A/N: Well, this is my first attempt at an Oblivion fanfic. Well, actually, it's not, but the first one was written a long time ago and not very well. So you get this instead, which hopefully is better. :P A one-shot which was inspired by a line which didn't actually make it into the story, oddly enough. Anyway, enjoy – hopefully – and if you make it to the bottom, please leave a review. Constructive criticism is welcomed; flames are not.
Disclaimer: Oblivion isn't mine. End of. Unfortunately.
The Archer and The Lioness
"...and don't you dare come home late!"
I stumble out of the door and shut it quickly behind me. My aunt's voice, which has risen to a shriek, is instantly cut off by the barrier of heavy wood.
I walk swiftly away, wanting desperately to run but I do not dare. Auntie thinks that it is not proper for a young lady to run anywhere. Even if I am only a child of eight years.
So, walking very quickly, I navigate through the streets of the Temple District in the pale light of dawn. The white stones of the houses and the Temple have morphed into a soft gold colour; it is very pretty but there are few people around to admire it at this time of day.
At six o'clock in the morning, usually there are only guards about. I can hear them now – the distant sounds of clanking armour and the echo of heavy boots hitting the cobbles.
I wonder what I will do with myself for the entire day. My aunt is preparing a celebratory dinner for one of her friends and does not want me in the house. She never wants me in the house though, so this is nothing new. I think that in her mind, my mere presence gives a sense of clutter about the place and this does not rest easy with her fastidious nature.
I realise that my feet have carried me towards the Waterfront. Auntie would be displeased, but I have to spend the day somewhere. I like the Waterfront early in the morning. There is nothing but the soft rush of the water against the quayside to disturb me and I like to dangle my feet in the water itself; though I am too frightened to swim.
I walk around the lighthouse, fingertips brushing the cool, damp stone and then over the crackly parchment of a wanted poster. I descend onto the jetty and cross the water, mirrored on either side by my reflection.
When I reach the far side, I hoist myself up onto the harbour's stone wall and turn around to survey the view. It is breathtaking, the Imperial City; raised on the hillside above me, bathed in a strong golden light and against a skyline painted in streaks of pale pink and vivid orange. The light spills across Lake Rumare and it looks as though some careless god has poured liquid gold upon its surface. The hills and mountains in the far distance are still smudged in blue-black shadows but that will change as soon as the sun climbs a little higher.
I watch as the world begins to wake. The guard changes; some leave to go gladly to their beds and others come to replace them, yawning and bleary-eyed.
The crew of the Ocean Lily also stirs; under the supervision of the first mate, they stagger sleepily down the gangplank, and start to load crates and barrels onto the ship.
They are blatantly pirates. I wonder why the city guard do not arrest them.
I watch as the other residents of the Waterfront, the owners of the little shacks behind the massive wall, also began to appear gradually.
The sun inches higher and more light pours across the world. Already it is losing the golden quality of dawn and is taking on the harsher white hue of early morning.
I shiver and hug my chest with thin arms, suddenly lonely. I wish for someone else to come along, someone to play with. It is one of my more frequent longings. But I have no other children to play with, so I fall back on my other friends, the ones I can create myself.
I concentrate. Come to me, Hare. I have never seen a live hare; only the raw, skinned carcasses sold in the Market District and, once, an illustration in a book. But it is enough.
In my mind, the creature takes shape. Long, strong hind legs; made for kicking off from the ground. Shorter front legs; each paw tipped with a tiny, perfect set of hooked, black claws. Long, quivering, sensitive ears, lined with soft, white down. A silken, hazelnut-nut brown coat flows over the basic form and then, finally; the beautiful, liquid black eyes.
Then, there he is. Hare sits next to me on the stone wall, nose twitching inquisitively. What shall we do today? he asks.
"I'm not sure yet," I whisper back in a tiny voice. "Give me a moment." So he does, leaping into my lap to sit and wait. I stroke him with one hand and for a moment, Hare is so real, I can almost feel my fingertips gliding over his satin-soft fur.
Then a shadow falls across me, and him, and the illusion shatters.
"Hi!" chirps a voice.
I shrink back and, shielding my eyes against the dazzling sun, look up at the intruder. A pretty Wood Elf peers down at me, bright brown eyes examining me with curiosity. She is simply dressed in the humble clothes of the Waterfront and is perhaps two or three years older than me.
"Hi," she says again. I realise that she is looking at me with expectation.
I clear my throat and manage a quiet, "Hello."
It is barely audible but the Bosmer beams as if I had thrown my arms around her and hugged her.
"Move over," she commands. I obediently shuffle along; the instinct to obey is deeply ingrained in me.
The Wood Elf plops down on the wall beside me with surprising grace. "I've seen you around here before, lots of times," she says conversationally. "Though I'm pretty sure you don't live on the Waterfront; not with those clothes."
She tugs gently on my sleeve and I am suddenly aware of how different my garments are from hers. My clothes are by no means expensive, but they are of good quality; soft, strong and in excellent repair.
I flush, self-conscious now as I realise how out of place I look on the docks. I am so embarrassed by this that I move to jump down from the wall, to retreat back to the Imperial City, but she grabs my arm.
" Aww, please don't go! I didn't mean to upset you!" Her brown eyes plead with me to stay. "I'm bored. And lonely. Won't you stay and play with me for a while?"
I can only stare at her. I am sure my eyes are enormous with shock. No one has ever invited me to play before and a strange emotion fills my chest, a light, tingly feeling that makes me feel giddy.
I sit back down and the Wood Elf smiles so widely that it almost splits her face in half. "My name's Methredhel; what's yours?"
I hesitate for a moment, and then tell her. Methredhel repeats it slowly, as though she is tasting the syllables. "Very fancy," she comments finally, eyes alight with mirth.
I bite my lip, uncertain as to whether she is mocking me or not.
Methredhel sees this and says quickly, "I like it though." She gives me one of those enormous, beaming smiles and I can't help but smile back.
She looks delighted, as though drawing a smile from me was a huge accomplishment. "Though, personally I think it's far too fancy for everyday use."
I look at her, perplexed.
"You know..." Methredhel said, waving her arms around in a vague sort of gesture. "Like pretty plates and cutlery and stuff that you only bring out for special occasions," she elaborates.
By the end of the sentence she has adopted a strange accent. I'm not entirely sure what it is supposed to be but it sounds so odd, I can't stop a small giggle from escaping.
Methredhel grins even more widely, if that is at all possible, and says, "How about a nickname then? Keep your proper name for special stuff."
I nod, eager to hear what name she will pick for me. Methredhel surveys me and then her eyes fix on my head. "Dandelion," she says with certainty, touching my hair. "Because your hair's soft and light; like those fluffy little dandelion seeds you see floating about on the breeze."
I smile happily. It is exciting; just like dressing up in different clothes, wearing a different name makes me feel like a different person.
"So now that's settled," she says, hopping nimbly to her feet and stretching like a cat, "What shall we do today?"
I blink, startled. I had not thought this far ahead; indeed I can barely get past the fact that Methredhel wants to play with me.
She tips her head back to survey the sky. The dawn clouds have dissipated and the sky is an unbroken swathe of blue stretching from horizon to horizon. "I think it's going to be a beautiful, sunny day," she announces. "Let's go and play in the forest."
I stare at her, uncomprehending for a second, then I realise what she means. My head snaps around to look at the mainland, at the distant trees across the waters of Lake Rumare. My heart clenches fearfully.
Go over there? Leave the Imperial City? I have never set foot on the mainland before; the entirety of my short life has been lived on this island.
When I stutter this out to Methredhel, this only seems to solidify her decision. "All the more reason to go," she declares firmly.
I am torn; half-frightened, half-awed by her bravery. "B-but aren't there monsters out there? Auntie says so," I stammer. I am ashamed of my fear, my cowardice, the ice that curls around my heart, constricting. But I can't seem to help myself.
"Probably," Methredhel tosses her mane of hair, the same rich, shimmering brown as Hare's fur. "But we can handle it," she encourages, seeing my reluctance. "I play in the forests all the time; if anything scary comes along, it's fairly easy to climb a tree."
"I can teach you how to do that too," she adds, probably because of the expression on my face. I am sure that it is pure terror.
"Come on." Her hand reaches out. It hovers in front of me. I stare at it, heart beating fast in my throat.
This is already more than has ever happened to me before; already this day is seared into my memory, burning brightly, amidst the blur of endless dull weeks blending seamlessly into one another. That idea that my dreary existence – hovering on the fringes of Auntie's life, unwanted – is not all that life has to offer, is intoxicating.
The fear beating in my throat is pushed down and as I reach out and grab Methredhel's hand; an odd, almost forgotten, heady sensation rushes through my veins.
I am running. I am running. For the first time in my life I am testing my legs and it is wonderful. I am sprinting through the trees, branches snagging and tearing my clothes but I don't care, the sensation is amazing, far too amazing for me to ever want to stop.
My breath heaves in ragged gasps; I can feel the air scraping up and down my throat; my heart pounds so hard it feels as if it might burst; my legs burn with a pain utterly foreign to me; I have never felt so alive.
I am racing downhill now; going so fast down the steep incline that it really is impossible to stop and the only thing to do is keep going. The trees rush past, I am travelling too fast for my legs to keep up, and I stumble. The world suddenly jerks upside down – I am crashing down the hillside, head over heels. My eyes cannot keep up and they only register sky, earth, sky, earth, sky, earth as the scenery changes with every rotation.
The ground levels out abruptly and I slowly roll to a halt. The world spins around me in lazy, dizzy circles; a hundred different parts of my body hurt; my heart is thumping wildly; and all I can do is laugh in delight.
As I lie there, catching my breath, I am minutely aware of everything. The carpet of pine needles digs into my back and arms, a million tiny pinpricks. The sharp scent of their sap and the fragrances of a dozen different kinds of flower, whose names I wish I knew, float on the breeze. The air is filled with silvery trills and whistles; birdsong echoes through the treetops.
My heart slows and my vision gradually settles and I sit up. I am in a hollow where the steep slopes of two hills meet. The forest surrounds me. The trees wear their summer robes of emerald green; a soft breeze rustles the leaves and they sound as if they are murmuring to each other. Patches of intense blue sky can be seen through the shifting green canopy and warm sunlight floods in through gaps, dappling the forest floor. The tall trunks soar high above my head, stretching out like fingers pointing to the sky. Their bark is rough and crumbly to my exploratory touch.
The closest I have come to this before is the Imperial City Arboretum; it is a pale shadow of the real thing.
"Dandelion!" Methredhel's cry echoes through the trees. I jerk guiltily. I became too carried away in the joy of running earlier and I must have left her behind.
I climb to my feet, suddenly a little shaky. Methredhel could be so upset with me that she might not want to play anymore, or might not want bring me out into the forest again. The thought causes a pang of acute pain in my chest.
"Dandelion!"Her cry is louder this time and Methredhel suddenly bursts from the trees at the top of the slope. She spots me, and a look of relief washes across her face. She instantly begins to make her way down the incline, feet skidding on the carpet of loose pine needles.
When she reaches me, Methredhel almost stumbles too but catches herself, grabbing my shoulders to steady herself. "Wow, you are fast," she laughs breathlessly.
My heart swells at the unexpected praise and at the glint of admiration in Methredhel's eyes.
"Why did you just keep going?" she asks, straightening up as she recovers from her sprint. "It was as if you'd never run anywhere before!"
When I shift awkwardly from one foot to the other, her eyes widen in disbelief. "You have run before, right?"
"No," I murmur, feeling inexplicably ashamed. "My Aunt wouldn't let me. She says that proper young ladies don't run."
Methredhel looks incredulous. "But you can't be more than eight years old! That's part of the fun of being a child; you can run anywhere you like! I mean I'm eleven and I run all the time, wherever and whenever I please!"
Envy fills me; I can't imagine such unlimited freedom. I have already had a small taste of it this morning and I desperately crave more.
Methredhel frowns in apparent disgust. "I think that your Aunt sounds like a nasty old s'wit."
I stare at her, half-appalled, half-thrilled by her daring. I do not have the courage to voice such thoughts aloud, even though I agree.
A small, shocked giggle escapes me. My hand flies to my lips and my expression must be comical because she starts laughing. The clear, happy noise is infectious and I also begin to laugh. It comes in fits and starts then, as Methredhel chuckles even more at the odd noises I am making, it becomes full-blown laughter. It sounds hoarse, as though it is rusty from disuse – indeed I can't remember ever laughing so unrestrainedly – but that somehow makes it all the funnier. Soon we are holding each other up, tears of mirth pouring down our cheeks.
We finally stop, trailing off into the occasional giggle. I feel so absurdly happy, and oddly light; as if the laughter has lifted some heavy weight off my chest.
"Come on," says Methredhel, still giggling as she pulls me to my feet. "I have someplace that I want to show you. It's not far from here."
I am instantly curious and pepper her with questions. I am slowly relaxing around her. I have learnt that she will not scold me for asking questions, like my Aunt does. In fact, I think she enjoys answering, satisfying my rabid curiosity about everything and anything in the forest.
Eventually though, after we have been walking steadily north through the trees for about an hour or so, Methredhel asks me a question.
"Dandelion, don't you have any other friends?"
I answer indignantly, without thinking, "Of course! I have Hare and –" Instantly, I want to bite my tongue off, to snatch back the words. Why did I say that? Hare is a secret! And so are Lioness and Deer and Wolf; the rest of my imaginary companions that walk the streets of the Imperial City every day with me.
Methredhel looks confused at my reaction. "Who is Hare?" she asks.
I swallow. I can feel angry tears gathering in my eyes. If I tell her, will she laugh at me? I remember when Auntie had caught me once, when I was talking to Wolf and Lioness. She had demanded to know why I was talking to thin air.
Imaginary friends? Stupid girl, people will laugh and think you are mad if you talk to yourself! Cease such foolish, childish games; I will not have people think ill of you, and by extension, me.
"No one," I mumble.
Methredhel stops walking and catches my arm. "Hey. You can tell me," she says, serious for once.
I search her face but can see no deceit. "Promise you won't laugh," I say. My voice is unexpectedly fierce.
Methredhel looks taken aback but nods all the same. "I promise."
I hope desperately that she will keep her word. I concentrate and the image of Hare forms in my mind. I cradle him in my arms and look at her. "Here he is," I say, motioning to the crook of my arm with my free hand.
Methredhel looks puzzled. "Here," I insist, motioning again. She still looks blankly at me and I stare at her defiantly, tears of embarrassment rushing to my eyes again.
Finally, her face clears in understanding and she sighs gustily. "Oh, I get it," Methredhel nods. "Only you can see him. That's like me and Fox."
I stare at her in disbelief, barely daring to hope. She really does understand. She is the same; her imagination keeps her company.
"You..." my voice sticks and I clear my throat. "...you...have invisible friends too?"
Methredhel nods seriously. The tension has drained from the atmosphere and we begin walking again. "Only the one though," she says. "Do you have more?"
Suddenly eager to share them someone who completely understands, I tell her all about them as we climb a steep hillside; wise Hare, patient Deer, cunning Wolf and brave Lioness. But most of all Lioness. I crave her beauty, her strength and her courage. She would be able to stand up to my Aunt; she would be brave enough to tell her when she was wrong.
Methredhel listens intently as the words spill out of me like a dam bursting; it is the most I have ever talked in my life. She seems happy that I am speaking more than one sentence at a time.
Then we come over the crest of the hill and I am silenced for a moment in awe. Ahead of us the trees thin a little and the crumbling, majestic ruin of an old fort sits proudly in the long grasses. The stone, though worn by weather and time, is still a bright white and glows in the sunlight.
"Fort Coldcorn!" announces Methredhel happily. "This was the place I wanted to show you. It's safe to play in; some guards on horseback cleared out all the monsters a few days ago."
I am unable to speak. I had barely thought about the possible danger of lurking monsters; all I can see is the wonderful playground ahead of me. Even more thrilling is the idea that battles were once fought here. Once, it was not make-believe.
"Let's play at soldiers!" squeaks Methredhel, her voices swooping up in pitch as her excitement rises. She races away through the waist-high sea of waving grass and I tear after her, my own excitement rising in my throat and emerging as a whoop.
We scramble over a broken wall into the fort and race up a set of crumbling stairs. Soon we are running around, jumping recklessly from walls and ledges onto ruined stumps of pillars and back again. My caution is forgotten; lost in the intoxicating thrill of the fort and the newfound sense of daring, inspired by Methredhel's presence.
"Captain, there are Bandits attacking!" shouts Methredhel. Her hands curl around thin air as she draws back an invisible bowstring, sighting along an imaginary arrow. I picture it; the long curve of the bow, dark seasoned wood, oiled and glistening in the sun. I see the bowstring, taut and thrumming, eager to release.
She lets go and the arrow flies free; it is too fast for me to see and I whirl around to see it bury itself in the first Bandit through the walls. I unsheathe my sword and charge at the rest of the Bandits; I spin and duck and weave, slice and cut and stab, light on my feet, faster and faster, as Methredhel rains death down upon them all around me.
I stop, breathing hard, exhilarated despite the fact our enemies were figments of our imaginations. I wish I could fight for real.
"Well done, Captain!" Methredhel bounces down the stairs and sweeps me up in a hug. I am almost positive that Generals do not usually hug their Captains but I don't say anything. I liked being hugged by Methredhel. She smells of the forest flowers that I do not know the names of, and of fresh air, and of freedom.
"I've thought of a nickname for you, too," I say shyly as she releases me.
Methredhel bounces excitedly on the spot, her dark eyes shining with eagerness. "Oh, tell me, tell me!"
"Archer," I say, hoping that she approves.
Methredhel seems to mull this over for a moment, and then nods happily. "I like it!" she announces. "One day, when I'm grown up, I'm going to be the best archer in the whole of Tamriel – so it fits perfectly!"
Her voice is so certain, her confidence so complete, I can almost believe her by force of conviction alone.
"Hey, what's that?" she asks, spotting something. Methredhel stops leaping around and darts over to a shady corner of the fort floor. I follow.
"Look!" cries Methredhel, almost beside herself with excitement. "A chest! A real, live treasure chest!" She pulls at the lid eagerly and the wood gives easily; it is rotten and crumbling.
I peer over her shoulder. I am disappointed to see that it is filled with mouldering cloth. Methredhel is not so easily deterred, however. She lifts it all out and is rewarded by the small item hiding at the bottom. "A dagger!" she exclaims, picking up the weapon and turning it over in her hands. The metal is tarnished but not rusted; this makes me think that it might be steel, rather than iron.
"You should have it, 'Lion," Methredhel says. I am startled by her generosity in giving away her treasure. I also notice the shortening of my moniker; from 'Dandelion' to just 'Lion'. I like it. That way I can pretend that I really do have Lioness' bravery.
"Are you sure?" I ask, hesitant.
"Of course," Methredhel says cheerfully. "I prefer bows," she says, winking.
"Thank you," I say in awe, as she hands the dagger to me. I study the gift with happiness as she springs to her feet.
"Meet you at the top of the fort!" Methredhel cries and then races away up the stairs.
I linger for a moment longer, savouring my happiness. Then I hear a shout from above me, a warning cry and a chill washes over me as I hear the note of real alarm in Methredhel's voice.
I turn around swiftly and for a second it is as if my imagination has sprung to life and Wolf is running through a gap in the wall, coming to greet me. Then I realise that the wolf is not my Wolf.
Its eyes are not gold, but black, and its jaws are parted in a vicious snarl, thick ropes of saliva dripping from its red maw as it sprints towards me.
It reaches me before I have a chance to do more than stumble back a step, terrified. Its heavy paws hit my stomach, sending us both crashing to the ground. My arms fly up instinctively and my hands catch the wolf's throat. I strain to hold it off me, my thin arms trembling madly as the wolf's jaws snap an inch from my face. I am distantly aware of my terror but it is numbed in some way; by shock and adrenaline perhaps.
The hot, rank breath blasts me and saliva splashes my face. I can see the hunger in its dark eyes and suddenly Auntie's voice echoes in my head.
You stupid, weak child –
You wouldn't last a minute in the world without me –
I took you in out of the goodness of my heart and you repay me by embarrassing me in front of guests –
I am suddenly, abruptly furious. The anger pushes back the fear, and I use it like a crutch. With the strength of fury, I heave upwards, pushing the wolf back a little, and one hand flies out to the side, searching, seeking for the dagger that I dropped –
My fingers close over the hilt, just as the strength in my other arm fails. The wolf's own momentum coming down on me ensures that the blade stabs it through the eye with great force. As it jerks back, yowling in pained fury, vicious satisfaction and a sort of fierce pleasure races through me.
I lung forward and stab it hard through the other eye. Blood splatters my face and gushes over my hand. I feel the reverberation of the metal scraping bone, tearing tissue and the wolf pulls away, trying to run. It only manages a few steps before it slumps to the ground; blood soaks the grey fur, smears on the gold and green grasses, pools on the dry earth.
The blood is shockingly red on my white skin and I am shaking; with an odd mixture of terror, revulsion and exhilaration.
I did that! Me! I killed that wolf, I defended myself – I saved my own life! You are wrong, Auntie; I am not weak, I can protect myself!
The realisation is heady, almost as good as wolf's surprised pain when dinner unexpectedly fought back.
I can fight, I can do it, I can control my own fate, I can kill –
I want to do it again.
The thought is there, blindingly clear for one instant, then it dissolves as a voice cries, "Lion!"
My exhilaration dissipates; I am abruptly anxious, anxious for Methredhel's approval. I have killed something; perhaps she won't want to play anymore. Pain swells in my chest at the thought.
She comes hurtling down the staircase, wide-eyed and panicky, and immediately engulfs me in a hug, heedless of the blood soaking my clothes.
"Oh, Lion, that was so brave of you!" Methredhel clings to me, as if reassuring herself that I am still there. Warmth fills me at her concern.
Methredhel pulls back, examining me carefully, worry in her brown eyes. "I can't believe you fought off that wolf – and actually managed to kill it!" She casts an awed glance at the corpse. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," I mumble, but it is a lie; I am more than fine, I am glowing – both with her praise and my achievement.
Methredhel gasps. "Oh! Your arm!"
I look down; to my surprise there is a long, shallow slice in my upper arm. I can't recall how I got it but a thin ribbon of blood is already trailing down to my elbow.
As Methredhel fusses, tearing off a strip of her shirt to bind the wound, I can't help watching it; fascinated. I have never seen my own blood before. I fancy that it is a brighter red than the wolf's blood.
As I am thinking this, I recall the sensation I had felt as I stabbed the wolf. The fierceness, the violent satisfaction...
...a new shape shimmers in my mind's eye. It is huge, bigger than any of my other animals. It has a rippling pelt of black fur; massive paws with elongated, curving claws; a wedge-shaped head; a long, oddly delicate snout and intelligent black eyes.
"I have a new friend," I tell Methredhel as she is binding my wound.
"Oh?" she says, looking up as she ties the final knot.
"Yes," I smile dreamily. "Her name is Bear, and she is ferocity."
"You will be here, tomorrow, won't you?" Methredhel asks hopefully.
It is late evening and we have returned to the Waterfront; long shadows stretch across the harbour now. The white stone of the Imperial City is scarlet in the light of the dying sun and the sky is ablaze; streaks of orange, cerise, ruby, and burnt umber radiate out from the horizon and the clouds' underbellies are lined with molten gold.
"Yes," I smile, a little uncertain but happy with her attention. My confidence has grown under her praise and encouragement today but it is still such an odd sensation; to be wanted. I revel in it.
"Good," Methredhel says, beaming. It lights up her whole face, kindling the warmth in her brown eyes. "I can't wait!"
I watch, surrounded by my menagerie, as my best friend dances away from me along the quay; as she is swallowed up by the heat haze still shimmering above the cobbles.
Wolf, my cunning, presses against my side, his golden eyes bright and eager. Deer, my patience, rests her head on my shoulder, sighing happily. Bear, my newfound ferocity, rumbles quietly beside me, a small, black mountain. And Hare, my wisdom, sits at my feet, looking up at me with intelligence glinting in his black eyes.
But one is missing. Lioness no longer paces by my side. Instead, I feel her inside of me; shimmering just under my skin, flowing through my veins, present in every breath I draw. Lioness is my courage; and Archer has given her back to me.
I think of the wolf that I killed today, and of the dagger, Archer's gift, hidden under my newly-washed clothes; cold metal pressed against my skin, beside the warmth of my beating heart. I think of the dagger, I think of the wolf, I remember the blood, scarlet on white and I think of Auntie –
Antoinetta Marie, you are –
The dagger is a promise.
One day. One day soon, Auntie; I will show you how weak I am.
Bear rumbles her approval.