DISCLAIMER: I do not own Skyrim or it's characters. This story is based on the game storyline, but does on occasion fall victim to my creative liberties. Some things may be out of order, non existent, or go off on a completely new path. Hope you will forgive me, and enjoy.
WARNING: This story is rated M for language, violence, and sexual situations.
Chapter 1: Hunters and the Hunted
Rain fell. Cold, fat drops splashing onto her upturned face as she scented the air. A difficult task when the weather turned foul two days ago. It would seem the gods did not wish for her and her hunters to find the child. Or at least they wished to make a fair game of it. Perhaps they were bored and simply vied for more entertainment. No matter. One way or another, aid from the gods or no aid from the gods, Lucia would be found. And the one's who dared to take her…
A low, angry growl emerged from the hunter's throat. One that made her pack-mate kneeling at her side grin ever so slightly. The redheaded female disliked the mistreatment of a child about as much as she did. And looked forward to the hunt even more so than she did. "Calm yourself, Harbinger. We'll find them."
She glared down at the muddy ground, scanning for the faintest sign of their quarry's passing. "I really wish you wouldn't call me that, Aela. Kodlak was Harbinger."
"And he left that title to you." The pale, wisp of a female argued. The three bluish streaks of war paint on her face didn't hide her grin. "Or would you prefer Dragonborn?"
The Harbinger had no answer to give her friend. She just knelt there staring at the ground, a dangerous growl passing through her clenched teeth. Now was not the time for Aela's teasing. Though she was aware that her pack-mate was simply trying to ease the tension. That, and the fact that it was Aela who'd saved her life and made her what she was, kept her from attacking in a fit of blind rage.
"Alessia, we will find them." Aela placed a gentle but firm hand on her friend's rock hard shoulder. The touch was grounding in it's own way. Gave Alessia something to focus on besides the growing rage and frustration. It helped, though she tried to ignore the fact that the finding was only partly what she prayed for. She begged that they found Lucia alive.
Alessia nodded, unable to speak.
Aela was a… difficult female to deal with on the best of days. Even so, Alessia tended to get along quite nicely with the huntress. The past few days, however, had been trying ones. Even the brothers, Farkas and Vilkas, were on edge. Never a good thing, especially for a pack of werewolves. Being the Harbinger, and not to mention the "youngest" wolf in the pack, meant it was up to Alessia to run things. It wasn't that she was inexperienced. On the contrary, she had led many hunts since becoming Harbinger. More so even before receiving the title. But none of those hunts even came close to this.
"And besides, whelp, you are the Harbinger whether you like it or…" Alessia stopped listening when her nose picked up a familiar scent drifting in the night air.
It was… a dry smell. Like stone. But cold like snow. And blood. Always the blood. It made the back of her throat itch unpleasantly. Noticing the stiffening of her Alpha's back and shoulders, Aela grew silent and took a deep breath through her nose. It blew in from the north. They both looked in that direction, seeing nothing but trees, more trees, and rain. Without a word Alessia took off at a run, knowing that Aela ran at her side and the brothers tailed at a distance on either side of them.
She tried not to rush blindly ahead, though that protective urge of hers roared for her to make haste. The odds that the girl, her little girl, was still alive were slim. Very slim. Once the dragons were more or less dealt with, the vampires began attacking seemingly at random. Lone travelers, Khjiit caravans, small villages and settlements. They'd even grown so bold as to strike at the main cities from time to time. Never in large numbers, but always enough to give the guards one hell of a scare. It kept the Companions of Jorrvaskr extremely busy.
Even rumors of the return of the Dawnguard… Alessia thought as she leapt over a fallen tree trunk. A thought soon followed by a nasty snarl. A lot of good that does Lucia here and now.
Up ahead, she saw a faint light through the trees. They slowed, creeping in only so close as to not enter into a torchlights fiery glow. An argument was taking place between two of Lucia's captors. Quite a heated one by the sound of it. Carefully, Alessia peered around the bush she was using for cover and took in the scene. They were fortunate the winds had favored them. Even the rain played it's part at evening the playing field. The wolves scent had gone unnoticed thus far.
The verbal combatants were the two vampires reported to be stalking around the fields outside Whiterun Hold. The typical red eyes and pale skin gave them away. There were four others surrounding them, watching the shouting match with less than rapt interest. Thralls most likely. Since vampires did not need light to see by, the clue was the torch the big brute of a thrall was holding. And next to him, a slightly smaller thrall with the limp body of a young girl draped over his shoulder.
Metaphorical hackles rose. Only Aela's sudden iron clad grip on Alessia's arm kept her from charging in. The huntress hissed low in her ear, "Don't be a fool. Losing your head won't help Lucia."
The wolf thrashed at Alessia's insides, trying to tear her way free. But she forced the beast down. Promising it blood, but only on her terms. Wolf conceded, if unwillingly. The Harbinger took a calming breath and focused on her hearing. The vampires were arguing on what to do with what they referred to Lucia as "the blood-bag". One wanted to drain her now, while the other wished to wait until she was conscious.
"I want to taste the fear in her blood." He crooned. "It's no fun when they're unconscious like this."
Alessia growled low. Bastard!
"You hit her hard enough that she may not wake up, fool!" The other snarled. "And I'm hungry now!"
Alive… The thought was too much to hope for. Concentrating again, she just barely made out the sound of not just the sluggish lub-dub of the two vampires or the ba-dum of the four thralls, but the timidly beating heart of a small sleeping child. Slow, steady, mercifully alive.
Without a word, Alessia gripped her bow and notched an arrow knowing Aela would follow her lead. She also knew that without needing to tell her so, Aela would take out the light source first. Werewolves could see just fine in the dark, just as vampires could. The thralls on the other hand, didn't have that advantage. With one shot they would be severely crippling half their enemies ability to fight. Alessia's arrow would seek out the skull of the thrall holding her daughter's body.
The two women drew their bow strings taut and took careful aim. Alessia wasn't concerned she'd miss and do harm to Lucia. She never missed when the shot counted for so much. Never.
Alessia signaled the brothers, who were by now in position, with a series of bird calls from the nightingale. The whistle was common enough in the area at night as to go unnoticed my most. With the ruckus the two vampires were making, she doubted they heard the sound at all. The intended recipient however did hear and respond. Two long hoots of another common night bird, the owl. One from directly behind the furthest vampire, the second just to the left of his fellow.
The two brothers were soldiers. Big fighting males with the battle scars to prove their prowess. They could more than handle themselves against the vampires.
The light holder went down first with a satisfying thwap! The torch fell and before the thrall holding Lucia could turn to see what had befallen his companion, Alessia released. Even before the arrow struck home in the brute's skull, she dashed forward. She ignored the sudden cries from the other thralls and the surprised shouts from the vampires as Farkas and Vilkas charged with steel in hand, focusing only on her child's descending form.
"Wuld nah kest!" The Thu'um exploded Alessia forward with blinding speed, snatching Lucia from the air as the thrall crumpled to the ground with a wet splat. She tucked and rolled, careful not to jostle her precious cargo too much.
The roll carried the two past the scuffle and into the underbrush just on the far side of the small clearing. They landed in the muck unharmed but not alone. One of the thralls had followed, bringing down a mighty two-handed mace. Alessia rolled again, narrowly evading the blow and preparing herself for another swing. He was slow, which was good. Before he could raise the mace again, she drew her sword and leapt forward for a quick strike to the middle. The thrall abandoned his swing in favor of a speedy swipe that caught her blade mere inches from his belly.
Everything froze as the two faced off in a show of pure strength. The thrall was strong, even for a man. But against lycanthropic strength, the strength of a mere man was nothing. With a powerful shove, she rammed the haft of the heavy mace up into the thralls face. His nose broke. Loudly. And he yowled in pain even louder. Immediately he dropped his weapon, hands going up to attempt to staunch the fountain of blood. Alessia took full advantage of the opportunity and finished the poor blighter off by stabbing him in the chest. It was the best she could do for him. Quick. After all, he wasn't to blame for any of this.
The sounds of battle began to fade. Standing, she glanced over to make sure said battle was going well for her pack-mates. She needn't have worried. Only one of the vampires remained upright, the other and the remaining thralls dead or dying in the mud. Aela and the brothers circled him, taking shots at the vampire's back whenever possible. There was no danger of the wolves being turned. Impervious to diseases was one of the perks to being moon born. A werewolf bitten by a vampire would sometimes become violently, but it would take far more than a single bite to cool the fire of lycanthropy and replace it with the cold of vampirism.
Situation firmly in hand, Alessia returned to Lucia. The girl hadn't moved an inch since being removed from the thrall's grasp. Carefully, she pulled Lucia onto a drier patch of earth beneath a large tree. She was soaked to the bone. Alessia put her ear to the girl's chest, overjoyed to hear a steady heartbeat. Her breathing was hitched, perhaps a cold brought on by the nasty, chilly weather. The bump on her head just behind her right ear was a concern.
"Lucia." Alessia said, touching the child's mud caked cheek. Her flesh burned with fever.
An anguished cry echoed amongst the trees followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground. There was some begging, one or two bargains offered. Alessia recognized the voice of the vampire who had preferred to feed upon Lucia after she had awaken. There was no need to worry about her pack-mates. None would see the begging as anything but the desperate last ditch efforts of a coward. And the bargains? That would only serve to make them angry. Angrier.
"Harbinger," Vilkas called without taking his eyes from the vampire, "how is the girl?"
When she spoke her voice came out rough. "Alive. But unconscious and burning with fever."
"Yes! Yes, the child lives!" The vampire interjected. "We did her no harm. Had the child simply said she was feeling ill, we would have stopped to allow her rest."
"We meant her no harm. We only wished to use her as a means of escape. A trade if you will. Her freedom for safe passage." He continued.
"Please! If you show but just a little mercy, you will never again see my face! Nor shall you see another vampire around the hold! This I swear!"
One hell of a lie…
"Shut up, you damn tick!" Farkas snapped and slammed an iron booted foot into the vampire's side, effectively shutting him up.
"What would you have us do, Harbinger?" Vilkas asked. In response, Alessia placed her thumb and forefinger in her mouth and blew a long whistle that echoed loudly in all directions.
"I want to know what is going on with the vampires. Question him. And be thorough." A crashing through the trees signaled the arrival of her ride. Jasa, her black beauty of a mare trotted into the small clearing. Alessia had taken great pains to train the beast to follow her at a distance and come when called. A pain that had paid off many times since. Jasa whinnied nervously at all the dangerous smells: four very angry werewolves, one very scared and desperate vampire, and five very dead bodies. Alessia calmed her horse with a gentle pat on her soft nose. Scenting her master, Jasa quieted. Aela helped her friend mount and gently settled Lucia in her mother's arms. "I'm taking Lucia home. If she's sick, I want her out of this weather and next to a warm fire as soon as possible."
"As you say." Aela nodded. "We'll get the worm talking."
Alessia nodded thanks, then turned her attention to the vampire. "You will not live past tonight, vampire. All I can promise is that you will have some say in how you die. Answer all the Companion's questions truthfully and you will be granted as honorable a death as we can give you. Refuse, or lie, and your end will be long and painful. The choice is yours."
A long moment passed before the vampire spat in her direction. "You mangy dog! Do you know who I am?! You dare…"
And there are the threats, Alessia thought. That was almost a disappointment.
Another kick from Farkas' boot, and that was it with the threats. He grinned that lopsided grin of his, "Go on, Boss. We got things covered."
Seeming to understand the urgency, Jasa turned at her master's slightest command and bolted down the path the way they had come. Skyrim horses were not at all fast, but they were capable of great feats of stamina and determination. Jasa had been a gift from the Whiterun horse master. Alessia had stopped a group of horse thieves from riding off with the entire herd one night. A fortunate chance encounter for her and the horse master. Since then, Jasa had bravely carried Alessia into battle after battle against dragons, giants and all manner of beasts. Loyal and steadfast. And now her master called on her again, the most precious of cargo upon her back.
The horse dug deep. Ignoring the lightning and thunder. Ignoring the rain and dark. Puffs of frosted breath upon the air as her lungs and heart labored. Straining for more strength. Straining for more speed. On and on throughout the night.
Though wide he may roam,
A Hero comes home."
Alessia's voice carried throughout the home. The song a simple one, but a favorite of the sleeping child in her arms.
"He goes where no one has gone.
A Hero comes home."*
Lucia hadn't woken. Not for broth. Not for water. Not for anything. The resident healer, Arcadia, had already come and gone giving no other explanation for the illness than the cold and damp. The woman sniffed at Alessia's glare, not knowing anything else to say to pacify the worried mother. For good measure, Arcadia coaxed a small amount of potion down Lucia's throat. Claimed it would at least help lower her fever.
"Come now, Little One. Open your eyes." Alessia cooed. When there was no response, she sighed and continued gently humming the lullaby.
"She will be alright, Alessia." Ysolda reassured as she approached with a steaming bowl of something.
Alessia frowned. "I've been hearing that often of late."
"Then perhaps you should start listening." She smiled.
Ysolda, another small, pale and red headed woman, was an old friend. One of the first Alessia had made when she first arrived in Whiterun. In the beginning, their association was purely business. The tradeswoman had wanted to impress a Khajiit trader by the name of Ri'saad with a very difficult to acquire mammoth tusk. New to town, and coin purse lighter than what she liked, Alessia took the job. The hunt was… interesting. Involving a lot of giant baiting since giants tended to keep mammoths like a farmer kept cattle. In the end though, the job was done and Alessia earned herself a valuable resource and, more importantly, a friend.
The fond memory did little to lift her spirits however. "I should have been there. I should have stopped it from even happening."
Alessia closed her eyes, trying and failing not to imagine how scared Lucia must have been. She shuddered, remembering a time when she had been scared and helpless in the clutches of a monster.
Lucia and Alessia's trusted housecarl, Lydia, were jumped just outside the main gate. The Khajiit trading caravan was in the area and Lucia often loved to visit with them. The girl would run back home brandishing a small carved wooden toy of some sort, lovingly crafted for her by Ri'saad himself, repeating tales of their travels in her hilariously bad imitation of the cat people's accent.
The attack was sudden and, strangely, in broad daylight. Even more bizarre, it was a very large group. Ri'saad, seeing the danger first, sounded an alarm and pulled Lucia into his tent in an attempt to keep her out of sight. Lydia and the other Khajiit warriors did battle while the city guard mobilized. The housecarl, gods bless her, took down a score of the bastards before a vampire sunk it's fangs into her. With the warrior down, the attackers then overpowered Ri'saad and made off with an unconscious Lucia.
Alessia, her and the Companions having been answering a call for aid in Rorikstead, returned the following day to find Lydia fighting off sanguinare vampiris, the disease contracted from a vampire's bite that ultimately led to full blown vampirism, and Lucia taken. The next few hours and been hell for Alessia. It took absolutely every ounce of control she had not to shift and give chase in a blind rage. But, Aela had been correct. Losing her head would have done Lucia no good. Doing so would have just gotten the child killed. In that rage state of mind, a werewolf had little to no control over their actions. More likely Alessia would have killed Lucia by mistake, only to come to her senses and find…
A lump formed in her throat. That was a place she simply wouldn't allow herself to go. Her nightmares were more than enough torment.
"Alessia, you may be the Harbinger. You may even be the Dragonborn. You may be many, many things, but you are still just a woman. Flesh, blood, and bone." Ysolda said as she offered her the bowl. "Mortal."
Alessia shook her head, gently repositioning Lucia as to make the girl more comfortable. "I'm alright."
"No, you are not. You need to eat." Ysolda pushed. "It's been two days and you haven't moved from that spot."
The worried mother scowled a little, not at Ysolda but at the worried expression on her friend's face. Alessia had gone days without food before. It hadn't been a pleasant experience, but she'd always managed to pull through. However, the stress of her ailing child was something new. What a sight she must be to cause her friend to worry so.
She sniffed at the bowl. It was a chunky stew. Small bits of venison with carrots, potatoes, leeks and… a mix of herbs and salt. Her stomach growled. Loudly. And with a sheepish grin, Alessia accepted the bowl. "Thank you."
Satisfied, Ysolda reached for Lucia when there was a loud knock at the door. She motioned for Alessia to stay and went to answer the door herself. Alessia chuckled a little under her breath at the small woman who had just told a werewolf to sit and stay. Familiar voices carried into the room from the entryway. Quickly Alessia downed the stew, ignoring the burn and trying not to slurp too loudly.
Aela strode in with Farkas and Vilkas hot on her heals. Behind the three was an orc Alessia had never seen before. Figurative hackles rose. She didn't much like the idea of a stranger in her house, and so near her child. But then again, Aela and the brothers wouldn't have let him anywhere near Lucia if they thought he was a threat to her. With a calming breath, Alessia eased the wolf inside herself and took in the orc. He was tall and broad of shoulder. His hair gray with age. Obviously not a stronghold orc. Had he been, she imagined he would be asking for a "good death" right about now. His demeanor and dress suggested otherwise.
Immediately, the three wolves approached and began looking over Lucia for themselves. The child may not have been theirs by blood, but a wolf's instinct to protect children was extremely strong. Even more so since Lucia, daughter of their Alpha, was technically pack.
Aela placed a gentle hand on Lucia's forehead. "There is fever."
"Arcadia has come and gone." Alessia reassured her. "She wasn't bitten."
Relief washed over her wolves. Each taking an easy breath, their shoulders relaxing visibly.
"Forgive my intrusion, Harbinger," the orc said, "but there is some business we must discuss."
"Here. Let me take her." Ysolda reappeared and accepted Lucia's still sleeping body into her waiting arms. Without another word, the woman left in the direction of Lucia's bedroom.
Alessia watched her go until they were out of sight before turning back to the orc. "Please, speak quickly. As you can see, my daughter is very ill."
"Yes, Harbinger. That is why I have come." The orc bowed low. "My name is Durak. I come to you as a representative of the Dawnguard. I met your Companions on the road and spoke with them about the growing vampire menace. They informed me of the current attack."
"And you have come to, what? To clean up the mess?" Alessia's hackles rose again. As did the other wolves in response to her agitation. "My housecarl is healing and shows no sign of turning. And my daughter is ill but wasn't bitten. There is no purge required here."
"You misunderstand, my lady." The orc raised his hands in placation, obviously aware of the growing tension. "My duty is to simply spread word of the Dawnguard's reformation. That is why I was traveling to Whiterun. To recruit new members."
Recruitment? The thought was frightening. It was the civil war all over again. Had the vampires become so bad?
"Alessia." Aela drew her attention. "The vampire we captured spilled locations, dates, names… It's going to get worse and the Companions can only do so much. I believe the Dawnguard has the best chance of taking those blood suckers down."
"And where is this vampire now?" Durak asked.
"A crispy critter." Farkas growled. His brother nodding once in Alessia's direction.
"Good. Every single one of those things deserves to fry." Durak responded before turning back to Alessia. "As I understand it, the Companions have been keeping things in this area under control. The Dawnguard could really use some experienced fighters."
Alessia growled. "And leave the people of Whiterun and my family unprotected? No. The Companions will not be fodder for the Dawnguard."
"The vampires-" Durak started, but Alessia spoke over him.
"Are a threat. Yes, I understand that. My own child almost became a casualty of this growing war." She sighed. "I understand."
Alessia was tired. So, so tired. Couldn't she rest? Had she not earned a small measure of peace? And Lucia… Lucia needed a mother. Not the Harbinger. Not the Dragonborn. Just a mother. Time and time again duty called her away and eventually she would become a stranger to her daughter. But… the vampires were a threat. If the Companions marched off to war with the vampires, who would remain? The guards, though capable, were trained for drunken brawls and bandit raids.
"I will go." Alessia said. "When I've seen to the wellbeing of my daughter, I will report to the Dawnguard."
"Just the one?" Durak scoffed. "The Dawnguard needs all…!"
"Watch your tone, orc!" Vilkas snarled. "Do you know who you're speaking to?"
Alessia calmed the wolf with a single glance. Not a threat or reprimand, but a request. "I promise, I will not disappoint."
"Fine. I will meet you there." The orc growled and stormed out of the house.
She waited a moment before speaking. "Aela, I'm leaving you in command. Do what needs to be done."
"Yes, Harbinger." Aela formally bowed, trying to hide a mocking grin. "And what of Lucia?"
"I will care for her until Lydia is well enough." Ysolda reappeared from the back of the house, a smile upon her face. "She's awake and asking for you."
It took so much effort not to sprint to the girl's room, but instead Alessia spoke calmly. "There are no words to express my thanks to you all."
"Harbinger." And with that, the four left.
Lucia's small body lay beneath a literal mountain of furs. It was a surprise that the tiny bed hadn't collapsed under so much weight. Her face was still flush with fever, but when Alessia placed her hand on the girl's forehead she noted a significant reduction in temperature. Her big brown eyes were bright as she looked up.
"Mama!" Alessia's heart broke and the sound of her voice. She hadn't realized how afraid she had been that she might never hear it again.
"Hello, my Little One. How do you feel?" Carefully, so carefully, Alessia laid beside the girl. Lucia snuggled into the crook of her mother's shoulder and closed her eyes.
Alessia smiled. "Then sleep. I will be here when you awake."
"I don't want to. I'm scared the monsters will come back." She whispered after a moment.
Again, her heart broke. "You don't have to be afraid of those monsters anymore. Aunt Aela and Uncle Farkas and Vilkas took care of them. And I'm going to make sure they never hurt you again."
The room was quiet for a long time. So long that Alessia thought the girl had fallen asleep regardless of her fears. "Are you going away again?"
Again… Knife. Twist.
"I'm sorry." That was all she could say. Her throat closed up, and just… nothing.
Lucia snuggled in closer. "You're brave and strong, Mama. You'll keep everyone safe because you're a hero."
Silent tears streamed down Alessia's cheeks as she wrapped her arms around the girl and held her tightly. She placed a gentle kiss on her brow and softly hummed the child to sleep.
From beginning to end and from start to finish. As the world bathes in red and the light falls from the sky. The cold in the body and the rage in the heart. Black fur on a soft night breeze and blue eyes that sees no evil. Hate and sorrow and pain and blood. The hunter stalks and the prey does not flee. Gray stone in the deeps and the long, horrid wait.
*Note: Song sung by Alessia after returning with a sick Lucia comes from a song called "A Hero Comes Home". Originally sung by Idina Menzel and sang by Robin Wright in the 2007 movie Beowulf. Who knew Buttercup had such a nice singing voice (thank you to those who got that). I've always loved this song and it seemed to fit here more as a lullaby rather than some of the other songs sung by the bards of Skyrim.