Caroline stifled a yawn as she looked out over the walls of Cloud Ruler Temple. Like most of her fellow Blades, she was not fond of being on the night shift. Guard duty was dull and monotonous at the best of times, but there was a special kind of crushing boredom associated with doing it through the night. As the sun began to rise, rays of light struggling to pierce the thick fog, the Blade sighed contentedly. The arrival of morning signalled that it would soon be time for Roliand to come and relieve her of her post, and then she could finally get some well-deserved sleep. At last –
The Breton was startled out of her dreamy musings about soft beds by a cacophony of banging on the gates below. Startled, she leaned over the wall and squinted in a vain attempt to pierce the dense morning mist. "Um, who goes there? Speak your intent, or –"
"Caroline? It's us, we brought Martin back. Let us in, would you?"
"Oh!" Caroline gasped at the wonderfully familiar voice. "Baurus! I'll be right down!" She rushed down towards the gates as quickly as she could, her armour clanking noisily all the way. "Thank Talos everything's alright, it'll be such a load off the Grandmaster's mind," she chirped, hastily unbolting the gates. "Since you ran off like that, he's been... He..." Caroline trailed off into silence as she flung the gates open and took in the sight in front of her. "Oh my... You three are in so much trouble."
"No need to sound so delighted about it," Baurus grumbled, stomping past her through the gates. All three of them were in quite a state - Martin was dishevelled and windswept (though thankfully uninjured), Pente was wearing a ridiculous-looking helmet that obscured half her face yet didn't hide her traumatised expression, and Baurus was covered in tiny scratches and scrapes that suggested he'd been attacked by a herd of... of something. Caroline wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"You stink of goblin."
Baurus made a little growling noise in response. Attempting a weak little half-smile, Martin pointed towards the main building of the temple. "Hello again. Ah, is Jauffre in there?"
"Probably. I can go and check for you if you're trying to avoid him," Caroline offered. "It might be a good idea, really, you should have seen him when we opened that cupboard! I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so mad." Her eyes misted over slightly at the memory. "His face was purple. Purple."
"Wonderful," Martin muttered. "No, there's no use avoiding the matter. It's best we get this over with. Ready, you two?"
"Sure." Baurus sighed dejectedly. "Why not?"
"Because he'll kill us all?" Pente suggested, through gritted teeth. "Do we really h-have to go in there? I have a good backup plan for if you just want to run away, I've been working on it for a while. Basically, we all paint ourselves green and go find a nest of goblins –"
"Please," Baurus interjected, "Don't mention goblins for a while. Please." He shuddered, his eyes closing as he relived the memories. "I still feel so violated..."
Smiling despite their impending doom, Martin opened the temple doors. He peered warily into the main hall, glanced left and right, then visibly relaxed upon finding it empty. "It doesn't matter; Jauffre's not here. Perhaps he's still sleeping, it is rather early..." The Imperial shook his head helplessly. "I don't think it would be wise to wake him, considering the circumstances."
"O-oh, good. We're actually having some good luck for once." With a sigh of relief, Pente sank down onto one of the wooden benches, rubbing her shoulders. "I'm so tired..."
"Yeah," Baurus yawned, joining her on the bench. "Running for hours to escape from a gang of angry... things will do that."
"It wasn't my fault," Pente mumbled, scuffing her boots against the floor. "If you're too rough with the creatures you're bossing around, they get a bit..."
"Annoyed? Angry? Rabidly murderous?"
"That last one," nodded Pente. "A b-bit like Jauffre's going to be when he –"
She was cut off by the sound of a door opening and a shrill, keening squeal. "Ohhhh! Penny! Penny, my baby!" A red-headed blur rushed towards the Bosmer and crashed into her, hugging tightly. "Oh, darling, you're back! Martykins, too! Gosh, Jauffrekins will be so excited, you have no idea how much you made us worry..." Aranwen gushed breathlessly.
"Hello Aranwen," Baurus said pointedly, his voice falsely cheerful. Aranwen reacted with mild surprise, apparently genuinely unaware of his presence.
"Oh, you too, darling." She enveloped Pente in an even tighter hug before pulling away, her mouth suddenly twisted in an expression of motherly disapproval. "But what are you wearing, sweetie? This dirty old helmet doesn't look very ladylike. Honestly, I know it's important to be protected, but you can at least try to be a little more stylish about it."
"Um," Pente squeaked, utterly overwhelmed. "Um, I w-was, uh..."
Aranwen wasn't listening. "Oh, Jauffre," she cooed, turning back towards the door. "Come and see! Look who it is, sweetie! Isn't this marvellous?"
Standing transfixed in the doorway, Jauffre emitted an odd little gurgling noise as his eyes fell upon the three worn-out figures. The ensuing silence was not a comfortable one. Martin let out a tiny, quiet little half-cough as he tried not to squirm under the Breton's intense stare.
"Jauffre's going to kill him," Baurus whispered, nudging Pente. "By Talos, his face really is purple."
Martin took a deep breath. Well, he'd been aware that this wasn't going to be pleasant. Best to just get it over and done with. "Ah, hello, Jauffre."
"You..." Jauffre said hoarsely. "You..."
"I'm really sorry," Martin hurriedly apologised, feeling very much like a small child being scolded. "While I must reiterate that my intentions were good, I can't apologise enough for the way I went about things. I should have been more responsible and..." the Imperial's face coloured slightly. "...And not locked you in a cupboard under, ah, false pretences. I really am incredibly sorry."
"But don't be mad!" Pente piped up. "W-we couldn't have done it without Martin! We had to fight ghosts and liches and all kinds of stuff that Baurus and I couldn't have killed by ourselves!"
"Liches?" Jauffre croaked, looking rather ill. Pente babbled on regardless.
"Yeah! G-gosh, those things are horrible. Oh, and all the things he knew about Ayleid ruins got us out of a lot of t-trouble, too. If it wasn't for Martin knowing all about the different deathtraps –"
"Uh-huh." Pente couldn't help but wonder why Jauffre was interrupting so much - it was so rude! "If he didn't know about those then we'd never have been able to kill all those Mythic Dawn members that were gathered there. So it's g-good that he came, and, um..." she went very quiet as she noticed that Jauffre looked rather like he was torn between collapsing and horribly murdering everyone in the room. "...And, um, stuff."
"Mythic Dawn?" the Breton whispered, his voice wavering weakly. "They were... and you..."
Martin nervously brushed his hair back out of his eyes. "Well, ah, there was a... tiny, insignificant incident involving them. It wasn't anything of particular importance, though, really. No, nothing life-threatening." Horribly aware that he was most certainly not cut out for this lying business, he quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, we successfully retrieved the stone! All's well that ends well."
"And," Pente added brightly, "we got you this." She pulled the horned Elven helmet from her head and presented it to the Breton, blissfully unaware that she was now displaying a particularly horrendous case of hat-hair. "A new helmet to replace the one you lost! Well, um, it's not exactly new as such, but you know what I mean. It's genuine ancient Ayleid... stuff." She screwed up her face slightly in distaste. "It smells a bit like lich, b-but it'll probably be alright if you polish it a bit."
"Ooh, yes, a good polishing session solves most problems," Aranwen cooed, taking the helmet. "Would you like me to shine this up for you, Jauffrekins?"
This only seemed to increase the Grandmaster's level of incoherency. "I... you... but..."
He was spared further comment as the temple doors opened once more, revealing Narina Carvain as she entered the hall. "Good morning, Grandmaster, it's only me. Roliand said it was alright if I just came straight– Oh!" she gasped, stopping dead as her eyes fell upon Martin. "You're back!"
"That would, ah, seem to be the case," Martin replied, a cautious smile spreading across his features. "Good morning."
Narina returned the smile, genuine relief showing on her face. "Indeed. Thank the Nine you're safe! I'm glad to see you looking unharmed, if a little... ruffled. Rugged, some might say. I mean, ahm..." she composed herself with a small shake of the head and assumed her sternest expression. "I really can't approve of this kind of behaviour. Running off without a word like that!"
"Sorry," Martin apologised for seemingly the fiftieth time that morning. It was rather difficult to sound contrite while Narina was beaming at him like that, but he tried regardless. "It wasn't my intention to worry anyone."
"I should think not," Narina scoffed, walking towards the Imperial and taking hold of his arm. "Come along, I need to tell you exactly what I think of you! As long as Jauffre doesn't mind, naturally." She glanced back at the Breton, whose mouth was still opening and closing silently. "That's a no? Oh, good. Come on, then!"
As he was pulled from the room, Martin grinned sheepishly at Baurus and Pente. "Ah, you two wouldn't mind just filling Jauffre in on what's happened, would you? My thanks!"
A short silence fell as the doors were closed behind the two Imperials, only being broken by a rather high-pitched giggle coming from the other side of the thick wood. Pente gnawed nervously on her lip and gently touched Aranwen's arm. "Um, m-mother?"
"That hussy! She... Did you see what she just... And you heard..." Apoplectic with rage, Aranwen desperately appealed to Jauffre. "Do something, cuddlekins!"
The Breton, still shellshocked, didn't seem to register her plea. "He's alright," he croaked. "Alright. Safe." The man's face had drained of its previous purple hue and was now a rather sickly shade of grey. "You know, I... I think I need to go and lie down."
"Oh, poor Jauffywaffy," Aranwen soothed, her anger somewhat mollified in the face of his stricken expression. "You do that, darling, and I'll talk to Penny for you!" She fluttered her fingers at the Breton as he staggered from the hall, then patted Pente on the head. "Anyway, dearest, I'm so glad you're alright! I did worry, you know, sneaking off with little Marty like that. I bet it was all your idea, wasn't it, sweetheart? Anything to be alone with the dishy priest. It looks like I managed to teach you something, at any rate!"
"Alone?" Baurus grumbled. "What am I, the trained attack dog?"
"Hm? Oh, of course. Whatever," the mer continued, rolling her eyes dismissively. "Come on then, Penny, what did you get up to? Anything I should know about?" she giggled, winking brashly.
Pente let out a vaguely queasy-sounding squeak. All she wanted was to go off, clean herself up, and sleep forever. G-great. Once again, I risk my life to save the sodding world, and my reward is to be interrogated by my bloody mother. By Azura, being debriefed by Jauffre is more fun than this–
Oh, there was that queasy feeling again. Not like that! U-ugh...
"Nothing," she responded quickly. "N-nothing. B-but, uhm..." Yes - there had been something she'd wanted to ask. Pente flushed and lowered her voice before continuing. "M-mother, did you put... s-some, uhm... things in my b-bag? Stockingy th-things?"
"Oooohh!" Aranwen gasped, prompting further horrified blushes from her daughter. "Oh, I put those there ages ago, dear, just as a precaution. Nothing sinister, sweetie. Ooh, does that mean they came in useful, hmm? Oh, I knew Marty could never resist! Darling, you've made your mother so happy–"
"Useful?" Baurus interrupted, assuming his gravest expression. "Those stockings were a blessing for all of us." Pente shot him a look of utmost horror, but received only a quick wink in return. "If you were responsible for those, ma'am, then I personally can't thank you enough."
Aranwen blinked in shock, her gaze flickering between her daughter and the Redguard. "E-eh? I mean... What? Penny? Whatever is he talking about, darling?"
"Really," Baurus continued, the edges of his mouth twitching as he fought to maintain his serious demeanour. "Things got pretty hard out there, and the three of us wouldn't have made it without those. It's a good thing they were so stretchy; I wouldn't have been able to use them otherwise."
Aranwen swallowed, looking vaguely ill. "That's... that's very nice, dear..." After looking Baurus up and down, her skin took on a similar hue to Jauffre's own brand of sickly grey. "Anyway, I m-may just have to go and lie down myself. The relief of having you all back safe, it... it's making me a touch lightheaded."
"I hope you feel better soon," Baurus smiled brightly, as Aranwen shakily made her way towards the door. "I'm sure Martin would like to thank you, too!" As the auburn-haired mer tottered out of sight, he finally allowed his amused grin to surface. Pente stared up at him in a mixture of horror and admiration.
"You're terrible!" she gasped, wide-eyed. "B-but in the best possible way."
"All part of my charm," Baurus answered. "Hey, now that nobody else is around, d'you want to go and, uh, lie down, too?"
"Oh, okay," Pente smiled obliviously. "I am really tired. Some sleep would do me a world of good right about now!"
Baurus sagged slightly. "But that's not what I..." He shrugged. "But if you're tired, I guess..."
"Eh? What else would you mean?" Pente blinked in a particularly bemused sort of way. "Gods, you're weird sometimes."
"Oh, bother! Jauffre - I need Jauffre!"
His hair now more ruffled than ever, Martin glanced over at Narina. "Ah, well, good for him. Though I never really thought balding Bretons were your type–"
Rolling her eyes, Narina hurried out of Martin's quarters, smoothing her own hair as she went. "Oh, very amusing. No, I came here to tell him something! And then you were here looking all rumpled and windswept and I got distracted. You pick your bloody moments, Martin Septim."
The priest followed her in her pursuit of Jauffre, letting out a good-natured snort. "My apologies. I'll be sure to carry a comb with me at all times in future, in order to avoid such situations."
"Mmm, don't bother," Narina mumbled, distractedly peering into the barracks in case the Grandmaster was in there. "My, being out there has done you good, hasn't it? I think your Redguard friend is rubbing off on you a litt– Ah! Jauffre."
"Hello again, Countess. And Martin, of course." Jauffre seemed to have recovered somewhat from his ordeal - while still slightly pale, he no longer had the air of a man on the verge of madness. That was a relief to Martin; he quite thought that the Blades already had more than their fair share of madmen, thankyou very much. "I hope Narina wasn't too hard on you, but we were all exceedingly worried. If you even think about running off like that again, we'll be forced to restrain you in somewhere far more sturdy than a cupboard."
Martin offered a sheepish smile. "Ah, um, sorry about that. Again." Guilt clutched at the Imperial's insides as he noted Jauffre's weak smile in response, and he resigned himself to the fact that he would probably be apologising for this for a long time. "Anyway, ah, Narina wished to speak with you–"
"Yes!" Narina exclaimed, suddenly serious. "Ahem. I thought you'd like to know that your reinforcements have arrived, Grandmaster. Considerable numbers of them, in fact."
"Ah! Really?" Jauffre beamed delightedly. "Marvellous! Such a quick response, too. Baurus and Pente must have done excellent work with all those gates, eh? Wonderful!"
"Indeed. The innkeepers seem to be as happy about it as you are, but the town guard is less so." Narina allowed herself a small smile. "Captain Burd in particular was quite vocally opposed to having so many mercenaries in such close proximity to the castle, and he was rather eager to know what you were planning on doing with them all..."
Martin looked from Jauffre to Narina and back again. "Excuse me - what reinforcements?"
"For when we trick the enemy into opening their Great Gate, of course," Jauffre explained patiently. "The more protection you have, the better! So while you were away, I took the liberty of sending letters to all the guild halls in Cyrodiil to request aid." The Breton's eyes slid shiftily to one side. "And an extra one to High Chancellor Ocato, asking for the Legion's help. He sent a return message very quickly after I offered to send Aranwen to discuss the situation in person."
"He wasn't fond of the idea? Gosh," Narina murmured, her eyes innocent and wide. "But she's such a nice woman..."
"Indeed. She has her, ah, charms," Jauffre muttered, glancing furtively to one side. "I'm aware that she can seem a little abrasive at times, but she's a very... a very enthusiastic woman, you know–"
"So," Martin blustered, eager to get the conversation as far away from Aranwen's enthusiastic nature as possible, "we have an army in Bruma?"
"Ah! Yes. Well, you and Pente do, really," Jauffre corrected him. "I made the requests in the name of the Septim heir and the Hero of Kvatch, so you will be the ones in command. I thought that would be best, considering your reluctance to let others take charge recently."
"Sorry," Martin responded automatically. Yes - he was definitely going to be apologising for this for years. A horribly vivid image of him as an old man begging forgiveness from Jauffre's ghost entered his mind, and the Imperial resolved to never lock anyone in a cupboard again - no matter how much fun it had been.
Not that it had been fun, of course. He was a mature, refined young man, after all. Definitely.
Jauffre ran a hand across his head, seeming troubled. "No, I was meaning that as a compliment. After all, you'll soon be in a position where you'll have to be a leader. Perhaps it's best that you start now."
"...Oh." Martin scrutinised Jauffre carefully - this was very unlike him. "Then perhaps I should meet this army. People are more likely to fight for someone they can see as opposed to an idea, after all."
Jauffre paused for a moment. "Indeed. You do have a point, there. Especially as we should really go and get them all organised, anyway. We'll follow your lead, Martin."
"Oh." The Imperial found himself at a loss for words again. This was so strange - what had happened to Jauffre, Grandmaster of the Paranoid? "Then, ah, I'll just go and get Pente and we'll... go. Now. Yes." Shooting the Breton one last suspicious glance, Martin walked off in search of the others. Narina gave Jauffre a rather wary look of her own before speaking.
"You've changed your tune, haven't you? Not that I'm criticising you. I think this is a wonderful idea."
"Well, I had a chat with Aranwen after Martin left that convinced me it was best to let people do as they will. Within reason, of course."
Narina's eyebrow raised slightly, her voice betraying her scepticism. "Mmm-hmm."
"Alright, I might also be going a little stir-crazy, myself." Jauffre sheepishly rubbed the top of his head. "Pente and Baurus have no idea how lucky they are, getting to travel so often."
"I bloody hate having to run around all the time! Couldn't they have done this without us?" griped Pente, seething quietly. "I was h-having a rest. It's alright for Jauffre; he gets to be safe at home whenever he wants!"
"Yeah, but he also has to deal with your mother," Baurus muttered. "No offense."
"O-oh, good point. None taken." Pente scuffed her boots lightly in the snow as they made their way towards Bruma with Martin, Jauffre, Narina and Aranwen in tow. The latter wasn't required for their task, of course, but she had blasted Jauffre with one of her very best glares when he had suggested that she stay behind at Cloud Ruler Temple. As a result, she was now trotting alongside the Grandmaster, nattering happily about how thrilling it was going to be meeting all those soldier types, whether it would be possible to do a quick spot of shopping, and goodness, don't you think Pennykins looks pale?
Pente scowled. Of course she was pale; she was covered in bloody snow.
At least Martin seemed happy enough, if a little uncomfortable encased in the armour of Tiber Septim. He had insisted on wearing it in order to appear more like an Emperor-in-training and less like a priest - it worked, but the ancient cuirass didn't seem to fit him very well. Pente was reminded of her own hand-me-down armour that she had escaped from Kvatch in, and couldn't suppress a little shudder. At least Martin isn't wearing a s-sodding nightdress under his. Um, I hope.
...Why do I even think of this stuff?!
Captain Burd met the little group at the Bruma gates, bowing low as he allowed them access. "Countess! Welcome back! The mercenaries are still present in the square, but we're keeping them under control with no major problems. And... Oh, it's you two. Hello," he added, beaming at Baurus and Pente. "Your arm alright, now? Good, good. And you..." he stared at Martin, his smile vanishing. "Martin, right? The one who got the Countess drunk?"
Martin's eyes widened in mortified horror, the Imperial now looking more uncomfortable than ever. Narina narrowed her eyes, flushing with embarrassment. "Nonsense, Captain. Hold your tongue," she scolded, before lowering her voice to a sharp hiss. "I was not drunk."
"My apologies, ma'am. It's just that you don't usually stay up giggling and singing a song about a magical carrot into the early hours of the morning–"
"I said hold your tongue!" snapped Narina. Pente raised a hand.
"O-oh, I know that song! Baurus taught me!"
"Well, ah, anyway," Martin coughed, "Perhaps we should go and meet everyone, as arranged. Ahm, it was a pleasure to meet you, Captain."
Jauffre nodded importantly, his new horned helmet wobbling slightly on his head as he did so. "Indeed. Stick close to me and stay on your guard - you never know where the enemy will hide!"
The town square was full of people, organised into smaller groups that were talking amongst themselves. Burd was correct; the atmosphere was surprisingly calm, with a distinct lack of tension considering that there were so many people from varying backgrounds packed into a relatively small space. The Bruma guards still seemed twitchy - their attention mainly focussed on a couple of Orcs sparring - but that wasn't unusual, considering what could happen if things turned nasty.
Pente really, really didn't want to think too much about that.
Martin's group attracted some attention as they neared the crowd, but things remained calm until a rather breathy squeal of excitement pierced the hum of noise. "Ohhh! It's you! Miss Pente, over here! Look, everyone, it's the Hero of Kvatch!"
Silence fell as the assembled crowd turned as one to stare at Pente, and she shrunk back to hide behind Baurus. This was too embarrassing! Matters were not helped by Aranwen's proud little sniffles and gasps of "my ickle Penny", either. Ugh. "Um, h-hello."
"Hey!" one Imperial called, pointing at Martin. "Then he's the Emperor, right?!" An excited murmur passed through the crowd as their attention shifted, thankfully, from the cowering Bosmer.
"Well, ah," Martin responded, clearing his throat, "not yet. But, well, one day... That would be me, yes."
The reaction was immediate, as the crowd surged towards Martin in order to get a better look. Pente and Baurus remained detached from the group as they watched Jauffre squawking at the people, frustratedly urging them to keep their distance. Baurus shrugged. "Popular guy."
"Uh-huh," nodded Pente, still flushed from her moment at the centre of attention. "Um, do you think we could s-sneak away or something? I don't really like –"
"Miss Pente! I'm sorry about that, you probably wanted to introduce yourself, didn't you? I just couldn't help it, I got overexcited. You know how it is, I'm a big fan, very big fan," a rather familiar-looking Bosmer panted, shoving his way through the crowd towards her. "Terribly, terribly sorry about that. It's me! You do remember me, don't you? I mean, it's alright if you don't, I just rather hoped..."
"Th-Thaurron," Pente interrupted quickly, unsure of how she was supposed to forget the name of someone who would mistakenly teleport her into the skies above Cheydinhal. No, the mer's name was branded firmly into her mind via the miracle of trauma. "From the Anvil Mages Guild."
"Ahh! You see?!" sniffled Thaurron, turning to a rather bored-looking female Orc who had followed him through the crowd. "Didn't I tell you that she had a gift for relating to the common people? She's never too busy to spend time with a devoted fan!" Clearly moved, he patted Pente on the arm. "Speaking of which, me and the chaps back in Anvil were hoping you would lend your approval to our little Hero of Kvatch fan club. We don't have many members, but we're very enthusiastic, you know, we hold meetings every Mondas. It would mean so much, we'd all be so thrilled – Ah! But I'm being awfully rude," he yelped, barely pausing to take a breath. Motioning to his Orcish companion, he beamed more widely than ever. "This is Mazoga! I was just telling her all about you."
The Orc thrust her hand towards Pente's face, and the Bosmer shook it gingerly. "O-oh, um. Hello, Miss Mazoga."
"Sir Mazoga. I'm a knight. That means I'm a sir." Mazoga withdrew her hand, smiling in a friendly manner. "People usually bow, but I guess I can let you off."
"Oh, um, no, th-that's alright..." Pente stuttered, bowing quickly. She really wished Baurus would stop giggling; it didn't seem like it would be a good idea to offend Thaurron's friend. "Th-there. But, um, s-sir? You're a girl. Woman. L-lady?"
"I'm still a knight."
"W-well, of course, it's just that usually... I don't... 'Sir' is u-usually more of a..." she squirmed slightly. "Sir Mazoga. R-right. Got it."
"Good! Thaurron said you were nice," the Orc beamed, shoving Pente good-naturedly and sending her sprawling to the ground. Blinking, she pulled the mer upright by her collar. "Oh... sorry. Anyways, I'm gonna go meet the Emperor... Emperors need knights, right?"
"Yes. Yes they do," Pente spluttered. Mazoga nodded, patted Thaurron absent-mindedly on the head, and wandered off towards Martin, still at the centre of a rather large mob. Thaurron's eyes remained fixed on the Orc as she made her way through the crowds and out of sight.
"Isn't she amazing?" he breathed. "So strong, so independent! She's a lot like you, don't you think, Miss Pente?"
Baurus started giggling again, and Pente gaped in bemusement. "Um, wh-what? I don't... She..."
"No, no, not physically," Thaurron continued, shaking his head. "I mean in the way you act, you know - so forceful, so determined. You're both in possession of that indomitable warrior spirit... Just wonderful!" His expression suddenly changed to one of concern. "I say, is your friend alright?"
Baurus had now given up on any attempt at retaining his dignity and was kneeling on the floor, tears of mirth streaming down his face. Shrugging, Pente smiled faintly. "Oh, he's fine. Just a bit weird sometimes, you know h-how it is."
"Yes," Thaurron agreed, punctuating his words with a wise little nod. "Redguards. Crazy, the lot of them."
The sound of laughter suddenly ceased, prompting the two Bosmer to look down at Baurus with renewed concern. The Redguard swore heavily and got to his feet, looking around with the air of a man desperate for escape. "Pen, we have to go – now."
"E-eh? What? What's happening? Are we in trouble?" she babbled, rooted to the spot in blind panic. "Where's the assassin?! Is there an assassin? N-nine save us, tell me there's not more than o-one!"
"It's worse than assassins– Argh, too late," Baurus cursed. "Gods damn it. He's spotted us."
"H-he?" Pente tugged nervously at the amulet around her neck. "Who's he?"
A familiar, booming voice shouted above Pente's panicked little whimpers. "There you are! It is I, old friends! Did you miss me?"
Oh. Pente smiled and waved at the big blond Nord. "H-hello, Styrbrand! We should have guessed you'd be here."
"Right," Baurus muttered. "because if anything can go wrong these days, it damn well does."
Ignoring Baurus' tone, Styrbrand reached down and ruffled Pente's hair patronisingly. "Well, of course! You know what it's like for an almighty hero. Wherever there is trouble, you will find me! At every great battle, my presence will be counted! Whenever the weak cry out in anguish over the injustices of the world, Styrbrand the Unbelievably Mighty will be there to make it right!"
"You know," Baurus said, his tone forcedly casual, "I hear there's lots of injustice for you to fight in Morrowind. You should go there... Or High Rock, you're always sure of a good fight in that place. I know a great guidebook, if you're interested..."
"Oh, Boris," Styrbrand replied, laughing hollowly as he cracked his knuckles. "Such a joker."
"It's Baurus," Pente piped up. "S-silly. You're not very good with names, are you?"
"Not the forgettable ones."
"Don't worry, I understand," Baurus soothed, his smile growing more strained by the second. "It's got to be hard for you to fit any information in that tiny mind of yours–"
A nervous squeak cut off any further argument. "A-ahh, so, um, anyway... L-let's all talk about nice things. Safe things. Lovely. Um, has anyone, uh... R-read any good books, lately?"
Unfortunately, the Bosmer was denied any insight into Styrbrand's literary habits. Before anyone could answer, a terrified scream from over by the city gates captured the group's attention.
"Oblivion Gates! Outside the city walls! Run!"
"The Daedra are coming! Everyone evacuate, Bruma is doomed!"
Styrbrand made an odd, surprisingly high-pitched little squeeing noise before running off to have a look for himself. Pente was considerably less pleased. "N-no," she whimpered, her voice merely a strangled, fearful whine. "How? They c-can't, we're not ready! A-aren't we supposed to be ambushing them? L-later? D-do you think they'd go away if we s-stayed really quiet and pretended nobody was here? M-maybe they'd reschedule–"
Her babbling went largely un-noticed as the town square descended into utter pandemonium. Baurus rushed off to view the situation as Styrbrand had done, fighting his way through panicking citizens and soldiers alike, and Pente was left by herself. The air was thick with screams and curses as people rushed around, so the panicked whimpering of a lone Bosmer was easy to miss.
..."And m-maybe the Daedra aren't too bad when you get to kn-know them. If you make the e-effort to be friendly, I mean. We should try that. Just ask them n-nicely if they'd mind coming back later... N-not Clannfear, though, I hate th-those. Are there any fluffy Daedra? I b-bet they'd listen to us, bad things are never fluffy–"
"Pente?" Baurus had returned, and from the look of him, things were not good. "What are you... Agh, never mind. Look, this is bad - there are two gates out there. Not too many Daedra yet, but it can't be too long before..." He shut up quickly, noting the look of abject horror on Pente's face. It was probably best not to make her faint before the battle even began. "We need to find Jauffre, find out what to do next. We're going to have to fight, you know."
"I was afraid of th-that. Bugger."
It didn't take the pair of them long to find the Grandmaster - it was merely a matter of following the sound of him futilely screeching for order. As the Breton noticed their approach, his expression only grew more harassed. "Ah, you're here - wonderful, it's impossible to find anyone in this chaos - Oh, will everyone just calm down?!" he screeched, stamping his foot furiously as he was almost trampled by a fleeing Argonian. "Talos' toenails!"
"Jauffy-Waffy doesn't like not being in control," Aranwen piped up helpfully. "Well, except in more intimate circumstances, teehee–"
"Grandmaster - there are two gates out there," explained Baurus. It was best to cut Aranwen off in these situations before things got really traumatising. "We're not going to have time for much preparation."
"Two gates?" asked Martin. "Then we can assume the Mythic Dawn are making some kind of last stand... There can't be many of them left after Miscarcand. They must be getting desperate... At least we won't have any problems convincing them to open their Great Gate."
Jauffre emitted a tiny moan of distress. "So this is where my careful planning gets me. Surrounded by chaos and flailing idiots."
"A-and that's different to how things are u-usually?"
"Point taken," Jauffre murmured, giving Pente a vaguely amused glance before assuming a more businesslike expression. "Fine. If they're going to open the Great Gate, we have very little choice. Pente can go inside the gate to retrieve the stone–"
Jauffre blinked in bewilderment as Martin, Baurus and Pente all shook their heads vigorously. "There's a problem with that...?"
"I..." Pente whispered. Time to come clean. "I c-can't, I... I mean, I'm not–"
"She got injured," interjected Baurus. "In Miscarcand. It's not life-threatening, but she definitely can't fight." The Redguard nudged Pente, silently urging her to hush - it was going to be hard enough to win this battle without losing Jauffre to a heart attack. "Right, Martin?"
"What?!" gasped the Breton. "Why wasn't I informed of this earlier? We've lost our biggest asset on the battlefield and you didn't think it was wise to tell me?!"
Pente raised a shaking hand. "I'm n-not that much of a l-loss. Honestly. Really. Umm, I c-can heal people, if you w-want."
"Oh, that's perfect," Jauffre grumbled. "Just what we need most. A healer. Now all we need is someone insane enough to take your place and go into the bloody gate; I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll–"
"I'll do it," Baurus volunteered, ignoring Pente's squeak of protest. "I've done it before, right? Piece of cake."
Jauffre shook his head. "Not alone. I know you mean well, Baurus, but you're no Pente."
"Damn straight," the Redguard grinned. The smile soon faded. "Ugh... Hang on, I know someone who'd go in there with me. Be right back."
"Where's he... Oh, never mind." Jauffre waved his hand in a dismissive manner that was disturbingly reminiscent of Aranwen's. "No time. Then Pente, you can stay in the rear ranks and act as a medic. Stay out of trouble, please. And Martin..." he glanced wearily at the Imperial. "You're bloody going to insist on fighting, aren't you?"
"You know me so well," Martin answered, smiling faintly. "Can someone escort Narina somewhere safe? Aranwen?"
"I'm busy, dear," Aranwen chirped, fully absorbed in checking Pente for injuries. "You don't seem hurt, sweetie, is it really that bad? Why didn't you let me know you were hurt? Honestly! You should have asked Marty to help you, you know how priests are with that healing touch of theirs–"
"Mmm, yes," Narina agreed, prompting one of the auburn-haired mer's spectacular glares. "Oh, ahem. I can make my own way back to the castle, don't worry about me!"
Jauffre put his fingertips to his temples as he felt the little control he had over the situation slipping away. "Thankyou, Countess Narina. As I was saying, Martin, keep away from the front lines. You're not to take any risks, got it?" Raising his voice, he appealed to the crowd once more. "Everyone! If you could all just listen... Blast it. This is hopeless!"
"Excuse me, terribly sorry to interrupt, but I couldn't help but overhear, you know, erm... Thaurron. Member of the Anvil Mages Guild chapter, founder and maintainer of the official Hero of Kvatch fan club. Very pleased to meet you, honestly, such a pleasure..." Thaurron swooped on Jauffre seemingly from nowhere and shook his hand enthusiastically. "Anyway, allow me to help! Voice amplification spell. I have one. Very effective. Ever been to the Arena? The announcer uses one. It's really very reliable, y'know, it should get everyone's attention. Would you like me to cast it for you?"
"Ah... alright," the Breton spluttered, disengaging his hand from Thaurron's too-tight grip. It never ceased to surprise him that he could still be utterly stunned by Wood Elf insanity, despite spending so much time with two prime examples of it. He coughed at the sensation as Thaurron cast the spell, trying to clear the odd crackling sensation it created in his throat.
"Everyone! If you could all just pay attention..." he winced slightly as the crowds suddenly ceased activity to stare at him - the spell was really very effective, and his voice rang out far louder than he had anticipated. "Ahem, yes, very good. If those of you who are prepared to fight could please assemble outside the city walls..."
Pente jumped slightly as she felt a light touch on her shoulder. "I guess Jauffre has everything covered, huh?"
"Baurus?" she turned to face him, worried by the Redguard's defeated tone. "Are you alr... oh." Taking in the figure next to him, it became apparent exactly why the Redguard was so unhappy. "Styrbrand."
"I'm going in the gate, too!" the Nord enthused, grinning from ear to ear. It honestly looked like he was about to start jumping up and down with glee any second. "Pity you have to miss out, sure, but don't worry! I'll do a great job. I am Styrbrand the Unbelievably Mighty and Really Good At Closing Gates, after all. And after this, who can deny my heroism? Think of it! The glory, the fame, the women..."
"Kill me," Baurus murmured, gritting his teeth. "Please."
"Come on!" Jauffre's voice rang out, still magically amplified. He waved towards the trio impatiently, his face a picture of grim determination. "Everyone needs to get out there and get organised! That goes for you, too. There's no time to waste!"
With an enthusiastic whoop and his sword held aloft, Styrbrand tore towards the city gates. Baurus shook his head reluctantly. "Ass. Come on, we'd better–"
"Don't!" Pente lunged forward and grasped the Redguard's arm, preventing him from following on after the blonde. "P-please!"
"What?" Genuinely confused, he stood still. "Don't what?"
"Don't go. I-in the gate, I mean. P-please. I don't want you to." Horribly aware of how childish she sounded, she tugged harder on Baurus' arm. "I'm s-scared. I know I'm a-always scared, but this is... different."
Realisation dawned on the Redguard, and he gave her a supportive smile. "Don't worry. I might not be there to protect you, but you've been in worse situations than this! You've got an entire army backing you up. You'll be fine, trust me."
"No, no! I'm not scared about that. Um, w-well, I wasn't." It was true - being scared for herself simply hadn't occurred to the mer. This was new. "You'll be off on your own doing dangerous things without me, and if something happens–"
"Nothing's going to happen. It's just another gate, right? I'll breeze through, grab the stone and be back before you know it." Baurus flashed his customary grin. "I might even have time to shove Styrbrand into the lava."
With a weak attempt at a return smile, Pente shook her head. "T-try and avoid that. He means well, you know! I think. Sometimes. Just p-promise me that you'll be alright!"
The Redguard placed one hand over his heart and saluted with the other. "I promise that I'll do whatever it takes to get out of there alive, and will sacrifice the Nord only if necessary. Or if he gets really annoying. Better?"
"Always s-so confident," beamed Pente, standing on tip-toe to bestow him with a rather frightened, yet heartfelt kiss. "Good luck–"
The two whirled around, only to be confronted with the sight of Aranwen wailing and trying to struggle free of Jauffre's restraining grip. Baurus scratched his head, shrugging guiltily. "Oh. Well, now we're both dead no matter what happens in the battle. Almost reassuring, huh?"
"If you say so," Pente mumbled, trying to ignore the awful feeling in her gut. If there was anything that scared her more than the threat of certain doom, it was the wrath of her mother.
Suddenly, Clannfear didn't seem so bad...
Thanks to Pheonicia for her aid in threatening me into finishing this chapter! While you're waiting for my criminally slow butt to update, I suggest reading her Meh Ayleidon companion piece, "Some Other Benefits Of Hiding". Though be warned - it deserves the M rating, being the unadulterated piece of smut that it is. SO HAWT!11