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A Wild Bear Chase - Chapter Six

by Aritheanie

I carried Aleron Loche back to the Chapel — no easy task, that, since he was much bulkier than he looked under his clothing. On arriving at the Chapel, Loche’s anxious wife rushed forward to embrace him, before stopping short in dismay as she took in his condition.

I’d done my best to administer aid before we rowed back to the town, but Loche had been very badly beaten up, to the point of having bones broken, after my protective ring had been taken from him. He’d sunk into unconsciousness on the way back. Chapel healers rushed to bear him into the adjacent healing rooms, Ursanne following silently behind them, and there was much shouting and calling for various healing aids and potions.

I’d managed to reclaim my ring off of Kurdan’s corpse back at the fort, but the knife was gone. Ah well.

I left the healers to their work on Aleron, but not before snagging a junior healer and asking him to examine my arm. He confirmed my suspicions of a crack in the bone, gave me a vial of healing potion, several minutes” treatment with Healing Hands, and an injunction not to strain that arm for the next week or so. He was called away soon after though, and I left, heading back to the Silverhome.

Gilgondorin was very kind not to mention how wrecked I looked, though he insisted I take a hot bath in the basement using the laundry coppers, for which I was very grateful. Dragging my weary body up the stairs again, I politely declined Gilgondorin’s offers of the evening meal, and went to pour myself into bed instead.

Dawn came, and I lay there, sore, tired and reluctant to even get up, never mind ride a horse. I felt like I could sleep for a week or so. Yet, sleep had come uneasily, punctuated by nightmares of bone and blood and harsh laughter. The Orc hunter had made a bigger impression than I wanted to admit. Still, it had been two weeks now since we’d first received this assignment; this would be the fifth day since Clesyne had gone on to Anvil. I was going to have to make greater speed to catch up to her. Or an earlier start, to spare my horse. I could doubtless dose poor Crystal with potions to fortify her speed and stamina, but I’d rather not do so, except as a last resort: repeated dosing of potions built resistance, and most riders and horse breeders frowned on these means of artificially boosting performance: it invariably cost the horse’s physical health dearly.

Washed, dressed and packed, I hefted my saddlebags downstairs — it was long past time to put Bravil behind me. Coming down however, I met someone I hadn’t been expecting to see here, nor this early: Ursanne Loche, face pale and worn in the morning light shining through a window. I felt a frisson of worry. Why was she here?

“How is he?” My voice was raspy.

“He was very close to dying, but near dawn the fever broke, and the healers at the chapel now say he will be well with time to heal. The splint you made saved his leg, though he will have a limp for the rest of his life.” Her smile was brilliant and transformed her plainess into something unique — for a moment I could see the fresh young woman she had been, once. “You saved him. You brought him home. I don’t know how to thank you.”

I stiffened as she embraced me — my ribs and stomach were hurting from the abuse they’d had yesterday. Her expression was still one of wonder and joy as she let me go. “Mara surely must have sent you to us.”

I didn’t know how to respond except by shaking my head. “You l-l-love him. Least I could do. Happy t-to help.”

Ursanne’s mouth parted, then closed. Suddenly she was all brisk business, as she retrieved a book from the bag she was carrying with her. “It’s not much, but it’s what we have to spare.” I looked at the book, with its incomprehensible (to me) lettering. “Keep it, or sell it, if you like; but take it, with our thanks.”

“Will you away — leave Bravil n-now?” I asked.

“Soon. Aleron needs time to heal, and we need more money, but yes. We will go — he’s finally agreed with me it’s time to go back to our kinfolk in Dunlain.”

“Farewell, then; we won’t be look each other again. Luck with you.”

“And with you.”

Crystal was fresh and spoiling for a ride, almost prancing as we got underway. I suspected the stablehands hadn’t exercised her properly as much as they ought.

My next destination on the way to Anvil was the relatively southerly city of Skingrad, set in the rich lands of the West Weald which produced some of the finest vintages in Cyrodiil. The famous Surilie brothers had their vineyards and winery there; their wines were served at some of the highest tables in the Empire; the equally renowned Tamika wines were also grown, pressed and bottled here.

The West Weald was the bread basket of Cyrodiil: much of the province’s wheat was grown in its lush bountiful fields, along with much of the province’s other food. Warm, semi-marshy Nibenay produced the varied types of rice that formed a staple for the general populace, as well as the ancestor moth silks and Akaviri-style rice wines coveted by the rich; but the broad valleys between the Weald’s low hills and scattered woodlands, with their fertile soils, longer growing season compared to the highlands, and a more temperate climate, supplied almost everything else in the common man’s diet from corn to potatoes and beans. The countryside around Skingrad had been called a gourmet’s paradise, as the various small farms and dairies in the region produced excellent artisanal cheeses with unique flavours and ingredients, and some of the best tomatoes and olives to be found anywhere were grown here.

I liked Skingrad, even though an extended visit usually meant adding an extra notch to my belt. Salmo’s sweetrolls were famed throughout Cyrodiil, and I had a raging sweet tooth. Alas, I probably wouldn’t have time for side-tripping once there though; I still had a nine day journey ahead of me. Once I’d gotten to Skingrad, hopefully I could find a boat that would take me and my horse down the River Strid, hugging the coast until it reached Anvil.

By day five, Crystal was showing not- so- subtle signs of tiredness. I let her drop to a canter more often than not, led her at a walk for longer distances and took more frequent breaks; the slower pace was easier on both of us, and as long as I managed to forage and hunt or fish for food, as well as covered the total distance I’d planned for that day, riding later into the night hours wasn’t a big deal. My ribs and stomach still ached when I moved too fast and riding was still a constant pain — mounting up, without a convenient rock or mounting block, was a special form of torture. It was getting better though, each day hurt a little less.

The journey so far had been relatively peaceful: so far the only problem I’d had was a night encounter with the local wildlife in the form of a timber wolf and the rest of its pack, and I’d driven them off handily with fire and arrows and the help of Crystal’s sharp hooves. The morning of day six brought rain. Not a downpour, but in fits and starts, a grey drizzle more mist than water that obscured the road. I was dozing atop Crystal, her even gait and the occasional splash of watery mud lulling me into inattention.

That peace soon ended as an arrow whizzed past Crystal’s legs. She reared up, dumping me out of the saddle and into the mud.

Spluttering and scrambling up, I drew my knife, seeing how Crystal had bolted ahead with my bow and most of my weaponry. I hate bandits, particularly ones with bows. Especially when I didn’t have my own bow handy.

Another arrow whizzed by, parting the hair on my head. I knew where the bandit was now, well his general direction anyway. I went for cover behind more bushes, and snuck my way towards where the arrows had been fired from.

We surprised each other, the bandit and I. I found — not a male, as I’d expected, but a Redguard woman, lightly armoured, dark curly hair spilling past her shoulders, who was silently creeping away from a little hollow in the ground. I gave her no chance to react and sprang on her, knife aimed for her throat. The Redguard seized hold of my knife arm with amazing speed, and forced me to loose my grip on the knife.

Punch, kick, try to sweep the raga’s legs from under her, avoid her kick in return; grappling for holds, duck again, rolling and rolling and rolling over in confusion. I had the knife back one moment, then the next minute I’d lost hold of it and the Redguard woman did, and was attempting to stab me. I bit her wrist hard enough to taste blood, and got my nose bloodied in return. I was disoriented, but hung on and wrestled her around by the hair, before she got the upper hand again.

In the end, it was by sheer accident that I killed her. After trading a fast series of punches, I’d head-butted her before shoving her hard. She spun on the wet grass and stumbled backwards before tripping on a hidden hole, landing awkwardly. Her neck made a loud crack as it snapped.

I approached her where she lay, wary of a trick; but no, she was indeed dead.

I wiped off the blood still streaming from my nose, and sighed as I scanned the area for means of raising a mound, or some kind of burial. No loose rocks around that I could move on my own, but there were large branches I could use to cover her dead body. That might save it from scavengers for a while. I got down to work quickly, mostly using my right hand since the left now hurt abominably. The quick disposal accomplished, I started limping up the road, puffing a bit as the level of the road grew steadily higher. Hopefully Crystal hadn’t been spooked so far as to run beyond my ability to find her. I really wanted one of the healing potions in my bags now.

I walked some two or three miles by my reckoning, before I finally found Crystal by the side of the road, reins trailing on the ground, cropping on the grass. She was skittish around me — likely due to the smell of all the blood that had dried on my armour; I needed to wash and oil it later. I fished out the healing potion, drank it down and then mounted up, with much more discomfort than earlier.

Julianos as my witness, I just couldn’t wait to get back to civilisation.

I pushed Crystal a bit harder again after that, and she responded beautifully, like the excellent horse she was. After my encounter, I was careful to scan the areas I passed through continuously for signs of ambush. I wasn’t going to be caught literally napping yet again!

As we got closer to the more inhabited areas of the Weald, the woods and forests gave way to small homesteads and cottages with their herb and vegetable gardens, interspersed with villages and their larger fields where sheep and cattle grazed, and the nodding heads of wheat hung swaying in the breeze, awaiting ripening and the harvest.

The high turreted walls of Skingrad coming into view, just around the crest of the road were a welcome sight in the morning light, nine days since I’d set out from Bravil. I nudged Crystal into something approaching a trot, and we arrived at the Grateful Pass Stables, where I left Crystal contentedly resting and munching on hay and grass under the watchful eyes of Ugak gra-Mogakh, the local ostler. I was honestly worn out, but needs must, no matter how much I was yawning and my treacherous brain wandered to thoughts of my bedroll, or more preferrably, a bed; so I continued to the gates of the city and entered, just as the carillon of the Great Chapel of Julianos rang out across the city, the hauntingly beautiful treble chimes giving way to seven deep-toned strokes of the hour bell.

Skingrad’s prosperity under its notoriously reclusive wizard-Count was apparent in the clean, bustling streets, numerous well-kept stone-built homes with their bright flower-filled windowboxes, and the fine granite and marble faced buildings, the happy faces of the denizens and the shining steel plate the Skingrad City Guard wore as they kept an eye on the goings-on. The vendors crying their prices in the numerous markets raised a fair din as I threaded my way through the city’s large business district, which had been seeing more and more spillover into the housing areas, to the complaints of the local residents.

The goods sold in Skingrad’s markets, which stretched in an untidy straggle on both sides of the highway that bisected the city, rivalled that of the capital for available variety, and certainly outdid it in terms of pricing. Here in the bazaars, colourfully dressed merchants of all the ten races could be found selling everything and anything, from large wheels of cheese to fresh green produce, jerked meats and preserves and fruit, cheap trinkets and baked goods, as well as other, more exotic things in the windows of smaller shops built inside the thick walls that bordered the highway: here was limeware and precious handblown glass, exotically coloured by the ashes of Red Mountain used in their making, transported carefully over long miles of harsh roads from Morrowind; mammoth ivory scrimshaw from Skyrim, delicately and ornately carved, displayed on rich velvet cushions in the window of another, exotic spices from Hammerfell and peppers from Elsweyr in a third.

I’d have loved to have actually gotten a closer look at the scrimshaw, but first, information. Clesyne and I generally stayed at the Two Sisters Lodge, over in the southern half of the city and nestled amongst residents’ homes, when we were here. Clesyne would have stopped here on her way to Anvil, surely; perhaps she had left a message, or better yet, she might’ve delayed and I was in time to meet with her, at last. I picked up my pace.

Mog gra-Mogakh, Ugak’s sister ran the inn, and was well used to holding messages for the both of us, being that we were fairly frequent customers at her inn, had been since we’d both first come to Cyrodiil. As soon as she saw me come through the door, she hailed me. “If it’s not the little baby Aswyth! Got a message for you from your big sister, about a week ago now! I say, I’d expected you to be along sooner than this. What kept you?” Her tone was teasing.

A week? I totalled up the days in my head and comapred that to the speed I’d estimated her to be travelling at, and blinked. Clesyne had gotten quite a headstart on me, that was true, but ahead by a whole week? The only way I could think she’d managed it was by casting multiple spells on her horse to improve its speed and stamina, but even the best horse fortified in this manner couldn’t sustain that kind of pace for long, it was the same issue with potion use all over again. Was she actually intending on riding her horse until it dropped dead? Zenithar send her wisdom! Had she managed to forget we weren’t exactly rich any longer? And she claimed I spent money indiscriminately — hah!

“W-what did mm-my sister — ” I stumbled badly on the words, my tired brain still thrown, suddenly having to grope haltingly for words as I hadn’t had to in over a year. One used the tongue to — “say! What did she say?”

Mog frowned, before opening the drawers of her counter and searching the contents, pulling out things and plonking them every which way on the counter top. I watched with a detached sort of interest, as bits of string, used candle stubs, a handful of small coins and assorted odds and ends were produced, the Orc woman’s brow beetled in concentration. “Wrote it down — now where has that bit of paper got to? — Ah-ha!” She produced a scrap of paper and waved it above her head in triumph. “Knew it had to be there.”

“My n-note, puh-please?” Gods damn it, I needed more sleep. But catching up to Clesyne and getting on Frothi’s trail was more important…

Mog squinted a little at the writing; it was an open secret her eyesight at close range was a bit poor: still not something one brought up in her hearing unless one wanted a literal boot up the backside and out the door though. “Right. She said, “I’ve been told Frothi knows we’re after him. The word I had is that he’s taken the land road back to Skyrim. I’m still going down to Anvil just in case that was a false trail; you get to Bruma as quickly as you can, and head him off there. I’m counting on you, little sister.”

I couldn’t help it; I groaned and let out a string of expletives best not repeated, cursing the situation, the bears, the damn thieves on the road, the weather that had delayed me 2 days before Bravil, my luck and the gods in general. Mog marched out from behind her counter and pushed me down effortlessly onto the closest stool.

“Hey, enough of the blasphemy and swearing here. I run a family establishment, you know. You get a pass this time because I can see you’re absolutely tired out of your skull, baby Aswyth. Siddown, lemme get you a drink. When’s the last time you slept in a real bed?”

I shook my head. “Bravil.” I rubbed at the left arm, which had been very painful since my tussle with the Redguard bandit three days previous — so much for the injunction against further straining it — and noticed my right hand was visibly trembling. I tried to stand back up, only to find my knees had somehow been replaced by scrib jelly or something. The room swum and circled, lazily. I sat back down in a hurry.

Mog tutted. “You poor thing. Now don’t even think of getting up until you’ve finished that — ” A mug of hot tea found its way to my hand, and I dazedly sipped, coughing at the strong taste. “Tea’s on the house. No, don’t you dare start with me — ” I shut my mouth, biting back the protest I’d been about to issue, as the woman bustled around, coming back with a large hot bowl of porridged rice and oats in milk with honey and fruit.

“Three bulls, that’ll cover the porridge — and a bed for the afternoon, so you can have a few hours’ rest at least. Going out there this tired will only kill you through carelessness, and then where would I be without one of my most loyal customers?” Her tone was acerbic, but there was also a warming concern belying the brusque words. I didn’t protest, merely dug out my waning store of coins and counted out three silver pieces.

“Eat, eat! I assume you’ll want to start for Bruma today? You should stay here and rest; your sister’s hardly going to thank you — or me! — if you keel over in the wilds.” Mog’s frown at the idea was truly disapproving. I had a sudden image of Jeelius with nearly the exact same look on his face and cracked up, laughing till the tears fell down my cheeks. “S-sorry, sorry — is, a-a — another f-friend, he gave me t-that eye too back in Imperial City.” Mog’s glare was withering, even for an Orc. My giggle fit subsided, but still burst out as little snorts from time to time as I ate my porridge.

“Go on up, your usual room’s open. But don’t fall into bed just yet, I’m sending the boy up with water for a wash.” Mog sniffed delicately, an odd thing to see in a woman with tusks jutting from her lower jaw. “No offense, but you smell terrible.”

I rolled my eyes, but made my way up the stairs, slowly, with ample dignity. I wasn’t weaving up the stairs like a drunk, no matter what Mog was hooting behind me. Her vision did have some trouble after all.

When I awoke from my nap, it was three in the afternoon and I felt much refreshed and in less pain; much as I hated to admit it, Mog had been right — continuing my journey to Bruma right away then would’ve been a bad idea. With how tired I was, the stirrups might not have saved me from dozing and falling off my horse. Speaking of my horse, Crystal too needed the longer rest; I’d noticed that her cinch straps needed more tightening than they had at the beginning of our journey. Too bad for us we needed to get moving quick. A week ago — Frothi could’ve left the province by now. The odds were high that we’d need to cross the border into Skyrim to chase after him.

It wasn’t a thought I relished; Skyrim in winter was cold, and it was our quarry’s home territory, where Frothi’s friends and clansmen no doubt would happily shelter him against inquiries from outsiders. Searching for him would be three times harder at least, if that were the case.

No use borrowing trouble though; we just had to keep working under the assumption that Frothi hadn’t scarpered through the Pale Pass and crossed the Jeralls yet — and had the bears with him of course. Still, Bruma. Cool all year round, cold in the autumn and winter seasons, starting now since it was already Last Seed, though still early in the month. I hate the cold.

Taking advantage of Mog’s stores, I restocked my food supply with oats, salted bacon, cheese, and fruits both dried and fresh, as well as a large skin of wine. Mog threw in for free a large packet of her famous twice-baked spiced biscuits as I was wrapping up my purchases; all of which made a handy bundle into my pack, since my saddlebags were still in the care of the stables. I reckoned that what I’d bought would be enough to last me through the nearly fourteen days’ journey to Bruma, appropriately supplemented by foraging off the land, of course. Also, there would likely be farmsteads along the roads at intervals, at least all through the Weald; I could buy food from them as well, if need be.

I walked out of the inn in a hurry; I wanted to make one last stop at Sinderion’s basement dwelling before leaving, and it was coming up on four hours past noon. The West Weald Inn, where Sinderion lived, sold potions and did his research in its basement, was over in the north half of the city, the Old City, back when Rislav the Righteous and his family had held the rule of Skingrad, many centuries ago.

The Altmer was surprised to see me. “Arliene Aswyth! Quite a while since you last darkened the doorway of my little home. What brings you here today? Did you find anymore nirnroot? Oh, and how has that potion I made for your headaches been working? Satisfactorily, I hope?” He set down the mortar and pestle in his hand, containing some greenish mixture I couldn’t make out the specifics of.

“It’s t-that p-potion I wanted to speak to you about, Sinderion.” I unslung the pack from my back, reached in and removed Sinderion’s headache formulation from it. “I h-had a very bad attack in the Imperial City, about…” I paused to recall how long it’d been since, “three weeks ago now, the 12th of Sun’s Height. I took a dose of your p-potion at the time, just before m-most of tt-the, the — symptoms, hit. It tasted h-horrible at that point, but I took it before in Morrowind before that and I oath it wasn’t so foul. The potion didn’t seem to f-function like it had either — it might’ve made it worse though, because of the throwing up, all very bad.” I paused, before delicately asking him, “Do your potions ever — go off?” The old Altmer blinked, uncomprehending. “Get spoiled,” I explained bluntly, since delicacy didn’t seem to work so well with Sinderion on the whole.

Sinderion was affronted. “My dear girl! I am a professional alchemist! I have only the highest standards as required of graduates of the Imperial Alchemical Academy! I have never, I repeat, never sold or given away a potion without protection against spoilage! You could subject my potions to extreme heat, large magickal discharges and bitter cold in rapid succession, and the potion would remain as it was, I assure you.” He stretched out a long fingered hand, fingers flicking in demand. “Well? Hand it over, Arliene. I, for one, want to see what’s happened with that potion.”

I dropped the squat potion bottle in his hand. Sinderion’s fingers immediately closed about the bottle’s neck, dark opaque glass contrasting with the gold of his skin, so pale it was nearer yellow than the usual colour for his race. The old mer didn’t get out of his lab much, preferring the life of an eccentric recluse devoted to his work. His work clothes were generally of a deep brown colour, so dark as to seem nearly black; the better to hide stains from spilled reagents. His thick head of hair, a silvery grey common in Altmer of advanced age, only served to reinforce the impression he gave off, that of a great pale insect flitting here and there in his laboratory.

So he seemed now as he uncorked the bottle, nose wrinkling as he sniffed at the contents. What followed was a round of testing samples with yet more potions, running through various retorts, calcinators and distillation through alembics. I sat on a low stool, careful to stay out of his way and watched a master of the alchemical arts at work.

The testing took longer than I’d expected him to, and by the end of it, instead of the usual glow of satisfaction he had after solving a new alchemical puzzle, his face was fixed in a frown so terrifying, I was hesitant to ask what he’d found. “Well?” I tried for an encouraging smile, but it died in the face of Sinderion’s glare. Dammit, he wasn’t even glaring at me, so why did I have a shiver running down my spine?

“In Morrowind, you said?” He asked, face and voice grim as I had never seen him be.

“Y-yes? Is there something wrong?” Somehow I didn’t think I was going to like the answers.

“Can you remember the taste of the potion in Morrowind and how it compared to when you drank it here?”

“Not very pell — well — dammit to Oblivion!” Sinderion tutted and gestured for me to get on with it, “I think… in Morrowind there was a sweet f-fruity? Then bitter, kind of floral aftertaste. Here it just tasted horribly bitter and sour.” I grimaced at the remembered flavour.

“And at no time did you mix potent alcoholic beverages with this potion, or allow it to come into contact with alcohol? I recall that I instructed you to specifically avoid doing so.” Sinderion’s glance was penetrating.

“No. I d-don’t drink. Not since —” I left that hanging. He nodded.

“Who else knew what was in this bottle?”

“My sister — and anyone else in Balmora who could have eyed me drinking from it, or the other bottles you m-made — I needed it f-ffrequently there. Sinderion, what are you saying?”

He sighed. “This potion has been contaminated. Of that I am in no doubt, and what was introduced involved quite a stunning amount of alcohol — your description of the sourness in the contaminated potion clinches that point.” He regarded me worriedly. “I hesitate to say the potion was deliberately tampered with, but… “

I heard what he didn’t say. The potion couldn’t be mixed with any other reagents, since that would cause it to degrade rapidly into a poison, particularly if alcohol was introduced. The potion bottle itself was sealed to prevent cross contamination from the other reagents and mixes I regularly carried with me, as Sinderion well knew; so really, the only way anything could’ve gotten in was by someone actually intervening to taint the brew.

I suppressed the urge to throw up. If I hadn’t reduced my usual dose that night, three weeks ago… But who?

“Look to your enemies, Arliene. And consider: who could’ve gotten access to your personal items?” Sinderion shook his head. “I’ll make a new batch for you now; the potion was working successfully before, yes?”

“Yes… yes… Oh, and I have m-more samples for you.” I retrieved the harvested nirnroot samples and proffered them to Sinderion, whose usual happiness at having more samples to dissect seemed rather muted as well.

All I could think of now, was who?

Who would want me dead? More importantly, who would’ve known to poison the one potion I regularly drank?

The question of my almost-murder haunted me sleeping and waking, through the thirteen days or so it took for me to reach Bruma. The city, built on multiple terraces by the ancient Nords who had founded the city was carved from the living rock of the mountains. It nestled in the lower slopes of the Jerall Mountains, the tall peaks of which hung over the city, like the brooding wings of some vast unimaginable bird — whether to protect, or to stalk, my fancy did not answer.

There were the gates, tall arches in thick stone walls dimly seen in the hour before first light, barred with stout iron and oak and grim, hard-nosed guardsmen in their yellow cuirasses, with the eagle emblem of Bruma blazoned in stark black. Here outside the walls, and hard by the gates to the city were the stables, where I dismounted and shouldered my saddlebags and pack, commending Crystal to the care of Petrine, the local ostler and her assistant Humilis. The poor horse was quite worn by now, and deserved a good long rest.

Walking through the gates, I felt the stares of the guards following me as I passed through, and unerving experience. Usually the gate guards were a fairly affable lot, but this day they were tense, on edge. The mood of the citizenry was scarcely any better, with rumours flying of a visit by the Crown Prince having turned sour somehow; a duel (illegal) with a local noble over a woman, a scandalous dalliance with a man, or a quarrel over some matter which had run to bloodshed touching the imperial heir.

I kept my head down, and headed to where I expected Clesyne to be, if she had arrived before I did — quite likely considering the reckless pace she seemed to have been using her horse at: Olav’s Tap and Tack. As its name suggested, it had once been a tack shop, but the eponymous innkeeper had bought over the failing business, and converted it into an inn. It was a cosy place near the East Gate I’d entered the city by. The inn had two storeys under its straw thatched roof, with the common dining room on the ground floor and guest rooms above, as was usual.

After my 13 day journey, I was ready to fall into a bed and not get up for just as long. Or maybe a month, a month sounded good. Dammit, Sal owed me — well, us, including Clesyne — another damn vacation. By my tally we’d spent a month or so chasing this man and those bears all over Cyrodiil with no results to show for it. It was enough to drive anyone to frustration or madness.

I shivered as the warm air of the inn’s interior reminded my body just how cold it was at the moment — the Jeralls were cold throughout the year, but in autumn and winter that cold took on a particular edge of misery. I had to repeat myself to Olav several times, until he could finally make out what I was saying, drunk on tiredness and my teeth chattering with cold.

“Your twin? She did arrive before you, two nights ago. She left me a message for you, yes.” He produced a note and read: “Dearest sister, I’ve managed to trace where Frothi might be: it’s said he frequents the Jerall View Inn for dinner and dice games every day. I would be here to greet you, but something else urgent has occurred, and I have to go. I will try to return soon, but I have faith that you’ll be able to achieve our goals here, and only regret you must do it on your own. Go on without me, should you manage to retrieve the objectives before I return to Bruma: Sal grows increasingly impatient by the day. Love, Clesyne.

I clenched my fists, wishing my sister was in front of me so I could pound some sense into her. What happened to not working alone? What happened to not taking on outside commissions while working for our main boss? What had happened to her good sense overall?

Breathe in, out, still the gathering power, soothe the niggling pain of it. Breathe deeply, in, out, again. When I was certain I was calm enough to speak without adding unnecessary oaths, I called for a mug of small beer, and bread with cheese and meat, then rested my head on my hands, face down, napping while awaiting my food and drink. Time to eat; catch up on my sleep and then in the evening, find this man who’d led me and my twin across half of Cyrodiil — and the damn bears.

Clesyne, at least, hadn’t been wrong in her information. I found Frothi lounging in a seat at the Jerall View Inn, watching two other men sitting near him, who were presently playing at dice.

His companions were loud, inviting the cold stares of the other patrons and the innkeeper himself; but Frothi himself was silent, his face under its thick mop of dun, muddy coloured hair a smiling mask that gave away very little.

“So Salconius sent you to find me,” Frothi said, his voice a quiet bass, gentle, soothing, rather at odds with his rough appearance.

I nodded. “Sal s-said you and he had a teal — deal, sorry; a favour you owed him. Two dd-dancing snow bears.”

Frothi tented his fingers. “Ah, that might be a problem. You see, there wasn’t really ever a deal between your boss and me. I only agreed with him because he was drunk and I was drunk, and he’d cheated me at dice, the milk drinking bastard. I had to win my stake back. Of course I told him he could have the bears!”

Zenithar bless. If I had a gold coin for each and every time I’d heard this kind of excuse, I’d have more gold than the blessed Emperor himself. “He said he maid — paid you gold.”

“Bah, of course he did. My winnings, that was!” He pinned me with an earnest frown. “Now, you see, those bears are my family’s livelihood. My brothers,” he jerked a thumb towards the two men now bickering over whether the one had called a six before the dice cup had been removed, “wouldn’t be happy if we were to lose them, to say the least.”

“Is that a threat?” I kept my voice even, though I marked the exits, windows, the position of anything breakable…

“Oh no. I’m just saying that I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time finding us, but really, I can’t let you have the bears. Salconius wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to handle them or what to do with them anyway.” Frothi’s smile was faintly derisive. “Tell Salconius he’ll have to do better than sending a woman to ask me for things I don’t owe him.”

The condescension did it. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep and proper rest as well as growing worry over various things, but the faintly patronizing nuance I’d picked up from Frothi drove me absolutely wild. I controlled my facial expression however, with those earliest lessons from my family uppermost in my mind, and said, “You talk Sal cheated you, all right; but I can’t go back to him with nothing either.” I paused to let him take that in, and then continued, “I’ll play you for the p-bears and everything else to go with them. Your brothers and the innkeep there can —” I forced my unruly tongue andtruant vocabulary to cooperate — “witness our game and say there was no foul play.” Frothi was hesitant. “C’mon. Are you a true son of Skyrim, or just a m-milk drinker? Too afraid to face a woman even in a game?”

Frothi flushed, then turned pale, and finally his expression smoothed over. He looked at me speculatively. “You’ll lose,” he warned me.

I bared my teeth at him in a grin. “We’ll see.”

His smile was sharp, like a school of slaughterfish that had just smelled blood in the water. “I’ll take great pleasure in winning everything you own, lass, if — no, when you lose. Down to the shift under your clothes.”

“Talk, talk, talk. Are we p-playing some t-time this era?”

Frothi stood up and called his brothers over, while I went to explain to the innkeeper what we needed him for. Hafid Hollowleg readily agreed, but only if we had an extra two witnesses. As luck would have it, the Primate of the Great Chapel of Talos, Arentus Falvius himself was present, and he agreed to stand witness to our game. The local smith Fjotreid, having come for dinner and a pint, also agreed, his broad face evincing interest.

I had my witnesses, two of whom commanded great respect locally. Thus far, things favoured me, should it come to a dispute.

The tables in the dining room were cleared away, the firelight flickering and throwing weird shadows. A single table was left at the center, two chairs set at opposing ends. People crowded around the edges, jostling for a better view. From the whispers going around the room, Frothi had built a reputation for himself in the weeks he’d been here as a gambler who possibly employed less than honest tactics in winning, which was hardly news to me. I’d had some time in the afternoon today to scout out news on him after all.

Frothi himself had a bit of a swagger in his walk as he came over and sat down holding out a hand. “Lads, where’re me dice?” I ignored the groans coming from various corners of the room, and held up a hand.

“Stop. I think t-that t-to be fair, neither side should supply the dice, or even touch them in play.” I smiled sweetly at a reddening Frothi, while a rather blank-faced Hafid set a cup and two dice down on the table.

“Rules?” Fjotreid asked. There was a grin in the quirk of his upper lip.

Frothi’s glower had scarcely let up, and grew blacker as he looked around the room. “Cho-han, standard rules. Best of three rounds.”

“Let you both announce the stakes of the contest, and be seen here by all to agree to abide by them,” the Primate of Talos intoned sternly.

Frothi bit out, “I pledge the pair of dancing bears owned by my family, together with all the tack and gear related thereto, and agree to give them up to the winner of this bet.”

“Excellent.” I was fairly sure my own grin was predatory. “I b-bet the s-sum in my coin p-purse, 60 silver coins, and my m-mare, currently stabled at the Wildeye Stables, and agree to give them up to the winner of this bet.”

And that was that. The room fell into a hush as Hafid shook the dice-cup once, twice, three times, and then up-ended the cup onto the table. “Call,” Hafid announced.

“Even,” Frothi said. His face had smoothed back into its usual inscrutable mask. He seemed cool, remote, untouchable, supremely confident. The sweat beading at his hairline however told a different story.

“Odd,” I said. Hafid removed the cup, and Fjotreid, Arentus Falvius and Frothi’s two brothers came forward to see. I coughed as Hafid announced the sum of the dice: Seven. Round one to me.

A second time Hafid shook the dice-cup and upended it. “Odd,” Frothi announced to the room, his voice seeming to dare the dice to show anything other than what he willed it to be. I shrugged, and followed it with “Even.” The cover was removed, the sum announced: nine.

The final round was about to commence. I stared steadily into Frothi’s eyes, waiting for him to look away. He finally did. I let a small smile touch my lips. Hafid shook the dice, and upended them again. This time I called out my bet before Frothi did: “Even, a fair — sorry, a pair of sixes.” Frothi was visibly unnerved as he made his own bet: odd, with a sum of seven.

The room was absolutely silent — a feat in itself considering that the place was crowded at the edges with people watching. All held their breath as Hafid opened the dice cup up to reveal —

“YOU CHEATED! YOU FUCKING BITCH! YOU CHEATED!” Frothi reached across the table for my neck; I slid away and out of his reach, leaping up from my chair, fists held up to face his brothers who were rumbling their displeasure in gutter insults. All three were held back by other men from the crowd, with Frothi himself eventually needing to be sat on, quite literally. The rest of the room had dissolved into a mass of shouting, both cheers and groans as money changed hands.


I shook hands with Fjotreid, and His Holiness. “Thank you, g-good sirs. I doubt it would’ve g-go so well without you t-two.”

“No, thank you. That little milk-drinking cheat needed a lesson taught,” Fjotreid said, with some heat — a good friend of his had fallen victim to Frothi’s dice recently, and he, of the people I’d met during the afternoon, had been keenest to avenge his friend’s honour. “How did you make that last guess? That was splendid.”

“T-trade secret,” I grinned. “It’s all in h-how you ear to things though. Now, do you know where are the bears?”

I had my misgivings about the whole thing from the start, but now that reality had set in, I found myself on the verge of panicking.

So here were these two magnificent brutes, reared up on their hind legs before me, with lazy, indolent looks on their bestial faces that were almost… adorable, in a fanged, muscley, furry way. I wasn’t ready to be lulled by their seeming docility, though. Bears of any kind, but the snow bears of the frozen North especially, were dangerous. The enchanted chains and collars keeping them in check seemed so frail against their combined 1800-something pounds of pure muscle and bone. One yawned, showing off a lovely ivory coloured set of teeth. The long canines that bear displayed had me transfixed for a moment. Mara, sweet Mother of Mercy, they were huge!

What in the hell was I going to do with them on my own now? The one thing I’d never expected to have to do all this while, was haul these two back to the Imperial City on my own!

Damn it all, Clesyne. Damn you, sister mine. What in Oblivion was she thinking? Where was she?

Oh well. Cursing makes no bones, as aunt Siona would have said, accompanying that reminder with a hard thwack to the ear closest to her reach — I almost rubbed my ear at the remembered sting. Time to figure out my next move. Thinking back to the sullen glowers Frothi and his brothers had worn, Bruma wasn’t safe to stay in much longer. I’d definitely have a very nervous trip home. Again, my wonderful, conveniently missing older sib would’ve been a welcome addition — but no use wishing for her to appear.

I sighed, and left the bears where they were for the time being. I had transport and — dear gods, bears ate a lot, didn’t they? — feed for my furry cargo to arrange.

I spoke briefly with Petrine, arranging for there to be a wagon and horses ready to go within the hour — I’d previously warned her that afternoon that I’d likely need a wagon and horse team in a hurry, and at odd hours. I then rushed to the local markets, where the fishmonger I’d dealt with earlier had a large quantity of the day’s catch with him, awaiting my call for it; I bid him deliver the fish to the stables. After that I ran around to Novarroma, Bruma’s general goods store, where Suurootan and Karinnarre were waiting for me with several bags of grain.

By the time I got back to the stables, Petrine and her workaholic employee had come through and loaded the wagon, which now awaited me. They’d provided a stout conveyance, covered with waterproofed cloth; it would also haul the massive quantity of meat and fish needed to feed two hungry bears, kept in a contrivance of frost magics, maintained with frost salts to keep it from spoiling in the heat. There would also be beans, and grain for myself and the horse team — more oats. I was geting mightily sick of oats by now. Gods damned travel food.

A week back to the Imperial City — seven days. I felt the back of my neck, where my old scars were prickle. That twitch in my intuition never presaged anything good. I thanked Petrine for her help, paid for her services with 4 silver pieces and moved out, the bears making soft grunts in their covered cage behind me.

The seven days back to the Imperial City had been surprisingly trouble free; I suspected that the scent of bear kept away the wildlife that had made travel miserable on my way to Bruma. Despite my fears and the persistent sensation of being watched, no troubles of a human sort had materialised either.

I wasn’t ready to let down my guard yet though. That prickling sensation of trouble in the offing was only getting worse, not better.

I drove my wagon through the crowded throughfares of the City’s waterfront district. My destination was the warehouse where Sal and the troupe lived when we weren’t on the road to our next showing. This was a bad area, lots of toughs looking for easy pickings. I made sure my sword was prominently displayed to warn them off.

I was within sight of the warehouse, when I spotted a large figure, cloaked and hooded, standing in the middle of the road. Though I instinctively slowed down to avoid hitting whoever it was, alarms rang in my mind: it was noon and blazing hot; no one sane would choose to walk around in that many layers!

Hands reached up to pull me from my seat; I resisted, but the tugging and pulling on the reins meanwhile confused the horses, and the wagon swerved about. The bears growled as their cage was jostled about. I fought the wagon wheels and my assailants for control, and lost, tumbling to the ground.

Shouts and screams rang out as the wagon toppled over, the ponies falling with it. The heavy cage fell, and even more screams rang out, as the bears let out a massive roar. I saw nothing of it though, as I lay, dazed and blinking on the ground, aching fiercely in the places I’d hit trying to break my fall.

I didn’t have much time to ponder just how many areas were crying for attention though; the hooded person was now advancing on me with a wicked looking knife, and I got myself off the floor in time to avoid their fist. The hood came off, then the cloak, revealing the face of one of Frothi’s siblings.

“By Stendarr, you three are fucking sore losers!” I yelled, very much wishing to yet not daring to look behind, where more roars and terrified screams along with the sound of much breakage was happening.

The idiot had nothing better to retort with except “Die bitch!” and start swinging with his knife. I parried the first few strokes, then ran him through the chest. Before he even realised he was dead meat, I pulled my blade and was ready to face the second, who was screaming and frothing at the mouth as he charged me. Oh bother, a berserker.

It was at this point that the Imperial Watch intervened. The berserker charged them all, and several watchmen were tossed aside, like so many ragdolls, before they got enough men on him to subdue the man. Considering that the Watch was drawn from serving and past Legionnaires, that was rather impressive. I was breathing hard, standing empty handed, hands out to the sides as ordered under the watchful eye of a guard — I wanted no trouble with the Watch, thank you.

Risking a quick peep behind, I suppressed a groan: the bears in their terror and anger had wrought a trail of utter destruction through the place, and while they had calmed down, the two were now tearing apart a stall I recognised as the honey seller’s at the moment.

I was trying very hard not to think of what the damages were going to cost, when a familiar face showed up. “Itius! Itius Hayn!”

“Aswyth! Please tell me you’re not involved — you were. Dammit, can’t you stay out of trouble?”

“This was h-hardly my f-fault, Captain. I was attacked!”

He shook his head despairingly. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come along, and whoever else the rest of my men managed to arrest too.” He patted me on the shoulder. “At least if there’s witnesses to the whole thing, you’ll be out soon, eh?”

What else was there to say, or do, except go with a Watchman when he arrests you?

“But b-boss!”

“No buts! First Morrowind, now this! You nearly blew our entire operation wide open this afternoon!”

“But —”

“Enough! You were too slow as well; I expected you to have returned with the bears two weeks ago. Where’s your sister gone? Admit it, your sister’s done gone and breached our contract and taken on outside work, hasn’t she?” Sal was pacing outside my temporary cell, working up a fine head of steam. “I had her notified of Frothi’s movements, damn it. Don’t give me excuses about how you couldn’t find him, because I’d already found him for you. And this is what you give me.”

I bowed my head. Sal had told Clesyne where to find Frothi? How was I to know? Clesyne had given me no sign at all! I didn’t know what to think: the whole world seemed upside down.

“I’ll pay your fines, I’ll even pay for the property damage, because this fiasco wasn’t all your fault. However there’s that breach of contract, that and your performance lately simply isn’t what I expected of you.” He gave me a hard look. “I’m getting you out of jail, but that’s it. After this? You’re damn well fired, don’t darken my door ever again.”

Sal huffed, and walked away. That was the last I ever saw of him.
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