Tara finished off her fourth mead. She needed to stop. She needed to get on the road.
You need to stop drinking so much.
She turned toward the voice, Laila’s, and immediately found herself pulled into a hug. Laila had wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close. With their height difference, Laila was a Nord, Tara found her face intimately close to the woman’s chest. She smelled of spring flowers and a warm hearth fire.
Laila typically wore low cut dresses, what Tara had heard others call a wench’s dress. The phrase bothered her. The dress was low cut, with a high cut on the legs as well. Far more revealing than typical innkeeper and bar maiden attire, for sure, but Tara had never understood why people felt the need to point it out on women. No one harassed men for what they wore. Or didn’t. A few too many men walked around bare chested. No one batted an eye.
Tara pulled herself out of the hug. She put her hand on the stool she’d just been sitting on. She was feeling the mead and wanted to stay steady on her feet.
“You okay?” Tara asked her.
Laila looked her up and down, as if taking in the change of clothes. Tara wasn’t in Imperial armor any more. She wore her new leather armor. She’d commissioned Evi L’Pandis, a local leather smith, to create the outfit. A blend of fabric and thick leather, it covered her completely, except her arms. She knew she should wear the pauldron he’d made, but she liked her arms free, for the range of motion, and, perhaps vainly, for the way it showed off her muscles. He’d also created a pair of thick leather gauntlets, and sturdy boots. All was a mix of dark browns and blacks, with a golden thread around her sleeve edges.
The armor was perfect. It fit her better than she expected, both in the physical sense and in taste. Tara had never cared for feminine clothes, but overtly male designed outfits didn’t feel right, either. She liked something that could show her curves, with a touch of softness that also felt strong and practical. The mild sheen to some of the fabric for the armor gave it a feminine touch, while being mindful this was clothing meant to protect. The dark browns and black set off her hair and eyes. She looked good in an armor she could also function in. Money well spent.
The Imperials had won the war. News arrived that Windhelm had fallen. Ulfric was dead. Tara wondered if he was in Svongarde. Maybe Freta would see him.
The news couldn’t have come sooner.
As soon as Legate Rikke and the rest of the Imperial garrisons had left Fort Sungard, Captain Torell had pulled Tara off patrol duty and put her to scrubbing out the temporary stables of the horses and taking up his and all lieutenants’ chamber pots. He’d assigned her the lowest chores he could find. Punishment for embarrassing him in front of Rikke. For actions that had shown his incompetence.
Tara had avoided the inn since the fight. She’d not wanted to deal with the looks. Most in her garrison now gave her a wide berth. The wave that had broken Norring frightened them.
Magic made people nervous, especially when it surprised them. It was one thing to see the obvious battle mages, who carried themselves with restraint. The wave had amplified everyone’s opinion of Tara. She was an unpredictable fury. A sudden thunderstorm, appearing without warning.
Pilfer had been an exception. He’d made a point to check in on her a few times. To commiserate, Tara thought. To acknowledge more should’ve been done to stop Norring. He’d confessed to Tara he’d seen the same behavior from him in other towns. That more than one bar maiden had been assaulted during the garrison’s travels before Tara had joined.
“Laila’s lucky you defended her,” he’d said. “I’ve heard he’s brutal if they don’t cooperate.”
Tara had nearly tossed her drink in his face at that. They’d been sitting outside her tent. He’d brought her a couple of meads, since she was avoiding the inn.
“You all should’ve put a stop to it,” she’d snapped at him. She’d stood. “How could any of you let that happen?!”
He’d stood as well, knowing she was dismissing him. “It’s war. Men need to…I don’t know…they get urges…” he’d started.
“Do you hear yourself? Fuck off!” Tara had said. They’d not spoken since.
“I’m okay,” Laila said. “You’re not in uniform.”
Tara smiled. “I’m retired from the Legion. On orders.”
That had been a happy moment. She’d saved giving Torell the letter from Rikke for first thing in the morning, when she was expected to be emptying overflowing pots. She’d not said a word to him. She’d ignored his orders to empty the pots, handed him the letter, and savored his face, which was a mix of surprise and anger, as he read the letter. She’d then dropped her uniform on his desk, turned, and walked out.
The garrison was packing up to leave, from what she could see. She’d overheard a few soldiers talk about staying as part of standard patrols in the area, but it sounded like most were headed to Solitude for rest and redeployment. The war might be over, but Tara imagined fighting with the scattered Stormcloaks would continue for a time.
None of that concerned her. Next was getting to Dragonbridge and finding Commander Maro. Whatever the Penitus Oculatus was up to was now her business, not the Legion. They were a wholly separate army. Their focus was protecting whomever sat on the Ruby Throne and their family. Somehow, this would lead to Rigmor.
Maybe before meeting with Commander Maro, she could find out which house Katla had grown up in. See if there were any clues or evidence of cultists around. Dragonbridge was Katla’s home town. The cultists had to have come through there looking for her.
“Retired? Wow,” Laila said. She dropped her voice low. She somehow sounded more sultry than usual. “What are you going to do?” She took a small step closer to Tara. Intimate, as if they were a couple having the most private of conversations. Tara caught her breath. How long since she’d been this close to a woman? It’d been nine months since she’d last seen Katla.
Tara cleared her throat. “I’m headed to Dragonbridge.” She almost added she was going to join the Penitus Oculatus, but held her tongue.
Laila reached out and grabbed the bottom of Tara’s tassets, running her fingers over the leather.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
Tara felt herself swallow. She pulled her eyes away from Laila’s body and looked into her blue eyes.
“In the morning,” she answered. She had intended to leave this afternoon, but she’d sat at the bar too long, had too many meads. Best not to get on the road while drunk.
“Staying at the inn tonight?” Laila asked. She kept her fingers on the tassets, still slowly rubbing her fingers along the edges. So close to Tara’s hips.
Tara felt the seat of the stool press into the back of her legs. She had no way to step away from Laila, to give them more space.
“I have a room, yes,” Tara said. She realized she was whispering. She cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she added, louder.
“Thanks to you.” Laila smiled. “You know, I never got a chance to thank you.”
“No need,” Tara said. She sat back on the stool, but Laila was still close. Pressing.
“But I want to,” Laila said. “No one’s ever done something like that for me before.”
Tara thought. Had she defended Laila for Laila’s sake? Or her own? To make up for Rorikstead?
An image of Frostfruit Inn swam to the surface. A memory. The inn’s sign, swaying gently in the wind. The noise in the room that night.
Tara shook her head. She stood. She grabbed Laila’s hand.
“Come with me,” she said, pulling Laila with her.
They went outside. Tara brought Laila to the guard tower, which stood up a flight of stone stairs at the edge of town. Targets for practice were setup there.
“I want to show you something,” Tara said. She pulled off her hip the one item left of the Imperial army she hadn’t turned in. The steel war axe she’d been given when she’d joined.
“I’m going to teach you how to use this. To defend yourself.” Tara held it out for Laila to take.
Laila’s eyes widened as she took it. She gripped it wrong, holding it as if to chop wood, not fight.
Over the next two hours Tara worked with her, teaching her basic footwork, a variety of grips, and had Laila hitting the straw targets with good force. She showed a natural athleticism. Being a bar maiden, she’d spent years balancing drinks and plates of food while moving nimbly in a crowd. Like any Nord Tara had met, she had size and strength, too. Maybe that was why Tara found Nord women so intoxicating. They were so physical. Naturally.
“Good job,” Tara said as they finished up. The afternoon was turning to evening. Long shadows stretched and covered the practice targets.
The mead had worn off. Nothing like time and exercise to burn off alcohol. A headache was forming in its place, though. She needed to eat something to keep it at bay. Maybe do some healing on herself.
“Now, I just need my own axe,” Laila said. She had a huge grin on her face. She’d relished the training and looked it. Her dress was darkened with sweat. She was still recovering from the last set of exercises, her chest moving in time with her heavy breathing. Tara averted her eyes.
“You have one,” she said. “Keep it.” She nodded at the axe.
“Oh, no, it’s yours!”
Tara patted her left axe, sitting on her hip. “I have my own set already.”
Laila ran her hand along the handle of her new axe. She smiled again and looked over at Tara. Her eyes held a mix of gratitude and…Tara couldn’t put her finger on it.
“Come on,” she said. “I need to eat.”
They ate together in the inn. Laila was off for the day, so they found a quiet corner away from the crowd.
Tara took her time with the grilled chicken and vegetable stew she’d ordered. She realized she was going to miss meals from Sheepshead Inn. Before the fight, before avoiding the inn, she’d been enjoying the food here. It was a cut above most tavern food.
She’d ordered a blackberry tea. No more mead for tonight. She needed her willpower.
“I don’t know how to thank you for everything,” Laila said. She’d ordered salmon steak with sautéed potatoes. She’d also downed two ales in the time it was taking Tara to nurse her tea. Nords and their ability to drink.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Tara said. “Anyone gives you trouble, now you can threaten them with that axe.”
Laila laughed. Throaty and melodic. Tara felt her heart pick up its pace.
“Still,” Laila said. “No one’s been so…kind to me in such a long time.”
She leaned across the table, reached out and caressed Tara’s hand, which had been resting on the table.
“I…I’ve never been with a woman.” Her voice was low and flirtatious, with a tinge of curiosity. “Would you honor me by being my first?”
Tara stared into her eyes. Other body parts had perked up, trying to match her heart rate.
It’d be so easy. One night. She’d never need to tell anyone. She’d never even need to come back to Granite Hill, unless sent on assignment by the Penitus Oculatus.
She knew the answer, though. Now that she’d sobered up. There was only one woman she wanted to share a bed with right now.
Tara took her other hand, placed it on Laila’s, and gently removed it from her resting one.
She smiled slowly. “I have a love.”
“Oh,” Laila said. She sat back. Her face turned pink in embarrassment. “I didn’t realize. Of course you do. Look at you.”
“Thank you,” Tara said.
They finished eating together, laughing easily now that the tension was broken. Tara drank a second tea. Food and tea seemed to have staved off the headache.
Finally, Tara stood. She held out her hand to Laila, who giggled and put hers in it. Tara kissed her knuckles lightly.
“Thank you for a lovely evening, Laila.” She bowed slightly. “Use your axe wisely.” She winked.
The next morning, Tara left before dawn. Heading to Dragonbridge. Heading to her next purpose.
(Next time you’re in Granite Hill, look for Tara’s steel war axe. Tara’s armor by Evil Panda, Nexus profile here.