Disclaimer: I do not own Oblivion, its NPCs, or its plotlines.
I looked from Jauffre to Baurus, unwilling to make a decision. How could they be asking this of me, yet again? I sighed and brought a hand to my eyes, rubbing at them briefly, wearily.
I'd been riding for two days straight as it was, desperate to make it back as soon as I'd completed the mission. It hadn't been easy, finding the Shrine of Azura…then facing the horrors of the gutted mine. I shuddered with the memory. I wasn't sure I'd ever get the image of those undead out of my mind. Their soulless, empty eyes staring at me even after I'd cut them down. Even after I'd hacked at them, waiting out the adrenaline that had filled me the first time one had overtaken me- I'd been so sure it was the end for me that I'd chopped it into a dozen pieces before I'd realized it wasn't going to get up again. That it was truly released from its horrific existence.
The sounds they made as they were attacking, though…as they were dying…I shuddered again. With a mighty effort, I blocked the images and sounds from my mind. It was not easy; I had to draw an iron curtain in my head in order to do it. I imagined it was similar to what I'd had to do in order to survive my first years in Cyrodiil…the only reason I was still alive at all. It was my uncanny ability to make myself feel nothing at all that made me a good warrior- a good assassin, which is what I was for these people. Going around, killing anyone who got in the way of saving their precious empire. No, I was not doing this for them, not by any means. They only called me a champion because they were to ashamed to call me what I truly was for them.
Their deadly shadow.
I looked up at the two men before me once more. These men, at least, had good intentions though they were far from innocent. Baurus, I preferred. Jauffre, I could tolerate. I looked past them to where Martin sat, engulfed in whatever text lay before him on the table. He hadn't seen me yet; hadn't realized I'd returned triumphant once more. I felt another shudder pass through me and cringed inwardly.
No, that wasn't good. I forced the iron curtain down further- turned it to stone. If anything, Martin was even less innocent than the men before me; but I was hard pressed to blame him for any of this mess. It was far from his fault…wasn't it? No, no! It was the people out there, the commoners of Cyrodiil, that I acted for. Not because I was actually growing fond of any of these people, let alone him.
"Let me know when you're decided," Jauffre prompted me once more. I looked at him, startled. Right. He'd been speaking to me.
I smiled back tightly and hefted my sword over my shoulder. Baurus' eyes narrowed at the action; they all wished I weren't so free with my weapon. One wrong move and anyone could be hurt. My smile grew even tighter. It was too late to worry about who was going to get hurt or if anyone would- people were dying all around us. The fools.
The word rang in my head so strongly it reverberated there for a moment and I blinked, dazed and suddenly feeling my three days' journey. I hadn't slept, hadn't eaten. I'd only thought of what needed to be done- for his sake. Augh! This was impossible. I wasn't allowed to feel such things; I mustn't!
Sweeping my stony green eyes over Jauffre, I hesitated before replying. I knew it would be best to start on the new task immediately, rather than delay and speak to Martin. Still, the unrelenting weariness nagged at my mind, throwing my common sense from me as firmly as it had every other intention. I sighed and let my body sag a little, returning my sword to its sheath, much to Baurus' relief.
"I'll do it, Jauffre; you know I won't refuse your requests. I just need to rest a while first. I must recover," I murmured. Though my body language spoke of exhaustion and instability, I kept my eyes blank and my face an unreadable portrait.
"Ah, I knew you wouldn't let us down," he replied swiftly, an answering, and more genuine, smile breaking across his face. "Now you must go to Martin. He is anxious to speak with you."
Not anxious enough to notice my presence, I thought wryly, but I sheltered my thoughts from Jauffre's anxious eyes. I was certain he did not care what I thought anyhow. How I felt had never been an issue for him aside from when it meant I would not do as asked. Never mind that he was the head of the Blades and had the right to have me thrown back in prison at any moment. It would have been easy for him, truly, to threaten me with that fate, to pretend like the late emperor had not granted me a pardon. Just because he hadn't yet used this against me did not make the knowledge that he could use it if he chose to any less troublesome. Or any less motivating.
I refused to go back to prison unjustly.
I sighed again. That was neither here nor there. I wasn't going back yet, after all. I nodded to both men and continued towards Martin; besides, this question of defending Bruma was nothing compared to giving Martin what he needed in order find the amulet and close the gates. I needed to focus on one thing at a time.
Martin looked up as he heard me approach. He smiled at me; his weariness nearly matched my own.
"Katherine," he spoke softly, "you have returned. I saw you speak with Jauffre; I trust everything is alright? I did not want to disturb your conversation."
My eyes widened imperceptibly, but his keen blue eyes seemed to catch the action and he nodded once, as if answering an unspoken question. "Your role in all this is more important than my own," he added. There was no trace of bitterness. I continued to stare at him and when he said nothing more, I finally shrugged and slung my knap sack from my shoulder to the table. There was no point thinking further on it- Martin was a strange one. As strange as his father.
I was surprised by his admission, but it did me no good to dwell on it. I had to be stone for these tasks. Stone for the duration of the terror. It did no one any good if I was an emotional Nord warrior. My height, my brawn, and my brain would be nothing if I allowed myself to feel those emotions resting just under the surface of my being now. How they'd risen so far to the top, I didn't know, but they were there just the same, always threatening these days. As if Kvatch and the Priory hadn't been enough. Then that terrifying ride through the night, the day, and the night to get to Cloud Ruler.
And the gates- always so many of them. It was enough to make any normal Nord male scream, let alone a female. I felt a blush rise to my cheeks as I uncharacteristically took a seat across from Martin to hand him the star. Smoothing a hand over my short, auburn hair as he examined it with growing excitement, I allowed myself to examine one of the emotions I felt now.
Fondness. Tolerance. Appreciation. The question was, did those equal friendship alone?
I'd known Martin a week at the most…but it had been a rushed, dangerous week. Full of close calls with death and worse. I still remembered the looks some of the dremora had given me, and I was certain that human women, let alone those that were formidable opponents, rarely made an appearance on the planes of Oblivion. In the atmosphere of Oblivion, it was possible to believe anything…things that as a child growing up in Skyrim and then a young girl amongst the Skaal, I would have heard as morality tales, to make me behave better. It was hard not to behave better when under threat of death or eternal damnation. I'd never understood how so many of my peers could get into trouble in such a small village…and then I'd moved to Cyrodiil.
The place was the land of eternal damnation; I'd been sure of that for a while. But it was hard, when thinking back to initial days of freedom and wonder, when remembering traveling across the well marked roads with ruins and mountains and trees in plain sight for all to enjoy, to seriously think of Cyrodiil as hell rather than home.
I'd run across the abandoned cottage only a few weeks before my trouble had begun. It still stood there, solid. Sturdy…
It was someone else's home now. I intended to find out whose, once I was free of debt. If I lived.
"This is magnificent, it's so much more than I'd imagined. How did you do it?" Martin was still speaking to me, his voice less soft now and more animated. He was excited by my find and I was glad of it; glad he could use it. I had no use for the baubles they made me recover. I had no use for the Daedra or the Nine.
I grimaced at the question and shook my head. How could I tell him those things? I did not need to speak many words around Martin. He understood me well, and his face fell.
"I am sorry, Katherine. I should not have asked you. But these are so rare…it will do perfectly. I thank you for your efforts, however great the cost."
I shuddered again, remembering the one undead's fangs, so close to my neck. "What is next?" I managed to choke out. I was exhausted, but wanted to continue forward. Taking the time to consider my thoughts had turned more dangerous than I'd imagined. Martin was too kind to me, too generous of heart and spirit…even though I hadn't said it to myself yet, I could easily tell where the feeling was going if I allowed it to continue. That couldn't happen.
Martin stared at me as if I were insane. "You need rest, Katherine. You have already been through many ordeals just to bring us this much."
I grit her teeth against the sleep and his tone. "Are you saying I am not up to the task?"
"You know that is not what I mean. You are fully aware you are the only one capable of fulfilling these missions. No one here is as well equipped as you are."
"Then tell me," I insisted, leaning forward in her seat. Martin shook his head.
"Go, rest. Come back once you are well again. I have more translating to do." With that, the discussion was over. I felt my anger winning against the sleep. I stood abruptly, jostling the table in my hurry to leave. Several books thumped to the floor, the sound echoing in the great hall. I glared down at Martin as he glanced back up, surprised by my reaction. Of course he's surprised, I told myself. You've been far too easy with him. You let him think of you as his friend rather than his champion, when you are not either. It is time he faced up to that.
"Give me something to do," I pleaded. Anything to keep me from going on another pointless journey for Jauffre, anything to keep me from sleeping and seeing those things in my dreams, my eyes begged. Martin was silent for a moment longer and it took that second for me to grow angry with myself for taking things out on him. He didn't deserve it, after all, he was trying to look out for me, unlike the rest of them. The trouble was, the nicer he was, the less I wanted to do my job. The less the horrors of my lot were easily blocked. I spun on my heel, as gracefully as a full grown, fully armored Nord woman could, and stomped from the hall. I could feel Martin's eyes on me all the way to the door. Then I was outside.
I stomped my way around the battlements of the temple and the other Blades jumped out of my way as I passed. I paused at the edge and peered down. It seemed like, from the top of the mountain, I could see for miles. Not as well as in Skyrim, but still a good distance. The mountain was beautiful and chill. I liked the cold. The cold didn't bother me the way it bothered most of the sissy Imperials and Redguards. Still, the brisk wind forced my hood up. I knew I looked ridiculous wearing a full set of armor and a hood, but i preferred a protection against cold, rain and wind to an awkward helmet. Helmets rusted and didn't keep your ears warm. I shuddered again. Was it shock, I wondered? Should I be inside after all?
What was I doing out here, anyway? I knew Martin was right; I needed rest and food before accepting an additional mission. Because I understood that much about myself; even though I considered Jauffre's mission to be of minimal importance, I would attempt to complete it at the same time I was doing whatever it was Martin had found for me to do. Sighing, I rested my chin on one hand, peering out over the mountainside. A voice suddenly spoke behind me. I didn't turn.
"What are you doing up here? You need to be resting. Jena explained to me what you did- that's enough to take a year off of your life."
I recognized the voice. It was Arcturus, one of the Imerpials. His permanent post was Cloud Ruler and he took his job at the battlement lookouts very seriously.
"Hmm," I replied, hoping he'd leave me alone. If I thought the dremora looked at me funny, I knew the Blades did. Had they never had a Nord woman on the team before? Honestly, these men. I didn't know how Jena and Caroline put up with it. Still, they were decent. They never pretended to be better than me, only leered at me when they thought I wasn't looking.
"What's eating you?" he asked, coming up beside me.
I jumped at the question, recalling where it was I'd been only yesterday and shook my head mutely. He immediately looked chagrinned, then whistled.
"So that's what you had to do for the star," he added. "Jena told me you'd gone to the shrine, but you actually had to clear out that den for it?"
That surprised me and I finally turned to look at him. "You know of the mine?" I managed in a quiet, controlled voice.
"Aye," he replied. He was smiling grimly. "We received word about it from the Imperial city a few years ago- they wanted us to send a contingent to clean the mess up. Azura's followers had already arrived and taken care of the real vampires at that time…it was a terrible price they paid. When we got there, we could hear them; just on the other side of that small wooden door. They wanted out…or wanted us in, but we couldn't get the door open. It was the damnedest thing," he finished.
"I had to speak at her shrine first," I offered. "She was keeping it locked for the sake of both parties. They were very powerful," I added thoughtfully.
"Don't think we could have handled it?" Arcturus asked, a chuckle on his lips.
I turned my eyes out over the land again as the curtain in my mind lifted and I clearly remembered the horror. "No," I said succinctly. I felt sure
He looked at me in consternation and I knew what he was thinking. He wondered if I spoke the truth or if I was bluffing; they all did. Only Martin seemed to know I said exactly what I meant. There wasn't a deceptive bone in my body…unless it was my job to be sneaky. That was what had led to the escape of Camoran with the amulet back at the Mythic Dawn's lair. I hadn't been able to lie well enough- every bone in my body had wanted to simply slaughter them all and the warrior in me had eventually made an escape.
"Do you need to talk about it, soldier?" he finally asked after a lengthy silence.
And the curtain came back down. I turned to look at him once more and he could see it happening, right behind my eyes. I could tell by the anger that mounted in his own eyes. He would've shook me if he thought he could get away with it.
"No," I replied again, although I kept my voice gentler.
"No one can do what you've done so far and live with it, Katherine Coldstone," he admonished me. Wonderful, another man who thought I needed taking care of. No, thank you- I knew how that one worked. I shook my head at him.
"I am a Nord. You are an Imperial. You do not understand the way my people work," I returned, shrugging simply, expecting that to put an end to such nonsense. He growled and I looked back quickly, surprised.
"Wrong. If I was an elf, or maybe a Breton, I wouldn't understand," he said roughly. "But I know you Nords and you're all alike. I grew up in the Imperial City; I've known people of every race and Nords are one race I understand particularly well."
"Then you know that my name has more meaning than being something I was born with," I replied, smoothing out my expression.
His eyes glanced at me from beneath his helmet, searching out mine. I let him find them freely, unblinkingly staring back from beneath my green hood. I knew they were cold as ice and he finally realized it himself. I gave every impression of being as cold as stone. He looked away abruptly.
"It's funny how cold your eyes are for such an inviting color," he laughed awkwardly. "Is your heart the same?"
I stared at him, confused. Without another word, my companion suddenly turned and walked away, back to the guard hut. I followed him without a thought.
"Wait," I said, reaching out to touch his arm, "what did you mean?" There was really no need for me to ask; I knew perfectly well what he meant- I just wanted to hear him say it out loud. I wanted to know if it was what they were all thinking.
"Nothing, Katherine Coldstone," he said gruffly, shaking my arm off. "But I know you Nords, and you're the same as any of them. You're stubborn and implacable and quick to anger, but when it comes to expressing yourself in any real manner you're suddenly all of six years old!"
I allowed myself a laugh. "I was a rather precocious six year old, then," I remarked lightly, trying to inject some humor into the situation.
He glowered at me and I sighed. "Listen to me, Arcturus," I began. "I don't know what all of you are saying about me behind my back-," he had the decency to look chagrinned and I continued, "but it's not fair to me. I have a heart, but why do you think I keep it locked away? The horrors I have seen in the last week are enough to last me all eternity and I don't need you all bothering me about being sensitive. It's a lot of nonsense," I finished smoothly.
"You'll forget how to use it," he muttered at me. "The whole principle of being a Blade is that we do love- it is a love for our emperor, granted, but without it we are less than whole. We cannot perform our duties with the proper amount of sincerity and truth."
"I'm using it," I smiled painfully. "And I love the emperor as much as you do. But I have a job to do and if I let anything- even my feelings- get in the way of my focus, all will be lost. Now leave me be on the matter, please?"
It was the most I'd ever said about myself to one person in a long time, but it seemed to appease Arcturus. He sighed and put a hand on my shoulder.
"I know you are as dedicated as anyone of us. Just…please remember that you are one of us now, too. You are a Blade and our sister in arms. We are here for you if you need us," he said softly.
I looked out the door of the small stone hut to see the first flakes of a new snowfall filtering down through the air to land on the courtyard paving stones. They stuck to the ground quietly- as I should. I nodded, placed my own hand over his and gave it a quick squeeze before removing myself from the small space. I could feel his eyes on me as I left, just as with Martin.
Making my way to the barracks, I let my thoughts wander once more. There was much to ponder this night.
Author's Note: This is my first attempt at an Oblivion fanfic; I've had the idea rattling around for a while, but I don't know if I'll continue or not. I already have so many other projects! Well, let me know if you want more of it- it's not strictly romance, of course- but I'm a girl and I play girl characters. There's no helping some fluff seeping in around the edges. :)