Two Imperial Legion ships were tied at the dock, and two dozen men swiftly unloaded food, medical supplies, and clothing onto the shore. Twenty Legion soldiers in shining armor marched up to the fort, or what remained of it. Another ship was scheduled to arrive in a few hours, carrying an architect, carpenters and masons, and tools and construction supplies. Already they were clearing away the wreckage of the fort and preparing to rebuild.
I stood by the shore, wrapping my arms around myself and enjoying the cold breeze. My throat was still sore and my voice had a raspy sound to it, but that would go away in another day or two. The burns on my arms and back would also heal, but they would leave scars behind. I was okay with scars. My father once told me that scars were evidence of bravery and to show them proudly. I would not have called the ragged burn marks along my shoulders and across my upper back evidence of anything but foolishness, but I would still be proud of them.
Although my wounds could have been far worse. I had fallen from the window to the burning deck, and if I had landed on my stomach instead of my back, then I would likely have burns across my face. Instead, I just burned my back, and my hair was shorter than it used to be. They had to pull me off of the deck and smother the flames with snow. I didn't remember any of that, thankfully.
I shivered a bit and smiled to myself, watching the workers unpack crates and boxes from the ships. One of them was the weekly supply ship, and the captain stood on the deck and waved to me, and I smiled and waved back. When more soldiers came down from the fort with a cart to haul the supplies back, I decided to follow them up the dirt road to the remains of the fort.
Little was left except an outline of the main wall, and the corner towers, which were mostly intact, since they were built of stone instead of wood. But the interior of the fort was nothing but ashes and debris. I didn't bother to go inside, since I would only be in the way there. Lined up in rows outside the fort were tents large and small, temporary shelter for the dozens of people still assigned there, Legion soldiers and Imperial cultists alike.
The Nords had returned to their villages the morning after the attack at Raven Rock, celebrating their victory and drunk with the thrill of battle. By the time I had woken up, most of them had gone. Skjoldr Wolf-Runner and a few others had remained to see me before they left, and they cautiously asked me what my plans were, careful to not give away my identity. I had told them that I didn't know yet, and that was the truth. They had wished me luck, promised that I was welcome in Thirsk always, and then departed for home.
I wandered over toward the tents, and several guards watched me pass. Rumors of my exploits had spread through the camp almost as soon as we had returned, and already the soldiers were calling me the Nord Battle Queen and other ridiculous nicknames, while at the same time showing me a fair amount of respect and loyalty. I smiled politely and tried to ignore it, but I guess I had developed a bit of a reputation, and losing a reputation was much harder than gaining one.
I caught a glimpse of Gaea and Cavorian by the fort entrance, directing traffic and ordering men around. Gaea was in her armor, apparently none the worse for wear after getting hit with a crossbow bolt a few days before. It had barely penetrated her armor and left her with nothing but a minor flesh wound and a nasty bruise. If Carnius Magius had aimed a bit to the right and slightly higher, it might have struck her in the throat. Thankfully, he had been aiming for me instead.
"Hello there, Captain Artoria," I said with a smile.
"Very funny," Gaea said, smiling back. "I'm only acting as Captain."
"Not yet, you're not," Cavorian reminded her. "Don't get ahead of yourself. As long as I'm still here, there's only one Captain on Solstheim, and that's me."
"Yes, sir," Gaea said, holding back her smile.
"And what do you think you're doing out here?" Cavorian said, glaring at me almost comically. "Shouldn't you be sleeping or wrestling a grizzly bear, or whatever it is that Nords do for fun?"
"There aren't any grizzly bears around," I said with a shrug. "So I went for a walk down to the shore. They were unloading the boats."
"Good," Cavorian grunted. "Hopefully we can get everything brought up here and sorted out by midday. Then we can transport the prisoners to the ships and hold them there until we leave tomorrow."
All the prisoners taken during the attack on the fort and the subsequent attack on Raven Rock were currently being held on the other side of the fort. The Legion had managed to salvage some leg and wrist irons from the basement of the armory and shackled the prisoners together, and then staked the chains into the ground to keep anyone from escaping. The prisoners were given a blanket and allowed to sleep on the ground, and had a dozen Legion soldiers watching them at all times.
"You're still planning on leaving so soon?"
Cavorian nodded and reached up to rub his mustache thoughtfully. "My superiors back in the Imperial City will want a report as soon as possible. And there is a lot of work to be done, and no reason for me to stick around here. Once the construction starts and things get settled, Artoria will be in charge until the new commander arrives in a few weeks. They haven't even chosen someone for the job yet."
"Hopefully they choose better than they did last time," Gaea muttered.
"I agree," Cavorian said. "But I think the Legion also needs to improve the morale here from the ground up. Prevent the men here from getting so frustrated and insubordinate. Perhaps limit the assignments to six months instead of a year, that sort of thing. Poor morale is partly to blame for this whole disaster, so the Legion will have to deal with that problem so this sort of thing doesn't happen again."
As the first cartload of supplies approached the fort, Cavorian wandered off to yell orders and tell everyone where to go.
"It's a shame he can't stay here as the commander," Gaea said.
"He probably doesn't want to," I replied. "He needs problems to solve and constant action to keep him occupied. Staying here would drive him nuts."
"Good point," Gaea chuckled. She stepped closer and gave my hand a squeeze. "I better go follow him before he misses me. I'll be around later."
"Okay then, see you for dinner."
"Alright," she said, trailing after Cavorian.
I tucked my hands into my pockets and rocked back and forth on my heels absentmindedly, when I noticed two Legion guards watching me from the fort entrance. When they saw me noticing them, they tried to pretend they were doing something else.
"What are you two looking at?" I asked.
"Nothing, ma'am," one of them said awkwardly.
"Well, go look at nothing somewhere else."
They made themselves scarce, and I shook my head in vague annoyance. One of the other juicy pieces of gossip circulating through the camp, aside from my nearly suicidal assault on a burning building, was the growing relationship between Gaea and I. Pretty much everyone, including Cavorian himself as far as I knew, suspected that Gaea and I were either lovers or would soon become lovers. Some of them had already known that Gaea was attracted to women, and I did nothing to quell such rumors about myself, so it didn't bother me.
But regardless of my close relationship with her, the most that we could ever be was very close friends. I could love her like a sister, but not as a partner. She understood that and respected my feelings, but she still made affectionate little gestures like touching my hand on occasion. My only worry was that if I stayed at the fort too long, she might think I intended to stay there with her.
There was nothing for me to do, so I went back to the tent area and sat around a campfire with Mirisa, her fiance Jeleen, and some of the other Cultists and we chatted for awhile. A little while later, Reinhardt Red-Spear returned to the fort from his trip north to his cabin in the woods. I hadn't even realized until he had left the day before that I had never learned where Reinhardt actually lived. It turned out that he usually resided in a secluded cabin northwest of the fort, although he spent a great deal of time here as well as the Nord villages. He returned with a pack full of supplies, dried meat and food, and some healing potions and medical items.
As he handed them out to the Cult members and other civilians resting around the tents, I walked up to him. "Feeling better?" I asked.
He sighed and stretched his back, shaking his head. "Not really. I probably should have waited another day before heading back."
"You were still pretty sick from the infection, weren't you?"
He shrugged. "I didn't feel like sitting around here for another day."
"How's your arm?"
Reinhardt pulled up his sleeve to show off the dark red scabs marking the entrance and exit wounds from the arrow that had gone through his forearm. The area around the scabs was tender and sore, but there was no pus and it was no longer infected.
"That's almost as bad as my arm," I said.
Reinhardt rolled his sleeve back down. "Well, let's not bother to compare scars. I have a feeling you have more war wounds than me."
"Not too many more. I can usually get away without a scratch."
"Sure you can," Reinhardt said with a grin. "They told me your hair caught on fire."
"The whole building was on fire," I said defensively. "Besides, I think I like my hair shorter like this."
Since Reinhardt and I were still not fully recovered from our injuries, we both decided to get some rest in the afternoon. I laid down on some blankets and propped up my jacket under my head, and sat back to watch the Legion soldiers bring up more cartloads of supplies and sort them out in front of the line of tents. There was more warm clothing and blankets, weapons and armor, crates and barrels of food and drink, pots and kitchen utensils, rolls of parchment with ink and quills, bandages and more medical supplies, even pouches full of spell components as well as a mortar and pestle to combine them. Almost everything in the entire fort had been destroyed in the fire, so that meant the Legion had to ship everything here as if stocking up a brand new outpost. And on top of that, Raven Rock also had to be rebuilt. In the coming days, there would be many more supply ships.
"How long do you think it will be until things get back to normal?" I asked Reinhardt, who lay beside me, wrapped up in more blankets.
He sipped from a jug of water. "It will probably take at least two months to rebuild the fort, so not until then. They're going to build the command office first. Once the roof is on, that will serve as temporary housing until the guard quarters and Cult office are finished."
"Are you going to stay here for awhile and help out?"
He gave me a sideways glance. "I should be asking you that question."
I have not given much thought yet to my future. "I'll stay here for a little while, I guess," I said after a moment. "The Nords know who I am now, and Skjoldr told me that I was welcome in Thirsk whenever I wanted. I was thinking I might spend some time up there, spend some time with my own people for a change. Maybe go and visit the northern tribes as well."
"What about Skyrim?"
"I don't know. Maybe going back there is a bad idea."
"Worried what they might make of your return?"
"Something like that," I admitted. "If I go back home, they might ..." I hesitated, not sure what I meant to say. "They might expect me to continue on with my father's fight. They might want me to go to war again, to live up to his memory. But I don't want to do that, I just want to live a normal life."
Reinhardt nodded thoughtfully. "That sounds like a good idea. Living a normal life might be nice."
I rolled onto my side, facing him, and propped my head up on my arm. "Is that what you want too? A normal life?" I asked.
"Well, I think my career as an informant is just about over," Reinhardt chuckled. "My job was to gather information and keep track of what was happening here at the fort, but I totally blew that mission. My reports to Cavorian were practically useless in retrospect. Maybe it's time for me to find a new occupation."
"I don't even have an occupation at all," I sighed. "I need to figure out what I'm going to do for a living. I don't want to be a fighter anymore, I've seen enough of combat and conflict to last me the rest of my life."
We ate some lunch and talked about our lives for awhile. Reinhardt told me that he had been born in Skyrim but moved to Vvardenfell when he was fourteen to work in the Fighter's Guild, which then led to connections in the Legion, which led to his eventual assignment here on Solstheim. I told him a little about my father and our final battle that came to be known as the Snow-Crown Rebellion, and about my years in prison. I regretted the fact that I didn't really have much to tell about my life. I hadn't done very much with my life so far, except be a soldier and then a prisoner. I suddenly realized how much I had missed.
"They're taking the prisoners down to the boats," Reinhardt said, pointing.
I sat up to see Cavorian and Gaea leading a group of ragged-looking prisoners toward the front of the fort. They were chained together and shuffled in their shackles. A few people took the time to throw clumps of dirt at them or spit curses at them. I slid out of my blanket and slowly stood up.
"Just let it go, Sasha," Reinhardt said, looking up at me.
"I'll be just a minute," I said as I stepped away.
They lined up the prisoners in a row and moved on to get the next group. There were about twenty-five prisoners in all, some of them nursing injuries. The first group of eight stood wearily in their chains, looking at the ground or looking at their dirty hands. For the most part, they were dressed in whatever clothes they had been captured in.
Falx's red silk shirt was torn and smudged with soot, one arm exposed when the sleeve had been ripped away. A bandage was wrapped around his upper arm and shoulder, and another was wrapped around his head to cover the burns he had suffered when he fell from the window. His jet black hair dangled across his forehead like dead seaweed, and his eyes were sunken with bags underneath them. Blood was smeared across his cheek from a split lip that no one had bothered to put ointment on. His body seemed to sag under the weight of the shackles, and I stood in front of him for almost a minute before he noticed me.
"Come to wish me goodbye?" he asked wearily, blinking his eyes. "Or did you finally change your mind and decide to join me?"
I crossed my arms and studied him, wondering if I still had the energy to hate him. But I could only feel sorry for him now, chained and defeated as he was. My hate had burned away in the fire. Falx wasn't evil, but there was something deeply wrong with him, something I could not repair.
"I thought you might want to have one last look at me before they take you away," I said. "I've spent some time in the Imperial prison myself, so I know what it's like there, and I can tell you that it isn't very fun. You'll probably spend the rest of your life there."
Falx managed a broken smile. "They might let me out in twenty or thirty years. If they do let me out some day, do you think I could come and see you? Would twenty years be enough time for you to forgive me?"
"No, I don't think so. You broke my heart, Falx."
"That's the only regret I have," he said solemnly.
The Legion soldiers yanked on the chains and the prisoners began walking down the road toward the dock. Falx cast one final, sad glance at me and then shuffled in his chains to keep up. I stepped away as the rest of the prisoners were taken away from the fort, watching them go with a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that some justice had been served. Whatever my own crimes against the Legion were, this time I had done the right thing. Within a few minutes, the prisoners were gone, the sound of their chains fading away in the distance.
"Good riddance," Cavorian grunted, sneaking up beside me.
"Do you still wish to have them all executed?" I asked.
He rubbed his mustache. "Murderers and thieves, the lot of them. Even the disgraced Captain Carius would be better off in a shallow grave. But I'm not the one who makes those decisions. Most of them will probably be thrown in prison, maybe some of them sold into slavery on Morrowind, perhaps. A few might see the gallows, though."
"Have your men checked out the hideout in the mountains?"
"Yes, my men came back this morning and said the entire compound was deserted. It's possible a few might have escaped, but where would they escape to? If the wilderness doesn't kill them, the Nords might."
"That's true," I said. "I guess that the Legion and the Nords have a real alliance now, don't they? We worked well together the other day."
"That we did," Cavorian said with a short nod. "Let's see if we can maintain that spirit of cooperation. It would serve us well in the future."
"It certainly would," I agreed.
"I better go down to the ships to oversee the loading of the prisoners," Cavorian said.
"Don't let me stop you," I said. "As for me, I think I'm going to curl up in a blanket and take a nap until dinner. Have a good day, Captain," I said as I walked away.
"And to you too," Cavorian said. "Have a good day, Ms. Snow-Crown."
I froze in mid-step and felt my breath catch in my throat. I thought maybe I had misheard him. But no, he had called me by my real name.
I turned slowly to see Cavorian standing where I had left him, his hands on his hips and a smug smile on his face. He tilted his head a bit and reached up to stroke his mustache again.
"How long have you known?" I asked.
"Since I first saw you here," he said with a grin. "You don't think I could have forgotten about the Snow Wolf's daughter, do you? I was there when they took you prisoner after the rebellion, although I suppose you didn't see me."
I didn't even know what to say, so I just shook my head. "So what are you going to do about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you going to take me prisoner too?"
"Why would I do that?" Cavorian asked. "You were released from prison by official decree. I have nothing to arrest you for."
"Official decree?" I asked incredulously.
Cavorian looked curiously at me. "You mean you don't know why they set you free from prison?"
"I have no idea at all. No one told me anything," I said. "They dumped me in Morrowind and gave me a package to deliver. I thought some politician had paid for my release for some reason."
Cavorian let out a short laugh and stepped toward me. He lowered his voice somewhat and said, "Sasha, your release decree was signed by the Emperor himself, Uriel Septim VII. He's the one who ordered your release."
"What?" I said, dumbfounded. "Why in the world would the Emperor care about someone like me? How did he know I even existed?"
"I don't know why he set you free," Cavorian said. "But I do know that the Emperor is a peculiar man. He believes in prophecies and visions of the future, things like that. He's been known to give out strange orders from time to time, based on visions he has, what he thinks are predictions of the future."
"And … he had a vision about me?"
"Maybe," Cavorian said with a shrug. "But he must have had some very important reason to release a dangerous enemy of the Imperial Legion like you."
"My father was the dangerous one," I said. "I'm not your enemy, I don't know if I ever really was."
Cavorian gave me a warm smile. "I know you're not," he said. "Maybe the Emperor knows it too, maybe that's why he set you free. Just something to think about."
When I turned to respond, Cavorian was already heading down the road to the dock, shouting an order to a passing guard. I remained there for a few minutes, going over what he had said a few more times, until I was hopelessly confused.
I wandered around the walls of the fort, lost in my thoughts. Uriel Septim himself had been the one to sign my release? Cavorian's talk of prophecies and predictions utterly bewildered me, and I could not even fathom how I could be involved in any kind of prophecy. It all seemed too crazy to me.
"There you are," Reinhardt said, coming up behind me. "We were wondering where you had gone."
"I was just thinking," I said. "Cavorian told me something pretty strange."
"What did he say?"
I smiled and shook my head. "Maybe later. But it turns out Cavorian knows who I really am, and he says that my release from prison was official, so I'm a free citizen again."
"That sounds like good news," Reinhardt said.
"I suppose it is."
"So what are you going to do with your new found freedom?"
"I don't know," I said softly, wrapping my arms around myself as a cold wind blew across the clearing. Lonely flakes of snow drifted here and there, as the sky began to cloud up.
"What little money I had burned up in the fort. I have no useful skills except with a sword, and I don't want to do that anymore. All I have are the clothes on my back, just like when they dropped me off in Seyda Neen. Maybe I'll stick around here and get a job as a miner when Raven Rock opens back up," I said with a short laugh.
Reinhardt stood beside me and looked into the trees. "I was thinking about packing up and moving back to Morrowind," he said. "I still have some friends in the Fighter's Guild. I could find a job in Balmora."
"That's where I was supposed to go," I said. "I was supposed to meet someone in Balmora and give him that package."
"Well, maybe you could come along with me."
"I threw the package away," I chuckled. "And besides, I don't know who –"
I turned and suddenly noticed the way that Reinhardt was looking at me, and I lost my train of thought. I realized that his invitation was more than just an offer to travel with him. I had not even considered the idea that Reinhardt might have feelings for me.
"Reinhardt," I said warily. "Are you asking what I think you're asking?"
"Maybe," he said, stepping closer to me. When we were almost touching, he lifted his hands to rub my arms gently, looking into my eyes.
I smirked and turned away from him. "I don't know about this," I said, but he continued to stroke my arms. "You said some very bad things about me the other day. You said I was going to get you killed, you said I was being stupid. You even called me a brat, if I remember correctly."
He lowered his head to whisper in my ear, "I did call you a brat. But that's only because you were acting like a brat. It's one of the things I like about you."
"I thought you liked your women more traditional?"
"I might have been lying just a bit about that."
I didn't know how to feel, but I stood there quietly and let Reinhardt's hands move up my arms and to my shoulders. Reinhardt was a good man, I was sure of that. And he was handsome in his own way. He had his faults, but I realized with a smile that his own faults were my own faults as well. Maybe the two of us were a perfect match.
Reinhardt leaned closer against me, and when I was certain he was about to try to kiss me, I quickly stepped away and left him embracing empty air.
"You're going to have to work a lot harder than that," I said with a wide smile, skipping away from him. "I like to play hard to get."
"That's what I was hoping you would say," Reinhardt said.
We returned to the tent area a little while later, walking hand in hand. The smell of cooking food greeted us, and we sat down to share a meal with the Imperial Cult members, Mirisa and Jeleen, and Liman was there as well.
They were my friends, I thought. They weren't just members of the Cult or the Legion, I realized, they were more than that. Reinhardt, Gaea, even grouchy old Captain Cavorian. They were my friends, my family. We sat together and laughed and joked, until the sun began to set and the sky became dark, and the campfires were loaded with firewood to keep them bright throughout the night.
I walked out past the tents and stood out in the open, the cold air chilling me, my breath coming out in white puffs. Reinhardt came up behind me and slid his arms around my waist. I smiled to myself and leaned back against him.
"Will you come to Balmora with me?" he asked.
I nodded. "Yes, I think I will. But not yet, we have to stay at least until the fort is completed."
"Agreed, we'll stay until then."
"It still feels strange to me, though."
"Being happy," I said. "Having a future. I never thought I might have a chance to live a normal life. I don't even know what a normal life is like."
"I'm sure we'll do just fine," Reinhard said, holding me close.
We stood together out in the evening air, looking out beyond the trees to the ocean on the horizon, as a gentle snow began to fall.