4E 204 – Old Magic

Mira shivered. She rubbed her arms. She wasn’t cold. Fall was in full swing, but her robes were heavy enough for this dreary region of High Rock.

Silly. You’re a master mage. Calm down. Nothing to fear here.

Here was in Rivenspire, outside the village of Wickhart. In front of Mira were ruins that had once been an estate, a small stone castle that existed in the Second Era.

She’d read the property records in Shornhelm to confirm this was the place in the book. The location of a showdown between the Mages Guild and necromancers from the Order of the Fire Queen. The supposed destruction of the order. Where Bedore Ashsmith, Tara Geonette’s second in command, had died in 2E 596.

One sunken, broken tower stood before her. The top parapets were cracked or missing. The base of the tower had sunk into the muddy ground, giving the tower a left lean.

To the left of the tower, the stone remnants of what had been the main house fought with thick vines, scrub trees, and tall grass to be seen. The rest of the plot of land looked to be nothing more than ancient crop fields, long returned to the wild. Various scrub grasses fought for dominance. None of it tended or neat. No one had walked this land in years, perhaps decades.

She looked back at the tower. A doorway arch faced her, partly sunken with the base of the tower. Still intact, the arch was the only way into the tower. Whatever door had stood was long gone. If anything was left here, it’d be through that black maw of an opening.

A fresh gust of wind brought a chill to her. She pulled her mage robes tighter. The overcast skies had shifted into a duller gray. Rain looked to be on the way.

Late afternoon would not be a good time to start an exploration of the tower, she thought. Morning would be better. Safer.

Mira walked to Wickhart, which was a kilometer down the road. The village was newer than the old estate, a place that had cropped up maybe a couple of hundred years ago. It wasn’t on most maps. Five houses and an inn doubling as a general goods store were all Wickhart amounted to. Quaint should’ve been the word for such a village, but the houses and inn looked run down. Inside, the inn was well-kept, if small. It probably served as the town’s center, where everyone gathered. Enough reason to keep it maintained.

Near the town’s single well had been small shrines to Diabella and Zenthiar. All the homes had gardens behind them. The land in this area of Rivenspire, in the northern section of High Rock, was bleak, desolate. Full of moors and other lowlands. Crops fought to survive.

“I need a room for the night,” Mira said to the old Breton man behind the bar. He wore basic barkeeper clothes and a dirty apron he’d been wiping mugs on.

The man squinted his eyes at her, taking in her mage robes. His gray hair looked unkempt, his face displayed several days of stubble, as gray as his hair.

“One night?” he growled at her.

“Yes,” Mira said. She tried to keep her tone in check, to not sound condescending. She didn’t succeed.

“Good,” he huffed. “Ten septims.”

Mira paid and followed him to the back of the inn, where he gave her the room on the right. The room was tiny, with a single bed, small chest of drawers, and a chair. No table or wardrobe cabinet. The furniture looked old, an afterthought.

She wondered how long it had been since someone stayed in the room. A layer of dust coated the chest of drawers. Knocking the worst of the dust away, she put her clothes in the top drawer. She kept most of her traveling items in her backpack. She would only be here the night. No reason to get comfortable.

Her stomach growled. When had she last eaten?

She thought of the old man’s dirty apron, wiping the mugs. What choice did she have, though? Wickhart was more than three hours from Shornhelm. There was nowhere else to eat. Why hadn’t she thought to pack food for the trip?

“May I see the food menu?” she asked, after coming out of her room.

A few people had come into the inn. Two couples, both looking to be husband and wife combinations, sat at tables, enjoying ale.

A lone man, in dirty farmhand clothes, sat at the bar, nursing a mead.

An older woman, with dark brown hair streaked with gray, moved between the tables, obviously the inn’s server. Mira shifted her feet. Everyone was staring at her.

“Don’t serve ravens here,” the barkeeper said. He was wiping his hands on the apron, giving her a look both defiant and disgusted.

“Pardon?” Mira asked.

“We don’t serve ravens here,” he repeated. He drew out each word, as if talking to a child still learning basic language.

“I don’t understand,” Mira said. Ravens?

“Nolore,” the older woman said to him. “Maybe she isn’t one.” She looked at Mira with a mix of kindness and curiosity.

“Of course she is, Jolie,” Nolore said. He waved his hand at Mira, pointing out her clothes. “Jus’ look at her.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mira said. She wanted to let her anger show, but resisted. They were wasting her time. She wanted a bite to eat. Nothing more.

“You were over on that property. You’re one of ‘em,” Nolore said. His eyes flicked to the farmhand at the bar. Someone had seen her and gossiped.

What was the best tactic to take with them? She wanted food. Plus now, they had her curious about “ravens”.


Yes. Let them know they could trust her. She wasn’t a threat.

“Yes, I was at that property down the road,” she said. She used her teacher tone. The tone that made others lean in to learn. “I’m a mage researcher. I’m researching that land, trying to confirm some of its history.”

Nolore didn’t look convinced. “Raven. I ain’t serving you.”

Jolie let out a large sigh. “Sit,” she said to Mira, pointing at a small table in the far corner. “All we have is beef stew. Five septims.”

As Mira sat, she watched Jolie head behind the bar, to the large stew pot, and dish up a bowl. She whispered something to Nolore, who seemed angry, yet resigned.

Another couple had come into the inn and sat at the last open table in the inn. Everyone continued to openly stare at Mira, or do a poor job of avoiding staring at her.

Jolie returned with the bowl and a bottle of mead. She placed them on the table and sat across from Mira.

“Thank you,” Mira said. She took a bite of the stew. It was hearty and hit the spot, perfect for such a chilly fall day.

Jolie watched her eat, as if trying to decide something.

“You do look like them, but your robes aren’t right,” she said.

“These ravens?” Mira asked.

Jolie nodded. “Your face is…” she trailed off. “You look like them, but you don’t look cruel.”

Mira flashed back to childhood. To using calm spells on Tara. Hadn’t that been cruel?

“What are ‘ravens’?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

Jolie shifted her skirt, suddenly nervous. “Dark hair. Like ravens.” She studied Mira’s face. “Eyes, too. The blue. You look like them.”

Mira took a sip of mead, grateful Jolie had not brought over a mug to pour it into.

“Are they necromancers?” she asked.

Jolie held her gaze and gave the barest of nods.

“And they show up on that property?”

The small nod.

Jolie cleared her throat and stood. “Enjoy your stew,” her voice was raised. “Best be on your way tomorrow, understand?”

Mira nodded. “Yes.”

Mira woke early the next morning. She decided to skip trying to have another meal here at the inn.

Rain drizzled on her as she walked. Gray clouds coated the sky. She passed some of the homes of Wickhart. A few people were working in their gardens, one feeding chickens. All of them looked at her. None of them waved or nodded a greeting to her.

The old estate looked the same as the day before, though now muddier. In the gray morning light, the black maw of an opening into the tower was less welcoming. She needed to go inside, though. No question. Not after Jolie saying necromancers came here.

Mira pushed through the tall grass and vines, making her way to the tower. If there’d ever been a path to the tower, it was lost long ago to time. Her boots slipped and slid in the mud, but the thick grass roots provided some stability. It was a messy walk, but not dangerous.

Reaching the tower entrance, she was greeted by near silence. The drizzling rain had stopped. Some dripping water could be heard inside the entrance. Faint shafts of light shown through the opening, the top of the tower probably partially collapsed, letting light in. The black maw not as black as it first seemed. Mira stepped inside.

She gave her eyes a few minutes to adjust. She could cast a light spell, and have an instant ball of light follow her, but wanted to take in the tower naturally. Evaluate it before determining what magic was needed.

There was also the chance she wasn’t alone. Best not to disturb anything or announce her presence.

The faint light revealed the bottom of the tower filled with overgrown ferns and stone rubble, covered in moss. Dank. Dreary. Mira looked up. A broken stone staircase wound up to a floor above, with most of the floor missing, probably the stones now at her feet.

Through the broken floor she could see what was left of the top of the tower. More intact than the floor above her, it was still missing large blocks of stone, accounting for how light had made its way inside. There would be no climbing the stairs to see if anything worthwhile still existed above.

Whatever was here was not above. Mira turned her attention back to the base of the tower.

The entire floor was dirt and mud. Whether the tower had sunk down, or dirt and debris over the centuries had partially buried it, she wasn’t sure. Ferns mixed with vines and grass. All seemed stunted, as if fighting for what light they could get. The ground was drier than outside, the mud less slick, as the tower offered some protection from the rain.

Obviously alone, Mira cast a candlelight spell. A ball of shimmering light appeared and floated above and slightly behind her, illuminating the area.

Stone, plants, and dirt seemed to be all that surrounded her.

There’s something here, Mira thought. She could feel it. She closed her eyes and listened. There was a faint sound, something almost like the wind, or voices carried on a breeze. That’s what she was feeling. She was hearing something.

She opened her eyes and turned toward the sound. She stepped towards the east end of the tower, the side away from the broken staircase, and highest, the section least sunk into the ground. She recast her candlelight spell and moved the ball of light around, shifting the shadows.

There it was. Surrounded by thick ferns was a trapdoor. The petrified wood nearly matched the color of the surrounding soil. You needed to be looking for it to find it.

Mira shivered.

Stop it, she thought. You can handle anything.

It took two tugs on the handle before the trapdoor relented. With an audible creak, it opened. A dark square of black space stared at her.

Mira closed her eyes and listened again. That faint sound, of almost voices, was there.

No, not actually there.

It’s in my head, she realized. She wasn’t hearing anything. Her mind was. She felt…called.

She sent a ball of light down the shaft the trapdoor revealed. A wooden ladder led into a tunnel. Stone walls. This wasn’t a cave; it was a basement, perhaps. The wood of the ladder was too new to have been original. Someone was maintaining access to whatever was within.

Mira climbed down. As she went to cast another candlelight spell, the torches in braziers closest to her flared to life, casting wavering firelight down the hallway she was now standing in.

A proximity spell of some sort? Mira stepped forward. Sure enough, the next set of torches lit up, and the ones behind her extinguished themselves as she moved away. She continued down the hall for about fifty meters, the torches leading her forward. The distant voices in her head also led, getting louder as she continued.

The hall took a sharp right turn. Down a short hallway, no more than twenty meters, stood a set of double doors, made of carved stone.

Mira swallowed as she reached the door. The carving on the doors was the symbol of the Order of the Fire Queen. The unmistakable tree with a sun above it.

The calling, the voices, were louder.

Mira’s hand shook as she reached for the ring shaped handle of the right door.

Calm down, she thought. You can handle anything. She pulled in a deep breath and pulled on the handle.

The door gave easily.

The room the doors opened into was where the tower ended and a natural cavern started. What was left of the tower was a stone floor with steps leading down into the cavern. Several bedrolls, a cooking pot and fire pit, long cold, and two side tables occupied the stone floor.

The cavern was the focal point, though.

Magic braziers lined it, tossing a soft light to the back wall. The cavern ceiling was perhaps twenty feet high, the cavern maybe fifty feet deep.

Mira blinked looking at the back wall. What was she looking at?

The back of the cavern contained an alcove. A shimmering magical barrier covered it.

Mira walked down the steps and approached the alcove. Not a natural formation, it’d been carved into the cavern wall. It looked ten feet tall. Mira wasn’t sure how deep it was, the magic barrier distorted everything on the other side. Maybe six feet, maybe twelve. The depth didn’t matter, though. What stood in the alcove did.

In the middle of the alcove sat a pedestal with a sphere hovering above it. The pedestal and sphere were black and looked to be made of marble, or some other smooth stone.

Magic poured out of the sphere, surrounding it in colorful waves. Mixed with the magic barrier itself, the brightness was overwhelming up close.

Mira stepped back.

What was she looking at?

The voices inside her head were loudest here, coming from the sphere.

She felt drawn to them. She wanted to touch the sphere. Something told her she should.

She belonged to it. Somehow.

What was the sphere? She’d never seen anything like it.

You’ve read about it.

Yes, this was…something.

Mira scanned the magic barrier again. The barrier shimmered and shifted in shades of blue. There were no telltale signs of what kind of magic it was. Cold, fire, or lightning based barriers were easy to discern. Not this one.

Mira brought her hand close to the barrier, to see if she could feel anything from it. She’d once tested a barrier made for illusionists and seen her hand fade. Perhaps this was similar.

The closer her hand got to the barrier, the louder the voices sounded. Could she make out what they were saying?

“…one of…no…never…perfor…not wel…”


Her fingers touched the barrier and started to pass through it.

The pain hit as all her fingers passed through, with her palm touching the edge of barrier.

Mira screamed as the sense of burning coursed through her fingers and she was shoved back away from the barrier, knocking her to the ground. She looked at her hand. Her fingers were burnt black. Shock seemed to be stopping her from feeling any additional pain.

She cast a healing spell on her hand and watched her fingers return to normal.

She looked up at the barrier. A cruel tease, letting her pass through before rejecting her? Or, something else?

Mira climbed to her feet and approached it again.

She sent flames at the barrier. If it had burned her, perhaps flames would bring it down. The flames faded against it.

She tried ice spikes, then lightning bolts. Same.

She cast a few illusion and alteration spells at it. Same.

Conjuration was left.

She conjured a flame atronach. The flaming womanly form floated next to her. She pointed it at the barrier and watched it fling a few fireballs at it. Like her own flames, they faded on contact.

“Sorry,” Mira said. She used a telekinesis spell to shove the atronach against the barrier. With a scream, the atronach exploded. The barrier didn’t budge.

Mira sighed. Why had she partially passed through? And what was that in the alcove?

You need help.

She did. She’d found this place. Whatever battle had once happened here, this barrier and that sphere had to be part of it. This was a find.

You need Tara.

Maybe she did. But, why? Tara couldn’t perform much magic.

She’s supposed to.

Right. If not for her parents. If not for what Mira had done.

Mira knelt down. She needed to bring Tara and Katla here. Research what that sphere might be.

She wanted a faster way here, though. No need to go to Wickhart, or even Shornhelm. No need for anyone to know she’d visited the land.

She ran her fingers over the rocks of the cavern floor, giving herself a feel of the place. She pulled out a scroll of parchment and made some notes.

She stood and cast a small spell at the ground. She then pulled the magic back into herself.

She had it. She could now teleport here. She could write out a few scrolls for Tara or Katla to come here instantly, too. All that research at Frostcrag Spire had taught her so much about teleportation. It’d become a lost art in the world of magic.

At least I got one positive thing out of visiting the College of Whispers, she thought.

Not true.

As painful as it’d been, she’d needed to come clean to Tara about their childhood. That was the other good thing. The strain in their relationship now was earned. Maybe uncovering what their ancestor had done would seal the breach.

Mira looked back at the barrier and the floating sphere behind it. She had a lot of work to do.

She steadied herself and teleported home.

4E 204 – Work

Tara crouched behind the rock and watched the approaching Thalmor patrol. Being short had its advantages and right now was one of them. Crouching down on the cliff above the road, she was hard to spot. As long as sunlight didn’t glance off her red hair, creating a distracting burst of color, they wouldn’t see her. She’d picked the side of the road drenched in shadow for a reason.

The patrol consisted of three Thalmor agents and their prisoner, a young Nord man with stringy, blond hair and a large build. Two of the Thalmor were typical soldiers, in heavy Elven armor. The third was Tara’s biggest concern. A Thalmor wizard, dressed in high ranking robes. Altmer elves were known for their exceptional magic skills. Thalmor wizards tended to be proficient in all the destruction spells, especially anything lightning related. She’d need to take him out first, before he could electrocute her.

Her orders were to rescue the Nord and bring him to Dragon Bridge. He had information the Penitus Oculatus wanted. Information they didn’t want the Thalmor to torture out of the man.

Of course, this meant eliminating the patrol, too.

Leave no witnesses. No one can know you’re an agent, either.

Kill three Thalmor without killing the prisoner, or getting herself killed. All by herself. Right. Tara wondered when she’d get an easy assignment. Like patrol duty or bodyguard.

Commander Maro kept sending her on these solo assignments to kill people. Why?

Tara shook her head. She couldn’t dwell. Time to attack and get her job done.

The two Thalmor soldiers were in the lead as the group approached. The Nord man, dressed in rough fabric and with his hands bound in front of him, came next, with the wizard behind him. If it’d been up to Tara, she’d have one soldier in front and the second one at the rear, to provide better melee protection for the wizard. Powerful mage or not, their robes wouldn’t help much against an arrow. Or axe.

This formation felt lazy. They were not expecting trouble on the roads of Skyrim.

Tara ran through her attack plan one more time. She closed her eyes and pulled in a deep breath. As long as the first step worked, she should survive this.

The patrol passed by her. As soon as the wizard was past the cliff, she leapt down onto the road behind him, performing a forward roll to reduce the impact of her landing. Fortunately, the cliff peaked at about nine feet, so the jump down hadn’t concerned her. The wizard was the first to hear her and turn around.

Tara let loose with a wave, hoping she had enough control for what she wanted to accomplish.

The wizard and soldiers went flying into the overgrowth along the road. The Nord was knocked down, but still on the road. Separated from the Thalmor.


“Get to cover!” Tara yelled at him, pointing to a gangly tree on the opposite side of the road from the Thalmor. Like most of the trees in The Reach region, its trunk was stunted and twisted, with few leaves. Still, it offered some protection in this rocky, grassland area.

He did as told. Tara pulled out Katla’s bow, hers now, and notched an arrow. She let it fly at the wizard, who was just climbing to his feet. The arrow hit true, catching him in his heart. He staggered for a moment, his hands lit with electricity he’d been about to unleash. Then, he collapsed in the deep grass, blades of it charring underneath where his hands fell. The magic faded. Threat eliminated.

The Thalmor soldiers were rushing towards her, both with greatswords drawn. Neither had a bow, lucky for Tara. If they’d had, they could’ve flanked her, one covering the other.

Again, this patrol seemed lazy. Whomever had issued orders deserved a reprimand.

Tara backed up and fired an arrow at the closest warrior. She got lucky and it caught him under his raised arm, at a weak point of the armor. He screamed and dropped his sword.

She notched and fired an arrow towards the second Thalmor, but he ducked it easily, as she’d aimed too high.

Tara sheathed Katla’s bow and pulled out her axes. One on one, then.

The uninjured Thalmor reached her and swung. Tara easily side stepped, then rushed in with a swing of both axes. She caught him at the knees, knocking him off his feet. She was on top of him in a second and drove her right axe into his neck, just under his chin, where his helmet couldn’t protect him.

She leapt off the dying man as the now injured Thalmor reached her. He’d dropped his greatsword, as he needed two hands for it, and pulled out an elven dagger. Sunlight glinted off the golden metal of the handle as he lunged at her with his uninjured arm.

He caught her right arm. Tara resisted a scream as the blade easily split skin and muscle along her bicep. She swung her left axe at his right elbow, aiming for another weak point in the armor. Her aim was off, and instead she heard the distinct clang of metal on metal as she caught his gauntlet. It was enough to knock the dagger out of his hand, though.

Weaponless, he staggered back and started running, retreating.  She caught up to him within a few seconds, running full speed to tackle him. Altmer elves were the tallest of all the races. One reason they were nicknamed high elves. He was more than a foot taller than her, but tackled onto the ground, his head and neck were easy to reach. Tara killed him the same as the other, driving her axe into his neck. He managed a “mercy!” before the final blow.

She stood up and looked at his dead body. She had no mercy to spare. How many lives had the Thalmor destroyed with their starting of the Great War? A war from before she was born that still resonated today. She had no doubt a second war would break out, eventually. Would Skyrim’s civil war had happened if the Great one had never happened? She never would have joined the Imperial Legion to fight in it.

Rorikstead wouldn’t have happened.

Tara shook her head. The premonition of Rigmor. She was meant to be in the Penitus Oculatus. Being in the Legion had gotten her into it. That was something.

Ruminating on what might have been wouldn’t solve anything.

She cleaned her axes quickly on the grass, then cast a healing spell on her right arm. The slice from the dagger closed quickly and left no scars. Her poor right arm had enough already.

She walked back over to the tree the Nord had hidden behind, giving herself time to catch her breath after the fighting and running.

He wasn’t there.

She scanned around her and spotted him, a good two hundred meters away. Running, with his hands still bound.

“Oh, come on,” she muttered and took off after him. Why was he running?

Probably because I’m dressed in my leather armor, she thought. He’d have no idea who she was. That she was here to protect him. For all he knew, she was some assassin.

“Stop!” She yelled as she sprinted after him. He ignored her and kept running.

She caught him in less than a minute. Sticking out her leg, she tripped him mid-sprint. Fortunately, they were in a field of thick grass, so his fall was as soft as possible.

“Leave me alone!” he yelled, as he rolled to his knees, trying to get to his feet.

Tara pressed her boot into his chest, threatening to knock him down again.

“Let me go!” he said.

“I’m here to escort you to safety,” she said. She kept her tone even, to calm him. “Let me free your hands.”

He paused a moment, his sharp blue eyes stared at her, suspicious. He held out his hands, though.

Probably thinks he can take me in a fight, Tara thought. Hopefully, he knew better than to try.

She pulled out her ebony dagger. Varro’s face flashed before her eyes, reminding her she’d killed him with it. The dagger easily sliced through the ropes, freeing the Nord’s hands.

Tara stepped back and let him climb to his feet.

“I’m Tara,” she said. “You are?”

The Nord rubbed his wrists. The skin around them looked irritated, red from how tightly he’d been bound.

“Jesper Foxbite.” He nodded. “Thank you for saving me from the Thalmor. But, who are you?”

Tara nodded and pointed towards the road. “Your escort to the town of Dragon Bridge.”

“Dragon Bridge? I live in Winterhold. I need to get back to my family…”

“Jesper,” Tara said. She pulled herself up to her full height. He beat her by at least nine inches. “I’m an agent of the Penitus Oculatus. I have orders to bring you to Dragon Bridge.”

Jesper’s face fell at that news. “Ah,” he said.

Tara raised an eyebrow, waiting to see if he’d elaborate, but he remained silent. She pointed again to the road and they headed northeast.

They didn’t pass many people. One caravan of Khajiit merchants heading to Markarth, plus a few guard patrols were all they saw. Tara wondered who would find the dead Thalmor and if anyone would suspect them.

Night approached and they found a rocky overhang to camp. Jesper had remained silent as they made their way, Tara catching his side glances at her. Did he plan to escape?

He gathered wood for a fire. Tara cooked them a simple meal of smoked rabbit and baked potatoes. She’d not brought many supplies with her, wanting to travel light. She’d left Twilight in Dragon Bridge. Having a horse with her would’ve made it harder to stake out the patrol.

Conversation during dinner was light. Tara asked him about his family, but he shook his head and remained quiet. He kept his eye on her while he ate. He seemed to be sizing her up.

“I want to be back on the road early,” Tara said as soon as they finished eating. She tossed him her bedroll. “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

“When will you sleep?” Jesper asked.

“I won’t.”

Jesper grunted. “You mean you’re watching me. So I don’t run again.”

Tara nodded.

As Jesper slept, Tara watched the stars. The moons, Masser and Secunda, rose close together, small Secunda partially hidden by Masser’s overwhelming red.

The constellation of The Lady shone brightly with the moons. Another reminder fall had arrived, here in the month of Hearthfire. The night cooled quickly and Tara put on her cloak to stay warm. She’d need to wear furs soon, even in this temperate area of Skyrim, fall and winter became brutally cold.

She smiled as she thought of her first winter in Skyrim. Of walking the seven thousand steps to High Hrothgar with Katla. Of that first time realizing how cold Skyrim could be.

Of that first night sharing a tent with Katla. That first kiss the next morning.

She’d not seen her much over the past five months. Assignment after assignment took her away from Solitude. From home.

Would she ever get used to the cold here? Probably not. She loved Skyrim, though. It’d gotten into her bones, the simple life people lived here. When her time with the Penitus Oculatus was over, and whatever events lay ahead with this Rigmor from her dreams, she’d settle back here with Katla.

Jesper’s snoring pulled her back to the present. She noted the position of The Lady and passed the time watching the fire slowly die and making notes in her journal.

Katla had encouraged her to keep one.

“For when the job’s tough,” she’d said before pausing. “Or, the memories are.”

Most of her entries felt like field notes. She didn’t detail her assignments; that was unsafe and against the rules. She knew Katla meant for her to write down her feelings in the journal. That felt unsafe, too.

What if someone read it? She couldn’t have her fears, nightmares, any of it written down. She couldn’t be vulnerable like that. She couldn’t risk someone using her pain against her.

She made an entry for today noting she’d killed three Thalmor, but not why or how, noted what she’d had for dinner. She looked up at the sky and quickly sketched in the moons and The Lady. They were a highlight to the day.

She let Jesper sleep for five hours before waking him. The Lady had traveled across half the sky, while Masser and Secunda were slowly setting. The sun wouldn’t appear for a couple of hours. Tara estimated they’d nearly be at Dragon Bridge by then.

Jesper impressed her by waking up alert and ready to go. She wondered if he needed to be a quick riser for his job or had been on the run from the Thalmor, learning to be ready to escape at a moment’s notice.

They made good time. As the sun spread its first rays across the road, painting pale color across the sky and distant mountains, the sight of the great dragon bridge came into view.

Jesper had remained silent for the journey, stealing glances at Tara.

“Do you even know why they want me?” he asked as they reached the bridge’s first stones.

Tara stopped and looked at him. Like so many Nord men, he carried a proud face, his chin lifted in defiance. His eyes revealed fear, though.


Jesper shook his head. “Maybe you should ask questions.”

Varro’s face briefly floated in front her. That night, the questions he’d asked before she’d killed him. The subject he’d been hinting at.

“We might be sent anywhere in Tamriel. Anywhere in Nirn, if the Emperor wants.”
“And that’s okay with you?”

“Lots of ways to serve, I think.”

“Across the bridge,” Tara pointed. “We’re almost there.”

Was Jesper another spy? Or a Nord who knew something he’d regretted learning? Would knowing this have helped her do her job?


She’d taken an oath. Taking assignments without question was part of the job. Loyalty.

Jesper shook his head again, as if disappointed in her, then they crossed the bridge.

She handed him off to another agent and then sat and wrote a report. She placed it on Maro’s desk, then found him outside the outpost, near the forge, where another agent was repairing some armor.

Maro nodded at her. “Good job.”

“Thank you, sir. Report’s on your desk.”

“How many Thalmor were with him?”

“Three. Two soldiers and a wizard.”

Maro nodded.

Tara considered for a moment before asking, “Jesper seems as scared of us as he was of the Thalmor.”

“We have a reputation, Blaton. Most people are scared of us.”

“This wasn’t that, sir.”

Maro looked at her. One corner of his mouth had lifted. She wasn’t sure if the smirk was approval. “I don’t know what he knows, but the orders came from the Lord Chancellor himself.”

“But the Emperor disbanded us.”

“Lord Chancellor Blackwell serves the throne, no matter who sits on it,” Maro said. “He looks out for the Empire at all costs.”

Tara nodded. “Anything else, sir?”

“You’re due for a vacation. Take a few weeks off,” Maro said. “I’ll send word when I have another assignment for you.”

Tara enjoyed the ride back to Solitude. Twilight was frisky, after not seeing her for a couple of weeks, so Tara took her time and they galloped on some small dirt roads, meandering off, then back to the main road. Tara realized she felt good. At peace.

Early afternoon arrived, and the wind picked up, bringing cooler air.

“You’ve had your fun,” she said to Twilight. “Let’s get home.”

Katla pulled her into a warm embrace as soon as she arrived. Time froze while they held each other.

Tara washed off the past few days. When she came back downstairs, the rich smell of a baking meat pie enveloped her.

Katla sat on the main couch, with two letters and an old, burnt journal next to her.

“Smells wonderful,” Tara said.

Katla gave her a small smile. “Should be ready in another half hour.” She patted the couch next to her. “Sit.”

“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.

“Mira wrote,” Katla tapped the two letters next to her. “She needs us. Plus, we need to discuss my parents’ journal.” She tapped the journal. Her eyes betrayed a mix of emotions her calm voice hid.

The night went long as they discussed both.

2E 592 – Seduction

Tara Geonette hugged little Lysona and kissed her on the top of her head.

“Go play with Tristand,” she said, nudging her towards her brother. Little Lysona waddled away and joined Tristand and the other children, who were playing with sparkle sticks, small branches carefully trimmed and coated with a mix of flint, sand, and a potion that made them light up and fire off small sparks when lit by magical fire.

Lysona had invented the potion, and the harmless sparks kept the children entertained endlessly. Even on such a sunny afternoon, the sparks dazzled.

“We made beautiful children,” Bedore said. He and Tara sat on the top step into the small single room building they’d built at the edge of the property to use as a magic school for the children. Several had shown magic abilities early, especially the ones Bedore had fathered, so Tara had thought it prudent to build the school.

“Can you feel their magic potential?” Tara asked. “Our families combined. We’re unstoppable.”

Bedore nodded, but Tara thought it a nod of convenience. He was agreeing with her because he should agree, not because he really did.

Why would he? He didn’t know the plan, didn’t understand the importance of his blood and what it meant for her, Tara.

“I need you to do me a favor,” Tara said. She turned her green eyes on him, adding a sly smile to tempt him.

Bedore studied her for a split second before answering. “Yes?”

There was a time he would’ve added “my queen” or “my love” to complete the sentence. They were past that, though.

“Lysona will ask you to dinner tomorrow night. Agree and sleep with her. I need her to have a child. You’re the one I want to father it.”

Bedore frowned and thought. He rubbed his beard, so neatly trimmed. Never a hair out of place. There were a few gray hairs in his beard now. A reminder time was moving forward for all of them.

Should she have thrown in some compliments? He was so vain.

Bedore sighed. “I hate her.”

“I know,” Tara said. “Use that to…enjoy your time with her.”

Bedore raised an eyebrow. He seemed to consider it.

“Why’d she agree to this?” He turned back to her, searching.

Clever boy, Tara thought. He understood there’d been a bargain struck.

“The hate is mutual,” she laughed. “She wants me, though.” Tara shrugged. “She knows the order requires her to have a child. She wants to please her queen.” Tara let her voice drip with sarcasm on the last sentence.

Tara ran her fingers along Bedore’s arm, keeping her touch soft. Inviting.

“Ashsmith and Meric blood mixing is almost as good as ours mixing.”

Bedore shrugged. “I only want to have her once, then.”

“I have a potion to guarantee it. I’ve added it to some wine in my bedroom. Come by and drink it before heading to see her.” Tara paused, to see if anything registered across his face about potions, wine, and her bedroom. He either hid it well or hadn’t put the combination together yet. Good. “She’ll also be drinking a fertility potion she’s come up with,” Tara finished. She ran her fingers down his arm again. “After tomorrow night, you won’t be with her again.”

Bedore observed Tara for a long minute, then looked back at the children playing. His face remained unreadable.

The afternoon was drawing late, and shadows had crept across his face, emphasizing his sharp features, the striking angles that made him such a handsome man.

He’d fathered ten children in the order. Soon to be twelve.

Maline was due any day now. There was never a way to know for sure, but all evidence, including casting a detect life spell on her, indicated she was having twins. They were always born early, so the original due date didn’t matter. She could go into labor at any time.

Talk had spread about her pregnancy. Tara hadn’t kept her confined to her room, so her obvious bump became a topic of rumor and speculation.

Bedore had said nothing, not even asked who Tara thought the father was. Many in the order suspected Bedore. Of course they did. It was open knowledge he’d been with many of the single women, and a few of the married ones. All understood this was under Tara’s orders, though.

Tara chafed that some thought she’d ordered him to be with Maline. She had standards. Morals. Forcing such a man on a child. Her boyfriend at that. The thought was disgusting. Insulting.

It eroded members’ trust in her. Inexcusable.

There was a benefit, though. More Geonette and Ashsmith blood in the order. Separate from her blood, but still with that glorious magical potential.

She’d adjusted her plans for this new reality. As always, she’d figured out how to make the best of anything handed to her.

Maline’s fate was still sealed. Delayed, now. She’d have two kids to raise first. In the scheme of things, the delay wouldn’t matter.

As for Bedore, Tara took a moment to glance at him again and admire his looks. His reckoning was almost upon him.

“I’d like to have one more child with you,” Tara said. Bedore seemed startled, as if he’d forgotten they were still sitting together on the steps, watching the children wear themselves out. A cool breeze had cropped up, playing softly with everyone’s hair.

Tara pushed hers out of her eyes, in that measured way she used to when first seducing Bedore. She gave him a deep smile.

“We still need to have a red haired one,” Tara nodded to Lysona and Tristand. Both were as black haired as their father. Their eyes, too, matched the deep blueness of his. The shape of their faces screamed Geonette, at least, with a balance of round cheeks and sharper chin that so many carried.

Bedore studied the children, then looked at her. His face showed curiosity. “You know I can’t control the color of our children’s hair. The redheads seem to be in your family.”

“Of course,” Tara laughed. “I’ve had ideas, though. More potion brewing.” She winked. “Up for trying again? It’s been a long time.”

Bedore thought for a moment. Tara admired he thought he had a choice in the matter.

Ever since she’d changed the rules in the bedroom, and given birth, he’d avoided sex with her. Another thing they seemed beyond. His pleasure came from being with the other women in the order. He was allowed to frolic with each until a pregnancy was confirmed. There was little doubt he continued the frolicking with them afterwards, too.

“Do you want to try tonight?” he asked.

“No,” Tara answered. “After you’re with Lysona.”

Bedore nodded. “Might we go back to the old rules? I’d be more enthusiastic if you’d let me…” he paused.

It had been the rule change, then. The loss of violence.

Tara nodded. “Have all the fun you want with Lysona. Then…” she smiled. “I think we can find a way to carry on that fun between us.”

Tara watched his face brighten at the thought.

Too easy.

Tara stood, stepped into the yard, and called out to the children.

“Dinner time. Time for everyone to wash up,” she said.

As they formed a loose circle around her, all dirt and smiles, she turned toward each and smiled back. The future of the order. The future of her dreams.

She flicked her fingers, disintegrating the sparkle sticks into ash. The children gasped and giggled. They never failed to be impressed by any magic she performed. Almost as if they worshiped her.

Soon enough, they would.

4E 204 – Me or the Mead

Katla laid eyes on Tara and felt her heart pound. Perhaps even stop.

How much she’d missed her hit like a stone wall collapsing on top of her. She wanted to cry with both happiness at seeing her and the grief of missing out on so much time with her.

It hurt to breath.

As always, Tara’s hair caught her eyes first. How could it not? Mira had confessed to her back in Wayrest she’d always thought of Tara’s auburn red hair as a blend of fire and passion. The perfect description, Katla thought.

Tara’s muscles came next. She stood in the center of the living area in a sleeveless, patterned shirt. The quality and look screamed she’d gotten it from Radiant Raiment, the premier clothing shop in Solitude. With no sleeves, Tara’s shoulders and arms displayed her strength in those sculpted, defined muscles. For such a small woman, it was clear she was not one to fuck around with.

The old scars from the bear attack years ago looked a little less pink to Katla. As if after the three years since she’d survived the attack, they were finally turning from fresh pink to a muted color. Perhaps they’d fade to a brown or white one day.

Their eyes met and the soulful green of Tara’s stopped Katla’s heart again. The soul that had captured her heart poured out of them. There was fresh sorrow in them, though.

All the pain from that letter months ago showed on her face. Tara was hurting.

There was something else.

She’s drunk, Katla realized. There was the briefest sway in her stance. A slight lack of focus in her eyes.

Assessing Tara took less than a second. Then, Tara crossed the room and was in her arms. Without words, they were embracing and kissing.

When they came up for air, Tara pressed her head into Katla’s chest, where their height difference always put it. Katla wrapped her arms around her and pulled her into the tightest hug she could manage.

“Your hair is so short,” Tara said, still pressed into her.

Katla laughed. “Get used to it. I like it this way.”

That first embrace turned into a day of embracing. They spent most of the day in bed, spending time refreshing their memories of each other, noting what had changed, what hadn’t. Words between them were few. There’d be time later for catching up. The physical need to connect came first.

At some point, while Tara napped, Katla got up and quietly cleaned up the day old, spoiled venison stew sitting over the cold fire pit downstairs. She cleaned up the ashes of the previous night’s fire, as well. She looked at the empty mead bottles scattered around the kitchen and living area.

She’s drinking too much.

Perhaps she could get Tara to talk about whatever she was trying to drink away.

Back upstairs, Katla’s eyes caught the Penitus Oculatus armor, displayed on the mannequin in the bedroom.

The most feared warriors in Tamriel. Katla thought back to when she’d gone to the destroyed Cloud Ruler Temple, outside of Bruma. The Blades were long gone. The Penitus Oculatus were the soldiers to fear now. Her girlfriend was one of them! She’d have to get her to put on the armor, to see her in all her glory.

She turned back to the bed. Tara was awake and watching her.


“Hey.” Katla smiled.


Katla’s stomach growled in answer. They both laughed.

Tara sat up, running her fingers through her tousled hair, as if trying to tame it. “I’ll fix us something,” she said.

Tara roasted a rabbit with leeks and potatoes. They spent the meal catching up on news since their last letter exchange. Katla let her know the challenges she’d had using the smuggler’s tunnel.

“It’s almost like a city down there, different areas were controlled by different groups of smugglers. I had to kill one bandit, who tried to rob me. Everyone else left me alone.”

Katla paused. A thought crossed her mind.

“Are you going to report this to your commander? Would the Penitus Oculatus clear the tunnels out and close them?”

Tara took a moment to think. Katla noted she was drinking a second mead with their meal. Did she always drink a couple of meads or ales with meals?

“I’ll report it,” Tara said. “It is my job now. We need to know about anything that could hurt the Emperor or Empress, including ways people might cross into and out of Cyrodiil. Not sure much will happen, though.” She gave Katla a solemn look. “Did you notice the lack of Penitus Oculatus agents in Cyrodiil?”

“I did. People kept calling the soldiers the New Legion. They weren’t…pleasant.”

Tara nodded. “The man calling himself Emperor, Sethius, has claimed we’re disbanded and won’t allow any known agents back into Cyrodiil. Almost all of the Penitus Oculatus are in Skyrim. Commander Maro has agents elsewhere, too, but most of us are here, doing smaller missions and bidding our time.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why disband his personal guard?” Katla asked.

“He’s not been crowned yet. Best we understand, he doesn’t trust us, or the real Legion army. General Tullius and much of the Legion are still here, too. He’s a bandit king. Took an empty throne, what with Mede II lost, and he kicked out the Elder Council.” She sipped her mead. “Maro believes he thinks we’d arrange to get the Elder Council back in charge, and then kick him off the throne if a blood relative of Mede can be found.”

Katla blinked. “Explains why those new soldiers were so terrible, if they’re no more than bandits in better armor.”

“That’s who he’s surrounded himself with. One of the reports said he’s made several of the bandit leaders ‘nobles’ and put his top one in charge of Leyawiin.”

“What a mess,” Katla said.

After eating, they took a walk around Solitude. Katla wore a hood, to offer some semblance of a disguise. Tara dressed casually, in leather pants and a merchant style shirt. She had her axes with her, though.

“Hopefully, they don’t know you’re back in Skyrim,” Tara said. “I’ve not seen any evidence of the order here, but we have to be careful. When I’m on assignment…”

“I can take of myself,” Katla said.

“I know, but…”

“I’ll stay home, if need be,” Katla said. “Or, travel Skyrim while you’re away. Not stay settled, then meet up with you when you finish assignments.”

Tara didn’t seem convinced. “I can’t fail you again. I need to protect you.”

Katla stopped in her tracks and faced Tara.

“You won’t fail. We’re a team. Same as before. You’re not my knight in shining…well, I guess you are in Penitus Oculatus armor.”

Tara laughed.

“Being in your presence makes me feel safe,” Katla said.

They made their way to the market stalls. While Tara spoke with Evette San over her spiced wine, Katla found a flower girl. She wasn’t sure if the girl was an orphan, so many were after the civil war, but she had a basket full of fresh flowers. Katla whispered instructions to her and paid double what the girl asked. She watched her skip away. How long since the girl had made decent coin?

They finished up the walk around Solitude by going to the stables. Tara showed Katla her horse.

“Name her Twilight. Or Dusk,” Katla suggested.

“Twilight it is,” Tara said. “When I get paid next, I can afford a horse for you.”

They looked at the available ones. Katla noted two she liked, and that seemed to respond to her touch.

They discussed money on the way back home.

“I make enough as an agent to cover us. You should stay out of sight for now, too, so maybe it’s best you don’t get a job yet,” Tara said.

Katla nodded. She wanted to feel useful, but a job would leave her more exposed.

“I should focus on the research, anyway,” she said. Mira had sent more names and books for Katla to look into.

“I’m on good terms with Captain Aldis,” Tara said. “Training with him was fantastic. Before my time in the Legion…” she paused. “…went downhill.”

“Do you want to talk…?”

“I’ll see about arranging for you to practice in the Castle Dour courtyard. You can keep your archery skills sharp in a safe place,” Tara finished.

Katla let the topic drop. Tara wasn’t ready yet.

They finished the day with a simple dinner and Tara spent time working, reading the dossier on the Thalmor she’d been given.

Katla woke up early on the fourteenth of Rains Hand and quietly made her way downstairs. Outside, the windows still shone black, not even the gray of a morning twilight yet. Katla congratulated herself on getting up so early. Tara was the early riser between them, normally up before dawn.

Opening the front door with little noise was the challenge, but Katla managed it. The door gave one squawk, but Tara didn’t seem to budge. Katla must have timed things perfectly to her deepest sleep cycle.

The flowers from the flower girl sat outside the door, filling the single basket Katla had paid for. Perfect.

She spent time spreading some around the kitchen and living area downstairs. She even put a few around their weapons and in Tara’s leather armor, which sat on a mannequin downstairs.

She crept back into the bedroom and adorned all the surfaces, including filling her side of the bed with them.

She sat on the small couch in the bedroom and watched Tara sleep. When was the last time she’d gotten to do this?

Light changed in the room as dawn approached. Deep darkness became a dull gray. Tara’s breathing shifted and she twitched. Small sounds escaped, and Katla realized she was mumbling in her sleep. She couldn’t make out the words, though “no” seemed to be one of them.

Should she wake her? Katla thought.

Tara sat upright with a gasp. She looked startled, and felt around on the bed. Her hands touched the red mountain flowers Katla had laid out.


“Happy Birthday,” Katla said. She kept her voice muted, to match the quiet of the morning.

Tara’s face lit up with a smile. She brought the flowers to her nose and inhaled. Katla hadn’t seen her look so happy in forever. This was a moment of pure joy that even Katla’s return the other night had not drawn from her. That moment had been mixed with different energy.

“My favorite flowers!” Tara’s eyes sparkled at her. “This…this is amazing! Thank you.”

They spent the day together. Katla cooked them breakfast, then gave Tara her actual gift. Two rare books on the Elder Scrolls, the mysterious writings that supposedly told of the future and past of all of Nirn.

Katla thought Tara would appreciate reading the known history of the scrolls. There’d been rumors The Dragonborn had used one to defeat Alduin.

In the afternoon, they went horseback riding. Twilight didn’t seem to mind carrying both women. Katla loved being able to sit right behind Tara, the two pressing against each other. Another way to be close that they hadn’t experienced before. It felt like a way to make up for lost time.

They rode out to the Solitude Lighthouse, then crossed back over the bridge that sat above the East Empire Warehouse and docks and headed up a narrow mountain pass Tara knew.

They didn’t go too far, turning around before snow and ice started to dominate. The weather stayed glorious, proving that Tara’s spring birthday was a perfect time of year.

They’d never had a day like this together, Katla realized. Enjoying each other’s company while doing something for pleasure. She’d been on the run already when they met. Their rare relaxation had been while squirreled into a rented room inside an inn, here and there. Today had been like an actual date. What life should be.

Was this what it felt like for every day citizens? When one did not have to look over their shoulders for possible assassins?

Katla had not bothered to be on her guard. Tara made her feel safe, so she’d naturally let her keep a lookout.

Katla cooked them dinner and they spent the rest of the night in bed, laughing and exploring again. Experiencing each other again.

Before she fell asleep she whispered to Tara, “I’ve never seen you laugh or smile so much.”

Tara smiled back. “This may have been the best day of my life. Thank you, Katla Hammerheart. I love you.”

A final thought crossed Katla’s mind before dreams took over. Tara hadn’t had any ale or mead today.

For the next two weeks, they settled into a routine. Katla spent time at Castle Dour, practicing her archery and learning some basic swordsmanship, at Tara’s insistence. Tara would work during that time, studying the dossier she’d been given. She wouldn’t talk to Katla about it; said it wasn’t something she could share.

Katla realized Tara was drinking while she was off practicing archery two days into their new routine. She wanted to talk to Tara about the journal she’d recovered from her parents’ destroyed home. They needed to talk about the order, make a plan on how to research them and hunt them down.

She came back from practice one day and noticed the extra, empty mead bottles.

Tara wasn’t completely drunk, but her watery eyes and small sway to her normally exquisite balance stood out. Tara was quiet, too. She was a woman of few words, of course, but after a few drinks, more so. They didn’t talk much that night. Tara had two more bottles of mead during dinner and fell asleep on the couch. Katla woke her to get her up to bed.

She’s struggling, Katla thought. Give her a few days. She’ll open up.

Two more days didn’t change anything. There was also the realization Tara wasn’t sleeping well. They’d go to bed together, but Tara seemed to awaken early, too early, and Katla would find her downstairs, reading. Or, preparing breakfast for them. Dark circles under her eyes confirmed this.

We should be talking about everything, Katla thought. She didn’t want to force Tara to talk, though. That seemed aggressive.

She gave Tara two more days. Each morning, she told her she wanted to discuss her parents’ journal and the order over dinner. Each afternoon, she’d arrive home to Tara being some degree of drunk. Asking her at dinner to stop drinking for the night didn’t work.

“One more isn’t going to hur’ me,” Tara would say, with a hiccup or burp to contradict her.

Neither the order nor journal was discussed.

The next day, Katla decided she’d had it. She left for archery practice early, but warned Tara.

“I’m cutting practice short today. It’s looking to be a gorgeous day. I want us to go horseback riding again when I get back. We both need the break.”

Tara smiled. “I’d like that.” Katla held her in a long embrace before leaving. Her heart ached at how tired Tara looked.

When she came back three hours later, Tara wasn’t sober. The dossier lay open on the table next to the fire pit. As did four empty mead bottles.

Was she even reading the dossier? And she hadn’t gone off to practice her axe work in days.

Katla felt her heart pound. Something had to give.

“We need to talk,” Katla said.

Tara still looked tired, but at least not too drunk, considering the mead.

Tara frowned and sat back down in her favorite chair. She’d been grabbing a fresh mead out of the kitchen when Katla walked in.

“What?” she asked. Her eyes were watery, but seemed to sharpen instantly. On alert.

Katla pointed to the bottle of mead she held. “That. You can’t keep drinking like this.”

“I’m fine,” Tara said.

“No, you’re not,” Katla said. “I keep coming home to you drunk.”

“I’m…I need to relax,” Tara said. “Some of this dossier is disturbing.”

“Tara,” Katla said. She softened her voice. “Be honest with me. That’s not why you’re drinking.”

Tara’s lower lip trembled for a moment, then she seemed to catch herself.

“I’m fine. I…just need the…break sometimes, you know.”

“Rorikstead?” Katla let it out as a whisper.

Tara’s lip trembled again.

“Maybe you could talk to me about it?”

Tara stood, swayed a moment, and then sat back down. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Katla sighed. What to say to her?

“We can’t keep doing this. You being drunk by the afternoon. I won’t have…”

“I’m on vacation,” Tara interrupted. “I deserve to relax.”

“One drink to relax is not the problem,” Katla said. She felt her voice rise. “This…” she pointed at the bottles “…isn’t relaxing.”

“If I want a few drinks, in my own home, I can have them!” Tara said. Her voice had climbed in volume, too.

She’s hurting. Help her.

Katla stood. “I don’t want to fight about this. You need to stop drinking. Now.”

“I’m fine!” Tara stood up.

“No, you’re fucking not!” Katla yelled back. She sat back down and sighed.

“You’re not. Talk to me. Let me help you,” she pleaded.

Tara stared at her. She seemed to be fighting between anger and needing to cry.

“I feel safe with you.” Katla felt her eyes water and pulse quicken. She needed to say this to her, though. Things could not continue. “Until you drink. Then, I’m back to when you were trying to learn magic. And, when I first saw your waves. I don’t want to be scared of you again.”

Katla inhaled and slowly released her breath. “You can’t drink away the pain, Tara.”

Tara looked startled. As if she was remembering something. She sat down.

Katla reached into her bag, which she took with her every day to archery practice, and had set on the couch when she came in. She pulled out a scroll. Tara arched an eyebrow at her.

“The drinking stops now or I teleport to Mira’s. I will not watch you destroy yourself, or walk on chicken eggshells, afraid you will hurt me during a drunken stupor.”

“I’d never hurt you, I…”

“You never have, but too much drink leads good people to do terrible things. I won’t risk it.” Katla felt herself tremble. She didn’t want to say the next words. “Me or the mead. Choose.”

Tara held her gaze. Neither blinked. Did it last a second? Or five minutes?

Tara put down the mead and stood.

“You. Always.” Her voice was quiet yet firm.

Katla nodded. “Okay.” Her heart slowed its racing.

Tara walked over to her axes and sheathed them to her belt. “I’m…going to go practice. Clear my head.”

“Good. Find a way to release your feelings without mead. Go lift some hay bales. Maybe go down to the Winking Skeever and lift some kegs.”

Tara raised an eyebrow at her. “Scratch that,” Katla corrected. “Whatever you do, wear yourself out. I’m here when you’re ready to talk about it.”

Tara lifted her eyebrow again.

“If you need to, want to, talk about it.”

Tara seemed to sway. Again, the movement was slight. Only jarring because Tara rarely seemed off balance.

“I…I’m going to go clear my head,” Tara said again. She left.

When she returned, two hours later, she seemed calmer, yet energized.

They bathed together, washing the day’s dirt, sweat, and argument off each other.

Tara stayed quiet through dinner.

When they went to bed, Tara started talking.

Katla held Tara while she told her about Rorikstead. Katla felt her heart ache at the details. The horror of it all. She flashed back to her mom, and that awful, final night. What she’d seen done to her. She didn’t linger in the flashback, though. This was Tara’s pain. Her time to talk. Katla needed to listen and stay in the moment for her.

She let silent tears stream down her face and held Tara tighter.

What Tara had tried to stop from happening to the bar maid had happened anyway. Then, they’d made Tara pay for trying to protect her.

The shock was that she’d not been able to produce a wave when needed. As much as it scared Katla, Tara’s waves had saved them when those assassins struck on their way to Windhelm. They seemed to trigger as a last resort sometimes. When Tara had told her of the fight with Norring, it was her wave that stopped him from beating her down and winning. The waves saved her when she took on too much of a challenge. In this moment, Katla realized she both feared Tara’s waves, but had trusted them to keep Tara safe.

They had not in Rorikstead that night.

Katla wiped the drying tears from her face with her free hand. The other was still pressing Tara into her. She took her free hand and ran it through Tara’s hair, tucking a few strands behind her ear.

“Had you been drinking that night?” she asked.

“Yes.” Tara’s voice came out small. A child retreating in shame.

Katla thought for a moment. She kept her breathing steady, hoping it was a comfort to Tara.

“Do you think the drinking numbed you too much? Blocked the waves somehow?”

“Yes.” Still small. Almost a distant voice.

“And, why you couldn’t fight them off? Keep them from the bar maid or yourself?”

“Yes.” The barest of a whisper.

Katla wrapped both arms around her tighter and kissed her forehead. Her instinct was to tell Tara she was sorry that had happened to her. What comfort was that, really? Hadn’t she heard it from others already?

“You’re an incredible warrior. I know how much you want to protect people,” she said, instead. “How devastating to feel like you failed her.”

Katla went back to stroking her hair.

“You rescued the town. Saved your unit and those townsfolk when the Stormcloaks attacked. Instead of being grateful, they punished you for it. For their fear of you.”

She kissed her forehead again. “They failed you, Tara. And after that failure, they did the worst thing one person can do to another and still leave them alive. None of it was your fault.”

When Katla woke in the morning, Tara was still in bed with her. She looked like she’d actually slept.

“Good morning,” Katla said when she opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” Tara said. “For everything.”

Their routine shifted.

Tara would get up early and practice her axe work, usually before Katla woke up. Sometimes, Tara would head to the stables, visit Twilight, and lift hay bales instead.

Katla would head off to archery practice while Tara worked on the dossier. They’d spend their evenings together.

Tara didn’t stop drinking completely. She had one a day. It seemed like it might work. She slipped up, of course. There were two nights she became drunk, having started drinking while Katla was out. Katla rented a room at the Winking Skeever those nights.

That scared them both. So far, there continued to be no evidence any members of the order, or assassins, were in Solitude. The risk of Katla staying at the Winking Skeever was too high, though. Tara stopped drinking again.

How long would not drinking be a struggle for Tara? How long would the nightmares last? Katla reminded herself it’d be a process.

Tara’s time to head back to Dragon Bridge for a new assignment came too soon. It’d been a blessing Katla arrived home while Tara had time off.

“If the assignment is not in Solitude, I’ll send you a message by courier,” Tara said that morning. She was dressed in her Penitus Oculatus armor. Katla whistled.

“Wow,” she said. She couldn’t stop a smile from breaking across her face. “You look amazing.”

Tara blushed. “I shortened the sleeves myself.”

“My girlfriend is a Penitus Oculatus agent,” she said. “I’m a lucky woman.”

Tara winked. “I’m the lucky one.”

Katla pulled her into one more embrace and a long kiss. “Stay safe. Come back to me.”

“I will,” Tara said.

After Tara left, Katla remembered they hadn’t discussed her parents’ journal.

4E 204 – Reunion

Tara set the three contracts she’d pulled off the now dead Dark Brotherhood assassins onto Commander Maro’s desk.

She was in Dragon Bridge, at the Penitus Oculatus outpost. Outside, spring was in full swing, now that the month had turned to Rain’s Hand. Tara’s birthday was in a few days. She couldn’t think of a reason to celebrate turning twenty-three, though.

Katla wasn’t home yet. She’d sent a letter about a smuggler’s tunnel she was using to cross the border. Late winter storms and difficulty finding the tunnel entrance had slowed her down once she got to Bruma. Her letter said she’d figured out where the entrance was and she was headed for it the next day. That’d been three weeks ago.

She should be here by now, Tara thought. Well, maybe. Three weeks wasn’t overdue. Traveling a tunnel system through a mountain range would take time. Then, having to get to Solitude from the Falkreath region. No, three weeks wasn’t overdue. Not yet.

Commander Maro read the contracts she’d sat on his desk, giving a slow nod.

“Any luck learning the password for their Dawnstar sanctuary?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Tara said. She stood at attention, waiting for him to let her relax. “Two of them fought me to the death. The other…” she paused, remembering the woman’s face. An Imperial. Young. Scared. “She didn’t know it, or even where the sanctuary was. One of the few who escaped the slaughter in Cyrodiil.”

“All dead?” Maro asked.

Tara nodded.

“You like killing assassins, Blaton?”

Maro’s eyes seemed to be searching hers. Tara didn’t know how he’d found out, but he knew assassins had been after Katla, and that she’d killed them.

“I don’t like killing,” Tara said. She held his gaze. “I’m doing my job. Protecting citizens. Saving lives. Serving the Empire.”

Maro gave her a slight smile. “The answer I prefer to hear from my soldiers. Duty is what matters. Good work. We’ll get that password. Maybe catch one of them leaving the sanctuary. Finish wiping them out in Skyrim.”

Tara nodded. Something told her the Dark Brotherhood would outlast any attempt at destruction. Sithis would always be worshiped, with followers wanting to serve that dark lord’s desires. There would always be people wanting to kill others. Or, be convinced that assassination served some higher calling. Then, there were people who wanted to cause chaos. All were the type Tara imagined would be drawn to the Brotherhood. It’d be a never ending dance to try and wipe them out. At least she could help keep their numbers down.

“Do you have another assignment for me?” she asked. She wanted to get back to Solitude. Katla could show up at any time.

You want a drink.

The hardest part about her assignments so far was not having a drink. She was proud of herself for managing the task. While on a job, she needed to focus and avoid drinking. She was under no illusions about the danger of her job. She had to stay sharp.

But, she needed breaks. To relax.

To forget.

Too many nights were sleepless. The premonition of Rigmor was a comfort. The one of the Great Forest and fire woman, while not comforting, was at least predictable. An old song she knew well. The nightmares were the problem. Waking her up too soon after she’d gone to bed. She could never fall asleep after them. Too scared, angry, confused. Too ashamed.

It wasn’t your fault.

She’d failed her. And herself. She’d made things worse.

He’s dead now. He can’t hurt you anymore.

Every night a fresh nightmare. He was still hurting her.

“Head back to Solitude,” Maro said. He pushed a dossier towards her. “Take this and read through it.”

Tara picked it up. Thicker than most Penitus Oculatus ones she’d read, she flipped through the first few pages. Information on the Thalmor.

“Read it until you’ve memorized it. I’ll have some assignments for you in a couple of weeks.”

Tara raised an eyebrow at him. She didn’t want to ask, but was too curious.

“Did the journals I recovered from Varro help?” She felt her throat catch. His face floated in her nightmares some nights.

Maro nodded. “Yes.” He gave her a long look. “I consider the loyalty test the hardest one we assign to new recruits. Many fail it.”

“You don’t give it to everyone, though.”

“Most recruits are lacking in other skill sets, demanding immediate attention to test. Everyone’s loyalty is tested, though.”

“Why me?” Tara asked. They’d not discussed the loyalty test since she’d killed Varro. Tara had turned in his journals, written a report, been officially made an agent in the Penitus Oculatus, and then promptly been sent to deal with Dark Brotherhood assassins for the past few weeks.

“Two reasons,” Maro said. “You were already more skilled than most recruits, meaning we had little else to test. Plus, your drinking.”

In the short time Tara had spent time with the man, she’d come to appreciate Maro’s directness the most. Sometimes, it stung.

“Ah,” she said.

“Any weakness can be used against an agent.” His eyes dug into her. They weren’t unkind. “Considering how I met you, and what I’d read in your file from Rikke, you needed testing.”

Tara nodded. She couldn’t argue the logic.

“What you did with Varro,” he said. “I know it wasn’t easy. Good job, soldier. Now, head home for rest and study of that dossier. I’ll be in touch. Dismissed.”

She had a horse now, a gentle gray mare she’d fallen for when she first saw her in the Solitude stables. The weather for the ride back to Solitude was ideal. A warm breeze caressed, offering a sense of peace.

Tara tried to enjoy it. She had a couple weeks off, outside of the reading she needed to do.

So, what was wrong?

I miss Katla, she thought. It’d been a year and a half since they’d been together. How much longer?

While on assignment, she’d focused. No distractions. No dwelling on the loneliness.

Now, she had time. To dwell. To remember.

She stabled her gray mare when she arrived back at Solitude. Still need to name her, she thought.

She stopped at the market and purchased fresh venison, rabbit, and carrots. It took her a minute to realize why people were staring at her.

Her Penitus Oculatus armor. She should have changed. Agents made people nervous. She didn’t want to broadcast she was one, either. Though, it kept people at a distance.

Back at home, she started a venison stew. After grabbing a mead.

She changed out of her armor into comfortable pants and a shirt. While the stew cooked, she sat in her favorite chair and read the dossier on the Thalmor.

How much of the information came from Varro’s journals?

Her mind snapped to the moment she cut his throat. The blood shooting out. The guttural sounds as he died. Were his bones picked clean now, lying on those rocks where she’d dumped his body?

She grabbed another mead, checked the stew, and went back to reading.

The information on the Thalmor was thorough. Maro had gathered troop movements, and seemed to know where key members stayed, whether in their stronghold in the mountains or in Solitude. Citizens who were confirmed sympathizers or spies were noted. With the amount of information in the file, she’d need a couple of weeks to memorize it all.

When the stew was ready, she grabbed a third mead. She was going to eat, so she’d be fine. The hiccups kicked in, anyway.

She put away the dossier for the night. What to read while she ate? Something light. For pleasure, not work.

Tara scanned the bookcase. So many books covered the history of Tamriel and Nords. She needed something lighter.

She hiccuped, then laughed when she saw the two riddle books Richton had given her at the end of her training at the outpost. The Yellow Book of Riddles and The Red Book of Riddles. Most of the riddles were easy, or not much more than jokes, but the gift from him had fit, as he’d said she was too smart for his tastes.

Her eyes fell on another book, Cheeses of Skyrim: Riften, Falkreath. She caught her breath.

Varro had given it to her near the end of training. On one of those cold nights around the fire in the common room, after a day of sparring with each other, they’d spoken of favorite foods in Skyrim. Cheese had come up. Tara had developed a fondness for riftwash cheese, created exclusively in Riften. The goat cheese had a dry, crumbly texture, very different from the moist goat cheese she grew up on. She wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get a copy of the book to the outpost to give to her.

She took the book out of the bookcase and sat down. She’d read it already, admiring the techniques used to make the cheeses of each region distinct.

Varro had a fondness for eidar cheese, she remembered.

She flashed to his gaze at her in The Winking Skeever that first night he’d arrived in Solitude. Then, they were walking along the wall, him holding her hand.

“When are you going to invite me in?” Now, he was pressing himself against her in front of the Lucky Skeever. Her home. Just outside. Less than a hundred feet from where she sat now.

Now she was in Rorikstead. In her tent. She could hear the creak of the inn’s sign, swaying in the wind that night. She’d failed the bar maiden.

Tara threw the book into the fire pit and stood up. She swayed on her feet, then steadied herself. She looked at the stew. Her stomach turned.

She grabbed another mead, sat in the chair, and watched flames engulf the book. There was a beauty to fire. The play of flames, alive and constantly shifting. They’d raced across the book cover, turning it black. Pages inside the book fed the flames, charring and curling at their demand. Food for the beast.

Tara held out her left hand and lit flames in it. Magical flames didn’t hurt those that created them. It amazed her she could watch flames dance in her hand, but not stick her hand in the fire pit without suffering serious burns. Sometimes, the world did not make sense.

I killed my friend, she thought.

He was a spy. You did your job.

How many people had she killed since those first ones, the bandits who’d killed Freta? Why did Varro hurt so much?

You did your job, Tara.

He was my friend.

He wasn’t. He was a spy.

Tara watched the flames in her hand dance. As always, there was little magicka drain. She could watch them dance for hours if she wanted, as long as she kept them small. Why fire? Why not any other magic?

The fire finished consuming the book, blending its ashes in with ash from the wood she’d used to start the fire. Gone, as if the book had never been in the house.

She doused the flames in her hand, drained her mead, and stood.

She immediately sat back down again. The room turned, the light faded, and the world turned black.

The sound of scraping metal woke her. Her head pounded and the living room kept tilting.

Her axes. She needed to get to them.

She crawled from her chair to the weapon rack she kept them in, close to the stairs leading up to the top floor. There were weapon racks by the front door, but Tara didn’t like leaving her axes so far from her, so she’d moved one rack to the stairs, always a few steps away. The remaining rack in the entryway held an iron sword that had come with the house. Plus, Katla’s bow.

Whoever was picking the lock, the source of the sound of scraping metal, she hoped they wouldn’t think to grab it.

Tara steadied herself. Standing upright felt off, the floor too hard and unyielding, unforgiving to her current lack of balance. The room wavered, but held position. She shifted her grip on the axes. Ready.

Long, gauzy, white curtains hung between the small entryway and the living room. Whoever came in would not see her clearly at first. They’d need to step through the curtains. That’s why Tara had left them hanging. To give her one more element of surprise.

The lock gave up and turned, the door opened and a tall shadow stepped inside. Pale gray light followed the shadow, telling Tara dawn would arrive soon.


Tara dropped her axes as the shadow stepped forward through the curtains.


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 known 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.


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?


“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.”


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.


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.


“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?


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.


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 Tristand 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?”


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 ensure 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.


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?


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?


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.


“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.


She looked again at what had once been her home.

In five years’ time, so much had changed for her. Here, though, things looked 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.


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.


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.


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.