Tara pulled her axe out of the chest of the dead Stormcloak. She knelt beside the Nord woman and studied her face. She reached out and gently closed her eyes.
“Talos guide you,” she said.
She stood and looked around the courtyard of Fort Sungard. Fighting was nearly finished. Up on the battlements, soldiers were putting the last of the Stormcloak archers to the sword. They weren’t taking prisoners here. A few soldiers were taking out the last of the guards outside the main entrance preventing them from getting inside the fort towers. Legate Rikke, second in command of the Legion here in Skyrim, was in charge of this mission to take the fort for the Imperials.
Tara took a moment to admire Rikke’s sword work as she dispatched a Stormcloak. Rikke impressed. A strong Nord woman, with little time for idle chat. Purposeful and determined. Proud. The first thing Tara had noticed when she first saw her was her blond hair, a little darker than Freta’s had been.
With no one needing help, Tara looked back down at the dead Nord woman. Rikke fought with the Imperials. This woman had chosen the Stormcloaks. Nords fighting each other. One’s choice of side seemed to determine one’s likelihood of death.
Tara raised her left hand and cast a healing spell on her right arm, to close the fresh cuts and heal the bruises she’d gained in the battle. She wasn’t in the mood for more scars on that arm. The ones from the Great Bear Fight of 201 got enough commentary.
“Hey, Breton, why don’t you heal me up?”
Tara turned to look at Norring, one of the soldiers in her garrison. Another Nord, all chest and mouth.
“Already told you. I can’t,” Tara said. She let her irritation at him shine through.
“Can’t or won’t?” he sneered.
Gods, she thought, not this crap from him again.
“Leave her alone,” Torell said as he walked by. Captain Torell, an Imperial, led their garrison, which consisted of about fifty soldiers. Tara wasn’t sure how many garrisons had joined to attack Fort Sungard. It felt like a lot. Certainly, with Rikke commanding, they’d been determined to win.
Tara liked Torell. He was a competent swordsman, brave in battle, and had earned his new rank after a grueling fight in the Battle for Whiterun.
Tara had missed that battle, as the garrison she was with at the time was stationed in Rorikstead, to cut off a possible route by the Stormcloaks to send reinforcements from The Reach.
Rorikstead. Her set of troubles that had led to her being transferred to this new garrison under Torell. It’d been a few months now, and most of this garrison was easy to get along with. Except Norring. Some men didn’t take no for an answer.
Norring bid his time. Once Torell had passed out of earshot, he turned to Jon, his best friend from their first days training in the Legion. “She’s a Breton. Aren’t they all good with magic?”
Turning back to Tara, he said, “Heal me up.” He turned around and lifted his leather kilt to reveal a minor gash on his backside. All of him was exposed.
Tara disliked the kilt aspect of the Imperial armor. Sure, it gave one great freedom of movement in battle, but they only issued thick undergarments to go with them in times of extreme cold. It was summer now, so no such luck. On an especially hot, cloudless day like today, most of the soldiers were bare under their kilts. Tara made sure she wasn’t.
Tara stared at his butt and grit her teeth. Several soldiers were laughing.
We’re in the middle of battle, and this is what Norring is up to?
Use your tongue, not your fists.
“Told you. I don’t know Heal Other. Even if I did, there’s no helping your scrawny ass,” she quipped.
Several more soldiers burst out laughing.
“Knock it off!” Torell barked back at them. “File up at the entrance.”
They all headed towards him, Norring and Jon walking next to Tara.
“She got you good,” Jon said to Norring, but making sure Tara could hear him. “‘Course, if I were her, I would’ve said no to a date with your ugly ass, too.” He laughed at his own joke.
Jon and Norring had, separately, though Tara suspected they’d coordinated it, asked her out. Date was a strong word, as Norring had indicated he only wanted a night in her tent.
Jon had tried an actual date angle, telling Tara the Bannered Mare in Whiterun would be a great place to get a few drinks and rent a room.
“Got to spend some time enjoying the local ladies after the big battle,” he’d bragged. He and all of the garrison had been in Whiterun for the battle. Their previous captain, Silius Jirich, had died in the fight. Torell had been promoted on the spot, as soon as the fighting was over. Supposedly by General Tullius himself.
Jon, also a Nord, liked to brag about all the Stormcloaks he’d killed. And insinuated the women in Whiterun were so grateful for his brave defense of them, they’d practically thrown themselves at him.
Tara wondered how much coin he’d paid out for nights with them. Or, even if there’d been any such women available. The one time she’d been in Whiterun, with Katla, there didn’t seem to be any wenches about. Riften, yes. Whiterun? It seemed frowned upon.
“Come on, Breton,” Norring said. “Give me some healing. I know you have potions stashed away.” He gave her shoulder a shove. Jon guffawed.
Tara was ready for it and kept her balance. Torell was ahead of them all, his back to them. Oblivious to most of the teasing. Norring and Jon had been smart in their harassment. Torell had picked up on a couple of instances, but Tara would have to make a formal complaint to make him fully aware of their actions these last weeks.
She didn’t want that. She didn’t need some commander to have to be a…what had she heard a woman say once in the Count’s Arms Inn in Anvil? Right, a “knight in shining armor”. She didn’t want to be rescued. She didn’t need to be rescued.
“Fuck off,” Tara said to Norring.
“SOLDIERS! Now, we finish retaking the fort!” Legate Rikke yelled.
They’d arrived near the entrance and were now part of the larger contingent of soldiers. Tara estimated at least two hundred of them remained.
Rikke was getting them riled up. She stood at the top of the stone steps that lead to the door. It looked battered, as if one more hit from the large log of a battering ram four soldiers held would break the door open. Rikke’s armor was bloodied, as was her sword. Tara saw a fresh cut near her mouth, one of the few places her helmet didn’t protect. How many had she killed today? How many fellow Nords? This could not be easy for any of them. Did any know the Nords they were striking down?
Perhaps it was better to be like herself, a relative stranger to the land.
“My unit will lead. Armen, have your archers follow next. Then, I need Vantus’ unit to follow. Head down to the lower depths and clear out any Stormcloaks. Release any prisoners you find.”
She paused and focused her eyes on Torell. “Torell! I need your unit out here. Get men up to the doors of the top towers. Kill every Stormcloak that tries to flee through them. Man the battlements, in case any reinforcements show up.”
Tara heard Norring groan. This was the second fort battle where their garrison was staying outside, more guarding than actively fighting. She shifted her feet. She was okay with it. She’d killed seven Stormcloaks today and wounded at least twice as many. She didn’t relish the need to kill more people.
Why had she joined this war?
Find a new purpose, so you don’t fail the other.
She’d gotten dramatically better at fighting, at least. And had learned to work well within a large group of fighters.
For all her axe skills, up until now, she’d only fought one on one, or with Freta or Katla at her side.
Fighting in an army was different. She needed to be more aware of her surroundings, of multiple people trying to kill her at once. To tell friend from foe. To follow orders.
Well, mostly on that last point. She was trying.
After demonstrating her axe work, she’d been issued a steel war axe and allowed to use it as her primary weapon. Sword skills were still required, even archers trained with them, but she seemed able to limit her sword to mostly ceremonial wear, as swords and bows were the weapons of choice for marching, and inspections.
She was grateful for the new skill set. How little she’d learned at The Fighter’s Guild back in Anvil compared to what she knew now.
She hated the issued axe. She found its weight balance off, and had been denied a second one for dual wielding. She’d switched to using her own, with a fresh appreciation for the love and care Freta had taken to have two axes made that were perfect for her.
Of course, her two axes are what had caused the problems in Roikstead and why she was under Torell now. Torell hadn’t cared.
“Use what you’re best with,” he’d said.
Tara thought of Freta. What would she think of all this? What would she be like in the Imperial Legion? Or, would she have sided with the Stormcloaks? Tara realized there was no way to know. They had never spoken about the politics of Skyrim.
She’d be like Rikke, though, Tara thought. Bold, proud, dominating, but not unkind. She’d get the job done.
She’d also kick Norring’s ass.
“Why can’t we go in and fight?” He was now whining, his voice curling up in pitch.
“Shut up,” Pilper said. He was another in the garrison Tara liked. A dark haired Imperial with no time to waste. “You sound like a dying goat.”
“To the battlements,” Torell commanded. “Everyone up high, except you two…” Torell rattled off names. “Norring and Tara, front gate. I need my best guarding the front.”
Tara bit her tongue. Fuck.
Norring was good, though, with his sword and shield. He’d been impressive in every fight when Tara caught a glimpse of him.
As soon as everyone was in place, Rikke gave the command and the battering ram knocked down the door. Tara watched the soldiers pour inside the fort. The yelling started immediately, as did the screaming and dying.
“Freedom or Sovngarde!”
“Death to the Empire!”
Tara shifted her focus to the entrance of the fort’s courtyard. The fort was in disrepair, but its stone walls were sturdy and it was situated in the perfect spot at the edge of The Reach near the borders with Falkreath and Whiterun hold.
It sat high on a cliff, overlooking the road from Markarth to Granite Hill. The only good angle to attack it from was the front gate, which pointed towards the less steep side of the cliff. There were few places for an invading army to hide here. Even scouts would have a hard time not being seen from the battlements. The backside of the fort, while steep, had stands of trees one could hide in. The Imperials had initially scouted from there.
Its prime position was why the Imperial Legion wanted Fort Sungard back. With the fort, and Roikstead, they surrounded The Reach. The Stormcloaks were losing control.
Without words, she and Norring took up station near the front and alternated a quick patrol just outside the gate and pacing the courtyard. They’d done similarly at Fort Greenwall, after taking it back.
Tara passed the Nord woman she’d killed on her courtyard patrol. She looked away. Until the fighting was over, the dead stayed where they fell, and the injured were left to fend for themselves.
When she got back to the front, Norring did his turn around the courtyard. Tara realized she could still see the woman. She hadn’t noticed how close to the gate they’d been when they fought.
Norring had nearly finished his round when he got to her. He stopped and looked down at the woman. Tara had done a quick sweep along the fort walls, checking blind spots the soldiers up on the battlements couldn’t see. Tara was standing just inside the gate, ready for their change over. She watched him.
He bent down next to the woman. Tara cocked her head to get a better view of what he was up to. He seemed to be rummaging through her armor. Tara’s stomach twisted.
“Leave the dead alone,” she said.
“Stay out of it, Breton,” he said. He didn’t spare her a glance, just kept pilfering.
“Leave her alone,” Tara said. She raised her voice and stepped closer to him.
He looked up at her. No shame on his face. Irritation that she was interrupting him.
“I’m grabbing coin off her. She don’t need it. You made sure of that.”
She shouldn’t have cared. The woman would’ve killed her. Had tried to kill her.
One should respect the dead, though. Especially one Nord to another. They’d simply made different choices on which side to fight.
“Leave her alone!” Tara took another step.
Norring grabbed the coin he’d found and stood up. He grinned at Tara and pocketed the money.
“I’m leaving her alone now, Breton,” he said. “Time to switch.”
Tara held her ground. What to do? Ignore what he’d done and switch the patrol? Had he been pickpocketing all the dead soldiers as he passed them? Had he done this at Fort Greenwall, too, and she hadn’t noticed?
What could she do? They were equal in rank, both privates. She couldn’t order him around. There weren’t any specific regulations preventing such pilfering of the dead in the Legion. Nothing was written one way or the other.
The Legion talked about honor, though. Out of all the races, Nords bragged about their honor. Looting someone still warm after dying in battle? Not honorable for a soldier. None of them were adventurers killing bandits. They were soldiers, not mercenaries scrapping by.
Tara looked around to see if anyone else had seen Norring.
Up on the battlements, no one was looking their way.
“Ready to switch?” Norring was still grinning. Challenging her.
What to do? Choices.
Tara looked over at the woman. What would Freta say? What would Katla say?
Katla. Katla wasn’t happy she’d joined in the war.
“Always protecting someone, huh?” she’d written. “Don’t you die in battle on me, Tara Blaton.”
What would they do? Tara felt Freta’s Talos amulet underneath her leather armor.
“Talos smite you!” she spat at him and switched the patrol.
He looked at her stunned for a moment, then went to the gate for his round.
Tara wasn’t sure if a flicker of shame had crossed his face.