Aldric jogged lightly through the forest, enjoying his time alone. He was in the outskirts of the Pine Forest, not far from Whiterun. At first he had stuck to the road, but the soft grass had beckoned to him. He had cut through a narrow pass between two small mountains until he was here.
The grassland under his feet was thick enough to count as a meadow, and it perfumed the air with a sweet, clean scent. He stayed near the shady trees in the area out of habit, but his guard was down and he wasn't worried about conflict.
A movement to his right caught his eye, and he immediately sank into a crouch and crept into the thicket of trees near him. A massive elk came toward him from the southwest, gracefully bounding through the woods almost noiselessly.
The creature was nearly level with him when it slowed to a halt and lowered its head to graze. Aldric considered its antlers and size, both of which were impressive. He drew his bow and had barely nocked an arrow when there was a low-pitched whizzing sound.
The bull let out a musical squeal and fell to the ground, a red-tipped steel arrow protruding from directly behind its shoulder. An expert shot. Most likely a hunter, but Aldric tensed nevertheless, waiting for the shooter to claim its prize. He knew bandits freely roamed the area.
After a long moment, Aldric was surprised to see a figure drop down from the rocky formations a few dozen feet away. The hunter ran swiftly and low to the ground, making a beeline to the bull's body.
Relaxing, he rose from his position to the ground and approached, intending to see if the person offered anything to sell.
"Nice shot," he greeted the hunter.
The figure froze, clearly surprised by Aldric's sudden appearance. He realized that his bow was still in his hand, and before he could put it up, the person rose to their feet.
The hunter wore dark leather, looking closer to armor designed for combat than for hunting. The cuirass and trousers he was looking at were reinforced at the knees and elbows, and tight to the limbs. He recognized good craftsmanship in the sleek boots.
What bothered him most of all was the hood. A wide piece of fabric stretched across the hood, hiding most of the face from view and leaving only the eyes, which were hidden in shadow by the angle of the sun. He had seen headpieces like that before—on assassins.
There was a brief, tense pause as they measured one another, and then the hunter stepped forward possessively toward the elk.
"I've been tracking this bull since damn near the Jerall Mountains," a distinctly feminine voice said. She pulled off her hood and glared first at Aldric's bow, and then him. "He's mine."
He slung his bow onto his back and put his hands out to her. "I'm not arguing with you. I didn't know anyone was tracking him when I started to line up my shot."
Scowling, she knelt to retrieve her arrow. Aldric was a little surprised to see that the faintly threatening figure he had been assessing was a female, and an attractive one at that. He chastised himself then—plenty of tough enemies he had been up against had been women.
But not ones that looked like her. The hair that had been hiding under the hood was impossibly dark, black even. It was startling against her fair skin and high cheekbones. Her eyes were pale and rested beneath straight dark brows that were currently still frowning at him.
He realized that she was watching him watch her. "That was a good shot."
She slipped the arrow from the bull's side carefully. "You said that already."
So he had. "Well, I meant it. Most hunters I've seen probably couldn't land an elk at that distance."
"I'm not most hunters," she said. She pulled out a steel dagger and started to slice the bull open.
"I noticed, from the armor. I've never seen anything like that. Did you make it yourself?"
She stopped what she was doing and looked directly at him. "Are you writing a book or something?"
"I'd need your name to write a book," he said, and then internally cringed. Very smooth, Aldric.
She resumed dressing the bull, but not before he caught a slight eye roll. "Rory."
"I'm Aldric." He resisted the urge to hold out his hand to her. He sensed she wouldn't shake it, even if she weren't elbow-deep in elk.
"I don't have anything for sale," she said suddenly, as if she had just realized that might be what he wanted.
He waved a hand. "I can head to town to find supplies. I don't hunt much in the area, though."
She pulled out the bull's entrails and dumped them into the grass abruptly with a wet sound. Hands covered in blood, she wiped a stray tendril of hair away from her forehead with her arm.
At the smell and sight of the blood, Aldric's beast stirred inside him, almost like lazily raising its head from a nap for a sniff at the air. He patiently waited for the rush of excitement and anticipation to fade; it was much easier to handle now than it had been in his early days of being a werewolf. Not nearly as overwhelming.
Rory picked up her knife again. "What are you after? Anoriath in Whiterun has a good selection of meat. If you're after pelts, you'd be better off finding a hunter. Neither shops in Falkreath or Whiterun stock much."
"Truthfully, I was after these antlers," he admitted.
She gave him a sideways glance. "Tell you what. I don't need the antlers and they won't fetch a good price unless I go to a city, and I'm not up for that kind of trip. I'll give them to you if you help me haul these cuts back. He was bigger than I thought and there's a lot of meat here."
He grinned. "Sure thing."
While Rory wrapped up the cuts she had taken from the bull, Aldric offered to skin the pelt. She accepted, and he could feel her watching him from time to time as he worked. After a while, he concentrated fully on what he was doing when he got to the more tedious parts.
"You mentioned you don't hunt much," she said.
He separated the pelt from a particularly tough section with a grunt. "I'll take down what I see if I need it, but no, I don't go out in search of game."
"You live in town?"
Which town? he wanted to ask, but he didn't feel the need to mention he owned property in several hold capitals. He sensed it wouldn't impress Rory. "No, but I pass through a lot."
"You travel, then?"
A certain curious lilt in her voice made him think she was trying to find out what he did. Living on the road could mean wholesome things like an adventurer, bard, or merchant, but it could also mean darker things like a bandit, mercenary, thief or even an assassin.
"Lately, yes. I've been on the road a lot." He didn't know how to answer the question.
She was quiet for a moment. "Do you have it all, then?"
He gathered the pelt and turned. "I do."
She was closer than he'd thought. Her eyes were unusual, silvery and coppery at the same time. This close, he could see the thick black lashes surrounding them, and he noticed that her mouth was an appealing rosy shade. Her lips looked soft.
She lifted a section of the pelt near his arm. "Good work."
She looked up at him and stepped back, seeming to think she was too close. He watched as a delicate blush bloomed in her cheeks. "I don't live far from here, close to Falkreath. They have a decent inn there."
"So I've heard."
"Well, are you ready to go?"
"Ready when you are."