehead against the snow-covered rock in a feeble attempt to cool his body down. And he tried again, shutting himself to the world so he could better focus, imagining himself in a vast dessert, digging for water, for Aetherius. If he could find a drop, just a single drop of the glowing light, like water, it would help a great deal. The warmth of fresh blood slowly streaking from a nostril gave him his answer. There was nothing left, and he let the searching image leave him with soft groan.

     

    You are on your own, Old Mer.

     

    He felt Jyta’s cool hand on his fevered back. “Are you alright, Priest?” The hand on his back then traveled to his left side and though it barely touched the bloodstain around a small thin hole, he recoiled in pain all the same. Made from the blade of a small dagger, just enough of a well-made weapon to puncture the leather of Gunjar’s jerkin and on through the gambeson to his flesh. It did not create a deep wound, but it was more than enough.

     

    A mage’s last defense.

     

    She turned to Ralof. “Ralof, the wound is infected, festering. Damn mage.” She cursed.

     

    “A wee scratch is all.” He managed, still enjoying the coolness of the rock. It was more than a ‘wee scratch’, but it was his Order’s way to make things less than what they were. To give comfort when things seemed at their worst.

     

    “A poisoned scratch.” Jyta spit on the ground. “The milk-drinker. Poison is not the Nord way. I cannot believe he would stoop that low.”

     

    “He was a mage.” Offered Ralof. “Did you expect anything less?”

     

    They really have a low opinion of mages in this land, thought Äelberon.  None of the Nords, however, minded that fat ward of yours, Old Mer, when the dragon breathed the very fires of Oblivion upon them.  

     

    “And what is Sigva then?” Jyta asked.

     

    “A mage.”

     

    He had felt magicka from one of the other Nord prisoners.

     

    “She is not the monster we found in that stinking place of death. She heals, and her ice has helped us many times. Like the Clever Men of old. Do you really think she would also do this, Ralof?” He could see Jyta tilt her head to the side. “She is our friend. I can’t be—”

     

    “That’s enough, Jyta.”

     

    “We were in a torture chamber.” Äelberon explained. He almost added that he was pretty damn sure Ulfric used torture too but thought better of it. They were raw enough without him being his typical ‘Altmer’ self. “I think he was using it on his victims. Some poisons work slow, Jyta. Cause pain, but not death. You can torture that way. Thalmor use it, as do other races. I am sure this is what I am dealing with. It will pass.”  

     

    You will need to say penance for that wee half-truth, Old Mer.

     

    “He needs a healer.” That was directed to Ralof who was still watching the vanishing dragon. Apparently, she was not buying what Äelberon tried to sell with his explanation.

     

    The Nord grunted, shaking his head quickly in disagreement. “Are you mad, Jyta? Go to a healer now? This place will be crawling with Imperials.” 

     

    “He needs help. Maybe take him to Sun-Killer’s cam—” 

     

    “Absolutely not!” Ralof’s angry tone said it all. Äelberon liked Jyta, but he understood Ralof.

     

    “I am alright, lass.” Äelberon interrupted, breaking away from his wonderfully cool rock that he wanted to lean on forever to give Jyta one of his infamous smirks. The teasing smirks he often saved for the younglings that impressed him most. “Alright enough to let that she-bear know who was boss, eh?”

     

    “I’ll give you that, Priest.” She said with a small smile that did nothing to hide her concern and it struck him that she cared so much when all they went through together was a trip from Darkwater and the madness of a dragon attack. She had a good soul. “’Twas a fine shot.”

     

    “I still got it.” He chuckled, ignoring the pain in his side for a few moments of normalcy. “’Tis a fine skin; an old hunter always knows these things.”

     

    A final cave before they knew freedom.  A grotto really, with ferns and shrubs competing to grow where the gaps in the rocks allowed light and rain through. They accidently woke her, and she charged them, barreling, furious and fast, larger than any bear he had seen in Cyrod. In a show of strength and speed that said a hearty ‘fuck you’ to his weakening body, Äelberon brought the she-bear down with one shot, right in the eye. Then proceeded to skin the animal, demonstrating a country Mer’s grit that left the Nords with open mouths and wide eyes. Until they got down on their knees and helped him, noting that such a pelt would fetch a fine price in market, thinking ahead, being hopeful.

     

    “Looks like he’s gone for good.” Ralof scanned the distance ahead and pointed northwest as he continued, “Wonder where he’s headed?”

     

    “To Oblivion I hope.” Jyta cursed, hoisting her pack over her shoulder. “What do we do now?” She looked to Ralof for the answer as did Äelberon. He had a vague notion where he was but picturing a map in his mind and actually seeing the topography were two different things. 

     

    It looked like mid-morning to Äelberon, judging by the look of the sky and the temperature, the lingering freshness of early morning dew still in the air. Incredibly bright, despite the storm clouds and heavy rain. It was hurting his eyes a little, causing him to squint. The rain continued to pelt them hard, while Ralof thought, the Nord’s brow lowering in concentration. He was weighing his options, deciding how much  Äelberon would fit into his plans.

     

    “We should go to Sun-Killer’s camp?” Jyta repeated. “It’s where Jarl Ulfric said to go.”  

     

    “Eventually, but it’s too far,” his eyes fell on Äelberon, “and not with him. I’m not going all the way back to Helgen to then head…” Ralof stopped suddenly, remembering himself. “That way.” It was clear that Ralof did not want to give the location of a Stormcloak camp away, even to someone who probably detested the Thalmor as much as Äelberon did.  His words seemed to anger Jyta, who was a good youngling and sincerely wanted to help, but Äelberon saw the sense of it. Ralof’s Nordic features softened when his eyes fell on Äelberon’s bleeding side. “We do need a place now though. For our old bear-killer here to lick his wounds.”  

     

    “Do not concern yourself with me. I am not licked yet.” With that, Äelberon summoned more of his Dusken pride, stood the fuck up, and adjusted his grip on his pack, a quickly put together bindle from the bearskin, a sparring staff from the Keep that he used as a walking staff to brace his side, and some Imperial vambrace lacing. It held what he considered the only things worth anything from the Keep, Gunjar’s mailcoat, some dried meat, some waterskins, the enchanted ring, an enchanted mage’s hood, and a dusty spell tome. The shoddy bow was now unstrung and more vambrace lacing was used, tied to the weapon to form a rudimentary sling so he could carry it and its quiver for the time being. A scratched Imperial gladius was sheathed at his side. “If you lead, I will follow. So decide, Human.”

     

    Adding ‘human’ was the right call because Ralof smiled at Äelberon’s display of pluckiness. “You are like a mule, you know that, Knife Ears?”

     

    Äelberon snorted. “You do not know the half of it. Now where to?”

     

    His robust display of bravery was abruptly destroyed by Jyta reaching, standing on her tip toes, to move the sopping wet hood of his cloak to cover his head like a lenya covering up her errant youngling. It clung to his head pitifully,  both freezing his body and soothing his fever all at the same time. "You'll catch your death in this rain." She fussed.

     

    Ralof blew air, Jyta’s gesture clearly reminding him how ‘soft’ all Elves were. His eyes veered Northeast and then Northwest. “Sun-Killer is out of the question, Jyta. So, I think we should try for Riverwood.”

     

    “To Gurdur?”

     

    “Aye. She’s our best bet.”

     

    “Who is this Gurdur?” Äelberon asked, but he assumed it was a relative of one of them. Or a friend.

     

    “My older sister,” Ralof replied. “She runs the lumber mill. She’ll help us. Food, supplies… has no love for the Empire.”

     

    “Very well.”  

     

    They then walked, or rather trudged, the pouring rain weighing their gear and bodies down significantly. Ralof led, followed by Jyta, who bore the special burden of carrying the cloths of their fallen Stormcloak comrades in her pack, while Äelberon brought up the rear.

     

    At least the rainstorm was doing them a service and cleaning them up while they walked.

     

    After skinning the bear, Äelberon almost stripped to bathe the small stream that flowed through the grotto but decided against it. He wanted a bath, badly, partially to be clean and partially to soothe his feverish aching, but he guessed the Nords would not have appreciated the delay. It sort of disgusted him and intrigued him at the same time how they could walk around, eat, drink, all while covered in blood and filth, especially under the nails. It took every angaid of his own willpower to not touch his face with hands that were still crusted with dried blood and grime, despite rinsing them at the stream several times. He was a rustic Dusken, that was for sure, but Duskens were, contrary to Northern Altmeri views, a rather clean people. Nords were cleaner too, just not at this moment.  They certainly did not wash in the same water that they spit and blew their noses into. That was an old Altmeri rumor that was quickly dispelled when Äelberon first encountered free born Nords in Cyrodiil. They would probably draw a bath at Gurdur’s, though a quiet, clean pond or stream would suit Äelberon just fine at this point. 

     

    Go on, keep thinking on how wonderful a nice bath will feel on your old bones, silly Mer. 

     

    Along the way, a dirt path slowly turning into an ancient road paved with worn stone and lined with alpine plants and forest.  Ralof pointed out a large structure – a temple perhaps? – that dominated the mountains to the North, and Äelberon had to stop for a moment and just gaze at it, feeling his jaw drop.

     

    “What is it?” He asked.

     

    “Never seen a barrow before?”

     

    “Aye, images, but, Auri-El’s Bow, not like this. The small ones, round, underground. That is what I saw… sketches mostly.”

     

    “Those are cairns. This is different. Ralof leaned towards him, pride clear in his voice. “Impressive, isn’t it? All these years, and it still stands. One of the great landmarks of Skyrim. Some say, on a clear day, you can see it from the Jarl’s palace in Dragonsreach, all the way in Whiterun hold.”  

     

    “Aye.” He whispered, studying the arched stone buttresses, the tips shaped in the image of a hawk, that jutted from the Barrow’s main building.  It was a half-dome structure, partially imbedded within the bloody mountain itself, complimented by wide, flat stone stairs and precariously positioned stone lookouts. He did not imagine Nord architecture would feature such a sophisticated design. No, not the graceful Ayleid ruins or the vine-covered ancient Xanmeers of Murkmire, but incredibly imposing in an austere sort of way. The Tower never had images like this, only the small cairns.  In his eyes, this was far more majestic. It was as if… Then dawned on him. He frowned, his silver brow lowering, and hated his People a little bit for their extreme arrogance. The Tower was the heart of Altmer pride, after all, so why bother showing the glory of others? Why show the truth of the world when flattery is so much better?  He remembered Rynandor fighting to include such things and being told ‘no’. Well, the Tower is gone, and this barrow still stands, a reminder to Äelberon of the greatest of all Altmeri sins, pride.

     

    “Does it have a name?”

     

    “Bleak Falls Barrow.” Ralof replied. “Still cannot believe Gurdur lives under its shadow.”

     

    “Why?”

     

    Ralof spit and gave Äelberon a grim look. “The dead do not always stay dead in Skyrim, Knife Ears.”

     

    “Vampires?” Äelberon raised his eyebrows in a question.

     

    “No, not vampires. Draugr.” And he left it at that, urging Jyta and Äelberon to continue with quick flick of his head towards the road.   They took the northwest fork in the road that followed a great winding river, punctuated by coursing rapids.

     

    “Do we follow the White River?” The questions served to distract Äelberon from the painful drain of both fever and injuries. 

     

    “Yes.” Jyta nodded, her eyes still on the road. “Largest in Skyrim.”  

     

    “Beautiful.” Aye, even in the rain, he could admire the river’s grandness.

     

    “At the riverbank, we stop to pray, yes?” Jyta suddenly asked. “At the Stones? We should give thanks.”

     

    “Aye.” Ralof nodded.

     

    “Pray? Stones?”

     

    “Enough questions, Knife Ears, you’ll learn soon enough.” Shit. Now he had only the pain to think on. Äelberon took a deep breath, as deep of one as his side would allow and focused on his steps. Like a clumsier giant version of Phynaster. One big foot in front of the other, keeping strength in his stride, keeping the rhythm, so he would not fall over and never get back up again.

     

    A hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Priest, we pray now.”

     

    Already? He had been so focused on his steps that he had lost touch of his surroundings and time. Magnus was higher.

     

    They had reached a steep bank along the river, nestled within a rock outcropping and upon its edge rested a carved circular platform, low to the earth, somewhat overgrown with mosses and ferns.  Upon the platform, stood three conical pillars of stone, symmetrically placed. Each stone had a distinct carving, and he recognized the images. The Constellations. Perhaps a Doomstone of some type, as in Cyrod, he speculated. In addition to featuring a constellation, each pillar was carved with a swirling design, and featured a decorative ring of… He stepped forward to get a better look. Well damn! Was that? Ebony? He blinked; it was. Pure ebony. “Ebony.” He murmured, not seeing the metal since his time in Orsinium.

     

    “The Nord’s metal.” Ralof answered. The Orsimer and Dummer would dispute that, but Äelberon decided to let it go.

     

    “Why the holes at the tips of the columns? Does that have significance? I see constellations, what do they mea—”

     

    “Gods you don’t stop, do you?”

     

    “I can stop.” And, aye, his head tilted to the side in annoyance because once an Altmer, always an Altmer.

     

    “Good, do so.”  

     

    Ralof reverently set his gear down and walked towards the stones. He then knelt on one knee in front of one of the stones.  Äelberon saw the Nord’s lips move, uttering words which sounded like the Ten Commands to Äelberon and then a palm was placed upon the stone. “Talos guide me, continue to give me strength.” Ralof took a deep breath. “You next, Jyta.”

     

    Jyta knelt and repeated Ralof’s actions while Ralof stood, grabbing his pack. “We cannot worship Talos in our own fucking land.” He started, facing Äelberon. “The damn Thalmor saw to that with their precious White Gold Concordat, made a mockery of the war we had won. They now seek to weaken us, patrolling the shrines across our Homeland, watching for us to make a mistake, taking people in the night. But we do not need his statue to worship him. He understands. When we pray to these stones, or anything for that matter, can be a fucking piece of cheese for all He cares, when we say the Commands of the Nine, He knows what we really mean.”

     

    “I understand.” Äelberon nodded. He did. His own great clan was not without their own heresies.

     

    “Good.” The Nord leaned against another stone. Of course, it was the Mage that was the victim of Ralof’s casual blasphemy. “Used to play around these as a kid, with Gurdur, Hadvar, Erald, even little Jyta. Then I grew up, putting a child’s folly away for good, and took the time to learn who I really was, a Nord, in Skyrim. I learned what the old ways should mean to us. That it’s Kyne, not fucking Kynareth. That she breathed life into us from His Creation Plan. What these stones really are the guardian stones, many such stones dot our landscape, but these are the three main ones, the charges over all others. All the stones in our land give blessing, to those born under the right sign. You just need to find the right one, the one that is yours.” He chuckled. “I was not born during Warrior, my time is Lover, but fuck it if I’m going to journey all the way to the bloody Reach for her. Well, maybe one day.” A funny smirk and he poked Jyta’s shoulder. “Jyta, here is Thief, but we don’t hold it against her. Much.”

     

    She glared at Ralof as she stood up, but Äelberon could see the humor in her eyes.

     

    “When she touches her stone, it lights right up.” Another chuckle. “For all to see.”

     

    Äelberon’s eyes narrowed. “Really? Like Doomstones then?”

     

    “What the fuck is a Doomstone?”

     

    He was not going to take the time to explain. “It is not important. Does it really light up when she touches it?”

     

    “Jyta, show him.” Ralof grinned.

     

    The Nord lass rolled her eyes, as if she were teased about this many a time and walked right up to the stone with the Thief constellation. She gave it quick pat and Äelberon blinked when the stone lit up with a profound magical energy that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Did the Nords not feel that, he wondered. 

     

    “Happy?” She raised her eyebrows. “Happy I made the big stone glow for you, Ralof?”

     

    The Nord laughed, goading her. “You know I like watching you touch it.”

     

    “Sure you do. Maybe I’ll use its blessing to shave your eyebrows off while ya sleep!”

     

    Ralof laughed again. “Your risk to take, little Thief.”

     

    “Fascinating…” Äelberon murmured, his eyes still on the stone. "Utterfly fascinating..." 

     

    “So, Knife Ears, what are you?” It was almost phrased as a challenge and it made him look up.  Still leaning against the Mage, Ralof crossed his arms over his chest. “I bet Mage, maybe Apprentice. Or Atronach, eh Knife Ears? Go ahead, see for yourself. At least offer a little prayer that Orial fellow of yours. Thank him for not letting you die to the Dragon fire…” 

     

    “Auri-El.” He corrected.

     

    “Whatever.” The Nord shrugged, beckoning Äelberon to the stone pillars. He approached the stones while Jyta and Ralof exchanged inaudible words, laughing. When in Skyrim… he smirked, poking the Warrior Stone with his extended index finger. He jumped when it released its energy, just as the Thief did for Jyta.

     

    “Ha!” Jyta exclaimed. “I knew it! I knew it!” She turned to Ralof, her eyes dancing with triumph. “See! You owe me ten septims! No one can shoot a bow the way he does and not be Warrior! I wager he’s as good as old Whetted-Blade himself.”

     

    “Well, I’ll be damned.” Ralof shaking his head. Looking extremely surprised. “He’s a Warrior.” He nodded. “Well met. Though I disagree about Whetted-Blade. None can touch that old Bastard.”

     

    Äelberon said nothing, only looked at the stone, trying to hide his profound surprise from the others, not quite understanding what had just happened. He was born on the Ides of First Seed. He was supposed to be born in Rain’s Hand, but there was an accident. His Lenya had fallen from a ladder while reaching for something and the High Priest Kahlailas of Dusk, a Curate within his Order, had been summoned to save her life. She delivered a month early. The Lord should be his sign and he let people assume that it was whenever they learned his birthday, not correcting them.

     

    Only that was not what graced the sky that night.

     

    The most blessed, and the most cursed, he frowned. The Wandering Unstar.

     

    The Serpent.

     

    He remembered the looks of silent terror on his parents’ faces as they sat outside their home, his angry confusion when he finally learned the truth, the great brow of the Curate furrowing. It was the day the Thalmor came to investigate his spell.  And the law was brutally clear in his Blessed Isles.  Serpents… were to be killed at birth. Thrown over a cliff, poisoned, or smothered, it did not matter. Only they could not bear to do it. It was the one lie his parents ever told him and he understood why it was done. He was their only child, they loved him and there would be no others, the damage from her fall unrepairable. So, they waited for Curate Kahlailas to bargain with the Thalmor Justiciar for his very life. In a display of mercy that belied the Thalmor’s future, his life was spared, on the condition that he was given immediately to Auri-El, to be his servant, to the end of his days. A social experiment to see whether Altmeri Nurture could trump the Nature of Nirn. It was extremely generous of the Thalmor. The Thalmor of the fourth era would not have offered them such clemency, all three would have been killed, or at the very least, declared Apraxic and exiled.

     

    Who are ya foolin’, Old Mer, that’s exactly what happened anyway.

     

    He shook his head, clearing his mind of their dark thoughts.  The Warrior had given Äelberon his boon and he admitted, he felt little rejuvenated, like an ember of his former fire had returned. Such a gift was worth a measure of reverence in return, and just as Ralof and Jyta did before him, he knelt and prayed, reciting an almost sacrilegiously abridged version of his Holy Tenets. The Nords would not wait on the full version. They were already letting him worship his way, in a surprising show of tolerance.

     

    “Suna ye sunnabe.” He finished quietly, his hand lingering on the stone. “It means,” he started. Aye, one small lesson from this old priest, younglings. “‘Bless and blessed be’ in one of the tongue of my ancestors. To both bestow and receive blessing. There was a time when my People were not so unkind...” He let his voice trail off, keenly aware of the falling rain. Like tears sometimes to him.  

     

    “Äelberon of Dusk.”

     

    Äelberon’s eyes refocused at the sound of his given name and he turned to the Nord, a teasing smirk beginning to find his features. Aye, you impress me too, Ralof. “Not Knife Ears?”

     

    Ralof approached, putting a hand on his shoulder, though his eyes were on the stone that was still glowing with energy. His expression grew thoughtful and he then looked Äelberon right in the eye. “No, I do not call a warrior by anything else other than his given name.” With a friendly pat on his shoulder, Ralof turned away from the stones to again follow the road. “Let’s go. Riverwood is close. And I don’t care if we’re a trio of Hagravens necromancers at this point, we still need to warn them about this beast.”

     

    Äelberon stood, adjusted his bindle, and followed, looking over his shoulder a final time at the stones.

     

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    Chapter 3 * ToC * Chapter 5

Comments

1 Comment   |   The Sunflower Manual and 1 other like this.
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  July 12
    This right here is why Straag works so well; the characters
    and the way they interact are all fleshed out superbly. None of them are
    one-dimensional, and the racial tensions are all written in a way that’s interesting
    and believable. And...  more