4E 203 – Two For Me, One For You

“Tara?”

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.

4E 203 – Longing Urgency

Katla folded Tara’s letter and wiped her eyes.

Oh, Tara, she thought. If only she could hold her right now.

Tara had written about the fight with Norring, the new orders from Legate Rikke, and, finally, about what else had happened in Rorikstead. Not the wave she’d used to stop those twenty-five Stormcloaks soldiers. She’d written about them months ago. This was something else. It’d happened before the Stormcloak attack. The real reason she’d been transferred to a new garrison.

The real reason Tara’s tone and mood in her last few letters had seemed off. She’d not given details, one didn’t need to, but she’d told Katla the general facts of what her captain had done. Nothing else needed saying in a letter. Perhaps ever.

Katla thought of her mother. What had happened to her on that last, terrible night.

She closed her eyes again. Gods, she missed Tara. She needed to see her. For both their sakes. She’d thought this separation was smart, the right thing to do. To get away from assassins and to push Tara away from magic.

The idea seemed silly now. Tara had stepped away from magic without Katla’s leaving. And who better than Tara to protect her from assassins? What had she been thinking?

You were scared of her. Her temper.

Her capacity for violence. Though, Tara had never been that way with her. Not even a little. Their arguments were so…normal. A little yelling, mostly angry tones, with each other speaking their mind over an issue. Gods, they didn’t even resort to name calling.

How stupid to have left her. Look at what had happened to her since.

Maybe the Divines had planned it. Had put the idea in Katla’s head to leave. She wasn’t sure she believed it, but Tara did have premonitions going on. She’d written to Katla about the new, second one.

Besides the nightly ones of Rigmor, Tara had detailed another one. She’d thought it a nightmare at first, but it occurred every night, too, with little change in details. In the premonition, Tara was chasing Katla, or sometimes Freta, in a forest, until another woman stepped in at the last moment. Fire would engulf her, ending the dream.

Tara said the mystery woman kept promising to “bring her back”. Katla had suggested the dream must be related to the Fire Queen. Why else would fire be in the dream?

“Bring her back”? Who? Tara Geonette?

Or, Katla thought, maybe she needed to go back. This was the warning that she and Tara needed to be reunited.

“Everything okay?” Mira asked, startling her.

Katla almost dropped the letter. She put it away, tucking it back into her robes. She was still wearing mage robes and a hood, pretending to be Mira’s young assistant.

She and Mira were in the library again, in the reserved alcove, as they’d been for a few months now. Pouring over more books, taking notes on cult members. It’d been slow and laborious.

“Yes,” Katla said. “A letter from…you know who.” Even here, they were avoiding using Tara’s name, just in case there were listening ears. “I didn’t get a chance to read it this morning before you arrived to get me,” she finished.

Mira studied her with her piercing pale blue eyes. “Is she okay?” Her tone indicated she could tell Tara wasn’t.

“She’ll be retiring from the Legion soon,” Katla said. “Joining the Penitus Oculatus. I assume she’ll write to you with details.”

The Penitus Oculatus! Katla hadn’t even considered what that meant.

Katla decided against giving Mira any of the details from Tara’s letter. Katla was grateful Tara was writing Mira, that all three were staying in touch. She didn’t know what Tara was telling Mira in the letters between them, but something told Katla Tara was staying focused on the cult with her, and not much else.

What had happened in Rorikstead, even the fight with Norring, all seemed to be things Tara didn’t want Mira to know. How long before the two rebuilt their relationship? Would they ever? Could you ever trust someone who’d violated you so deeply?

Katla did like Mira. She’d been surprised by how much she liked her. The two sisters were so different. She’d wanted to distrust her, considering what Tara had told her. Spending this time with Mira, though, she couldn’t help but gain respect for her. People were drawn to her, and Katla found herself one of them.

She had a combination of confidence, knowledge, and directness that worked. At times she was condescending, yes, though that had been useful at keeping people away from them while researching. Her sense of humor was lacking, too. The woman couldn’t catch a joke if it landed in her lap.

She was studious and quiet, as if lost in thought examining the deeper meanings of life. Yet, when she wanted attention, to command a room, she could turn on a confident charm that infected you.

What Katla really admired was her concern for Tara. It felt genuine. Even now, in asking if Tara was okay, Katla had seen that look in her eyes. Probing from worry. Perhaps guilt she’d never drop over what she’d done to Tara. There was something to be said for a woman who kept trying to help those she’d hurt the most.

“Okay,” Mira answered. She didn’t push for more. “As long as she’s okay.” Mira handed over a piece of parchment.

“The names you’ve been gathering. I’ve marked on here the ones I know are noble families.”

Katla looked at the parchment. She whistled softly. “That’s a lot of them.”

“I thought so, too,” Mira nodded. “Even by Breton standards.” Mira cleared her throat. “I’m meeting this week with a few nobles. I’m going to take a closer look around their homes, if I can. See if that symbol is anywhere. Maybe ask gentle questions about their ancestors. There’s a chance their family name isn’t related to the ones we’re finding from the Second Era cultists, but I doubt it.”

“You think they married into these families on purpose?” Katla asked.

“Perhaps. They could’ve gained nobility after being cultists. That’s what I want you to find out today,” Mira said. She stood and walked over to the bookcase behind Katla. Her robes were splendid again. Today’s robes were a deep purple that seemed to highlight her pale skin. The robes flowed around her, as if alive and protective of her.

She pulled down an old book, the last on the shelf Katla hadn’t read yet.

“I think this one will help.” Mira handed it over. Noble Origins, the title stated. “This book traces families from the late First Era through about the year 250 of the Third. Please go through it and see if you can find when these families became nobility. If it’s noted, write down who the first noble person was.”

Katla took the book, glad she’d already put on the tundra cotton gloves she’d been given to handle the delicate books.

They worked in silence for a time, Katla slowly turning pages and updating Mira’s parchment. Mira focused on another parchment, the one they’d started with any information they could find about red soul gems. It was mostly blank, as they’d not found much. Mira was now reading a book about natural stones and rocks in High Rock. They weren’t even sure yet if any geodes were naturally red, Mira telling her she’d only ever seen bluish geodes in all her years.

“Master Blaton.” A male voice broke their silence.

Katla looked up to see Master Hawkcroft, the same mage that had interrupted them on the first day of their research here. He’d come by at least once a week, to ask Mira this or that. Mira always pulled him outside the alcove, so Katla rarely heard what they were discussing.

His eyes rested on Katla. She pulled her hood lower over her head, to hide her face in shadow more. A thought occurred. She looked down at her parchment.

“Master Hawkcroft,” Mira said, standing. “Twice in as many days.” Her tone offered mild annoyance. “How may I help you today?” Mira held her arms, such as to steer Master Hawkcroft outside the alcove, just as she had yesterday.

He didn’t move. Katla stole glances and watched as he looked from Mira to her. As if he wanted to stare at her, but Mira was in his way.

“A…few questions, um, if you’re seeing Lady Moorhart this week?” he said.

“I do have a meeting with her this week.” Mira indicated again that Master Hawkcroft should step out of the alcove with her, gently motioning her arms. He still didn’t move.

Katla searched the parchment of names. She went pale.

“What are your questions?” Mira asked. She let her full annoyance shine through now.

“I wonder if you might ask her…to reach out to me,” Master Hawkcroft said. Katla risked a glance up at him. He was staring at her, seemingly distracted in his conversation with Mira.

Mira sensed it, and stepped left, closer to him, blocking his view of Katla. Katla looked back down at the parchment, to check herself. She felt chilled.

“…regarding her son’s interest in joining the Synod,” he finished. “I’ve not yet heard back regarding a message I sent last week.”

Katla heard Mira sigh. “As I’ve told you before, I can’t be tasked with Synod business, as I’m not a member.”

“I’m, uh, I know, but…” Master Hawkcroft stammered. “But I haven’t heard back, and it seemed important to him in his letter. I just thought you could mention, ah, meeting me and it, uh, coming up in conversation.”

Katla finished checking her work. Her hands trembled. Stop it, she thought. Get a grip on yourself.

“Fine,” Mira said. She’d assumed her condescending voice. “I’ll ask if I get a chance. Was there anything else?”

“No, ah, thank you so much,” Master Hawkcroft said. Katla heard him walk away, his boots clicking and fading on the stone floor of the library.

Mira turned back to Katla. “Why does he keep asking me such mundane…what’s wrong?”

She sat in her chair and studied Katla.

Katla turned the parchment around and pointed to a name. Hawkcroft wasn’t marked as a noble name. It was on the list, though. They’d discovered two Hawkcroft’s as original order members.

“He’s figured out who you are,” Mira said. She stood and paced. “You have to leave Wayrest. High Rock.”

Katla blinked. “He’s a member of the order?”

“We have to assume any descendant from a name on that list is one,” Mira said. “Any other member of your family might be one. My parents might be.”

Katla thought. “Wouldn’t that put you in danger, too?”

Mira sat and thought. “I’m a direct Geonette descendant. I suspect that makes me special. And safe to some degree.”

Katla wrapped her arms around herself. The heart of the beast.

“But they’ve gone after Tara. Assassins…”

Mira leaned forward and lowered her voice. Her tone slipped to condescending. She was not brokering an argument. “Assassins were after you. For the soul gem. They weren’t order members. Just hired hands.”

Katla stood. “Right. I’ll leave first thing in the morn…”

“No. Now.” Mira stood. “Let’s pack up books and notes I want you to take with you.”

Faster than Katla expected they’d packed up the alcove and Mira escorted her out of the library.

Back at the inn, Mira helped her pack up her room. “I’ll escort you until we have you on a boat. I know someone to take you. I trust him completely. I suggest Hammerfell. Then, I don’t know which is safer for you, Skyrim or Cyrodiil.”

With Tara.

“I’ll take it from there,” Katla said. “I’m used to being on the run, remember?”

Mira nodded. “You’re right.”

She looked at Katla’s wardrobe. “I think it’s time you wear your new armor. Forget the robes.”

“I…good thinking,” Katla said. She pulled out the new armor and started changing.

Mira had arranged for a new, light armor for Katla. It’d taken her by surprise.

On one of her early visits to the inn to pick her up, Mira had studied her current armor, a leather set Katla really liked, but was, perhaps, showing its age. She also had to admit it didn’t offer much protection, exposing her arms and shoulders completely.

“You need some metal, at least over your chest and shoulders,” Mira had said. “Light armor still, to keep your movement and speed as an archer, but something that can deflect an arrow or two.”

“How do you know anything about armor?” Katla had asked. “Mage robes aren’t exactly protective.”

Mira had laughed. “I’ve met quite a few battle mages in my day. A blacksmith or two, in my time caring for ill citizens during my travels.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t have the gold for new armor,” Katla had said.

“Leave it to me,” Mira had said. “I’m not wealthy, but plenty comfortable. I can’t have Tara’s favorite person taking an arrow to the knee or heart.”

Mira had brought a blacksmith to meet Katla, and take measurements. Designs had been drawn up and a month later, Katla had her armor. Outside of trying it on, she hadn’t worn it.

She finished putting it on and took a moment to admire herself in it.

The breastplate and pauldrons were steel, oiled and treated to give it a slightly brown tone, making it easier to blend into foliage. Leather straps fed through the pauldrons to keep the breastplate aligned and comfortable. The plate had been bowed out slightly, to give her chest room and keep the proper angle for the deflection of arrows. An intricate design was attached to the plate, with the stop-rib, to again deflect blows and arrows. All while looking stylish. Underneath, and covering the rest of her upper body and arms was layers of thin silk, thick fabric, leather, and some chainmail. Colored a gray blue, it brought out her hair and eyes. Her pants were a thick leather, which matched her boots and the leather gloves.

She had movement, more protection, and looked good without being garish. She loved it.

“Thank you again,” Katla said to Mira.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Mira said.

As they walked to the docks, Mira rattled off instructions; what she wanted Katla to research, how often they should write. “Make a copy of all your notes and send them to me. I’ll do the same for you. We have to keep up the research.”

Reaching the docks, Mira guided her to the far end, to a set of short docks with a few small boats. This area was far quieter, less busy than the core section, with its towering ships and constant traffic of people loading or unloading cargo.

The boats they approached were simple, mostly rowboats and single sail boats.

“Wait here.” Mira stopped Katla near some barrels and crates stacked against an old wooden storehouse near the edge. Katla watched Mira approach an older, grey bearded man, working near one of the sailboats.

They greeted each other warmly, with the man constantly bowing at Mira, as if he couldn’t thank her enough for something.

Mira motioned Katla over.

“My friend, Ella,” Mira introduced Katla. “Ella, this is Agrore. He’s on his way to Sentinel, which is perfect for you, I think?”

Katla smiled at Agrore. “That would be wonderful.”

Agrore smiled and shook Katla’s hand. “Any friend of Mira is one of mine. Did she tell you how she saved both my daughter and son’s lives when they contracted dampworm?”

Katla smiled. “She did not.”

Agrore raised his index finger in the air. “I shall regale you with that story and the other great magic I have seen her perform on the trip.”

Katla turned to Mira, “I guess this is goodbye.”

Mira nodded. “I hope it’s not for too long.” She put her hand on Katla’s shoulder. “Stay safe. When I finish my work here, we’ll meet up again.”

Agrore was ready to leave within the half hour. Katla waited in the boat, and Mira stood on the dock until they pulled away. As Agrore turned the boat away from shore, pointing it towards Hammerfell, Katla raised her hand in a farewell. Mira returned it, then turned away from them and walked away.

Katla turned her eyes to the coast of Hammerfell. She’d never been, but remembered Tara telling her how much she loved Rihad. Katla realized she’d have to study a map and figure out the best way back to Skyrim.

Back to Tara.

(Katla’s armor is the Snow White Armor by Ultracriket. SSE conversion. Also, check this retexture.)

4E 203 – New Orders

Tara stood still and studied Legate Rikke as she read some fresh notes a soldier had brought her.

Captain Torell stood on the right side of the war table, Tara in front, and Rikke behind it. They were in her commander’s tent, parked just outside Fort Sungard. Torell was standing at attention. Tara had followed his lead and done the same.

She spared a glance at the war table. Little wood and leather flags, red and blue, were pinned across it. The blue flags had the Stormcloak bear emblem on them, while the red ones had the Imperial dragon sigil. Nearly all the table was red. Windhelm remained pinned by a blue flag, as did several places Tara took to be known Stormcloak camps. The war really was almost over, she realized.

Rikke finished reading the new notes, set them down on the table, next to larger pieces of parchment that comprised two stacks.

She was wearing her armor, without the helmet. Her dark blonde hair shone, as did the armor. She must have had a chance to bathe, to be fresh before her garrison and most others left tomorrow. Captain Alansen and his garrison were staying behind to man Fort Sungard, while Torell’s unit stayed in Granite Hill.

Tara gave herself a moment to study Rikke’s face. She thought of Freta. The two women didn’t look alike, outside of strong chins. The differences with Katla were even more pronounced. Katla had a much rounder, softer face than both. Plus, that luscious, deep brown hair.

Rikke had a commanding presence. It fit she was a legate; second in command in Skyrim. In that, Tara sensed a similarity to Freta. Rikke felt like how Freta had been. Dominating. The one in charge, without question.

Katla didn’t dominate. Tara led more often, but even that didn’t feel accurate. Tara led in the sense she was protecting Katla, and took charge to keep Katla safe. Otherwise, they were equal. Decisions were shared. More compromises made. Bedroom behaviors, too, had balanced out, once they’d spent more time learning each other’s tastes. Tara was Katla’s first girlfriend, while Katla was not Tara’s. Once the initial inexperience had worn off, Katla had become more assertive in the bedroom, to match the assertiveness she showed in all other aspects of their relationship.

Freta’s words floated up in Tara’s mind.

You were the love of my life, Tara. I was never going to be yours, though.

The truth struck Tara in the chest. Had Freta lived, they would not have lasted as a couple. Freta had understood this, and would have stayed with her as long as she could, because she loved Tara so much.

What would’ve broken them apart?

Magic.

Freta would’ve been more resistant to magic than Katla. Tara felt that in her bones. Freta had never trusted magic and insisted Tara not pursue it. She would not have reacted well to her temper or waves. Something in them would’ve frightened Freta. Katla’s resistance had been specific to necromancers and conjuration magic. Understandable, considering everything.

Freta had also been dominating in their relationship. Too controlling. Their eight year age difference had been a factor. She had to be in charge, in control. She was thoughtful and tender, too, but Tara couldn’t picture being with anyone so controlling now. She wasn’t her eighteen year old self. So much had changed.

Freta had been with her as long as life had let them be. Only in this moment, did Tara understand how much Freta loved her, yet was aware of the differences that would’ve driven them apart. Freta probably knew Tara was hiding things from her. She’d simply been patient. Waiting. Enjoying what she could between them while it lasted. For that, Tara loved her a little more.

Katla. Gods, she missed her. Standing here in front of Rikke, waiting for the yelling that was sure to come. Waiting to be thrown out of the Legion. Maybe spend some time in the fort prison. She had, after all, just beaten up a fellow soldier. Injured him significantly, maybe permanently. There had to be a price to pay.

More than anything right now, Tara wanted Katla’s warm eyes, soft voice, and the empathy that she exuded. Katla saw right into Tara’s soul, and calmed it.

Calm.

Here, too, was another moment of realization. Katla was moments of peace that otherwise eluded Tara. Inside her sat a pit of deep pain, with anger the boiling lava within the pit. Ready to explode without warning.

Except with Katla. Those eyes, her words, her gentle breath brushing Tara’s neck as she slept next to her. Katla was the calm Tara sought. The acceptance she sought. Katla was the love of her life. Tara couldn’t afford to lose her.

She had to find a way to see her. They couldn’t continue to be so far apart. Even if they weren’t together long while they searched for, and destroyed, the Order of the Fire Queen. They’d have to find a way to visit. No matter how brief. Tara would find a way. Standing in this tent, waiting for judgement, she felt alone. She missed Katla too much.

Rikke shuffled through a few of the larger notes on her table, read them briefly, and then straightened up. Standing tall. She ignored Tara and looked at Captain Torell.

“One of the duties of lieutenants and captains is to handle squabbles between soldiers in a garrison. So their legate doesn’t have to,” she said to Torell.

Rikke’s volume was the same as if they were discussing war tactics, deciding on troop movements. Her tone bit, though, cutting one’s skin.

“I recommended you to General Tullius for promotion when Jirich was lost, Torell,” she said.

Torell visibly paled. He kept his eyes facing forward, staring at the tent wall.

Rikke picked up one of the smaller notes. “Your job is to help your garrison work as a team, to be one unit, fierce in battle.” She paused. “If your two best fighters can’t get along, the unit is affected.”

She picked up a different note. “You were either blind to their troubles or ignored them. The rest of the garrison seems to know what was going on between Blaton and Black-Nail.”

Torell’s voice sounded raw when he spoke. “I’d told Black-Nail to leave her alone.” Torell glanced at Tara. “Didn’t realize he hadn’t stopped.”

Rikke kept her eyes on Torell. “We need every soldier in this war. Losing one to this…foolishness is inexcusable.” Rikke set the parchment down. Torell swallowed.

“Do better next time,” Rikke said.

Torell nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m transferring Black-Nail to my unit,” Rikke said. “If he can walk well enough, he can have his glory in Windhelm, assuming he survives. Or he’ll sit it out in the healer’s tent. We’ll see how he likes having a woman as his commander.”

Torell nodded stiffly.

“I’ll have Lieutenant Vanin send one of my top swordsman to you to replace him.”

Torell nodded again. “Thank you, Legate.”

“Go meet with Captain Alansen. Coordinate your patrols of the fort and Granite Hill. He’ll need help with the fort, as I’m taking some of his men to Windhelm. Dismissed.”

Torell saluted Rikke, turned, gave Tara a baleful look, and left the tent.

Tara stayed at attention. Her throat felt dry. She didn’t dare swallow.

Rikke picked up one of the larger parchments and read it. After a moment, she looked from it to Tara. They studied each other.

“You were in Rorikstead, under Captain Havilguss?”

Tara felt color drain from her face. She nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I heard about what happened. I didn’t realize you were the soldier.” Rikke’s voice was quiet, almost gentle. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

Tara closed her eyes for a moment, to fight back the sudden tears. She blinked them back, opened her eyes, and held Rikke’s gaze. “Thank you, ma’am,” she said, her voice quiet. She nodded stiffly.

“You may be happy to hear Havilguss died in a skirmish near Ivarstead a couple months back,” Rikke said. She put down the parchment she’d been holding and picked up another. “Calidia is now captain and leads the garrison.”

Tara closed her eyes for a moment. How did she feel? Relieved?

“Calidia is a good man,” she said.

“He is,” Rikke said. “I’d wanted him as captain, not Havilguss. General Tullius ignored my advice.” Rikke looked at the parchment again.

“Did you know Calidia wrote addendums to every report Havilguss wrote about you?”

Tara felt her eyes widen. “No, ma’am.”

“Seems Calidia didn’t think much of Havilguss’ assessment of you.”

Rikke put down the second parchment and paced slowly behind the table.

“The incident in Rorikstead I’m curious about is the one where you single-handedly took on twenty-five Stormcloaks, preventing them from attacking the town.”

Tara felt color drain from her face again.

“Every single one of them injured, mostly broken bones. Easy pickings when the rest of your garrison got there.” Rikke leveled her eyes on Tara. “Three of your fellow soldiers were injured, though. By some force. The same force that injured the Stormcloaks. A force reports say came from you. The same force that threw Black-Nail into those posts and ended your fight with him.”

Tara stayed silent. How to explain it?

“Who healed your nose?” Rikke asked.

“What…oh,” Tara lightly touched her nose. She was still covered in dried blood. She could feel it caked on her face, her hands were stained red. Plus, the blood on her leather armor that would take hours to clean. She and Torell had come straight to Rikke’s tent after the fight. She’d not been given a chance to clean up.

“I healed it myself,” Tara said.

“Are you a mage, Blaton?”

“No, ma’am,” Tara said.

Rikke kept her eyes leveled at her. Tara matched her stare.

“You didn’t try to heal Black-Nail after you broke his bones. Nor the three soldiers in Rorikstead.”

“I can’t heal other people, ma’am,” she answered. “I know a little magic. Enough to heal myself from some injuries. Not all, though.” Tara pointed to her right arm. The scars from the bear attack stood out, running well past the short sleeves of her armor.

Rikke studied her arm and nodded.

“In Rorikstead, some soldiers claimed you must know a Thu’um. That you’d shouted at the Stormcloaks.”

“No, ma’am,” Tara said. “It’s not a shout.”

“But it’s magic of some sort.” Rikke’s eyes felt more intense. She demanded an answer.

Tara shifted her feet. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “It’s magical, but not something I can control. Not really, anyway.” She sighed. “My sister, a mage, is researching it. It may be unique to me.”

Rikke nodded slowly. She seemed satisfied.

“Saving a town from attack is normally the kind of action that gets one promoted,” she said. “But you’re still a private.” Rikke shuffled through a few of the parchments. “Seems for every good deed you performed, which Calidia made a point to highlight in his addendums, you got into as many fights with fellow soldiers.”

Tara nodded. No reason to argue the truth.

Rikke paced. “What to do with you,” she said, almost under her breath.

Tara waited.

After a few minutes, Rikke stopped, pulled out two fresh pieces of parchment from a stack near the end of the table, dipped her quiver in her inkwell, and started writing. Tara watched her write something short on one, fold it, and seal it with hot wax that sat next to the inkwell.

Tara realized she must have been writing some correspondence before the fight had interrupted her.

Rikke wrote on the second parchment, for a longer time, then sealed it with wax, as well. She held out both to Tara, who took them.

The name on the outside of one read Captain Torell. The other was a name Tara didn’t recognize. Commander Maro.

“When your garrison receives news we’ve taken Windhelm and ended this infernal war, give Captain Torell his letter,” Rikke said. “It releases you, on my orders, from the Legion.”

“Ma’am?” Tara asked.

“Take the second letter to Dragonbridge,” Rikke continued. “Give that to Commander Maro only. He leads the Penitus Oculatus branch here in Skyrim. Which may be here awhile, if the news out of Cyrodiil is true.” Rikke’s voice trailed off on the last part, as if she’d been thinking out loud.

“I don’t understand,” Tara said.

“The Legion is not right for you,” Rikke said. Her voice had now restored itself to be commanding. She was giving orders. “I do think you have a lot to offer. Join the Penitus Oculatus. You can still serve the Empire. They’re better suited to your skills and temperament. The soldiers there are far more disciplined. I don’t foresee you having the…challenges you’ve faced in the Legion.”

Tara looked down at the two letters. This was not what she’d been expecting.

She looked back up at Rikke. “Thank you…”

“Get cleaned up. Get that blood out of your armor, soldier,” Rikke said. She paused, softened her voice. “Good luck. Dismissed.”

Tara saluted her and left the tent.

She held the letters close to her heart as she walked. She had new orders. A new purpose.

(Rikke’s look from Bijin NPC’s SE.)

4E 203 – Discipline

“Leave her alone,” Tara said.

She stood up from the table inside the Sheepshead Inn in Granite Hill, where she and some of the garrison were enjoying food and drinks after another day of patrols.

They’d been stationed here for a few weeks, since the Battle for Fort Sungard. Captain Torell’s garrison had been assigned to Granite Hill, a town located at a key crossroads where Whiterun Hold and Falkreath Hold met.

The town paid taxes to Falkreath, so had been considered a victory for the Imperials to hold. It had a long history of being a pivotal point for battles. Tara remembered reading about it from a book covering the First Era. If she remembered correctly, it’d been where the dragon Vuljotnaak was defeated during the Dragon War. Either way, it was an old Nord town that had seen much over its years.

Tara liked the feel of the place. It looked over the plains of Whitrun, but sat at the edge of the mountains and deep forest that dominated Falkreath. Tara still preferred the beauty of The Rift, but she could see herself settling here one day. It wouldn’t be a bad life. There was even a house available, though the note on the door from the mayor, John, said the owner was missing, as was the key to the home. Whoever found the key was welcome to it. Maybe when her Legion days were over, Tara thought, she could go look for it.

The town had several stores, a blacksmith, and open air market. Even a statue and shrine to Talos that the Thalmor had not destroyed.

Legate Rikke and the rest of the garrisons involved in the battle for the fort were camped around the fort, which sat up on the cliff above Granite Hill. Preparations were being made for them to leave. Word had spread like fire everyone was headed to Windhelm. This was the final push to eliminate the Stormcloaks and win the war. Tara’s garrison was staying behind, as there were still Stormcloak camps in the Reach and Falkreath. General Tullius was leaving garrisons scattered throughout Skyrim, to stop any Stormcloak reinforcements heading to Windhelm.

“Stay out of it, Breton,” Norring said back to Tara.

Norring had been harassing Laila, the inn’s server, since they’d been assigned here. Every night after patrols, most of them would come to the inn for drinks and a meal. Tara had enjoyed listening to the bard, Lova, sing. She had a soft, soothing voice and knew all the popular songs. The mead was good, too.

If only Norring would stop coming in here.

Laila was flirtatious. She had a sultry voice that enticed. Norring’s attention, though, she didn’t seem to want. Tara had watched over the past weeks as she first politely turned down his offers for company.

After her polite rejections failed, Laila had moved to the rude rejections, telling him to ‘bugger off’, ‘go enjoy your hand for the night’, and a few other choice phrases.

Her withering rejections should have stomped his ego enough to move on to easier prey, but Norring instead had become more aggressive. He’d been complaining there was nothing to do; all their patrols were quiet. He seemed bitter about the garrison not being chosen to go to the final battle.

Tonight, Laila had sat down for a quick break after checking all the tables and dishing out food and drinks. She’d chosen a chair in the back corner of the inn, away from everyone. A place to get a snippet of peace.

Norring had walked across the inn to get to her, as if he’d been watching her all night, waiting for her to be vulnerable. He stood with his back to Tara and most of the inn, blocking Laila from getting up from the chair. He’d leaned down, put his hands on both arms of the chair, whispering something to her. He was too close, too intimate.

Tara had watched Laila’s face first display disgust at him, as she’d said something back to him, clearly another rude rejection by the harsh moves of her jaws and lips. She’d almost seemed to spit at him.

He’d said something else and leaned in even closer. Color had drained from Laila’s face. She seemed to shrink.

Tara had to do something.

When Norring had first started harassing Laila, Pilper and a couple other men had said something to him. Nothing more than a ‘knock it off’, ‘leave her alone’, or ‘maybe you aren’t her type’. Their behavior made Tara as angry at them as much she was at Norring. No one was pushing the point, truly making him back off. The phrases were the weak efforts Tara had spent a lifetime observing between men. More so since she joined the Legion.

As if they were good guys for saying something, even if there was no power behind their words. None of them were standing up, calling his behavior what it was. Same as they had with his harassment of her. Same as any men when she’d been harassed in other inns, and on the streets of Wayrest as a teen. No one actually stood up. Tara broke noses because no one else would.

Tara didn’t want to be rescued by anyone, but letting blatant bullying and harassment go unchecked, with only halfhearted push back from one’s peers? That felt like cowardice. The men should be policing their behavior towards women. Not leaving it to those on the receiving end of the harassment. Most women couldn’t fight back.

“Leave her alone,” Tara said again. She straightened her stance, pushing her shoulders back, pushing out her chest, all in an effort to make herself as tall as possible.

Norring turned his head to her this time. He kept himself leaning over Laila, his hands still on the armrests. Laila was still coiled back from him, but she spared a glance at Tara. Tara wondered what he’d said to elicit that fear in her eyes.

“I told you to stay out of it, Breton,” he said, his voice a growling rumble.

“Get away from her before I make you,” Tara answered. Her voiced sounded loud. She realized the inn had gone quiet. She’d been sitting in the center of the inn, which meant her and Norring’s conversation was loud enough for everyone to hear.

Norring straightened up, but still stood in front of Laila. The height difference between Tara and him was obvious, even this far apart. Norring looked to be at least a foot taller than Tara. She briefly thought of Shum gro-Ulfish and their fight in Anvil, at The Count’s Arms Inn, those years ago. She wondered if he still walked with a limp.

“You’re going to make me?” Norring asked. He laughed at her. He finally stepped back from Laila. “You’re in for a world of hurt, Breton.”

Pilfer spoke up, “Leave them both alone, Norring.”

“Stay out of it,” Norring spate at him. “I was just flirting.”

Laila stayed coiled back in her chair, her eyes flitting between Tara and Norring.

“No, you weren’t,” Tara said. She felt heat rising in her face. Maybe Norring would back down, now that Pilfer had found an ounce of courage to say something. But what about tomorrow? He’d been harassing Laila for weeks. He wasn’t finished.

He’d not left Tara alone, either. After she shamed him at the fort over taking the dead Stormcloak’s gold, he’d gone back to the shoves and lewd comments. She was tired of him. Maybe she, too, was growing restless from easy patrols. Too much energy. Too much anger at the status quo here with men like Norring.

“Why are you all up in my business?” Norring said. He stepped towards Tara, and seemed to stretch himself up to his full height. “You finally want a taste of me?” He added a sneer to the last word, reached between his legs and grabbed himself.

Several men laughed.

“She only likes the ladies,” someone called out. Another man whistled.

Norring studied her for a second, cocking his head to the side slightly. His eyes read her head to toe, as if he was seeing her for the first time.

“Ah,” he spat. “A real milk drinker.” Someone behind Tara chuckled.

She knew Nords used milk drinker as an insult. Katla had explained it one night, back during their time in Riften, after an especially drunk Vulwulf Snow-Shod had called Talen-Jei one after he refused to serve him any more drinks.

“Means you’re weak, can’t handle your drink, so you have to have milk, like a baby,” Katla had said. “You know Nord men. If you’re not fighting and drinking, especially if you’re not a Nord, you must be a milk drinker.”

Tara thought of Katla, and what she loved about Nord culture. Why she loved being in Skyrim. They were upfront, not pretentious. They built their homes, and longhouses, in a way that felt closer to nature. They worked the land with respect and awe. Paid real tribute to the mountains, trees, and wildlife. You could almost feel Kyne here, the Divine true Nords considered the mother of men and beasts. Their politics were simpler, the games less. These people were closer to the earth, grounded. For all their faults, she loved what was good about them.

She realized she was itching for the one thing they did too much of. Fight.

“You’re the milk drinker,” Tara said to Norring. “An insult to that armor you wear. To the Legion. To true Nords.”

Tara watched his eyes flash. He perhaps thought of her insulting him before, at the fort. Calling him out for his dishonorable behavior.

“You better watch your mouth, Breton,” he growled.

Tara held her arms out, as if welcoming him. “Why? I thought a true Nord never backs down.” She grinned at him.

He flushed red.

“Take it outside,” Helana, the innkeeper said from the bar.

Tara raised an eyebrow at Norring. “How about it, milk drinker? Want me to show you how to treat a woman?”

“After you,” Norring said, pointing at the door. “I’m going to beat your ass.”

Violence isn’t the way.

Tara didn’t care. She wasn’t going to have another Rorikstead here.

Norring came up right behind Tara as she stepped through the door of the inn. She felt his hot breath on her neck as he whispered at her, making sure no one else could hear, “I’m going to fuck you up your ass after I beat it, bitch.”

As soon as she was clear of the inn’s door, Tara stepped to her right and pivoted around to face Norring. She immediately ducked, as he was mid-swing with a punch.

He’d tried to take her out before she was ready. Before the inn’s crowd came outside to watch the fight.

She stayed low and rushed him, shoving him in the gut. Off balance, he stumbled down the stairs that led up to the inn before regaining his balance.

Tara shook her head slowly at him, to shame him. She kept her eyes on him as she walked down the stairs. He didn’t approach, probably suspecting she’d be able to kick him in the head while she had the higher ground.

She heard people coming out of the inn. There were mumbles of ‘fight’, but otherwise the crowd was silent. Here for the show.

Norring had positioned himself in the middle of the street, arms raised, ready to punch.

Tara circled him, also raising her fists. He wasn’t as big as Shum gro-Ulfish, but she couldn’t let him land punches. She needed him to go down fast.

They circled each other, looking for an opening. Tara could hear mumbling, but not make out anything the crowd was saying. She needed to focus.

Norring lunged at her and swung. She dodged it easily, but he kept pressing, and she found herself backpedaling. They were the two best melee fighters Torell had in the garrison, and Norring’s footwork proved it. Tara found herself ducking, then rolling to stay away from his fists. Their paces matched, each able to switch direction and keep the other from getting behind them, or find any advantage.

Wear him out, she thought. He wasn’t giving her any chance to step in. She needed him tired, so he’d make a mistake.

He went for a leg sweep. Tara saw it in time, jumped over the swinging leg, then shot out her left leg. Her kick landed, and she heard the crunch of his ribs as she cracked them.

He roared as he dropped to a knee, clutching his side.

She went in for the finishing shot, meaning to break his nose with a punch.

He twisted on her, though, in spite of the cracked ribs, and she missed. Before she could recover and back away, Norring’s return punch landed. Tara felt her nose break.

The crush of bones was loud in her head. The pain was sharp, spikes stabbing her everywhere. Trying to pull in a breath, she couldn’t, until her brain remembered to use her mouth now. Her nose was useless. Blood seem to be flowing from everywhere.

This was what it felt like, she realized. All those noses she’d broken. She had no idea. No wonder it usually had ended previous fights.

She thought of all the beatings by Father. He’d never broken a bone. Deep bruises, cuts, deep pain, yes. Never the sharp shock of a broken bone.

Even the bear attack hadn’t broken a bone. Torn all her muscles and tendons, yes. Nearly killed her, yes. Broken bone, no.

She needed to get up. She needed to heal her face. Her hands were slick with blood. Why did faces bleed so much? The punch had knocked her to her knees. Tara shifted into one knee down position, left knee still bent, her right foot planted on the ground, ready to push her to her feet.

She looked toward Norring, in time to see his left boot inches from her face, about to kick her in the head and end this.

She heard Mira’s voice in her head.

Focus.

The wave exploded from her.

Perhaps it was because he was off balance as he swung his leg. Perhaps it was the height difference, Tara still in a kneeling position, Norring standing. Tara didn’t know how high any waves emanating from her were. She knew they shot out in every direction, but was it a wall of force that slammed into people? The height of the wave determined by her height?

Whatever its size, the wave lifted Norring into the air and flung him far. He flew down the road and into the posts at the top of the stairs that led to the shop, Oddities and Curiosities, which sat at least fifty meters from the inn.

The sound of Norring’s bones breaking was loud, distinct. Far louder than his cracked ribs or her broken nose.

He landed with an audible thud. Tara could tell by his screams and the way his legs lay angled wrong, turned away from his upper body, that she’d broken not only his legs, but his pelvis, too.

She climbed to her feet and looked at him. He was staring at her, his face a jumble of pain, surprise, and hatred. She kept her eyes on him as she cast a healing spell on herself, biting her tongue to keep from yelling in pain as her nose stitched itself back together. She didn’t want him to hear her cry out. She couldn’t show him any weakness.

She couldn’t heal him. Someone needed to, though. And fast.

Their eyes remained locked for another moment. Tara considered saying something to him. But, what? She wasn’t even sure what message her eyes were sending him. Not pity and not empathy. She felt cold, numb to his suffering.

“You…bitch,” he muttered, as if speaking took effort.

No. She didn’t have anything to say to him.

She turned around and saw the crowd. Everyone was silent. Giving her the same look people did when her waves made an appearance. Shock and fear. A struggle to understand.

She felt too tired to care. In this moment, she wanted to go lie down and sleep for a few days. This wasn’t a victory, just something long overdue.

One thought fought through. The crowd was silent. And still standing.

Her wave hadn’t hurt them. Only Norring.

Mira’s teaching had worked.

Several Legion solders came around the corner and rushed over to Norring. A battle mage was among them. Tara watched her start a healing spell on him.

“Come with me.” Captain Torell was suddenly standing in front of her, his face stern, angry. Had he seen any of the fight?

Tara sighed and followed him.

(check out the mod, Granite Hill, by Skyking2020, at the Nexus)

2E 586 – The Speech

“Gentlemen! I am honored by your presence,” Tara Geonette said.

She smiled widely and spread her arms in a welcoming gesture. The three mages, the members of the Order of the Black Worm, all turned and nodded at her. An Imperial and two Bretons. Tara knew Mannimarco’s influence had spread all over Tamriel at the height of his power. Now that he had supposedly been brought into Coldharbour, that part of Oblivion controlled by Malog Bal, she wondered if his influence was waning. Rumors claimed he was still alive. Somewhere.

Tara spared a glance for Bedore. He looked nervous. Lysona had probably said something to him about not seeking Tara’s approval before bringing Black Worm worshipers here. She sent him a soft look, hoping it would lull him.

“Bedore has told us much of your order,” the Imperial said, as if he led the small group. He bowed deeply. “I am Rufinus. This is Theodyn and Noleon.” He pointed to the two Bretons, who both bowed.

“We’ve heard wonderful things about you,” Noleon said. His voice was high-pitched, which somehow fit his hook nose and thin face. “A leader unlike any other.”

“We’ve been looking for someone worthy of our devotion,” Theodyn said. He was taller than Noleon, with heavy eyes. “Mannimarco had his time. We look for someone new.”

Tara smiled again. “Then, you have chosen the perfect day to come,” she said. “Today, all followers of the Fire Queen learn the next evolution of our order.”

She reached out and lightly placed her hands on the backs of Theodyn and Noleon, who she’d carefully stepped between. She quickly traced the pattern with her fingers, keeping her touch light, so they wouldn’t feel it through their mage robes. “I hope you’ll stay and listen.”

“Perfect,” Rufinus said, smiling. Tara stepped over to him, and also placed her hand on his upper back, as if guiding him forward towards the meeting hall they stood outside of.

“If you’ll indulge my preference, please sit in the last row of chairs,” she said as she quickly traced the same pattern. “I’ve already arranged for my followers to sit in a particular order.”

Everyone, Bedore followed behind Tara and their guests, stepped inside the large library and meeting room Tara had ordered her followers build in the bottom of the tower. The walls were lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, which were slowly filling up with various volumes members were collecting. Only about a third of the bookcases stood empty now.

The center of the room was filled with a mix of benches and chairs, all facing the raised flooring, which was the stage, and podium. The entire tower was built of stone. The stage had been built with stone as well, complete with short, stone steps leading to it. The podium was made of the same wood as the bookcases and benches. All built new. The chairs were temporary, waiting for more wood to be sourced for new sets of benches. Tara insisted they switch sources after a few purchases for any supplies purchased outside the property. This included lumber for building. She didn’t want any supplier to wonder at the volume they needed. Best the order not stand out in any way. So far, there had been enough stone on the land, from extra the previous owners had never used, or could be dug up along the edge of the property.

Tara had wanted the room configured so up to seventy-five people could sit and listen to any speech. There were fifty-six followers in the order now, besides Tara, Bedore, and Lysona. The size felt perfect. The time was now.

Most followers were already seated as they walked in. The rest stood around, chatting.

Several followers bowed deeply at her, and she smiled and nodded back. Others nodded slightly to the guest mages. They were curious.

“Please, gentlemen,” Tara said and pointed to the final row of chairs on the right side of the room. This row sat empty, as did the row in front of them. Perfect.

“Here?” Rufinus asked. He was eyeing the closer row, or perhaps he thought guests should sit all the way in the front.

“Please,” Tara said. She gave him a look of steel, to cut off any thought of argument. “When I signal, please stand, and I’ll introduce you to everyone,” she finished.

All three sat in the chairs, any offense they might have been mustering seemed sated.

Tara and Bedore continued forward. She whispered to him, “Thank you for bringing them.”

Bedore looked confused for a split second, then smiled at her. He must’ve felt vindicated. “They’ll be a great addition. What we can learn…” he started.

Tara cut him off. “Later.” They’d reached the foot of the stage.  She turned to face him, knowing the entire room was watching them. Everyone knew they were a couple, but Tara had heard the murmurings that Bedore’s eyes wandered. Their actions while being watched would speak volumes.

She rested her hands on his chest, set her eyes soft, and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Today’s speech is important. You’ve given me the greatest gift by bringing them today. Thank you.” She pulled back and gave him a quick kiss on the lips before stepping up on stage.

Bedore sat in his reserved spot, on the right front row, closest to the aisle that ran down the center of the room. Lysona sat in her spot, on the left front bench, also closest to the aisle. Perfectly positioned. Just as Tara wanted.

At the podium, she reached into the single pocket her armor had, pulled out what she needed, and set them on the podium. She then stepped in front of it. She didn’t want to be half hidden behind it. Everyone needed to see her fully. To be captivated.

She took a moment to survey the room. She smiled. Bedore smiled at her, happy and relieved at his success. Lysona smiled also, in her usual rapt way. The rest of her followers showed various degrees of smiles and curiosity. The three mages studied her. Curious and reserved.

Tara held out her arms. “Thank you all for coming. Not that I gave you a choice,” she said.

Genuine laughs greeted her. She turned and pointed to the two banners behind her, one on each side, flanking her. They hung from the ceiling, and waved slightly as the air in the room shifted. They’d been installed this morning. Each banner was made of a thick, durable canvas, which had been dyed red. Woven into it with black thread, was an emblem. A circle resembling the sun, with lines as rays, sat above a single tree. The tree was tall, with branches reaching up from a single trunk, outside of a few which curved away, then back into the trunk. The overall effect was a tree, reaching for the sun, as if the sun were its only goal.

“Special thanks goes to Madena, for designing the symbol of our order, of the Order of the Fire Queen. She understood my vision and made it reality.” Tara smiled at Madena, who sat next to Lysona. “New mage robes for all of you are being made now, with the emblem on them.” She gestured to several followers, who’d been tasked with sewing.

Tara started slowly pacing the stage, gesturing with her hands as she spoke. She knew moving around would help keep all eyes on her. Now, to give them their hope.

“You’re all probably wondering why I didn’t have an emblem filled with fire, or flames,” she said, smiling. Several giggles and laughs erupted. Most people nodded their heads.

“Two reasons,” she held up two fingers with her left hand. “First, to help our order hide in plain sight. Fire would have been predictable and too visible.” She paused. “The second, and greater reason, is that our sun, Magnus, is the greatest fire. Magnus is the architect of Mundus. Greatest of the et’Ada, the original spirits. He is the source of our magic. His commitment to mortals, to our mortal plane of Mundus, shows itself every single day, by what of himself he left behind.”

She pointed again at the banners.

“We are the tree,” she continued, picking up her pace. “We, this cult, this order, this…family, reach towards Magnus. For the greatest of glory. For immortality.”  She stopped pacing and studied everyone.

About a third of her followers seemed immediately to understand the weight of what she’d said. Dawning crossed their faces like a glorious sunrise. She felt excitement from them.

“Conjuration is the greatest school of magic,” she said, pacing more. “It gives us the potential, the gift, of making ourselves immortal.” She looked at the guest mages. Theodyn and Rufinus were whispering to each other. Noleon seemed enraptured by her words.

“You’ve all come to me these last years, at different levels of magical ability. I hope, regardless of where you started, and where your skills are now, that some of what I’ve shown you with conjuration has given you new levels of appreciation for what it can do.”

She stopped pacing and stood to the right of the podium, keeping it in easy reach.

“Some of you are less gifted with deep reserves of magicka,” she said, smiling. “Fear not. Everyone in this order has a place here, a job here. A purpose to serve the order. To serve your queen.”

She gave them another smile, this one tinged with slyness.

“Everyone in this room right now will help reach our ultimate goal, the true goal of this order. To become immortal. Every single one of us.” She paused.

All her followers remained focused on her. Some seemed to still be processing what she’d said. The weight of it. The idea of becoming immortal. Everyone in the order was younger, no one over the age of thirty-two. In their prime. A time for life to feel full of possibilities. To be something you’d want to never end.

“After today, no new members. Do not invite any outsiders into our order. All future order members will come from within,” she said.

Confusion spread among a few faces. Tara didn’t mind. Details could be explained later. Now was the time to add some fear to their hope.

Tara gestured at the three guests to stand up.

Theodyn, Noleon, and Rufinus stood slowly. All looked confused. They must have wondered if they’d just been forced into the order.

“Everyone, please turn and meet our guests,” Tara said. “They’ve all come from the Order of the Black Worm.”

Muttering started. Several followers nodded at the guests.

“No new outside members from this moment forward,” Tara said. “We are all we need. I am all you need.”

Tara clapped her hands together in one large, loud movement.

The fire runes she’d placed on the backs of Theodyn, Noleon, and Rufinus exploded, engulfing the men in flames.

Their screams pierced the room, the entire tower, with agony. Tara picked up the three black soul gems from the podium and guided the men’s souls into them. She allowed herself a brief moment to enjoy the rapture that came with hearing their screams, watching their bodies burn, then collapse into dying husks. Adding to their screams were those from her followers. Those closest to the mages jumped back, afraid to catch fire. Nearly everyone looked shocked and scared. Tara doubted any had seen a rune set off that way. If one didn’t know, she’d simply clapped her hands and ignited them instantly.

Bedore looked the most shocked. He looked up at her with wide eyes; more fear than she’d ever seen from him.

Good.

Lysona was the sole follower who didn’t look scared. She was laughing and clapping. She looked up at Tara, even more rapt than before. Tara gave her a quick wink and smile.

Feeling the souls were secure in their gems, Tara cast a frost spell at the burning husks of the mages. The chairs the men had been sitting in had also caught fire. Tara made sure all the flames were extinguished before stopping the spell.

The room had filled with the odor of burnt flesh and smoke. A sharp irritant assaulting everyone’s nose. The better to hold their fear longer, Tara thought.

“Sit,” she commanded.

Everyone sat back down and looked at her. She put the soul gems in her pocket.

“We are all we need. I am all you need. Together, we will grow this order from within,” she said.

“What I mean by those words is simple.” She gave them all a smile. “Some of you have already coupled up.” She paced slowly, not that she needed to. No one dared look away. “I’ve even heard rumors there are some pregnancies.”

She paused her pacing.

“This is what I want. If you are in a relationship, have children. We grow the order from within.” She nodded for emphasis. “If you are single, come see me. I’ll match you with someone. If your natural attractions draw you to someone you normally can’t have children with…” Tara looked down at Lysona and held her gaze. Lysona gazed back, and smiled. “…come see me. I want you to fully realize your natural attraction, but I will need you to have children, as well. There are solutions.”

She paced again until she stood at the center of the stage.

“Every couple is to be registered. I must know whom is with whom. We will conduct ceremonies for everyone who wants to celebrate their binding. As you all have children, I must know who they are. Lineage must strictly be tracked. It is essential.”

She smiled wide and held her arms out, wanting to send some hope back to them.

“I am with child. My first.” She pointed at Bedore, who had a fresh look of shock on his face. She’d not told him. “Bedore and I will be among the first to celebrate the next evolution of our family. Our order.”

“Here, in your lifetime, I promise you will become immortal. Your children, and their children, and so forth, will also. It is essential to us, the original order members, to grow the order from within.”

She clasped her hands together and held them over her heart. “I will have more details for you over time. For now, I thank you for your loyalty to me. I will not let you down. Dismissed.”

4E 203 – Family Traits

Mira stared at the painting of Tara Geonette and marveled that she’d not noticed as a child it was protected by a thin magical barrier.

No wonder it looked so bright, and fresh, so many centuries after it’d been painted.

Then again, she’d avoided spending time at home as much as possible, even before Tara was born.

Home. She’d not called it that for a long time now.

Her parents’ home had always felt cold, distant; a reflection of their marriage. The only passion they shared was violence. Mira had felt blessed to be so good with magic early. To have a reason to stay away.

Was the magic a curse, though?

She studied the painting of Tara Geonette, hanging so proudly in her parent’s living room. It’d always been in this favored spot. Untouched, clean. Never even knocked off the wall by one of Tara’s waves. No wonder. Why hadn’t she noticed the barrier before?

Because you didn’t want to see it.

At a glance, Geonette and Tara looked so much alike. The hair. That intense dark red that Mira still thought of as fire and passion combined. So striking in the light.

Geonette and Tara shared green eyes, as well. The greens were different, though. Tara’s trended slightly blue, with a smokiness to them. Geonette’s were a brilliant bright green. The woman looked intense. On the edge of anger, and somehow also disgust. Whoever had painted her so long ago seemed to have captured her perfectly.

Little Tara was also intense, of course. The anger, the waves. She’d grown into a passionate woman, from what Katla had told her, and what Mira had observed in their brief time together. Tara’s emotions were tainted by sadness, though. A deep gulf Mira wasn’t sure she’d ever cross.

It’s your fault.

Mira pushed the thought away. What was done was done. No use dwelling or crying now. She’d fix it, if she could.

Mira studied Geonette’s facial features. Here, the differences with Tara were obvious. Tara had a roundness, a softness to her. She was, frankly, beautiful in the ways so many women wished to be. Her face held some perfect balance of features that led to her overall striking appearance. Her sum was greater than her parts. Even the scars on her face didn’t distract.

Geonette was attractive, Mira supposed, but no more than Mira herself was. It was hard to be objective. Mira wasn’t attracted to women, but no matter natural attractions, one knew when a person stood out. Geonette didn’t in the way Tara did.

Her features were sharper, with a narrower chin, more freckles, sharper nose, and slightly squinted eyes. One could see the resemblance, the family resemblance to her as an ancestor. Mira thought about her own facial features. Geonette looked most like Mom, though Mom’s hair was raven black, now streaked with gray, and her eyes a pale blue.

Father’s hair was as black as Mom’s, his eyes a dark blue. There were so many black haired people in the family, Mira had thought of raven hair and blue eyes as Geonette traits.

Redheads were less common, usually skipping a generation, or there’d be one out of a slew of siblings and cousins. History and how traits passed down fascinated Mira.

For all her research of magic in Tamriel across the eras, it’d not occurred to her to study her own family’s history with magic. The Geonette’s seemed to be above average among Bretons for magical ability. Many a Geonette had been a high ranking official in the Mage’s Guild, back when the Guild existed. Even now, she had a lot cousins spread across the Synod and College of Whispers.

None as powerful as her with magic, though.

Or Tara.

Why was that?

Mira pulled her gaze from Geonette’s painted eyes and looked closely at the magic barrier protecting the painting. How long had it been up? Who had cast it? Why? Why was this painting so important? Why was Geonette viewed so proudly in this house?

They were direct descendants of her. Mom, Mira and Tara, were great, great…whatever about forty generations were…granddaughters of the woman. Out of the family that were Geonette’s, or related, they were the true direct line.

Maybe she’d get some answers when Mom and Father got back to the house. They’d taken a rare outing together into the city. Mira sent up a short prayer to Magnus that Katla was following orders and staying in her room at the inn. Wayrest was large, but they couldn’t be too careful here.

Mira let her eyes trace the edges of the barrier. It covered the frame as well as the painting itself. The barrier’s glow was the softest of whites, giving the frame and painting the faintest of a frosted look, as if one was looking at it through a fogged window. Mira wondered what would remove the barrier. She knew some spells that should do the job. She wouldn’t know for sure unless she tried.

The frame of the painting was cypress wood, varnished a rich, dark color. It still looked fresh. A master framer had to have built it. It would’ve cost a lot of coin in its day.

She studied the edges, admiring the joining of the corners, the seams so thin and smooth as to be almost invisible. Mira caught her breath at the lower right corner.

Stepping towards the painting, she put her face as close to the barrier as she dared.

Burnt into the lower right corner, nearly black in color, was an emblem of some kind. It was less than six inches tall, and at a glance could’ve been mistaken for a dark knot in the wood.

Had it been placed there to be missed?

The emblem, symbol, Mira didn’t know what to call it, was of a tree underneath a circular symbol. A sun, maybe. The sun, Magnus, maybe. Yes, as if the tree was reaching for Magnus himself.

Those that worshipped Kynareth held high reverence for nature, especially trees. Mira thought of the ancient Eldergleam tree, one many thought of as a tree of life. History claimed it was the oldest living thing in Tamriel.

The tree in the symbol did not remind Mira of the Eldergleam, or the Gildergreen, the great offspring tree in the city of Whiterun in Skyrim. The tree in the symbol was tall, with few branches. What ones there were, all looked thick, and either reached upwards towards the sun or curled back into the main trunk. The burnt carving was small, though, so the details were hard to confirm. She didn’t like the tree, though. It felt off.

Mira thought back to her research and reading over the years. To Divines and Daedra, and what cults she knew of. She couldn’t recall the symbol in any of her past research. She was no expert, though, on cults or religion. She studied mostly for magical purposes.

It was on a frame which held a painting of Geonette. That had to mean something. She’d add it to the list of things for her and Katla to look through in the books she’d gathered.

They had not made the headway Mira had hoped for. The Order of the Fire Queen had hidden their tracks well. Or, been too small to matter.

The chickens outside picked up their clucking. Mom and Father must be home.

Mira sat in a chair in the living room, specifically choosing the chair furthest from the painting, and opened one of the books she’d been carrying, The Oblivion Crisis.

The book covered the great event of the Third Era, well, the greatest event that had nearly brought the world to an end. Instead, the crisis had been averted by the Hero of Kvatch, and Martin Septim, the last of the Septim Dynasty. His death ended the era and harkened the Fourth Era and the Mede Dynasty, which now ruled the Empire. Well, until recently.

Mira had not paid close attention to politics while in Black Marsh, but once she’d returned to Cyrodiil a couple of years ago, she’d heard of key events. Emperor Mede II seemed to have disappeared. Rumors ran rampant the Dark Brotherhood had assassinated him, but there was no confirmation.

There was some new King, or Emperor, claiming the throne by right of combat. If Mira had heard the news correctly, he was a bandit with an army who’d assaulted the Imperial City and driven out the Elder Council, the wealthy men and women who, at times, really ran the Empire.

Mira had read this news while leaving Skyrim and heading to High Rock. When she was ready to head back to Cyrodiil, to Chorrol, where she had a place and felt most at home, what then? Would this new king be causing any problems? A thought for later.

Mom stepped inside, then Father. Mira closed the book, about the only book she trusted them to see the cover of, and stood.

“Good trip?” she asked.

“Yes!” Mom exclaimed. Mom, to everyone else known as Elayne Geonette, displayed a rare smile. “I was able to acquire some lovely dresses that your father didn’t feel suitable for the store. Not fancy enough.”

“My clientele has far greater taste than you do,” Father said. “The Rests’s Finest means the finest. Why that Redguard even thought I’d want to offer these to true nobles…” His gruff voice trailed off as he headed down the hall to their bedroom, most likely to wash up before dinner.

Mom ignored the insult and set down the wrapped dresses on a table near Mira’s chair.

“I suppose I should get dinner going,” she mumbled and headed to the kitchen.

“Need any help?” Mira offered. She’d not thought to start anything. She never cooked, had not bothered to learn much, even out on her own. Alchemy, she knew. Food ingredients for a good meal, not so much. She was used to meals at inns or group meals in a conclave or guild.

“Peel and cut up these carrots for me.” Mom set some to the side for her.

Following any instructions Mom gave her, they worked quickly and soon had a meal of grilled chicken breast, seasoned garlic carrots, and a warm braided loaf of bread.

Father came out of the bedroom as they set the table.

They ate quietly for a while. Mira found herself glancing at the painting of Geonette. How to broach the subject with them?

“Have you met with Sir Dalomax yet?” Father asked. He’d plowed through the chicken and was picking at the carrots.

“I meet with him in the morning,” Mira said.

“You should tell him to come by the shop,” Father said between bites of bread. He’d broken off a hunk of the loaf, ignoring the careful slicing of half of it Mom had done when they first sat down. “Even better, tell him to send his wife. I always charm the women.” He winked at Mira, as if she should be impressed.

“That would be inappropriate,” Mira said. She assumed her stern, teaching voice. The one she’d had to develop over the years when lesser mages belittled her research, or magic prowess.

It felt strange to use it on Father. She did not question how she spoke to people. Most knew nothing of magic, including half the mages she came across, and certainly, too many people lacked decorum. Her father was one of those types, she reminded herself. He was a noble wannabe, desiring it so much his greed and unfettered ambition displayed itself constantly. How he charmed anyone in his store surprised Mira.

People were complicated, she reminded herself. Everyone had multiple sides to themselves. No one was one thing.

Father paused mid chew and looked at her. A flash of anger passed through his face, then disappeared. Mira rarely came home. He seemed to sense an outburst from him would lead to her leaving immediately. He’d lose access to any noble gossip he hoped to gleam from her. It was the unspoken and uneasy alliance they’d maintained for over a decade now. Mira would visit occasionally, if Father was on his best behavior.

“Still,” he said as he finished chewing. “You could also drop the shop’s name, if it fits the conversation.”

“Of course,” Mira gave him a short nod.

“What are you researching now?” Mom piped in. Ever eager to move the conversation away from what might set off Father, Mira thought. He did seem to have genuine interest in Mira’s magical studies, at least.

“You know I can’t discuss any details,” Mira said. “It’s important no one knows what I’m working on until I get a book published.” She leaned forward slightly, though, wanting to draw them in. “But, I will tell you both I’m studying the history of the Third Era, particularly the Oblivion Crisis. Lots of magic to try and understand from how the gates were opened.” She sat back to judge their reaction.

She watched Father and Mom exchange a look. Unreadable.

“What kind of magic do you hope to learn from such study?” Father asked. He’d given up picking at the carrots. He’d never been a fan of them, and Mira sometimes wondered if Mom cooked them just to spite him.

“You’re not thinking to learn how to open a gate to Oblivion?” Mom asked. She seemed concerned.

“Of course not,” Mira said. She tried to moderate her voice, to not sound as chiding as she would have had anyone else asked the question. “Research is important, though. Even if it’s into the…darker of magic schools.” Had that phrase sufficed?

Father nodded. After a moment, Mom did, too.

“You’ve studied necromancy?” Father asked.

“Of course,” Mira said. “I am a master wizard in all schools.”

Neither Mom nor Father had been especially good mages. They knew some magic, could heal minor wounds, but had never progressed. Which is why they’d always needed Mira or scrolls to calm Tara during her waves.

Before the waves started. You know this. The fire magic scared them.

“Studying history has gotten me curious,” Mira said. She nodded at the painting. “I’ve always wanted to learn more about Tara Geonette. Mom, you said she was a witch in the Glenmoril Coven?”

“Oh, yes,” Mom said quickly. “For years.” She glanced at Father.

“I didn’t realize they went on to have children. The witches,” Mira said.

Another glance was exchanged. Like a silent conversation between them.

“Usually, no,” Mom continued. “She left the coven while still young. She never started any of the rituals that lead to a true hag, or hagraven.”

Mira nodded and waited.

Father cleared his throat. “You really are interested in our family history?”

Mira nodded again. “I admire all great mages. She’s had such a revered spot in the house, in our home, I’d like to know more. I assume I can give her credit for my magical abilities.” She kept her face serious. Would they accept her reasons?

Mom seemed excited. Her voice kept rising in pitch. “I think she was the greatest mage the Geonette family has ever known,” she finished, smiling.

Father cleared his throat again and gave Mom a withering look.

“She’s definitely where your magic comes from. The greatest trait a family can pass down to its descendants,” he said. He now had a sense of pride in his voice.

“How many children did she have?” Mira asked.

“Three,” Mom said. “Two daughters and a son. Lysona, Tara, and Tristard. We’re descended from Tara Geonette the Younger.”

Father coughed and stood. He sent another look Mom’s way.

“I’m off to smoke my pipe, then to bed. Have another early day at the store tomorrow.” He stepped outside without another word.

When he seemed safely out of earshot, Mom leaned in and whispered. “I’ll tell you more about her later. Your father doesn’t like all the attention she receives. Thinks his side of the family had important mages, too.”

“Did they?” Mira asked as she stood to help clear the table. She’d never heard anything about the Blatons and a history of important mages. She’d thought them an entirely merchant family.

Though, rare was the Breton family without at least one or two significant mages in their history.

“None are as important as Tara Geonette,” Mom said. “She star…well, she’s the important one.”

She seemed to want to say more. Mira could practically feel the waves of pride flowing from her.

“There were some important Blatons during the Third Era. I’ll tell you about them, since you’re studying the Crisis.”

As she prepared for bed later that night, Mira went over her new notes, hoping she’d written down all the names correctly. She and Katla had fresh leads.

What else had been new about the evening? Mira mused.

Mom.

It occurred to Mira this was the first time she’d ever seen her mother so animated. So happy.

(*note, some of the lore now follows not only Skyrim, but events mentioned in Rigmor of Cyrodiil)

4E 203 – Choices

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.

Right. Rigmor.

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.

4E 203 – Coverings

“Your what?” Katla asked Mira.

“Assistant,” Mira said. “It’s the perfect cover for you. No one here knows who you are, and it explains why you’re in the Synod Conclave’s library with me researching old tomes.”

They were walking through the library, which, simply, was grand. Katla had to stop herself from gawking at all the books. Bookcases of rich, dark wood lined the sides of the library, running from floor to the high curved ceiling two stories above. The area was spacious, with stairs to the second floor hugging the sides of the open room. Both floors seemed essentially nothing but bookcases, with the first floor also holding tables in the middle of the room, for people to sit and study.

One could never read all the books in a lifetime, Katla thought. Maybe elves could, who lived for more than two hundred years.

Mira had arrived at the inn this morning, and given her a pair of mage robes. “Wear these,” she’d said, “Keep the hood on.”

They were similar in style to the ones mages wore at the College of Winterhold, though the fabric was lighter. Wayrest did not get as cold as Skyrim. They also didn’t have any distinguishing emblem on them, as she’d seen on some of the College ones, robes that helped with focus on Restoration, Destruction, and the other magic schools.

Like so much of Wayrest, walking through the library, Katla was taller than most people. She thought the stares she observed were due to the height difference. It quickly became obvious Mira was the reason for the staring. Katla was suddenly invisible.

They’d hardly take ten steps before someone nearby would comment with a greeting, or “Excuse me, Master Blaton, a word?”

Mira had already stopped several times to have a quick chat with another mage. Most conversations ended with “I’ll see what I can do” or “We should schedule for a day next week”.

Mira was to the point, never offered small talk, and, Katla thought, came across as condescending to most she spoke with. As if it was her natural state of being.

So different from Tara. Tara could be off putting. She’d been quick to throw a wary eye at any stranger that approached them in inns during their travels. Tara always looked on the edge of anger, though, with the strangers. Mira looked too important to be bothered.

“Up here,” Mira said and headed for a set of stairs leading to the second floor. Katla followed and took a moment to get her bearings on the second floor.

This floor, too, was mostly bookcases. Instead of an open room of tables for reading, the floor was divided into sections, with three sides of bookcases, an archway for the entrance, and desks of various sizes within. Fewer people were here and it struck Katla this floor was for the advanced mages. The first floor had held a buzz of conversations. Up here, a hushed silence pressed down on you. Here, you needed a reason to take over a desk. Here was privacy for long term study.

They walked to the end of the floor. Mira stepped into a small section that held one desk and small table with a couple of chairs in it. A wooden sign hanging from the top of the archway read “Reserved”.

Mira turned around and gestured for Katla to sit at the table. She sat at the desk, gathering her robes about her. She was wearing a sweeping, royal blue set that had flowed behind her as they’d crossed the library. Gold trim lined the sleeves and collar. She looked resplendent.

“This is where we’ll research,” she said. “This section is reserved for me. Most of the books I think we need have already been brought over.” She pointed to the bookcase behind Katla.

Katla looked at it and saw a careful arrangement of what had to be the oldest books she’d ever laid eyes on.

She and Tara had read many old books at The Arcanaeum while at the College of Winterhold. The Arcanaeum had been so impressive. Until now. The books she was staring at looked ancient, many older than what they’d read at the College. She didn’t see titles on most of them. Half looked to be not much more than hand bound journals.

“You’ll need to wear these gloves,” Mia said, handing over a pair of soft fabric gloves. They looked to be made of tundra cotton. “The books are old, most are Second Era originals, none of those reprints that most people can buy. Or you’ll find in other libraries. A few are from the end of the First Era. A few from the Third, as well, that I believe may hold information we need. We need to handle them delicately.”

First Era? Second originals? Literally millennia old. Katla slipped on the gloves.

“My thinking,” Mira said. “We break our research into three sections. Order of the Fire Queen, Tara Geonette and any known cultists, and anything about red soul gems.” She leaned forward and focused on Katla. “Not much is written about the cult, but maybe information is buried in books about some of the people who were in the cult. After all, there are still active members, so we can assume they passed down membership through family or friends. Some of them must have done something noteworthy.”

Katla nodded. “And the magic related to red soul gems could be known by others.” When she’d first met with Mira the other night, she’d told her about the red soul gem, and that Tara had it now.

“Exactly. Whatever magic they used was probably explored by other…”

“Excuse me, Master Blaton.” A tall, older Breton had appeared at the archway, interrupting them.

“Master Hawkcroft,” Mira said, rising. “How can I help you?”

Mira moved swiftly, blocking Hawkcroft’s ability to step further in. Katla thought she wanted to block his view of the books.

“I, oh, I see you have someone with you,” Hawkcroft said. He looked to be at least fifty years old, with graying hair, trimmed beard, and a thin build. He also wore blue robes with golden accents, though Mira’s were more extravagant.

“My assistant,” Mira said. “Ms…” Mira paused. They hadn’t discussed whether to use Katla’s name if asked.

“Ms. Ella Tallowhand,” Katla said, nodding slightly.

Hawkcroft nodded slightly and turned back to Mira. Mira looked at her a second longer, a curious look in her eyes. She turned back to Hawkcroft.

“We’re conducting some research that requires my full attention,” she said. “I’m hoping to avoid interruptions.” Her voiced sounded clipped. “So, unless you need something?”

“My apologies,” Hawkcroft flushed. “I wanted to join you tomorrow, when you meet with Sir Ashford. I hoped to speak with him regarding his support for the Conclave and a new project I have in mind.”

“Forgive me, Master Hawkcroft,” Mira said, gently. She offered Hawkcroft a slight smile. “As an independent mage, it would be improper for me to introduce a Synod master about Synod business to a noble like Sir Ashford. It might seem like I’m endorsing your project, though I know nothing about it. I wouldn’t want to unduly influence Sir Ashford.”

Hawlcroft frowned. “Ah, yes, of course, but I’d hoped…”

“What I can do for you,” Mira interrupted, stepping closer to the archway. Hawkcroft stepped with her, perhaps unconsciously. “…is mention to Sir Ashford the Synod’s deep appreciation for his support and your interest in an audience with him.” Mira stood under the archway. Hawkcroft now stood outside of it. “Would that do?” Mira asked.

“Yes, that would be splendid. Thank you,” Hawkcroft nodded and left.

Mira sat back at the desk. “Where were we?”

“You’re not a member of the Synod?” Katla asked.

Mira shook her head. “I am independent. Always been. It allows me freedom to move between the Synod and the Whispers. I can focus on what I care about. Magic. Without all the political games. As much as someone with influence can avoid politics, anyway.”

Katla studied her for a moment. “Everyone clearly admires and respects you. I bet you could run one of these conclaves.”

Mira nodded. “I considered it once. Was given the opportunity in Cyrodiil. To become First Adjunct of the conclave in Chorrol.” Mira’s voice dropped. “If I had, I could’ve had Tara come study with me. Taken her away from home.”

Sadness flickered across her face. “Perhaps I should have, for her sake.”

Katla remained silent.

“It’s in the past now,” Mira cleared her throat and straightened up. “I wanted the freedom to travel and study the magic I was interested in. Independence gives me that, and my reputation gives me access to all mage institutions as needed. Speaking of, these books…”

“One more question,” Katla said. “When I said my ‘name’, Ella Tallowhand, you gave me a look. Why?”

Katla hadn’t told Mira about meeting her father in The Rest’s Finest. Perhaps he’d mentioned some new potential customer at dinner?

“Where did you get the name from?”

“My mother’s name was Ella. Tallowhand is the name of the family a cousin married into.”

“Nord family?” Mira asked.

Katla thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Right before my parents…died, we’d received a letter from my cousin, Anja Hammerheart, announcing her marriage and decision to take his name. I assume Nord, but I haven’t been in contact with any family since…that day.”

Mira grew thoughtful. “A wise decision, I think. No way to know if other family members are also cultists. You may not be able to trust them.”

She looked over at the bookcase with the ancient books. “Tallowhand is related, distantly, to us, on my father’s side. Some cousins or something. So, I recognized the name. They are Bretons, though, not Nords. Unless they’re blended.”

“I’d wondered why…” Katla caught herself from mentioning Mira’s father. “That explains your reaction.”

“Shall we start reading?” Mira asked. She stood and walked over to the bookcase. She pulled out two books. The one she handed to Katla was thick, bound in cracked leather, with a faded title that read Families of Wayrest.

“Speaking of families, this goes back to early Second Era. Covers many noble and merchant families throughout the Kingdom of Wayrest. Merchants have had as much influence as nobles at times in Wayrest, so there’s as much history written about them, as nobles. We know Geonette’s second in command was a Bedore Ashsmith. And there was a Lysona Meric. See if you can find either family and trace any members.”

Katla nodded, then asked another question. “Is Bedore a common name for Breton men?”

Mira sat down and shrugged. “It’s old. I know that much.” She studied Katla, her icy blue eyes curious again. “It’s my father’s name. Passed down over the years, much like ‘Tara’ and ‘Mira’ have been. Have you met another Bedore?”

Katla shook her head. “No, I just…” She sighed. What had she gotten angry at Tara for? Not being honest. If she and Mira were going to work together, she had to be honest.

“I went into The Rest’s Finest and met your father,” she confessed in rapid fire.

Katla marveled at Mira’s face. She’d not thought it possible for someone to look more serious. Mira’s eyes looked as if an ice spike might shoot out and hit her. Her mouth became the thinnest line Katla thought possible on a face.

“Did you give him the ‘Ella Tallowhand’ name?” she asked. Her voice was low and rigid.

Tara would have exploded. An angry outburst. Katla could have yelled back. She didn’t know how to respond to Mira. She felt like a child being dressed down.

“I…yes, he introduced himself. I hadn’t meant to speak to him, but he came over,” she said.

Mira’s face and voice remained rigid. “We can’t let him see you again. Or know you’re my assistant.” She thought for a moment. “The chance of him coming here to see me are low. He practically lives at the store and goes home only at night. I don’t know what else he does, but nobles aren’t here, so you should be safe.”

Mira leaned forward, her wood chair shifting slightly on the hard quarried stone floor. “You need to stay out of sight. Your room at the inn and here. That’s it. Eat your meals at the inn. Do not go near the Merchant District or the docks. My father has eyes all over the city.”

Katla nodded. “Sure, I can…”

“I will come get you at the inn every morning when we work here. When I have meetings, stay at the inn. Do not give this Ella name out to anyone. Use something else, not Katla, if asked.” She leaned back in her chair. “He probably already has a description of you…” her voice trailed off on the last sentence.

“I’m sorry,’ Katla said. “I just wanted to see the man…”

Mira waved her hand to dismiss her. “We can’t change the past. Father has a lot of influence, but so do I. You should stay in Wayrest only as long as needed. Once we’re done researching what we can here, you’ll need to leave.”

She leaned forward again. “I don’t know how much my parents know about Geonette or the Order. Like Tara, they only told me about her joining the Glenmoril Wyrd, as the coven was called then. Until I know more, we must assume they know a lot. Which means we keep you out of sight of them for now.”

Katla nodded. Mira was right. Wayrest had been making Katla nervous since she arrived, in spite of its beauty. She was grateful to see Tara’s home, but it struck her she would’ve been safer going back to Cyrodiil.

The heart of the beast.

“Let’s read,” Mira said, cutting off further conversation.

4E 203 – War

Tara studied the Imperial Legion soldiers from her perch above them, on Solitude’s walls.

Perhaps the best thing about her home was its location along the city walls. Few buildings had an entry point along the top of the walls. She’d only seen guard towers and a few into Castle Dour, the castle the Imperial Legion was stationed in. As for the Blue Palace, the palace was far taller than the walls there and Tara had not seen any doorways in. Guards patrolled heavily and the one time she’d walked along the palace, they’d hurried her away. Guards patrolled the entire wall system constantly. Rarely did any other citizen walk up here. Tara had both quiet and a sense of safety. She marveled that Katla had the chance to buy the place.

Castle Dour sat on the western side of Solitude, halfway across the city from her house. The castle had a huge walled courtyard with Solitude banners hanging throughout. She was surprised they’d not been exchanged for the Empire’s distinct dragon symbol ones. Targets for archery and various melee weapons dotted the yard. A large fire pit, constantly lit, was surrounded by sitting benches, in the center of the cobblestone yard. Entry to the Temple of the Divines, and the Thalmor headquarters, could be accessed from here.

For having a diplomatic headquarters here, Tara hadn’t seen many Thalmor. In the city, she’d seen plenty of High elves, but Thalmor agents, the actual military branch of the Dominion, their government, were few. Tara wondered how much pressure the Emperor, or Jarl Elsif, who now ruled Solitude, had put on them to keep their numbers low.

Solitude was Imperial, dedicated to the Empire, in attitude. That did not indicate any love for the Thalmor, though. Why the Stormcloaks didn’t understand that was beyond Tara. No one liked the signing of the White-Gold Concordat, and the resulting banning of Talos worship, that had ended the Great War.

Tara pressed her hand against her leather armor and felt Freta’s Talos amulet underneath. She’d never take it off. Not for Katla, and certainly not for these elves. One just had to know how to hide it. Besides, she didn’t worship Talos, so would never lie if asked. Freta was why she wore it. Freta was who mattered.

Find a new purpose, so you don’t fail the other.

Damn Stormcloaks, she thought.

She’d done her best to ignore the politics going on in Skyrim, but these last few days in Solitude had brought it back to the forefront for her. Garrisons of Imperial soldiers came and went constantly. She’d watched injured soldiers being treated non-stop.

The civil war was in full swing in Skyrim. Traveling with Katla, they’d managed to avoid any skirmishes between the Stormcloaks and Imperial Legion.

They’d seen the ruins of battles, though. Damaged forts, but, mostly, sadly, the random field that held burnt out carts, dead horses, and unburied dead, waiting for priests to arrive and perform rituals. Like seeing the occasional dragon off in the distance, she and Katla hadn’t discussed it much, and had kept themselves focused on avoiding assassins and necromancers.

Tara shifted her stance and watched the archers practicing below. Their captain, she hadn’t caught his name, barked orders and corrections. Two of the three archers were a good shot, but the third one, well, Tara hoped he was better with a sword.

Was she really going to do this?

Was this her purpose? Was this why she was really in Solitude?

Find a new purpose.

Last night, drinking in the Winking Skeever, had brought her the complete story of Ulfric Stomrcloak’s killing of High King Torygg, and the later execution of Roggvir, the gate guard on duty who’d let Ulfric escape the city. The killing of Skyrim’s High King, the leader of this province, who answered only to the Emporer, Titus Mede II, had shaken Solitude and Skyrim itself.

Even now, they hadn’t yet chosen Jarl Elsif, Torygg’s widow, to become High Queen. Several holds now supported Ulfric and wanted him selected as High King.

Tara thought of her time in Windhelm and the utter contempt the people there had for anyone not a Nord. Neither she nor Katla had liked the place. If that was how Ulfric ran a city, well, Tara had already known which side she was on. Windhelm had only reinforced it.

Was she really going to do this?

She shifted her gaze to the soldiers practicing their sword work. They seemed capable enough. Was Tara up to their skill level yet? With an axe, she was superior. She could see it in their footwork, which seemed slow and sloppy to her.

With a sword, though? When was the last time she’d used a sword? The Fighter’s Guild, three years ago?

Find a new purpose, so you don’t fail the other.

In her bones, this felt right. More training, more structure. A purpose. She could help people again. Travel Skyrim, too, with some authority. That alone could help her find more necromancers to wipe out.

Did she want to fight in a war? No. One could argue it wasn’t even her fight. Skyrim wasn’t her province, her home.

It was Katla’s, though. And Freta’s.

Tara shifted her feet again. She turned her gaze to the Blue Palace, its glass dome shining in the afternoon light.

High Rock was where she was from. Skyrim was where she wanted to be. With Katla by her side. Since meeting Freta, and first learning about Nords and their culture, this felt more real. More fitting.

The political games here were not the games of High Rock or Cyrodiil. Here, you eventually fought it out. Here, nature was closer. Your status was based on your deeds. Here, the land needed you to work it to succeed.

She needed to fight for Skyrim. And whether some Nords knew it or not, fighting for Skyrim was fighting in the Imperial Legion. Stopping these so-called rebels from destroying the honor of Nords, and weakening the Empire right before the Thalmor’s eyes, who must be gleefully watching the troubles.

This was her new purpose.

Tara headed down from the wall, to Castle Dour, to join the Legion.

4E 203 – Research

Katla stepped inside The Rest’s Finest and immediately regretted it.

She stood out, as if she were a giant stepping into the store. She’d been in Wayrest a week now and was still marveling at the city, including the shorter height of most of its citizens. It’d always struck her as odd that Breton women were so short, and the men were a tad shorter than Nord men.

After all, Bretons’ ancestors were High elves and Nedic humans. High elves were the tallest of the people of Tamriel. Nedes were ancestors of Imperials, too, and known to be at least of average height. How the Bretons had turned out so short compared to their ancestry confused her.

As a tall Nord woman, she stood out. She was of a more slender build than most Nord women, but she had the height. Standing in the store, she realized she was the only Nord within, though she’d seen plenty in the city. Wayrest was the important cultural, political, and port city in High Rock. She’d seen every race here. Even Orcs.

Katla scanned the store, partly for safety.

You’re in the heart of the beast, remember? The cult started here.

Yes, the Order of the Fire Queen had started here. Wayrest was Tara’s birth home, as it was the birthplace of the Geonette family. Katla’s research had indicated they’d started back late in the First Era.

Never nobles, they nonetheless had always been a successful merchant family. The family farm, located somewhere outside the city, had started early in the Second Era.

There will be cultists here. Be careful.

His voice caught her ears and Katla looked towards it to lay eyes on Tara’s father, owner of The Rest’s Finest.

He was big for a Breton, wide-shouldered, barrel chested, above average height. He looked to be only an inch shorter than Katla. His hair was raven black, with streaks of gray running through it. His eyes struck Katla as beady, buried in a thick jawed face.

Intimidating.

Not in the moment, though. His voice was loud and boisterous as he showed another Breton male some ornate carved wood desk. In this moment, he came across as a charming salesman.

Katla took a moment to take in the store. It was large, feeling at moments filled to the brim with furniture, clothes, jewelry, and odds and ends. Everything was arranged carefully, though, and once one finished taking in all there was to see, the store had plenty of room to move around freely, and not feel claustrophobic. You had space to admire everything at your own pace.

Everything here was a luxury, Katla realized. Either not practical, or of the highest quality. Breton culture was, perhaps, the most artful and civilized out of the human races. Nobility and politics was a long running game here. Cyrodiil might be the seat of the Empire, but High Rock seemed to hold the true heart of kings, queens, and knights.

Her brief time in Wayrest had revealed architecture of wood and stone, on a grander scale than the cities of Cyrodiil. Pointed towers, statues galore dedicated to this noble or that. Bright banners of signage and family crests that had quickly been lost on Katla.

Katla stepped closer to a nearby collection of dresses, hanging on display. The fabric here was fine silk, linen, and other delicate fabrics. These were the dresses of nobles, for an appearance at a fancy event. They were beautiful, and nothing like Katla had seen or owned before.

She wanted one. To own a truly gorgeous gown, to take a moment and turn and dance in it for Tara at some frivolous party? How wonderful would that be, even for one night? To be carefree for a day.

A glance at the price knocked her back to reality. Yes, this store was for nobles to shop in, not Nords barely scraping by.

“May I help you?”

Katla jumped. Tara’s father had appeared next to her.

A smile spread across his face and he held out his hand. “I didn’t mean to startle you. My name’s Bedore Blaton. Are you interested in one of these beautiful dresses?” he asked.

His eyes were a dark gray, with a hint of blue. If his face had not been so heavily jawed, he might have been handsome.

She put her hand in his offered one, meaning to give it a simple shake.

Bedore gripped her hand firmly, though, and brought it to his lips. He bowed and kissed her knuckles.

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms….?” he asked.

Katla swallowed her disgust at the gesture and rising realization of who she was talking to. The hand that had gripped hers had beaten Tara as a child. This man before her had beaten Tara and used magic to suppress, no, oppress her. This man had tried non-stop to marry Tara off to a noble. Of course his store catered to such nobles.

Katla felt anger rise within, flushing her face. The nights she’d held Tara while she cried and recounted the beatings, the abuse, the constant state of feeling out of herself, and a burden to her family for reasons she didn’t understand. This man was the cause of that. Her mother deserved blame, too, but Bedore Blaton was the main reason Tara exploded in anger, and still woke from nightmares, all these years later.

Katla swallowed her own anger. He couldn’t know who she was. She had no idea if Mira had written and revealed her name to him. She felt she could trust Mira, but one never knew when a mistake might be made.

“Ms. Ella Tallowhand,” Katla answered, thinking of her mother’s name, plus the family name a cousin had married into. That was all that had popped in her mind at the question.

Bedore’s eyes shifted and he tilted his head slightly, as if the name had made him curious. His smile increased. “What a…wonderful name,” he said.

Katla felt hairs on her arm rise. She’d said something wrong.

“These dresses are only as lovely as the woman who wears them. I believe royal blue would be stunning on you,” Bedore said. He reached for the dress Katla had been admiring the most.

“Oh, they’re beautiful, but I’m not ready to purchase today,” Katla stammered.

Calm down.

“I am considering a new desk, though,” she said. She needed to look like she had come to shop. Something to dissuade any suspicion he might have. She quickly moved towards the small collection of wood desks in the store. The Breton man Bedore had spoken to earlier was still standing and admiring the ornate desk.

Katla chose the one furthest from him, a small desk, less ornate, though still carved beautifully and made of a rich, almost black wood Katla had not seen before. The desk looked like the type one might find in the entry hall of a noble’s house, where courier letters were set before being sorted through and read.

“This is beautiful and the perfect size,” she said, trying to sound interested, and discerning.

“Oh, yes,” Bedore said. He pointed out the drawer, sliding it out, then showing her the deep carving on the legs. “The desk comes all the way from Gideon. One of a kind. Perfect for an upstanding citizen.”

Katla nodded as if fascinated. She examined the price and put a look on her face she hoped showed it was not a shocking number.

“I will have to consider it,” she said. Had she managed to sound like some conceited noble? She wasn’t sure. “You certainly have the most beautiful furniture and clothing I have seen since I arrived,” she added.

“Oh, from where did you arrive?” Bedore asked. His eyes did not hide their curiosity.

“I really must be going,” Katla said, hurriedly.

She needed to get out of here.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Blaton. I’ll be in touch.” Katla rushed out of the store. Bright sunlight blinded her briefly and she bumped into two young Breton women passing by.

“I’m so sorry,” she stammered at their stunned faces. She’d nearly knocked the blond one off her feet. She was usually so coordinated, deft. As sure footed as they came.

Calm down.

She took a deep breath and slowed, making her way to her room at the Cloudy Dregs Inn. She’d rented a back room, small and out of the way, to save money and remain as hidden as possible while here.

Gods, why had she come to Wayrest? She’d not realized how nervous the city might make her.

She’d come for research and to meet Mira.

She, Mira, and Tara had all written to each other and come up with a plan. They were to stay in touch with each other and share information. Mira and Katla were to focus on research into the order, while Tara’s main task was to guard the red soul gem, and kill any and all necromancers she came across.

Both Katla and Mira thought the cultists would stay focused in Skyrim, assuming Katla continued to live there. The question was if they knew Tara had the soul gem, or how involved she was with Katla. Best for them to stay separated while research continued.

Tara had argued otherwise, and complained she had nothing to do that was helpful or protective. Mira and Katla had stayed firm. Katla’s heart ached at the decision. How long before she’d see Tara again?

Katla got back to her room and sat in her chair. The rented room was simple, with a single bed, small dresser for storing belongings, a lockable chest for more important belongings, and a single chair and table. The furniture was soft and felt rich. Plush, in a way Nord furniture never was.

She pulled out the most recent letter from Mira and read it again. Mira estimated she’d arrive in Wayrest on the 11th of Rain’s Hand. She’d send a courier to Katla about where to meet.

“I’ll stay with my parents, on the farm, as a base,” the letter had said. “I have plenty of people to meet and greet, as I’m famous in Wayrest. Well, all of High Rock. The nobles and local mages always want to meet with me and discuss magic discoveries and ask for favors. I must keep up that appearance and play the game.”

Mira was savvy in a way Tara wasn’t, Katla had realized. She understood her influence and the importance of using it.

“My need to meet with many nobles will afford an easy reason to be in the city. It provides plenty of cover to meet with you. Spending my nights at the farm, though, will allow me time to reinforce my relations with my parents. Father, especially, will be mesmerized by my daily stories of charming the nobles. It should loosen his tongue.”

The plan seemed solid to Katla. She had to trust Mira knew her parents and how to handle them. Mira was focused on their father, which confused Katla some. The Geonette name came on their mother’s side. Their mother was a direct descendant of Tara Geonette, not Bedore Blaton.

Bedore Blaton. Katla shivered at the fresh memory of him. Why had she gone into that store? Mira had told her to lay low, to avoid meeting people. What had she been thinking?

She’d been curious. The horrors Tara had told her. She’d needed to see the man in person. To look into the face of someone who had done horrible things to the woman she loved.

What had she found? She always thought evil people had a look to them. That you could see the evil in them, like a mark, warning you of danger.

Evil didn’t work that way, though. People didn’t work that way. Had she not known his history, would she have been entranced by the kiss on the hand, the charming smile? He was almost handsome, and with that charm, Katla imagined she would’ve enjoyed being sweet talked into buying that gorgeous dress, or new desk. People held many sides at once. They didn’t tend to announce their dangers.

There was a reason his store was successful. He knew how to charm the nobles. How Mira was going to stay under one roof with such a person was beyond Katla. Then again, Mira had her own dark shame. Outwardly, and to Katla, she was well liked, respected, and seemed genuinely interested in helping. Yet, she’d done her part to hurt Tara.

Gods, what a fucked up family, Katla thought. How had Tara survived it?

You survived yours.

Katla felt tears sprout. Her parents. Necromancers. Seemingly good people with dark secrets. Were her own parents an even greater example of the many sides of evil?

No, Katla thought. There had to be more to this. Her parents had not abused her, or shown any sign of ill deeds.

They had the soul gem. They were trusted with the soul gem.

Maybe they’d stolen it. Maybe they’d left the cult and taken the soul gem, intent on destroying it and undoing whatever terrible things they’d done. Like Mira seemed to be trying to do with Tara.

Katla looked at the letter again. The 11th of Rain’s Hand. Two days from now.

Katla looked across her room at her ebony bow, on the weapon rack next to the bed. All the rooms in the inn had weapon storage. She was grateful she could keep it close, though wandering the streets of Wayrest with it would look odd. Only guards and knights seemed to carry weapons here. This wasn’t Skyrim, where you practically lived in armor.

Lay low, stay out of sight. She needed to do that.

She should write Tara. An ache hit her. She wanted to hold her. Tell her again how horrible her father had been. That she was safe from him now.

Should she tell her she’d met him? What would Tara think?

That you made a stupid mistake and put yourself in senseless danger, Katla thought. Tara was practical and protective.

She’d write Tara about the beauty of the city instead. About the sounds and smell of the dock district, of traveling across the Iliac Bay to get here. Tara loved being near water.

Best to send her something positive about Wayrest.

Katla pulled out fresh paper and started writing.