Everything here is either influenced or created by Bethesda.
I. BEFORE WE WERE BORN
Ignoring the numb shaking of her fingers, Hales spun Frost's reinstrings around her palms, clenching them tightly in her sweaty hands. There was a slow, painful thumping against her temples, her ears burning hot and the back of her throat stung a dry itch. An untested curse stumbled from her lips when the heavy oak doors slammed open, but when the suit of armour clunked in to bludgeon her with his warhammer she had already mounted the horse, her legs merely tapping his velvety sides before he understands the urgency of their flight.
Frost, as Hales expected, is swift and intelligent, thundering through the tight aspen trees with fluid certainty, the arrows that whiz past them never deterring his steadfast stride. She trusts him in no time to lead her away from the danger, and when the obscenities have died out to the miles she closes her eyes against the glare of a sinking sun, inhaling the free autumn air, its cold wind gracing them as Frost galloped on. Time was lost to the fluttering of hair, white and black. She forgets their strings, bare hands clutching tight into the strands of Frost's straight mane and he slows into a canter for her. She sees, for the first time in weeks, the dark wild of star-clustered sky. "Good horse," she sighed, breathless, gruffly stroking the palomino coat of his neck.
Hales would give anything to have a steed like Frost. Her body is, as the local Nords often imposed, ill-suited to a life beyond metropolis. The first days in this new harsh tundra were spent squatting in the smoke of hearth-warmed inns, face, chest and spindly limbs bundled in an odd assemblage of scrapped rags and furs. In time her skin grew used to the biting climate, but she would never play well in brutal Nord-style battle, and while a light build was extremely desirable among the prowling crooks of Riften, it was a great disadvantage against tall mountains and even taller bandits. To have a swift and hardy horse like Frost would be earning her freedom from the city walls, from the red-faced highwaymen that were accustomed to cleaving in two anything that moved suspiciously against the white snow.
Within minutes Hales spotted her quarry camped at the bank of a narrow river, his body turned to them as he carved on a lump of wood by a small fire. She dismounted Frost, trying to detach herself from the reluctance, and steered him towards the man, gently easing him whenever he snorted his anxiety. She whistled softly to catch the man's attention, his thin back twisting to acknowledge her.
"Letrush? I got your horse."
Letrush set his piece down, nodded curtly and gestured for her to sit on a log across him.
"Here's one who keeps her word," he exclaimed loudly, the smile on his lips not reaching his nervous eyes. "Did you get the papers as well?"
Hales pulled out a sheaf of documents she had pilfered from the manor, handing them to him over the orange glow of the fire. He took them with a grateful noise and fumbled out a dingy bag, jingling with the sound of many dozens of coins. She could almost see the Dragon's bearded chin embossed into their gold faces.
"All my thanks," he announced, his husky voice tremulous, his hands shaky as he shuffled through the papers. Hales turned to look longingly over at Frost, morose that she could not keep such a fine-bred stallion for herself. She contemplated threatening Letrush for Frost, her hand slowly drifting towards the knife holstered in her boot, until the whiny conscience told her the poor bard deserved more than being deceived twice. It seemed he had been thinking the same thought as well, for he let out a small whimper of relief when her hand jerked over to the wooden carving.
Letrush had considerably relaxed to her afterwards, even offering some of his hearty rabbit stew before she decided to head back to town at dawn. A wide grin was plastered on his sun-browned face as he trotted off with gleaming white Frost, and Hales forced herself to turn away before a rock could fling itself into Letrush's front teeth. Because of some fortunate circumstance the suits of armour from back at the manor had not managed to track her down. She endured the long hours of walking back to Riften with jumbled thoughts that were interspersed with images of straight, white mane and strong galloping hooves.
By high noon, the wooden watchtowers outside Riften came into view. They stood sentinel beside the rising road, tall and looming, each draped in the ragged purple banners that flapped in the light aspen breeze. Several helmed guards roamed about the area, some standing under the roof of each tower. She ignored the greetings and the questioning looks, trudging off into the open gates of the city, her feet so familiar with the stones and the wood that she had no trouble finding her corner amidst the bustle of many moving bodies. A heavy sigh loosened itself as she sank against the low paved wall, the sounds of chattering shoppers and metal hammering against metal filling her ears as she glared at the flow of city life before her.
Riften, though seemingly idyllic, was a boatwreck of a town. Those were the exact words Hales had thought to herself when she had first wandered into its wide streets a year ago. The town was a primarily wooden structure built over the eastern docks of a vast oceanic lake, and its location at the southeast corner of Skyrim made it a golden capital for fishing trade. But that was long ago, long before Morrowind, to the east, had fallen into an ashen wasteland, and long before the Imperial city southbound was torn asunder by the Great War. Now Riften was merely a capitalist center that strived to maintain the wet pillars that held it up. Its inhabitants were harshly halved into the struggling poor and the rich business owners. And there was yet the matter of the thieves establishing the city as their own.
"Ei, Hales, always so downtrodden."
Hales scowled up at a cat-man standing before her, his golden feline eyes smiling deviously as he tugged her hair to earn her attention. She shuffled over to allow him some space, not at all minding that they looked like dirty urchins, and he conjured a red apple from somewhere, handing it to her with a black-furred claw. Hales ignored the apple for a long moment before snatching it away, her ears burning as he laughed the familiar trill at her.
"How was your little adventure?"
"What do you want me to say? It went well."
"That is good to hear," he said with a dismaying finality. Hales directed a confused look at him and he laughed at her once more, his claw ruffling her wily hair as she bit furtively into her apple, sweet juice tanging her stale mouth.
"Let this one say it for you - the horse was very pretty."
"Go away, Halco."
"And Hales wanted it, yes? But horses are expensive. If you were as bold as this one," Halco gestured to himself, stretching his cat-like face into a wide, long-toothed grimace that she knew was a smile, "You would have simply buried your knife in the bard's throat and taken the horse for yourself."
Halco himself was a boisterous member of the Thieves Guild, and was, for better or worse, Hales's closest friend. He was born unto luck, learning to pick locks and pockets with prodigious skill as a cub, ever stealthy and not once having been caught. That fact always frustrated Hales to Oblivion; Halco was taller, heavier, and much more striking in appearance, being an anthropic cat, while she was small and unnoticeable - and still he was by a tenfold the better one.
"Haven't you got something else to do? Break into someone's house?"
Halco's ears flicked. "It is daytime. Break-ins are preferable at night, when everyone is sleeping. No, there is nothing to do aside from bothering. Though there is something to tell," he looked about him surreptitiously, leaning closer to her after a guard had passed well beyond hearing. "This one hears a rumor of another slaughter out of town. The guards will not let anyone know of it. A guildmember was running by when they found the bodies."
Hales rolled her eyes and turned away from Halco, though eagerly straining her ears against the city noise to hear him. He had been feeding her an excited broadcast about a couple of attacks in the farms and mills outskirting Riften. Whilst Halco was certain they were something to keep watch for, she was quick to attribute them to animal violence, perfectly natural and even necessary in population control.
"Ah, Hales, you have not yet heard the entire story! I know what you are thinking - a bear could have easily broken in and killed them, I agree. But it is not so simple this time."
His mischievous eyes delved into hers, a gleam of triumph clouding the gold, and she dared raise a skeptic eyebrow at him, telling herself that she wasn't urging him on.
"The guards did not need a thorough investigation to figure this was amiss. One of the bodies they found was not anyone at all."
"What's that mean?" Hales drawled, against her judgement.
"There were three people living in the barn. Three corpses were discovered, mangled and bled dry, but it was not all the same people. One of the men was gone. They could not recognize the other."
Hales snorted obnoxiously into her apple. A passer-by in finery wrinkled her nose at the sound and Hales glared in response. "How's this any different? He could've ran away, the other one could've been a traveler who rushed in when he saw the- bear."
Halco nodded in thoughtful acknowledgement, the bobbing rhythm finding a way to irritate Hales. That was something the cat did when he would entertain her input, belying his knowledge of something she did not know or had failed to pick up. She lurched her thigh hard against his and he chuckled. "The guildmember who saw it could not pass the opportunity. He snuck in to loot when the guards where not looking.
"That one got a close-up of the corpse. They could not recognize it because everything was eaten. Face, chest, stomach. The only thing he could say about it was it had loooong hair like a woman."
Hales stared. "So?"
"So," said Halco in a heaving sigh. "Bears do not eat people. Nor do they kidnap and throw away garbage."
At this point Hales lost all interest. She saw the look in Halco's eye and knew what he was insinuating. She rolled the brown-streaked core of her apple across the wide street, watching people lift their foots over it until coming to a halt under the blacksmith's workbench. She wondered how far away Letrush would have gotten by now, the cruel part within her hoping he had been mauled off by a bear, Frost galloping back towards the town stables for her.
Thanks so much for reading :) I had published this chapter earlier, as part of the second one, then came back to edit and cut in two. This now merely a prologue-sort. Please, criticism of all kind is more than appreciated. I'd love to be able to ease myself into the writing community somehow, as writing (rather than reading) fanfiction is all new to me.