First, a round of applauds to my beta readers SilverIceRing and Fragment of ring, they deserve that.
Under strange skies
When you stare into Oblivion, Oblivion stares back at you
Endlessly it shall form and reform around you, deeds as entities, all-systems only an hour before they bloom to zero-sums, flowering like vestments, divine raiment worn to dance at Lord Dagon's golden feet.
There were many things she would never forget about that day.
The screams of the dead and dying as the flames crawled through the ground.
The heat of the all-consuming inferno that threatened to engulf her at any moment.
But among all else was the smell. The smell of ash and cinders, of blood and meat, that impregnated her nostrils.
Louise observed speechless. She had seen many dragons, but none like this one. Easily twice as big as any other and black as night, it descended onto a nearby tower, the air pressure it produced enough to knock the headsman down.
"Don't just stand there! Kill that thing!"
"Guards, get the townspeople to safety!"
Some attempted to bring order to the chaos that was spreading, but as soon that thing appeared it was like madness had taken over the whole fortress. Arrows bounced off its skin as if they were made of paper. Mages stroked with fire, ice and lightning but with its body hidden beneath one of its mighty wings, the beast remained unharmed.
"Fall, damn you, fall!"
And then it spoke. It spoke with a profound and brutal voice. In some arcane language Louise couldn't recognize.
"Fus… Ro… Da!"
Just those words were enough to push both soldiers and mages alike aside. Some were thrown back as if they were dolls. Some would never rise again. Such a powerful wind blast, even from her position she felt the pressure. Could it be able to rival even the great Heavy Wind?
'A rhyme dragon!' Was that really one of the great creatures of legend?
The beast remained calm, observing the destruction it had brought, but it was far from over.
"Yol… Toor… Shul!"
The armory she had been using as cover exploded in a sea of flames. Breathing became increasingly difficult as smoke saturated the air.
Louise kneeled, desperately trying to get some air. Her eyes burned, blurred with tears, but she managed to recognize some shapes around her.
She was surrounded by bodies, all imperial, some with their necks bent in strange positions, others with their throats sliced. These legionaries hadn't died by the flames of the beast, but by the hand of men.
'The rebels. They are free.'
"Hey, you. Get up! Come on, the Gods won't give us another chance!" Someone near called for her.
Had he said gods? As in plural? She didn't have the time to delve into that. Feeling the adrenaline overloading her for the second time that day she forced her legs to move, as fireballs rained from the sky and splinters were launched in every direction from the ensuing explosions.
"In here. This way! Come on!"
Stumbling she reached a tall tower, her savior waiting at the door. He pushed her inside the stone building.
And Louise de la Valliére came face to face with Ulfric Stormcloak.
Louise wasn't a stranger about standing at the spotlight, be it in front of foreign nobles visiting her family's state or in front of classmates waiting for an excuse to mock her. But being at the receiving end of the combined stares of four rebel warriors (one their leader) was an entirely new experience.
"Jarl Ulfric! What is that thing? Could the legends be true?"
"Legends don't burn down villages. Who is this one?"
"Don't know" The man shrugged "she was outside. I wasn't going to leave her there."
"Your responsibility, Ralof. We must…" Whatever else he was trying to say was muted when, with a thunderous howl, the whole tower trembled. "We need to move. Now!"
"Up through the tower, let's go!"
Firmly grabbed by the arm by Ralof, Louise followed close behind up the staircase, only to find their way blocked by some debris.
"Damn." cursed Ralof.
"We just need to move some of these rocks to clear the way!"
One of the Stormcloaks stepped forward and grabbed one of the heavy boulders. Both Ralof and Ulfric followed through, while another guarded the entrance.
Louise hesitated. She was unsure if she should help them. They were criminals, but the sooner they finished their job the sooner she would get out of there.
They had saved her life.
Before making up her mind, she heard a sound. Scratching. Then the wall was blown apart.
Ulfric, reacting with a speed honed by decades of fighting, grabbed Ralof and pulled back. His other companion, petrified under the gaze of the great dragon, was unable to act.
The young girl could only watch in mute horror as the warrior's body was immolated in front of her eyes.
Wielding his stolen sword Ralof tried to charge at the beast that had murdered his friend, but the strong hand of Jarl Ulfric stopped him.
Ralof tried to break free from Ulfric's grip, but the dragon was already gone.
"Your death would be useless to me."
"I… I'm sorry my Lord. The Nine gave us another chance; we can't let it go to waste."
Getting closer to the breach the beast had left behind Ulfric could contemplate how it was slowly reducing the town of Helgen to ashes. The wind brought the screams of pain from its victims.
"I don't believe the Gods have anything to do with this, Ralof."
"Jarl Ulfric!" called a voice from the lower levels of the tower. "We have wounded."
"We will carry them on our backs. From here I can see the nearby buildings. We can jump to the roofs and…"
Before he could finish his plan, the girl that had been accompanying them had already jumped through the breach.
Hearing Ulfric was what kicked her out of her bewilderment. She hadn't been wrong! The Stormcloaks were heretics.
Why had they saved her?
'Surely because they don't know I'm a follower of Brimir.'
So, when the Jarl revealed his plan to escape, she took the initiative. With a quick sprint, she jumped through the opening the dragon had left in its passing. Four meters separated her from the closest structure. She almost didn't make it.
'But, no one here has heard of the Founder. Does that mean…'
She felt a great relief when she finally sensed her feet touching a solid surface. Unfortunately the straw structure hadn't been constructed to support a human being, and it collapsed under her weight.
Her body impacted heavily on the wooden floor. Was at that moment that her brain chose to go blank, and she forgot everything her father had ever taught her about how to fall from horses.
She tried to soften the blow with her arms, but the only thing she managed to do was fill her hands with splinters and twist her wrist.
'Bend the knees and roll.
Bend the knees and roll, you idiot.'
Stunned and winded she put all her effort in trying to get to her feet. Her hands were bloody and her right arm burned in pain.
The entire world started to spin around her. Dazed, Louise tried to use a nearby chair as support. But when her hand closed around one of its legs, she felt the splinters digging deep into her skin.
Her eyes started to moisten.
'No. I'm stronger than this. I won't cry'
Utilizing her forearms in order to protect her hands she finally managed to rise. Making her way around fallen chairs and tables, she could recognize where she was.
The inn was deserted. Part of the wooden structure had caught fire and one of the walls had crumbled. This was the tavern where Hadvar had left her, where she was supposed to wait for him.
If she had listened, if she had stayed there, would she be dead already?
"Haming, get over here!" That voice! "Haming, you need to get over here. Now!"
Hadvar. Finally a friendly face inside this nightmare!
With his sword unsheathed, he was protecting a kid and an old man. Dodging the debris Louise ran to the reencounter with the Legionnaire.
"Louise! Thanks the Gods you are still alive!"
Louise stopped on a dime.
They didn't know about the Founder.
They had mentioned 'The Eight'.
She took a step back.
The legionnaire must have seen the hesitation in her face.
"Louise, what's wrong?"
"Yol… Toor… Shul!"
"Tarolf, take cover!"
Before she could react, the Legionnaire grabbed Louise and pressed her body against a nearby wall. With his body he protected her from the flames that spread from the nearby street.
Louise had heard the screams, but she hadn't seen the bodies. She had recognized the corpses of the slayed imperials, but the smoke and the irritation on her eyes had blurred the details. She had seen how the Stormcloak was incinerated by the dragon's breath, but the remains had been a shapeless coal sculpture.
Torolf still clung to his life.
He had escaped the direct effect of the flames, but his body had boiled under the heat. His hair was charred, his eyes had been blinded and his skin was falling apart. With his last breath, he took his son's face between his hands. And with his last words, bid farewell.
"I'm done for, little cub. Go. Make me proud."
His arms felt lifeless.
Haming hurled over the body of his deceased father, and cried bitterly.
Heretics, barbarians and savages that dared to upset the order across the Kingdoms of Brimir.
Brimir's followers were different. They were better.
A father that had done everything in his power to protect his son.
A son that mourned the death of his father.
And a courageous soldier that was trying to save them all.
'What is happening here? They are just like me.'
"I'm sorry Haming."
Seizing him between his arms Hadvar separated the boy from his father's body.
"No! Leave me!"
"Haming! Torolf entrusted you with something" Hadvar gently shook him, looking in his eyes "something important. He wanted you to make him feel proud. Will you disobey him now?"
The boy couldn't answer. His voice had been muted, but his response was obvious.
"Gunnar, I must find general Tullius and join the defense. I leave them under your charge."
"You can trust me." The man nodded, standing upright.
"No, I'm coming with you." Louise's voice interrupted.
"What? No, please listen to me here. If you stay with Gunnar and…"
"No! You will listen to me. I am the third daughter of the Douches de la Valliére; you don't have any authority over me! I will help you even if you don't want to."
"That thing will eat you!"
"Then I will give it indigestion!"
"I don't think there's any reasoning with her, Hadvar."
Not even Gunnar supported him in this. The legionnaire looked at Louise, defeated.
"Just… just be careful, all right?"
After abandoning Haming and Gunnar, Hadvar guided Louise across the ruined roads of the town. They had found many charred bodies in their way. Louise was no longer as affected as she was at the beginning, but looking at them was still difficult. Especially when they found remains too small to belong to adults.
Her wrist no longer hurt as much, so she used the trip to clean her hands from the splinters. They still bled a little. Deciding that her clothes were unsalvageable after what they had endured, she tore off some pieces from her Academy's cape and used them as makeshift bandages.
The battle seemed far from over. Every now and then they could hear the terrible howls of the beast, or they could see a stray spell passing over their heads.
While crossing a narrow path between the stone wall and a nearby building, a shadow covered the sun. A shadow they had learnt to recognize very well.
"Stay close to the wall!"
To her credit, Louise reacted almost as fast as Hadvar.
The powerful rhyme dragon landed on top of the wall, one of its wings resting just over where Louise was. Once again it cast its devastating spell.
"Yol… Toor… Shul!"
The screams of agony that always followed still troubled Louise, but they were getting easier to endure.
"Pahlok joorre! Hin kah fen kos bonaar!"
Before mages and archers could organize a counterattack, the beast was again in the air.
"Go, go, go!"
Without losing a beat, they moved forward. Crossing the ruins of a house to their right, Louise dodged a fallen wooden pillar, jogged to her left and finally exited into a big, open marketplace where the defenders had sheltered.
With doors, carts and tables they had erected some hastened defenses. They would be useless, but the fake sense of security they provided was the only thing preventing the soldier from falling prey of panic.
Even with the smoke blocking her view, Louise could see how some archers were still trying to bring the beast down.
"Hadvar, is that you?"
One of the defenders quickly rushed to their meeting. With his face covered in bandages it was difficult to recognize any characteristic feature. Her companion, however, recognized him with ease.
"Avik? Ha! I knew that thing wouldn't take you that easily."
"And not because it didn't try." The two friends hugged each other before Avik's attention fell on Louise. "Don't tell me you know the midget."
"Hey!" She scowled.
"She's a friend, Avik. Where's the General?"
"Near the town's well."
"I'm going to report. Take care, mate."
"Always." Avik smiled through his bandages and they departed.
The improvised encampment was packed with the wounded. Most of them were wearing tunics that marked them as mages. It was obvious the dragon was intelligent; it had gone for the greater threats first.
"Tell my family I fought bravely."
"The wounds are deep Vilod, I can't stop the bleeding."
Was that Vilod? Hadvar's friend? Hadn´t he just heard he was dying over there? But the legionnaire remained immutable, walking decidedly onwards.
At the center of the marketplace was Tullius, shouting orders to his soldiers, making everything in his power to maintain order.
"Hadvar, I see you are alive. Who is this one?"
Recalling everything she knew about military protocol, Louise stepped forward and gave the general a quick salute.
"Lord General, I am Louise de la Valliére, foreign noble from the illustrious Kingdom of Tristain willing to lend services."
"And what are you supposed to do?" He asked, dubious.
"Everything in my power to help."
Tullius stared directly at her eyes, but Louise didn´t flinch. Her mother had taught her very early in her life that to avert one's gaze was a sign of weakness, something a noble could never permit.
"That's more than what most people here are in position to do. Very well, consider yourself temporally recruited. Hadvar, we are leaving. You two go to the keep and make sure the exits are safe."
Hadvar headed north at full speed, with Louise closely behind.
"The keep? Why are we getting back in there?" She asked, feeling how step after step breathing became more difficult. She could barely feel her legs, but she couldn't stop now. Tomorrow, decided, she wouldn't get out of bed.
'If I make it to tomorrow.' Her mind reminded her.
"There's a network of tunnels that run under the mountain, connecting the keep with the outside. We can use them to evacuate." He explained on the march.
"Why does something like that exists? What if the enemy uses them to get inside?"
"The entrance is well hidden, and well-guarded from within. Come, it's after the next corner."
The fortifications that had looked so imposing at first now were in ruins. Big sections had fallen apart. Making use of one of these breaches the noble and the legionnaire made their way inside, where all the destruction had started.
But they weren't the first to arrive. Someone was already there.
"Ralof!" exclaimed Hadvar, unsheathing his sword. "You damned traitor, out of our way!"
That was the renegade that was traveling with Ulric! But where was Ulfric? Weren't they jumping from rooftop to rooftop?
Ralof turned to face Hadvar, his own sword on hand.
"We're escaping, Hadvar. You are not stopping us this time."
Louise looked at the two men, now ready to kill each other. What to do? She didn't have her wand. She had never been in a serious fight in her entire life! She would just be a nuisance.
Even if she tried, she couldn't forget Ralof had saved her life.
Her heart skipped a beat. That had sounded very close.
"Fine. I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde."
The two enemies realized that getting away from the dragon was a higher priority and broke apart, each one running into a different direction.
"With me, Louise." Hadvar called "We are almost there."
Evading the rubble and scorched wreckage she could already see the wooden door that was their destination. Just a few more meters!
"Fus… Ro… Da…!"
And everything went black.
Pain that inundated her entire body and overwhelmed her senses.
Her body had crashed violently against the side of a wooden cart. She had to be thankful that neither her head nor neck had broken with the impact.
Straightening up, she focused her sight, and saw it. An atrocious creature. The rhyme dragon had landed just a few meters from her. It was glaring at her with malevolence.
Louise wanted to flee, put her legs no longer reacted. All the exhaustion and suffering had finally overcome her.
She wanted to scream, but the only thing she managed to do was to spit a blend of blood and bile, and what she believed was a tooth.
The dragon moved. It was curious it didn't have forearms, in its place using its wings to crawl over the ground.
So, that was it? That's how it ended? She had promised her family that she would triumph at the Academy. That she would become a great mage. She hadn't accomplished anything. She had told Hadvar and general Tullius she could help. She had done nothing.
Her life was a failure and now she would die as a failure. It was better that way. Here, in this forgotten land she would surely be buried in a grave with no name. Her disappearance back in Tristain would become a side note in history, too insignificant to embarrass her family.
She closed her eyes and hoped it would be quick.
The beast roared, but that was a roar of pain!
Louise opened her eyes and saw how fireball after fireball impacted the beast's exposed flank.
Running through smoke and fire, through ruins and wrecks, with a sword in his right hand and eldritch energies in his left, Legate Fasendil charged the beast.
With one of its mighty wings the dragon tried to attack, but rolling forward Fasendil dodged the assault and with a quick hack from his sword he cut at its neck.
With its powerful jaws it tried to bite him, but the Legate was prepared. With the momentum he carried, Fasendil jumped to the side and with fire he attacked its head.
Louise wanted to celebrate, to stand and cheer for her savior.
But she couldn't.
Because, at some point, the legate had lost his helmet. And the only thing Louise could see were the pointy ears of an elf.
"Fly, you fools!"
Someone, Hadvar, put her over his shoulders and together they entered the fortress, as one of the last standing sections of the walls crumbled behind them, blocking the entrance.
"Shit," exclaimed Hadvar. "The rest won't be able to come through here."
It was a miracle the stone structure hadn't fallen over their heads. But with that way closed the general and the rest of the refugees would have to find another escape route.
"He was an elf! And you have him here! Are you idiots? Are you…?"
"Do you think they are all the same? Do you think they are all just like the fucking Thalmor?"
Louise raised her hand to her cheek.
'That… that… dog dared to smack me!'
"No, this time is your turn to listen to me." The legionnaire grabbed her from the shoulders and stared directly to her eyes. "Fasendil, that elf, that legionnaire, is my friend."
"He is an elf! Elves are monsters, murderers …"
"He saved your life!"
Hadvar took a knee and lowered himself so he could be at the same level with Louise.
"He saved your life here and he saved your life when we found you."
"What?" She asked with a faltering voice.
"When we found you, you weren't breathing. I gave you for dead, but Fasendil's magic saved you."
An elf had healed her? No, no. That couldn't be right. Elves were the enemies; they had always been since they expelled her ancestors from the Holy Land. To have spent time next to one, to have talked with one, to have come to consider one a… a… was inconceivable.
"I don't know what elves did in your land, but you aren't the only ones that suffered from their hands. We lost much to the Thalmor. Many lives wasted, many homes destroyed, but not all Altmer are the same. Many refused to fight for them, many tried to help us. They were the first ones to be murdered at the beginning of the war."
Louise doubted that. But, could it be true? Elves fighting alongside humans?
"So, I ask again: can you accept that not all of them are like the Thalmor?"
"I…I don't know if I can."
"Then, can you accept that one of them risked his life to save yours because he believed it was the right thing to do?"
It was too much. Too complicated. She had lived all her life in fear of the elves. In fear of the stories people told about them. How they ate human flesh and how they stole children from their cradles.
'But… just maybe…'
"I think I can do that."
"That's all I ask for."
Hadvar rose and gave her a pat on the back.
"Well, the way out is blocked and we have some time. Come."
Louise followed Hadvar to a nearby trunk. He opened it and took something from its interior.
"Ever used one of this?"
Louise looked at him incredulously. In his hand, he had a sword.
"No! Never! That weapon is for… for…"
"I have been called worse," He said smiling. "But you will have to learn how to use it anyway. This is not over yet."
Hadvar put the sword aside and kept searching inside the trunk.
"But we are safe here." Louise looked around, at their supposedly safe haven.
"I hope so," He answered without distracting from his job. "But you saw the Stormcloak outside, didn't you?"
"There were around eighty rebel prisoners, maybe more. I don't know how many could be inside here."
Louise no longer knew what to think about that. The last hours had taken their toll on her.
"And this is all."
In front of her Hadvar had arranged a set of leather armor: cuirass, helmet, bracers, greaves and faulds. It was amazing those were her size.
"Standard Lorica for Bosmers. There isn't a single Bosmer legionnaire in all of Skyrim, but now I'm happy they make us keep this."
"You expect me to wear that?"
"Yes. I will go in front, but if something happens to me and I can't protect you, you will have to do it yourself. You can put it over your clothes if you wish."
Louise observed the armor. It was ugly and surely uncomfortable.
"Fine." She groaned, defeated.
"Of course not! I can do it alone."
"As you wish. I will go and check the room for anything useful."
She examined the armor again. She had been reduced to this? To have to wear the armors of the peasantry? To have to fight like them?
With her tongue she touched the space one of her canines used to occupy. If she had been wearing armor like this, would she still have it?
'I guess I'm out of options.'
She untied her fur coat and unlocked the broach that kept her cape in place. Of all her clothes the only thing that remained relatively intact was the coat. That shouldn't be surprising, it was obvious the thing had been made to last.
"Over here too. Let me check how you placed it."
Louise didn't really like the idea of this man touching her, but supposed she could trust Hadvar. The legionnaire had been a gentleman so far. But, just in case, her hand slowly moved to the sword she carried at her belt.
"All right, let me check how much of a good work you did."
Well, that was strange. Rookies spent several weeks learning all about their armors. Learning all their knots, pieces, wrinkles and how to set everything together. This girl…
Hadvar stood thoughtful in front of her.
"What did I do wrong?" She asked upset.
"Sure you never used armor before?"
"Pretty sure. I just put it on as I believed was right."
"And it's all right. Well done! You have talent for this."
'Of course I would be good at something like this. I can't cast a single spell, but when it comes to one of this serf thing I do it right in my first try.'
Hadvar headed to the door just opposite from where they had entered. With a key he had found during his search he unlocked it.
"Of course not!"
"Just remember to stay away and let me handle things." Hadvar grabbed a knapsack he had prepared before and threw it in her direction. "Catch."
Louise grabbed it midair and inspected it. It was a backpack with several pockets and some things inside.
"Legionnaire marching pack. I put some supplies inside and some gold coins I found here."
"Coins? Is it correct that we take them?"
"We must do what we can with what we have. We will need money once we are outside and I prefer we take it and not some enemy."
"That's true, I guess."
"Well, the dragon is still out there and we have to move. Ready?"
"I already told you that no!"
Hadvar opened the door and together they went deep into the fortress.
"We need to get moving! That dragon is tearing up the whole keep!"
"Just give me a minute... I'm out of breath..."
From her hiding place next to the entrance to the room Louise could recognize the voices of a man and a woman.
"Hear that? Stormcloaks," Hadvar confirmed. "Maybe I can reason with them."
Louise unsheathed her sword and remained behind, still nervous. She barely knew where to grab the damn thing from! She wasn't sure what would happen if Hadvar came to need her help.
The legionnaire advanced to the encounter of the two warriors.
"Hold on, now, we only want to..." The sound of the Stormcloaks readying their own weapons stopped him.
"Victory or Sovngarde!"
"If you want to die, so be it."
The enemies charged. Hadvar was outnumbered, but he was the better combatant. The man, sword at hand, attacked first, but he was tired and the legionnaire easily parried the first blow with his own blade before using his shield to push the Stormcloak in the way of the woman trying to split him with her axe.
With her companion between them, the female warrior had to step sideways to attack Hadvar, but he was already in motion and out of reach.
From her place Louise watched, impressed. She had seen some magic duels, but this swordplay had something special, something hypnotic. Whereas his opponents were tired and clumsy, each of Hadvard's movements was precise, controlled. There was a method behind his combat that Louise was trying to decipher. His body was always in motion, never standing still. Each step was carefully calculated so that one Stormcloak would always end in the other's way, always hindering each other so they couldn´t surround their opponent. If Louise ever had to fight alongside Hadvar she had to remember that.
And she had to keep in mind something more, something her mother had said when Louise was young. In any battle it didn't matter the experience, the power or the skill of the fighters, it only mattered who was the first to make a mistake. Because the first to make one was usually was the first to die.
Jurgen had been the first to do something wrong. Nervous, he rushed past his companion and tried for a two-handed vertical slash. He was too slow. Hadvar easily blocked the sword with his shield before stabbing the unprotected belly. He was dead before hitting the ground.
Enraged the woman attacked. Her weapon was dangerous; if Hadvar tried to block it the only thing he would get was a broken arm. However, the axe was heavy; each swing he evaded meant several vital seconds she had to use to readjust it. Taking advantage of one of those openings, the legionnaire tried to cut her, but the Stormcloak was faster and with a leap backwards she escaped his reach.
Louise's mind paralyzed. With that jump the woman had ended at the entrance of the room, just next to her hiding spot, and she hadn't seen her! The enemy was ignorant of her presence and had her back completely exposed! This was her chance.
She closed her eyes and with a vicious horizontal movement Louise cut the woman's left knee. She felt the blood splashing over her hands.
With the tendons severed the woman fell, screaming in pain. But her shouts were violently silenced when with a fast movement Hadvar slashed her throat.
'I killed her.'
She had done it. It didn't matter that someone else had landed the finishing blow; it was her hand that had allowed that.
She wasn't ignorant. She knew many nobles considered commoners as little more than animals, cattle to be disposed of. The Valliére had never shared that mentality. She had just killed another human being, one of the greatest sins against God.
"Louise! Are you all right?" The legionnaire asked, with concern in his voice.
'No. I can't break down. I am stronger than this. As steel.'
She shook her head.
"I'm fine." Louise stood up; ignoring the hand Hadvar was trying to lend her.
"You don't look fine."
"I am fine! I did what I had to. And I will do it again if I need to!"
Paying no attention to the still warm bodies, together they continued their march.
"I'm very sorry you had to go through that."
"Me too," Louise muttered softly, too low for the legionnaire to hear her.
The whole structure trembled and a considerable section of the stone ceiling collapsed in front of them.
'Two more meters and…' Louise didn't want to think about that.
There have been, how many? One, two, three hours since the dragon had stopped the execution? She could no longer know that. But if the beast was still outside that meant soldiers were still fighting it. How many would survive the day?
"Come, through the storerooms we can go around this."
Hadvar approached a door to their right with Louise close behind. This was the routine they had adapted to. Hadvar would enter first to divert any enemy's attention, with Louise entering some seconds later to take them by surprise.
She didn't like that, it wasn't honorable. But what other use had a mage that couldn't cast a single spell? At least it worked. In theory in any case, since they hadn't found more rebels since last time.
Hadvar kicked the door and stormed in. Louise remained behind, waiting for the sound of battle or the all-clear.
"It's empty. You can…"
Louise entered, sword in hand. What had happened? Why had he gone silent? Had he been ambushed?
She sighed, relieved, when she found the legionnaire safe and sound. He was standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by corpses. Most were rebels, but at his feet was an imperial one.
"Captain Alliana." He kneeled besides her and with his hand closed her eyes. "You didn't go without a fight, did you?"
"My condolences." Louise whispered.
Hadvar remained quiet. He crossed the captain's arms over her body and took her shield.
"Here. The captain can't use it anymore. It will be more useful to you."
Louise received it in her hands. It was heavy, but not as much as she was expecting. She could fight with it.
With a final farewell Hadvar rose and continued his march. Louise gave the body a last look before joining.
There was one thing she wanted to ask the soldier since the marketplace, but with all the constant threats to her life, she had forgotten. Finding the deceased Alliana reminded her of that.
"Hadvar, how can you…"
"Wait! Hear that?"
Louise sharpened her ear, trying to listen to what had put the legionnaire on edge. It was a distant sound, of metal against metal.
Without losing one beat the two companions rushed out of the storeroom, the sound of the fight getting louder with every step.
Hadvar was faster and was the first to join the fray.
The room they were fighting in was huge, full of cells and strange equipment Louise didn't really want to know what was for. A mage launching electricity from his hands (please, not another elf) was keeping three enemies on check wile Hadvar and another legionnaire faced other two Stormcloaks.
Louise sped up to support them.
She made a mistake.
Because there weren't five enemies, there were six. A rapid reaction and the durable shield of the captain were the only things that stopped the last Stormcloak from bisecting her head.
The pressure over her arms was too much and almost knocked her down, but this time she knew what to do. Flexing her knees she rolled to the side, putting some much needed distance between her and her assailant.
She recovered quickly, just in time to evade a flurry of attacks.
'In movement. In movement. Always in movement.'
Remembering what she had seen in Hadvard's battle, she commenced her counterattack.
She swung her sword trying to cut the warrior's left arm, but he parried the attack with ease. Just as intended. With all her ferocity Louise tried to hit his exposed side with her shield, but was too slow and he jumped out of reach.
"Louise!" She heard Hadvar shouting. This one was her responsibility; she couldn't let him get distracted from his own fight.
The Stormcloak attacked again, with greater intensity. The first slash, she managed to stop with the shield, but she lost her footing. She blocked the second, but she fell on her back. Before the third one finished the job, she let go of the shield and rolled to her left. Her hand came to rest over some fine powder.
The Stormcloak charged, but Louise was ready. She grabbed a handful of the sand she had found and threw it at her opponent's face. He screamed in pain and launched attacks in every direction, but only managed to cut the air.
Taking her chance, Louise prepared. She jumped behind the warrior and, with a movement she had repeated more than a hundred times in her mind, cut his knees.
He fell over one leg.
Louise held her sword with her two hands and stabbed his back.
His body collapsed, but he was still trying to support his weight with his arms.
'Why don't you die?'
She stabbed again. And again…
She didn't know how much it took to kill a man, so she just kept stabbing.
A strong hand held her from the arm, stopping her motion.
"It's over Louise. It's over."
She looked around.
Two bleeding bodies, slain by sword.
Three bodies still spasming, slayed by magic.
And only one…
That had been torn apart.
Sick, Louise leaned to a side and emptied her stomach. Hadvar put a hand over her shoulder. She had never felt more grateful for that simple gesture.
"Oh, please, tell me this isn't her first time. First timers always make such a mess!"
Ignoring the torturer's rant, Hadvar helped Louise to her feet.
"And could you not have used all my bone meal? Now I will have to make more!"
Bone meal? It wasn't sand? She felt sick again, but there was nothing more to throw up.
"Why don't you shut up old fart?"
"Check your thong boy, this is my territory. I'm in charge here. But I guess I should be thankful. These boys seemed a bit upset at how I've been entertaining their comrades."
"Don't you even know what's going on? A dragon is attacking Helgen!"
"A dragon? Please. Don't make up nonsense. Although, come to think of it, I did hear some odd noises coming from over there."
Hadvar helped Louise to sit at a nearby chair, while muttering something about 'son of a hagraven'. She didn't know what that was, but she agreed.
"Are you coming with us? Your magic could be of use."
"I'm not moving from here, boy."
"As you wish. We'll rest for a few minutes here before continuing. Do you have any useful supplies?"
"But of course. I have antiseptics, bandages and various poisons and venoms." He answered with a vicious smirk "Which one suits your fancy?"
As Hadvar argued with the disgusting mage Louise inspected the table she was sited next to, desperately trying to find something to distract her mind with.
There was a plate with some food in it. 'Who can eat in such a revolting place?' There were also a couple of gold coins and two books. The first one was entitled "Flames" and, fittingly, the drawing of what looked like a very stylish flame decorated the cover. The second one was "The book of the Dragonborn" and had the image of a dragon on its cover. Louise grabbed the last one opened the first page.
The letters were strange. She could read them with no problems, but each one was too 'square', each letter 'A' was exactly the same as any other 'A'. It was like it hadn't been handwritten. Maybe it had been written with magic? Doubtful.
In any case, it appeared to tell the story of the Cyrodilic Empire (apparently the name of the place where she was) and its various rulers and heroes. She didn't have the time to read it, but a book about local history would be useful. She put it inside her pack for latter.
"Louise, we are done here. Florentius will come with us."
"Me, young lady." A voice said next to Hadvar. That was the other legionnaire, a man with long black hair and a very prominent bald spot on top of his head. Louise had barely paid attention to him.
"I… thank you mister Florentius."
"It's my pleasure, young lady."
"Louise, how are you? Are you fine?"
"I'm tired, hurt all over and I think I'm going to vomit again. But I will keep going."
"I don't think we have a say in the matter."
Louise grabbed her shield and her sword, and tightened her fur cloak over her shoulders. It was time to go.
Too soon for her taste they found their path blocked once again by Stormcloaks.
"I see eight."
The area they were in was a natural cave, illuminated by several torches and oil burners. According to Hadvar that meant they were deep inside the mountain. And closer to their destination.
"Three are archers."
That would be a problem. Hadvar and Florentius were excellent swordsmen, but against archers they would be in danger. Now she wished they had insisted with that mage.
"Louise, don't you have any magic that can help?"
"Me? No. I don't have my wand. Be…Besides I'm not really that good with…"
"Can you do something with this?" Said Florentius, passing her a something. It was the book 'Flames' she had seen before.
"A spell book. The old man uses it when he gets distracted with a prisoner and doesn't remember his spells."
'Gets distracted? I don't want to know.'
Louise opened the book. It had some basic magic theory and a short incantation. She channeled her willpower through it and felt it reacting. The Book was a foci she could utilize.
"And if this doesn't work?"
"We go for plan B."
"Do I dare to ask?"
That wasn't what Louise wanted to hear.
"No pressure then."She grimaced.
Accepting that things depended on her, she slowly rose from behind their hiding spot, aimed for the archers and cast the spell.
The book exploded in her hands.
"Now!" Shouted Hadvar. He and Florentius charged the enemy position.
"Imperials! To arms!"
Louise remained behind, motionless. That should have been her moment. Her moment of triumph. She had ruined it again. At least it hadn't been all for nothing, even if the foci had been destroyed in the process she had managed to launch her characteristic explosion. That had stunned the rebels giving the legionnaires the opportunity to kill three before the rest could organize a defense.
Louise unsheathed her sword and…
Was oil. Her spell had destroyed a barrel with lamp fuel! A barrel that had been standing just next to the archers.
Louise didn't lose a moment. She grabbed one of the burners that kept the cave illuminated and hurled it with all her strength to where she believed was the oil spill.
The archers were getting their arrows ready when the floor lit in fire.
The screams, the heat, the smoke. For a moment Louise felt she was back on the surface, running from the dragon. She suppressed those thoughts as she readied her sword, running to the encounter of her enemies.
The first archer had fallen forwards, trying to put out the fire that was burning his legs. She cut his neck.
The second archer had turned around, trying to put out the fire that had reached his arms. She stabbed him where she believed was his heart.
The third archer had fallen over the oil spill and wasn't moving. She didn't have to do anything.
She contemplated the flames. How they crept across the floor. How they were slowly dying out.
"Louise! Louise!" Hadvar was shaking her arm.
"What?" She jumped, looking around.
"You weren't reacting. You spaced out."
"I'm fine. It's just that… the fire… reminded me of what is happening up there."
"You don't have anything to do with what happened to me."
"It still worries me."
"Thanks." That was much more than anyone apart from her family had done for her before.
"Hey!" Florentius' voice startled them. "Is this what you are looking for?"
Next to him was a lever. After using it a wooden bridge lowered. That would allow them to keep going forward into the caves.
"Thanks Florentius, that's what we were searching for."
"My pleasure. I better stay back and see to the old man. Maybe I can convince him to get out of his workshop."
"Good luck mister Florentius." Louise saluted the man.
"And good luck to you two."
Louise thanked the Founder they didn't stumble across more enemies. The only living being they found inside the caves was a bear they evaded with ease. Fortunately, because Louise didn't want to think about what could happen if her sister Cattleya found out she had wounded a poor defenseless bear.
"This looks like the way out!"
"I will be honest with you; I was starting to wonder if there was one."
To feel the night breeze was liberation for Louise. No more fire, no more muggy caves. Only nature and open spaces were what filled her sight.
"From here we go to Riverwood. My uncle is a blacksmith there. He can help us."
"The first thing I'm going to ask for is a warm meal."
"Ha! That man is a good eater. That's guaranteed."
That was good to know. She had been running almost all day (mostly for her life). And on top of that, her lunch… she no longer had it.
Louise turned her head to contemplate the night sky and…
"You spaced out again. I told you we have some cheese in the backpack, if you want some."
Her head was killing her. She looked at the sky again, but there was nothing there. Nothing strange.
Only those strange moons that looked so sickly.
A/N: My dear God/Founder/ALMSIVI, 10k words already? I'll be honest, during the planning stage for this fic I assumed we'd be in Whiterun at this point.
I'm incredibly grateful by the reception my story is getting, thanks a lot! And to clarify a very common question, no, the title is not a misspell, it is in fact Zero Summing.
Pahlok joorre! Hin kah fen kos bonaar! - Arrogant mortals! Your pride will be humbled.
See you in chapter 3.