AN: So this is another story set in the All Danger is Near to Death universe, this time focusing on some events from the Dovahkiin's "childhood." As always, reviews are appreciated! :D I tried a little experiment this time, writing in a more "drabble"-y way, and in present tense. Hopefully it didn't turn out too awful.
Twenty-First of Sun's Dawn, 4E 187—age 14
The girl takes a deep breath. She's been trailing the camp for the last three days as they've moved, thinks she has their measure: a group of sell-swords. A ragged, brawling bunch, more bravado than ready coin, drunk and gregarious. They are camped not far from the walls of the city across the Morrowind border, nameless to her. She can see its spires in the distance, but has not approached its gates. She isn't hungry, able to feed herself hunting animals through the snowy woods, but she is ragged and filthy and broke. And lonely, she thinks, and quashes the thought ruthlessly. I miss father. I miss him. I miss him so much. But such emotions are weaknesses, and if she will do what she must do, she cannot afford to show any.
She sets her shoulders in a hard, straight, line. Walks down the path to the center of the camp. Instantly the guards are on their feet, blades drawn, but the rest of the mercenaries remain at ease, lounging around the fire, watching her without much interest. Don't falter, she thinks, don't show fear.
"I want a job," she says, glancing from one sell-sword to the other. Just from following at a distance she cannot see who's the leader. They are all dressed in similar armor, cobbled together from pieces discarded and looted, and all of them appear hard as nails to her untrained eyes. A motley group, Nords and Imperials and Khajiit, Dunmer and Bosmer. An orc she thinks is female. And they are all staring back at her as though she carries the plague.
After a tense moment of long silence, punctuated only by the crackle of the fire, someone laughs, a cackling, drunken guffaw, and a huge Nord, blond and bearded, emerges from behind the blinding light of the fire. "Oh, a job, eh?" he asks, looking her up and down, unimpressed. "Well, lads and lasses, this chit would like a job," he informs the band, many of whom snicker obediently. He ignores them, smirks at her. "And who the fuck are you?"
"Sigrid," she says, more bravely than she feels. "Sigrid Frost-Born."
"Ah," says the man, brown eyes intent, hard, she thinks, but not cruel. "A lass from the old homeland. And how old are you, Sigrid Frost-Born?"
"Eighteen winters," she lies through her teeth, hoping he won't notice. She's a big girl, almost six feet tall even now, but thin and reedy and obviously very young—baby fat still clinging to her cheeks, though a clawed scar mars her nose and lip. She's pulled her hair back in a braid, in the vain hope that the severity of it would make her seem older. She knows how she must look, in the ragged clothes she's stitched together from the pelts of animals she and her father killed.
The man laughs; waves his hand airily. "Eighteen winters my granny's wrinkled, spotted arse," he says. "Come here, girl, in the light. Let me see you."
She steps forward and stands her ground, looking him square in the eye. She may be an unblooded girl, but she is Sigrid Frost-Born, and she fears no man. It's a reckless thing she does this day, but with her father dead and no living family left in the world, she must make her way through life somehow. And she knows instinctively that she is not cut out for the quiet days of a hunter or an alchemist. Let them laugh. She will prove them all wrong. The Nord continues his examination, circling around her, chuckling. "Well, you don't look like much, Sigrid Frost-Born. You're a skinny thing. What d'you think, Shamar?"
Another man emerges from the shadows and Sigrid's eyes widen. He's beautiful, with a strong nose and dark brown skin and a cruel mouth, carrying an equally lovely curved blade. And young—maybe a few winters older than she, though it is hard to tell in the dark, with the hood wrapped around his head. He too examines her with the air of a man inspecting a disappointing warhorse, brown eyes reflecting back the firelight with a dark gleam. "I don't know, Saemund," he says, "She might be untried, but I think she has…potential."
"Just give me a chance to prove myself," Sigrid says, fists clenched tightly at her sides. "I can fight. I can. I'll make myself useful." It is not entirely a lie: she has never before fought a man, but she's been hunting in the woods of Winterhold with her father since she could walk. Together they brought down elk, wolves. Bears. Surely it couldn't be so different to fight a man. Surely. The assemblage is quiet now: this is even better entertainment than usual, the odd barbarian girl with the fierce eyes and the ragged clothes.
"Oh you can, can you?" Saemund drawls, and then grins, a broad flash of white punctuated by missing teeth. "Well, I'll give you the same chance I give anyone wishing t' join our little band o' Merry Men. If you want to join us, you kill one of us."
Her stomach drops. Not only to fight, but to kill? She thinks of her father, lying on the snow in a pool of his own blood but a week hence, and for a moment she fears she might vomit. The man Shamar watches her intently, gauging her reactions. She meets his eyes, determined that he will not see or sense her terror, though her hands have gone clammy with fear. "What are the terms?" she asks, mouth dry.
Saemund's smile has a cruel edge as he continues to circle her. "Look at you, girl. Ain't you the professional now? The terms, as you call 'em, are a fight to the death. Knives and fists only. Not to first blood. You fight until there's a corpse on the ground and only then do you stop, one way or another. Kill one of us, you'll be one of us. What d'you say, Sigrid Frost-Born?"
"I accept," she says. If she fails, well, she won't be around to care now, will she? She thinks her father would be ashamed of her, but he is dead. And bandits had killed him. She will not ever allow herself to be so weak and helpless. Never again.
"Oh ho!" Saemund says, guffawing again. "And you don't even know who you'll be facing! You're brave, girl, I'll give you. Brave and stupid. Who volunteers?" he demands, though most of the mercenaries are now avoiding his eyes. Perhaps they are ashamed to kill a girl so young?
"I'll do it," says a deep, rumbling voice. Its owner stands and her eyes widen again. He's taller than she, well over six feet, much heavier. The corded muscles stand out on his arms as he flexes, cracking his knuckles one at a time. The loud pops echo. He looks her up and down, slowly, sneer on his face. "And I'll tell you what, lass, I'll even take off my armor to make it more fair. I'd say I'm sorry for messin' up your pretty face, but that'd be a lie, for you're a homely little bitch for sure."
"So's your mother," she retorts, and his eyes darken in rage.
"I'm going t' enjoy breaking your neck, girl," he murmurs.
The other sell-swords hoot and cheer, placing bets as the man begins to remove his armor, stripping down to his bare torso even in this chill. Sigrid merely unbuckles her supplies, her sword belt, and draws her long hunting knife. As she tests the edge with her finger, a small drop of blood welling up, Shamar slips up behind her and whispers in her ear. "One first lesson, girl: never trust a sell-sword. Don't do the honorable thing, for Olav certainly won't." He gives her a brief look, down through his long eyelashes. "It's you or him."
"I know," she says, more confidently than she feels. "I'm not afraid of him."
"For what it's worth," says Shamar, with a very white smile, "I bet on you."
"Thanks," she replies, and squares her shoulders, adding dryly, "Hope you don't lose that money."
A small area is cleared in the camp and hands are shoving her towards it, the sell-swords calling encouragement, yelling exhortations. The noise builds up around her into an inaudible buzz as she faces the man in their midst, all of her attention narrowed on him. He must outweigh her by at least…she doesn't even want to think about it. His scarred chest speaks of many years experience fighting men and women better than she. She'll have to avoid being taken to the ground. If he gets his weight on her, she will die, this much she knows. He grins at her. "Ready to die?"
"Ready to eat your words, skeever-shit?" she taunts him, always with more bravado than sense. With a growl, he rushes her.
The fight is short and brutal.
He may be bigger but she is faster, and as she runs, she leaps aside, slashing at him with the knife, opening a broad line of red on his skin. He roars, furious, to the accompanying shrieks of first blood! First blood! This time he doesn't overestimate her, approaching more cautiously, as though seeing her for the first time. They circle each other warily before he throws himself at her with his entire weight, trying to tackle her to the ground. To her dismay, she panics. She can't move fast enough, and as he comes at her, he grabs her braid, wrapping it around his fist. Yanks her off balance, to the ground. White-hot pain explodes in her head, and her fingers lose their hold on the knife. And then he's on top of her, punching her in the face over and over with his free fist. The pain again, unbearable. She can hear her nose snap, breaking, the unbearable burn of the bones shifting and felt all the way up into her skull, the hot blood rushing down and onto her mouth. Still panicking, she fights back any way she can, trying to knee him in the bollocks, but her legs are pinned. He's not close enough to head butt. And he's still hitting her, enjoying the pain he's causing, enjoying the fact that though she's still fighting she can't really hurt him, not with her fists, not with his weight on her. He hasn't even used the knife yet, she thinks, dazedly, through the pain. He's just going to punch you to death.
And she's still fighting, scratching at his face with her bitten fingernails, trying to bite him when his hands come too close. I'm going to die. I'm going to die. At least I'll see Da in Sovngarde…
At that thought something in her snaps. No. No. Not yet! It's not her time. He'd be so disappointed, so sad, to see her so soon. His only girl. Her hands, scrabbling now in the dirt, find the knife she'd dropped. Carelessly, sure of himself, Olav hasn't even bothered to kick it away. Her fingers close on the familiar weight of the hilt, and in one desperate motion she swings it up, almost blind from her swollen eyes and the blood trickling down her forehead, slams the blade as hard as she can into Olav's temple. He gasps, shudders, goes still. Suddenly a dead weight atop her.
The mercenaries, as one, fall silent, stunned.
And then erupt into cheers.
Hands pull the body of their former comrade from her, and Saemund hauls her up to her feet.
"Welcome to my little family, Sigrid Frost-Born!" he says.
The first thing she does when she can see again is to chop off her braid, leaving her head short and bare.
Twenty-Sixth of First Seed, 4E 187—age 15
It is her birthday, and she is extremely drunk.
The last few months have flown by in a blur. After killing Olav, the group accepts her without any hard feelings, much to her surprise. Not that he hadn't been well-liked, but all of them know the entry ritual, have all gone through the trial of blood and emerged alive. There but for the grace, etcetera. And although she still misses her father, Saemund's group has filled some of the void he'd left behind. Cheerful Dahleena, so fastidious about the cleanliness of her whiskers, given to wry observations about everything and everyone; sardonic Findulain, always assuming the worst of any situation; gruff Tyronius, possessor of a surprisingly kind heart. Nils, an old man but a fighter still. Agrob, full of constant, simmering fury. And Shamar, gregarious, beautiful, Shamar. The mixed band of ten to fifteen mercenaries, depending on who has fallen in battle and who has recently joined, travel all over Tamriel, hiring themselves out as bodyguards or soldiers or killers as the need demands, staying one step ahead of the law, one step ahead of the Fighters' Guild, which Saemund views as needlessly restrictive. Sigrid follows them from Morrowind, down the narrow strip of land out of Blacklight.
It is quite an education.
By far the youngest member of the Merry Men, as Saemund sardonically named them, she has been adopted as a sort of mascot. They all come to her, mockingly asking for advice on how to sharpen their weapons, how to murder big tough men with only a little pig-sticker, how to plan battle tactics. Her long hair, still in its braid, has been attached to their flag, flying behind it like a macabre pennant in the wind. She takes it all in stride, her natural sense of humor cushioning her from the worst of the teasing. Her lack of fighting experience, after that first victory, was obvious. But she is one of them now, and trains accordingly. Shamar in particular takes the time to teach her the art of the blade, to fill out the basic forms her father had shown her. They spend hours together in the spare time between engagements, trading blow after blow until he no longer disarms her so easily. She can feel her body hardening and it thrills her. Even Saemund, one day after a particularly hairy fight gives her the greatest compliment of all: You're not such a hopeless case after all, girl.
It is not the life she had pictured for herself, when she'd been a simple hunter in the woods, but she thrills to it. In a way she has always longed for this excitement, the fear of not knowing whether an opponent will best her today or tomorrow, whether he will be just a little too fast. Her nose heals crookedly and Shamar gallantly informs her that it gives her character. When she looks in the river now she hardly recognizes her own face. In the water, a stranger stares back: stripped of baby fat, with a newly bent nose, a new set of confidence to her mouth.
She fights with them in small villages, in fields, in Kragenmoor, where she kills a woman for the first time. She grows to know all of her comrades, to appreciate them in their own small ways. Even they have their own form of honor: the money is split evenly among their number, civilians are not harmed if possible. They do not steal from or rob anyone uninvolved with their conflicts. At times she feels she could do this for the rest of her life: moving, never resting long, always a new adventure around every corner. Findulain snorts at her when she tells him this, and says, "Wait a few years, girl, and you'll see how tired you get."
"But you're still doing it," she protests.
"Aye," Findulain says, and smirks. "It's too late for me. Get out while you still can!"
"No," she says, "This is the life for me. I love it." What she means is I love all of you, I love fighting with you, I love running with you.
It is easy to lose track of the time. One day is much like the next; camping, moving, fighting. She only realizes it is her birthday because Shamar mentions that today is the twenty-sixth of First Seed, the Festival of the Blades.
"And my birthday," she adds, surprised she's forgotten. It is her first birthday without her father, and the guilt washes over her in a wave. She's been so purposely busy that she's barely even had a chance to grieve.
Shamar smiles at her, a hand on her knee. He always has a second sense for her moods, born perhaps from the sheer amount of time they spend together, blade-to-blade. "In the Alik'r desert, this holiday celebrates the first Redguard victory over the giant goblins. An auspicious birth day." She loves to hear his tales of the desert, as she loves to hear Dahleena speak of Elsweyr. Both of the Merry Men are talented storytellers, possessed of a way with words. But she feels most at ease around Shamar, who tells such ridiculous tales of his own prowess, so obviously boasting and exaggerated, that she is often left twisted in helpless laughter, tears streaming from her eyes, as he grins at her.
"We must celebrate!" he says now, "The Festival of Blades, and the birth of our Sigrid!"
The rest of the Men meet the pronouncement enthusiastically, except of course for Findulain, incapable of showing enthusiasm about anything. No one asks her age again. They know she's lied to them, but now she is simply one of them. She can hold her own with a blade. And now, she attempts to hold her own with cups of ale. It is difficult, for they have had many years of practice, and she has only had occasional sips of her father's ale, but never this much at once, one mug after another of the bitter brew. I've killed men before I've ever been drunk, she thinks to herself, and the thought makes her laugh.
"What's so funny?" Shamar asks, and she tells him.
He leans forward and kisses her. It is her first kiss, and she is surprised but not unwelcoming. She tastes his lips, salt and ale and warmth, and feels a pleasant coil of heat in her stomach. "My fierce girl," he says fondly.
That night, she takes him to bed.
Nineteenth of Sun's Height, 4E 187
As always, when she and Shamar fight together, she marvels at their efficiency. It is as though he knows exactly where to stand to best compliment her blade; together, they are a whirling dervish, a clockwork machine of death. There is an ease to their actions, fighting and in bed, that fills her with a strange, fierce joy. While she still mourns her father, her life seems to have opened up in a new direction, and this eases some of the pain. She is excited for each new day, each new night.
She realizes, on the nineteenth of Sun's Height, that she is very happy.
First of Second Seed, 4E 188—age 16
As time goes by, Sigrid learns: to fight brutally and efficiently, to take no mercy, to spit and curse, to hold her liquor, to ride a horse, the parts of the body to stab that will incapacitate a man as quickly as possible, to make a messy stew out of whatever ingredients they happen to have on hand, to ferret out the best places to find new jobs whenever entering a new city, to hold her head confidently when she feels outmatched and outnumbered, to kill without feeling a pang of remorse. She becomes a bit of a savage, laughing as she rides into battle, as she brings down her blade into soft flesh. She learns the contours of the land, the names of cities she's never even heard of. She learns the pleasure that can come from bedding a man, though she only has eyes for Shamar, her partner in battle. Her best friend.
As she rides with Findulain, racing him back to the camp, her horse jolting her around as she guides it with her knees, Sigrid laughs, clear and bright and long.
Fourteenth of Hearthfire, 4E 188
In their bedroll together that night, Shamar runs his finger down the side of her cheek. "I love you, you know." He's never said anything like that to her before, but he seems to mean it. At the very least, his eyes are dark and serious.
To her surprise, Sigrid begins to laugh. The entire situation just seems so... Unbelievable. "Don't be silly," she says, "Of course you don't." And she kisses him, so that he will stop saying such ridiculous things.
Fifteenth of Hearthfire, 4E 188
They arrive in Bravil at an interesting time. Sigrid spends her first few hours there speaking with civilians and getting a measure of the lay of the land; unrest has been building over the last few weeks and the tension is almost unbearable now. Everyone can feel it: it's a heat in the air, a certain crackle of violence on the verge. A war has been brewing between the two biggest skooma dealers in the city, she discovers from one of the street rats she's befriended. When she tells this to Saemund, the man chuckles, his voice booming. "Aye!" he exclaims, "Opportunities will abound, for us. It seems we've come at exactly the right time."
"Which side will we take?" Sigrid asks him.
"Either, or neither," Saemund says with a shrug, an easy roll of his shoulder. "In a war it's often the citizens who have the most to lose, who are unaffiliated, that pay the most. We'll settle in and keep our noses down. Some plum job is bound to fall in our laps. I've always been lucky that way."
Twenty-Seventh of Hearthfire, 4E 188
Saemund is correct. Dahleena comes to the Company that day and informs them of a simple opportunity. Alisanne Dupre, a resident of the city, has engaged the Merry Men to protect her home from the violence that has now erupted around them, to prevent looters from taking advantage of the general chaos to break into her residence. They all agree that this is probably the best paying and least taxing job they are likely to find, and accept.
The home is huge, foreboding and reeking of money. High walls surround it, and within them, pleasant gardens with nightshade and deathbells growing in flowerboxes by the windows. Alisanne Dupre turns out to be a lovely, auburn-haired woman with the grace of a cat, her slim frame possessed of a deadly grace barely contained. She explains that, under no circumstances, are they to allow anyone to break into her home. Anyone who gets past the gate is to be killed, instantly.
"Don't worry about us," Sigrid jokes, "We never had a problem with that."
Dupre fixes her with one intent green eye, and frowns.
To her surprise, Sigrid finds herself blushing.
Twenty-Eighth of Hearthfire, 4E 188
It's not quite so simple, of course—it never is. The gangs raging around them know that Dupre has money, and that money means good looting. Sigrid and Shamar protect the gates, opened just enough space through the barricade so that one man at a time can squeeze his way through, cutting them down as they come. On the walls, Findulain sends arrows flying into the eyes of anyone reckless enough to climb the walls. Dahleena has the other wall, though she grumbles, "Is no good, this distance. I say let more of them in. Let them come!" But Dupre has given her orders, and the gates remain mostly closed.
Eventually, someone calls off the assault. The attackers melt back into the darkness.
One of them, a golden-eyed Khajiit, takes a little longer than the rest to leave. Sigrid catches his eye and is startled by the fury in it.
She sleeps uneasily that night.
First of Sun's Dusk, 4E 188
It is that evening that the statue of the Lucky Old Lady is destroyed, pulled down by the ropes of rioters, burnt to ashes.
When Dupre insists on leaving the house to protect some shrine below the destroyed statue, Saemund tells her that he can no longer protect her. Not if she leaves the safety of the house's walls. They've already angered the wrong people, getting in the middle of the skooma war, and the safety of the Men come first of all. No use in getting burnt alive by mages if there's no coin in it, he says, and the rest of them agree. Alisanne sets her mouth in a thin line and informs them that in such case, their services are no longer needed. Girded for battle, indomitable as tempered steel, she heads out into the streets in her black armor, and Sigrid wonders for the first time just who, in fact, they were protecting.
Second of Sun's Dusk, 4E 188
They leave Bravil in a hurry, after the death of Alisanne Dupre, her burned body charred and unrecognizable. They fight their way out of city, across the bridges, and miraculously no one is injured. That last battle, Dahleena says, will be a tale for the ages. She is already composing the ballad.
They keep on the move all through the night and into the next day, setting up camp a full day's march at top pace away. Once everyone is settled in for the evening, Saemund sends Sigrid out into the wild to bring back meat for supper.
She finds hunting game instead of men to be calming. There's a large buck she's got her eye on, and an arrow through his eye brings him down. She feels the flush of pleasure, of knowing that her skill will feed her family this eve. But the buck is so large that it takes her quite a while to drag it back to the camp on her own. Though stronger now, she still has not filled out to her full weight.
When she reaches the camp once more, the carcass of the deer falls to the ground, as she stares in frozen shock, her heart constricting as though icy fingers invade her chest and grip it. The camp is burning and her friends are dead. Dahleena, decapitated, her head a few feet from her body. Findulain, his throat cut. Saemund run through by so many blades that his torso seems pulped. Most of the bodies aren't wearing armor. They were caught off guard, unaware. She can't even absorb the horror of it all. How could she have missed such a thing? How could she, once again, be in the wrong place at the wrong time, narrowly escaping death while those who mattered most suffered? She takes a deep, shaky breath and feels like screaming.
A sudden pressure punches her back, a sharp impact. At first there is no pain, but as she gasps and draws in a breath, it comes in a rush. Burning pressure even as the blade withdraws. She can feel it sliding from her, hot and cold all at once. It's unbearable, now, and she stumbles, almost falling. A hand catches her, snakes around her throat, pulling her forward against a familiar frame. "Shamar?" she gasps. "What—why?"
"Sorry my dear," he murmurs, and she feels the blade against her neck, now, warmed by her own blood. She struggles, futilely. "Just business. And I did tell you never to trust a sell-sword."
The last thing she remembers is a pure, burning rage that swallows her whole.
Fifth of Sun's Dusk, 4E 188
She wakes in an unfamiliar bed. An old woman is bustling around her, and when she sees that Sigrid has opened her eyes, she gasps. "Marcus! Marcus! She's alive!"
"What happened?" Sigrid croaks, every word sending bolts of fire through her windpipe. Who are these people? Where are her friends?
Suddenly she remembers, and her eyes slip shut again, though she's too exhausted even to cry.
"Oh, honey," the old woman says sadly. "We found your friends at the very edge of our property after we heard such a commotion…you were the only one left alive, still crawling along the ground." One wrinkled hand smoothes Sigrid's forehead while her husband places a hand on the girl's shoulder, to keep her from starting out of the bed. "Shh, shh. Rest. You barely made it, and it was touch-and-go for a while there."
"You're lucky m' wife's such a talented mage," the old farmer says gruffly, while the woman blushes with pleasure, "Or you wouldn't've made it at all. Lung collapsed, cut throat… I'm amazed you're not dead."
Sigrid falls back against the pillow, and squeezes her eyes even more tightly shut, as though by doing so she might forget all of it, unable to process all of this. It's too much.
Seventh of Sun's Dusk, 4E 188
Although the farmers try to convince her to rest, Sigrid leaves as soon as she's able to stand. "I'm sorry," she says. "You have my thanks. I owe you my life. I will repay you one day, I promise."
They watch her go. The old woman is crying, but Sigrid can't afford to.
Twelfth of Sun's Dusk, 4E 188
It's not hard to hunt him down, in the end. He hasn't even bothered to hide his path, so sure that all of them are gone. She tracks him to a nameless inn in the Imperial City, and she is waiting for him when he comes back to his room at night. A wound for a wound, a knife to the back and a slice of her blade against his throat. Blood for blood. She doesn't even bother to say anything to him before she slides the blade into his body. She trusts that he will understand.
She looks him in the eye as the life fades from his beautiful face, and knows that he knows it's her. Somehow, this does not make her feel any better. She turns her head, the hot, sour gorge rising in her throat before she vomits.
No time for that. Never any time for weakness. She wipes her mouth and searches his corpse; in his pockets, she finds a letter from one of the Bravil skooma dealers they'd angered during the riots, keeping them from breaking into the Dupre woman's home, and a bag containing five hundred septims. Kill all of them, the note reads. No one fucks me over.
Five hundred septims, for her life. For all of their lives. She's almost beyond fury now, so full of roiling emotion that it's almost choked out of her.
She spits on the corpse before she leaves.
He was right. Never trust a sell-sword.