I was chillin with my best brother Margeth down by Angi's Grove about half a mile from the Border. Margeth said he'd encountered a Khajit earlier in the day and that had left him with some skooma. Being of a generous disposition, Margeth was about to share around what he had, when there from the valley we heard a-screaming.
Now we'd been camped there a good month, Margeth and me, as it was our luck to stumble upon a meadow near black with deathbell, which as I'm sure you know can be ground up with a little bone meal or thistle and honeycomb to make a dreadful fatigue poison. Our intention was to gather and dry as much deathbell as we could carry before returning to Whiterun and netting ourselves a tidy fortune from the poisons.
It's a tricky area, there on the tundra south of Angi's Camp, where our grove and its attachment meadow was but one of the millions of pockets of frigid water stopped by the difficult terrain from joining the rushing river dividing Skyrim from Cyrodiil. Folks aren't half as common as beasts there. Still it was more'n once we heard the lament of one bandit meeting another.
Margeth wasn't going to worry about it, though I lain hand to the rusty iron sword I'd found lying in the grass by a dead bandit. I ain't no corpse thief; I swear it was lying near him, not'n his hand. Then we heard this shout, a chillin chorus if I've ever heard one (and I was with Harger the Older when we fetched Jarry's younger from Dead Man's Respite). A woman, in that all-too common Cyrodiil accent,
"For the Empire!"
Poor Margeth has a mouthful of mead we should've been saving, which he half spat out and half choked on as he struggled not to waste the rest. I pushed his face down into the tundra grass hoping it might quieten him. I went down, too. No matter we were under the trees on the high bank of the Grove; no point in providing a pretty target.
We heard a bit more shouting, and it got to be clear to us this wasn't a couple'a bandits hustlin a pelt hunter.
"Reckon sommer Ulfrick's boys gotta tooth into the 'perials," is what I said to Margeth while he spluttered, his face just as red as a Daedra heart.
Keeping real low we crawled over to the bit of a verge near where we had our crates of deathbell. We could see straight down the slope to the river and the far bank that was Cyrodiil, though why any bastard would want to jump that rope I swear I'll never understand. Heard they arrest a man for pickin up a fork in those parts, and if he resists then they cut him down on the spot.
But I digress. Margeth and me had ourselves a look on down the slope. Sure enough, further down near the gully the sun was skittering off buffed steel armour and buffed bronze arms and the poorly-covered blonde heads of our brother Nords.
I counted six blonde heads and three silver ones. I'll admit to you now that I relaxed. Can you blame a fellah? 'perials beat that lot they'd more'n likely mosey on up here and decide Margeth and I were Cloakers too. Happens all the time on the Border. People go a little insane tryin to figure out which one is who, the Nordic 'perials and the 'perial Nords and the Nordic Nords and 'perial 'perials. Me in those days was doing an admirable job of keeping m'head down outta politics and it was before I ever knew Ulfrick from a gold Septim. All I wanted was t'keep drinkin and shootin skooma and watchin the deathbell dry. It'd been a long time since I'd any gold and I was forgetting what Septimus looked like.
Prior to the deathbell meadow Margeth n I'd been over east Riften way, where we'd had a good thing going reselling bandit horses. Course we got done by the thieves and then a bandit fellow flogged Margeth and kilt our own horses and run us out of town. Before that we were in Ivarstead making a steady fortune breedin bears, but that place is such a morbid shithole we counted ourselves lucky to walk outta there prematurely aged n nothin worse.
Where was I? Lookin down the slope, seein one lotta fellahs fight another. I was seein funny from the mead and the cold. I had to be, I reasoned, 'cause yonder Border there's this foggy shadow like the biggest bat you ever saw rolling round in the sky.
Said Margeth, "Y'hear that?"
He was talking about the clamour of horse hooves descending the approach. That was a long slew of gravel left behind from landslide or another, extending from the pass left of Angi's Camp into the valley. Come to think of it it mighta been the landslide which made the pass. I dunno. Anyway the approach bypassed us to the right, and sure enough after a second or two a dark-haired fellow in not much armour flogging the daylights out of a palomino comes belting past. The palomino was a good horse, muscular, with a proud bowed neck and hair like every little daughter dreams of. She was tearin up the gravel with her big groping hooves, but we could see she was close to exhausted. Off they went, fellow screaming for the mare to go quicker, and she already going quicker'n she should've on that slope.
Moment later we saw why. Hot on the hooves of the palomino mare were a contingent of silver 'perials on the backs of brown stallions. I can't tell you how I knew they was stallions without inspecting the undercarriage, 'cept I know horses, and I knew these ones were stallions. None of 'em as fit as the palomino mare. None of the riders dumb as the thief (go figure). They saw the approach was getting steeper and they drew up; thief saw it getting steeper and he dug his spurs into the mare's flanks and all but flew her into the valley.
By now I'd lost interest in the blondes n silvers, figuring it to be a forgone conclusion. But now the mare was headed that way I had another look. Maybe the 'perials down there weren't all dead, but they sure weren't having skooma parties neither, and one or two of the Cloakers was regretting gettin outta his bedroll that morning.
The Cloakers spotted the mare, as it was hard not to with the hullabaloo the thief was raising. One Cloaker looked to another like they was sharing a thought. Struck out for the horse. Two of em, armed. Well of course they was armed being in this part o the world in these bleak times, but it's not every day you go pointing swords at horses.
Margeth was thumping my hand. "Get up," he said to me, "We're going to get on down there and take that horse."
I love Margeth as dearly as any man can love his brother, but sometimes he had some damn dumb ideas.
"You reckon so?" I said slow-like, hoping his brain would catch up with his mouth. The thief had spied his ambush and was trying to steer around it, meanwhile the mounted 'perials were picking a safer course down the gravel approach. "On account of I reckon we should stay safe right here and take care of our deathbell and not get involved."
"T'Oblivion with the deathbell!" Margeth pulled out the dagger he'd pinched from an Orc when we did our stint in the Bilegulch Mine. "That one horse is worth more'n everything we got here – includin you and me! Let's get down there!"
He wasn't waiting for me. Like the fool he was he crawled over the side of the bank n dropped into the tall frozen grass on the grove side of the approach. Here it was a tricky run through the trees to the river, but one we knew well. With the dagger in his hand and his putrid old studded armour he took off down the slope.
Well I might have been dirtier than a skeever's backside, but I was blonde as was obvious to anyone's blind grandmother, and my armour was as cheap n foul as Margeth's. What I'm saying is we would never be mistaken for 'perials. Being a Nord can be a dangerous occupation on the Border.
I had a thought then which was dead wrong. The thought was, this isn't the dumbest thing he's ever done, you might as well go over him.
So with my trinket of a sword I ducked over the bank and keeping low galloped down the verge. One of the mounted 'perials must've seen me, 'cause he shouted and an arrow whipped straight in front of my nose and buried itself half to the fletches in an aspen tree. You can bet I skedaddled. I didn't want trouble with the 'perials. I wanted to drink and smoke and pick flowers for a change. I wanted-
We hit the barren lower banks of the valley a little too literally: Margeth lost his footing as he ran for the horse being driven his way by the Cloakers giving chase, fell, and had all of half a second to scream before the big plate of the palomino's hoof bore down on his face and crushed his skull like a torchbug smashed by an arrow.
I stopped. I dropped the sword. The palomino galloped on and the Cloakers leapt over Margeth's corpse and went after her. One drew back his arm and flung his axe at the rider. He was a lousy shot and did no more damage than the handle whacking the mare's neck and bouncing off into the dirt. It was enough to rear the mare. The thief, who'd clung on all down that crazy trip into the valley, was now thrown clear. The mare and her jostling saddlebags rode away over the rainbow. Ah well she might as well've, 'cause in a pretty minute she'd crossed the river and surged over the far bank, into Cyrodiil.
Margeth was dead and I had no way of hauling five hundred pounds of deathbell to Whiterun on my own. I couldn't quite seem to keep up with the proceedings. Margeth was dead. The horse was gone. The Cloakers had a struggle on their hands with the thief, who musta thought if he kilt em then he could get on over the rainbow after his horse. He was tough, and desperate, and the Cloakers tired from their battle with the silvers. The thief slit the throat of one of em before the 'perials on their second-rate stallions charged in and shouted for everyone to drop their weapons.
Well I'd done that. Margeth was still holding the Orcish dagger in his hand but Margeth was dead. Ten days from pay dirt. We'd probably have blown it all on piss and women on the first night and then gotten flogged and ridden outta town but at least we would've had it.
I don't know why but my knees went. I don't mean to say I collapsed; right the opposite. My legs jerked up and down like pistons on a Dwarven engine and next thing I knew I was running for the Border. All I was thinking was that I was sick of this, sick of the Cloakers and the 'perials fighting over two blokes most've em had never met (one they never would, 'cause he was dead), sick of being flogged, and sick of being the wingman for a damn dumb dead fool.
It was a flash of madness driving me over that particular border, I'm sure, as it was taking me directly into the enemy's armpit, that is to say, into Cyrodiil. I ran. I stepped over poor dead dumb Margeth with a sorry look at his corpse, then I ran on, slippin and slidin down the wet rocks to the river. Being of mountain breed it was narrow and quick and liable to drag me under, but I knew if I just got across it and up the bank then it would take all the Emperor's army to hunt me down again.
One of the only two favours the 'perials have ever done me they did me right then: a plucky young silver-headed fellow spurred his horse after me, and it snorted and slipped and at last splashed into the river, where he headed me off and drove me west against the flow of the water.
"Stop! Rebel!" screamed the energetic young fellow, wheeling his horse against the water. Not only was he a moron, he was a moron who couldn't ride a horse. His stallion jumped in protest, while I kept going, cutting south to the Cyrodiil bank.
I was two steps away from it with the plan to put myself behind a boulder half in the water, when from behind that very boulder there leapt a bear, probably hunting salmon but I can tell you I didn't care about that then. The bear took a swipe at me and I jumped back in such a fright that I forgot to take into account the 'perial. I hit his horse and it jumped again, this time the underside of its big stupid head cracking onto the top of my own, and I fell backwards into the water as it was rushing against me and I fairly inhaled it.
That's as much as I remember; breathing water and my poor head bouncing gently off the river bottom.
Following that I suppose the 'perials did me their first favour of my life; because it was a long time later that I woke up, bone dry in the wrong clothes, in a shitty little wagon destined for Helgen. I had to thank them that at least I hadn't washed up dead (or alive) on the banks of Cyrodiil.
Of course, my hands were tied.
I didn't thank them for that.