The Nord woman removed her helmet and Tara felt her heart skip a beat.
“Where did a Breton like yourself learn, ‘The Dragonborn Comes’?” The Nord asked. She set her steel helm down on the table where Tara had just sat and grabbed the other chair. Blonde hair, the color of honey, spilled down her shoulders. She wore steel armor. Like the helm, it looked worn, with nicks along the surface. Nicked, but well cared for, as candlelight bounced off the rich shine.
“I, uh, learned it in a book, then, um, heard it in a tavern somewhere. I think,” Tara stammered.
By Dibella, the woman’s eyes were the icy blue of deep glaciers. She had a strong jaw and sharp nose. She looked as tough as the land she was from. Or so Tara had heard. She’d never been to Skyrim. Only read about it in books.
“I’m impressed,” the woman said. Her voice was smooth, silkier than the finest cloth. “Not many non-Nords can put such passion in the song.” She lifted her mead and saluted Tara, before taking a large swallow.
“Um, thank you,” Tara took a big swallow of her ale, then coughed half of it up as she mistimed her breath and started choking. Gods, get a hold of yourself, woman, she thought to herself. This was embarrassing.
The woman laughed. “Have I made you nervous?” she winked.
Tara recovered from her coughing. “No…I…well, yes,” she admitted. “Nice armor.”
The woman burst out laughing again. “Forged it myself,” she said. “Can’t beat good steel.”
Tara reached out and lightly touched the helmet. She liked the feel of the cold smoothness under her fingers. “Are you a warrior?” she asked.
The woman shrugged, “Bit of a sellsword. I help the locals as I travel around and see the world.”
She drank more mead. “And, you? Bard?”
Tara laughed. “No, no. Not a bard. Just a woman who likes to sing.”
The woman waited and held Tara’s gaze.
“I, um, came here to study magic,” Tara said, finally. Those eyes.
“Breton. Of course.”
“But, I’m done with that now,” Tara added. “Been training with the Fighter’s Guild.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Any good?”
Tara shrugged. “I’ve a lot to learn.”
Tara had been at the Fighter’s Guild for over two months. She had learned a lot. Mostly, how to fall and dodge. Ser Mikhail led the guild and had taken her in, grudgingly, on Farris’ request. Unlike Farris, Mikhail had liked her anger and encouraged it in training.
“Anger gives you strength in battle!” he’d said. “As long as you keep your wits about you at the same time.”
Therein lied the problem.
Two months in, Tara could dodge and use her shortness to avoid every guild member, be it Mikhail, Fronton, Lucas, or Mirebella. Mirebella was a dark elf, the first Tara had ever met, but the rest were Imperials, eager to prove themselves tough. None of them could hit her with a sword, mace, or axe. She even dodged practice arrows well.
The problem was putting a weapon in her hand.
Mikhail insisted she start with a wooden sword. She wanted an axe, even showed off the iron war axe she’d bought in Hammerfell. She wanted to be good with an axe. Using one in a fight wasn’t the same as chopping wood, or chickens. She knew it was what she could excel at, though. She felt it deep in her bones.
“Learn the sword, Tara,” he’d said. “All armies require it. Plus, it’s usually the handiest, most common weapon. Every blacksmith can forge, or repair, them. Axes take more skill. Use the weapon you can get your hands on.”
So, she had. Well enough to be ready to spare with someone, instead of the endless pounding on dummy targets she’d been doing for weeks.
Lucas had been the unlucky soul.
Early morning on the 17th of Hearthfire, they’d been chosen for the first sparring session. Fortunately, with wooden swords. The goal was simple, they were to use a series of attacks and blocks to hit each other. Whomever knocked the other down three times, or got them to submit, would “win” the session. The main goal was practicing footwork, balance, and attack moves.
Lucas was of medium build. A foot taller than Tara, but not the brute Fronton was. Lucas had the look of a knight, certainly, with wavy brown hair, a strong face, and kind eyes. He’d been respectful since Tara joined and seemed earnest to eventually become a knight in a count’s court.
They’d started slowly, circling and sizing each other up, under the gaze of Mikhail, and with the rest of the guild watching. Lucas had lunged first, and Tara had used her quickness to easily avoid him. She’d also taken the chance to whack his backside with the sword as she turned and weaved behind him. Some teasing had been sent Lucas’ way.
“You letting a girl kick you in the ass?” Fronton had said.
“Stop flirting with her!” Mirebella had added.
Mikhail had given them a look and stayed stern. “Don’t be sloppy, Lucas. Don’t lunge without the ability to block. Good job, Tara.”
Lucas had gotten her back a few moves later. She’d dodged a high lunge from him, which he’d used to distract. He’d swung his leg and knocked her off her feet.
The move had been the same Shum gro-Ulfish had used those months ago. Tara felt that familiar heat rise in her face as Fronton cheered the knockdown. “There you go! She didn’t have far to fall, anyway!”
They all knew about the fight at The Count’s Arms. Fronton had been the first to bring it up. Shum still walked with a limp, two months later, and Fronton had seemed unable to believe Tara was the cause of it. He seemed determined to prove she shouldn’t be in the Guild, and did not miss an opportunity to tease about her height, wanting to set her off. So far, Tara had resisted the bait.
“Lucas gets one knockdown,” Mikhail had said, ignoring Fronton’s tease. Tara knew he was watching her, though. Anger and wit. She could do this.
It took longer, but Lucas knocked her down again with another leg sweep. For all her dodging of weapons, she was missing key defensive moves against his feints. Lucas knew her weakness.
“Plan your moves, Tara,” Mikhail was saying. “And get aggressive! This isn’t a fistfight for you to bob and weave. Take out your opponent with your sword.”
Lucas was on his back a minute later. Tara had feinted high, he’d stepped wrong to block, and she slammed her shoulder into his midriff, knocking him down.
“Tara, one knockdown. Lucas, two knockdowns,” Mikhail said.
“Don’t let that little Breton knock you down!” Fronton yelled. “Just because you want her on top,” he laughed at his own joke.
Tara bit her lip. Ignore him, she thought. Just…get Lucas to submit or two more knockdowns.
Lucas lunged hard and blocked her counter attack. They feinted at each other, but no one made a mistake. Fronton kept up his harassment.
“Are you dancing with her?” “Oh, come on! Should have had her.”
Tara knocked Lucas down again, with her own leg sweep during one of his attempts to fool her with a high swing.
“Both of you have two knockdowns,” Mikhail said. “Next one decides the winner.”
Tara wiped sweat from her face. She was exhausted. Lucas looked it, too, sweat freely poured off his chin. Tara’s feet felt like steel ingots were tied to them. She lunged and back stepped, hoping to draw Lucas in, but he held his ground. Lucas tried to get behind her several times and failed.
“Stendarr’s Mercy!” Fronton yelled. “Just charge her! She’s tired and too small to stop you! Get the bitch on the ground!”
Maybe it was because she was tired. She was never sure what made her snap in these moments. Fronton was the one taunting. Maybe it was the height jokes; too much like Shum. Calling her a “bitch”, of course, had upped her anger. The sexual harassment, too. Or, maybe she was making excuses for something there was no excuse for.
Tara remembered Lucas charging right after Fronton’s “…bitch on the ground.” Then,
Tara blinked and Lucas was on the ground, his face bloody from his shattered nose, his hands held up defensively, one of them already swelling from obviously broken bones. Tara realized she was holding up her sword, about to strike him again. She dropped it.
“Lucas, I’m so sorry,” she stammered and dropped to her knees to help him.
He scurried back from her, frightened.
Before she could move, she was pulled by the back of her leather armor. Mikhail lifted her off her feet and tossed her roughly to the ground several feet away.
“Fronton, help Lucas inside, get a healing potion or three in him. Mirebella, go get Tomar from the Conclave. Probably going to need his help fixing Lucas’ hand,” he ordered.
After they left, Mikhail turned to Tara and stared at her.
“I told you to keep your wits about you when angry. That’s how you use anger. Not whatever that was,” he paused and studied her. “Farris warned me about you.”
“About my temper?” she asked. She’d been slowly getting off the ground from his toss. She finished knocking dirt off her leathers.
“Yes. How uncontrollable you were. How you are too angry to teach.”
Tara laughed, shaking her head.
“What?” Mikhail asked, taken aback.
“Everyone likes to talk about me behind my back. Never to me.”
Mikhail answered, “Everyone sees Shum walking around town with a limp, and wonders how a young Breton woman, you’re barely of age, takes down an experienced Orc. A young, short woman, who is neither mage nor warrior permanently injures a well-known sellsword. Over an insult or two. Why would they risk talking to you to your face?”
Tara stared at the ground for a moment. Permanently injured? She hadn’t realized…
“Look,” Mikhail said. “I like your rage. It’s powerful. I don’t care where it comes from. I don’t care about whatever sob life story you have. Or, the crap the men give you. World’s tough. Deal with it.”
Tara couldn’t decide if she disliked him, or respected him more, for that answer.
“But you have to learn to use it properly. Or, you’re going to get yourself killed. Or, others you don’t mean to kill.” He nodded his head towards the Guild house. “You may be a fighter, but you’re not a killer. Don’t go down that road early.”
In the two weeks since that sparring, Mikhail had kept Tara on archery, shooting targets. No swords, and certainly, no axes. Everyone else had avoided her like she had Cholera.
“A lot to learn, eh?” The Nord woman said. “And, you think you can learn a lot at the Guild?”
Tara took a sip of her ale, and, thankfully, didn’t choke this time. “I don’t know.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tara. Tara Blaton,” she answered.
“Well, Tara Blaton, I have a proposal for you,” The woman said.
Tara raised an eyebrow.
“How about you travel with me, Freta Snow-Shield. Help me with the jobs I pick up, and I’ll train you to fight like a true Nord does. Not whatever nonsense sword play that passes for training at these guilds.”
“What? Really?” Tara asked. She hadn’t planned to stay in Anvil much longer. She intended to leave and explore, maybe head east to Skingrad, and then south to Bravil before winter set in. See if she could find a College of Whispers. There was another place to learn magic in Cyrodiil. Farris had cut her off from the Synod, but she wasn’t done in her search. The Fighter’s Guild had been a place to pick up some skills, and be a place to sleep, but, now, with them all avoiding her, she’d felt aimless and more alone than ever.
“Why would you want me with you? We just met,” Tara asked. “I…”
Freta smiled. Her eyes lit up and she leaned in. Tara’s breath caught in her throat. Freta reached out and lightly touched her hair.
Softly, she said, “With your hair of fire and emerald eyes, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on. Keep me company. Let me show you…wonders.”
Tara felt the world fade away. She remembered to breathe.
“Okay,” she answered, just as softly.
(shout out to froztee for Shield Sisters Re-Imaged mod)