24 Heartfire 4E201, Lakeview Manor

The stars had begun to come out overhead when Ivar stepped out on his porch. He found it cold, a breath of winter air coming down from the Throat of the World, and pulled his wolf-skin cloak more closely around him. He took in a deep breath, savoring the scents of the place: crisp evening air, pine and spruce needles, rich earth, and the sharp smell of freshly sawn planks underfoot.

Behind him, inside the house, he heard Lydia's voice for a moment, raised in command. The smith smiled to himself.

Good choice there. She takes to managing the land and property as if born to it. Which she was, of course. Hrongar's daughter, after all. She hasn't been trained for life as a simple shield-maiden. She's destined for marriage to some thane, maybe even a jarl, and a place ruling his household with an iron fist. Any time she spends here will be good practice.

For a moment, Ivar's expression turned wistful.

She will make someone a very good wife someday. Too bad it won't be me.

She deserves better than the life I'm likely to be able to provide: short, very interesting, and ending in high tragedy. Tools of the gods never seem to end their days in peace or happiness, if the tales speak the truth.

He struggled with his emotions for a moment, but then set them aside by main strength of will, taking a wide strength-stance and throwing his head back to look up at the moons and the stars.

This is the life the gods have granted me. I will live it to the full, and never give in to regret.

He still remained there several minutes later, motionless under the night sky, when a door opened and someone stepped out onto the porch beside him. Whoever it was said nothing, only sharing the silence with Ivar.

"Hello, Rayya," he said at last, without looking.

"My thane."

Her voice seemed more musical than usual, that evening. So did the silence that followed. Ivar found himself appreciating that silence. Rayya was one of those rare people who knew when not to speak.

Finally, the smith took another deep breath and turned to look at his housecarl. "Did you need something?" he asked quietly.

"No, my thane. I only thought to come out and enjoy the evening with you."

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" Ivar cocked his head at her, taking in the ankle-length wrap and head-scarf she wore against the cold, dark in color and rich with elaborate embroidery. "You know, I think this is the first time I've seen you in anything other than combat gear. It suits you."

She smiled. "Well. We are at home. I trust I will have a few moments of warning before bandits or wolves attack."

"Or a giant. Divines, that was a nuisance."

"A very dangerous nuisance." Rayya shook her head, still in good humor. "Not to mention it took the entire work crew a day to haul away the carcass."

Ivar chuckled, but then grew serious. "Hmm. We are at home, you said. Do you think of this as home, then?"

She turned away from him for a moment, to stare out into the night. "My thane, either an exile has no home, or she finds a way to make a home wherever she may happen to be. I am content here. More content than I ever thought to be in Falkreath, or in all of Skyrim."

The smith felt his heart skip a beat. "Glad I am to hear it, lass."

She remained silent for a long moment, something in the lines of her form telling him she debated with herself. He waited patiently. Finally, she shook her head and turned to go. "Good night, my thane."

"Wait," he said abruptly.

Enormous eyes stared at him in the moonlight. It wasn't at all difficult to step forward and lean close, to taste the warm spice of her kiss for the first time. It kindled a fire in him, and in her as well, if he was any judge.

"My thane . . . Ivar," she whispered at last. "I didn't know."

"I'm not sure I knew either, until just now." He looked into her eyes once more, pleased that he barely had to look down at all to do it. "It's no secret that I like women, but you will have noticed what kind of women I usually invite to my bed."

She took on an exasperated look, rather like a cat deciding whether or not to hiss. "Village girls and tavern maids."

"Aye. It's always a plain and simple thing – I don't expect it to last, and neither does she. A night's pleasure for us both, and then I'm on the road once more. I'm less certain what to do about a woman who deserves a grand passion. A woman like you."

"I did wonder why you never tried to seduce Lydia. It would not have taken much effort."

Ivar chuckled. "It would never have worked. Besides, you've seen her father. He's one of the few men in Skyrim who intimidates me."

She lifted one hand, to trail along the side of his face and gently ruffle his beard. "So where does this leave us? For I assure you, my thane, I am not the kind of woman who will be content with a single night."

"I wouldn't expect you to be." He made a deep sigh. "Lass, if you're wise, you will turn and walk away. I don't think my life is going to be the sort to provide any woman with contentment."

"Perhaps I don't want contentment," she whispered. "I want to be part of your life, Ivar. I want to stand and fight at your side. I want to lend my hand to whatever mark you choose to make on this world. Let the gods decide the rest."

"So be it," he said, and took her hand to lead her inside.

Author's Note: This brings the first arc of Ivar's story to a close. I've been struggling with this narrative for some time – I could see it becoming very difficult to stick to the game-plot without venturing into a long series of digressions. In the game, it's difficult to complete the main plot without going through a number of sub-plots along the way, and wandering from one end of Skyrim to the other multiple times while you chase intermediate objectives. That doesn't make for a very compact or coherent narrative in literary form.

So Ivar has reached a clear turning point in his story, and this is as good a place as any to wrap things up for the moment. There's certainly more to come: Ivar's complicated relationship with Elisif the Fair, the peace conference at High Hrothgar, the quest for knowledge needed for his smith's master-work, the final defeat of Alduin, the resolution of the civil war in Skyrim, the Moot at which Ivar's destiny takes a strange turn . . . At some point I plan to take up some or all of those events, possibly in a different and less constraining format.

For now, though, I think I need to work on other projects for a while, and let the well of inspiration recover a bit. Until we see Ivar again, my best wishes and many thanks for those who have stuck with the story thus far.