Tara pressed her finger to her lips, then pointed at the bones hanging from two ropes in front of them. Katla nodded that she saw and understood.
They were inside Boulderfall cave, crouched inside the entrance. The trip to the cave had been uneventful and they’d managed to open the doors silently and step inside. It was another failed mine, hence the doors. Now, they stood on a wooden plank walkway, with old, dry bones tied to two long ropes hanging in front of them, and some stairs that led into the rest of the cave.
The bones were a noise trap, meant to rattle and alert the occupants of the cave if someone came in. Smart, Tara thought. If also grotesque. She saw one of the bones was a human pelvis.
Boulderfall seemed to be a small, one room cave. She could see some of it from their vantage point. A bookcase with a few books, some storage chests and large burlap sacks, plus a table with several dead slaughterfish on it, took up the right cave wall. One brazier, lit with a small fire, was against the back wall, tossing light and shadows around.
She could hear at least one person, but couldn’t see them. The steady tinking sound of someone working a mortar and pestle told her there was an alchemy table just out of sight where this one person was. They’d have to maneuver around the hanging bones to see more or get to the person.
Tara studied the noise trap. She thought there was enough space between the ropes for her to get past without disturbing them. She turned herself sideways and slowly squeezed through. She almost made it.
Whether she tilted her shoulders too soon, or the gap was narrower than she thought, she heard the bones rattle as she finished passing past them.
“Huh?” She heard a male voice, human, call out.
Tara leapt down the stairs, heard the bones rattle again as Katla pushed through them, no reason to sneak now, and heard her draw her bow.
A blast of cold hit her and Tara felt her chest, and lungs, freeze. The mage had hit her with an ice spike, a level of Destruction magic she didn’t know yet. The icy spike had pierced right through her armor, into her left shoulder. Numbness shot across her body. She couldn’t draw breath, she felt so cold.
Two more spikes hit her, one in the hips, and another in her left leg. She lost sense of feeling in her lower body and fell. The mage was charging at her, readying another spell.
She saw Katla fire a shot at the mage. Whether her aim was off, or because he was charging Tara, the arrow missed and bounced off the alchemy table he’d been standing at.
Tara grit her teeth and launched herself back to her feet. Somehow, she’d held onto her axes through the numbness creeping across her body. She couldn’t feel her feet, but trusted they’d do what she commanded, and rushed the mage before he could send another spell at her.
He was wearing simple black robes and a hood; the attire of choice for necromages. They usually enchanted the robes with Destruction or Conjuration magic boosters. Otherwise, the robes were simple cloth. Tara drove both axes easily into his midsection. He collapsed and died.
The ice spikes melted, and the numbness ebbed. Tara pulled in a deep breath. She realized it was the first time she’d ever been hit with any type of Destruction magic, outside of hurting herself with that fireball when she was seventeen. She felt a moment of unease.
“So much for questioning him,” Katla said. She looked down at the mage.
Tara looked at her shoulder. The spike hadn’t damaged her armor, or shoulder. Strange. Same with her hips and legs. Once the spike melted, it was as if she’d never been hit at all. She’d not realized how some Destruction magic could work; leave one physically unharmed while the magic did damage. Fire spells did not work that way. She looked at the mage. What was he, kill number eleven, twelve? Did it matter anymore? He was the first mage she’d killed. First person outside of a bandit or assassin. Like the others, though, he’d not given her a choice, having attacked immediately. She’d been defending herself and Katla. Protecting.
This is what protecting is, she thought. Killing people.
She looked at Katla. “He didn’t leave us a choice.”
They both looked around the cave. There was another bookcase, that alchemy table, and two more tables and chairs scattered about. On one table, a wood bin contained numerous skeletal remains; a skull, hand and foot bones. More proof he’d been a necromage.
Tara walked to the bookcase and examined the books. There were a few, but the only notable magic one was Herbalist’s Guide to Skyrim. Tara had read much of it while at the Synod Conclave. Standard reading for anyone learning alchemy, even outside of Skyrim.
“Nothing.” She heard Katla mutter, a tone of frustration in her voice. Katla was digging through the chest in the cave.
“Looks like he had nothing to do with the ones after me,” Katla said. “At least, nothing obvious around here. Just a creep studying dark magic in secret. At least he’s dead now.”
Tara looked at her. Katla wore a look of satisfaction, glad he was dead. Why wasn’t she?
“I guess,” she said.
“Are you okay?” Katla asked. “I thought you’d be happy to take out a dark mage.”
“I feel, I don’t know, uneasy,” Tara said. She looked again at the mage, then turned back to Katla. “I’ve never been hit by cold magic before. I had no idea it felt like that. Could do that.” She shivered.
“Magic is dangerous,” Katla said. “I know it. Watched it kill my parents and…” she stopped.
“We’ve both been hurt by magic,” Tara said. Katla raised an eyebrow. “These scars on my nose are the least damage magic has done to me.”
Katla’s face shifted to one of concern. “I didn’t realize…”
“I haven’t told you much yet,” Tara interrupted. “Guess we’ll need to do more questions and answers.” She gave her a soft smile.
Katla smiled back. “Guess so.”
They culled through the remaining sacks and grabbed some food, seared slaughterfish and bread, and headed out.
They arrived in Shor’s Stone a few hours later, as evening was settling in. There was no inn, it was no more than a mining village. There was a blacksmith, Filnjar, and a few homes the miners lived in. The mine, Redbelly Mine, Filnjar called it, was an iron mine, he said, though he talked about finding some other ore veins. Tara tuned him out when he hinted at someone needing to check for an infestation of spiders inside the mine.
I’ve had enough caves and death for one day, she thought.
They were all seated around a central campfire outside the mine. It was the social gathering spot, and everyone was friendly and had immediately welcomed them to the village. Filnjar said they could camp behind his house for the night. After a few ales were shared by everyone, Katla and Tara made camp.
“Why don’t we set up my tent? Leave yours packed,” Katla said.
Tara raised an eyebrow at her.
“Separate bedrolls,” Katla said. “I still want us to take a watch shift, too. Doesn’t feel like this village offers much protection. And no one here is actually a fighter, by the looks of them. Outside of the guards.”
A couple of guards had wandered by on patrol, introducing themselves briefly. Tara hadn’t figured out the timing of their patrol, or how far they ranged. She had to agree they wouldn’t offer much protection should an assassin strike.
“Single tent it is,” Tara said, adding a smile. “Easier to protect you. I’ll take first watch.”
Katla didn’t immediately go to bed, though. She sat outside the tent with Tara. They kept glancing at each other in silence. Finally, Katla spoke.
“When I saw you hit by those ice spikes today, it scared me.”
Tara thought for a moment. How to word what she was feeling, so many hours after the fight? The death of the mage hadn’t sat well with her. She wasn’t sure why.
“I was scared, too,” she said. “I had no idea being hit by Destruction magic would affect me so much. No idea it could so quickly disable me.”
Katla nodded. “Magic is no joke.”
Tara shook her head. “I know that. It’s…” she paused. “The scars on my nose are from a fireball.” She pointed to her nose, then studied the ground, thinking. “That is nothing compared to what Illusion magic did to me my entire childhood.”
She looked up at Katla, her eyes intense, and wet from the tears forming.
“I…I’ve fooled myself all these years about how terrible Destruction magic can be. It’s what I want to study. Or, was. I don’t know.” She looked at the ground again. “I told myself Illusion was the worst magic because I know what it can do.” She took a deep breath. “Now, I don’t know. Maybe Restoration magic is the only magic anyone should study.”
“What happened to you?” Katla asked, softly.
Tara looked up at her. Tara marveled at how expressive Katla’s eyes were. More than most people, she let her emotions out through them, even when she kept a reserved expression. Right now, her eyes were warm, gentle. A glowing hazel.
“It’s that pedestal falling moment,” Tara said. “I’m not ready to tell the story tonight. Just…we both share a failure by our family when it comes to magic.”
Katla gave her a short nod. “Can I at least hear about that fireball to the nose?”
Tell her. She needs you to open up first.
Tara smiled. “The fireball went to a wall. It’s the burning stone that got me.”
She told Katla about the fireball, the ancient wall, the determination of teaching herself magic because her family was not allowing it. She paused, then confessed the part that might scare Katla.
“I’m a natural at calling forth fire, but I lack control. The fireball was too big, and also something I shouldn’t have been able to create yet.”
Katla tilted her head. “There’s a reason your family has kept you away from learning magic.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes.” Tara answered anyway.
“I hope you’ll tell me why soon,” Katla said.
“I will.” Tara gave her a small smile. “Why don’t we…when we get to Riften and see that court wizard…we should talk more. I want to hear about your parents.”
Katla gave her a long look. She sighed. “You’re right. I keep probing you with questions and don’t tell you much. It’s a deal.”
Tara leaned towards her and gave her a lingering kiss. They were both breathless within seconds.
“Go to bed,” Tara said, pulling away.
“Aye, my lady.” Kayla laughed. She stood and gave Tara a wink. “I love the scars on your nose. They add to your beauty.” She slipped inside the tent before Tara could respond.
Tara spent her watch studying the Velothi Mountains, which were within easy sight. The night was bright and she watched fog envelop and swirl through the mountains in endless patterns.
After a time, her mind stopped swirling.