First Emissary Elenwen sat in her appropriated office, tapping her long, lacquered nails against the surface of the desk in a sharp staccato. A scowl twisted her face, something that was as an almost a permanent feature these days. It kept her assistants and the other Thalmor walking on eggshells in her presence.
The office seemed to close in around her, the damnable space seeming smaller and smaller the more time she was forced to use this glorified broom closet as her office. The fact that it was actually reasonably spacious and clearly furnished with quality and taste was irrelevant to her given the opulence and size of her original offices that had been reduced to ash. Construction had begun already to replace the building, but despite the breakneck pace of work that she demanded, it would still take months to replace the building. Not to mention the many curios and pieces of art she had brought with her from Summerset that would be far more difficult to replace.
Elenwen looked down at the desk again, picking up the two folders that lay before her and glaring at them. It seemed she was doomed to run into complication after complication these days. She opened the first and looked over its contents again. It was a report from one of the Dominion's informants in Falkreath.
It seemed that the Dark Brotherhood was no more. Even if there were any survivors, the organization was in no shape to be an asset to the Dominion any time soon. Her agent had investigated a column of smoke and found the ruins of the Dark Brotherhood's sanctuary which had not only been burned out, but collapsed.
Her jaw clenched. And of course, of course, a pale tattooed man of significant height was noted as passing through the hold around the same time. Not only had that blasted cult of assassins failed to actually terminate their target, they were hunted down and destroyed instead! She was surrounded by incompetence! It would certainly be in keeping with her recent luck if they managed to implicate her and the Thalmor in some way before going and getting themselves all killed.
Elenwen let out a frustrated breath. That possibility at least seemed remote. If there were any evidence she imagined that Whiterun's new attack dog would have acted on it by now. Weeks had passed and that barbarian hadn't come to try and kick down the door. At least the assassin's had managed to take their secrets with them to the grave.
She tossed aside the first dossier and opened the second one waiting underneath. Saarthal. The project had seemed so promising at the start. Once they received word of the possible discovery of powerful relics, Ancanno had been dispatched with a group of justicars without delay. Her brows knit in a furious scowl. Everything had been going well for a time. Ancanno had sent a glowing report, the mages had been successfully ejected without bloodshed and there were indeed relics under Saarthal.
Then everything went sideways. No word out of Saarthal in a month. Elenwen had grown impatient and dispatched an additional unit to find out what had happened. They found only the dead waiting for them. Every member of the original expeditionary force was confirmed killed in action, many of horrible wounds.
Elenwen had no proof but she could not help but feel that that damnable Kratos was responsible for the slaughter. The brutality of a number of the kills certainly seemed to support that. Elenwen's lip curled in a sneer, not that the up-jumped ruffian had any sort of monopoly on brutality. This whole Divines forsaken province was filled with unwashed barbarians. She slammed the file back down on the desk; gods, she hated Skyrim!
The building was almost entirely one large room, a congregation hall. The workmanship was good but the materials were very simple and very local. Construction had finished quite recently as winter was slackening its hold on Skyrim. Unlike most winters, construction had not taken this season off. Havverfjord was simply growing far too quickly to allow that much time off. Construction had slowed yes, but no project was fully halted.
The congregation hall was filled with rows of light stackable chairs that could be cleared quickly and easily for the hall to be used as a training space. Many of the seats were filled now and Lars stood at the front of the hall on a raised platform. Behind him were doors that lead to a few utility and storage rooms for the building.
Lars reached up and briefly gripped the steel omega that hung from a simple leather cord around his neck. With a final quick squeeze, he cleared his throat quickly and stepped up to the podium. Silence fell quickly in the hall as the muted buzz of low conversations ceased.
His blue eyes blazed as he looked out over the assembled faces, many races were here and even if nords made up the strong majority, they were all drawn here by common purpose. "I am happy to see so many. Happy to see faces familiar to me and happy also," he raised a hand in the general direction of an elf he had invited to attend earlier, "to see new faces. All are always welcome here." Lars quickly covered some general announcements about the new building and read out the currently scheduled events.
"My friends," he continued, "I do believe that you have listened to me blather on for quite long enough. I have invited our brother-in-arms, Baric to speak to us today. I will cede the floor to him." Lars turned from the podium and went to sit down on a nearby free seat, as he passed Baric they exchanged quiet greetings and a handshake.
Baric took his place at the podium, still dressed in his uniform, axe at his waist. None of this seemed out of place. Many of the congregants were soldiers of the hold and many, soldiers or not, were armed in some manner. The middle-aged soldier cleared his throat and ran one hand quickly over his grizzled face. "I am not much of a speaker, but I will try as Lars asked that I share my experience." He paused for a moment, "Excuse some lack of detail. I need to be sensitive to our thane's interests."
"We were operating in a very cold area. Biting wind to freeze the very blood of a man." His eyes looked beyond the crowd, seeing an arctic landscape, "The cold could not touch them. Our thane stood attired as always, impervious. The Redhand also carries his blessing and the freezing gale, couldn't even redden her cheeks!" He shook his head in wonder, "We who accompanied them were also strengthened. I've led men for years, but have never traveled farther, faster and had such energy at the end. And in those conditions that says much. You older campaigners will know well what I mean." Some of the more careworn and wrinkled faces were nodding along with his words.
"What was most extraordinary however was this. We were stationed in a location, told to stay there and ordered to keep the area secure. A possible hostile was left with us as a guard. Our thane and his Redhand went to conduct their business. Depending on that business we would potentially be facing a battle with no warning." He swallowed hard. "I do not know what or how, be it his voice or spirit, but as I waited at my watch, a moment came and I knew the battle was joined."
Baric's hand closed around his own omega symbol and he continued, "I believed. We struck down the sentry and prepared an ambush. Sure enough, mere moments later, foes poured in and we sprung our trap." He paused a moment, "If I had waited, or doubted, we would not have been ready in time. Some of our own may have died. As it is, all of our boys came home." The old soldier's face shone, "I do not know how, but he watches over those who serve him."
He looked out over the assembled crowd, "I have received blessings from the shrines of the Divines and felt their power. This power was no less, but more timely and present. His blessing does protect and empower. I do not claim to know how or why, but I do know this. He is no mere man."
The scene was a familiar one. Kratos, Lydia and Thomas all sat in a small meeting room on the upper floor of the thane's longhouse gathered around a table, going over the affairs of their city and region. Kratos sat, brow furrowed, a cup of wine before him, suffering through the administrative component of his duties while Thomas and Lydia examined the papers before them and organized the process.
To be fair, the vast majority of the actual minutiae never actually reached Kratos as Thomas was exceedingly competent in his role as steward. Despite his antipathy however Kratos stayed informed and was involved with policy and decision making.
Thomas ticked down to the next item on his list, "Coming to military matters, my thane, we now have nearly a full thousand men standing under arms. We make up a fair portion of the hold's professional military force." Thomas looked at another sheaf of papers, "This of course poses some significant issues for Havverfjord given the speed of growth. Without the stipend from the jarl and the broader hold, we would not be able to sustain our current state, which is concerning." Thomas continued, "With the soldiers comes the other emigrants to the area and the broader population boom. Your earlier city planning efforts have guided this and averted disaster" He dipped his head respectfully in Kratos' direction, "but the infrastructure is woefully behind."
Kratos nodded, "We have more soldiers than needed to guard our region. Rotate units through labor and construction duties. Discipline through public service."
Thomas made a few notes and then looked up to continue, "As you will, thane. I will draft a schedule for Lydia to review."
Lydia spoke up at that point, "There is another matter, Kratos." She paused, mulling over how to continue. Kratos quirked a brow at her hesitation, turning to face her more fully. She continued, "Lars came to me and requested a change to his assignment, though he was very clear that he continued to serve you fully." She let out a breath, "He asked for a reduced schedule and to be focused on local matters so that he could focus on his…" She quickly checked her paper, "community center."
Kratos' brows rose in question, clearly noting her hesitation, which prompted Lydia to glance quickly at Thomas before speaking, "Candidly… a church, my thane."
Kratos' finger ceased tapping and for a few moments he may as well have been carved from granite. His voice was low, "What kind of church?"
Lydia winced, "Lars is attempting to avoid that issue for as long as possible, but… In truth it is a church to you. The god of war." Kratos was silent for a time and took a careful pull from his cup, replacing it slowly on the table.
His amber gaze returned to Lydia, "I see. What has he done with this church? What has he… taught?"
Lydia nodded, "I took the liberty of gathering some information. Quite a number of our soldiers, especially the more experienced veterans, have attended some or all of the events put on there. I interviewed several of them about the goings on." Lydia shrugged, "I know that this is something for which you have no desire, my thane. However, it could be worse. Lars' primary topics and 'tenets', if you will, to date have been around self-reliance, competency, loyalty, and, to a degree, martial ability."
Lydia glanced at one of her papers as she continued, "I personally was heartened when he praised all forms of competency and said that all ability should be respected, soldier, blacksmith, cook, all take skill." She looked up, "He also has been providing basic arms training to the civilians, saying that everyone should be able to defend themselves." She held up a hand as Kratos' eyes narrowed, "However, he has not made any indication of setting up any sort of command structure or informal militia. He specifically directly any citizens interested in organizing to speak to Valdr and go through the command structure you have established."
Upon hearing that Kratos nodded slowly, "Very well." Silence fell in the chamber for a minute as Kratos brooded and Lydia examined his face, searching his inscrutable features.
Lydia broke the silence, "Kratos, is there any action that you wish to take regarding Lars and his organization?"
Kratos exhaled heavily, his nostrils flaring and then took a long drink, "No. We will do nothing." He looked over at Lydia once more, "I make no law regarding a man's belief. There is no malfeasance." He paused briefly before continuing, his voice begrudging, "His teachings to this point are acceptable." He finished the last of the wine and sat, one hand idly toying with the cup, "Keep me informed. We must know if that changes. I will not permit anyone to spout foolishness in my name. Or profit from others… faith."
Lydia nodded her understanding, "Certainly, my thane. That will not be a problem." She made a note as she continued, "Many, if not the majority of the soldiers have attended or regularly attend functions at Lars' community center. It will be simple enough to ask them about the meetings. They will not lie to me."
A slightly pained expression crossed her face, "My rank aside, a certain amount of their reverence for you appears to have rubbed off on me. They seem to view me as some sort of living saint or ranking clergy figure. That should help in shifting their principles should it become necessary. In addition, I will make an effort to attend their gatherings in person every so often." She gave Kratos a sidelong look, "I am certain they would welcome your attendance as well."
Lydia fought a smile at the flat look he gave her before rumbling, "I will not be attending." He set his empty cup on the table, "On to other matters. Spring is nigh. Ulfric will escalate this year. He must. If he does not he will lose momentum, followers, and credibility. He will likely sneak men and supplies into the hold to disrupt our own operations and support his main advance when it comes."
Kratos caught Lydia's eyes, "I am dispatching you to the eastern front with a force. You have full operational control. Keep the stormcloaks out of the hold." Kratos grimaced slightly, "Balgruuf still seeks to maintain his neutrality. Minimize or avoid casualties. On both sides." Kratos continued, "I go to do the same for the legion in the west."
Lydia nodded, "As you say, my thane. I will prepare the men. When shall I return?"
Kratos stood, "I will call for you."
A puzzled look crossed her face, "Call?"
She caught the slight crinkle at the corners of his eyes, "You will know." With that their meeting was adjourned. Given the hour Kratos retired to his room. Once there he closed his eyes and cast out his senses. As always he knew where Lydia was immediately, her essence burned brightly in his mind's eye. He could find her across realms of existence. Finding her across the breadth of the hold would pose no issue. There were others as well that were easy to pick out, Lars for instance, still doing something at the church.
Kratos had generally avoided the connection that mortals' belief in his divinity forged. It had been centuries since he had interacted closely with so many, even any mortals. However it was becoming too clearly useful of a tool and Kratos was nothing if not pragmatic. He could, after all, not be in two places at once. That was not one of his gifts.
He was no fool. He had seen the changes that had been wrought amongst his soldiers. They were changed by his presence. Lydia more than most, though she didn't view him with the same type of reverence as the others. He did not know precisely how she thought of him, though she had on numerous occasions told him he was a good man and worthy of being followed.
Introspection had never been one of Kratos' great strengths, but it was something that he had tried to learn in his quest to master his rage, in his quest to scatter Faye's ashes, and in his quest to truly be a father to Atreus. His boy was grown now, but being with Lydia reminded him in a fashion of his journey with Atreus, of watching him grow, of his pride in seeing that growth. In truth, Lydia had become like a daughter to him. He could not help but think that Atreus would approve.
The early spring air still carried the teeth of winter's chill despite the bright sun and clear, cloudless sky. Lydia sat, concealed by new spring grasses, as she idly cleaned her nails with one of her many daggers. Her long mahogany hair was done up in a rather militant braid-hawk and for a moment she speculatively looked at the long tail end that came over her shoulder and considered chopping it off. It was getting too long. Perhaps once they returned to Havverfjord.
The bound and gagged stormcloak scout lying face down in the dirt next to her made an indistinct, indignant sound, which cut off in a grunt as she punched him in the side. Lydia stabbed her dagger into the turf next to his head, "Be quiet. If I wanted you dead, you would be." That said, she narrowed her eyes at the scowling man, "But I don't need you conscious. Be silent. Or I will take that rock and silence you."
With another bare mutter that scout settled back into silence and Lydia went back to watching the dry streambed she was hidden near. The old bank was a fairly sheer four foot drop to the dusty streambed and the old creek's clear course made it a natural road through this particular stretch of the wilderness. They were near Whiterun's border with Eastmarch in the foothills north of the White river. If the stormcloaks were trying to sneak in a party quickly on this side of the river, it was likely this would be their route.
These stormcloak advance parties would harass the hold and establish supply lines and forward operating positions to support the stormcloak movement and any eventual push by a main army. Ulfrich and the empire both were still putting off any major pitched battle. There was no way to unring that bell and both sides still shied away from that particular rubicon.
Sure enough once Lydia and her party had arrived in the area, only a few days passed before they captured this advance scout. The rest of his party would be approaching fairly soon unless Lydia missed her guess. Her troops were well hidden and stationed on both sides of the stream. It would be shooting fish in a barrel if it came down to it. However Lydia had her orders and would try to minimize all casualties.
Soon the stormcloak column came into view, coming up over the rise. Lydia raised her brows momentarily in surprise. Forty men. This was a larger party than she had expected. Ulfric was getting more aggressive. She set herself into a crouch next to her prisoner and waited for the approaching stormcloaks to enter the ambush zone, then she made herself known. Lydia grabbed the bound scout by the neck of his cuirass and his belt and chucked him into the path.
The stormcloaks stopped dead on seeing a man in their uniform chucked from the bush with a muffled yell landing 50 feet in front of them. The scout flopped onto the dirt, getting the wind harshly knocked out of him. Lydia jumped down a mere second later, landing next to him as he coughed and groaned around the gag. Lydia saw the stormcloak officer about to begin barking orders and let out a shrill whistle.
Archers with drawn bows rose up on either side of the surprised stormcloaks, the raised embankment and slope on the northern face giving them a particularly good field of view. The stormcloaks paused, clearly understanding that they were caught like rats in a trap.
Lydia's voice cut across the tense scene, "What is your business in Whiterun, so many and so armed?" He placed a booted foot on the scout's back, leaning nonchalantly against him, provoking another round of frustrated, garbled noises.
The stormcloak officer stepped forward, "You know I can't answer that. Though you know the answer all the same."
Lydia and the man nodded to each other, career soldiers who understood the situation. "True. I need you and yours to turn around and leave our hold."
Her counterpart shook his head, "I can't do that either."
Lydia narrowed her eyes at the man and gestured to the situation, "You can't hope to win this. Would you waste their lives so cheaply?" Lydia could clearly see the pained expression on the man's face, understanding the plight of one caught between strict orders and the reality of the situation. She did not want this slaughter either. Nords killing nords benefited no one but the Thalmor aside from the fact that Jarl Balgruuf still sought to avoid exactly this.
Lydia continued, "I propose a compromise."
The officer's eyes stopped assessing the situation and snapped back to her, "What do you have in mind?"
"Pick your best warrior. We will fight. Losing party packs up and returns. Beaten but honor intact."
After a moment's consideration and seeing the grim looks on his soldiers' faces he called back, "You have a deal."
Lydia clapped her hands loudly, "Good! Though the rest of your men will stay there under my boys' watchful eyes while this fight occurs." She rolled one of her shoulders and closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath. Turning her gaze internally for a moment she instantly felt the blaze of Kratos strength and a flare of approbation.
A wicked smile spread across her face, "Since you are here, trespassing on our lands, that makes you the challenger." She threw her arms wide, "That gives me, the challenged, the choice of weapons."
The officer's eyes narrowed, sensing some deceit or trap in her words, "And what do you choose then?"
Lydia raised her hands, "Fists." She let out a chuckle at the man's surprised expression, "Now. Pick your champion."
The officer quickly returned to his men, understandably he was deeply disturbed by the current situation. They were well and truly caught. If they attempted to break out and run they would lose easily half or more of their force to withering arrow fire before ever actually engaging the enemy.
His eyes narrowed as he thought, that was not to mention that these soldiers appeared to be part of the group that he had been warned about as part of his briefing. Whiterun's elite soldiers. Their uniforms, if one could call them that, were often irregular, their choice of weapons varied, but they all wore that red stripe down their face, over one eye. He considered his troops for a minute before beckoning over a very large man, "Harald, unless I am mistaken you are the best among us with your fists?"
The large man nodded grimly, "I believe that is true, sir."
"Good. Then you will be our champion for this fight." he smiled tightly, "Beat her into the ground."
The man passed off his warhammer to one of his compatriots and saluted, "Aye sir!"
"Harald. Keep your eyes open." The officer gestured to the archers, "They have us dead to rights. It's possible they won't leave this to chance." He grimaced, "Perhaps spiked gauntlets, hidden edges, poison… I don't know."
Harald's brows knit as he looked over the officer's shoulder. He pointed, "Sir, I don't think we'll have to worry about those at least." The officer turned quickly.
Another one of the Whiterun soldiers had stepped out onto the path next to the woman who had issued the challenge. She quickly passed off her sword and shield, which were then followed, much to the stormcloak's surprise by her gauntlets and plate armor. She stood staring back at the stormcloaks, wearing no armor, just simple pants and a sleeveless shirt, leaving her arms bare. Her arms were not large, but looked as if they could have been chiseled from stone, every muscle stood out in perfect definition.
The officer shrugged, surprised once more, "Fair enough. Harald, lose your gauntlets and cuirass." The stormcloak champion quickly removed them and then both he and the officer approached the woman and her second. They exchanged careful nods as they neared. "So. What are the rules?"
The woman gave Harald a measuring look for a moment before facing the officer, "Simple. You call start. We fight. One of us wins. No killing."
"Fair enough. Then we will withdraw. I will confirm you are both prepared and call the signal to begin." All parties nodded their assent and the seconds withdrew leaving the two champions facing each other. It was an odd pairing especially for a fist fight. She was of average height for a nord, but certainly looked strong. Harald however was a beast of a man, not abnormally tall but a large and strong man. The weight advantage he held was laughably large. All of this only served to fuel the officer's trepidation as he observed the scene.
"Aye, sir!" He raised his enormous fists.
"Miss, are you ready?"
Her eyes flicked to him before locking back on to the man before her, a cutting grin spreading across her face, "I am ready."
The stormcloak attacked without hesitation and with a speed that was surprising for a man of his size. He sent a sledgehammer of a right hook towards Lydia's face. The officer, despite his reservations, almost felt bad about the entire situation. He respected women as warriors and had met many skilled examples, but this sort of contest was clearly unfair.
The blow however never landed. Lydia darted forward under the hook getting inside his reach. Quick as a flash she pivoted, twisting her body and throwing her full weight into what was nearly an uppercut. She struck him right in the solar plexus. The stormcloaks were not sure if they heard the blow itself, or just the wind being blasted from their champions lungs. There was such force behind the blow that Harald's feet left the ground momentarily and he skidded a foot back on the loose path.
He bent double as he retched, his body convulsively dry heaving. Lydia however had not paused, she leapt into the air bringing her left fist crashing down on Harald's face as he still tried to track her despite his body's betrayal. The stormcloaks collectively winced and some cried out as Harald was dropped to his hands and knees, stunned and spitting blood.
Lydia's kick slammed into his side with a frightening thud, provoking another grimace from the onlookers, and sending him onto his back. Lydia was there instantly, crouched over him. With her left she pulled him up a bit of ground and administered a punishing right, as his hands feebly tried to fend her off, sending a splatter of blood into the dust. Twice more her right hand rose and fell in brutal blows, each sound drawing flinches from the watching stormcloaks.
Lydia eyed the insensate man for a moment before dragging him back to the stormcloaks by his bloody shirt. The stormcloak officer watched, mouth agape as she approached. She spoke and her voice held no heat, "He should recover. Take him home." Her eyes and voice grew hard and cold, "And stay out of our hold." The officer heard her, but for some reason all he could focus on was the blood dripping off her red right hand.
AN: Another chapter in the books! Thank you to everyone for your comments, I really appreciate hearing your feedback and any specific thoughts you have on the story. Let me know what you like or don't like. Even though I am doing this just for fun, I would like to get better at writing!
Also to date no one has mentioned (either in a review or a message) the Parks and Rec easter egg in chapter 6. I'm not sure if this is because no one has commented on it or if people just haven't noticed.
Thanks again everyone for reading and reviewing - you are the folks that keep the story going!