4E 204 – Testing Mettle

Tara watched her breath plume out into a cold cloud, further obscuring her view of the practice targets.

The blizzard was in full swing now.

When she’d first stepped out into the training yard earlier tonight, after giving up on getting any sleep, Secunda was shining in full glory. Storms came up suddenly in the mountains, though, and what had started as light flurries quickly shifted into whistling winds, and blinding snow fall.

This section of the training yard was hard packed dirt on dry days. It’d quickly descended into a muddy slush.

Tara shifted her feet. The mud was good practice. Keeping one’s balance in such conditions was something she never got a chance to work at.

She shivered as the wind whistled sharply and a gust hit, testing her balance. The mountains were cold, with the Penitus Oculatus outpost high in them. This area of Skyrim, known as The Reach, was normally more temperate, closer to the Rift region she loved. This high up, though, it felt like a different place. Like being near Winterhold, the coldest of the cities.

The outpost sat high above the Dwemer ruins of Bthardamz. On a clear day, she could see the still gleaming metal roofs of the few buildings that sat above ground. The Dwemer with their never corroding metal and ancient stone cities built primarily underground. Most of their ruins were found against the mountain ranges that encircled Skyrim. Tara had never seen so many until she’d arrived here. Cyrodiil had none. Instead, Ayleid ruins dotted the Cyrodiil landscape. Two ancient species of elves, both long gone. On more than one guard duty shift, staring at the distant ruins, she’d mused one day exploring a Dwemer ruin. She wouldn’t venture too far in, just enough to get a sense of what life might have been for those elves. The ruins at least had to be warmer than the outpost.

She’d come outside tonight in her Penitus Oculatus issued armor. Train in what you wear to fight, she’d thought. Like the Imperial Legion’s armor, the PO armor, as she called it in her head, included a leather, pleated kilt for the lower body, exposing one’s legs to the elements. The upper body armor was blackened steel shaped with abdominal muscles, and in her case, an unnecessary mild curve to represent breasts. The abs were meant to intimidate; to indicate a strong body and mind.

Proper layers of cloth and chain mail sat underneath the metal, allowing excellent movement and protection. The cloth sleeves under the pauldrons reached down to her elbows. She didn’t like them, and had sketched out an idea to adjust her armor. She wanted shorter sleeves, to expose her muscles like her leather armor did. She wanted to show her strength. To be more intimidating.

Why? It didn’t help you in Rorikstead.

Tara shivered again and shook her head. Now that she’d taken a short break to catch her breath, the cold was seeping in. She was drenched in both sweat and melted snow. She felt cold water drip off her chin. She sheathed her axes and brushed her hair off her forehead and away from her eyes. Her hair sat plastered to her head. She’d not put on a helmet.

She grabbed her axes again and set her feet. A guard up on the outer walls passed by while making his rounds. The flailing light from his torch cast her practice target in deep, moving shadows.

The targets were simple affairs, wood posts with straw stuffed burlap attached as a head, hands, and body. Red circles were painted on the burlap for targeting weak spots. Some practice dummies had buckets for helmets, and crude wood shields and swords. Tara had chosen one of them for axe practice. She preferred the others for archery.

She shifted her feet again, trying to find a good purchase. Snow was coating everything in white, including the mud pit the training yard had become. The snow was making gaining traction even harder. Tara narrowed her eyes at the target’s head. Adjusting the grip on her right axe, she lunged at the target, aiming for a left feint, then swing from the right axe at the head.

She felt her left boot slide outward in the mud, shifted her weight over to her right and turned her hips. The adjustment worked, and she felt steady as she planted her right foot and took a swing. She connected solidly with her axe, then heard the crack.

The target’s head flew off, as the wood shattered from the force of her blow. The bucket landed with a plop in the mud five feet away, half of the wood that had been its neck still attached.

“That’s the second target this week,” a deep voice said from behind.

Tara turned to see Lieutenant Fairsong, a Nord in command of the outpost, leaning against the nearest tree. He was out of uniform, instead wearing simple leathers and furs.

How long had he been there? Was he that good at sneaking up on people, or had the blistering wind covered the sounds of his approach?

“I’ll fix it, sir,” Tara yelled. The wind from the storm pulled at every sound, and she had to raise her voice to be heard.

“You will,” he called back. “In the morn…well, later in the morning. Follow me.” Fairsong stepped away from the tree and headed towards the armory.

The outpost was small. Stone walls, topped with wood parapets surrounded them on three sides. One large gate allowed entry into the outpost. The outpost butted up to sheer mountain cliffs, preventing any possible attack from behind.

The only two buildings were the armory and the main building, a three-floor structure consisting of barracks, the common eating and meeting area, plus the lieutenant room and office on the top floor. Both were constructed of the same wood as the parapets on top the walls. The walls had wooden towers on the corners, where most supplies were stored.

Fairsong unlocked the armory and they stepped inside. There was no fireplace here, nothing to keep the building warm. The only relief was getting out of the biting wind. Fairsong seemed unfazed by the cold. Being a Nord, and resistant to the cold, suited someone in command of the outpost. Tara found herself shivering, now that she wasn’t actively lunging at a target. A few lanterns hung along the walls, casting wavering, yellow light around them.

Weapon racks lined one side of the armory. Swords, axes, and bows gleamed from their floor stands. Three mannequins stood at the far end of the room, each hosting a full set of Penitus Oculatus armor. Daggers and quivers of arrows lined several shelves on the wall opposite the weapon racks.

Fairsong stepped over to one shelf and picked up a dagger. He turned and held it out to Tara.

She took the ebony dagger from him and admired it. Ebony was rare and expensive to forge. The gray-black metal was known for its high strength and lack of reflection. A dagger made of it was ideal for quick, stealth kills.

“You don’t have a dagger, correct?” he asked.

Tara shook her head. “No, sir. I was issued a sword. Plus, I have my axes and bow.” Katla’s bow. She’d practiced with Katla’s bow, as the Penitus Oculatus required her to be proficient in both archery and swordsmanship. She’d used Katla’s bow for the first time here. Using the bow was both unreal and comforting. She was keeping it safe for Katla. For her return.

I will be back for my bow.

Tara had never intended to use it. It felt good in her hands, though, she had to admit.

Using it for target practice had been a joy. It was weighted well and its size suited her. Using it helped her feel closer to Katla, too. How often had she watched the woman notch an arrow, draw back, set her breathing, and release a deadly shot? Katla’s skill with it was a thing to behold.

“Ebony,” Tara said, “Now that’s a dagger.”

“You’re ready for your final test,” Fairsong said. “To truly join the Penitus Oculatus.”

“We’re meeting in the armory for a reason, I take it?” They were alone, away from prying eyes and ears. Tara didn’t think that was random. Nor giving her a dagger now, long after issuing the sword.

“You’ve beaten me twice with my Altmer Heritage Stacking Puzzle, three times at Triangle Chess, and I don’t ever intend to play you again at Tales of Tribute,” he smirked. “More than proven your sharp thinking, Blaton.”

Tara gave him a smirk back.

“The final trial varies per agent. We decide based on the current needs of the Empire, and the unproven elements of the agent being tested.”

Fairsong straightened up and narrowed his eyes at her. He lowered his voice.

“You’ve more than proven yourself in physical combat. You have the best axe work I’ve ever seen, and your fighting trial proved your abilities in battle. The Legion taught you well there.”

Tara swallowed and met his gaze. Unproven elements?

“What you need to prove now is something more personal. A skill set that every agent must demonstrate to us. Loyalty to the cause. To what we stand for. To serving the Empire, no matter the task.” His eyes stayed on her.

Tara held her breath.

“There is a Penitus Oculatus agent we believe is a Thalmor spy. You will kill this agent.”

Tara blinked. “I’m to assassinate someone.”

“Yes,” Fairsong said. “We are not the Dark Brotherhood. We are not worshipers of Sithis, killing for money, killing indiscriminately to serve base desires. The Penitus Oculatus does whatever is necessary for the Empire, though. To serve Tamriel. Without question. That is the difference. We only kill those that deserve it.”

Tara nodded and looked down for a moment.

A gust from the roaring blizzard pressed against the building and she felt tendrils of cold air squeeze between the wood slats of the building. Still soaked while standing in this unheated building, she was cold. Or, perhaps cold from her new orders.

“Before you accept this final test. Before you fully commit,” Fairsong said. “Understand this. Failure is not an option. You either kill this agent or die trying. We cannot risk the Thalmor knowing we’ve uncovered some of their spies.”

Tara studied his eyes and saw the truth. If she failed, and the Thalmor discovered her, they’d capture her and probably torture her. The Penitus Oculatus didn’t want that to happen. They’d kill her first to keep the Thalmor from gaining any advantage.

She thought of Rigmor. Her premonition had changed. The other premonition had changed, too, the nightmare one of dark woods and the fire woman. In this moment, though, it was her dreams of Rigmor that mattered.

Was she really about to risk her life in service to the Penitus Oculatus? To an assignment that could only have one outcome. To risk her life for the Empire?

To assassinate someone? For all the deaths she’d caused, all the people buried by her axes, this one felt different. Everyone else before was in defense of herself, or someone she loved.

She’d served the Empire already, though. In the Legion. In a war where she killed for the side she believed had to win. Was this not the same? Was this not her still serving the Empire, serving the Ruby Throne for the betterment of Tamriel? All of Nirn? She wasn’t sure if serving the Empire was enough. The Empire was a faceless entity. She didn’t even know who was Emperor now.

Rigmor was enough, though.

The premonition had changed four months ago, when she arrived at the outpost. It had assured her she was on the correct path to Rigmor. In the premonition now, she knew what she was wearing during the fighting, the clashing of swords she could hear. She was wearing Penitus Oculatus armor. She was defending Rigmor as an agent.

She could do this for Rigmor. This woman who’d been in her dreams for four years.

“I understand and accept,” Tara said. Her voice was as firm as she’d ever heard it.

Fairsong nodded.

He pulled a sealed note out of a hidden pocket within his shirt and held it for her to take. Tara noted the wax seal had the emblem of the Penitus Oculatus on it.

“Do not open and read it until after you’ve left this outpost. The name and some details of the agent are on it. Destroy the note after you’ve read it.” Fairsong paced around the armory. The flickering lanterns enveloped him in a mix of golden light and threatening shadow.

“You leave the morning after tomorrow. You have one more shift later this morning on the wall. Afterwards, pack up. We’ll have a small gathering in the commons tomorrow night, as is customary for all agents that leave the outpost after training. You and two others are headed out these next few days.”

Fairsong stopped pacing and faced her again. “You’ll head to Solitude. You should beat your assignment there. We need you to find out what he’s told the Thalmor, and what he intends to tell them. Kill him covertly when you have the information. He will recognize you…”

“He’s someone here,” Tara said, startled.

“Yes,” Fairsong said. “Your cover is you were assigned to meet with General Tullius. To bring him important information about Stormcloak movements in these mountains. That you’re then headed to Dragon Bridge for a final trial with Commander Maro.”

She knew whomever it was they needed her to kill. Tara closed her eyes. Fairsong had said this was personal, but she’d not imagined this personal. Someone she’d trained with. Maybe one of the men she actually liked. Richton? Lentinus? Maybe Varro? By Dibella, please let it not be one of them.

Tara opened her eyes. She gave Fairsong a salute. “I understand, sir.”

“Hide that letter before you walk out of here,” he said. “Keep it on you at all times.”

Tara nodded and tucked it up under her kilt, in the sewn pocket meant for valuables one might need to carry, even in armor.

“Go get warm,” Fairsong said. His voice softened. “Maybe catch some sleep before your shift. You’ve earned it.”

“Yes, sir,” Tara said.

As she fought through the swirling snow back to the main building, her thoughts raced with the wind.

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