4E 204 – Family Ties

“When I failed her, you stepped in. You saved her when I couldn’t. Thank you.”

Mira folded the letter and placed it back into the hidden pocket within her traveling bag. She wiped the tear running down her face. Tara had written.

The letter was short and to the point, as all Tara’s were to her. Did she expect anything more? She hadn’t earned Tara’s trust back. Would she ever?

Katla was headed back to Skyrim, to Tara. Somewhere along the way, she’d sent Tara word of what had happened at her childhood home and making it to Mira’s house safely, after the attack. Mira providing the teleport scrolls and safety of her home, even when she herself wasn’t there, had moved Tara. Alleviated some guilt she had about protecting Katla.

Mira hadn’t questioned helping Katla. She was glad she’d thought to create the teleport scrolls and given them to her. She’d long ago set up her home to protect herself from those who didn’t agree with her research.

In studying all there was about magic, and proving some long held beliefs wrong, Mira had gained detractors, and a few enemies. She’d cultivated enough relationships with nobles to watch the deadly political games they played with each other. Setting her home up so no one could enter made sense. You’d have to be a mage of considerable skill to gain entry. As long as the Divines and Daedra weren’t meddling, it was the safest place to be.

Gods, how she missed home. To sit on the east balcony, watching sun rays break over the city walls of Chorrol on an early morning. Those were perfect days. 

Mira finished preparing for her day. She was meeting with Hawkcroft this morning, then heading to the library for more study. There wasn’t much left to dig through. Today would be her last there. She’d release the reserved space and take what materials she could with her.

What she really wanted to do today was talk to Mom again about Tara Geonette and the order. Since their conversation a few weeks ago, Mira had gleamed little else from her. Mom had mumbled again about a ritual, and her regret Mira hadn’t experienced it.

Mira had denied it to herself, but it was clear now, they were somehow involved with the cult. Between talk of a ritual, Mom’s excitement when talking about Geonette, and the painting on the wall, of course they were. They were also the closest blood relatives to the ancient woman.

Is that why they’d fought so much when Mira was young? Had Mom been in the order and refused to leave it? Perhaps it wasn’t the farm they always fought over, but the order instead.

Mom avoided talk about the order when Father was around. Did he know she was still in it? Had he been forced to join? Mira wasn’t sure. She hadn’t figured out the disparity between them.

Mom’s the direct blood descendant. Maybe Father is jealous.

Could it be as simple as that?

Father was the most selfish, self-involved person she knew. Perhaps it was that simple.

Mira made her way to Hawkcroft’s home. A warm breeze greeted her on the walk, hinting at the coming spring.

Hawkcroft was a member. Finding his family name in the records explained his focus on Katla those times in the library and the endless meetings he kept arranging with Mira. Always speaking to Mira about nothing she was interested in. She suspected today would be the same. He was digging for information.

A young, dark elf let her into Hawkcroft’s home. Grandiose, the entryway was lined in marble and gave off the feel of a museum, not someone’s place to call home.

The dark elf, introducing herself as Sherith, asked her to wait while she fetched Hawkcroft. Slavery had long been banned in High Rock. Servitude, though, could still be found, hidden in plain sight. Mira suspected Sherith was such.

Mira studied the paintings hanging in the high-ceiling rotunda that was the entryway.

Check the frames. Look for the symbol.

Most of the paintings seemed to be of Hawkcroft ancestors. Like so many noble homes, they celebrated which ever ancestor had gained nobility or accomplished something.

Mira marveled at how many of these ancient people were raven haired, like her. Sharp blue eyes and black hair greeted her from nearly every frame.

So much for the Geonette family claiming the combination.

The fifth painting had the mark. A faded wood burn of the tree and sun symbol sat in the lower right corner of the painting of an older woman, raven haired with pale blue eyes. Nira Hawkcroft, the label said. One of the names Katla had found as part of their research. An original member of the order. The symbol could’ve been confused for a knot in the wood frame, if Mira hadn’t know what to look for. Was the symbol only tied to original members of the order?

“Master Blaton! Welcome to my humble home,” Hawkcroft said as he descended the long iron staircase on the left side of the room. Mira turned to greet him.

“The invitation is appreciated,” Mira said. “I apologize for my limited time today. What can I help you with?” She had what she needed; no need to stay longer than necessary.

Hawkcroft led her into his study, a large room to the right of the rotunda. Lit candles gave the room an unexpected warm glow. He motioned to a soft chair in front of his desk. He seated himself behind the desk. 

“Straight to business, as always,” Hawkcroft said.

Mira suppressed the urge to put him in his place.

“One of my many failings.” She gave him a quick smile.

Hawkcroft started in on a fresh pitch for expansion of the Synod and hinted at wanting Mira to join the Wayrest conclave.

He’d had this conversation with her a month ago. They danced their way through the same talking points, Mira refusing any suggestion she join the conclave and chiding him when he asked her to speak to some of the nobles she had established relationships with.

Why had he invited her to his home for this spiel? She’d been firm at the library a month ago. She did not mince words. He knew that. No meant no.

He’s keeping you distracted.

“Master Hawkcroft,” Mira interrupted him.

“…trying to establish our, er, yes?”

“Was there anything else you needed? My answer to the Synod is no.”

His eyes darted to his desk, as if he was trying to think of something.

Mira stood. “Again, my schedule today is tight. I must take my leave. Thank you for your time.”

Hawkcroft sputtered as he followed her out. Mira made a point to bring herself to her full height and let her robes flow behind her, as if she were a high queen with no time for a lesser. It’d always been an effective tactic at keeping people at a distance, and giving her a veil of authority, even with her equals.

He might be dangerous. He’s in the order.

Mira doubted he could match her skills. Hawkcroft had never been a practical mage nor a researcher. He’d seemed a member of the Synod more for the politics; the power it granted some people in society. Not for real magical power.

“Good day, Master Hawkcroft.” Mira nodded and left before he could further protest.

The walk to the library was brief, Hawkcroft’s home only a couple of blocks away. The weather had reverted to the cold of a winter day.

It matched how she felt inside. What had he been distracting her from?

Standing inside her reserved section in the library, it was obvious.

Books were missing. The two she’d planned to finish reading today.

Breton Nobility After the Three Banners War and Thoughts on Oblivion and Pocket Realms.

Why?

You were too close to something.

Mira flipped through the remaining books. All that remained were the ones she and Katla had combed through already. Ones she intended to return because she was finished with them.

Her time in Wayrest was over, it seemed. Members of the order were on to her.

Was she still safe?

Yes. A direct descendant of Tara Geonette carried weight. She was sure of that.

You’re not in the order, though.

Perhaps it was time she made her way home. To Chorrol.

She wanted more information from Mom, though. The ritual, confirmation they were in the order, any more information she could drag out of her. If she hurried back to the farm, she’d have time to question her before Father came home.

Winds picked up on her way back to the farm. Clouds had gathered and Mira wondered if they’d get a snow storm tonight or tomorrow. One last big blow from winter before spring made its appearance.

More proof she should head back to Cyrodiil and home. Wayrest wasn’t welcoming any more.

Mom was feeding the chickens and adjusting their bedding in the hen house, to give them extra warmth against the fresh cold. Mira pitched in to help.

“I’m leaving tomorrow. Heading back to Chorrol,” Mira said.

“So soon?” Mom asked. Her voice sounded distant yet curious.

“My research here is finished.”

Mom nodded, but didn’t offer any more conversation.

They finished and headed inside.

“Come help me with dinner,” Mom said.

“Let me wash up first,” Mira said. She started towards her room, where a wash basin waited.

“I’d like your help with dinner first…” Mom called.

Mira stopped at the doorway of her room.

Someone had gone through her things.

They’d almost put her traveling bag back in place, but the strap sat wrong and the covers on her bed looked wrinkled where someone had sat. Mira had made the bed this morning. She never left wrinkles behind.

Her second bag, the one containing research books she’d borrowed from the library, still sat on the chair in the room. A quick look told her its contents had been left alone.

What were they looking for in her traveling bag?

They? You know who it was.

Mom. No one else was home, unless Father had left the store early. And what? Left the house again to go back to the store? No.

Mira dug through her bag. She sent a swift prayer up to the Divines, grateful she kept her journal on her at all times. Most of her research was written in the small notebook, buried in her flowing robes. The traveling bag had little in it. When packed, it’d mostly hold her clothes and personal effects.

Tara’s letters.

Mira checked the hidden pocket she kept the letters in. Had they been tampered with? Read by someone else’s eyes? She couldn’t tell. The creases seemed the same. She flipped through them, checking if they were out of the order she kept them in.

The third and fourth letter were out of order. Had she done that by mistake?

No.

“I need your help with dinner,” Mom said. She stood at Mira’s doorway, light from the nearby candles throwing shadows across her face.

Mira carefully replaced the letters, before turning around to face Mom.

“I’ll be right there. Need to wash my hands.”

Mom wavered, then turned and headed back to the kitchen. She’d not met Mira’s eyes.

Mira closed her eyes and pulled in a deep breath. What to do?

She’d use a calm spell. Maybe add a fear spell. Find out what Mom knew. Why she’d been looking through Tara’s letters. Find out what she knew about the order. Why they were after Katla.

They must know Katla is Tara’s girlfriend, she thought. That Tara would know where Katla is.

You promised yourself you’d never use that spell again.

It had to be done. They’d made her use calm on Tara so much when they were kids. Why not use it now to help the three of them, Mira, Katla, and Tara?

Don’t do this.

This was different. She had good reason.

Was that just an excuse?

Mira stepped into the kitchen. Mom was slicing fresh chicken into strips and placing them on a baking sheet.

“Wash the leeks for…” Mom started.

Mira hit her with a fear spell first, then a calming spell. She watched the blue glow of the calming spell envelop Mom, her eyes widening in surprise and fear, before settling into a drunken state.

“Sit.” Mira pointed to the chair closest to Mom. Mom obeyed and Mira sat in the chair across from her.

“Did you go through my letters from Tara?” she asked.

Mom seemed to tremble. Her voice was distant. “Yes.”

“Why?”

Mom frowned and shook her head.

Calm isn’t mind control, Mira reminded herself. It subdued, yes, as it had so much on Tara. But, it had limits. She’d hoped the addition of the fear spell would prompt answers more easily.

“Why?!”

Mom trembled. “I need to know where she is.”

Katla? Or Tara?

“Where who is?” she asked.

“She has…she is…” Mom shook her head. She seemed to be fighting the spells.

Mira hit her with a fear spell again. Mom’s eyes widened and she cowered back in her chair.

Don’t do this, Mira. Don’t be like them.

“Are you in the Order of the Fire Queen?”

Mom sat straight, puffing out her chest. “Of course.”

“Is Father?”

“Of course he is. Why else would we have married?” Mom’s chest had fallen. Her face had fallen, too, a wave of sadness replacing the fear.

Mira swallowed. There it was.

“Why is the order after Katla?”

Mom frowned. “Traitors,” she muttered.

“Who’s a traitor?”

Mom’s eyes went wide with fear again. “You need the ritual.”

“What is the ritual?”

“He says you don’t, because we don’t matter.” Mom reached up and touched her hair. “But, we’re not like they were. And I want you with us.”

Mira stood. This wasn’t working. Perhaps the spell was wearing off too fast. For all her skill, Mira had vowed never to use calm or illusion spells again. She’d not practiced them much in over ten years. Had never used one on an adult. Tara had been a child. The strength of the spell needed would’ve been different. Had she not judged correctly for Mom?

“Where is she?” Mom said. Her eyes looked sharper. The spells were wearing off.

“What do you want with her?”

Mom shook her head. “We do matter. It’s our job. We had the one.” Mom stood suddenly.

Mira stepped back.

Leave.

“You need the ritual. Then I can explain.” Mom’s eyes pleaded.

“Maybe, Mom,” Mira said. Would agreeing to this ritual get her the answers she needed?

Leave!

Mom took a step towards her. “Then you’ll understand. Then you can help us find her.”

Mira hit Mom with another calm spell. Her eyes clouded over and she sat in the chair again.

Leave!

Mira cast a detect life spell. She’d never used the spell before, barely remembered the process. It was useful for revealing those near you who were living. Useful for adventurers exploring dark caves or ancient ruins. Mira had never thought she’d need it.

The walls of the house seemed to fade. Small red lights formed on the other side of the walls, resolving into the shapes of chickens. Past them, more distant, but larger, the herd of cattle they owned also came into shape. Mira looked towards where the road led to Wayrest. There, a solitary red light shape formed and resolved into what she feared. The shape of a person. Moving towards them. Father.

Mira packed her traveling bag. She was grateful for how lightly she traveled. Enough clothes and minimal supplies were all she ever needed. She grabbed her second bag off the chair and came back to the kitchen.

Mom looked to be shaking off the calm spell again. Bretons were naturally resistant to magic. It had not occurred to her to compensate the strength of the spell for that.

Your heart wasn’t in it. You didn’t want to use it.

Their eyes met, Mom’s pale blue ones gripping Mira’s matching ones.

“I want you with us,” Mom said. “It will all be worth it.”

Mira heard the front door knob start to turn. Father had arrived.

Unlike Katla, she did not need a scroll to go home. She’d invented the teleport spell to her house, of course, and knew it by heart. In an instant, she arrived home, in Chorrol. She was safe.

Mom’s pale blue eyes lingered on her mind and followed her in her dreams that night.

2E 592 – Sacrifice

Tara Geonette studied Lysona from outside the alchemy lab. The woman was petite, even for a Breton. Her blond hair sat in a bun, with a long, loose strand tracing her face. A functional hairstyle while she worked.

Was Tara really going to do this? Sacrifice her true tastes?

Yes. She’d thought on it long enough. There was no other way. Plans had changed with Bedore. Lysona would have to do. And she, Tara, would do whatever was necessary to reach her goals.

She could do this. She could do anything.

Besides, she’d find ways to take care of her own needs.

She stepped into the lab. “What are you working on?” She let her voice drop into a casual, sultry tone.

Lysona jumped and turned around. She beamed at Tara.

“My queen! I am working on the fertility potion, as you requested.” Her voice was high pitched, rising in her excitement to see Tara.

“Is it ready?” Tara stepped over to the main alchemy table and looked at the small, black pot Lysona had been leaning over. The liquid inside was red, with a distinct smell of lavender.

The alchemy lab sat high in the tower, one floor below Tara’s lab. Lysona’s domain, few were allowed to enter it. Tara admired the stone work in the room; the way sunlight from the five high windows gave everything a rich glow. Neat, wood tables were scattered about. All contained various mortar and pestles, plus an alembic set. Ingredients lined the west side of the room. Every plant Tara knew as useful sat on a shelf. Rarer ingredients lined two bookcases with glass doors. The setup was an alchemist’s dream. Tara had made sure of that.

“Almost,” Lysona said, breathless. She stepped close to Tara, as if wanting to bask in her presence. Tara felt Lysona lightly touch her arm.

Tara had changed into leather pants and a flowing shirt, with the order’s emblem sewn on the upper left chest. She’d had a variety of clothes made for herself. It seemed important to not dress like the rest of the order. She was the queen. Couldn’t look like a common member.

The shirt was low-cut around the neck, showing enough skin to be enticing.

She probably didn’t need to try this hard, Tara thought. Lysona’s desire for her was plain to anyone. Not a speech went by without Lysona staring at her with abject longing. Her eagerness to do anything Tara asked was both disgustingly simpering, yet perfect.

If not Lysona, who else? She was so easy to control. Besides, Tara needed her skills. And blood.

The woman could be bold, too. Lysona had now pressed herself against Tara as they stood at the table, studying the potion. Her shoulder and entire arm leaning against Tara’s arm. No one else had the audacity to touch their queen like Lysona did. It was charming. Similar to the boldness Bedore had shown early on.

If only she wasn’t a woman. Oh, well. Sacrifices.

“The new potency is perfect. Your suggestion of lavender was brilliant, my queen. It overpowers the flavor of the wine, though. I need to cut it with something, so no one knows it’s in the dinner wines. I’m going to try snowberries. Perhaps juniper berries, as well.”

Tara nodded at her. “Splendid. Have it ready to start dispensing next week. For now, only you are to add it to the casks. No one else is to know.”

Lysona nodded and gazed at her with intense blue eyes. The raw longing was there. Tara smiled at her.

Lysona had a round face, with light freckling decorating her nose. She was not plain, but her looks did nothing for Tara. There were several other women who loved only women here in the order. Tara had observed them all ask Lysona out, but she had turned them down. She seemed to be saving herself.

Time to give the woman what she wanted.

“I’d like to discuss something else with you,” Tara said. She stepped away from the table and closed the door to the alchemy lab. They needed to be alone.

Lysona’s eyes stayed glued to Tara. Tara stepped towards her.

“You still haven’t had children yet,” Tara said.

Lysona looked down, then back up at Tara. There was hope in her eyes. “You know who I want to have children with, my queen.” Her voice quivered.

“We can’t have children together, Lysona.” Tara switched to the patient voice she used with Tristard and little Lysona.

“There are ways,” Lysona said. Excitement crept into her voice. “I’ve heard Mara has a ritual…”

“No Divines! No Daedra!”

Lysona flinched and stepped back until she was pressed up against the alchemy table. Tara took advantage and moved closer, trapping Lysona against the table.

She lowered her voice, back to a patient, gentle tone that worked so well on the children.

“Divines or Daedra. Any of them would interfere with our goal. We can’t risk them noticing us.”

Tara reached out and grabbed Lysona’s hand. She caressed it. She had a fine line to walk.

“You and your entire family are incredible mages. You are the best alchemist that’s ever lived. I want the Meric and Geonette blood lines to blend,” she said. “We need to do it differently, that’s all.”

Lysona’s gaze was focused on her hand being held by Tara. Fear had been replaced by longing.

“I’m an only child, though, how can we blend?” she asked. “If not the two of us?”

“Through our descendants. Through another powerful family.”

Lysona’s brow creased. “Another?” She frowned. “Oh, you need me to get pregnant with a man. Who?”

“Bedore.”

Lysona pulled her hand away from Tara and stepped away from her. The mutter of disgust was unmistakable.

“Of all the…” she stammered and shot Tara a bitter look. “You know I hate him.”

Tara considered her words.

“I know,” she said. “I need you to do this for the order. For me.” She kept her gaze on Lysona, trying to give her a look of desperation.

“His blood line is essential to the order,” she added.

Lysona paced. Tara marveled the woman felt she could disrespect her queen this much.

“Is that why he sleeps with so many women in the order?” Lysona spat. “I’ve seen how he treats your relationship with him.”

Tara smiled. “He sleeps with them on my orders,” she said. Lysona stopped and studied her, to confirm the truth.

“The Ashsmith blood is too important to keep to myself,” Tara said. She took a step towards Lysona. “I’ve planned out the lines, and he’s only been with the women I approve of.” She gave Lysona a sly smile. “You don’t really think he’d be allowed such dalliances without my approval?”

“No, my queen,” Lysona’s voice softened. “Of course. I should have known.” She paused and swallowed.

“What about Maline?”

Tara felt her face harden. Fear crept into Lysona’s eyes. She’d stepped out of line.

“He was not to touch her,” Tara said. Her voice was stiff. Here was her chance, though. She cleared her throat.

“What happened to Maline is why I’m here,” she said, dropping back into her sultry tone. “I’ve realized my mistake.”

“Mistake?” Lysona looked confused. A fish taking the bait on the hook.

“You, dear Lysona, should have been my second in command this whole time,” Tara said. Was she affecting a tone of desire and remorse? She wasn’t sure.

She stepped closer to Lysona and took her hand again.

“I let my attraction to him, to his magical abilities, get the better of me,” she’d dropped her voice into a soft tone. “I…I hope I can rectify that now. With you.”

“With me?” Lysona’s eyes bore into Tara. The hope sprouting from her was delicious.

Tara pulled Lysona to her. She placed Lysona’s hand on her back, then took her right hand and gently tucked the loose strand of Lysona’s hair behind her ear, letting her fingers trace the woman’s ear lobe.

“Be my second,” she breathed. “I need you to sleep with Bedore once. Get pregnant by him.” She paused, letting her finger trace Lysona’s face, then her lips. The woman shook. “Afterwards, you and I can be together.”

“Together? As in, a couple?” Tara felt Lysona tremble again. Her hand had pressed into Tara’s back, pressing the two of them into an embrace.

“Yes,” Tara whispered. “You and I. Together in every way.”

“My queen…” Lysona’s eyes had widened, tears forming. Her voice wavered. “I…this is all I’ve ever wanted…”

Tara stepped back, pulling herself out of the embrace. She kept a smile on her face. She needed to keep the woman wanting. To insure she obeyed.

“I’ve created a special fertility potion for Bedore,” she said. “I’ll give it to him on the day you’re with him. This will guarantee you’ll only need to be with him once. You make sure to drink your fertility potion that day, too.”

Lysona swiftly composed herself. “Yes. Of course.”

“Invite him over for dinner.” Tara paced as she gave instructions. “Cook him something he likes. He loves venison. Perhaps make him a stew.” Tara stopped pacing and gave Lysona her full attention.

“It’ll be like dating a woman. Just let the conversation flow. I have no doubt he’ll take the intuitive when the moment is right. Like the other women, I will give him the order to be with you.”

Lysona nodded. She dropped her gaze.

“You’ve not been with a man before?” Tara asked.

“No.”

Tara set her tone gentle. “Your blood line and his mixing. It’s essential for the order. Just this once. Then, you and I. Forever.”

Lysona brought her eyes back up to Tara. There was a greedy look in them. The look Tara had noticed that day she’d met her in the alchemy shop back in Wayrest.

“He won’t like giving up his position of power.”

Tara smiled. “Your queen has plans for Bedore. You won’t have to worry about him after your night with him. I promise you.”

Lysona nodded, satisfied. She looked back over to the black pot with the fertility potion. “Well,” she said. “I should get back to perfecting the potion.”

Tara gave her a broad smile. “Make sure to tell me what night you’ll be with him.”

She stepped to the lab door and gave Lysona one more look. Longing had returned to Lysona’s face, though it was now edged with hope.

“You and I, Lysona. Forever.”

She opened the door and swept out.

4E 204 – Loyalty

Tara watched Codus Varro enter Solitude through its main gate. He did not look up as he made his way into the Winking Skeever, right below her.

Tara sighed and ran her hand through her hair, pushing the loose strands out of her face.

Why did it have to be him? The letter with instructions had told her Varro was the target, but until she saw him walk through the gate, she’d held out hope he wasn’t who she needed to kill.

Tara stepped back from the edge of the balcony and went back inside her home, the Lucky Skeever. How strange to be sitting above the Winking one, knowing he was just below her.

She’d been home a week now and had to admit it felt good. Safe.

The place hadn’t been touched since she’d left so many months ago. What felt like a lifetime ago. Before Rorikstead. And the Penitus Oculatus.

Tara picked up the mead she’d been drinking before she’d gone out to the balcony and drained it.

You need to stop drinking.

Why did it have to be Varro?

The only negative part about being home was this assignment. And the soul gem.

Tara had left the red soul gem here while she served in the Legion, then joined the Penitus Oculatus. That’d seemed the smart thing to do. She’d hidden it under a floorboard in the bedroom. Even if someone had broken into the place, they would’ve had to search for it.

Now, she had it in a drawer in the night table next to the bed. Nearby, in case she needed to grab it and run, but not sitting out in an obvious way.

When in the bedroom, she did her best not to acknowledge its presence, all the chaos it’d caused. Some days, though, it felt like it called to her. Whispered.

That had to be in her head.

Katla had written about going back to her old home, finding the journal, being attacked by someone, and escaping to Mira’s home. She had no idea who had attacked, but who else would’ve sent a fireball at her head except a member of the order?

Had they been watching the old home all this time? Or had they tracked down Katla that quickly, once she’d left High Rock? Were their spies everywhere?

“…most of it is destroyed, unreadable, but there’s information in the journal. I think it will help us. I won’t discuss it any more until we’re together. I miss you so much.”

Even though she’d written in their code, Katla had refused to reveal anything about the journal, in case the letter fell into the wrong hands and was deciphered. Smart. Though, she’d made it plain she was coming to see Tara. A small risk.

Tara wondered how Katla had felt, reading something her parents had written. Had anything they’d said helped her understand why they were in the order? Perhaps given her an indication they weren’t the horrible people being in the order indicated?

By Dibella, Tara wanted nothing more than to hold her. Get lost in her presence.

Based on the letter’s date, Katla would be in Solitude soon. Any day now. 

Tara pulled another mead off the shelf and opened it. She sat on the couch by the low fire she had going in the fire pit.

Stop drinking.

She looked at the mead. She needed to go down to the Winking Skeever. Drink there. Get Varro’s attention. Start the process.

Don’t get drunk, she thought. Keep your wits about you.

Tonight needed to be simple. Get his attention. His trust. She thought about the plan she’d made while she’d waited for him to arrive in Solitude.

She’d scouted the city and had found two places where killing him and dumping his body should be safe enough. Out of sight of any guards. Dispose of his body such that it wouldn’t be found for a while, if ever.

Her instructions were clear. She needed to get information from him first. Learn what he had passed on to the Thalmor. Then, she needed to kill him covertly. Not get caught or reveal to anyone she was an agent of the Penitus Oculatus. They needed deniability. They were considering using his death as something to be blamed on the Thalmor.

Tara looked down at her mead.

Was she really going to kill Varro?

When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.

She was wearing Penitus Oculatus armor in the premonitions now. For Rigmor, yes. Varro had to die.

Tara put down the mead, went upstairs, and changed into an outfit she thought men would find attractive on her.

At the outpost, free time was rare. Tara had welcomed the lack of it. It’d kept her mind off drinking and she didn’t have to engage in much small talk with her fellow trainees.

She couldn’t avoid all social interaction, though, so there’d been plenty of nights in the common room, everyone warming themselves near the fireplace after a frigid day of training.

Varro had mentioned an ex-girlfriend at some point, so Tara knew he preferred women. She’d avoided revealing her attraction to women, or the existence of Katla.

Legate Rikke was right. The Penitus Oculatus was not the Legion. There’d been no probing questions. No flirting, no teasing, no harassment.

No Rorikstead.

If looking good would help him trust her, so be it.

She’d gotten the outfit at Radiant Raiment, the main clothing store in the city. If she’d not grown up with Mira for a sister, Tara might have been offended by the condescending tone of the two sisters running the store. Being High Elves, their tone wasn’t that surprising. One had to wonder if all Altmer elves were born that way. Certainly, too many thought themselves better than non-Altmer.

Endarie had helped Tara pick the outfit. She’d called it a pirate outfit, though that was its style. Tara doubted any real pirate would wear it.

The outfit consisted of a button down shirt, so rare to find, especially for women, a small vest meant to accent the shirt, but not cover it, short pants, intended to be rolled up at the knees, and a wrap skirt. There were matching boots, too. The color was a gray blue blend that set off her hair and eyes. Between that and the softness of the fabric, Tara had been sold.

She checked herself in the mirror. Yes. It would do.

Katla would like this, she thought.

As Tara walked into the Winking Skeever, she was greeted by the bard, Lisette, singing Tale of the Tongues. Since the realization of there actually being The Last Dragonborn of legend around, the song had jumped in popularity. News had spread the Dragonborn had defeated Alduin, the dragon known as the World-Eater, the beast meant to destroy the world so it could be born again.

Tara wasn’t sure if she believed all the world ending bits, but there had been a change to the dragons. Far fewer of them had been spotted. Skyrim felt safer, between the civil war ending and the defeat of Alduin. As to how much credit of the world saving belonged solely to whomever this Dragonborn hero was, history was full of people rising to the call across all eras. Why not someone gifted with a unique power from Akatosh himself?

Tara moved through the crowd and found herself a stool at the bar. Half of Solitude seemed inside the place. She ordered a mead and took her time sipping it while scouting for Varro.

Was he renting a room here? Most likely. The question was how soon he’d be meeting with the Thalmor. That had to be why he was here, to go to their headquarters near Castle Dour. Reports she’d read before leaving the outpost indicated most of the Thalmor were staying at their embassy, somewhere in the mountains outside of Solitude. The headquarters here consisted of a skeleton crew. Tara wondered if the skeleton crew was mostly for spies. Spies could blend into the city, seem like normal citizens, or seem to be in the city on other business. Unlike the isolated embassy up in the mountains.

Varro didn’t appear for over an hour. Tara managed to nurse her mead the entire time. She chatted with the innkeeper, Corpulus Vinius. He’d been excited to meet who was actually living in the Lucky Skeever now, as he’d noticed Katla’s absence. Tara thought he’d noticed Katla and was disappointed to find out she wasn’t available.

Tara turned down two men over the course of the hour. The hardest part was not being rude to them.

Stop being mean, she reminded herself. She was trying to look attractive. Of course a man, or woman, might approach. She’d even let her hair back down.

Lately, she’d taken to pulling back some of her hair into a ponytail, and letting the rest of it hang down. What tended to fall into her face was pulled into the ponytail; the rest could relax. She liked it, but tonight, trying to catch Varro’s eye, well, she knew the effect letting all her hair hang down had on Katla. Varro probably wasn’t too different.

Was she really going to flirt with him?

That felt weird.

Anything to make him trust her, though.

Varro came out from his room and found an empty table by the fireplace. Tara watched him out of the corner of her eye. He looked as he had at the outpost. He was four years older than her, with black hair and a well-trimmed beard and mustache. An Imperial, he was of a medium build. At the outpost, he’d said several generations of his family had served either in the Legion or the Penitus Oculatus. Right now, he was wearing civilian clothes, a simple vest and shirt combination. He did not look like an agent.

How to approach him? Tara was ready to order a second mead. Order one for him, too? Pretend she was surprised to see him. Wait for him to spot her?

“Tara!”

He had spotted her.

“Codus!” she called back. She stood and made her way to his table.

“Sit,” he said. “Join me.”

Tara sat and Varro ordered them meads.

“What brings you to Solitude?” he asked her. The meads arrived and Tara took a long pull.

“I guess it’s safe to talk about work,” she lowered her voice, pulling him in. “I’m meeting with General Tullius in a few days. Bringing him some information. Can you believe they assigned me as a messenger?” She laughed, adding a bitter tone, as if offended over the assignment.

Varro drank his mead and studied her. Tara watched his eyes drift up and down, taking her in. At the outpost, they’d always been in uniform, per the rules. This was the first time they were seeing each other in normal clothing.

“Maybe it’s an important message you’re to deliver,” he said. His tone was thoughtful.

“I guess,” Tara said. She leaned forward. “What brings you here?”

Varro smiled. “On assignment, too.” He leaned forward and Tara caught him glimpsing down her shirt. She’d made sure the shirt gave an ample view of her. She wore Freta’s Talos amulet, as she always did. It was on full display in this outfit. Would that help or hurt? The Thalmor had banned Talos worship. She wasn’t supposed to be wearing it. Would Varro like her defiance of rules, or did he agree with the Thalmor?

“They give you your final test yet?” she asked.

Varro met her eyes. “They did. Don’t tell me delivering a message to Tullius is yours.” He leaned back. He continued to look at her like he was studying her, assessing something.

At the outpost, they’d been matched up a lot for combat practice. Varro was excellent with a sword and shield. They’d been a good pairing to push each other. His footwork was impressive and had challenged Tara’s defenses more than anyone she’d met.

Tara chuckled. She hoped it sounded natural. “No. I’m off to Dragon Bridge to meet with Commander Maro for that. Who knows what they’ll throw at me.”

“Interesting,” he said. His eyes stayed on her. Curious. Varro’s eyes were a dark brown. Not the hazel brown warmth of Katla’s.

Tara shifted and took a nervous sip from her mead. “Is it bad he’s giving me my test?”

Varro shrugged. “Don’t know. I assumed we all received our final test from Fairsong.”

“Me, too,” Tara said. She took a sip of mead and decided to stay on this angle, of seeming nervous. “But, he told me to meet Tullius, and then see Maro. I…I’m sure it’s fine.”

Varro smiled. “I’m sure it is.” Varro drained his mead and ordered another. “Bah, let’s forget about our jobs. On to pleasant conversation. Like, what song that bard needs to sing next.”

Tara laughed. “No more Ragnar the Red. That one’s getting old.”

They sat and chatted for a time. Tara ordered a third mead when Varro moved on to his fourth. She nursed it, pretending to take sips.

“This your first time to Solitude?” Varro asked.

Tara shook her head. “I live here.”

“Where about in the city?”

Tara flashed him a wicked smile and dropped her voice into the sultry tone Katla loved. “On top of you.”

She watched Varro’s face flush pink. He coughed.

She pointed up. “House is above the Winking Skeever.”

Varro laughed. “Impressive.” He winked at her. “You’ll have to show it to me sometime.”

Tara winked back. “Maybe I will.” She took an actual sip of her mead. “I love being back in the city. Around civilians. Not having people swing a sword or shield at my face all the time.” She gave him a grin.

He laughed again. “I appreciate not having an axe at my throat.”

They reminisced for a while, recounting their training days, and hanging with Richton and Lentinus. Tara had edged him in combat most of the time. She thought him the best swordsman, besides Fairsong, that had been at the outpost. Richton had been the best archer Tara had ever seen. As good as Katla was, she couldn’t touch him.

Time seemed to fly as they chatted, and Varro grabbed a fifth mead. Tara waved off his offer of a fourth.

“Cutting myself off after this one,” she said. They’d sat long enough for her to pace her drinking, so now she could actually finish her third mead without fear of losing her senses. She watched Varro consume half of his fifth.

He seemed pleasantly buzzed, relaxed, but certainly not drunk. Tara nixed any idea of getting him so drunk as to lead him to the preferred spot she’d picked out. It was across town, along the city walls. Getting him drunk enough would make keeping him steady enough on his feet for that distance too difficult. She had no idea what kind of drunk he was. He could be loud and boisterous. The kind to draw attention to them.

Tara drained the last of her mead and stood. Varro looked surprised, but rose from his seat.

“Time for me to retire for the evening,” she said. “If you’re free tomorrow night, maybe I could give you a tour of the city walls?”

“I’d like that,” Varro said. He gave her a bow.

As soon as she stepped backed into the house, Tara grabbed a fresh mead and drained it. The trembling in her hands stopped. The tears started in its place.

Memories of their training together flashed. So many times picking each other up off the ground, when they’d bested the other. Giving each other pointers. The jokes. Times by the fire, teasing Lentinus about his accent.

Tara drained another mead. The tears stopped, but the hiccups started. She stumbled her way upstairs and took a bath. If she couldn’t numb herself enough, maybe she could wash this feeling off?

When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.

Her loyalty was being tested. She had to do this. She’d accepted this path. Varro or her. One of them had to be dead by the end of this.

She crawled out of the bath, dried herself off, and collapsed into bed.

The nightmare of Rorikstead woke her early the next morning.

She cast healing on herself to reduce the pounding headache and made her way to the bedroom window. The sun wasn’t up yet. Good. Hopefully, Varro wasn’t either.

Tara perched on the city wall an hour later and watched Varro emerge from the Winking Skeever. She watched him look up at her balcony, and was glad her instinct had been to observe him away from the house. She was close to the guard tower near the city gate, barely visible between the parapets that lined the walls. One advantage of being short; she was easy to miss up here.

She spent the day watching him, following along sections of the wall to keep him in sight. She worried he’d head straight for the Thalmor headquarters, but he spent the day at the market and explored a few shops.

Early in the afternoon, he made his way towards Castle Dour. Navigating the walls here to stay out of sight was harder. There were few parapets to hide her and the overall wall was shorter. He rarely looked at the walls, though, and seemed to keep his focus on the people near him.

He finally wandered into the Castle Dour courtyard, then slowly walked over to the Temple of the Divines. The outdoor seating for the temple was adjacent to the practice yard, a stone arch marking the separation.

Varro sat on the bench closest to the yard. He angled himself to both look at the yard, but also to be able to turn towards the temple doors. Tara positioned herself along the wall behind him and crouched.

After a few minutes, he did something that gave her a sense of relief. He pulled out a small journal and started writing.

Taking notes, she thought. For the Thalmor? That must be it. Taking notes to turn into them. She needed to get her hands on the journal. The relief came from realizing she might not need to pry information out of him. If the journal had what she needed, she could skip that. She hadn’t figured out how to question him without alerting him. The training they’d received at the outpost felt inadequate on how to question one of their own.

Varro stayed on the bench for an hour, switching from watching the courtyard and the various Legion soldiers milling about to writing in his journal.

When he finally stood, Tara held her breath. Was he heading to the Thalmor Headquarters?

No. He left the way he’d arrived. He looked to be headed back to the Winking Skeever. Would he leave the journal in his room, or keep it on him?

Tara checked the time. She needed to get back and freshen up. They were due to meet soon.

Back home, she washed her face and restyled her hair. Like last night, she let it all hang down, instead of the ponytail she’d worn today.

She changed into a shirt and pants outfit, the kind Freta might have worn. She left several buttons on the shirt undone, to again allow ample viewing of her chest. The pants fit well and had a hidden pouch just below the waist band in the back. She tucked the ebony dagger in it.

Are you ready for this?

Tara closed her eyes for a moment and pulled in a long breath. She let it out. She hadn’t felt this sober, this…cold…in a long time. As cold as when her temper flared back when she’d first arrived in Cyrodiil and killed those chickens at the Brina Cross Inn. Or, fought with Shum gro-Ulfish in Anvil.

Yes, she was ready.

Varro was already at a table when she arrived. He seemed dressed up, the shirt and vest he wore tonight was new and cut such to leave him looking dashing. He bowed and pulled out a chair for her.

Tara laughed. “How chivalrous of you,” she said. She’d done it a few times for Katla. Funny for the role to be reversed.

They ordered dinner and some ale to drink. Conversation stayed light. When she asked him what he’d done all day, he mentioned visiting the markets and a few shops. He didn’t mention Castle Dour or his time at the temple.

Tara told him she’d spent time at the stables, just outside the city, looking at the available horses. She said she’d been saving for one, throwing in some truth about wanting one since she lived in Cyrodiil.

“Since Solitude is home, now’s the time, I think,” she said as they savored drinks, their server having cleared dinner plates from the table. “When I’m away on assignments, I trust they’d do a good job of taking care of my horse.”

 “You see yourself calling Solitude home for the rest of your life?” His eyes were studying her again. This wasn’t just a casual question.

Be honest.

Give him some truth. Earn his trust.

“Not forever, no,” Tara said. “I grew up on a farm. Think I want to settle down on one.” She finished her ale. “I do want to stay in Skyrim. Can’t see myself in Cyrodiil or High Rock again.”

“We’re agents,” Varro said. “We might be sent anywhere in Tamriel. Anywhere in Nirn, if the Emperor wants.”

Tara nodded. “Sure. We go where the assignment takes us. We serve whomever sits on the Ruby Throne.”

“And that’s okay with you?”

Tara held his gaze. They seemed to be searching each other.

“I signed up for this,” she said. She shifted her tone, trying to give it a hint of defeat. “What else is there?”

Varro leaned back. He looked down for a moment, as if deciding something.

He shrugged. “Lots of ways to serve, I think.”

Tara raised an eyebrow at him, as if curious. She looked around the tavern, as if searching for anyone eavesdropping. She then leaned toward him.

“Why don’t we go for that tour of the city walls,” she whispered.

She led them along the section of the wall that oversaw the docks first. She wanted to give him as much time as possible to talk. Conversation returned to idle topics as they walked. They nodded at the guards that passed them. Tara pointed out a few landmarks she’d spotted across the bay, in the marshlands east of the city. A Nordic ruin was just visible in the moon light.

As they made their way along the western wall, the section that eventually led to Castle Dour, the temple, and to the first spot she’d picked out, she paused to point out the Lucky Skeever.

“When are you going to invite me in?” he asked. Varro had grabbed her hand as they walked, as if they were a romantic couple out for a stroll. Stopped at her front door, he pressed himself against her and grinned.

She flashed to Rorikstead. The sound from the room. The weight of him.

“Later,” she managed a whisper. She was back. She put her hand on Varro’s chest, as if asking for patience.

He felt so wrong. Men always had.

She pulled him away from the Lucky Skeever. “Come on. More city to see.”

They strolled in silence, Tara pointing out the great Solitude windmill. It was the largest she’d ever seen. It towered high above the walls, with its turning blades proudly displaying the Solitude emblem, a wolf head on a background of red. It could be seen all the way to Dragon Bridge. In a way, it was more spectacular than the Blue Palace.

As they approached Castle Dour, guards along the wall faded. Tara knew there were few here, as if the Legion soldiers below in the courtyard were enough to forgo regular wall patrols. This side of the city pressed closest to the mountains, too. An attack on the city would never come from this side, so the light patrol made sense.

“What did you mean? About other ways to serve?” she risked the question.

Could she get him to say something? Clear all doubt from her mind?

“As agents,” Varro said, thoughtful. “We can be warriors, assassins, bodyguards, escorts. Even spies.” He’d grabbed her hand again. He gave it a light squeeze. “I wonder about all the ways to serve. For the betterment of all of Tamriel.”

“I hadn’t really thought about that.” Tara kept her tone neutral.

“I have.” His tone was firm. Serious.

They past Castle Dour, and the temple, heading into another residential area of the city. The spot was close.

“You know which you want to be?” Tara asked.

“Yes. Do you know which you are?”

Tara smiled. “Warrior. In my heart, that’s what I always am.”

“It’s good to know what you are.” His tone stayed serious.

Was she going to do this tonight?

Yes.

She avoided his gaze and pointed further down the wall. “Been to the Bard’s College yet?”

The spot was before the college. She slowed her pace.

“No. Haven’t been to this part of the city.”

Tara pointed to a building cross from the college. A tall gate with a dragon’s head shaped sculpture atop it blocked entry in. She’d read a sign hanging on the gate earlier in the week.

“Some sort of museum’s opening up,” she said. She stopped. She turned back to Varro and flashed him a smile. “I want to show you something.”

He looked into her eyes, assessing.

Did it bother him she hadn’t asked him to explain himself more?

“This will only take a minute, then we can head back,” she said.

He followed her as she left the main wall and walked along a small path between two buildings. She stopped in front of a house, then turned and walked up the short flight of stone steps that led to a small porch on the side of the house. The porch looked over the city wall. Arched openings above the short, stone railing gave one a view out into the Sea of Ghosts.

Crates and barrels littered the porch. Tara breathed an internal sigh of relief. The crates were still stacked in the arrangement she’d laid out a few days ago.

Now.

“This house is for sale,” she said, making a sweeping gesture at the empty house. “They call it Proudspire Manor. I hope to buy it one day.”

“Why? You already have a home.” Varro looked confused. As if this was the least interesting sight she’d shown him.

“Look at this view!” she said. “Here. This spot is my favorite. You can see the lighthouse.” She stepped out of his way and pointed him to the left archway. Varro stepped to the spot and peered out.

Tara stepped behind him and pulled out the ebony dagger.

She’d arranged the crates near the archway, shifting one close enough so she could step onto it and gain the height she’d need to do the task.

“The moonlight reflects so beautifully off the water,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s a great view,” Varro replied.

The entire move took no more than a second.

She stepped with her left foot onto the crate closest to Varro. She now nearly matched his height and had the angle she needed.

She pressed herself against his back, her weight pushing him up against the railing, his head now leaning out through the opening.

She reached around him and plunged the blade of the dagger up into his neck, where it met his jaw. The blade easily found the soft gap between the hinges of his jaw and slipped deep into his head.

Tara twisted the knife several times, to insure the damage was complete.

Blood washed over the dagger and her hand. Her grasp slipped with the slickness of the blood, but she held on long enough to pull the dagger out.

His body slumped forward, his head, neck, and shoulders leaning out the archway. Most of the blood now gushing out of him ran down the outside wall, as she’d hoped, with only small pools collecting on the stone of the porch. She stepped back off the crate and watched.

His body twitched as the final sparks of life left. He then went still.

She watched him for several minutes. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to listen for any final breaths, any gasps for air. Nothing.

The journal.

She dug through his clothes and found it. A small journal tucked into his right front pants pocket. The one she’d seen him write in earlier today.

She pulled the key to his room at the inn out of his left pocket. She’d need to search it for any notes or journals.

Get rid of him.

By Dibella, she was grateful for her strength. It helped he was partly through the opening already. She made quick work of lifting his legs and pushing him until he fell out the opening and onto the rocks below.

She peered out to confirm what she’d hoped would happen.

This section of the city sat near the start of the stone arch the city sat upon. The spot was directly above jutting rocks. Below the rocks, one could see the winding road that led from the docks of Solitude and out towards the wild coastline of northwestern Skyrim.

She hadn’t wanted him to fall onto the road. Landing on one of the jutting rocks had been perfect. The odds of anyone in Solitude looking out from the walls and down and spotting him were slim.

His body could rot in the open, perhaps become a meal for the right scavenger.

As long as no one bought the house and took in this view soon, he’d remain out of sight. If anyone ever spotted him, hopefully he’d be unrecognizable by then.

Tara dug into the barrel where she’d stashed a water skin. She rinsed the worst of the blood off her hands and the dagger, then diluted the pools of blood on the stone floor. She moved a set of crates over the spots.

She stepped back and checked her work. The porch looked the same as before she’d brought Varro here.

She made her way back along the city walls, clinging to shadows. She wasn’t sure if her clothes had any blood on them. Best not to have a lit torch expose her. She wasn’t sure what her face might reveal, either, under a harsh light.

She reached home and unlocked the door.

She flashed to him pressing against her and grinning. “When are you going to invite me in?”

Inside, she got to her favorite chair and collapsed in it.

Tara looked at the remaining blood on her hands. She needed to wash it off. Wash him off her.

The nausea hit hard and she didn’t make it to the kitchen sink before dinner and the ale came back up. Had she ever vomited over a kill before? No.

When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.

She’d passed the final test.

What price would her body exact on her for her loyalty?

4E 204 – Land Mines

Katla stood up from her crouch by the aged oak and slowly stretched. Her knees popped from being bent so long. She scanned the woods. They were as silent as they’d been when she first perched here four hours ago. Outside of a few rabbits and butterflies passing by, she seemed to be alone.

Safe.

She looked again at what had once been her home.

In five years’ time, so much had changed for her. Here, though, things look much the same. Too much.

Katla stood at the edge of the woods surrounding her old home near Chorrol. She was making her way to Skyrim, by way of a smuggler’s route she’d learned of while in the city of Rihad. She’d trusted the old Khajiit merchant, though she couldn’t tell you why. Some people gave off an instant sense of trust. He’d been one. The map she’d bought off him was crude, but easy to read. Once she got to Bruma, she’d head north on the main road to the Pale Pass border. There’d be a place to turn off, though, and a small cave that would lead through the Jerall Mountains and, eventually, open into Skyrim near where she could join up with the main road outside of Falkreath, as if she’d properly crossed the border.

Between the news about the new Emperor, what she’d witnessed on the roads since arriving back in Cyrodiil from Hammerfell, Katla didn’t want to cross the official border again. The treatment by the New Imperial guards, as they were calling themselves, had been concerning.

She’d been encouraged to pay a bribe to cross into Cyrodiil from Hammerfell. The guards had blatantly indicated it was the only way to enter the province. Fortunately, an Imperial merchant headed back to Anvil had caught her and told her not to.

“It’s a death trap,” he’d said. “They’re stripping valuables off the poor idiots who fall for it. And, worse. He’d pointed her to the border post, a small building near the gate she’d not even noticed. Never in her life had one needed a pass to cross, but the merchant had said it was required now. As long as she owned land in Cyrodiil, or could offer up a relative or nobleman she was going to see, they’d give her one.

Relatives. That was the thing she didn’t want to tell anyone about. As she and Mira had agreed, it was best she not be in contact with any of her relatives. No way to know who else in her family was part of the order.

So, land. What land? She didn’t own land. Her parents did.

But, they were gone. What had been theirs was now hers.

How was all this hers? Until she’d needed it to get back into Cyrodiil, it had not crossed her mind that this property outside of Chorrol belonged to her.

No siblings, no other close family to try and claim it. She’d owned this since the day her parents died.

The shed looked much like it had five years ago. Weeds had sprouted around it, working their way under the wood slats. Otherwise, it seemed as sturdy as ever.

What had been the house lay scattered around the land. Their house had been a blend of plastered stone and wood framing. The wall that held the fireplace still stood, blackened yet strong. The fireplace and stone chimney were missing a few stones off the top, but otherwise looked solid.

Bits of collapsed roof and a few wood studs sat attached to the wall. Everything else was scattered stone, wood, plaster, and mounds of debris that had been their belongings.

Mold covered much of the debris. Nothing looked salvageable.

Katla studied the ground. Something was off.

It hadn’t rained in weeks, so the ground was hard packed dirt. The color seemed wrong; the ground almost a gray color, instead of the rich brown from memory.

Katla and her family were not farmers. They’d maintained a small garden, to feed themselves. Plus, a couple of goats for milk and cheese, and three chickens for eggs, and the occasional chicken dinner.

She didn’t remember what happened to the animals after the explosion. So many things from that night were a blur.

Katla risked stepping out from the woods and walking the property. She looked around again for any sign she wasn’t alone. Around her remained as still as the past hours had been.

You’re alone. Get a grip on yourself, she thought.

She walked about ten paces, crouched, and studied the ground. She reached down and scooped some loose dirt into her hand. There was ash mixed in, which made sense. The fire after the explosion would have left behind ash. What seemed so off about it? She looked around the property again, then glanced at the shed.

The shed had weeds. It sat near the edge of the woods. It had been far enough away to not be touched by the blast and ensuing fire.

The rest of the property had no plants. No weeds, no stalks of previous vegetation. It was winter now, and no one had planted anything in years, of course. But, there were no weeds, no bushes, none of the overgrowth that should have happened at some point on such deserted land.

Katla looked along the edge of the woods. Bushes, vines, all the vegetation seemed to stop a few feet past the trees.

She looked down at the dirt in her hand and brought it closer to really look. Light from the afternoon sun caught a few of the pale, coarse crystals she hadn’t noticed before. Katla carefully put them on her pinky finger and tasted them.

Salt.

Someone had salted the ground.

Why? A warning to her? To keep others away? To make the land worthless? How long before the soil recovered and plants could grow here again? Years, most likely.

She stood and let the dirt fall through her fingers, then wiped her hand on her leather pants. She’d worn her armor today, just in case there was trouble. She was grateful the leather pants made for a quick way to clean her hands. A firm grip was essential if she needed to use her bow.

Katla looked again at what had been her home. She felt her chest tighten.

They were in there, somewhere. Whatever was left of her parents.

Why had she come to this place of pain? Of loss? Her life could be separated into two times. Before that night and after.

There has to be something useful here, she thought. She’d come originally to give her official notice and claim the land in Chorrol. To be registered as the owner now, on the county paperwork. As scary as it was to take the chance of being seen, the debacle at the border had reminded her she had responsibilities here in Cyrodiil. She had to act like the adult she now was.

Mira’s warning had stayed on her mind throughout the process. A lot of noble families were listed as members of the Order of the Fire Queen. They still had no way to know how active the families were in the order now, centuries later. Surely, not every family with an ancestor in the order was still part of it?

Clearly, her parents had been. The Hammerhearts seemed to have become members many years after the initial order formed. Neither Katla nor Mira had yet come across the name in their research of the Second Era. Most of the nobles were Breton families. Far less Imperials had shown up, so far. Even fewer Nords.

Katla had made it through the paperwork without even a second glance from anyone. She seemed safe enough in Chorrol.

Staying still in these woods for hours had only confirmed that. No one seemed to be watching the property. Perhaps because they knew she’d fled to Skyrim, and then gone to High Rock.

But she had officially crossed into Cyrodiil. Someone would read the border log at some point. Another reason to use that smuggler’s route to get back into Skyrim. Maybe registering the land would help, too, to convince the order she was back in Cyrodiil, and they wouldn’t realize she was back in Skyrim, back with Tara.

Tara.

Not too much longer and she’d be able to see her. Wrap her arms around her.

She needed to send her a letter, give her an update. Tara was at the Penitus Oculatus outpost, wherever that was. She’d said she probably wouldn’t receive any letters until she left training.

No matter. Katla wanted her to have as many letters to read as possible when she did get them.

Katla studied the house remains. She needed to see if there was anything useful about the order here. She needed to get to their secret place, the cave.

Where they died.

What parts of the house hadn’t been blown outward, had collapsed in on itself. She’d never be able to dig through the debris to get into the basement or the cave from here.

She needed to find the second entrance, the secret one she’d seen those order members leave that night.

Her chest loosened at the thought. She didn’t want to be any closer to the house than needed. To see what had been her life. Their life. The before life.

The secret entrance had been near the edge of the property. She scanned for the rock outcropping. It sat where she remembered it, on the southern edge of the property, almost directly across from where she stood.

Katla moved swiftly along the edge of the woods, passing by the shed. She should check it out when she had time, to see if anything of value remained inside.

The rock outcropping was a large jutting stone, a jagged oval erupting from the stony soil that dominated the southern edge. The rock was a slate gray, about the size of the shed, rising twenty feet in the air. Directly underneath was deep shadow, the rock blocking the sun’s rays from penetrating. High grass grew along the edge, too, blocking the view of what sat under the rock. She was beyond where the ground had been salted.

Stepping into the shadow of the rock, Katla let her eyes adjust for a minute. Thick vines and weeds grew here, plants happy with the constant shade. She bent and pulled at them. There had to be something here. Thorns from the winding vines cut into her hands as she pulled and pushed them away. A pattern quickly emerged, the vines covering a section of ground with scattered dirt, but no growth. Katla carefully wiped the dirt away.

There it was. A trapdoor. Petrified wood slats sat flush with the ground; a simple iron ring embedded in it to allow for lifting. All the years of living here and she’d never noticed it.

Memories arose of climbing the rock, pretending to be a queen surveying her realm. She’d never bothered exploring under the rock, though. It’d always been dark and dirty. Not interesting. She had to wonder if that’d been done on purpose, the vine planted to discourage exploration.

Katla pulled on the iron ring. The door resisted at first, as if sealed to the ground. Three more strong pulls and it creaked and released, opening to reveal a dark maw into the ground.

If she knew magic, she could’ve produced a spell of candlelight and sent a ball of light down the tunnel, revealing what lied within. Instead, Katla pulled out a torch and lit it with the flint rock she carried.

She descended the long wooden ladder that had been nailed into the rock lining the tunnel walls. The tunnel seemed to be a mix of natural formation and dug out earth, the walls a mix of rock, dried mud, and wood framing to keep it stable.

How long had this been here? Was this why her parents had bought the land? Did they know about this? Did they dig out the tunnel?

No. Katla would’ve noticed if they been involved in a long digging process. This had to have been here before. Was it an old mine? An old smuggler’s cave? The tunnel gave no answers.

The air tasted stale. Still. A mild acrid smell entered her nose. Old smoke. Old fire.

Katla felt her heart pound. She pulled in a breath.

You can do this. You need to do this.

She swatted away the thin cobwebs blocking her path, held out the torch, and slowly walked down the tunnel. She could stand upright, a few roots from long dead plants poked through the ceiling and brushed her hair as she made her way. The tunnel turned left, then right. She paused and crouched at each corner, listening. Silence greeted her. She could’ve been headed to an ancient tomb, undisturbed for hundreds of years.

A tomb. Isn’t that what it had become?

The tunnel turned a few more times, seemed to be a few hundred meters in length total, before opening into the cave. The secret place of worship.

The cave was dead silent. The acrid smell from when she’d first entered the tunnel was stronger here, but still faded, a memory of the past.

The first memory flashed.

Entering the cave for the first time, her eyes falling on the skeletons, the bodies.

Her torch flickered and she was back to the now. The opposite side of the cave lay in black shadow. She’d have to move further in to see the other side.

Near her stood the two altars. Molag Bal stood in his daedric glory, the two great horns surrounding his skeletal horned head, his grin of spiky teeth as menacing as all images she’d seen of him. His long tail wrapped between his clawed feet. In one hand, he held his great spiked mace.

Katla had never been sure who she considered more evil, Molag Bal or Mehrunes Dagon. Not all Daedric princes were evil, most simply represented the harsh sides of beasts, mer, or people. Molag Bal and Dagon were the two exceptions. Katla could not imagine anyone worshiping such gods.

Molag had created the vampires, though, and controlled the Oblivion plane known as Coldharbour. He seemed the most in touch with the undead. Perhaps that was why so many necromancers worshiped him.

Why had her parents?

The second altar was a simple carved stone. A tall slab mounted on a pedestal. The carving jumped out at Katla.

The symbol Mira had shown her; had sketched out in her journal. The one she’d found on a painting in her home. The emblem of the Order of the Fire Queen.

A solitary tree reaching for an orb, a sun. A strange tree that did not evoke the peacefulness Katla usually felt from trees in the woods.

This altar was proof of their membership, her parents’ commitment to the order. The stone looked old. How long had it been here? It seemed something passed down through generations. Did all members have an altar to the order? Did they think Tara Geonette was a god?

The second memory hit her.

She cowered down while they screamed at her Dad.

“Where is it?!” The leader, the tall Imperial yelled.

“We don’t have it,” Dad said.

“Liar!” the second man said, a dark haired Breton. “You were entrusted with it. This was your last chance.”

“The time has come,” the third man said. Another Breton. “Do your duty.”

Katla tore her eyes away from the altar and looked at the deep shadows.

You need to search.

She stepped to the nearest wall. Mounted to the wall was a sconce, an unlit torch sitting in it. She touched her torch to it, and watched it flare alive. Two more sconces were in easy reach, so she stepped to each and lit them.

She turned back to the rest of the cave, most of it now revealed. Shadows remained around the blackened debris that had once been the other entrance.

The third memory flashed.

She could hear Mom screaming, plus the other sounds that came with the assault. Katla was in their bedroom, grabbing the bows, seeing the red soul gem for the first time.

Katla shifted her grip on her torch. The cave was filled with blackened bones. Skeleton parts lay scattered across the ground, a femer by her foot, what looked like finger bones next to it. No body was intact, no bone left untouched by flames. Ash coated all surfaces, the stone table she remembered the fresh bodies on especially piled with it.

Broken, blackened pottery dotted the second table. Whatever spell had been cast to cause the explosion of the house had set the entire cave afire, it seemed. It didn’t feel like the focal point, though.

Had Dad run out of the cave, into the house? Were his bones up in the rubble somewhere? Or were he and Mom here, part of the mass of bones lying in pieces around her?

There was no way to know. Her parents had died here. Their remains were most likely here. But, no way to know for sure.

Katla breathed in relief. She’d been most afraid of seeing them. Of seeing huddled, blackened corpses that were obviously them. Some Divine had spared her that vision.

Search.

Was there anything of value here? She’d need to tell Mira and Tara about the stone altar. And Molag Bal. Had the order worshiped him? Or just her parents?

What else could be here? Could have survived the fire?

Katla looked at the larger of the tables. The bottom of it was carved shelving, similar in style to some old Nordic tables she’d seen in Skyrim. These carvings looked more intricate, finer lines, and richer curves. Breton design?

The shelves were filled with blackened books, ruined from the fire. She stepped closer to them.

All were charred, the top ones beyond recognition. They were thick, spell tomes or history books, perhaps. She pushed them aside, and looked at the books underneath and behind them.

A few were salvageable here, burnt edges, partial covers. Katla could make out a copy of On Necromancy, badly burned, but with readable pages. Then, she saw it.

The journal stood out for its size. Small and thin, it sat buried under the three burnt books above it. Its red leather cover was charred, the binding loose and edges burned away.

Katla’s hands trembled as she picked it off the shelf. As gently as she could she opened it and peered at the first few pages.

Scorch marks, burn holes, missing edges. Much of the journal was damaged.

The thin, slanted writing she knew to have been her mothers’ jumped out at her.

“…thinks we’ll be safe here…”

A fourth memory flashed.

The house exploded and she was flying. The ground slammed into her, knocking the breath out of her. Screams, smoke, fire, falling debris. She’d been blown into the woods.

Katla closed the journal. Mom, maybe Dad, too, had kept a journal here. And, some of it was still readable. She’d found something.

What was inside? Details of the red soul gem? Secrets of the order? An explanation of why they were necromancers?

Katla tucked the journal securely in her satchel. She needed to read it. Not here. Not in this place of death.

Katla quickly walked the rest of the cave. More burned books and what had been scrolls lay on a small, third table on the far wall. A few soul gems sat on it as well. All seemed empty, no blue purple glow emitted from them, a tell-tale sign a soul was within. No red soul gems.

Everything else seemed ash, whatever had once been in the cave turned to useless nothing.

She looked again at the other cave entrance, the one that led to the basement of the house. It was filled with black wood, collapsed stone. No longer an entry point to anything. The only way into what had been the house would be from above.

She needed to leave. Get out of here. There was nothing else left for her.

Katla extinguished the wall sconces and headed back down the tunnel.

She put out her torch and climbed through the trapdoor to deep blue light. Evening was upon her. How long had she been down there?

She kicked dirt back over the trapdoor and rearranged the vines in a way she hoped looked natural. Scanning the area quickly, she darted to the nearest woods. She wanted to get back to Chorrol. To where she was staying for one more night. Tomorrow, she could head to Bruma, then that smuggler’s cave.

She heard the fireball first, that whoosh as it flew through the air, taking all oxygen with it. The sudden yellow-orange light fast approaching her confirmed it.

Instinct kicked in and Katla rolled forward across her right shoulder, coming up crouched, with her bow drawn and arrow notched. The fireball collided with the nearest tree and a few embers touched her left shoulder.

The bright light of the fireball blinded her, cutting off most of her view of the darkening land. She caught a glimpse of a moving shadow, someone in robes, perhaps, and released her arrow.

She heard the thrump of the arrow landing and the cry of pain. The shadow fell to the ground.

Not dead. She’d not been able to see well enough for a kill shot. Perhaps she’d caught their shoulder.

Good enough. She had to get out of here.

She didn’t have the speed of Tara. She’d never seen someone run as fast as her, but running full speed brought her through the woods and on the road back to Chorrol within a minute. She didn’t dare stop.

She made it back to the city and inside the safety of the walls just as the final light of the day left. Stars were shining brightly now.

You’re not safe yet.

Had there only been one person? Was someone else following her? Perhaps someone had stayed in the city, watching the gate. No, she wasn’t safe yet.

Katla stepped into the nearest alley, between a general goods store and bakery. Both closed for the night. She pulled her satchel out and dug for the scroll.

Mira had sent ten of them to her with her last letter.

“…no matter where you are, read one and it will instantly teleport you. I apologize now for how queasy you’ll feel. Use them to get inside. I have the doors barred and magic barriers in place. No one can reach you once you’re inside. When you’re ready to leave, I have some orbs within to teleport you to your choice of city in Cyrodiil. Stay as long as you like.”

Katla’s hand closed on one. She pulled it out and unrolled it. She gave herself a second to look around, make sure no one saw her. She mouthed the words on the scroll silently.

She felt her hair stand on end. She smelled something bitter and sharp, then the air in front of her flashed, as if a lightning bolt had struck her. The flash faded and she was standing in someone’s home, the room spinning on her.

She collapsed into the chair to her right. Her stomach clenched, and she was grateful she’d not eaten in hours.

She was inside Mira’s home in Chorrol.

She was safe.

(Check out the mod, Daedric Shrines – Molag Bal, at the Nexus.)

4E 204 – Testing Mettle

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

The blizzard was in full swing now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? It didn’t help you in Rorikstead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will be back for my bow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara gave him a smirk back.

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

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

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

Tara swallowed and met his gaze. Unproven elements?

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

Tara held her breath.

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

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

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

Tara nodded and looked down for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rigmor was enough, though.

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

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

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

Fairsong nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Tara said.

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

4E 203 – Mom’s Side

Mira cast a quick healing spell on her hands and watched the fresh blisters shrink and disappear.

When was the last time she’d helped around the farm? When she was ten?

Even then, she’d not really helped. She’d been a kid following Mom around the garden; the personal garden Mom maintained for the vegetables they didn’t produce as a crop. For the vegetables she wanted fresh for dinner.

Mira wasn’t used to any sort of labor and her hands had paid for it today. There had been something soothing about helping Mom weed the garden, though. Making sure the fragile leeks and carrots had a chance to grow. There was a peace to the pulling of the feisty pest plants and working between the vegetables. The steady shifting of dirt as roots released their hold sent a soft patter to Mira’s ears. The physical effort required wasn’t hard, until it added up to several hours of constant bending and standing. There was an unexpected comfort to the exertion, though. Mira thought she’d sleep well tonight.

Most importantly, she was spending quality time with Mom. Softening her.

“I think we’ve got them all,” Mom said. She stood, put her hands on her lower back, and stretched.

“Agreed.” Mira stood and did the same. She heard her spine crack in relief.

“You mind?” Mom asked, holding out her hands. She had several small blisters.

Mira gave her a gentle smile. “Of course not.” She waved her right hand, and Mom’s blisters disappeared.

Back in the house, both women washed up at the water basin in the kitchen. Mira checked the time. She estimated they had at least an hour before Father came home. She needed to get answers.

“Tell me about Tara the Younger,” Mira said. She kept her tone light and curious. Encouraging.

Mom’s pale blue eyes lit up. “You really want to know our family history?” she asked. Mira thought Mom’s voice cautious, not wanting to get too excited.

“I do,” Mira said. Mom had pulled out several potatoes and set to peeling them at the kitchen table. Mira sat and joined in peeling.

“I’m sorry I never asked when I was little,” she added.

“She was the youngest, you know,” Mom said. Her voice sounded as lit up as her eyes still were.

“Tara Geonette had three children. Lysona, then Tristand, then Tara the Younger. If I’m remembering correctly, she was four years younger than Tristand. Lysona was a couple years older than him.”

“Did Tara Geonette marry?” Mira asked. She suspected who the father was, but no books had been definitive.

During their research, Katla had found some entries tracing the family tree of the Ashsmiths. They’d been a powerful noble family, known for their magical prowess, starting in the First Era and continuing to today. Bedore Ashsmith had been the youngest of two, expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as an arch mage for the Mages Guild.

He’d disappeared in 2E 584, though, joining what would become the Order of the Fire Queen. The same book claimed he’d become second in command of the order, leading it for a time. It made no mention of him marrying or having children, and claimed he’d died in 2E 592.

Another book, History of the Mages Guild, claimed he’d been involved in a battle of necromancers and guild mages in the Rivenspire region in 2E 596 and died. Mira was still researching the authors of both books, to see if either had been an order member. She suspected false information had purposely been written in at least one of the books. Contradictions had cropped up regarding Lysona Meric in other books.

“Marry? No, she didn’t,” Mom said. “She had all three children with Bedore Ashsmith, but they didn’t marry.”

“Ah,” Mira said, giving her voice a lift. “Wait. Is that where Father’s name comes from? But, he’s a Blaton, not an Ashsmith.”

“Yes,” Mom gave a tentative smile. “Tara’s name comes from Tara Geonette. Mine is from Elayne Moorford. Yours is from Mira Meric. She was Tara the Younger’s sister-in-law.”

Mira made a mental note. Mira Meric had to be a descendant of Lysona Meric. Mom hadn’t answered why Father was named after Bedore Ashsmith, one of their ancestors.

“How’d they meet, Tara and Bedore?” she asked. They’d finished peeling the potatoes. Mira watched as her mom sliced and cubed them carefully into the stew pot she’d been heating over the kitchen fire. She then started chopping carrots. Mira took a few and helped.

“Oh, well, they…” Mom paused and levied her eyes at Mira. Mira found herself catching her breath. She’d never seen her Mom’s gaze so sharp, so focused. Yet, also cautious.

“What is it?” Mira risked asking.

“Your father never wanted me to tell you any of this,” she said suddenly, straightening up, as if she’d made up her mind about something. “Wouldn’t let me perform the ritual on you, either. I understand about Tara, but you should’ve had it performed…” Her voice trailed off and she looked over at the Tara Geonette painting.

“What ritual?” Mira asked.

Mom cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. She finished chopping the carrots, put down the knife and stared at Mira.

“Your ancestor, the great Tara Geonette, started the Order of the Fire Queen,” Mom said. She heaved a sigh, as if she’d lifted a weight off her shoulders by confessing. “Have you heard of it?’

How to answer Mom?

“I’ve come across the name a few times,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be much written, though.” Mira leaned forward and widened her eyes, to feign amazement. “She really started an order?”

“Yes!” Mom said. She beamed. She stood and added the carrots to the stew. Mira watched her pull out a wrapped section of beef, fresh from the local butcher, and start carving it into bite-sized chunks, slowly adding them to the stew. Mira’s stomach grumbled. She was famished.

“Tara Geonette was the Fire Queen,” Mom continued. “It was her own order of powerful necromancers. Bedore was one of its first members.”

“Wow,” Mira said. She hoped she conveyed a sense of amazement. “That’s incredible.”

Mom nodded. “She is the reason our family is so good with magic. Why there are so many powerful mages.” Mom stopped cutting the beef and pointed her knife at Mira, as if to emphasize something. “She did it. She made it happen. She made you and Tara happen.”

Mom’s eyes clouded for a moment, and Mira thought she caught a hint of sadness on her face. Mom shook her head and finished chopping up the beef and adding it to the pot. She stirred the stew and raised the stand, letting it simmer.

She sat at the table, her face suddenly more drawn. Almost like the weight was back on her shoulders.

“You know,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to marry your father.”

Mira remained still.

“I wanted to marry Tristore Ashsmith. Now, there was a real mage. So powerful, even when he was a child.” Mom sighed. “Your grandfather insisted I marry your father, though. Arranged it all.” She looked forlorn.

“Why?” Mira asked. She reached out a hand and placed it over Mom’s. Mom smiled.

“He said the…” She paused and looked cautious. “…something about the best match.” Mom sighed again. “But the history of the Ashsmith’s and Geonette’s! I wanted to be a part of that lineage.” Mom sighed again, sat back, and pulled her hands away from Mira.

“Anyway,” she said. “Tara the Younger was the youngest. She had red hair and green eyes, just like her mother. Just like our Tara. She married Dunore Meric and they had three children before she…” Mom seemed to catch herself. She shook her head. “The oldest of her children married an Ashsmith, and so forth. Eventually, I was born, and had you and Tara.” She gave Mira a wan smile. Her energy from early in the conversation seemed drained. Expended.

Mira thought. What to ask? Tara the Younger had what? Died? Been a powerful necromancer? Why had Mom held back?

“You said the Order of the Fire Queen were necromancers,” Mira said. “Do you know if they studied…”

“Your father will be home soon.” Mom suddenly stood. “I think that’s enough history for now. Let’s get the table set.”

Father arrived home as they finished setting the table. Dinner was uneventful between them. Father droned on about the sale of some furniture he’d had for years. Mira gave up hope of getting any more out of Mom.

She thought she’d collapse into bed from exhaustion, but found herself writing in her journal all she’d learned late into the night. She then detailed it all again into a letter each for Katla and Tara.

The sun arrived too soon the next morning as she headed into Wayrest to send the letters. Finally, they had more leads to track down.

4E 203 – The Penitus Oculatus

Tara hiccupped and looked at the man.

“Wha’d you say?” She blinked. He was out of focus, and attempting to split into two.

“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” he said. The man was an Imperial, medium build, with black hair, longish, and swept back from his forehead to reveal a widow’s peak. He had a thin mustache, and a beard limited to a simple track between his lower lip and chin, with short stubble along the rest of his jawline.

If he were in Cyrodiil or High Rock, he’d look as cosmopolitan as the people. Here in Skyrim, it was the type of beard few men wore. Dressed in simple leathers, it was obvious the man had some muscle. He looked the warrior type.

Tara thought of Mira. The man had her look. Serious. This was a serious man with no sense of humor. Telling her to stop drinking.

Tara hiccupped again and watched him come back into focus.

“Where do you…” words were suddenly hard to form “…get off tellin’ me to stawp?” she finished.

Tara had been sitting and drinking in the Four Shields tavern all night. She’d arrived in Dragon Bridge late in the day, much later than she’d intended. The trip from Granite Hill had not been as smooth as she’d hoped. She’d left late. The hangover had lingered too much in the morning. Then, north of Rorikstead, a thunderstorm had cropped up and she’d had to find shelter under a cliff overhang. She’d still been drenched.

Walking in sopping wet clothes had been uncomfortable. She’d chaffed in a few unmentionable places, souring her mood.

That bridge, though.

Her mood had lifted when she approached the legendary landmark Dragon Bridge was named after. The Karth River ran wide and strong here, with a magnificent waterfall visible from the great stone bridge.

Any bridge crossing the river at this point, near the mouth, and sitting between Markarth and Solitude, two of the largest cities in Skyrim, would be impressive. The need for strength and enough width to handle the commerce between the holds of Haafingar and Hjaalmarch was essential.

Besides its size, the bridge stood out for the two great dragon heads carved into its top, at the pinnacle of the arch across the bridge. The bridge had been built sometime in the Merethic Era, in the time thousands of years ago, when the peoples of Tamriel were still evolving.

History books were divided on whether the dragon skulls were stone sculptures or petrified skulls of ancient dragons. Standing under the arch and looking at them, Tara thought stone. The amount of time it’d taken to carve such works of art, though, was unimaginable.

The town of Dragon Bridge itself was small and quiet. Late afternoon sunlight coated Tara as she’d crossed the bridge, passed a sawmill, and stopped.

There it was.

The banners outside a small building marked it as the Penitus Oculatus outpost. The banners were a background of dark gray, on which sat a diamond outline, filled with a deep red. A peering eye, framed by three teeth that reminded Tara of serpent fangs pierced the eye.

Their armor had the same insignia on it. These were the special agents of the Emperor, or Empress. During the reign of the Septims, The Blades had been the personal guard of the sitting ruler. That had ended with the Oblivion Crisis, though. When Titus Mede I had become Emperor, the Penitus Oculatus had been formed, early in the Fourth Era.

The Blades had been steeped in mystery and history, arising from the Dragonguard, fabled dragon hunters from the previous time of dragons, so long ago.

The Penitus Oculatus had no such history. They were what they presented. A special force founded solely for protecting, and answering to, the ruler of the Empire. Tara knew they were spies, warriors, archers, and mages; whatever was needed to serve the interests of the Empire.

They were not to be trifled with. They were the epitome of serious.

Tara had stood in front of the building, still half-soaked by the rain, intending to walk in, ask for Commander Maro, hand him the letter from Legate Rikke, and join on the spot.

Nerves had hit her, though.

What was in Rikke’s letter? An outstanding recommendation, telling tales of her skills in battle? Or, a sob story begging Maro to take pity on her, a misfit from the Imperial Army, who’d fought with her fellow soldiers, and worse?

Watching the golden sunlight from a dimming afternoon hit the banners, giving that eye a sheen of foreboding, she’d froze. She never froze. All the fights, assassins killed to protect Katla, battles fought during the war. She didn’t freeze. That was instant death.

Standing in front of this building. Standing in front of her next purpose. Frozen. Why?

Rorikstead.

The day was late. She should wait until morning. That’d be the time to step in, hand the letter over. Yes. Tomorrow morning.

She’d rent a room, enjoy a meal, have a drink or two, and shake off the long day of travel. Be fresh tomorrow morning. Yes.

She’d done just that, immediately renting a room and settling in. She’d finished drying off from the rain. Her mood had soured again. It didn’t sit right she’d frozen like that. She needed to make a good impression tomorrow.

The tavern had been crowded, with patrons coming in for meals and drinks after work. Tara found herself wanting to be alone, away from all the idle chatter. A few men had flirted, irritating her further. She should’ve taken her dinner in her room, but she had wanted a couple of drinks. To relax.

To forget.

Listening to the Imperial in the leathers tell her she’d had enough made her realize she had no idea how many drinks she’d had. The inn was nearly empty now. Quiet. What time was it?

The man studied her for a moment. Not leering, though.

“I suspect you can take care of yourself,” he nodded at her arms. Tara was still wearing her leather armor, meaning her arms were exposed, her muscles on display. “But I overheard an unsavory conversation outside, between a few men.” He glanced at Faida, the innkeeper, who’d doled out the drinks to Tara. Faida’s face paled.

“Seems they were in here earlier. Took notice of you. I don’t think you should keep drinking. Or, step outside. Hopefully, they won’t come back in.”

“She has a room here,” Faida said. “I’ll get her to it.”

Tara felt her face flush. “I’m not…” she hiccupped “…I’m not fimished.” Her lips were not cooperating.

The man fished some gold coins out of his pocket and tossed them on the bar. Faida scooped them up and pocketed the money, before Tara could count them.

“That enough to get her to her room now?” he asked Faida.

“I’m…” Tara started.

“Yes,” Faida said to the man. “Thank you for looking out for her. And the inn’s reputation.”

The man nodded stiffly. “Take care,” he said to Tara. He turned sharply and left without another word.

“Julienne. Help me,” Faida called out to the young bar maiden that had been serving most of the patrons all night.

Tara found herself standing unsteadily in her room before she could process anything. Her head wanted to spin. So did the room.

“Good night, dear,” she heard Faida say before closing the door.

Sunlight slammed her in the morning, waking her from a deep slumber.

Had she dreamed? No. No premonitions, no dreams.

No Rorikstead.

Tara squinted her eyes against the blasting sunlight streaming through her room’s high window and stumbled out of bed. Her head pounded. The room tried turning on her.

You need to stop drinking.

She dunked her head in the water basin, shocking herself with the cold, blissful water in it.

She spent the next thirty minutes hitting herself with a healing spell, letting her magicka recover, then hitting herself again until she felt steady. The headache receded. Her stomach stayed unsteady. Best to skip a morning meal.

She thought of that morning in Bruma. The hangover from drinking herself into a stupor the day before meeting with the priest about Freta.

What would Freta say to her now? What would Katla, if she saw her like this? Some protector she was turning out to be.

Commander Maro.

Right. She needed to go to the outpost. Give him the letter. Start her new purpose.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when she stepped outside. The air was crisp, the first real bite of winter hovered nearby. The cold air helped her steady herself.

The walk was short, the Penitus Oculatus outpost less than a hundred meters from the tavern.

Tara stepped up on the wide porch of the building. A blacksmith’s forge and anvil were to the left of the building. She could hear an agent working it. One agent sat outside the door into the building.

He stood as she stepped up.

“State your business.”

Tara found herself straightening up. Wanting to seem taller. More serious.

“I’m here to see Commander Maro. I have a letter to deliver. His eyes only.” Did she just sound like a courier?

The agent studied her for a moment, eyeing the axes on her hip.

“I’m a veteran from the Imperial Legion,” she added.

He didn’t seem impressed. “Go on in. Keep all weapons sheathed.”

The outpost was, in a word, small. Tara stepped inside to a single room. How were agents stationed here?

The place was nothing but business. Nothing but a place for quick orders and dispatching of agents. There were a few beds, arranged in typical barracks style, crowded together for rest, but no privacy. A table with four chairs sat in the center of the room, in front of a large fireplace. Opposite the barracks style beds was a single bed, chest, and desk, as if an area reserved for an officer. Or commander.

Two men were inside the outpost. One was a young agent, sitting at the table. He glanced at her while writing on some parchment.

Tara froze. She managed to keep her jaw from propping open.

The other man, sitting at the desk in the reserved area, was the man from last night. The Imperial in simple leathers.

He stood, revealing the full glory of his Penitus Oculatus armor. A commander’s armor.

Although she was now sober, Tara found her lips did not want to cooperate.

Tara saw his mouth twitch slightly at the sight of her. Was he smirking?

“Commander Maro?” she asked.

“Yes.” His face had resumed that serious look from last night. “What can I do for you?”

“I have a letter from Legate Rikke, second in command of the Imperial Legion here in Skyrim.”

She cleared her throat. “For your eyes only. Regarding me. Sir.”

Tara handed over the letter and watched Commander Maro read it. His face remained still, not betraying his thoughts.

Tara’s own thoughts whirled. He’d seen her drunk off her ass. What had she said last night? Had she done anything more than be stubborn? She didn’t think so, but as in Bruma, the details were fuzzy.

What must he think of her? Would the letter help his opinion? Or amplify it?

Maro folded the letter and stepped over to his desk. He shuffled through stacks of papers, finally pulling out a dossier.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” he said. “Legate Rikke sent this a few weeks ago, before she left for Windhelm, I believe.”

He flipped quickly through the papers inside, as if refreshing his memory.

Tara felt color drain from her face. Were they the reports Rikke had from Rorikstead, the reports from Captain Havilguss, with the addendums from Calidia?

Maro put down the dossier and turned to her. He’d set the letter inside the dossier.

“Rikke and I have known each other a long time. She considered joining us, before choosing the Legion instead.”

In the moment, Tara realized Maro was a lot older than her first impression of him. The lines on his face were subtle, but noticeable once you gave his face a second glance. He was easily old enough to be her father. A young Rikke joining the Imperial Legion would mean they had known each other a decade or two.

“I trust Rikke’s judgement of people,” he said. “She’s never been wrong.”

“Sir?” Tara asked.

“You’re not the first soldier she’s sent to me.”

He gave Tara a long look.

“Am I to assume last night’s…display…comes from…” he tapped the dossier “…Rorikstead?” He voice sounded firm, yet soft.

Tara swallowed. “I went overboard last night. Lost count. That’s all.”

No it’s not.

Maro kept his eyes on her. So serious.

Tara dropped her gaze. “I need to forget sometimes.” It came out a whisper.

Maro nodded.

“We have an outpost along the border with High Rock, north of Markarth,” Maro said. “Not something most people know.”

Tara thought. North of Markarth would put it in the Druadach Mountains, with Evermore being the closest major High Rock kingdom. Tara had never been; Wayrest being far south of it.

“I’m sending all new agents there to train,” Maro said. “Pack your things. I’ll give you exact directions as soon as you’re ready.”

“Sir?” Tara blinked. That was it? She was in?

“There are trials to become a true agent of the Penitus Oculatus,” Maro said. “A sharp mind, an ability to follow orders, and deadly skills. All are required. You will have to prove yourself.”

Tara straightened up. She saluted Maro. “I’ll prove myself.”

Maro gave her the tiniest of nods. “Whatever haunts you, you’ll need to find a way to deal with it. No alcohol. Understand?”

Tara nodded. “Understood.”

Within the hour, Tara left Dragon Bridge and headed towards Markarth.  She admired the great bridge one more time. She’d spent less than a day in the town.

How soon before she’d be back?

(Check out two excellent Penitus Oculatus mods, Penitus Oculatus and Penitus Oculatus II)

2E 591 – Catalyst

Tara Geonette felt the change in the air as soon as she stepped inside the tower.

Nira Hawkcroft stood near the entrance to greet her. Tara had been gone a week. She had what she needed. The stone had not been easy to come by, but she had it. Even better if she could find more. A task for another day.

Nira looked nervous.

“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.

Nira bowed. “My queen. May we speak somewhere private?”

“Follow me,” Tara said. She led Nira up to her lab. She had a barrier on the door. Only she and Lysona had the ability to remove it and restore it. She waved her hands, sending the correct balance of fire and cold magic at it to dispel it.

She gestured Nira inside and closed the door behind them.

Her niece, Maline, no longer stayed in the lab. When she’d turned thirteen, Tara had given her a separate bedroom. Still on the same floor as the lab and Tara’s bedroom. She needed the girl nearby, of course, and still wanted her interactions with members of the order limited. She had a strict curfew for when she needed to be in her bedroom, and a guard was posted outside her room every night.

Keeping her locked in her lab had been problematic. As Tara understood now, the ritual would work better if Maline knew magic. Giving her a bedroom and sense of freedom had done wonders for her disposition, too. In the years since turning thirteen, the girl now seemed happy. Perhaps she’d finally finished grieving the death of her parents.

Tara had Maline learning alchemy from Lysona and novice magic from Andane. Tara had insisted Andane keep the training to restoration and some alteration magic. Safe enough schools of magic. She didn’t want Maline learning destruction or conjuration. She’d never need them. Like many Geonettes, she was naturally good with magic. Andane had been impressed, but nodded when Tara reminded him to keep everything novice level, no matter how quickly she advanced.

“What is it?” Tara asked Nira. She fought to keep annoyance out of her voice. She removed her traveling cloak, irritated she wasn’t in her bedroom, where she could take off her armor and slip into something more comfortable. Plus, the stone. She wanted to study it. She needed to be alone for that.

“I was too late,” Nira started. Her hands trembled. “I would have stopped it if possible.”

“Stopped what? Out with it,” Tara said. She let her impatience shine through. She didn’t have time for this spineless fear from a follower.

Nira swallowed. “Bedore was in Maline’s bedroom last night. We believe…” Nira cleared her throat. “We believe he…harmed her.”

Tara felt herself grow cold. “Harmed her? How?” Her voice was low, venomous.

Bedore wouldn’t have. He knew better.

Nira’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I found, in her room, afterwards, an empty bottle of wine. I put the bottle in your bedroom, in case you want to examine it. The glass is different. I haven’t seen the bottle before. I thought it might be something special.”

Why was she avoiding answering the question?

“HOW DID HE HARM HER?!” Tara roared.

Nira jumped. “I believe he was drunk and was…with her.” She was barely audible.

Tara stepped away from Nira and paced. He wouldn’t have. He knew better. She’d given him so many others to be with. He knew the rules.

She stopped, facing away from Nira so she couldn’t see any hint of weakness. Tara closed her eyes.

Her niece. Only sixteen. And if it was the bottle of wine she was thinking of? The one she had kept in the bedroom. What then? This changed much. The poor girl.

Tara turned back to Nira. “Where are my children?”

Nira brightened up. “Little Lysona is with Lysona. Madena is watching Tristand. They’ve been happy and good this week.”

“My niece?”

“In her room. I forbade anyone to see her. I brought her breakfast this morning. She won’t tell me anything, but…” Nira swallowed. “She has bruises.”

“You said ‘we believe’. Who knows about this?”

“Just myself and Ciel. He was on duty last night. He told me Bedore ordered him to take a break.”

Nira dropped her eyes. “Ciel came and got me. He’d come back from his break, realized Bedore was still in the bedroom. The door was locked. He heard disturbing sounds. I sent him away. Said I’d check into it.” Nira shifted her feet. “I made sure Bedore didn’t see me when he left her bedroom. I told Ciel not to tell anyone and act like nothing’s happened. Thought it best.”

Tara nodded slowly. “Good thinking. You did the right thing.”

Nira had done the right thing, Tara thought. She considered her options.

“Thank you for telling me.” She smiled at her. “You’ve shown me loyalty and wisdom in handling this.”

Tara opened the lab door. “I need you to stay silent. Tell no one else, including your husband, Peristair. Bedore cannot know that I know. Understand?”

Nira nodded. She seemed relieved.

“I’ll take care of this,” Tara said. She put her hand on Nira’s shoulder, to reassure her. It seemed the thing to do. She also focused her green eyes on her, with an intensity she hoped brokered a little fear. To reinforce the need for the secrecy.

“I will reward you for your loyalty to me. Now, go.”

Nira scurried away.

Tara looked around her lab. She needed to go see Maline.

She grabbed some healing potions, put the barrier back up on the door, and stepped into her bedroom. The empty wine bottle was as Nira had said. Special.

He’d drank the whole thing. Maline was lucky, if bruises were the only injuries she had. This had not been the test of the potion she had in mind. She’d added it to the wine, intending to give Bedore a glass or two over a few dinners to see how he reacted.

Now, she needed details. She needed to know how violent he’d been. She could adjust the potion from there.

Tara changed out of her armor and into a soft, black robe, with the order’s emblem high on the right shoulder. Her red hair stood out with the robe, with the emblem color pulling everything together. She thought herself commanding, yet approachable.

Edgard Ashcroft was guarding Maline’s bedroom.

“My queen.” He nodded.

“Leave us,” Tara said. “I’ll summon you when I’m finished.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Tara waited for Edgard to disappear down the stairs.

She steeled herself and stepped into Maline’s room.

Maline sat by the single window, which was on the left side of her room. Late afternoon light pooled across her, giving her raven hair hints of blue, and adding warmth to her pale face.

As she’d grown, her face had taken on a long look, with delicate features. She always looked fragile. Today, more so.

The bruise on her left cheek stood out. Deep purple, it started near the corner of her mouth and extended up, stopping at the edge of her eyes.

She wore a simple dress, with short sleeves. Tara could see deep bruising on her arms. She sat cross legged in the chair, her legs tucked under the dress, out of sight. Tara imagined deep bruises were hidden there.

Maline’s hazel eyes greeted Tara’s with an emptiness she wasn’t expecting. She’d raised thralls with more life, she thought.

“I brought you some healing potions,” Tara said. She kept her voice soft. “They’ll heal the bruises.”

Maline looked back out the window.

“Come on,” Tara said. She walked closer to her and stopped. She knelt, so that she now looked up at Maline. A position of weakness. A position one might assume to calm an injured animal.

“They’ll help you feel better.” She held them out.

Maline gave her the empty eyes again, but took the two healing potions. She looked at them for a moment, as if considering if they were really healing potions, then drank them both.

She doesn’t trust me, Tara thought. Why would she? The experiments. And now, her boyfriend had…well.

Tara watched the bruises fade as the potions took effect.

“You promised,” Maline said. Her voice was raw, as if she’d been screaming too much and worn it out.

Tara thought for a moment. Promised? Ah, yes. She had.

“I know.” She looked down at the ground, as if ashamed. “I didn’t think it would take this long. I thought I could be rid of him by now.”

Maline’s eyes watered and Tara watched her lower lip tremble. “He…killed them. You promised he’d pay.”

“He will. I need…”

“And you…you sleep with him. You had his children!” She shrieked. Her voice tore.

Maline stood suddenly. Tara stood and stepped back to give her room.

She watched Maline pace back and forth. Her fists clenched and unclenched. The girl stopped in front of her bookcase. Tara had made sure to give her plenty to read. Histories of the Dwemer, her favorite subject, plus the history of High Rock, guides to other cities, anything she could that wasn’t teaching advanced magic.

Maline stared at the books. Tara watched her shoulders shake. The girl was trying to contain her rage.

Tara shifted herself in preparation. She wanted to feel balanced.

Maline threw the books at her with surprising force and accuracy.

Tara used a telekinesis spell to keep the books from hitting her, waving her hands subtly. She let the books come close, before diverting them to the ground around her.

Maline ran out of books and threw one more object. Instead of diverting it to the ground, Tara used telekinesis to pull the object into her hand. The old Dwemer cube. The one she’d given Maline four years ago, as part of the final test.

Tara looked at the cube for a moment and thought. She needed to handle Maline carefully.

She held out the cube to her. “I’m glad you still have it,” she said. “Amazing how they don’t seem to age, isn’t it?”

Maline stared at her. She seemed unsteady on her feet, and unsure of what to do next.

Tara sighed and lowered her arm. “Sit. Let’s talk.” She pointed at the long couch across the room, by the fireplace. It was furthest from the bed, too. The poor girl. Stuck in the same room where it’d happened. She needed a new bed. She couldn’t be expected to sleep in the same bed it’d happened in. Tara would have the bed replaced as soon as she left.

Maline sat on the couch without a word. Tara held out the cube again. Maline took it and slowly turned it over in her hands. She kept her eyes focused on the cube, refusing to look at her aunt.

Tara sat next to her, close, but with some space. Best not to crowd her.

“This will help you feel better,” she said. Without waiting for a response, Tara waved her right hand and performed a calm spell. It seemed the kindest thing she could do; remove Maline’s anger. Suppress all her emotions. Perhaps it could give her a sense of peace and relax her enough so she could sleep later.

Mostly, it’d settle her down enough for Tara to get answers.

“I’m sorry. I truly am,” she said. She kept her voice soothing, matching it to what she used with Lysona and Tristand when they needed it.

Maline kept turning the cube over in her hand.

“I haven’t explained my plans to you,” Tara continued. “I need one more thing from Bedore. Then, I can keep my promise. He will die.”

Maline stopped turning the cube and looked at her. Her eyes were sad, but also tired. The calming had worked.

“He said things. He said…” she paused. “He said you ordered him to kill Mom and Dad.” Her voice was low. Still raw. A warning was in the tone.

Tara thought back to the last time they’d sat together, with the cube in Maline’s hands. The promise. Maline’s tone then, the look in her eyes. A look that matched many Tara had given. Given time, Tara suspected Maline could become a great conjurer. Someone who enthusiastically studied the dark arts. Some interests ran in the family.

Tara put her arm around Maline and pulled her close. Maline rested her head on Tara’s shoulder. The spell had been strong enough. She should have been resisting Tara’s comfort. Good. Now, to word things right.

“He was supposed to bring you to me. Your mom and dad wanted me to teach you magic,” she lied. “He was just supposed to pick you up and bring you here. Your dad was my big brother. I’d never want anyone to hurt our family. Our blood.”

Maline seemed in thought. Tara ran her fingers lightly through the girl’s hair, soothing her like she did little Lysona, when she had bad dreams.

“Then why haven’t you killed him already? Why do you let him be so…close to you?”

Tara sighed, as if she was acknowledging a great burden.

“You know how I said our family was special. You and I are special?”

“Yes.”

“Bedore’s blood is special, too. I need it. That’s why I’ve had his children.”

Maline shivered. “But…”

“Also, some say a person should keep their enemies close. Better to track them. And take them by surprise.”

Maline went quiet, thinking. They sat silently for several minutes. Tara kept stroking her hair. She performed another calm spell on her. She needed the girl a little more pliable.

“I need you to tell me exactly what happened,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “I know it’s painful, but I have to know everything. It’ll help me.”

Maline shivered. “I…I don’t want to remember…”

“I know,” Tara soothed. “The details will help me keep my promise to you.”

Maline stiffened. “Really?”

“Yes. I’m working on a special potion, just for Bedore.”

Tara cupped her hand under Maline’s chin, gently lifting her head, so they looked at each other. She gave her a smile.

“After you tell me everything, I’ll have Lysona give you something to help you sleep. You won’t have any nightmares.”

Tara nodded towards Maline’s bed. “I’ll have that burned and a new bed brought to you, too. You never have to see that again.”

Maline’s eyes betrayed how tired the calming spell made her. Some fear flickered, but the spell was winning. She placed her head back on Tara’s shoulder.

“Okay. Just this once,” she said.

Tara listened and formulated her plans.

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.)