AN: Apologies for the delay, hopefully this story is back on track now. Thank you for your patience.

Chapter 18

Blood on the Snows

"When the winds howl low, the Nord woman knows, her man won't return, he is blood on the snows."-A selection from an ancient Nordic lament, "Blood on the Snows" 1E 303

His breath hung in the air before him like a cloud, the snow whipping against his cheeks as his horse pawed the ground, whinnying nervously. Quintus patted the side of her neck gently, whispering softly in her ear, "Steady old girl, steady." Winterhold glared up at the invaders, like a turtle withdrawing into its shell.

Quintus was uncomfortable.

Rikke's words about nordic loyalties rung deep in his mind, worrying him about the future assault. The Legate had sent Hadvar into the city to inform all its inhabitants of the upcoming attack. All loyalist citizens were to gather their belongings and flee behind the Imperial lines; their safety assured. After that was done, he'd order the attack. His hope was that most of Winterhold's inhabitants wouldn't be fool enough to stand and fight a hopeless battle. With luck, enough loyalists would leave, destabilizing the city's defense. He hoped his kindness hadn't been a foolhardy mistake.

"He's been gone some time." Stragg Long-Runner observed from his position at Quintus' shoulder. The Skaal's horse bucked furiously, neighing loudly against the storm.

"Hadvar knows what he's doing, moving a large group takes time." The Legate responded to his second with crisp, even tones. He knew his statement was logical, yet he struggled to believe it himself.

Hadvar is just taking the time he needs, he'll be back with most the town. Clearly, they can see how outmatched they are.

Jarl Korir was a proud man, descended from proud stock. Quintus knew that much based on the report he'd studied before planning this attack. Korir's sympathies were decidedly Stormcloak; very much Nord independence and old ways. He was bold, heroic and stubborn. In another life, the Legate would have called him friend. Yet fate decreed they would meet as enemies and Quintus didn't bother battling it; resisting fate was the place of the philosopher, not the soldier.

"We need to attack soon," Stragg commented, shifting in his saddle almost casually. "Hadvar or no; we're giving the rebels far too much time to fortify."

Quintus gestured towards the pitiful looking stockade walls surrounding Winterhold, where, already, a few guards could be seen shoring up the walls to the best of their ability. "They can't do much, not against the force we've assembled. I want to give the loyalists time to reach safety. We will not punish any who remain true to our cause for the sake of geography. Give it time."

Stragg nodded understandingly, gazing back towards the town. "They've got some bows."

Quintus gestured behind him with his thumb. Several units of archers, legionaries and levies pulled from several cities, readied their bows, waiting on his command to unleash their volley. "We will rain death upon them," the Legate commented, matter-of-fact, the tone of a man confident in his plan without arrogance.

A rain of arrows would begin the assault, hammering down on the defenders; that rain would be followed by a mass infantry charge, bashing the feeble gates down and scaling the pitiful walls. With the gates shattered and open, the infantry would push into the center of Winterhold, taking it from the rebels. Quintus would lead the strike on the Longhouse, capturing Korir if possible, killing him if not. With the Jarl removed, the remaining resistance would crumble.

But Quintus was banking on something yet to happen, a good portion of Winterhold's remaining population leaving quickly with Hadvar. His nervousness was justified with a delay he did not anticipate. It was his first command underneath the new title of Legate, a promotion he wasn't sure he deserved. Someone had to lead the damn attack, he just hadn't expected it to be him. He'd shown no fear before Tullius and the others and he wouldn't show it now. Quintus was an Imperial, born and bred. He would act worthy of his blood.

It wasn't good for the morale of the army at his back to let his nervousness be known. He sat straight on his horse, chin up, free hand resting on the pommel of his shortsword, cape blowing with the wind. He remained in that posture until the loyalists began leaving the city.

Hadvar's horse was a dark gray beast, more akin to a bull than stallion, which considering the climate was a wise choice. The man looked decidedly unhappy with whatever news he was bringing back as he trotted over to Quintus. Behind Hadvar, a small stream of disheveled people trickled past the Imperial line to the area the Legate had set aside for refugees. It seemed he'd overestimated how much space they would need.

Hadvar slammed a fist against his chest in a salute that the Legate returned. "Legate Descimus, Quaestor Hadvar reporting with the status of town loyalties." Hadvar's face suggested he'd rather have his right hand removed than deliver this message.

"Go on man." Quintus nodded, putting a slight smile on his face as a sign of reassurance.

"Sir, there are more Stormcloaks here than anticipated; hardly anyone came with me, perhaps one in five, almost none of them guards. It seems Ulfric has wormed his way into the hearts of these people."

"Like thorns chocking out the wheat," Stragg commented, "They poison what is good and steal the place of the crop."

"Today we pluck the thorns before the wheat is beyond saving." Quintus responded seriously. "Captain Long-Runner, inform the archers to fire on my mark. Before the day is over, I want the dragon banner hoisted over that Longhouse." Taking his helm in both hands, Quintus placed it over his head, hiding his face from the world. He was an extension of the empire now, no longer a man. "One more thing," it was almost an afterthought, his words muffled behind the helm. "Find a suitable replacement Jarl among those still loyal to the empire. I am afraid Korir will be quite unable to continue in the position after today."

Stragg gave a salute and spurred his horse into action. The Prefect watched his friend ride off towards the archers and refugees before turning his gaze back on the town.

"Hadvar, you will stay with me, you will keep to my shoulder. Understood?"

"Yes, Legate."

Quintus smiled. Fear was gone, nervousness gone, anxiety, gone. It was in the hands of the Eight now.

"You can't go out there, my Jarl!" Malur was rarely concerned for Korir. The steward spent more time slinking off to drink sujamma in the corner than actually do any work. Yet now, with death knocking on the door, the Dunmer steward actually cared about his Jarl's fate, and by extension his own. "If you fight those soldiers, you will die."

Korir ignore him, holding up both arms. His bodyguard, a great boar of a man of whom Malur never bothered learning the name, began buckling the plate arm-guards onto them. The Jarl's plate mail shone brightly, each steel plate pristine and maintained. "I will not hide in the Longhouse when my people fight to defined my home," he responded tersely, letting his guard continue the task of preparing him for combat. "Malur, fetch me wax and paper."

The steward bustled off to do as he was bid, rubbing his ash-colored hands together nervously as he did. "My Jarl, please reconsider. Beg the Empire for mercy, please surrender and save yourself and what's left of Winterhold. We've already lost half the city to a disaster, let us not lose the other half to the sword."

The guard finished buckling the left arm-guard and Korir let the limb drop. He shot Malur a flinty glare, his dull red beard giving the look a terrifying twist, as if he'd been drinking blood. "I will not bend the knee to elves, I will not sacrifice the freedom of my people for a little more time and I will not disgrace the true High King by abandoning him now. We will make them pay in blood for Winterhold!" His guard continued with the straps on the left, paying no attention to the Jarl's passionate outburst.

Korir was clearly made by the gods to be Jarl and his wrath was something to fear. He was tall, brawny and fair of face. He was handsome, in a rough, nordic manner. His shoulder length hair matched the bloody beard on his face; it was clean and pulled back. Each tooth in his mouth remained white, an uncommon thing for a warrior.

Heavy leather gloves soon covered Korir's hands as Malur brought the wax, candle and paper, placing them on the writing desk set before the Jarl. The Longhouse that had formerly seemed so safe, despite the cataclysm that had swallowed more than half of Winterhold almost eighty years prior, now seemed tattered and frail before the legion of soldiers assembled outside the walls.

Despite what Malur considered very good sense, Korir's wife and housecarl, Thaena, agreed with her husband. "Your Jarl is correct, better die than abandon our king. We told Jarl Ulfric we'd die defending Winterhold and we will!"

Thaena was tall, ruddy and strong. Though she barely number thirty and five years, her hair was pure white, akin to the snow that fell outside in droves. Her arms were folded across her chest and her eyes were still, betraying no emotion as her husband stared down near certain death.

Malur sighed.

Surrounded by the mad, how did I get into this position?

The guard had gone to buckling the breastplate onto Korir, adjusting the straps on the upper plates to better fit around the man's massive shoulders. "Thaena, take the paper and stamp it with my seal."

"You don't have time to write a letter..."

"This is no letter." His response was grim, focused. "The seal signifies the words you speak are mine." He directed his instructions towards his wife, ignoring the guard, ignoring Malur and ignoring the threat of the empire. "You will take our son and flee to Windhelm. Find Jarl Ulfric, tell him that we fought them as long as we could. If he doesn't hear from me again I am dead. Stamp the parchment."

Thaena began protesting, even as she went to work with the stamp. "I will not abandon you now, not with the situation so dire!"

"You have to!" He roared, striding forward, breastplate locked in place. "The Empire will kill me! Publicly and in agony! What do you think they'll do to you and Assur?" His face softened and his tone with it. "My line must continue, and you're the only one I can trust to take my words to Ulfric. Tell him, please, my love."

Thaena was a nord woman, she was hard, controlled and didn't show anything. But Malur felt her break. She didn't say a word, she just nodded, eyes haunted with emotion he couldn't fathom as she stamped the paper.

"Thank you." Korir breathed so silently, Malur barely heard the words.

The Jarl's wife, leaned in close and kissed him softly, holding his face in both hands. She had to stand on tiptoes to reach his lips, but she managed. After a moment, she broke away, tracing his face gently with one hand, her eyes barely misting. Then she was gone, parchment in hand. A clean, harsh, break before emotion could settle in.

"I'll make you proud," Korir told the air after she'd left. Fully covered, neck to toe, in plate, the Jarl of Winterhold took up his mighty warhammer from its place by his seat. It was a massive thing, wrought iron and oak, ugly to behold, but its aftereffects uglier by far. He swung it casually, feeling its weight comfortably in his hands. An odd sort of resolve crossed his face.

"Could I at least convince you to wear a helmet?" Malur implored, holding out his hands in a placatory manner. "Your circlet provides no protection from arrow or blade." The Dunmer pointed at the gold, gem-encrusted band resting on the Jarl's head. A symbol of his office, pretty but hardly practical.

"I want them to look me in the eye when they take my life. I want all to know this Jarl did not cower behind his throne when the oppressor came."

You could do that just as efficiently with protection for your head.

The door to the Longhouse opened, snow blowing into the heart of Winterhold along with the man who'd opened it. Kai Wet-Pommel was a humorous man, but he was a brutal fighter and a cunning tactician. The Stormcloak captain had provided sound enough council for the time he'd been stationed in the city. His blonde hair was crudely cropped short, his stubble sat without complaint on his face. He was short and stocky, like a boar, or overweight barrel. A great round shield covered his back and a mighty waraxe sat at his waist. The armor of the bear covered him head to toe; the cowl, the beast's own face, covered his head. It was raised only for one reason.

"My Jarl," he rumbled, voice like thunder and wrath. "The Empire has begun mobilizing. I've done what I could with our defenses in the time our rats abandoned the ship. But there are far to many soldiers outside the gates to win this fight."

"Sovengarde awaits those who die with honor," Korir stated firmly, hand tightening around the warhammer's handle. "Take me to the walls."

As both men left, Malur slunk deeper into the recesses of the Longhouse. He didn't want to die, not for some High King not his own.

The arrows had begun falling before Malur found his hiding place.

"Gods! It feels good to walk unaided again!" Hammel took the opportunity to make a small jump, clicking his heels in the process, just to push the limits of his healing. Lydia was thoughtful enough not to roll her eyes at his childish antics.

"Be careful, it took quite a lot of magika to heal that wound, I'd rather not repeat it." Erandur quipped leading them forward with long, purposeful strides. It was a brisk walk from Dawnstar to the ancient fortress Vaermina's faithful had occupied all those years ago, and Erandur told them time was precious.

He was an enigma, the priest. His clothes were a simple monk's robe and hood of a dull, dirt brown. Hanging from his neck was a lovingly crafted holy symbol of Mother Mara, carved from wood with a few stones of minor value pressed into various openings. He was plain, his skin a typical gray for a dark elf. He wore a dark black beard, trimmed and clean. His hands, likewise, were very clean. However, the elven mace the priest wore in the hemp rope he'd claimed as a belt was clearly expensive, far beyond the reach of a simple priest.

Just as the miners had said, Lydia found Erandur in the bucket line, doing what he could to stop the fire blazing out of control. Lydia told the priest of their intentions and he'd met with them.

The nightmares the citizens of the town continued to experience were very much real, he explained; they were no ordinary dreams, rather they were haunted visions; part pure horror and part muddy prophecy, if things remained unchanged. A powerful artifact belonging to Vaermina, he believed judging from the citizen's symptoms, rested within the carcass of the fortress. The chaos currently engulfing Skyrim fed the Deadric Lord's power, drawing new followers to her side. She'd taken the opportunity to expand her influence, gaining more and more power in a bid to claim Skyrim for her own, tipping the balance in the eternal war of Daedra.

Erandur had set up a small shrine to Mother Mara in the entrance chamber, an attempt to purify the ground and delay Vaermina's advance. Yet she dared not to venture deeper within the temple alone. A powerful barrier sealed it from the outside world, one the priest would not breach without protection. The temple was dangerous, even in its long dormant state.

"Remember, the cultists remaining within are in hibernation," he explained as they trudged through the knee deep snow. "Once the barrier is breached, that stasis effect will be broken and they will awaken, slowly. We'll need to work quickly, or be swarmed."

"Right," Lydia stated slowly, "Explain that to me again? Stasis how?" The woman scratched her midnight hair awkwardly, chewing her lip as she tried to focus. "I'm lost."

Erandur, to his credit, gave no cue of annoyance. If Lydia's continued probing bothered him, he didn't show it. "The temple had one final emergency measure. In the case of utmost need, a gas, known as the Miasma would be released. This gas would quickly filter throughout the temple's interior, inducing an ageless, dreamless sleep. Simultaneously, a warding spell would place the temple in a state of semi-permanent lockdown. Only those who knew the proper incant could drop the barrier and end the lockdown." He shrugged his scrawny shoulders, "Most likely, this place was attack by a gang of bandits or hungry mercenaries. With the possibility of losing their unholy relics to such forces, the cultists would have activated the gas, buying time for reinforcements to arrive. Reinforcements, it seems, who never did."

"This temple," Hammel prodded cautiously, "They would have a vault for treasure? Valuables?"

Don't mention the star, we need his help and don't know how he'd react.

"Yes." The priest responded slow and flat. "The inner sanctum would contain a vault filled with anything of worth. But I doubt you'll find any valuables within."

Treasure means different things to different folk, sir.

"How do you know all this?" Lydia asked him suddenly, her tone neutral. "You have some pretty impressive knowledge of Varmenia's temples. I doubt that's standard priest-y learning."

"I'm very well read," he responded evenly without the slightest delay, "A priest must understand the faith of the daedric worshiper, to better refute him."

Erandur was saved further questions by their fortuitous arrival at the temple. It was an ancient building, once impressive, now ruined. The great stones lay crumbling, towers and turrets collapsed upon themselves, only vaguely resembling their former grandiose design. Snow buried those large portions that had caved inward. The sorry remains of a few banners clung to the remnants of stone walls, now more ground than wall. The only thing still in halfway usable condition were a simple set of oaken-iron wrought, double doors.

Erandur gestured towards the temple's carcass with an open hand. "The temple of Vaermina. It would have been splendid back in its time. Now it is just a shell. Nothing but snow, ghosts and an unknown number of unconscious cultists linger within," He smiled self-consciously, "and one priest, trying to bring the light of Mara to its unhallowed halls." He strode towards the double doors. "Shall we enter?"
The hairs on the back of Hammel's neck begun to stand up and his palms itched. Instinctively he dropped his hand to the head of the axe on his belt. Lydia, he couldn't help but notice, had drawn her shield and loosened her longsword in its scabbard.

"My thane, I don't much like the look of this place," she grimaced. "It looks like a tomb, just waiting to happen." She sniffed once, "And it smells."

"We'll be fine," Hammel answered without any confidence whatsoever.

"That's reassuring." She riposted, deadpan.

The priest threw the double doors aside dramatically, ushering them inside. The wind picked up, practically pushing them through the open doors, along with half of Skyrim's snows. Some managed to find its way down Hammel's neck and back, chilling him more than he'd like. His breath hung in the air, before Erandur closed the doors.

There had been effort put into cleaning up the entrance chamber, likely from the priest. It was swept clean, the fallen rocks and stone were pushed into a far corner. A few small candles burned, providing light to the chamber and generating some heat. A simple bedroll and sack sat against the far wall. To their right was a well-maintained alter, with a small shrine to Mara sitting atop it. A book of sacred writings and selection of holy symbols shared the shrine with the alter. Directly across from the entrance was a large set of stone doors, still in perfect condition, each door decorated with an assortment of arcane runes; runes still pulsing with magical energy.

"The church of our Mother." Erandur's voice carried a hint of simple pride, as if the room was a sweeping cathedral, rather than just a single room in a ruin. "It will expand in time, but for now it suits my purpose."

"I'm guessing those scary looking doors are how we explore this jolly establishment," Lydia mused, lips pursed. Erandur nodded. "Maybe there's a pub." Hammel cracked a slight smile at her quip. Erandur did not..

"Enough of this," The Companion didn't want to think, to let his feelings get the better of him. This had to be done, Azura had bestowed this task upon him and he would see it through. "Crack open the seal, priest. Let's greet the unknown with blades drawn." He drew the Kiss and the axe of Whiterun to illustrate his point. Each weapon gleamed in the light, shining with deadly purpose.

Lydia's sword was in her hand in seconds, the candlelight running up and down it's length, her shield a bulwark against whatever blade came her way. Erandur nodded and raised both hands. He wove an intricate pattern of symbols in the air, muttering words of power under his breath. The Dunmer closed his eyes, leaned backward and called on Mara's name.

"Mara, mother of all, we, your children, call upon your power now. Rest your favor on us that we may cleanse this place of its darkness. End its threat to your children here on Tamriel. We beseech you All-Mother, tear down this barrier, by your power!"

Mother Mara was evidently listening, or the finger wagging Erandur had given the door worked, because the runes on the stone doors faded away almost instantly. A crackling presence that Hammel hadn't noticed before ceased to be, leaving an odd feeling of normalcy.

"The temple is open to us now," The priest stated without fanfare, punctuating his sentence by drawing the elven mace from his belt. "I know not how many cultists or invaders we will find within. But, if we are quick, we can end the source of the threat to Dawnstar before Vaermina can make her play."

He pushed the door open slowly, listening to the sound of stone scrapping across stone, watching the cloud of dust being flung upward as hallway came into focus.

Like the rest of the temple, this newly revealed hallway was crumbling. Cobwebs were more frequent than stones on the walls, and the formerly pristine cobble-work floor was cracked and distressed almost beyond recognition. Wooden support beams slowly rotted, crying out for replacement. An awful stench of stale air and blood rushed up to greet the entering trio.

Lydia waved her shield in front of her face. "Well the smell's worse on the inside."

But the stench was the least of their problems. Sprawled across the pathway, slowly pushing themselves to their feet, were four forms. Three were men in dark purple robes, cultists of the Daedra. The forth was an orc, dressed in furs and hides. The men had daggers, the orc, a mace; it seemed obvious who belonged to the invading force.

The first cultist to get himself upright, looked at Hammel and shrieked, coming at him with dagger flashing. The Nord didn't hesitate. Sidestepping the groggy blow, he countered by burying the axe deep into the man's face. It parted the cultist's skull like an oar in a stream, coating the steel horse in blood. Hammel used the momentum, moving forward into the next man. That cultist seemed more awake than the first, comprehending the danger heading toward him. But his thrust was likewise sloppy and slow. Deflecting it with a glance from the Kiss, Hammel took this one at the neck, separating head from torso with one clean blow of his axe. The third man stared wide-eyed, clearly not expecting a blood-stained axe to be the first thing he saw after coming out of his slumber. He never felt its bite, as the orcish invader took his momentary confusion as an opportunity to end a battle that had been raging for gods only knew how long.

The orc raider brained the cultist in the back of the skull, spilling bone and blood upon the floor. He growled in triumph, throwing the corpse aside. He advanced two steps forward before a bolt of lighting struck him in the chest. The orc flew into the ceiling, spasming uncontrollably, His body sizzled and his eyes exploded as magical energy ran rampant throughout his body. Hammel turned to see Erandur shaking his hand, so casually one might be forgiven for thinking he merely intended to remove dust from it.

"Mother Mara approve of throwing lighting around like that?" He asked the priest, sweat dripping down the bridge of his nose, pieces of his hair clinging to each other in patches. The helmet rested against his head comfortingly. He'd almost forgotten how good it felt to move unrestricted; to fight free of pain. He very much liked it.

"The flock must be protected." Erandur answered without a trace of hesitation.

"I suppose the rest of the cultists won't fall so easily?" Lydia asked, her tone suggesting optimism she herself didn't believe.

"No. The Miasma's effects will have worn off as quickly with the others as this lot. I suggest caution."

"Caution's good," Lydia agreed.

It was a tight fit. His armor became wedged in the stone more than a few times, but Nero wasn't discouraged. The Ebony Mail was magnificent, far too precious to let a little bulkiness lead to its abandonment. Besides, he'd killed more than a few people to get his hands on it; their sacrifices should benefit someone.

Finding a way into the temple had been easier than he'd expected. The place was a ruin, more holes than walls. Locating one big enough for him to squeeze through hadn't taken long. That was fortunate because he'd been unsure how to penetrate the barrier the temple would have had. Perhaps Spellbreaker, that mighty enchanted shield Peryite had gifted him with, could have smashed through it, or the Ebony Mail's magic would have let him pass. Yet it mattered not; the barrier was down.

This surprised him quite a bit. Vaermina's cultists were a dedicated lot and cherished their wards. If the temple had been locked down and Miasma deployed, which he assumed would be, only another member of her cult could remove that barrier; unless he was powerful indeed. Only someone incredibly gifted in the arcane arts would be able to duplicate the cultist's magic and Dawnstar certainly didn't have anyone of that caliber, unless the mysterious priest he'd heard about was more than eyes revealed.

Dropping in utter silence, despite the armor's bulk, Nero's boots touched the stone and he was inside the temple. The slight fall of a few feet was no bother; his entrance was secure. It was now a matter of finding the items.

His senses were honed for this, his own essence seeking out the aura of the relics. There were two of incredible power within, that much was obvious. They weren't the thigh bone of some minor cult leader or a rag Mankar Cameron had brushed his hand against. These artifacts were steeped in unholy power; power that only came from direct contact with a Daedra. And there where two of them.

Nightmares indeed. I'm halfway surprised Dawnstar is still present at all.

Whispered words began to reach his ear, echoing up from the hallway. Figuring whose voices these were was as good as any other way to begin his search. The Daedric worshiper crept towards them. His armor blended in perfectly with the darkness of the ruined temple, shielding him from all but the most observant eyes. His breathing was stilled; his footsteps mere whispers.

A small coatroom split the hallway he was heading down and in it were the sources of the voices. Five purple-robed men stood over the body of an orc. Each man clutched a bloodied dagger, which, judging from the state of the body, had been used to great effect on the orc. The robes they wore were dyed a deep purple and stitched with a shifting, dream-like pattern, all circles and swirls.

Vaermina faithful. To be expected.

They spoke in hush tones about the Miasma, and holding back the invaders. One wanted to know where the reinforcements where. Another questioned exactly how long they'd been in a state of stasis; what year was it now? The final, and seemingly most prominent, questioned who had dropped the shield surrounding the temple; Surely only a faithful could do that? If that was so, why hadn't they contacted the high priests?

Nero took a glance at their arrangements. One stood directly in the doorway before Nero, back towards the Daedric worshiper. Two others stood close by him, looking down the hallway in Nero's direction but apparently hadn't seen him yet. The last two cultists were on the far side of the little room, a fair number of steps from Nero. They all likely possessed some elements of magic. Fortunately, he had a tool for that.

He drew his bone dagger in his off hand and the Mace of Molag Bahl in his primary one. The man with his back to Nero would never see him coming. The Daedra worshiper crept forward, crouch-walking as far as he could. His cloak dragged across the floor, whispering death as he came.

When he was within mere inches of the cultists he leaped to his feet, dashing forward at full speed. Without stopping, he buried his dagger in the lead cultist's back, leaving it there. The man fell forward, the handle of Nero's weapon protruding from his spine like a horn. Using his forward momentum, Nero smashed his mace into one of the other man's chest, using both hands to propel the massive weapon. The foe's ribcage shattered horrifically. The man flipped forward from the force of the blow.

The Imperial spun, slamming the butt of the mace into the temple of the third nearby cultist. The man fell back dazed, allowing Nero the room he needed to strike. Using an underhand thrust to propel the mace, the Daedra worshiper struck upward, slamming his weapon into the cultist's chin. Bone shattered and teeth flew. The man's head snapped sickeningly backward at an unnatural angle.

With one smooth motion, the Imperial retrieved Spellbreaker from his back, holding the ancient Dwarven shield before him. He cut an imposing figure in the dark.

The two surviving cultists dropped their daggers and flung hands forward. Each launched a gout of flame at him, magical fire that would grill an entire cow or would strip the flesh from a man's bones; fire that would melt steel and incinerate leather; fire that proved useless against Spellbreaker's ancient might.

As the flames began to tickle the shield, they faded away, vanishing like a puff of smoke in a strong breeze. The stone around Nero blackened, the air heated, but he remained untouched, mustache not even singed.

The looks of triumph on the mages faces vanished as swiftly as their magical fire. Nero strode slowly towards them, a wolf-like grin taking up his face. One cultist threw a lightning bolt at him. It likewise proved ineffective. He drew closer. One retrieved his dagger and rushed the Imperial. Nero caught the tiny weapon's strike on Spellbreaker, then shattered the man's skull with a counterstrike from his mace. Ignoring the brain matter that stained his breastplate, he approached the last man like a cat with a cornered mouse.

The mage's frost bolt was useless, ineffective. The Mace of Molag Bahl was not.

Araena knew the old man with the long gray beard and matching robes would come. She'd seen it in her visions. She had not given Hammel and Lydia any particular thought since sending them on their way. Azura had shown the Nord returning, victorious. The Lady's visions were never false and the prophetess had no reason to believe this one different than the others.

The old man moved like the wind, shouting in a strange tongue. His beard whipped behind him, robes rippling like the air he moved with.

She did not turn to face him, she remained on her knees, looking toward Azura's statue.

"I'm looking for a man." His voice was old and wizened, much like the elder who'd spoken it. "An exceptional man." He paused and Araena knew he was thinking of descriptives in his head. "He might not resemble such, but he is."

"You seek Hammel Greymist," she answered quietly, still not turning towards the gray bearded man. Taking down her hood with both hands, she finally rose to her feet, eyes still on Azura's image. "He has gone to complete a task for the Lady of Mystery. He takes with him his Housecarl and his courage."

The old man folded his hands into the sleeves of his robes, nodding sagely. "I must seek him out."

Now the priestess turned to face him. "You must not interfere with his task. He will return," she replied as she gestured towards the small straw pallet laying comfortably in her living area next to the fire she maintained for warmth.

Oddly glancing towards her, the old man stated simply, "You cannot keep me here against my will. I am far more than I seem."

Araena did not need magic to determine that. "I am aware. Yet I am not forcing any course of action on you." She turned away from the gray-bearded man. Turning her gaze towards Azura's image, Araena felt the prescience of the Lady. "I intend to save you time and wasted effort. Azura has shown me an image of Hammel returning to this shrine. That means, you will not find him before that, all your might notwithstanding. Yet he will return here." She left the rest of her words unsaid, once again, motioning towards the pallet. "There is rabbit on the fire, you may eat your share of it." Dropping silently to her knees again, the Dunmer folded her hands and returned to her meditations. The seven candles continued burning upon the alter, the sweet aroma of incense continued to drift past her nose. The old man did nothing for a moment. Then he took a seat by the fire and waited.

It is beautiful, in a savage way, this land. Sadly, staining these snows with the blood of traitors and heroes is necessary to preserve her.

Companies of archers were ready. Highly trained legionaries, local levies, guards pulled from their posts and battle-hardened mercenaries formed up his army, an impressive force. All this might against whatever soldiers Ulfric had stashed within Winterhold and without the small walls.

"Quaestor," Quintus ordered Hadvar quietly, turning slightly in the saddle to look the man in the eye. "You will repeat my commands to the men." Hadvar nodded, gripping his reigns tighter. "At my command, and mine alone, the archers will fire two volleys. Then I will signal the advance. The archers will fire three more flights as we move in, ensuring minimal return fire from the rebels."

Hadvar nodded and turned to face the men. Screaming loudly, Hadvar parroted his officer's commands to the men waiting. Quintus closed his eyes and prayed.

Eight Divines, I am your servant. Watch over me this day, protect me, ensure the success of my cause. Father Akatosh, give me strength and courage. Mother Mara, watch over my men, that they might return to their families. Stendarr, strength our resolve, our cause is just; add your might to ours. Debellia, bestow your grace this day, that we are favored. Kynereth, sooth the winds and snows, that weather will not hamper us. Julianos, bless me with wisdom, that I may lead these men. Zaenanthar, watch over our equipment, that steel should not fail us. And if any man die this day I pray that Arkay will guide them to Aetherius and the great beyond.

"Archers of the Empire!" Quintus bellowed, reprieve over, steel will returned, raising one hand above his head from all to see. "Loose!" Dropping his arm like a rock, he listened to the sound of arrows flying.

Hundreds leaped from their bowstrings; the noise almost deafening. The sky filled with a deadly rain, hammering down on Winterhold's defenses. Quintus saw several rebels on the walls fall, pierced through, most dropped below the defenses, hiding from the rain of death.

"Second volley, loose!" he commanded, repeating the arm gesture. A second fearsome volley followed the first, shooting over their heads towards the remains of once proud Winterhold.

Quintus breathed out once. Turning to Hadvar he asked him a simple question."Are you afraid Hadvar?"

"Yes," the Nord replied, his face a touch paler, voice slightly shaking.

"Stay with me, fight with honor and we will prevail." In one swift motion the Legate drew his sword. It rasped loudly against the sheath, gleaming for all to see. Rearing his horse and jabbing the blade towards the city, Quintus gave the command, "Soldiers of the Empire, Charge!"

For death and glory.

He kicked the horse into motion, riding her towards the city. Hadvar did likewise and the army followed. Even as they moved, a third volley of arrows flew overhead, ensuring the defenders wouldn't stick their heads out.

To his front, the skirmishers advanced, forward troops armed with short-bows and light armor. Some begun peppering the defenders with their own arrows, launched at will. Directly to his right was the ram, a big, ugly tool of war with one unpleasant purpose; opening the gates. Around him, several units of men carried ladders, easily capable of breaching Winterhold's nine foot walls.

The world slowed to a crawl. Several brave Stormcloaks on the walls stood, returning beleaguered fire. Their hunting bows sung, shooting deadly songs at his men. A few skirmishers fell, pierced with well-placed shots. Right on time, the forth volley struck Winterhold, impaling some of those archers and driving the rest back.

They were close now, he could clearly make out the figures on the walls. He could see their blue-clad forms as his fifth and finally volley kept their heads down for that crucial moment. "Get the ladders up! Now!" He roared jabbing his sword at them, screaming at his men to move. "The ram! I want it knocking at the door!" He looked back up towards those walls and saw an unpleasant sight.

The bearskin covered Stormcloak captain had rallied some of his archers, and begun trading erratic fire with Quintus' skirmishers. All around him men exchanged arrows. To his left, a guard pulled from Morthal to help with the assault took an arrow through the neck and collapsed, gargling blood. On the wall, one of the Stormcloaks fell into the hoard of Imperials, pierced with several well placed shots.

The officer at that moment saw Quintus, despite the carnage around him, and gestured furiously. Quintus' plume marked him as an officer, for the sake of his own men, but sadly, sometimes the enemy caught on. Yanking a wicked looking hatchet from his belt, the captain hurled it towards the Imperial with all his might. At his sides, several archers directed a flight of arrows towards at the Legate, intent on cutting him down before the battle had even begun.

"Bollocks," he cursed, flinging himself from the saddle. The snow broke his fall quite a bit, but it still banged him up. Biting his lip, the Imperial drew blood. The arrows avoided him but sadly struck his horse. The poor girl went down shrieking, spurting blood like a fountain. Her whinying grated on his ears and tugged at his heart. He didn't have time to put her down. He did it anyway.

Retrieving his shield from the fallen beast, Quintus held it in front of him, pushing slowly forward. An arrow slammed into his shield, lodging itself in the sturdy wood and shaking his arm up to the joint. The ram had reached the gate, slamming into it repeatedly, despite a heavy battle. Bodies of Imperial soldiers lay scattered around it as the rebels fired from the walls above. Stragg had taken hold of one of the positions on the ram, throwing his entire Skaal might against the gate. A team of Imperial skirmishers was doing its best to provide protection for the ram crew but it mattered not. The gates were already cracking and Quintus had more than enough men to finish the job.

To his front, several ladders had been placed against the walls; his boys struggling to acquire any sort of foothold on-top of the barricade. The Stormcloaks had maintained strict control, pushing the ladders back and killing anyone who came within axe range. There was no sign of Hadvar, Quintus had lost him when he'd fallen from his horse and sadly he didn't have time to find him now. Someone had to lead the push over the walls or more men would die against them. There was only one person Quintus would trust to lead that charge.

Putting aside emotion and uncertainty, he charged for the nearest ladder. Another arrow made its place in his shield, sending a vibration running up his arm with the impact. A second arrow glanced off his cheek-guard, barely missing the tiny slit in his visor. Another close call for Quintus Decimus.

The ladder was before him. A Legionary sunk into the snow, more pincushion than man. One of his men went up the ladder before him, holding his shield above his head. He wasn't ready for the Stormcloak captain, who smashed his foot into the soldier's shield. The man lost his balance and fell from the ladder to the snows below. The fall wouldn't have killed him, but the two arrows that slammed into his back as he fell certainly did.

Quintus didn't think about what he was doing. He held his shield above his head to deflect arrows and his sword before him to try to stop kicks. His feet found step after step, it was a blur. "Follow me and take this damn city!" he roared as he climbed, hoping his charge would motivate the men to come up the ladders with him.

Without fully realizing it, Quintus made it to the top of the ladder, face to face with one of Ulfric's rebels. The Imperial stabbed the man in the chest before he could bring his pike to bare. Shoving the corpse into two of the advancing Stormcloaks, Quintus vaulted up and over the wall, landing on top of the barricade. Nearly slipping over a dead rebel, the Imperial raised his shield quick enough to block a sword blow. Deflecting the strike, Quintus returned one, slashing the man across the face with his blade. Striking the dying man with his shield, the Legate sent his body toppling over the wall, clearing a little more room.

Another man came at him, an old one. He was no soldier, merely a farmer armed with a pitchfork. The elder was livid, spittle flying in all directions as he howled, long stringy beard flapping with each thrust of his weapon. "Bastards! Turn-coats! Heretics! You'd come here and tell an old man who to pray too? For the sake of elves? I'll fight for my home! Come on bastards! I'll take you all on!"

He had heart but no talent. Quintus spun around, avoiding the pitchfork's thrust and removed the old man's head from his shoulders with a well placed blow. Even as the farmer died, a Stormcloak was on him, swinging a spiked club in both hands.

The Legate caught the strike with his sword, countering by bashing his shield, edge first, into the other man's face. His head snapped back, allowing Quintus to open his neck.

Then the captain saw him.

He was a huge man, shield and axe both bloodied with use, the bear cowl he wore almost snarling at Quintus, as if it was the physical embodiment of this man's hate. And hate it was, the captain burned with it, as if Quintus was responsible for the war, for the White-Gold Concordat and everything in-between.

The rebel didn't banter words, instead he rushed in with a roar. Bashing aside one of the legionaries who'd made it up the walls, he came right at Quintus. His axe rose and fell in a blur, his shield seemed to move everywhere the Imperial tried to strike. This man was a warrior, a veteran who'd ended his fair share of Imperial lives.

Quintus was no green lad himself. He wasn't new to combat or bloodshed, like the lad this rebel had so swiftly disposed of and he fought back. Blocking the axe strikes with his well-used shield, he slashed the man, drawing blood from a few light blows. They proved ineffective at slowing the beast of a man. The Imperial spun aside, narrowly avoiding a strike that easily would have removed his head, helm or no. The axe went clean into the barricade, cutting through several inches of pine. Ripping the weapon free with a snarl, the captain went at Quintus again, eager to see him die.

On the wall around him his men were gaining a foothold, Imperial and Stormcloak fought all around him, the gate shuddered violently, splintering before his eyes, but Quintus blocked it out. There was nothing but him and the captain.

One of the legion men charged the large nord from behind, seeing an exposed opening. The Stormcloak did not even turn. Snapping his shield backward, the captain caught the legionnaire unawares, smashing his face inward. Quintus hacked at his enemy, but the officer was quick, getting his axe in the way. Steel screeched on steel as sparks flew from the force of the blow.

Quintus was faster on the riposte. Striking low, before the man could counter, the Imperial's sword sheered clean through the Nord's knee. As the man collapsed, one limb short, the Legate stabbed him in the chest, twisting the blade as he yanked it free. The captain was strong and Quintus didn't want surprises.

As if waiting for the duel to complete, the gates shattered with a mighty blow of the ram, soldiers swarming into the city like locusts. Winterhold's fate was sealed.

That's when he saw Hadvar. The Nord was leading a unit of men towards one of the rebels not surrendering or running, Jarl Korir. The man was enormous and his armor shone. Without a helmet, he was clearly recognizable and this screamed of his defiance. Swinging his warhammer like a cyclone, the Jarl beat back the first man to come at him, crushing his chest like a pomegranate. Another man came and died. Around him, his guard fought and fell valiantly against impossible odds, but Korir, himself, was a madman, striking without fear, hair flying freely.

Hadvar went towards Korir to engage him and Quintus knew his friend was outmatched. Determined to help, the Legate moved forward until something caught his legs and he toppled forward, falling off the wall into Winterhold square. The Stormcloak captain had hurled himself at Quintus, running on his last vestiges of adrenalin.

Both men toppled, falling into the snow with a painful thud. The Imperial lost his shield in the process. Quintus' head rung, but his mind was clear. When the captain drew a dagger and stabbed at him, the Imperial caught it on his van-brace. Punching out with that fist, the Legate shattered his opponent's nose, pushing himself up. He opened the captain's neck with a well-placed sword blow. This time, Quintus watched the light leave the man's eyes.

He turned towards Hadvar but was too late. Korir swung the hammer low, catching the other man in both knees. Each were shattered under the force of the blow, throwing Hadvar onto his back. The Jarl of Winterhold raised the weapon over his head with both hands and the Legate didn't have time to cry out before he brought it down.

Quintus watched in horror as Hadvar's head exploded like an over-rip melon. A man he'd known, fought beside, joked with was gone in an instant.

His grief was smothered by white hot rage. Korir stood alone in the square, his remaining forces dead, fleeing, prisoners or fighting hopeless battles. He gazed at the tide of Imperial soldiers who'd completely surrounded him, daring them to rush him. Each Imperial in turn was unsure what to do, Korir was surrounded, but still dangerous and showed no sign of backing down. No one wanted to die at that point.

"Sovengarde awaits me!" he howled, throwing his warhammer over his head triumphantly. "You may kill me now, but I will sit with my fathers! The tales of my courage will long outlive the memory of your cowardice!"

"Not bloody likely," Quintus growled out, striding towards the Jarl, sword in hand. Snapping his fingers sharply, he waved several crossbowmen towards him. "Cripple the dog, now."

Realizing that he was about to be denied a glorious last stand, Korir surged forward, only to find half a dozen crossbow bolts strike him in his legs, arms and lower torso. Warhammer falling from his hands, the Jarl collapsed to all fours, cursing weakly. The circlet he wore tumbled from his head, more red than gold as it hit the snow.

The city fell quiet. Every party was staring in awe or horror at the proceedings. Pushing aside the gawking men, Quintus strode towards the fallen warrior, purpose evident. Korir reached feebly for his hammer but the Legate kicked it out of reach, slamming the handle of his shortsword into the Jarl's wounds. Korir howled but did not fall.

"Korir," Quintus ground out, voice flinty, "former Jarl of Winterhold, I charge you with treason in the sight of the gods and men, for aiding the rebel Ulfric Stormcloak and for rising against the lawfully placed emperor." Quintus ripped his helmet from his head, tossing it away. He wanted Korir to look into his eyes when he took his life.

"Titus Mead?" Korir interrupted loudly, "That puffed up dictator is no emperor of mine. He can't wipe his arse without an elf holding the cloth." He laughed, a strained smile across his lips.

Quintus hit him again, driving the proud man low. "You may be taken to Solitude and throw yourself on the rightful Queen's mercy, or you may die here, at the hands of her servant." Korir spat a mouthful of blood in Quintus' face in response. The Imperial wiped it clean with the back of his hand. "So be it."

Korir didn't fight physically, but his eyes glowed with hatred. "I want you all to see!" he roared with his last strength, "how the empire treats those who'd rather fight elves, then bend the knee to them! To fight for Talos and home!"

"I want all to see the fate of traitors and cowards so quick to abandon and betray an empire that helped them in their time of need!" Quintus screamed back, blade held in both hands.

Korir looked Quintus right in the eye with a gaze the Legate would never forget. "The Empire that helped Skyrim died with Martin Septim. Kill me and be done with it. You and your false emperor are no friend of mine." He closed his eyes and looked up to the sky, still defiant even in defeat, roaring his final words of the heavens. "This is how a Nord dies!"

With that, Quintus' blade rose and fell, taking the former Jarl's head.

AN: Writing that assault was a challenge, but I'm pleased with how it came out. More large scale battles are still to come. Cheers and thank you for your continued support.