Tara studied the Imperial Legion soldiers from her perch above them, on Solitude’s walls.
Perhaps the best thing about her home was its location along the city walls. Few buildings had an entry point along the top of the walls. She’d only seen guard towers and a few into Castle Dour, the castle the Imperial Legion was stationed in. As for the Blue Palace, the palace was far taller than the walls there and Tara had not seen any doorways in. Guards patrolled heavily and the one time she’d walked along the palace, they’d hurried her away. Guards patrolled the entire wall system constantly. Rarely did any other citizen walk up here. Tara had both quiet and a sense of safety. She marveled that Katla had the chance to buy the place.
Castle Dour sat on the western side of Solitude, halfway across the city from her house. The castle had a huge walled courtyard with Solitude banners hanging throughout. She was surprised they’d not been exchanged for the Empire’s distinct dragon symbol ones. Targets for archery and various melee weapons dotted the yard. A large fire pit, constantly lit, was surrounded by sitting benches, in the center of the cobblestone yard. Entry to the Temple of the Divines, and the Thalmor headquarters, could be accessed from here.
For having a diplomatic headquarters here, Tara hadn’t seen many Thalmor. In the city, she’d seen plenty of High elves, but Thalmor agents, the actual military branch of the Dominion, their government, were few. Tara wondered how much pressure the Emperor, or Jarl Elsif, who now ruled Solitude, had put on them to keep their numbers low.
Solitude was Imperial, dedicated to the Empire, in attitude. That did not indicate any love for the Thalmor, though. Why the Stormcloaks didn’t understand that was beyond Tara. No one liked the signing of the White-Gold Concordat, and the resulting banning of Talos worship, that had ended the Great War.
Tara pressed her hand against her leather armor and felt Freta’s Talos amulet underneath. She’d never take it off. Not for Katla, and certainly not for these elves. One just had to know how to hide it. Besides, she didn’t worship Talos, so would never lie if asked. Freta was why she wore it. Freta was who mattered.
Find a new purpose, so you don’t fail the other.
Damn Stormcloaks, she thought.
She’d done her best to ignore the politics going on in Skyrim, but these last few days in Solitude had brought it back to the forefront for her. Garrisons of Imperial soldiers came and went constantly. She’d watched injured soldiers being treated non-stop.
The civil war was in full swing in Skyrim. Traveling with Katla, they’d managed to avoid any skirmishes between the Stormcloaks and Imperial Legion.
They’d seen the ruins of battles, though. Damaged forts, but, mostly, sadly, the random field that held burnt out carts, dead horses, and unburied dead, waiting for priests to arrive and perform rituals. Like seeing the occasional dragon off in the distance, she and Katla hadn’t discussed it much, and had kept themselves focused on avoiding assassins and necromancers.
Tara shifted her stance and watched the archers practicing below. Their captain, she hadn’t caught his name, barked orders and corrections. Two of the three archers were a good shot, but the third one, well, Tara hoped he was better with a sword.
Was she really going to do this?
Was this her purpose? Was this why she was really in Solitude?
Find a new purpose.
Last night, drinking in the Winking Skeever, had brought her the complete story of Ulfric Stomrcloak’s killing of High King Torygg, and the later execution of Roggvir, the gate guard on duty who’d let Ulfric escape the city. The killing of Skyrim’s High King, the leader of this province, who answered only to the Emporer, Titus Mede II, had shaken Solitude and Skyrim itself.
Even now, they hadn’t yet chosen Jarl Elsif, Torygg’s widow, to become High Queen. Several holds now supported Ulfric and wanted him selected as High King.
Tara thought of her time in Windhelm and the utter contempt the people there had for anyone not a Nord. Neither she nor Katla had liked the place. If that was how Ulfric ran a city, well, Tara had already known which side she was on. Windhelm had only reinforced it.
Was she really going to do this?
She shifted her gaze to the soldiers practicing their sword work. They seemed capable enough. Was Tara up to their skill level yet? With an axe, she was superior. She could see it in their footwork, which seemed slow and sloppy to her.
With a sword, though? When was the last time she’d used a sword? The Fighter’s Guild, three years ago?
Find a new purpose, so you don’t fail the other.
In her bones, this felt right. More training, more structure. A purpose. She could help people again. Travel Skyrim, too, with some authority. That alone could help her find more necromancers to wipe out.
Did she want to fight in a war? No. One could argue it wasn’t even her fight. Skyrim wasn’t her province, her home.
It was Katla’s, though. And Freta’s.
Tara shifted her feet again. She turned her gaze to the Blue Palace, its glass dome shining in the afternoon light.
High Rock was where she was from. Skyrim was where she wanted to be. With Katla by her side. Since meeting Freta, and first learning about Nords and their culture, this felt more real. More fitting.
The political games here were not the games of High Rock or Cyrodiil. Here, you eventually fought it out. Here, nature was closer. Your status was based on your deeds. Here, the land needed you to work it to succeed.
She needed to fight for Skyrim. And whether some Nords knew it or not, fighting for Skyrim was fighting in the Imperial Legion. Stopping these so-called rebels from destroying the honor of Nords, and weakening the Empire right before the Thalmor’s eyes, who must be gleefully watching the troubles.
This was her new purpose.
Tara headed down from the wall, to Castle Dour, to join the Legion.
Katla stepped inside The Rest’s Finest and immediately regretted it.
She stood out, as if she were a giant stepping into the store. She’d been in Wayrest a week now and was still marveling at the city, including the shorter height of most of its citizens. It’d always struck her as odd that Breton women were so short, and the men were a tad shorter than Nord men.
After all, Bretons’ ancestors were High elves and Nedic humans. High elves were the tallest of the people of Tamriel. Nedes were ancestors of Imperials, too, and known to be at least of average height. How the Bretons had turned out so short compared to their ancestry confused her.
As a tall Nord woman, she stood out. She was of a more slender build than most Nord women, but she had the height. Standing in the store, she realized she was the only Nord within, though she’d seen plenty in the city. Wayrest was the important cultural, political, and port city in High Rock. She’d seen every race here. Even Orcs.
Katla scanned the store, partly for safety.
You’re in the heart of the beast, remember? The cult started here.
Yes, the Order of the Fire Queen had started here. Wayrest was Tara’s birth home, as it was the birthplace of the Geonette family. Katla’s research had indicated they’d started back late in the First Era.
Never nobles, they nonetheless had always been a successful merchant family. The family farm, located somewhere outside the city, had started early in the Second Era.
There will be cultists here. Be careful.
His voice caught her ears and Katla looked towards it to lay eyes on Tara’s father, owner of The Rest’s Finest.
He was big for a Breton, wide-shouldered, barrel chested, above average height. He looked to be only an inch shorter than Katla. His hair was raven black, with streaks of gray running through it. His eyes struck Katla as beady, buried in a thick jawed face.
Not in the moment, though. His voice was loud and boisterous as he showed another Breton male some ornate carved wood desk. In this moment, he came across as a charming salesman.
Katla took a moment to take in the store. It was large, feeling at moments filled to the brim with furniture, clothes, jewelry, and odds and ends. Everything was arranged carefully, though, and once one finished taking in all there was to see, the store had plenty of room to move around freely, and not feel claustrophobic. You had space to admire everything at your own pace.
Everything here was a luxury, Katla realized. Either not practical, or of the highest quality. Breton culture was, perhaps, the most artful and civilized out of the human races. Nobility and politics was a long running game here. Cyrodiil might be the seat of the Empire, but High Rock seemed to hold the true heart of kings, queens, and knights.
Her brief time in Wayrest had revealed architecture of wood and stone, on a grander scale than the cities of Cyrodiil. Pointed towers, statues galore dedicated to this noble or that. Bright banners of signage and family crests that had quickly been lost on Katla.
Katla stepped closer to a nearby collection of dresses, hanging on display. The fabric here was fine silk, linen, and other delicate fabrics. These were the dresses of nobles, for an appearance at a fancy event. They were beautiful, and nothing like Katla had seen or owned before.
She wanted one. To own a truly gorgeous gown, to take a moment and turn and dance in it for Tara at some frivolous party? How wonderful would that be, even for one night? To be carefree for a day.
A glance at the price knocked her back to reality. Yes, this store was for nobles to shop in, not Nords barely scraping by.
“May I help you?”
Katla jumped. Tara’s father had appeared next to her.
A smile spread across his face and he held out his hand. “I didn’t mean to startle you. My name’s Bedore Blaton. Are you interested in one of these beautiful dresses?” he asked.
His eyes were a dark gray, with a hint of blue. If his face had not been so heavily jawed, he might have been handsome.
She put her hand in his offered one, meaning to give it a simple shake.
Bedore gripped her hand firmly, though, and brought it to his lips. He bowed and kissed her knuckles.
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms….?” he asked.
Katla swallowed her disgust at the gesture and rising realization of who she was talking to. The hand that had gripped hers had beaten Tara as a child. This man before her had beaten Tara and used magic to suppress, no, oppress her. This man had tried non-stop to marry Tara off to a noble. Of course his store catered to such nobles.
Katla felt anger rise within, flushing her face. The nights she’d held Tara while she cried and recounted the beatings, the abuse, the constant state of feeling out of herself, and a burden to her family for reasons she didn’t understand. This man was the cause of that. Her mother deserved blame, too, but Bedore Blaton was the main reason Tara exploded in anger, and still woke from nightmares, all these years later.
Katla swallowed her own anger. He couldn’t know who she was. She had no idea if Mira had written and revealed her name to him. She felt she could trust Mira, but one never knew when a mistake might be made.
“Ms. Ella Tallowhand,” Katla answered, thinking of her mother’s name, plus the family name a cousin had married into. That was all that had popped in her mind at the question.
Bedore’s eyes shifted and he tilted his head slightly, as if the name had made him curious. His smile increased. “What a…wonderful name,” he said.
Katla felt hairs on her arm rise. She’d said something wrong.
“These dresses are only as lovely as the woman who wears them. I believe royal blue would be stunning on you,” Bedore said. He reached for the dress Katla had been admiring the most.
“Oh, they’re beautiful, but I’m not ready to purchase today,” Katla stammered.
“I am considering a new desk, though,” she said. She needed to look like she had come to shop. Something to dissuade any suspicion he might have. She quickly moved towards the small collection of wood desks in the store. The Breton man Bedore had spoken to earlier was still standing and admiring the ornate desk.
Katla chose the one furthest from him, a small desk, less ornate, though still carved beautifully and made of a rich, almost black wood Katla had not seen before. The desk looked like the type one might find in the entry hall of a noble’s house, where courier letters were set before being sorted through and read.
“This is beautiful and the perfect size,” she said, trying to sound interested, and discerning.
“Oh, yes,” Bedore said. He pointed out the drawer, sliding it out, then showing her the deep carving on the legs. “The desk comes all the way from Gideon. One of a kind. Perfect for an upstanding citizen.”
Katla nodded as if fascinated. She examined the price and put a look on her face she hoped showed it was not a shocking number.
“I will have to consider it,” she said. Had she managed to sound like some conceited noble? She wasn’t sure. “You certainly have the most beautiful furniture and clothing I have seen since I arrived,” she added.
“Oh, from where did you arrive?” Bedore asked. His eyes did not hide their curiosity.
“I really must be going,” Katla said, hurriedly.
She needed to get out of here.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Blaton. I’ll be in touch.” Katla rushed out of the store. Bright sunlight blinded her briefly and she bumped into two young Breton women passing by.
“I’m so sorry,” she stammered at their stunned faces. She’d nearly knocked the blond one off her feet. She was usually so coordinated, deft. As sure footed as they came.
She took a deep breath and slowed, making her way to her room at the Cloudy Dregs Inn. She’d rented a back room, small and out of the way, to save money and remain as hidden as possible while here.
Gods, why had she come to Wayrest? She’d not realized how nervous the city might make her.
She’d come for research and to meet Mira.
She, Mira, and Tara had all written to each other and come up with a plan. They were to stay in touch with each other and share information. Mira and Katla were to focus on research into the order, while Tara’s main task was to guard the red soul gem, and kill any and all necromancers she came across.
Both Katla and Mira thought the cultists would stay focused in Skyrim, assuming Katla continued to live there. The question was if they knew Tara had the soul gem, or how involved she was with Katla. Best for them to stay separated while research continued.
Tara had argued otherwise, and complained she had nothing to do that was helpful or protective. Mira and Katla had stayed firm. Katla’s heart ached at the decision. How long before she’d see Tara again?
Katla got back to her room and sat in her chair. The rented room was simple, with a single bed, small dresser for storing belongings, a lockable chest for more important belongings, and a single chair and table. The furniture was soft and felt rich. Plush, in a way Nord furniture never was.
She pulled out the most recent letter from Mira and read it again. Mira estimated she’d arrive in Wayrest on the 11th of Rain’s Hand. She’d send a courier to Katla about where to meet.
“I’ll stay with my parents, on the farm, as a base,” the letter had said. “I have plenty of people to meet and greet, as I’m famous in Wayrest. Well, all of High Rock. The nobles and local mages always want to meet with me and discuss magic discoveries and ask for favors. I must keep up that appearance and play the game.”
Mira was savvy in a way Tara wasn’t, Katla had realized. She understood her influence and the importance of using it.
“My need to meet with many nobles will afford an easy reason to be in the city. It provides plenty of cover to meet with you. Spending my nights at the farm, though, will allow me time to reinforce my relations with my parents. Father, especially, will be mesmerized by my daily stories of charming the nobles. It should loosen his tongue.”
The plan seemed solid to Katla. She had to trust Mira knew her parents and how to handle them. Mira was focused on their father, which confused Katla some. The Geonette name came on their mother’s side. Their mother was a direct descendant of Tara Geonette, not Bedore Blaton.
Bedore Blaton. Katla shivered at the fresh memory of him. Why had she gone into that store? Mira had told her to lay low, to avoid meeting people. What had she been thinking?
She’d been curious. The horrors Tara had told her. She’d needed to see the man in person. To look into the face of someone who had done horrible things to the woman she loved.
What had she found? She always thought evil people had a look to them. That you could see the evil in them, like a mark, warning you of danger.
Evil didn’t work that way, though. People didn’t work that way. Had she not known his history, would she have been entranced by the kiss on the hand, the charming smile? He was almost handsome, and with that charm, Katla imagined she would’ve enjoyed being sweet talked into buying that gorgeous dress, or new desk. People held many sides at once. They didn’t tend to announce their dangers.
There was a reason his store was successful. He knew how to charm the nobles. How Mira was going to stay under one roof with such a person was beyond Katla. Then again, Mira had her own dark shame. Outwardly, and to Katla, she was well liked, respected, and seemed genuinely interested in helping. Yet, she’d done her part to hurt Tara.
Gods, what a fucked up family, Katla thought. How had Tara survived it?
You survived yours.
Katla felt tears sprout. Her parents. Necromancers. Seemingly good people with dark secrets. Were her own parents an even greater example of the many sides of evil?
No, Katla thought. There had to be more to this. Her parents had not abused her, or shown any sign of ill deeds.
They had the soul gem. They were trusted with the soul gem.
Maybe they’d stolen it. Maybe they’d left the cult and taken the soul gem, intent on destroying it and undoing whatever terrible things they’d done. Like Mira seemed to be trying to do with Tara.
Katla looked at the letter again. The 11th of Rain’s Hand. Two days from now.
Katla looked across her room at her ebony bow, on the weapon rack next to the bed. All the rooms in the inn had weapon storage. She was grateful she could keep it close, though wandering the streets of Wayrest with it would look odd. Only guards and knights seemed to carry weapons here. This wasn’t Skyrim, where you practically lived in armor.
Lay low, stay out of sight. She needed to do that.
She should write Tara. An ache hit her. She wanted to hold her. Tell her again how horrible her father had been. That she was safe from him now.
Should she tell her she’d met him? What would Tara think?
That you made a stupid mistake and put yourself in senseless danger, Katla thought. Tara was practical and protective.
She’d write Tara about the beauty of the city instead. About the sounds and smell of the dock district, of traveling across the Iliac Bay to get here. Tara loved being near water.
Best to send her something positive about Wayrest.
Tara breathed deeply, searching for that wood and leather scent she missed.
Was it here, lingering? Maybe.
Or, maybe I’m fooling myself, she thought.
Standing inside The Lucky Skeever, her new home, she desperately wanted some sign of Katla. She would’ve been gone for at least two weeks by now from here.
Tara let out a sigh and explored. Not all the furniture was to her taste, but she was impressed. The furniture was not Nord, instead full of woven woods and softer fabrics. Not practical for harsh Skyrim winters. Thin drapes hung about near the front entrance.
Of course, this was also Solitude. The most un-Nord of all the cities here. Downright cosmopolitan. Some of the buildings bore a look that hinted at the closeness to High Rock.
To Tara, there was no question High Rock had the most distinguished, most noble, look to its architecture in all of Tamriel. Certainly, compared to Cyrodiil and Skyrim.
One could just look at any major city in High Rock and understand the depth, and deviousness, of the politics there.
Cyrodiil had the Imperial City, with the White-Gold Tower. Impressive, but, to Tara, it paled to the Adamantine Tower, also known as the Direnni Tower, on the Isle of Balfiera, the oldest structure in all of Tamriel. And it existed in High Rock.
Tara had been lucky to see the Tower once, when the family took a trip to Glenumbra, on a rare happy, holiday adventure. She’d been ten, Mira was visiting, and the illusion of a peaceful family had allowed Tara time to be stunned by the history and power of the Tower.
Solitude had its domed Blue Palace. Tara had spied the top of the dome when she first arrived. It sat across the city from her, as it rested across the grand, stone arch over the Karth river that so much of Solitude sat on. Tara had read up on it, and Solitude. Solitude had long taken over as the seat of power in Skyrim, where the High King, or Queen, resided. The Blue Palace seemed to reflect that, even from a distance.
Need to check the balcony, see if I can see the palace from it, Tara reminded herself. What a view that would be.
Katla had picked a good home. There was the front entrance, which was a heavy iron door that had taken some extra strength to open. The balcony hung over the central courtyard of Solitude, close to the front gate into the city. The design left no way for someone to climb up to it, and the constant traffic from such a busy part of town would discourage any stealth attack.
Tara, or anyone, would be visible from the balcony. An archer or mage could take a shot. Tara would also have a clear view of anyone, though. She’d have to stay mindful when on it.
Several shops sat across the courtyard from home. Tara made a mental note she’d have to find the main market, and local blacksmith. One of the shops across from her looked to be a clothing store. It was probably time to get some fresh clothes. Something more fitting a citizen of Solitude, instead of a wandering adventurer.
Was that what she was now? Some no name citizen in a city. Or, a no name adventurer, looking for their next job, their next coin?
What was she? Who was she?
Lonely, that’s what she was. She wasn’t just alone. She was lonely.
Tara sat in one of the chairs surrounding the stone fire pit, which was built into the floor. She should build a fire, give the place some warmth, light, a lived in feel.
Had Katla sat in this chair? Was this a favorite spot for her while she’d stayed?
Tears sprouted and Tara let herself sink deeper into the chair. She should get up, grab some firewood from the nearby stack near the kitchen. She should explore the kitchen, see what food provisions there were. Make her way upstairs and see what was up there.
That all took energy and Tara realized she had none right now. She had nothing. She was nothing.
“Stop looking for her. Find your next purpose.”
Tara sat upright. Freta stood across the fire pit, a smile on her face.
“Start a fire. Let’s talk.”
Once she got a fire going, Tara studied Freta. In the dancing firelight, Freta looked almost solid. A glow surrounded her, a light cast around her, giving her a softness Tara couldn’t put into words. Had she looked like this back at High Hrothgar? It’d been so dark then, so cold. Tara couldn’t remember.
What she could remember was the scent of Freta, the mead, leather, and musky smell she carried. She still wore her steel armor, and her hair was down again.
“I’m always as you remember me, my little Breton,” Freta said. She knelt in front of the fire, ignoring all the furniture. She rested her head in her hands and stared at Tara, as if taking in the view.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said.
Tara felt the sob swell inside and couldn’t stop it.
“I miss you so much,” she said. Tears rained anew, eliminating the nothingness she’d felt minutes before. “I…I wish we were together again. Back before…all of this.”
Freta stood and came over to where Tara sat. She knelt down again, setting herself so they were eye level.
“We cannot go back in time, love.” She reached out her hand and touched Tara’s face, as if to soothe her. Her hand passed through and Tara caught her breath as a chill enveloped her.
“Don’t wish for the past. Its light is always more golden seen from afar. It’s a shore you cannot return to.” Freta rested her hand in her chin again. “I am not your future. I never was.”
The chill lingered where Freta had touched her, a cold spot on her forehead, where, in times past, Freta would have brushed back a stray hair that always found its way out of her bun.
Tara bit her lip. “Life was simpler with you.” It came out a whisper.
“You were the love of my life, Tara.” Freta paused, and her eyes gained a sadness. “I was never going to be yours, though.”
“No, I loved you…” Tara started.
“Of course, my little Breton.” Freta smiled, but it held onto the sadness. “Couples don’t love evenly. Someone always loves more deeply. If they’re lucky, they realize that.”
Tara wiped her eyes. “I miss her so much.”
“Find your next purpose.” Freta’s eyes had returned to the look Tara remembered so well. Somewhere between a wise observer, and dancing happiness when looking at her.
“She’s not in Skyrim any more, is she?” Tara asked.
Tara nodded. She was alone.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. How am I going to protect her from afar?”
“When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.”
“What does that even mean?!” Tara stood, suddenly angry. She found herself pacing. Freta stood, crossed her arms and watched her.
“What good is this premonition if I have no idea when and where I meet this Rigmor?!” Tara threw her hands in the air. “What has she got to do with finding Katla?”
“Find your next purpose. So you don’t fail the other.” Freta’s voice was matter of fact.
Tara stopped pacing and looked at her. Firelight seemed to increase her glow. Or, perhaps she was more faint than before.
“Are you happy where you are?” Tara asked.
“I am, my little Breton.” Freta smiled deeply. “I don’t know why the Divines give me the gift of seeing you again,” she said. “These moments with you are a joy within joy.”
“Find my next purpose,” Tara said.
“So you don’t fail the other,” Freta said.
Tara felt tears sprout again. “I guess I’m to trust in the Divines?”
“I always did.”
Tara wiped her face. “Find my next purpose.”
Freta nodded. She looked faded. Her smile widened. “I love you, my little Breton.”
Tara’s voice caught. “I will always miss you.”
Freta was gone.
Tara sat back in the same chair as before Freta’s visit. She looked toward the window next to the balcony door. Light coming through it was dull, the dim of early twilight.
Find her next purpose. Somehow, that would lead her to Rigmor, and Katla again.
Tomorrow, she’d start the search for that purpose. Explore Solitude, and finish getting situated in her new home.
She watched the fire in the fire pit until it turned to low embers. She fell asleep in the chair, dreaming of Freta and her favorite memories of times with her.
(The Lucky Skeever mod is available on the Nexus here.)
Tara stood on her balcony, watching Bedore lead the three mages onto the farm.
He’d not told her about their true origin until this morning.
Bedore continued his foolish attempts at taking agency where he shouldn’t.
Tara sighed. So tempting to be done with him, but…
She pressed her hand to her stomach.
Fortunately, Lysona continued to be faithful and had filled her in. When the time was right, Lysona would get her prize. Tara would see to that.
Tara stepped back into her bedroom, before the mages or Bedore thought to look up. She didn’t want them to see her until time for her speech.
Lysona had told her the mages were members of the Order of the Black Worm, supposedly they wanted to leave the order for a true leader.
Tara didn’t believe any followers of Mannimarco were looking for a new leader.
No. Any followers were here as spies.
Bedore was letting his ambitions and overestimation of his intellectual abilities get in his way.
No matter. Her speech later today would clarify it all. She’d been overdue to speak to the cult. Help them all see the long term plan. The real reason they were following her. Give them their needed hope.
Two ways to keep people faithful. Fear and hope. If one balanced it perfectly, you had the world.
As for Bedore, well, perhaps tonight’s speech would help.
She’d switched things up in the bedroom, to appease his fragile ego after his initial failure to retrieve her niece.
After making him promise to follow the one rule, she’d let him take charge in bed; fulfill all his desires. The violence had still surprised her.
No matter. She always healed herself without concern.
He was still stuck with the scars on his neck, though. That had been delicious. She’d never been able to heal others. Fool didn’t know. Even if she’d been good at restoration magic, she wouldn’t have healed those cuts properly. He needed his forever reminder of who was in charge.
Tara refreshed herself and changed into her new armor. She’d had it crafted by the finest blacksmith in Stormhaven, Zaros Frostman. What had he called it? Blood Witch armor.
The name fit. Primarily a thick dark red leather, cut in a diamond shape and layered in a protective, layering pattern, it fit tight, with a long coat, open below the waist in front, exposing the black leather pants matched to it. Her left side was protected by a silver pauldron that ran down her arm in segments and combined with the matching full gauntlet, coming to a finish with a silver glove and spiked fingers. A small, silver piece belted across her chest, protecting her heart. A lion’s head had been inscribed into it.
She’d not wanted that lion head, but had to admit it added extra flare to the armor, and could not be tied back to the cult or her family. There was also the irony of the Lion Guard, who’d surely kill her if they knew what she was up to. Perfect.
She suspected Bedore might come up to let her know their guests were here at any time. This was the time to look good for him, and impressive for everyone else.
She needed to let go of her annoyance with Bedore. He was filling his role. She could trust him. He simply let his ambition get in the way at times. She put her hand on her stomach again.
Besides, he had retrieved her niece for her. And deposed of her cousin, sister-in-law, and brother in the process. Perfect.
Speaking of her niece, she was overdue to visit with young Maline. She had one more test to perform. One more proof of her theory.
Did she have time before the speech? Maybe.
Tara stepped out of her bedroom and walked across the top floor of her tower to her lab. She stopped in front of the shimmering door. Once Maline had been brought to the farm, she’d needed to arrange a room for her. What better place than the lab? Keep her close. Easier to perform tests, and keep prying eyes from seeing anything.
The magic spell over the door served two purposes. Keep out Bedore and others while keeping Maline inside.
Tara waved her hand and the spell faded. She stepped inside her lab, quietly closing the door behind her.
Maline sat on her bed, cross-legged, reading a book. Her bed was pressed against the right wall of the lab, with a tall bookshelf, chair, and small table to give her a space of her own.
Soft light fell from the high windows, giving her raven black hair a blue tint.
She looked up from her book and smiled at Tara.
“Aunt Tara,” she said, in a high, small voice. “I really like this book! The Dwemer are fascinating.” She showed off her copy of Dwemer Inquiries Vol III that Tara had given her when she first arrived.
Tara matched her smile to Maline’s.
“I have something for you,” Tara said. She stepped over to the closest cabinet in the lab. The small cabinet sat against the wall, next to the door. Its top was strewn with soul gem fragments and a few dried deathbells. She opened the door and pulled out the only item inside.
“Oooo,” Maline said, her hazel eyes widening. “What is it?”
Tara walked over and sat down on the bed next to her. The leather of her armor gave a soft squeak.
“It’s a Dwemer cube. Thought you’d like to have it, since you love the book so much.” Tara handed her the small, faded bronze colored metal cube.
One of the cultists had found it exploring ruins back in Skyrim years ago and offered it to Tara when they joined, thinking it held some secrets she’d want.
It easily fit in the palm of one’s hand. Grooved symbols covered the dull metal. She wasn’t sure what dwarven metal even was, as it seemed something lost when the Dwemer themselves disappeared. The metal nearly matched Corundum in color, but seemed something more.
Either way, the little cube didn’t hold secrets. What Tara had researched indicated it was once like a book. Something the Dwemer inscribed with knowledge, perhaps to be stored and read by one of their strange machinations that lay buried in those same ruins.
Now, it was an empty artifact of a long gone race of elves. The perfect artifact for testing.
Maline took the cube and gently turned it over in her hands, her eyes holding their wide stare.
“What does it do?” she whispered.
Tara gave her a soft smile. “Nothing now. It’s empty.” She paused. “Would you help me test a theory with it?”
Maline’s eyes glanced up at her, and Tara saw the flicker of fear in them. “Like last time?”
“Well,” Tara considered her words. “I don’t think it’ll take very long and it shouldn’t hurt.”
Maline’s eyes dropped. “Okay.” She didn’t sound convinced.
“Just hold the cube for me. You really can keep it when I’m finished,” Tara said. She held a smile on her face, to be reassuring, but Maline didn’t look up at her. Her shoulders sagged forward and she put both hands around the cube, focusing her eyes on it.
“Okay,” Maline whispered. “I’m ready.”
Tara closed her eyes for a moment, giving final thought to the spell. She opened her eyes and concentrated on Maline, not the cube. Both her hands moved, as the spell required more physical effort than most.
A dark, purple glow enveloped Maline, quickly growing in size. Tara moved her hands and guided the energy to the cube.
The grooves of metal lit up with a matching purple glow, as if being filled.
Maline started crying and whimpering. “Aunt Tara…it hurts worse than be…fore. Please…stop.”
Tara watched Maline’s whole body shutter and shiver, though her grip on the cube remained firm.
She stopped the spell, and all the energy, all that dark purple glow, flowed from the cube back into Maline. The sound of a strong wind followed, as if a gust was blasting her. Her shivering stopped. The cube returned to its original dull state. Maline’s crying continued.
Tara affixed a parental look to her face. She stood, then knelt in front of Maline, laying her hands gently on her knees, as if to comfort her after an accident.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, keeping her tone worried. “I didn’t think it’d hurt you. I promise that’s the last test.”
Maline studied her and after a few minutes, her crying turned to slow tears.
“What were you testing?” she asked, through a final sob. Curiosity was getting to her, now that she’d been promised no more tests.
Tara sat back down on the bed and placed a hand on Maline’s shoulder. She remembered to keep her voice calm and soothing.
“You and me. I think we’re a special family, Maline.” She gave her a genuine smile at that. “You’ve helped me so much. You have no idea.”
Maline wiped her eyes and studied Tara again. “Really?”
“Oh, yes.” Tara stood and took one step towards the door. She turned and faced Maline. “Because of you, great things are going to happen. You’ll be so proud of your aunt.”
Maline wiped her face one more time. A seriousness swiftly took over and she leveled her eyes on Tara.
“Are you…can…” She sat up straighter. “Can whatever you’re going to do be used against Bedore? For…hurting Mom and Dad?”
Tara allowed another genuine smile to cross her face. “How smart you are. Yes, it will be.” She set her tone serious. “But, it will take time for him. You must be patient with me.”
“As long as you promise,” Maline said.
“I do.” Tara set her full gaze on Maline, letting her see the truth of her words.
Maline nodded and went back to turning the cube over in her hands.
Tara stepped out of the lab and closed the door. She waved her hand and the barrier spell shot back into place. She leaned against the wall next to the door, letting the cold stones of the wall soothe through the leather. She felt her forehead, beads of sweat dotted her face.
She wiped them all away, stepped away from the wall, and adjusted her armor.
That had been the final test. The spell took effort, of course, but it no longer drained all her magicka. She could easily handle it now and keep her wits about her. She was strong enough now.
She made one final adjustment of her armor. She had to look perfect for her speech.
She headed down the stairs to find Bedore, those guest mages, and give them all the speech they would remember for the rest of their lives.
(Armor from the excellent mod author, Zerofrost, and converted to SSE by xdanikitty915x. Find it here.)
Pale light shone through the window of her room. Dawn announcing another day without Katla.
I can bring her back.
What was that? Who was that?
Tara rubbed her eyes and tried to hold on to the fading dream.
First, there had been the premonition of Rigmor. She’d dreamt about Rigmor every night since Katla left. The premonition felt like a comfort. An old friend, greeting her nightly.
A destiny she was somehow headed towards. One she’d known about for over two years now, since her time with Freta.
I can bring her back to you.
After the premonition, she’d dreamed something else. Someone else.
She’d been running after Katla. In a dark forest. Running along a trail. Katla was up ahead, barely in sight. She’d sprinted to catch up.
Just as she’d reached her, been about to touch her shoulder…
Fire. She’d been enveloped in fire.
Another woman had stepped into view and whispered to her, “I can bring her back to you, Tara.”
Tara climbed out of bed, stretched, and shook her head, trying to remember more details.
What did the woman look like?
Shorter than Katla. Wearing…robes? Armor of some kind.
And her hair…nothing. Tara didn’t know. No facial features, either.
The dark forest in the dream. It could’ve been anywhere in Skyrim. Or Cyrodiil. Even High Rock.
Had it been The Great Forest?
Was this some other premonition?
After cleaning herself up, grabbing a quick bite in Windpeak Inn, Tara stepped outside and took in the sights of Dawnstar.
Morning mist hovered over the area. Buildings floated in and out of focus as the fog shifted its thickness. The sound of gentle waves from the port waters hitting the shoreline soothed her.
Dawnstar was a port town, Tara counted twenty ships and boats of various sizes docked in the bay. The smell of the sea dominated, the salt of the water and air cutting down on the lingering smell of freshly caught fish.
The town should’ve felt perfect. Maybe the rumors from the townsfolk were true. Maybe that’s why she’d had a strange dream. Maybe the place was haunted.
She’d gotten in yesterday afternoon. To say every citizen she’d met looked tired was an understatement. Collectively, everyone seemed to have nightmares and disturbed sleep.
Tara had shrugged it off, but…well, the forest dream might give truth to the rumors.
Fortunately, she wasn’t staying here another night. She needed some fresh supplies and could get on the road to Morthal, then, eventually, to Dragon Bridge.
If Katla wasn’t there, then on to Solitude. The road to Solitude went through Dragonbridge, unless Tara wanted to cross through the swamp and marshlands surrounding Morthal alone.
She did not. How long since she’d been alone on the road in Skyrim? She’d met Katla the day after she arrived. Within a few days, they were traveling together. And falling in love.
How was that less than two years ago?
Best to stick to the roads. Hit Dragonbridge first, then Solitude. Katla had to be in one of those towns. If not, then what?
She made her way to the apothecary shop, The Mortar and Pestle. The owner, Frida, was pleasant, and Tara stocked up on the various healing potions she had. Plus, a few cure disease ones. By giving up magic, and hope of gaining any more skill with restoration magic, she’d need to keep potions on hand, and work on her alchemy skills.
She stepped out of the store and put her hand up to shield her eyes from the now bright sunlight.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“By Dibella!” Tara yelped. Her free hand flew to her axe before she realized the man who’d suddenly appeared in front of her was a courier.
Gods, how did they do that?
“I’ve got something I’m supposed to deliver,” the young man said. He rummaged around in his satchel. He looked road weary, his face and clothes covered in the dirt and grime of traveling.
“Ah, here we go,” he said. He smiled at her and handed over a letter. “Your hands only,” he added. “Oh, one more thing.” He dug around his satchel again. He pulled out and handed her a key. It was iron, richly carved. “It came with the letter.”
“Thank you,” Tara said. She gave him a few coins as a tip. Maybe he’d stop and take a bath at the inn and get himself a decent meal.
Tara looked down at the letter. The delicate writing on the front was Katla’s. Without thinking, Tara pressed the letter to her nose and inhaled. Did she catch a little of Katla’s scent, that blend of wood and leather that surrounded her? Tara decided she did. She stared at the key. Too big for a chest. Had to be a house key, or something significantly large. She put it in her pouch, where she kept all of Katla’s letters.
She’d already closed out her tab at the inn, given up the room. Where to read the letter?
Tara headed to the nearest empty dock and sat on its edge, letting her feet dangle deliciously close to the water. The tide was in, for her feet to be so close.
She opened the letter and read. At first, it looked like nonsense, jumbled letters that could be from an ancient, dead language.
Code. Katla had written in code. Of course. Tara closed her eyes and breathed in the salty air. The waves lapping the shore were louder here. A sweet lullaby she could listen to all day.
She’d memorized the code, reciting it quietly to herself every night. She opened her eyes and looked back at the letter. It made sense now.
The key unlocks a home for you.
Yes, I bought you a house.
Oh, to see the look on your face right now. If only I could be there when you arrive, but I won’t be.
By Talos, I miss you. Every night, when I lay my head down, I fall asleep remembering our first night together in my tent, up at High Hrothgar. Remembering your eyes when you first woke up that morning.
I love you.
The house is in Solitude. Above The Winking Skeever. Have you been to Solitude before? I guess not. The inn is near the gate into the city. Take stairs up to the city walls to get to the house. I hope you love it. You’ll be safe there. Tons of Imperials around. Did you know the army is stationed in Solitude? Things with the Stormcloaks are heating up. I think a full out war will break out soon.
I’ve not had trouble with any assassins, but I’m sure they, or at least spies, are around the city, looking for me. Stay alert. With us separate, though, you should be safe.
I’ve left it for you. I think you’ll figure out where it is in the house.
Keep it close. Please. I know it’s a burden to carry, and I’m sorry, but this feels right. Even if they do find me, I won’t have what they want.
Don’t try and find me.
Kill every necromancer you find.
I’m following some leads.
Write me when you’re home.
I love you,
Tara read the letter two more times. Tears rolled down her face slowly. They felt like a caress from Katla.
She’d bought her a house!
She was gone.
She’d left the red soul gem. Katla intended for them to stay separated for some time, if she was leaving it.
Tara put away the letter and stood. Time to go.
Nothing had changed. The road led to Dragonbridge, then Solitude. She’d stick with that path. Write Katla when she arrived in Solitude. Write Mira, too, so she knew where Tara was.
Search for clues to where Katla had gone, of course. She wasn’t giving up on finding her.
The sky stayed bright and cloudless as Tara made her way to Morthal.
Tara watched Mira climb back to her feet for the tenth, or maybe twentieth, time. Mira’s right wrist turned funny and her hand drooped unnaturally.
Mira waved her left hand over it and healing energy surrounded the broken bones. Less than a minute later, she flexed her hand and wrist, as if Tara’s wave had never touched her.
“It’s okay,” Mira called from across the cliff they were standing on. “Good as new.”
Tara nodded. “Give me a minute,” she said.
She turned away from Mira and looked at the Serpent Stone, one of the Standing Stones, like those Guardian ones she and Katla had visited what felt like so long ago. The Serpent Stone stood alone on a small cliff on an icy chunk of land in the Sea of Ghosts, east of Winterhold, and the College of Winterhold. She caught sight of the College in the distance, fading in and out of view as thick fog rolled off the mountains and passed by on its way out to sea.
She and Mira had agreed to practice Tara’s wave focus far from prying eyes, and to make sure Tara didn’t injure anyone. She could let loose and not worry about how strong the waves were. A few horkers had lost their lives so far. The remaining herd had quickly left and swam to another icy chunk of land.
The Serpent Stone was as steady and solid as ever, though. Her first few waves had blown accumulated snow off the stones. Otherwise, it looked the same. Ancient, strong, Nord. Mira said it granted a magical ability to paralyze, if touched. Tara hadn’t touched it. She was glad her waves didn’t seem to affect it. Not that her focus attempts had anything to do with that fact.
She turned back to Mira and studied her sister. She’d broken Mira’s arm, wrist, and ankle with previous attempts. One wave had thrown her off the cliff. Tara had caught her breath at that one. Mira still hadn’t explained what magic she’d used to avoid injury from it. Her robes were worse for wear, with fresh tears in the fabric from the multiple trips to the ground.
How did she feel about hurting Mira? And, why wasn’t the focus working yet? Every wave so far had done something to Mira, even if it only knocked her off her feet. This was nothing like Katla, who’d not been touched by any wave.
Katla was gone. Tara was still in Winterhold. Not going after her.
She’d gotten the code letter. Katla was preparing for the two of them to communicate by letter.
Tara didn’t want that. She needed to find her. Be with her.
Not here with Mira.
“Ready to go again?” Mira asked.
Tara nodded. “We can try a few more.”
“Sure,” Mira agreed. She shifted her feet, balancing herself. “Remember what I taught you.”
“Got it,” Tara said. She shifted as well, setting her feet to feel grounded, balanced. If she were fighting with her axes, this stance would be excellent. Standing like a warrior, always.
Mira cast the conjuration spell, calling forth a skeleton. Tara was to send a wave at it, to focus her anger at the thing she wanted to destroy. Mira theorized Tara could do that, leaving the rest of the wave’s power to gently wash over people, leaving them unharmed. The waves were always waves…energy that spread out from her in all directions, as if she were the epicenter. There seemed no way to narrow that down.
The best she could do was handle the force of them. Aim the emotion, which seemed to be where the power was, at something or someone. The rest of such a wave would be more like a gentle breeze.
A skeleton. Conjuration. Tara tried to focus on the skeleton only, but its existence didn’t sit well with her. Why was Mira using such magic around her? Using it at all? Especially with the history of their family. With what she’d told her about Tara Geonette, how could Mira even consider using such magic?
The skeleton standing there made her feel uncomfortable.
A wave shot out from her, destroying the skeleton. She heard a yelp and watched Mira go flying, landing roughly about twenty meters from where she’d been. At least she was still on the cliff.
She couldn’t do this with Mira, Tara realized. She was still too angry at her for her childhood. Katla had been both right and wrong. Mira had important information. And she’d given Tara invaluable insight on how to learn how to control the waves.
Tara closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. What Mira could not be was her teacher.
I’m too angry at her. At my family, she thought. She didn’t know if that would ever abate.
She opened her eyes to Mira brushing off snow from her robes. Mira looked up at her. Her eyes searched Tara’s face.
“Done for the day?” she asked.
“For good, I think,” Tara said. “I can’t do this with you. Not the practical part, at least.”
Mira nodded. “Must not be easy seeing me hurt every time.”
It would be easy to lie to her, Tara thought. To agree with her statement. Mira needed to hear the truth, though. Or, Tara needed to express it. She wasn’t sure which was more important.
“I’m too angry with you not to hurt you every time,” she said. She watched Mira’s face shift to shock, before she caught herself.
“Ah.” Mira nodded.
“I need to be leaving, anyway,” Tara said. “I have to find Katla.”
Mira walked over to her and they silently made their way down the cliff.
“I need to leave Winterhold, too,” Mira said as they traversed the ice floes that led back to shore.
“You’re not staying to help them with that Nord ruin?” Tara asked.
Mira shook her head. They slowly climbed until they caught the path that met the road back to town.
“I…met the Augur,” Mira said.
Tara raised an eyebrow at her.
Mira gave a small smile. “When you told me about him, well, I couldn’t resist. I had to meet and speak with him. He’s fascinating.” She glanced at Tara. “Magically speaking. Very unique.”
Tara shook her head. “Are you always studying magic?”
Mira nodded. “One should never stop being a student of life.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Winterhold came into view. They’d reach the inn within minutes, where Tara was now the one staying in a rented room. Mira had been staying at the College.
“The Augur told me to leave,” Mira said.
“Yes. He…warned me staying would be dangerous. Gave me the sense my life might literally be in danger if I stayed.” Mira shook her head. “Something about there was nothing I’d do to change the outcome. That others approached who’d make a difference.” Mira shook her head again. “I…believe him. So, I’m going.”
They passed the stables and reached the inn. Tara put one foot on the bottom step. “Coming in for a meal?”
Mira shook her head. “No. I want to pack and have one last visit with Mirabelle and Tolfdir. Be on my way early in the morning.”
Their eyes locked.
“This is goodbye, then, I guess,” Tara said. How did she feel about that?
Mira smiled. “For now, little…” She caught herself. Too soon, she’d realized.
“We should keep on a writing schedule,” Tara offered. “Stay in touch about the order and anything else you or I find out about them or Geonette.” Tara had taken to dropping her first name when in conversation with Mira. She didn’t want to hear her own name represented by such an evil woman.
Mira smiled. “I’d like that. Smart.” She cleared her throat. “I’m going to head to High Rock. Go back home.”
Tara felt her face flush.
“I won’t tell them where you are. Or, anything about you,” Mira said. “I want information from them about Geonette. I know they know something.”
Tara studied Mira. Did she believe her? Yes.
“I think they’re my best source on our ancestor’s history,” Mira said. A determination came over her. “I’m going to find out what they know. And research the family history far more than I ever bothered to when we were kids.”
“Thank you.” It burst out of Tara before she could catch it.
Mira smiled. “I figure I’m the best one to research the order more. Leave the hunting down, or hiding from, these necromancers to you and Katla.”
Did Mira know about the red soul gem? Tara realized she must not know. To tell her or wait?
Tara took a step closer to Mira. She reached out and pulled her into a hug.
Their embrace lacked the warmth of their hug so long ago at the College of Whispers. There was a stiffness between them. But, something lingered. Dying embers that could be ignited again.
Mira gave her a sad smile. “Remember what I told you about your focus. Practice as you can. I think you’ll gain control over the waves.”
Tara nodded. “Safe travels.”
Tara watched Mira head up to the College, losing sight of her as the bridge leading to it turned to the right and hid her from view.
Some barrels stood against the stone wall, just before the back door to someone’s home. In two moves, she was crouched behind them.
She watched and waited.
She heard someone approach, soft steps on the hard stone of Solitude’s streets.
Katla hovered her right hand over her daedric dagger. The daedric dagger Tara had taken off that first Dark Brotherhood assassin she’d killed. Tara had insisted Katla keep the dagger.
“You can’t shoot everyone with a bow and arrow. Keep the dagger. For close quarter fights.”
The first time Tara had saved her. The first of many.
Gods, why had she left her?
Magic. Tara wouldn’t give it up. Katla couldn’t stay. Leaving had to be what would force her to consider giving it up.
And Mira, hopefully. Mira had promised Katla she’d talk to Tara about giving it up. She thought she could convince her this time.
Mira. How different from Tara. Hard to get a read on her. She loved Tara and regretted what she’d done. Katla believed her on those points. Maybe Tara would, too.
The footfalls hit a crescendo and Katla placed her fingers around the dagger, ready to pull it out of its sheath. A shadow crossed the alley, lit by the lantern post in front of the Temple of the Divines, where Katla had left moments before.
The shadow quickly passed, as did the Imperial woman the footsteps belonged to. The sounds of her steps faded as she continued to wherever she was going.
Not following me, Katla breathed. She relaxed and stood.
I’m not paranoid, she thought. She couldn’t be too careful. She needed to get back home.
The safest route was also the closest. The Temple of the Divines, where she’d met with Styrr, was close to Castle Dour, where the Imperial army was stationed. General Tullius himself was here in Solitude.
If she went through the Castle Dour grounds, a staircase led up to the city walls. Katla could walk the walls all the way back home. Enough guards patrolled the walls, plus the Castle grounds were littered with Imperial soldiers, all practicing, or generally standing about. No one would dare approach her.
Katla left the alley and made her way home.
Not really home. Certainly, not a place she felt relaxed. More safehouse.
Her safehouse sat above The Winking Skeever Tavern and Inn, near the front gates of Solitude. The place was well designed, with a cozy feel. And it was hers.
Corpulus Vinius, owner of The Winking Skeever, had offered it to her for a price she couldn’t resist. He’d had it built in hopes to turn it into a private, romantic rental to offer guests, but few had taken him up on the offer, preferring to just rent a standard room in the inn, no matter what activities they were up to. Corpulus had learned the hard way Nords weren’t a very romantic people. Travelers didn’t seem to want to spend time in The Lucky Skeever, as he’d named it, either.
“I just want it off my hands,” he’d told her when she was negotiating a room rental from him, wanting the one at the back of the inn, for privacy.
It’d taken almost all her gold, but it was hers. She had the privacy she needed and the place was fully furnished. It gave her a high vantage point overlooking much of Solitude. Also, it sat across town from the home she’d grown up in here.
They had to be watching the old home, even as it was occupied by someone else. Why had she come to Solitude? Like Dragonbridge, the cultists must have people staked nearby, hoping perhaps she’d come here, or have hidden the soul gem here.
Retrieving her father’s ebony bow had been easy enough. She’d camped above Dragonbridge and waited until late night to dig it up. She’d preserved it well, and it looked no worse for wear, considering the three years it’d been buried. She’d left town immediately, not risking staying even one night.
When she’d had a moment, a quick practice of shooting iron arrows into trees had allowed her to make a few adjustments to the bow. It felt like hers now, not Dad’s.
Of course it did. Dad was gone. They were gone. She still didn’t understand why.
Katla stepped inside The Lucky Skeever just as a sob escaped. They’d been gone four years now.
When did grief stop attacking from the shadows, rising out of Oblivion to overwhelm? Did it ever?
The deeper the love, the deeper the grief.
Stop it, she thought. Get a hold of yourself. Grieving leaves you vulnerable. There would be time for that later, after the cultists were dead and the soul gem destroyed.
Katla wiped her face and ran her fingers through her hair, to clear her mind. She laughed when her fingers quickly ran out of hair to run through. Her short hair. She’d gotten it cut in Stonehills, a small village, on her trek to Dragonbridge.
She’d also bought and changed into more casual clothes, and stopped wearing her leather armor. She needed to look different. Just another citizen. Not some skilled archer.
It wasn’t much, but she hoped the short hair and change of clothes would be enough for watching eyes to skip past her.
She stopped in front of the small mirror hanging on the pillar near the front door. She liked the look. It really changed one’s face without having to go to one of those face sculpting wizards she’d heard about. The ones that used magic to change your look. She’d never do that.
Would Tara like her hair this way? She better, Katla thought. Because I like it, so it stays.
Tara. Her heart stabbed. Gods, she wanted Tara’s arms around her right now.
How long before they would see each other again?
If Tara would have her back.
She would. She had to. Their connection was too deep. This was only a necessary separation.
Katla reached into her pocket and pulled out the note she’d received from the courier two days ago. Tara had written her. She’d kept it simple and short.
I’m working with Mira. For you.
I love you.
She loved her. That’s all Katla had needed to hear.
Katla made herself something to eat and started writing. One more letter to Tara before she left Solitude.
She’d written Tara a week ago, though it wasn’t a letter per se. Just the code. The code they’d need to use from now on between them. In case anyone intercepted their letters.
Now, it was time for a real letter to Tara. She’d tell her what she’d learned from Styrr. And send her the key to The Lucky Skeever. Tara would need a place to stay when she got to Solitude. Katla had no doubt Tara was trying to find where’d she’d gone.
There was no telling how long she’d work with Mira, or how successful Mira’s training would be. If Katla knew Tara, and she did, Tara’s patience wouldn’t last long. She’d want to find Katla. She’d go to Dragonbridge or come to Solitude first. No way she’d respect Katla’s request they stick to letters.
Tara’s impatience worked to Katla’s advantage, though. The red soul gem wouldn’t be left alone for long. Katla looked around. Where to leave it? The Lucky Skeever would be locked, no one would enter again until Tara arrived.
Still. She couldn’t just leave it lying out in the open. That seemed dangerous. Tempting the Daedra for mischief, even. Where to put it? She wouldn’t say where in the letter, just that it was here.
Katla lifted her head up and looked towards the bedroom, which took up most of the second floor. Of course, in the nightstand by the bed. Similarly to where Katla had found it in her parents’ bedroom on that terrible night. She wouldn’t leave it out like her parents had, though. She wouldn’t make that deadly mistake.
Tears threatened to sprout at the memory. Katla shook her head, as if shaking the memory away.
Finish the letter. Hide the soul gem. Then, pack.
The ship Tava’s Venture was leaving early in the morning, and Katla had to be on it. No other ship currently docked in Solitude was headed to High Rock.
She’d leave that out of the letter. Tara couldn’t know where she was going. Not for a while. Not until Katla had answers.
Katla reached for her pouch, the one with the soul gem. She could feel the gem calling through the fabric of the pouch. What was captured in this gem?
If Styrr’s theories were right, something terrible. Katla hadn’t told him about the gem, but his knowledge of the Wolf Queen, Queen Potema Septim, and her use of necromancy back in the Third Era, had been enough to get Katla’s mind working. He was a wealth of information the history books left out about the woman and her evil.
Katla looked again at the pouch. Was it wise to leave it with Tara? To leave it with a descendant of Tara Geonette? Would it tempt Tara? Call to her to release it? To turn it back over to these necromancers worshiping a long dead leader?
Katla could trust her. She had to. Tara had saved her life too many times. Tara was a good person, as horrified by what she knew of Geonette as Katla had been. Katla imagined the information from Mira had only reinforced that.
Yes, she could trust Tara with the soul gem. She couldn’t take it with her to High Rock. That was the real danger. Let it stay with Tara, in Skyrim.
Finish the letter.
Finish the letter. Hide the soul gem, pack, and get what sleep she could.
Bedore Ashsmith shifted softly on his feet. It occurred to him he was as tense as a rabbit waiting to see what a fox’s next move would be.
A wolf, actually. They were far more vicious than foxes.
Her hair shone as fire this morning. She stood on the balcony outside of her bedroom, at the top of the tower on Hawkston Farm, where the cult had lived for over six months now. They continued to grow. At last count, thirty-two people considered themselves part of the Order of the Fire Queen. The farmhouse was being expanded to accommodate them, besides a bunkhouse being built on the other side of the grain mill.
Tara had a way of attracting people to her, Bedore thought.
The moment she’d walked into that inn back in Wayrest, he’d been drawn to her. Like a luna moth to a flame. Her hair was its most gorgeous and passionate in bright sunlight or bright candlelight. The inn’s light that fateful night had set her hair ablaze.
He’d played it cool as nearly every other man fell over themselves to get her attention. Men could be so disgusting.
What had intrigued him were her eyes. Well, not the eyes. Certainly, they were a lovely green that set off with her pale skin and fiery hair perfectly.
No, it was that delicious, ambitious soul within her eyes he was drawn to.
Fortunately, she’d read the ambition in his eyes and she’d asked him to join her.
It hadn’t taken long to join her in bed. Of course not. There was a reason he kept himself fit. He knew he was attractive to women, and many men, and used it to his advantage. People were such useful objects.
Being Tara Geonette’s second in command, and lover, had its perks.
Though, not at the moment.
“I’m not sure why you and Lysona bothered to come back here without her,” Tara said. She turned around and leveled those eyes at him. Her voice had been ice.
He shifted again. He had not anticipated this level of anger from her.
“We…thought it best to regroup,” he said, modulating his tone into something soothing. “Best not to get caught.”
Her angry look did not change.
“I sent you two on one simple mission. A task so important, I asked my two most trusted leaders to handle it.” Her voice dripped with a level of condemnation he’d not heard in a long time. From his childhood teachers, long dead. He bristled. Then, checked himself.
Don’t be a fool, he thought. Stick with your plan.
“My apologies,” he said. “I should not have taken Lysona’s advice to give up the mission.” He bowed his head to add effect.
“Pathetic,” Tara said. She’d stepped inside and now stood just a foot away. Her anger had not abated.
“I…” Bedore started.
“You, Bedore, are my second.” She now stood inches away. She drove her long index finger into his chest for emphasis. “You were in charge, not Lysona. Leaders take responsibility.”
He looked into her eyes and found himself drowning in green embers.
He took a step back and knelt down, head bowed, neck exposed. Don’t grovel too much, he thought. But, he needed to figure out how to soothe her when she was this way. Or, excite her.
“You’re right, as always, my Queen,” he said. He looked up at her, careful to give her an imploring look without simpering. “I will complete the task.”
She stared down at him, seeming to savor the moment and his weakness. She traced her fingers across his forehead and through his hair, gently, as intimately as when they shared her bed. Her fingers reached the back of his neck.
She dug her nails in, piercing the skin. He bit his tongue to stop his startled yell. She yanked him up by the scruff of the neck until he stood in front of her again. He kept his face stoic. Best not to waver and let her know how much it hurt. He could feel rivulets of blood running down his neck, working their way under his shirt.
Her breathing had picked up, coming hot and heavy as they stood looking at each other, noses nearly touching.
“Don’t fail me again,” she whispered. “I need my niece brought here. Alive. Unharmed. Do you understand?” She traced her index finger down his forehead to the tip of his nose. Gentle again. He could almost hear her heart racing.
“I understand,” he said. He decided to match her breathing, to acknowledge he sensed her change in mood.
She pressed herself against him, full body. She brought her lips almost to his. They shared a few breaths. No pretending now, he felt himself respond.
“Just you this time. No Lysona,” she breathed. “Kill anyone who sees you or tries to stop you. Even if they’re one of my relatives. Except children. Do not hurt any children of my blood.”
She gave him a lingering kiss. “Understood?” It was barely a breath.
“Yes, my Queen,” he said, more eagerly than he intended.
“Good,” she said.
She pushed him onto the bed and Bedore followed every command.
“You should eat something,” Mira said. “You’re going to get drunk.”
“I want to be drunk,” Tara said. She hiccupped, as if for emphasis.
Katla was gone.
It wasn’t goodbye, she’d said. Might as well have been. She was gone.
And here was Mira. With all those painful memories.
Tara hiccupped again and pulled the bottle of mead closer to her, as if to hug it.
Katla’s bow sat in her lap. Katla’s letter was carefully tucked in her pouch. Maybe if she read it again, she’d catch some clue as to where Katla had gone. She said she’d have gotten her father’s ebony bow by now. Where would that have been hidden for years?
Or, Solitude, where she’d spent the most time? Something to think about. Where would Katla go first? Would assassins be waiting for her?
When you fail the one…
Yes, Tara had failed Katla. She wasn’t protecting her anymore.
…Don’t fail the other.
Rigmor was in her future.
Rigmor didn’t matter right now, though. Katla did.
Tara took a swallow of mead.
“Why are you here?”
Mira sighed. “Did Katla not say in her letter?”
“She did,” Tara said. “Why are you here?”
A small smile broke across Mira’s face, before disappearing. She nodded.
“On the surface, to meet with Tolfdir and Mirabelle about a Nord ruin they’re exploring. The Synod Conclave is hoping to be involved. I’m here as an ambassador of sorts.”
Tara took another swallow. A burp escaped. She waited.
Mira nodded again, acknowledging it wasn’t the real answer. “I think I can help you.”
Tara drained her mead, then waved to Haran, Dagur’s wife, for another.
“You think you can…help…me?” Tara heard the sarcasm drip out of her.
Mira pursed her lips. “I deserve that.” She somehow intensified her gaze. “I deserve all the hostility and anger you’re feeling.”
“Yep.” Haran had brought over another mead. Tara took a big gulp. She didn’t want to be sober.
“I can help you,” Mira said. “I’ve learned some things. I have an idea how to…”
“I don’t want your ‘help’,” Tara said. “You ‘helped’ enough when I was a child.”
Gods, why couldn’t she be drunk already? Better yet, numb. She didn’t want these feelings. This anger at Mira. Why did she have to come back? Dredge up all the pain?
“I can repair some of the damage I caused,” Mira said. A pleading entered her voice. “Please, Tara. Let me help. Let me undo some of what I did.”
“I. Don’t. Want. Your. Help.” Tara stood, then felt herself sway. Not sober now.
“Then, do it for Katla. She begged me to help you.” Mira’s eyes and voice had softened. She seemed so…earnest.
Katla. She’d been the last to see Katla. She’d talked to Katla, for how many days, all while Tara had no idea Katla was leaving her. The anger flared. She wasn’t going to get to a state of numbness. This was too much. No magic future. No Katla. Mira back.
“Don’t…don’t say her name.”
“She loves you so much, Tara…”
Tara threw what was left of her mead in Mira’s face.
The shock on Mira’s face only lasted a second. Then, a sereneness washed over her. A calm Tara herself had never felt seemed to emanate from her. Mira looked down at her mead soaked robes and wiped the worst of the mead dripping down her face with her hand. Then, with that same hand, she turned her wrist slightly, and it evaporated. Her robes were dry, as if the drink had never been tossed.
Tara blinked, swayed, and then sat back down with a thump. What magic was that?
“How…I’ve never seen that before,” she said. She hiccupped.
Mira gave a small smile. “A type of alteration spell. Like a transmute spell.” She paused. “That was a waste of perfectly good mead.”
Tara blinked again. “Did you just make a…joke?”
Mira smiled. “I’m trying to develop a sense of humor. I’m not sure it’s working.”
Tara couldn’t help herself. “Needs work, but not bad for a novice.”
Mira let a laugh escape. “Thanks.”
Tara looked at her for a minute. Mira met her gaze with that new softness Tara wasn’t used to.
“But, for me, let her help you now. Let her fix what she helped create.”
Katla thought Mira could help. And Mira had information on Tara Geonette.
For Katla, she needed to put aside her anger. Her pain. At least long enough to hear Mira out. For Katla, she could do that.
After she sobered up, anyway.
Tara looked at the food on the table. Mira had ordered salmon steak, bread and goat cheese. A bowl of soup, maybe vegetable, was also on the table.
Tara’s stomach growled. She realized she hadn’t eaten in more than a day. Not since before she’d gone down into The Midden.
She tore into the salmon.
“Okay. For Katla,” she managed between bites.
Mira smiled and nodded. “Good.”
While Tara ate, Mira caught her up on the last year and half of her life. She’d stayed in Cyrodiil, finishing her research on the teleportation pads she’d studied at the College of Whispers.
She said she’d been intermittently visiting all the Synod Conclaves for research.
“I’ve never stopped looking for answers; some hint of what might have happened to you.”
Tara swallowed the chunk of bread she’d just bitten into. She coughed. Should have chewed that better, she thought.
She took a swallow of the fresh mead Haran had brought both of them. Now that she was eating, the initial inebriation was wearing off. As long as she drank the mead at a reasonable pace, she could enjoy it.
“Find anything?” Tara surprised herself. She thought she’d snap back to anger about being studied, or the research, but curiosity was winning.
Mira frowned and shook her head. “No. I mean, there are all kinds of stories of weird magic. And who knows what we’ve lost over the ages. Or when the Dwemer disappeared.”
“But,” Tara said. “You think you can help me now?”
Mira’s eyes brightened. “Yes. I think you’ll always have these waves.” She stopped and Tara watched her face shift into a deep sadness. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
How was she supposed to respond to that? Forgive her? No. Not that. Not yet. Maybe never.
Tara waved her hand to dismiss the apology. “Go on.”
“I think you can learn to control them,” Mira said. “I have ideas on that. I believe I can teach you how to only send them at those you want them to affect. And, hopefully, have far fewer of them. Be able to stop them. Or, at least more than you do now. I assume you stop them on occasion?
Tara nodded. Talking to Mira right now about her waves, so dispassionately, was odd. It struck her she’d never talked to anyone about them in any detail. Always only in response to them being found out. After she’d damaged something or someone.
“If I can…calm…myself down fast enough, I stop them,” she said.
Gods, how she hated that word.
Mira leaned back in her chair and took a sip of her mead. She grew thoughtful.
So serious, Tara thought.
“That’s what I thought. Your emotional state is a major factor, if not the factor.”
“My anger,” Tara interrupted.
Mira nodded. “Yes. Your…well-earned anger.” She took another sip. “Not the only emotion involved, though.” She leaned forward. “I think I can teach you a kind of focus that will allow you to direct aspects of the waves.”
“You’re not going to teach me to calm myself down?” This was new.
Mira shook her head. Her eyes held a sadness. Lingering shame, perhaps.
“No, that was a mistake. Whether by magic or asking you to settle down, trying to calm you was the worst thing to do.”
Mira looked away and was silent for a minute. She then turned back to Tara with bright eyes.
“Tara, there’s something different about magic within you. Different from other mages. Different from me. I don’t know how to explain it. Nor, do I understand exactly, but…”
Mira straightened up. She suddenly had an air about her that brought back the memories from their time together at the College of Whispers. When Mira had taught and excited everyone around her. The element of her that Tara had learned to admire and respect. She wasn’t a practical mage as much as a teacher. A true researcher and educational wizard.
“I’m glad Katla wrote to me and asked about Tara Geonette. It helped me come to a conclusion.”
“There is something about our ancestor. Something she did hundreds of years ago that is why you’re the way you are with magic.”
“What…how?” Tara found herself blinking in shock again. What?
“I’m still working it out. I have a lot more research to do, but she did something that affects our bloodline.”
Tara felt her jaw drop open. She closed it.
“I know,” Mira said. “I don’t have much to tell you on that aspect yet. But, as for the Order of the Fire Queen, and whether they’re still around and the ones after Katla, I believe they are.”
“You told Katla?”
“I did. When I got here.” Mira smiled. “You know, she impressed me. You found yourself a strong Nord. She really loves you, too.”
Tears sprouted. “Well,” Tara said. “I seem to have lost her.”
Mira looked concerned. “I…I don’t know what’s in the letter, but I was under the impression she wasn’t breaking up with you.”
Tara wiped her eyes. “I don’t know anymore. I’m…lost.”
“I’m sorry, Tara.” Mira’s voice was gentle. “I could tell magic scares her. That she didn’t like you studying it.”
“If she’d waited a few days, problem solved,” Tara said. She drained the last of her mead. Her mood had soured again. Katla was gone. Everything Mira had bombarded her with didn’t change that reality.
“Why?” Mira asked.
“Because I quit magic. The Augur told me what I already knew. What you all knew. It’s dangerous for me to pursue magic. I accept it now.” Tara shifted. “That’s why I came here. To tell her.”
Mira now had a look of confusion. Her face didn’t seem to know if it should be happy or sad about the news.
“Come on,” Tara said. She stood. “Let me catch you up on things while I pack up my room at the College. And, uh, actually officially quit.”
They left the inn together. Tara kept her hand tightly around Katla’s bow on the walk. Something of Katla’s to protect now and for however long it took to get her back.
“Keep it down in there!” Dagur, owner of The Frozen Hearth Inn, yelled.
Tara tried to steady herself. She hadn’t stopped trembling since she burst into the inn, after leaving The Midden. She’d gotten a dirty look from Dagur from that arrival. Guess he’d tired of her busting into the inn, and not spending any money.
It’d been three days since she’d seen Katla. She’d respected her wishes. She’d studied, spoken to Tolfdir some more, then made that trip to The Midden. She’d been down there a day, apparently.
She’d come straight here, after that ominous warning.
Now that you’ve failed the one, do not fail the other.
Tara thought of Freta and her warning, so long ago, but so fresh in her memories.
When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.
Who was the “one”? Freta had said Rigmor was one of them.
Was Katla the other? How had she failed her?
“Where is she?!” Tara asked Mira again, keeping her voice down this time.
Why was Mira here? How did she know Tara was here, in Winterhold? At the College? Had Mirabelle written her after that wave incident? Had Katla?
No. Why would Katla write Mira? She knew Tara’s feelings on her sister. She’d respected them.
But here Mira was. In Katla’s room.
Okay…deep breaths, Tara thought. Figure this out.
She inhaled slowly and let her eyes take in the room.
Katla’s clothes and backpack were not in sight. Instead, a different backpack sat on the bed. Cleaner, yet older. As if its owner traveled frequently, but in places where the backpack wouldn’t get dirty. In cities, towns, and inns. Not the wilderness Katla and Tara had spent so much time camping in. It had to be Mira’s.
An ache crept into Tara’s chest. A steady throb surrounded her heart, and threatened to shift and amplify.
No, no, no, no.
Mira was sitting in a chair at the small table in the room. On the table rested Katla’s bow.
Katla’s bow was shaped like a common hunting bow, but its steel tips were a slight blue, and the wood of the bow was a rich, dark wood instead of the blonde wood Tara saw around Skyrim.
How many times had Katla saved her life with that bow? How many times had they saved each other?
The ache added a stabbing pain.
A letter sat on top of the bow.
Tara shifted her eyes to Mira. To the sister she hadn’t seen in a year and a half. The new year was only a week away.
The time since they’d last seen each other seemed so much longer. So much had changed.
By the looks of her, much had changed for Mira as well.
Her hair was longer now, styled in a way Tara had never seen before. Mira had grown out her bangs, and much of her deep black hair was pulled back in a ponytail to rest on the sections left unbound. Some standout strands hung in front of her face.
The overall look made her seem younger. She still looked serious. Mira had always looked serious, but somehow, they didn’t look twelve years apart in age.
She looks more relaxed, Tara thought. As if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Tara supposed it had been. All that shame during their final fight atop Frostcrag Spire.
“Katla asked me to tell you to read the letter. That we should speak afterwards,” Mira said. Her voice and tone were the same as always. No humor. Matter of fact.
No, not quite. There was an edge of softness to it. Tara flashed back to the good months they had together at the College of Whispers. To the bonding and kindness Mira had shown. Before the truth had come out.
Mira stood. Her icy blue eyes pierced. They, too, had a softness rare for Mira. “I’m going to step out. Grab some food and drink at one of the tables,” she said. “Come find me when you’re finished reading the letter.”
She lightly touched Tara’s arm as she left the room. She closed the door behind her, leaving Tara alone.
Strength left her legs and Tara found herself sitting in the other chair at the table. The one she’d sat in normally when Katla and she’d rented the room initially.
The stabbing pain picked up its pace.
She reached out and caressed the bow. Her hands trembled and ignored her requests to stop.
She’d started crying as well. No way to stop that.
She picked up the letter and read.
“Tara, my love.
I will be back for my bow. This is not goodbye. Unless that’s what you want. I hope you can forgive me.
I’m sorry. I should’ve told you about Mira. I got so angry with you for keeping things from me, and here I am. I did the same to you. What a hypocrite I am.
I love you.
I remember the moment I realized I loved you. Not just crushing on you. That happened the moment I laid eyes on you back in Falkreath. Your soul shines through your eyes. And touches mine. I don’t know how to describe it. You’re amazing. Not just gorgeous. Amazing as a person.
I knew I loved you, really loved you, when I woke up the morning after that crazy night outside of High Hrothgar. I woke up to you sleeping next to me. I felt so safe. So comfortable. And then you opened your eyes and I knew it. I loved you.
I love you, but I can’t be near you right now. Your waves terrify me. Magical power scares me. You and magic scare me. For the sake of us, I need to be away from you until you figure out magic for yourself.
You’re a warrior, Tara. You need to come to that conclusion yourself, though.
Mira. Right. I need to explain. Please forgive me.
I wrote her two months ago. No, not about your waves.
When we couldn’t find out more about your ancestor, Tara Geonette. I was scared. Frustrated. I wanted answers. I thought Mira might have them. Your family suppressed your magic when you were little. Maybe they’d kept information about Tara from you, too.
I took that chance. Talk to her. She has things to tell you about your Fire Queen ancestor.
Then, please, for me, let her help you.
I know what she did was terrible. I can never understand that level of violation.
But, for me, let her help you now. Let her fix what she helped create.
Don’t try and find me. Write me.
Take care of my bow. Use it to keep yourself safe. By the time you read this, I will have my father’s ebony bow in my hands. I hid it well years ago. I’m ready for it now.
Talk to Mira. Then, write me. We’ll go from there.
I love you, Tara.
Tara read the letter again.
The stabbing in her chest settled into an ache. A constant pain, enough to tell you it was there, but not enough to stop you. A reminder of a wound.
She folded the letter carefully and set it back on top of the bow. Katla’s bow. Hers for now.
Katla was gone. Tara had failed her. She was no longer protecting her.