Caliir both expected and lamented the bucket of water that was dumped onto his face. He was fairly sure he deserved it, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
He blinked his eyes clear and shook his face dry, pushing his now-damp bangs aside. "Ugh… Good morning…"
"To all but a few, it seems," Hulda remarked, "You were absolutely detestable last night, if you cared to know."
Cal looked around, "You mean this isn't the room I rented?"
Hulda emptied the rest of the bucket on him, dropped it in the mud and went to the inn's back door. Caliir sat up and spit a few times, a sullenly complacent look on his face.
"Hey, I remember paying for a room." Cal stated, trying to stand but slipping onto his side.
"Indeed you did, and one was given to you." Hulda said, turning to stand in the doorway, "And I reserve the right to remove you from the room if you make too much of a fracas. And when Sinmir is complaining about it, it is too much of a fracas."
"Well I apologize; she seemed like such a quiet girl…" Cal muttered, referring to the red-haired woman who'd accompanied him to bed the previous night. He wished he could remember anything that happened after.
Hulda picked up the bucket and threw it at him. "You damned sellswords are all alike…"
"Do I at least get my gold back?" Cal asked almost desperately.
"Do I get my furniture and glasses and tables back, elf?" Hulda asked pointedly. Cal made the connection and she just nodded, and went inside.
A scattering of pigs were poking around in the dirt of the pen, the sounds they made being only slightly less dignified than the ones Caliir made himself. The elf pushed a few piglets away from him as he let his senses settle and recover. Most people from Valenwood didn't have a very high tolerance for drink, especially not the nord brews, and especially if one took in as much as Cal tended to after a mostly-successful quest.
He let one of the hogs near him and used it to stand himself up before lightly kicking it on its way. The contents of his stomach wasted no time in exacting their vengeance and before long he was doubled over and heaving.
The elf managed to get most of it out before his much more sobered compatriots arrived to gawk and guffaw. Varinn rolled his eyes, announcing "The great Caliir Coldsting…"
Roki knelt down and scratched the ears of a pig, feeding it a carrot. Cal chuckled as he straightened, remembering that the nord mage had grown up on a farm and was more given to animals than most.
"You look like days-old shit, friend," Roki gave with a grin.
"Shove it, blondey, I bought a room." Cal defended.
"Indeed, and you were thrown out of that room." Roki said.
Varinn crossed his arms, "C'mon, up-up, elf. Today we have business."
Cal looked at him crossly, still fighting for balance, "We had business yesterday, dammit."
"We did, and business is still good." Varinn said with a nod, "Nobody asked you to take a nose dive to the bottom of a bottle."
Cal was crossing his arms now, "Maybe I'd drown my sorrows more moderately if we'd been paid for the work we did." Cal turned to show the stains from his newest wound, "This is one-hundred and fifty gold, right here. Is this new job going to be another act of charity?"
"Guard's work, actually," Roki corrected, "A pay-per-mile kind of arrangement, and we're talking a lot of miles. And it's for the Priests of Kynareth, if that's any consolation."
"And they are waiting for us, so we'd best be getting things moving," Varinn suggested, turning to leave. Cal nearly tripped over a pig doing the same.
Roki spied the discarded bucket and got down to inspect it. He sniffed it and broke into a devilish grin. He looked to Cal, "She didn't dump this on you, did she?"
"Why?" the elf asked.
Roki stood and left the pen, "No reason."
Lagara flung herself at her opponent, sword in hand, war cry soaring on the wind. Ghorbash blocked the blow but the orc girl kept coming, hacking and slashing, spinning and leaping. She had all the viciousness of ten orsimer, but none of the technical skill. Strength was useless when expelled improperly. This became obvious when Ghorbash drove a knee into Lagara's unguarded abdomen and laid her out with a simple trip. She rolled over to see a sword at her throat. She was slapped with the flat of the blade.
"Up. Again." Ghorbash ordered.
She did as he instructed, and came at him with a different pace, but still making the same mistakes. Instead of countering as he had been for the last hour or so, Ghorbash parried and launched a savage offensive of his own. It was not done out of anger or frustration but rather to prove a point. He came at her with rage, with hate, with the intent to cause pain, but didn't drown his mind in it. His attacks came differently than hers; they were directed and swung with precision and purpose. It was like a brutal dance.
Needless to say, she didn't last long. She rapidly became overwhelmed and her guard broke down. Ghorbash's blade flowed around hers, and one more swing put it right at her chest. The killing speed was halted only centimeters from her flesh.
Most orcs would have let the steel fly onward – have her learn how to deal with a wound the old-fashion way – but Ghorbash's blade wouldn't have been the first to do so today, and enough edges had drank from the girl for now. She didn't need any more scars.
Blood Price found everyone young. The offenses ranged from petty to dire, but no orc sees age ten without shedding some blood for Malacath. Ghorbash had been one of the troublemakers in his brood years ago, and had become very acquainted with the sight of his own blood.
That said, Lagara's payment had been very difficult, both to endure and to observe. This was not a common sentiment when concerning Blood Price.
Lagara had returned in the night, sometime after Yolgrus, Androg and Vorgar. The three men said almost nothing of the young woman, only that she was "pining for atonement" in the wilderness. Only a few of those living in the stronghold truly knew what those words meant. Lagara walked through the front gates soon after the news had been relayed to Chief Nagrub. Action was very swift.
Three dead, all on her. Or at least, that's how it was supposed to be portrayed. In that capacity, she was to receive punishment. Yolgrus the Nomad, the one who'd given the news and suggested the ritual, was also the most apprehensive when it began. No teacher enjoyed passing reprisal to their students.
They'd knelt her down and stripped her bare before the whole tribe. The weather didn't do her exposed flesh any favors. Bruises and abrasions were already present. Murbul, the resident alchemist and soothsayer, had muttered something sounding like "We should treat the wounds before inflicting new ones…" She was a wise old orc maiden, and had reached the age where she could look past the supposed glory of suffering.
Ghorbash had admired that Lagara, although freezing, ashamed and clearly very scared, did little to convey any of that. Her shoulders and chest quivered in the wind, but the rest of her was like a great mountain. It was the look in her eyes that struck them the most; the conviction and resilience was so purely conveyed that a few members of stronghold wondered how such a "good orc" could make such a foolish, deadly mistake. Her equally measured age and inexperience didn't make the ritual any easier. She would end up needing the strength Ghorbash saw in her.
With a specially forged dagger, Chief Nagrub slowly and steadily dragged steel along Lagara's flesh. Two long deep cuts above her breasts, and six down her stomach. The rich redness flowed as quickly as one would expect, contrasting with her olive skin. Within seconds the front of her was almost completely repainted. The girl's shivering intensified for only a moment before she somehow found a way within herself to lock the pain away and maintain composure.
Once she'd been bled from the front, the side of her that would face the Chieftain and their lord Malacath, Nagrub passed the dagger to the three orcs who'd rescued Lagara. The first to draw payment was Androg, who was noticeably hesitant to use the blade but was also aware of the significance of the ritual. He dragged the dagger down Lagara's back from shoulder to waist, down the side of her that had been turned to the tribe. Vorgar made a similar cut from the opposite shoulder down. The last to take the blade was Yolgrus, who knelt down behind the girl and put a hand on her shoulder. Despite having the most resolve of the three, he found the deed to be the hardest. With a sigh he finished the act with one final long cut down the center of her back.
It went without saying that the blood had been plentiful, enough for the Chieftain, enough for the tribe, and hopefully enough for Malacath.
The rest was all part of the typical blur; Nagrub lead them in a few words of worship, and after they were sent back to their routines, Ghorbash being one of the first to excuse himself.
Lagara was left to kneel in the mud and pooling of her blood for a while. Once she was sure everyone was away from her, she let the emotion free. She found it hard to even muster tears, and simply hung her head and shuddered violently. Her wounds still oozed like sap from a tree.
Eventually Murbul knelt at her side and gently draped a fur blanket around her. The old orc held her, saying that it was over and she had done well.
None of what had happened meant that Lagara would be granted a free pass for the next few days; they were orcs, and enduring is what they did. Lagara had sought Ghorbash out for training, and that meant he wouldn't be holding back. Even as he saw her scars break open with each gyration and thrust, he knew the last thing she wanted was for him to go easy on her.
A few times Ghorbash disarmed her. A handful of times he grappled and threw her to the ground. And countless times he simply out-dueled her, which seemed to be what angered her most. He instructed her to the best of his ability, but Ghorbash was starting to think that Lagara was simply too given to her own rage at the moment. She was angry; angry at the Imperials, angry at Yolgrus, angry at herself.
When the girl had expelled the last of her strength she retired to the wall. This time of the night the aurora was clearest. From what she remembered of her mother, it was these same colors that she'd been looking up at when she named her, years and years ago. This was the only time she was able to feel that connection now; her mother, one of Nagrub's wives, had died during childbirth. Lagara had been the last of her children. Her sisters were grown and married off, and now she was to await the same opportunity. These moats of light and stars were the only thing that felt like family anymore.
Except for Yolgrus. Yolgrus was not a typical orsimer. Where most reserved themselves to some army or hill tribe, he chose to walk the lands of Tamriel and become a learned nomad. He had seen a great many things, been to so many wondrous places. He made the rounds in Skyrim, staying with each of the strongholds for several days and assisting with hunting, mining, farming and general counsel to the Chiefs.
It were his tales that fed the lust for adventure that Lagara held seemingly from birth, and had most recently been her undoing. And now, they were what kindled her rage.
Why should she be any different than he? She was an orc, a daughter of the great Chief of Dushnikh Yal. Yet she was condemned to a sad circle in the mists of the Reach. It was only because of Yolgrus that she even knew what the Reach was called. And Yolgrus was the one who had played a hand in scolding and damning her, all just for acting on the sense of wonder he himself had instilled in her.
The young orc laid back slowly, her body still reminding her of the pain. It was a strange feeling, having looked down and seen so much red and knowing it had come from her. She didn't think the cuts would ever truly heal.
She absently ran her fingers over her scars and let the night sky dominate her vision once more.
Maedelin rounded up everyone – meaning Iain and Jenssen – at high noon in the square by the Gildergreen. Jenssen was in high spirits. Iain…not so much. Maedelin did her best to portray the impending excursion as an exciting, worthwhile experience. They were about to see exotic places and meet interesting people! She didn't know what about that didn't sound good to him.
"It's the interesting people that tend to rip you limb from limb for fun," Iain had said, to which Maedelin scoffed, but quickly turned to Jenssen for a rebuttal. "The term 'noble savage' exists for a reason, Brother Iain," he'd said, "The orcs will only harm us if we give them reason to. I don't intend to."
Iain hadn't taken well to that answer, "And what part about blood rituals and Daedra worship made you think these were normal, well-adjusted people? What makes you think the 'reasons' you're talking about are in any way obvious, or even rational?"
"Nothing. I just assume these things." Jenssen said. This drew a worried look from both Iain and Mae.
If they weren't prepared for the trip emotionally and psychologically, they had definitely prepared physically. They'd all purchased thick winter clothes to wear over their traditional robes, and enough food and medicine to last a month abroad. Secretly, Maedelin hoped to impress at least one of the mercenaries who would be accompanying them with their thriftiness.
Of course, the mercenaries were another point of insecurity for Iain.
"Mae, I'm asking honestly," he said in a hushed voice for some reason, "Can we trust these men you hired?"
"They look like good people" was all she could really say.
"Like the orcs?"
"Don't be an ass, okay?" Maedelin shot, "First you're scared of the people we're trying to help, and now you're scared of the people protecting us from the people we're trying to help. Trust me, orcs aside, you'll have plenty of chances to thank them for coming with us." She realized very quickly that those words had the complete opposite effect she was hoping for and quickly added "Because nothing bad will happen, and because we'll have so much spare time, we'll be able to hear all the stories and songs and jokes they'll all have. Right?"
"O-Okay, yeah…" Iain relented, knowing that this battle was lost before it began.
Then it was Jenssen who asked, "Where did you find them?"
"Drinking heavily in the Bannered Mare."
"Oh," he said.
Maedelin looked at him, "I spoke to the least inebriated of the group and he was very civil, a gentleman almost. I'm sure they'll all be perfectly agreeable when we see them."
The healer did understand their concern. Too many times they'd heard tales of sellswords suddenly turning on their employers while on the road, robbing them for all they have (or worse) and making off into the hills. But Mae didn't get that vibe from this group. Sure they were a bit rough around the edges, but there was an earnestness between them that she found comfort in.
The three healers pushed through the afternoon bustle of the Plains District to get to the gates. "Safe travels, priests and priestess" the guard had bid them.
Only when the gates shut behind them did Mae start feeling a bit nervous. A lot of things were going to be against her on this adventure, and she didn't expect any of it to be easy. Skyrim was going through troubled times, with civil war looming and each other the holds taking up arms against one another. And the world as it is was dark, plagued by deceit and unforgiving to those unhardened by its troubles. Maedelin would have to be on her guard always, and make sure to keep her wits about her.
"Brisk today…" Jenssen pondered behind her, rousing her from thought.
"You can still go home," she poked, pulling her rucksack up with a weight-centering shrug.
The mercenaries would be waiting for them by the stables. Maedelin had made a point of it with their leader – Varinn, as it were – to be there on time, but she figured being late would demonstrate some kind of…something to them. Dominance, possibly? Any excuse was better than saying she overslept.
Where Iain was intimidated by the bodyguards, Mae was overly curious. They were a lively, colorful bunch. Having come from a fairly lackluster upbringing in the cloth, she hadn't been permitted to see anything the world had to offer that didn't include temples or writs or scripts or texts or anything else that nearly put her to sleep now. She'd been to battlegrounds, but never seen a swordfight. She thought Argonians were a myth until she was fifteen. Of the twenty-some commonplace languages in the land, she only spoke two, and of those two, only one she spoke well. She hadn't lain with a man until last year when she turned twenty.
And on the other side of the pond were these traveling warriors, all stubble, grit, and steadfast smiles. They and their ilk seemed to come out of a storybook, a good storybook. There was a romance and mysticism in it. She imagined they'd seen the entirety of Tamriel between all four coasts of the Padomiac Ocean. And even if they hadn't, they had still seen more than she could ever hope to, and they wore all of it on their wrists and under their belts like it was nothing.
"Is that them over there?" Iain asked, pointing. Mae pushed him, telling him not to point. It was unbecoming. Jenssen raised an eyebrow at the one who, from here, looked like Varinn, "Big guy."
"I know!" Mae confirmed with a giddy, much-too girlish tone. She brushed her hair aside, a motion that Iain knew was done because of nerves. Mae's hair was barely two inches long, it did not get in the way at all. In fact, her little swiping motion didn't even touch her hairline. Iain knew she was anxious when she brushed her forehead. "No point in keeping them waiting any longer."
"They've been waiting? For us?" Iain asked, "Great. They'll be in a sour mood from the get-go."
"By Kynareth's grace, will you be calm." Jenssen ordered.
It was very late when Lagara spied the commotion in the darkness beyond the walls. She shot up, cringing briefly as a few cuts opened slightly along her stomach and back. Adrenalin blocked the stinging pain and she squinted into the woods.
She knew she had seen something. She found herself reaching for a bow and within seconds she had an arrow in hand.
A figure began to mold itself from the darkness. And then another. Lagara thought her tired, strained eyes were playing tricks on her with the figures started to grow. But then she felt the subtle, systematic tremors in the ground and her suspicions were confirmed: Giants.
There was a certain feeling one got when facing down something as powerful and massive as a giant. It was like being on the receiving end of an avalanche; just one hopeless little insect that was soon to be swatted out of existence by a true force of nature.
Orcs never shied away from a good fight, but where bandits and sprigons and spiders would only draw blood and take lives, giants were capable of destroying their livelihood. A single one of them could lay waste to the entire stronghold. And both of them seemed to be coming this way.
Lagara was about to warn the Chieftain when a new figure appeared. It was small, no taller than an ordinary man. And surprisingly, it moved among the giants without any hint of concern.
Lagara watched, entranced, as one of the giants made some sort of challenging gesture and swung down at the man. She wanted to look away but found herself incapable of doing so. The club would drop like lightning, and in an instant this mystery figure would be but a smear in the grass. She didn't want to see another person die.
Only, this man suddenly moved with a swiftness that rivaled lightning. He leapt like a living corkscrew and twirled over the mighty bludgeon as it slammed into the dirt. She saw the unmistakable gesture of weapons being drawn. The figure ran up the giant's arm as if it were a staircase and kicked off its bicep, and buried two blades into the giant's chest. Stepping onto its shoulder with one foot, the man ended its life with a scissoring slash from two blades across the throat, and the massive beast went limp.
Blood cascaded from the creature's now-gaping neck in a small torrent, pattering into the grass like rain. The man looked to the second giant and quickly jumped off the crumpling body of his most recent kill and over the head of the other giant. When he landed he spun on his heel, and suddenly the second giant lost the ability to stand and it dropped to its knees, clutching its leg with one hand and letting out a guttural, agonizing howl. Lagara twitched at this, realizing that this man had cut out its heels in one fluid motion.
The dark figure climbed up onto the shoulders on the crippled behemoth and, with no degree of ceremony or hesitation, drove his two blades down into the creature's neck.
Lagara was speechless, breathless and stunned. Never had she seen such a cold display of death-dealing, never seen the ability to kill executed in such an…efficient fashion. And even though such feats would be impressive against men and mer, to do so again a giant… Lagara didn't know what to think.
This led her to draw her bow when the dark figure began to approach the walls of her home.
By now he had removed the heads of the giants and held them aloofly in one hand by their beards. The orc kept her arrowhead trained on him every step of the way. She wondered if she could loose one fast enough to hit him. She wondered if every step he took was one too far, and she considered ending his life right there, if she was even capable of doing so.
The man stopped, his unseen eyes locking with hers. Gulping, she gestured to a wooden pole outside the stronghold gates and ordered with as much hardiness as she could currently muster "Approach the post."
He did so. Lagara lit her bolt with a jar of pitch and shot a flaming arrow into the post outside, and a small flame shot up, illuminating the man's face.
From here she could only see the most basic features. Black hair, curly and stretching past his ears. Neglected stubble clung to his face, thicker on the lip and chin. She couldn't tell what race he belonged to, but it had to be either breton or Imperial.
What stood out were the eyes. A slightly prominent brow cast a shadow over a bit of them and they sat deeper in the sockets than most, but what she could see was a piercing gaze, like that of an owl. There was some kind of ghostly coldness in them, barely complementing the rest of his expression which was flat as the northern seas. But still, these intense eyes were looking at her, and only her. In the dark of night, they could have been the only ones in the world, and she almost felt threatened under that haggard but coiled stare.
Slowly, the man raised the heads of his kills. Lagara did not relax her arm, keeping the arrow drawn.
She didn't know how much time went by until the Chief arrived at her side, saw what she saw, and told her to let the man in. "The giants have plagued our home for some time. We will welcome this man. For now."
Even after the gates closed behind him and the troop of orcs escorted the dark warrior inside, Lagara still stood on the watchtower, transfixed on the flaming post, and on the ethereal pair of eyes that, although having moved on, still seemed to hang in the dark bye the fire, glaring right into her very soul.