The mere steam from the wooden bowl of stew placed in front of him was welcome anodyne for the chilling stiffness that had settled in Cedric's jaw.
All the better, for the earthly aromas that seeped into his nostrils shortly after awakened a rumbling in his empty belly which almost had him gnashing his teeth in anticipation.
He did not do so, however.
The warping haze which wafted up from its bubbling surface gave him pause. An eerie sensation crept up his spine, a certain instinct that he'd seen this before flaring to life like the scalding flames of the ore smelter.
There was a crack, a creak of wood from behind him. A cold draft wrapped around the lumps of fur that enveloped his sinewy figure, brushing against the pallid skin of his exposed hands. His fingers went taut against the splotchy grey surface of the table.
He heard the jostle of heavy boots against stone and metal plates shuffling against leather, and his back instinctively went rigid- the stings of week-old lashes on his back felt painfully fresh all of a sudden.
He felt his neck going limp, his head slowly drooping downwards as though the messy locks of raven hair dangling in front of his face were anchoring him to the table. His heart beat in tandem with the thundering footsteps behind him.
His nails brushed against something curved and rigid on the table- a handle, of some sorts. Slowly, as the thumping of boots beat ever louder on his ears like tribal war drums, he wrapped his lanky fingers around it.
The footsteps reached a crescendo as he took firm hold of the object- a single blue eye peeked out from underneath the curtain of hair shrouding his visage to confirm what weapon he had so fortunately come upon. It was a wooden spoon.
"Hail, Thoring. How have you been?"
A withering breath slipped out from Cedric's parched lips as the heavy footfalls of the inn's new guest went right past him. Still, he kept his head low.
The voice he heard spoke with the thick, sludgy accent he was all too used to hearing from Nord men. His fingers wrapped tighter around the spoon.
"As well as anyone can be these days. The nightmares have stopped, at least."
Cedric wished he could say the same.
He peeked up some, heartbeat still thudding in his ears. The armor lining the new figure's back looked different from that which he was used to seeing- small metal plates wrapped around a coat of what seemed like leather as opposed to one large mass of imposing steel. The helmet, cradled in their hands and facing back towards Cedric, stared at him with empty, rectangular eyeslits laid over a blank visage. The spotted grey metal was altogether free of the sort of pointless embroidery he'd grown used to seeing, save for a peculiar circle dimly stamped into the helmet's forehead.
It was very… unlike Nord craftsmanship. At least from what he'd seen.
He relaxed some more as the two voices slurred into casual banter, the rush of hot blood in his veins tapering off to a lukewarm simmer.
"Hey. Wake up. Your stew's going to get cold soon."
His head raised back up to meet the disapproving glare of the inn's maid, the stained cowl she wore casting a dark shadow over her face. "And we don't take kindly to patrons sleeping in the common area. If you need a place to stay, rent a room."
"Right. Sorry," breathed Cedric, at least halfway sympathetically. He gazed past the polished armor of the newcomer, took note of the patchy, threadbare garments that the innkeeper- 'Thoring', if he'd heard correctly- wore.
The maid walked away with nary another word, thick boots thumping loudly against the creaky wooden floor, dragging the scratchy ends of a broom behind her.
"The Hall of the Vigilants was destroyed, you know."
Cedric's ears perked up at the mention of that, the word 'Vigilant' bringing a spark of remembrance to mind. He remembered it being passed around over the dirty nighttime fires, rumors of an eerie hooded figure tirelessly stalking the Markarth streets, by day and night.
One of the smaller voices at the fire had recalled only a brief encounter with the man, but the voice was so broken and babbling by then that nobody but Cedric paid it any heed. He remembered the boy, his physical form blurry and smudged in the grimy recesses of his memory, but with the image of the child's malformed corpse resting against the stained pillars the morning after that night fresh in his mind.
Nobody really knew what that Vigilant had done, ultimately- but something in Cedric's gut told him he wouldn't mourn the passing of more of that hooded man's ilk.
"What? How? Who?"
"Vampires." One word, spoken with such a disdainful growl, was apparently all that was needed to answer all those questions.
"By the Gods, it never ends…"
"If you know of any able-bodied men or women-"
"What? So you can march them away into some damned war against vampires? Any 'able-bodied man or woman' with more blood than mead in their hearts in Dawnstar have already gone, Rik! To fight the Empire!"
A tense silence fell over the inn after Thoring's outburst, the dwindling crackle of the hearth the only sound left as the only other pair of eyes in the room drifted over to the counter. The maid's expression held an even deeper grimace than before, but she said nothing.
"I think it would be best if you left," Thoring said, a hint of somberness battering away the spark of fiery demeanor that had slipped into his voice.
Another pregnant silence filled the air, lingering for seconds as the crackle of burning wood grew ever quieter. The sound of shuffling metal broke it, the armored newcomer sliding his helm back over the short-cropped blonde hair upon his head.
"Stay safe, friend," he murmured out as clearly as he could through the sheets of iron encasing his head. Thoring offered no blessing of his own in return, instead opting to sluggishly run the dirty washcloth gripped in his hands around in aimless circles on the countertop.
It wasn't until the armored man left the building that Cedric relaxed, sitting upright again. A pathetic crack rang out as a charred black mass of ash tumbled down onto stone.
"I'll get some more firewood," said the maid as she too scrambled out the door in accord, the worn wooden handle of her broom clattering against the floor.
Cedric kept his gaze fixed on the innkeeper, watching the man continue to tend to his counter with such a… crestfallen gait. A stony mask fixed over his visage, never breaking, always frowning, but with the mild quiver breaking into his motions betraying the emotions he was evidently trying hard to suppress.
It was a look Cedric was admittedly quite familiar with. He breathed a shaky breath of his own, quietly reevaluating a few things he'd taught himself over a grueling twenty years.
Eventually, Cedric's baser instincts overtook his bout of curiosity.
He turned his attention back down to the bowl of stew in front of him, hungrily eyeing the glazed chunks of meat floating around in the richly colored broth. He held fast though, inhaling the aromas again, savoring the smell of real food, that he had bought with gold out of the grimy leather pouch nestled warmly inside his furs. Savoring his newfound freedom.
The people here were different. Maybe they would actually take him in- maybe he could start over after all.
Food first, he mused as he dug his spoon into the bowl.
Tomorrow, he'd pay a visit to the town's mine, see if he could put his lifelong talents to honest labor for once. Cidhna Mine already seemed like such a distant memory as he sunk his chattering teeth into their first bite of succulent stewed meat.