They came at night. Driw was asleep, snuggled next to her sister, Freir, in the back of their father's one-room cabin. The hearth had burned down to embers, crackling softly. Muted shouts and the ring of steel carried in through the thick window glass. Driw fluttered her eyes, watching the shadows of dried elves ear and other herbs dance across the wooden ceiling from the glow of the faint fire light.
"What was that?" Freir yawned, just beginning to wake up. She pulled aside the deerskin covers and slowly slipped out of their shared bed.
"I don't know." Driw whispered back. She listened intently and glanced left, at her father's empty bed.
A deep voice cut through the cold night.
Driw had heard her father speak of the Forsworn. She thought they were only stories told to scare her. Old tales of savage men who stole away naughty children during the dead of night. She wiggled deeper under her deerskins, trying to sink into the straw-and-feather mattress. Her sister slowly crept up to the cabin door.
"Where's papa? What should we do?"
"Shhh." Freir hushed her. Freir was fifteen, eight years older than Driw, and now too old to properly be called a girl. Her long blond hair had been let down for the evening, and now hung past her waist. She gently nudged the cabin door open and peeked through the gap, staring into the dark night.
With the door open, the sounds outside were louder and seemed much closer. Men's screams, women's wails, and the screech of steel filled the night. Half of the village was on fire. Heat and smoke wafted in through the slender doorway gap.
"Freir, where's papa? I'm scared." Driw shuddered under the covers. "Is he outside? What can you see?"
Freir was silent, frozen in the threshold, watching her village burn. She snapped out of her shock, and went to slam the door closed, when a thick tattooed arm reached around the doorjamb.
Driw screamed. A man in bearskins smashed the door off its hinges with a single axe blow. He stomped inside the cabin and grabbed Freir by her hair. He was followed by another man wearing a deer skull as a helmet, and a woman dressed in leather, decorated with red-and-white beads. Freir shrieked, trying to break free from the savage, but he immediately dragged her outside, into the dark night.
Driw ducked under her bed.
"The little girl - get her!"
The man in the deer skull lurched forward and reached under Driw's bed. He grabbed Driw by the neck of her ragged tunic. It began to tear along the seam. Before he could pull her out into the open, she bit his hand, digging her teeth into his knuckles.
"Ahh!" The man let go, clutching his bloodied hand. His female companion drew a short sword and plunged the iron blade deep into the bed.
The sword embedded itself in the floorboards a few inches from Driw's face. She squealed and balled up tighter, wedging herself into the back corner, at the far end of the bed. The woman reached for Driw, but she flailed wildly and kicked her hands away.
The man walked up to the glowing hearth. He grabbed a piece of kindling and jammed it into the red-hot embers. It bubbled black, hissing, and then burst into flames.
The woman put a foot on the bed frame and pulled her sword out of the mattress. She looked over her shoulder.
"What are you doing?"
"Giving the child to the Old Gods." The man went to toss the fire onto Driw's bed.
"No." The woman stepped in front of him, blocking him with an armored forearm. "We should take her to the altar. The Hagraven will want a sacrifice. A beating heart. We must take her alive."
"Then you take her." The man opened and closed his wounded hand. He threw the flaming tinder onto the pile of kindling and walked outside.
The wood quickly caught fire. Smoke billowed through the small cabin. Driw began to cough and tried to crawl out from under the bed. The savage woman grabbed her arm and dragged her through the open door, into the cold night.
Outside, Driw's village was crackling at a high burn. A swarm of howling Forsworn savages were darting between the wooden cabins, throwing torches through their broken windows and onto their roofs, setting them ablaze. Several women had been taken captive. The savages were binding their hands and carrying them to a deep muddy ditch, a few dozen yards away.
Driw scanned the chaos for her father. A few dead Nord warriors were heaped together near the village center, in a makeshift funeral pyre. She tried to see if her father was among the fallen, but the woman who had captured her, jerked her away.
"Let go! Stop! Papa! Papa, help!"
Driw kicked and clawed at her captor. She spat on her. The woman merely laughed. She shoved Driw into the grasp of another tattooed savage, who grabbed Driw's wrists and tied them together with tree bark twine. Driw tried to bite through the restraints, but the woman came up behind her and gagged her with a leather strip.
"What are we taking this one for?" The male savage hoisted Driw over his muscled shoulder. She began to whimper. "She's too young to lay with. Barely older than a babe."
"She's for the Hagraven," the woman answered. "A virgin's heart to purify ours."
The man grunted. Driw stopped struggling. Bound and gagged, she could do little but cry. He carried her away from the village, into the surrounding woodland, toward the howling of a nearby pack of wolves. Once they were far from the others, he lowered Driw down and lashed her to a tall rock.
"You'll make the old hag very happy." The savage's voice was gravelly and coarse. "Be quiet and stay still. . .or you'll attract those wolves. It'd only take them a moment to pick you clean."
The savage walked away. After he melted into the darkness, Driw, again, tried to break free of her restraints. The twine around her wrists refused to snap. It cut into her skin the more she struggled. She tried to bite through her gag, but her teeth couldn't pierce the thick leather. She jerked back and forth, but couldn't break free.
It only took a few minutes for Driw to exhaust herself. She stopped writhing, now covered in a cold sweat. The air was icy, and she only had her night clothes on. A wolf's howl echoed through the forest, making Driw's heart skip a beat. She froze and then shivered in the cool wind.
More wails came from the direction of the village. The war whoops of the savages slowly morphed into women's sobs. Driw didn't move, only listening, holding still for what seemed like hours. The wolf howls became fainter as the pack moved on. The sobs from the village turned into screams, then laughing, then all grew quiet.
Driw watched the trees around her sway back and forth in the dark night. The moon above glowed orange, giving the forest a dull amber hue. Soon a group of seven Forsworn men and women emerged from the brush. Driw recognized one of the women as her captor, as well as the man with the deer skull on his head. The biggest man in the group, the one in bearskins, had a grisly scabbed-over wound on his torso. Where his heart should have been were three lines of crude stitching and a spiky plant bulb that had been sewn into his chest. He walked up to Driw, removed her gag, and cut her free from the rock.
"Where's my sister? Where's Freir?" Driw demanded. She stared at each of her captors, trying her hardest not to cry. Her father had taught her to show no fear around strangers. He used to say that a strong look and a stiff lip were all it took to scare a dragon away. "Where are Freir and my papa?"
"Which one was she? I had a taste of every girl in that village." One of the savages cackled. He smiled at Driw. Fresh blood was spattered across his arms and legs. "Was she the fat redhead? Or that withered hag? No. No, I bet she was that pretty blond."
"She's dead." The Forsworn with the deer skull didn't let Driw finish. "They're all dead. Them and your pa. You're dead too - if you don't shut up."
The woman from earlier grabbed Driw by her wrists and dragged her forward. She glanced back at the others.
"We should leave this place. By sunrise, Nords will see the smoke, and word will spread to Markarth. They'll send sell-swords this way."
There were murmurs of agreement, though none of the Forsworn spoke. Slowly, they walked forward, deeper into the woods, to where the land grew rugged and on every horizon, jagged mountains sprang up.
Driw tried to keep pace with the savages, but it was difficult. With her hands bound, she was unbalanced. Her feet were bare and now numbed by the cold. She kept stubbing her toes on roots and twigs, unable to feel her feet.
A Forsworn man wrapped a leather noose around Driw's neck and used it to pull her forward, as if she was a stubborn mule. She teared up at the humiliation, but refused to cry. Silently, she prayed for Akatosh to save her, picturing a fiery dragon swooping down from the stars, consuming the savages around her in a cloud of flames.
After several hours of walking, just as the sun began to rise over the mountains, the group approached a large, grassy hill.
A set of granite stairs ran up to the crest of the hill, with several stone monoliths setup on either side of the path. The Forsworn in the deer skull grabbed Driw and carried her up the stone steps. A loud rumble of thunder crackled overhead.
On top of the hill was a large slab of stone that looked like a table. Behind the stone was an old woman, dressed in rags. The Forsworn dragged Driw up to the old woman. She wasn't human. She had an eagle's claws for hands, feathers growing out of her arms, and bird-like feet. Her face was repulsive, wrinkled and wizened with a raven's eyes and gnarled gray teeth.
"What have you brought me?" the old crone rasped.
"A beating heart." A Forsworn warrior pushed Driw forward, into the hag's grasp.
Driw recoiled and tried to pull away. The hag latched onto her bound hands with a sharp, spindly claw. She hunched over so they were face-to-face. The hag's hot breath smelled like decay.
"Yes. . .yes." The crone crowed. "Hold her down. The Gods will be pleased."
Two Forsworn picked Driw up and set her down on the stone slab. The crone pulled a curved dagger out of her tattered rags. It glowed hell red.
Driw screamed. She tried to wriggle free, but the Forsworn warriors held down her legs and shoulders, pressing them against the cold stone slab. The crone began to mutter something in an ancient tongue that Driw couldn't understand.
"Papa! Papa, please!" Driw was crying now. "Akatosh! Stop! Stop, please!"
Driw's panic seemed to excite the old hag. She smiled, licked her glowing dagger, and ran it across her withered forearm until it bled.
"Colathri, Metri, Am. Oonathu, riicki som. Duletthu, arki sat. . ."
Driw's sobs grew louder, drowning out the old crone's chants. A Forsworn clasped his palm over her mouth to silence her, but she snapped her teeth at him, and he pulled away. The sky above began to heave and roar. The hag raised the dagger high above her head.
Before the crone could plunge the dagger into Driw's chest, a thunderous cry shook the altar - a man's voice that blew over Driw with the feel of fresh frost and the force of a winter gale.
"I WILL SEND YOU ALL TO SOVNGARDE!"
Chapter II - Coming Soon. Please give my profile a click ;)