“We need a higher point to camp,” Katla said. She pointed up to a cliff across from Rorikstead. “Let’s look up there.”
Tara looked up at the cliff, then back at the farm. The spot Lemkil had pointed out they could camp for the night would be cozy, protect them from the wind blowing across the plains. This area of Skyrim was lush, prairie, and farmland as far as the eye could see. Wind coming off the distant mountains blew steady, with nothing to stop it.
“Lot of wind up there,” Tara said. “You sure you wouldn’t rather we stay out of the wind?”
“I want a high point. Safer,” Katla said. There was a firmness to her voice. She wasn’t going to compromise.
“Let’s check it out,” Tara acquiesced.
They’d arrived in Rorikstead early in the day and inquired about work. The innkeeper, Mralki, had given them a note about a bounty for bandits at a local cave the jarl wanted cleared out. They were in Whiterun Hold now, so the Jarl of Whiterun had authorized it. A Jarl Balgruuf.
Tara and Katla hadn’t discussed the bounty yet. Earning gold would be good, but Tara had never done such a thing. It was one thing to defend yourself against attacking bandits, but to actively go look for them? Plus, she and Katla hardly knew each other. What kind of fighter was Katla? Did they have enough trust to go into battle together? It was something to consider, and a far different task than any she and Freta had taken on in Cyrodiil.
They’d met the farmer, Lemkil, who desperately needed help with his crops. He had two young daughters running around, but they clearly didn’t help. Tara bit her tongue as Lemkil complained about his girls not helping. Let kids be kids and not free labor, she’d thought.
Katla and Tara had agreed to help him with the crops he still needed harvested at this time of year. It’d take them a few days, and they could plan out their next move while here. Tara didn’t much care for Lemkil, but it was a simple job for some coin.
They climbed the hill next to the town, hamlet, really, and made their way to the edge overlooking Rorikstead. They were above the farm, with the rest of the town sitting split across the road that cut through it.
Tara turned from the view and paced the ground, thinking about angles of attack. They were in the wide open, no bushes or trees came anywhere close. The slope up to the edge came from just the one side, the rest too steep for anyone to climb. They could be rushed by a small group of people, and would be backed to the edge, where the drop down would kill them, but, anyone trying to rush up would be at a disadvantage, especially to an archer. There was nothing to hide behind for anyone trying to sneak. If they took turns keeping watch, they’d be okay.
“Why don’t you setup your tent over there,” Tara pointed to a corner she thought would be safest. “I’ll setup here, to give you extra protection and have a good line of sight.”
Katla nodded and they both started working on the camp.
Tara wasn’t sure why she’d felt the need to protect Katla. They’d camped one night in the forest on their way to Rorikstead. She’d instantly wanted to be the protector, the one prepared to take the brunt of any attack. Planning had gone much the same way; Katla insisting on a high point that was easily defensible. They’d found a wooded area on a small outcrop that had been perfect. Without discussion, Tara had done the same, setting up her tent in the lookout, protector position. It felt natural. Opposite of her and Freta’s setups.
Maybe this is my true state of being, Tara thought. To be the one protecting, and more in charge. Freta had helped her come into her own as an adult, but had also had a domineering effect, as the older, experienced one between them.
Tara was a couple of months older than Katla. Conversation on their first full day traveling together had revealed they were both twenty and had been on their own from parents for a couple of years. She hadn’t gotten much out of Katla on that first day about anything else. She was hoping to tonight. The first day’s conversation had been kept non-personal, Katla explaining the geography and layout of Skyrim to Tara, explaining some of the politics and noble setups here.
“I lived in Cyrodiil for a while. Skyrim is in more turmoil, and in ways a more dangerous land,” Katla had said. “The roads are a lot less safe. Bandits are a bigger problem here, and always have been. Don’t even get me started on the Reachmen. That’s not a dig at Bretons, just to be clear.”
Tara had shrugged. “I don’t really think of Reachmen as Bretons. They split off from Breton society a long time ago.”
Tara had then asked her first prying question. “Where in Cyrodiil did you live?”
Katla had looked at her, thought for a moment, and then winked. “I’ll tell you some other time.”
So private. So hiding something.
As they finished setting up camp, Tara decided she’d have to be the one to open up first. Katla had a shell, a wall up. Maybe the way through it was to be the one who was completely honest. Tell her the things she’d never told Freta. She’d hidden so much from Freta. Always waiting for the right time, trying to avoid any push back, or judgement. Always thinking there would be time to open up more. Then, there wasn’t.
“Want to head back down to the inn for dinner?” Tara asked.
“I think I’ve had enough of Mralki and his son, Erik, arguing for one day,” Katla laughed. “Maybe we should’ve given him that bounty letter.”
Tara laughed. “He’d get himself killed. I can’t believe he asked to come along with us to prove himself.”
“At least he didn’t say he wanted to come along to protect us.”
Tara laughed louder at that. “Gods, right.” Katla made her laugh. There was a tone and timing to her words that clicked. Humor had been missing from her life for too long.
They prepared dinner, preserved rabbit, leeks, and carrots thrown into a pot to stew, and chatted lightly. Katla dug out some Nord meads from her backpack.
“What do you think of the bounty letter,” Tara asked her. “Ever done bounty hunting?”
Katla studied the fire. “No. I’ve had to defend myself from bandits and…others. Not actively sought any out.” She took a gulp of mead. “Who’ve you used those pretty little axes on?”
Tara sipped her mead. “Bandits and a bear.” She pointed to her shoulder and arm scars. “The bear started it.”
“And you finished it, I bet,”
Katla stood and checked the stew. “It’s ready.”
They ate silently for a bit, stealing glances at each other. Tara laughed to herself. She wasn’t sure who was worse at being coy about stealing looks.
“Let’s do it,” Katla said. “The bounty, I mean,” she quickly added.
Tara spit out the mead she’d been about to swallow. “I…wasn’t…uh…thanks for clarifying.”
Katla gave her a sly smile. “Well, other things take time. Just to be clear.”
Tara nodded and returned the smile. “Agreed. So, we help with crops for a few days, then have our first real adventure with the bounty letter.”
“I get to see if you can hit anything with that bow.”
Katla raised an eyebrow at her. “I get to see if you do more than wear those axes well.”
Tara nodded and gave her a purposely cocky tilt of her head. “I can.”
“I look forward to you proving it.”
Tara smiled softly at that. The teasing, flirting, was fun, but it felt like avoidance. She wanted at least another nugget of information.
“Who taught you to use a bow?” she asked.
“You first,” Katla said. “The axes.”
You’ll have to be the open, honest one.
“Spent my childhood working our farm. Got really good at chopping wood and chickens’ heads off.” Tara sipped her mead and stretched. She’d finished off her stew. “When I was in Anvil, I joined the Fighter’s Guild for a few months…”
“Not the Mage’s…or, whatever, the Synod Conclave…whatever they call themselves?”
“I’d been kicked out of there,” Tara said. Katla raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll…there’s a lot to that. A story for another day?”
Katla nodded. “Fair enough.”
“So, Fighter’s Guild. Was learning some things, mostly sword and archery. Broke someone’s nose and hands, so they weren’t letting me near axes yet.”
Katla’s eyebrow shot up again.
Honesty. She needs it.
Tara swallowed. “I can have a temper. Be impatient. It’s cost me things.”
Katla nodded and stayed silent.
Tara continued. “Then, I met Freta. She asked me to travel with her. Showed me how to use axes as weapons. I was a natural with them.” Tara’s voice dropped. “All the credit to her for my skills.”
Katla studied Tara for several minutes. “How long ago did she die?”
“Come Spring, it’ll be two years.”
“Thank you for sharing,” Katla said. She finished her mead.
“My father taught me most of what I know about archery,” she said. “He fought in the Great War as an archer. He owned a few bows. He gave me this one just before I came of age.”
“You still in touch with your family?” Tara asked.
“I’m sorry…” Tara started.
“Who takes the first watch?” Katla asked. She stood up and stretched.
“I will,” Tara stood. Softly, she said, “You get a good rest. I’ll watch over you.”
Katla nodded. She seemed to struggle for a moment, as if wanting to throw out one joke, but simply said, “Thank you. Good night.”
Tara spent the night studying the stars. The air was cool, the wind had settled into a calm breeze. Masser rose alone and kept her company. She didn’t wake Katla for her shift. Instead, Tara listened to her breathing and wondered about the stories we all carry.