Katla laid eyes on Tara and felt her heart pound. Perhaps even stop.
How much she’d missed her hit like a stone wall collapsing on top of her. She wanted to cry with both happiness at seeing her and the grief of missing out on so much time with her.
It hurt to breath.
As always, Tara’s hair caught her eyes first. How could it not? Mira had confessed to her back in Wayrest she’d always thought of Tara’s auburn red hair as a blend of fire and passion. The perfect description, Katla thought.
Tara’s muscles came next. She stood in the center of the living area in a sleeveless, patterned shirt. The quality and look screamed she’d gotten it from Radiant Raiment, the premier clothing shop in Solitude. With no sleeves, Tara’s shoulders and arms displayed her strength in those sculpted, defined muscles. For such a small woman, it was clear she was not one to fuck around with.
The old scars from the bear attack years ago looked a little less pink to Katla. As if after the three years since she’d survived the attack, they were finally turning from fresh pink to a muted color. Perhaps they’d fade to a brown or white one day.
Their eyes met and the soulful green of Tara’s stopped Katla’s heart again. The soul that had captured her heart poured out of them. There was fresh sorrow in them, though.
All the pain from that letter months ago showed on her face. Tara was hurting.
There was something else.
She’s drunk, Katla realized. There was the briefest sway in her stance. A slight lack of focus in her eyes.
Assessing Tara took less than a second. Then, Tara crossed the room and was in her arms. Without words, they were embracing and kissing.
When they came up for air, Tara pressed her head into Katla’s chest, where their height difference always put it. Katla wrapped her arms around her and pulled her into the tightest hug she could manage.
“Your hair is so short,” Tara said, still pressed into her.
Katla laughed. “Get used to it. I like it this way.”
That first embrace turned into a day of embracing. They spent most of the day in bed, spending time refreshing their memories of each other, noting what had changed, what hadn’t. Words between them were few. There’d be time later for catching up. The physical need to connect came first.
At some point, while Tara napped, Katla got up and quietly cleaned up the day old, spoiled venison stew sitting over the cold fire pit downstairs. She cleaned up the ashes of the previous night’s fire, as well. She looked at the empty mead bottles scattered around the kitchen and living area.
She’s drinking too much.
Perhaps she could get Tara to talk about whatever she was trying to drink away.
Back upstairs, Katla’s eyes caught the Penitus Oculatus armor, displayed on the mannequin in the bedroom.
The most feared warriors in Tamriel. Katla thought back to when she’d gone to the destroyed Cloud Ruler Temple, outside of Bruma. The Blades were long gone. The Penitus Oculatus were the soldiers to fear now. Her girlfriend was one of them! She’d have to get her to put on the armor, to see her in all her glory.
She turned back to the bed. Tara was awake and watching her.
“Hey.” Katla smiled.
Katla’s stomach growled in answer. They both laughed.
Tara sat up, running her fingers through her tousled hair, as if trying to tame it. “I’ll fix us something,” she said.
Tara roasted a rabbit with leeks and potatoes. They spent the meal catching up on news since their last letter exchange. Katla let her know the challenges she’d had using the smuggler’s tunnel.
“It’s almost like a city down there, different areas were controlled by different groups of smugglers. I had to kill one bandit, who tried to rob me. Everyone else left me alone.”
Katla paused. A thought crossed her mind.
“Are you going to report this to your commander? Would the Penitus Oculatus clear the tunnels out and close them?”
Tara took a moment to think. Katla noted she was drinking a second mead with their meal. Did she always drink a couple of meads or ales with meals?
“I’ll report it,” Tara said. “It is my job now. We need to know about anything that could hurt the Emperor or Empress, including ways people might cross into and out of Cyrodiil. Not sure much will happen, though.” She gave Katla a solemn look. “Did you notice the lack of Penitus Oculatus agents in Cyrodiil?”
“I did. People kept calling the soldiers the New Legion. They weren’t…pleasant.”
Tara nodded. “The man calling himself Emperor, Sethius, has claimed we’re disbanded and won’t allow any known agents back into Cyrodiil. Almost all of the Penitus Oculatus are in Skyrim. Commander Maro has agents elsewhere, too, but most of us are here, doing smaller missions and bidding our time.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why disband his personal guard?” Katla asked.
“He’s not been crowned yet. Best we understand, he doesn’t trust us, or the real Legion army. General Tullius and much of the Legion are still here, too. He’s a bandit king. Took an empty throne, what with Mede II lost, and he kicked out the Elder Council.” She sipped her mead. “Maro believes he thinks we’d arrange to get the Elder Council back in charge, and then kick him off the throne if a blood relative of Mede can be found.”
Katla blinked. “Explains why those new soldiers were so terrible, if they’re no more than bandits in better armor.”
“That’s who he’s surrounded himself with. One of the reports said he’s made several of the bandit leaders ‘nobles’ and put his top one in charge of Leyawiin.”
“What a mess,” Katla said.
After eating, they took a walk around Solitude. Katla wore a hood, to offer some semblance of a disguise. Tara dressed casually, in leather pants and a merchant style shirt. She had her axes with her, though.
“Hopefully, they don’t know you’re back in Skyrim,” Tara said. “I’ve not seen any evidence of the order here, but we have to be careful. When I’m on assignment…”
“I can take of myself,” Katla said.
“I know, but…”
“I’ll stay home, if need be,” Katla said. “Or, travel Skyrim while you’re away. Not stay settled, then meet up with you when you finish assignments.”
Tara didn’t seem convinced. “I can’t fail you again. I need to protect you.”
Katla stopped in her tracks and faced Tara.
“You won’t fail. We’re a team. Same as before. You’re not my knight in shining…well, I guess you are in Penitus Oculatus armor.”
“Being in your presence makes me feel safe,” Katla said.
They made their way to the market stalls. While Tara spoke with Evette San over her spiced wine, Katla found a flower girl. She wasn’t sure if the girl was an orphan, so many were after the civil war, but she had a basket full of fresh flowers. Katla whispered instructions to her and paid double what the girl asked. She watched her skip away. How long since the girl had made decent coin?
They finished up the walk around Solitude by going to the stables. Tara showed Katla her horse.
“Name her Twilight. Or Dusk,” Katla suggested.
“Twilight it is,” Tara said. “When I get paid next, I can afford a horse for you.”
They looked at the available ones. Katla noted two she liked, and that seemed to respond to her touch.
They discussed money on the way back home.
“I make enough as an agent to cover us. You should stay out of sight for now, too, so maybe it’s best you don’t get a job yet,” Tara said.
Katla nodded. She wanted to feel useful, but a job would leave her more exposed.
“I should focus on the research, anyway,” she said. Mira had sent more names and books for Katla to look into.
“I’m on good terms with Captain Aldis,” Tara said. “Training with him was fantastic. Before my time in the Legion…” she paused. “…went downhill.”
“Do you want to talk…?”
“I’ll see about arranging for you to practice in the Castle Dour courtyard. You can keep your archery skills sharp in a safe place,” Tara finished.
Katla let the topic drop. Tara wasn’t ready yet.
They finished the day with a simple dinner and Tara spent time working, reading the dossier on the Thalmor she’d been given.
Katla woke up early on the fourteenth of Rains Hand and quietly made her way downstairs. Outside, the windows still shone black, not even the gray of a morning twilight yet. Katla congratulated herself on getting up so early. Tara was the early riser between them, normally up before dawn.
Opening the front door with little noise was the challenge, but Katla managed it. The door gave one squawk, but Tara didn’t seem to budge. Katla must have timed things perfectly to her deepest sleep cycle.
The flowers from the flower girl sat outside the door, filling the single basket Katla had paid for. Perfect.
She spent time spreading some around the kitchen and living area downstairs. She even put a few around their weapons and in Tara’s leather armor, which sat on a mannequin downstairs.
She crept back into the bedroom and adorned all the surfaces, including filling her side of the bed with them.
She sat on the small couch in the bedroom and watched Tara sleep. When was the last time she’d gotten to do this?
Light changed in the room as dawn approached. Deep darkness became a dull gray. Tara’s breathing shifted and she twitched. Small sounds escaped, and Katla realized she was mumbling in her sleep. She couldn’t make out the words, though “no” seemed to be one of them.
Should she wake her? Katla thought.
Tara sat upright with a gasp. She looked startled, and felt around on the bed. Her hands touched the red mountain flowers Katla had laid out.
“Happy Birthday,” Katla said. She kept her voice muted, to match the quiet of the morning.
Tara’s face lit up with a smile. She brought the flowers to her nose and inhaled. Katla hadn’t seen her look so happy in forever. This was a moment of pure joy that even Katla’s return the other night had not drawn from her. That moment had been mixed with different energy.
“My favorite flowers!” Tara’s eyes sparkled at her. “This…this is amazing! Thank you.”
They spent the day together. Katla cooked them breakfast, then gave Tara her actual gift. Two rare books on the Elder Scrolls, the mysterious writings that supposedly told of the future and past of all of Nirn.
Katla thought Tara would appreciate reading the known history of the scrolls. There’d been rumors The Dragonborn had used one to defeat Alduin.
In the afternoon, they went horseback riding. Twilight didn’t seem to mind carrying both women. Katla loved being able to sit right behind Tara, the two pressing against each other. Another way to be close that they hadn’t experienced before. It felt like a way to make up for lost time.
They rode out to the Solitude Lighthouse, then crossed back over the bridge that sat above the East Empire Warehouse and docks and headed up a narrow mountain pass Tara knew.
They didn’t go too far, turning around before snow and ice started to dominate. The weather stayed glorious, proving that Tara’s spring birthday was a perfect time of year.
They’d never had a day like this together, Katla realized. Enjoying each other’s company while doing something for pleasure. She’d been on the run already when they met. Their rare relaxation had been while squirreled into a rented room inside an inn, here and there. Today had been like an actual date. What life should be.
Was this what it felt like for every day citizens? When one did not have to look over their shoulders for possible assassins?
Katla had not bothered to be on her guard. Tara made her feel safe, so she’d naturally let her keep a lookout.
Katla cooked them dinner and they spent the rest of the night in bed, laughing and exploring again. Experiencing each other again.
Before she fell asleep she whispered to Tara, “I’ve never seen you laugh or smile so much.”
Tara smiled back. “This may have been the best day of my life. Thank you, Katla Hammerheart. I love you.”
A final thought crossed Katla’s mind before dreams took over. Tara hadn’t had any ale or mead today.
For the next two weeks, they settled into a routine. Katla spent time at Castle Dour, practicing her archery and learning some basic swordsmanship, at Tara’s insistence. Tara would work during that time, studying the dossier she’d been given. She wouldn’t talk to Katla about it; said it wasn’t something she could share.
Katla realized Tara was drinking while she was off practicing archery two days into their new routine. She wanted to talk to Tara about the journal she’d recovered from her parents’ destroyed home. They needed to talk about the order, make a plan on how to research them and hunt them down.
She came back from practice one day and noticed the extra, empty mead bottles.
Tara wasn’t completely drunk, but her watery eyes and small sway to her normally exquisite balance stood out. Tara was quiet, too. She was a woman of few words, of course, but after a few drinks, more so. They didn’t talk much that night. Tara had two more bottles of mead during dinner and fell asleep on the couch. Katla woke her to get her up to bed.
She’s struggling, Katla thought. Give her a few days. She’ll open up.
Two more days didn’t change anything. There was also the realization Tara wasn’t sleeping well. They’d go to bed together, but Tara seemed to awaken early, too early, and Katla would find her downstairs, reading. Or, preparing breakfast for them. Dark circles under her eyes confirmed this.
We should be talking about everything, Katla thought. She didn’t want to force Tara to talk, though. That seemed aggressive.
She gave Tara two more days. Each morning, she told her she wanted to discuss her parents’ journal and the order over dinner. Each afternoon, she’d arrive home to Tara being some degree of drunk. Asking her at dinner to stop drinking for the night didn’t work.
“One more isn’t going to hur’ me,” Tara would say, with a hiccup or burp to contradict her.
Neither the order nor journal was discussed.
The next day, Katla decided she’d had it. She left for archery practice early, but warned Tara.
“I’m cutting practice short today. It’s looking to be a gorgeous day. I want us to go horseback riding again when I get back. We both need the break.”
Tara smiled. “I’d like that.” Katla held her in a long embrace before leaving. Her heart ached at how tired Tara looked.
When she came back three hours later, Tara wasn’t sober. The dossier lay open on the table next to the fire pit. As did four empty mead bottles.
Was she even reading the dossier? And she hadn’t gone off to practice her axe work in days.
Katla felt her heart pound. Something had to give.
“We need to talk,” Katla said.
Tara still looked tired, but at least not too drunk, considering the mead.
Tara frowned and sat back down in her favorite chair. She’d been grabbing a fresh mead out of the kitchen when Katla walked in.
“What?” she asked. Her eyes were watery, but seemed to sharpen instantly. On alert.
Katla pointed to the bottle of mead she held. “That. You can’t keep drinking like this.”
“I’m fine,” Tara said.
“No, you’re not,” Katla said. “I keep coming home to you drunk.”
“I’m…I need to relax,” Tara said. “Some of this dossier is disturbing.”
“Tara,” Katla said. She softened her voice. “Be honest with me. That’s not why you’re drinking.”
Tara’s lower lip trembled for a moment, then she seemed to catch herself.
“I’m fine. I…just need the…break sometimes, you know.”
“Rorikstead?” Katla let it out as a whisper.
Tara’s lip trembled again.
“Maybe you could talk to me about it?”
Tara stood, swayed a moment, and then sat back down. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Katla sighed. What to say to her?
“We can’t keep doing this. You being drunk by the afternoon. I won’t have…”
“I’m on vacation,” Tara interrupted. “I deserve to relax.”
“One drink to relax is not the problem,” Katla said. She felt her voice rise. “This…” she pointed at the bottles “…isn’t relaxing.”
“If I want a few drinks, in my own home, I can have them!” Tara said. Her voice had climbed in volume, too.
She’s hurting. Help her.
Katla stood. “I don’t want to fight about this. You need to stop drinking. Now.”
“I’m fine!” Tara stood up.
“No, you’re fucking not!” Katla yelled back. She sat back down and sighed.
“You’re not. Talk to me. Let me help you,” she pleaded.
Tara stared at her. She seemed to be fighting between anger and needing to cry.
“I feel safe with you.” Katla felt her eyes water and pulse quicken. She needed to say this to her, though. Things could not continue. “Until you drink. Then, I’m back to when you were trying to learn magic. And, when I first saw your waves. I don’t want to be scared of you again.”
Katla inhaled and slowly released her breath. “You can’t drink away the pain, Tara.”
Tara looked startled. As if she was remembering something. She sat down.
Katla reached into her bag, which she took with her every day to archery practice, and had set on the couch when she came in. She pulled out a scroll. Tara arched an eyebrow at her.
“The drinking stops now or I teleport to Mira’s. I will not watch you destroy yourself, or walk on chicken eggshells, afraid you will hurt me during a drunken stupor.”
“I’d never hurt you, I…”
“You never have, but too much drink leads good people to do terrible things. I won’t risk it.” Katla felt herself tremble. She didn’t want to say the next words. “Me or the mead. Choose.”
Tara held her gaze. Neither blinked. Did it last a second? Or five minutes?
Tara put down the mead and stood.
“You. Always.” Her voice was quiet yet firm.
Katla nodded. “Okay.” Her heart slowed its racing.
Tara walked over to her axes and sheathed them to her belt. “I’m…going to go practice. Clear my head.”
“Good. Find a way to release your feelings without mead. Go lift some hay bales. Maybe go down to the Winking Skeever and lift some kegs.”
Tara raised an eyebrow at her. “Scratch that,” Katla corrected. “Whatever you do, wear yourself out. I’m here when you’re ready to talk about it.”
Tara lifted her eyebrow again.
“If you need to, want to, talk about it.”
Tara seemed to sway. Again, the movement was slight. Only jarring because Tara rarely seemed off balance.
“I…I’m going to go clear my head,” Tara said again. She left.
When she returned, two hours later, she seemed calmer, yet energized.
They bathed together, washing the day’s dirt, sweat, and argument off each other.
Tara stayed quiet through dinner.
When they went to bed, Tara started talking.
Katla held Tara while she told her about Rorikstead. Katla felt her heart ache at the details. The horror of it all. She flashed back to her mom, and that awful, final night. What she’d seen done to her. She didn’t linger in the flashback, though. This was Tara’s pain. Her time to talk. Katla needed to listen and stay in the moment for her.
She let silent tears stream down her face and held Tara tighter.
What Tara had tried to stop from happening to the bar maid had happened anyway. Then, they’d made Tara pay for trying to protect her.
The shock was that she’d not been able to produce a wave when needed. As much as it scared Katla, Tara’s waves had saved them when those assassins struck on their way to Windhelm. They seemed to trigger as a last resort sometimes. When Tara had told her of the fight with Norring, it was her wave that stopped him from beating her down and winning. The waves saved her when she took on too much of a challenge. In this moment, Katla realized she both feared Tara’s waves, but had trusted them to keep Tara safe.
They had not in Rorikstead that night.
Katla wiped the drying tears from her face with her free hand. The other was still pressing Tara into her. She took her free hand and ran it through Tara’s hair, tucking a few strands behind her ear.
“Had you been drinking that night?” she asked.
“Yes.” Tara’s voice came out small. A child retreating in shame.
Katla thought for a moment. She kept her breathing steady, hoping it was a comfort to Tara.
“Do you think the drinking numbed you too much? Blocked the waves somehow?”
“Yes.” Still small. Almost a distant voice.
“And, why you couldn’t fight them off? Keep them from the bar maid or yourself?”
“Yes.” The barest of a whisper.
Katla wrapped both arms around her tighter and kissed her forehead. Her instinct was to tell Tara she was sorry that had happened to her. What comfort was that, really? Hadn’t she heard it from others already?
“You’re an incredible warrior. I know how much you want to protect people,” she said, instead. “How devastating to feel like you failed her.”
Katla went back to stroking her hair.
“You rescued the town. Saved your unit and those townsfolk when the Stormcloaks attacked. Instead of being grateful, they punished you for it. For their fear of you.”
She kissed her forehead again. “They failed you, Tara. And after that failure, they did the worst thing one person can do to another and still leave them alive. None of it was your fault.”
When Katla woke in the morning, Tara was still in bed with her. She looked like she’d actually slept.
“Good morning,” Katla said when she opened her eyes.
“Thank you,” Tara said. “For everything.”
Their routine shifted.
Tara would get up early and practice her axe work, usually before Katla woke up. Sometimes, Tara would head to the stables, visit Twilight, and lift hay bales instead.
Katla would head off to archery practice while Tara worked on the dossier. They’d spend their evenings together.
Tara didn’t stop drinking completely. She had one a day. It seemed like it might work. She slipped up, of course. There were two nights she became drunk, having started drinking while Katla was out. Katla rented a room at the Winking Skeever those nights.
That scared them both. So far, there continued to be no evidence any members of the order, or assassins, were in Solitude. The risk of Katla staying at the Winking Skeever was too high, though. Tara stopped drinking again.
How long would not drinking be a struggle for Tara? How long would the nightmares last? Katla reminded herself it’d be a process.
Tara’s time to head back to Dragon Bridge for a new assignment came too soon. It’d been a blessing Katla arrived home while Tara had time off.
“If the assignment is not in Solitude, I’ll send you a message by courier,” Tara said that morning. She was dressed in her Penitus Oculatus armor. Katla whistled.
“Wow,” she said. She couldn’t stop a smile from breaking across her face. “You look amazing.”
Tara blushed. “I shortened the sleeves myself.”
“My girlfriend is a Penitus Oculatus agent,” she said. “I’m a lucky woman.”
Tara winked. “I’m the lucky one.”
Katla pulled her into one more embrace and a long kiss. “Stay safe. Come back to me.”
“I will,” Tara said.
After Tara left, Katla remembered they hadn’t discussed her parents’ journal.