The rain didn’t stop in a few hours and it didn’t in a few days either. Adilia pressed her forehead against the cold glass of her bedroom’s window seat. She hadn’t lied when she told Jorran she had other cloaks, but that was before she found out her family had sold them all when they ran out of bread. Her mother wouldn’t let any of them leave on pain of death while the bad weather continued, so she was stuck puffing warm air onto the perfect stained windows she’d scowl at daily. They appeared to be so elegant and yet there was nothing behind them of any substance but cold. The family had come to only approaching the kitchen staff for logs to fuel the fires only when absolutely necessary. Fear of incurring further attention from the Bracken-Thrones had gone too far and yet she could do nothing about it. Not by herself.
When the condensation cleared she pressed up close and tried to see anything that moved on the rocks that towered over Solitude. The breath she held to prevent clouding the window up more so was beginning to run on fumes but then she was certain she saw a flicker of something. A pile of books clattered to the floor next to her before she could focus on it, making her jump and exhale all over the window. She wouldn’t be making that much fog clear up any time soon.
Adilia turned to the clumsy owner of the books who’d interrupted her search for Forsworn. “I thought we were supposed to be holding back on spending, Charlie?” She sighed and knocked aside the old books that Charlize had pushed onto her lap.
“Just put them over there, Brady.” The youngest lady directed and he blustered past to place a box of freshly bound leather books beside her bed. “Well I have to do something in this empty place don’t I? It’s all soldiers, servants and rain. No fun at all.” She said to her sister.
“There’s already a library you know.” Adilia rolled her eyes.
“And that library doesn’t have the tales of Prince Pierre.” She replied with indignant satisfaction as she primly placed herself on her bed to pick up the closest copy in the box.
Adilia slumped back in the window seat and ran her fingers along the coppery tan wood of the shelves next to her. “I don’t see why you get new books and yet I can’t keep any of my cloaks.” She shot back broodily.
“Well you could have kept one of your cloaks but you had to lose it in the woods, didn’t you?” Charlize said and pursed her lips.
Braden picked up one of her discarded books and leant against the wall next to the door, crossing his long trouser-clad legs and trying not to get involved. His eyes were following the argument rather than the words on the pages though.
“Will you two stop bickering?” Rona groaned from the corner of the room where she was curled up in a chair, eyes closed.
“I just don’t think Charlie realises we’re poor.” Adilia glowered. “How many loaves of bread could those books have bought us before the next five thousand gold the Bracken-Thrones demand? Or ten? Or fifty?”
Charlize replied without looking up from her book, pulling an infuriatingly snooty face. “Don’t say that number, Rona will throw up again.”
Rona’s eyes flashed. “I’m fine.” She growled
Braden abandoned all pretence of reading his book and looked at her in alarm but nobody got the chance to follow-up on it. They all simultaneously flinched as the doors of the foyer beyond their room banged open and a chorus of raised voices began to filter through the walls.
“Do we…” He began to ask until both Charlize and Adilia barged past him, equally fierce forces of nosiness and responsibility. The remaining two didn’t need to exchange a glance before going after them, a situation that had been occurring since their childhood.
Their eagerness for first place resulted in Adilia and Charlize completely missing the eavesdropping-around-the-corner location they were quietly racing for. The former would argue that she had a much more valid reason but she scuffled for it despite her reasoning. Resulting in both of them skidding into clear view of the room at the bottom of the stairs and all its inhabitants. Not that any of them would have noticed, if not for a particularly bored participant on the edge of the discussion.
An unfamiliar face with ginger hair and one and a half eyebrows leered up at them. “Ah look, there are the crowning glories now!” He cried. “And Rona.” He smiled as she came up behind them. “Beautiful as ever. Despite the rags.”
Then a heavily built man turned around from speaking to their parents. He had a face they were all familiar with, at least, their imaginations were. “Such a pity you come just as we leave.” Said Renald Bracken-Throne. He did not shout but his voice resonated so deeply that they all shuddered.
“But you’ve only just arrived! We haven’t discussed anything!” Lord Martel stuttered.
Renald Bracken-Throne waved the noble aside like he was an irrelevant caretaker. “We will see your family again, Martel. Elijah.” He summoned his son like a dog and left the family to the collapsing husk of their former lives.
Othella ran over to the document he’d left on a counter the second the doors closed. “Five hundred?” She gasped weakly. “But it was fifty last time! What does he want with this? Not even the High Rock palace would pay this much! For anything!” She threw it aside and flounced onto a sofa.
“Actually it was five hundred last time.” Charlize noted as she slunk over and stuck her nose in it. “It hasn’t changed, you must have missed a zero.”
“That’s enough from you.” Her father chided and whipped it away before she could read any further.
“Five hundred thousand gold?” Rona repeated slowly in disbelief. “Father, this has gone too far.” She said shakily. “You must go to the High King and…”
“And what?” Lord Martel snapped as he gripped the sofa his wife held her head in her hands on. “Torygg does not know us and even if he did speak to Renald, the Bracken-Thrones would never deal with us again and we would be left in poverty.”
“But five hundred…” Othella whispered from behind her fingers.
“They must know we could not possibly pay this.” Adilia said, cutting across their numb shock. “Not even if we were out of debt.”
Lord Martel sighed. “He did give us another option. The one he really wants of course.”
“Then go for that!” Charlize desperately exclaimed without once wondering what it was. Adilia and Rona watched his slow and troubled progression across the room with caution.
“Our family is an old one. The name and the lands that come with it demand immediate respect… It’s nothing. Something to be discussed and negotiated before you worry your young heads with it.” He gave them a small attempt at a smile but it barely creased his already wrinkled face. “We are Martels, we have a roof over our heads and warm beds. We’ll continue as we were.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?” Othella laughed bitterly. “Look at them. Look at our daughters. Elijah was right, they’re in rags! Charlize could be a shopkeep!” They all began to pick at their clothes. Adilia at the blatant stitches on her slit green dress and Rona at the wide blue belt around her waist, likely made of spare fabric from the matron-like skirt. Charlize just looked confused, even though its hem was dirty her outfit was perfectly practical. “Look at me!” Othella said, the only one who refused to wear anything but the noble outfit she’d arrived in. “Can you even tell this filthy dusty thing was once a sapphire blue? Its fur has more holes than lace!”
“Dearest…” Lord Martel said as if one word wrong would push her over the edge. “The commoners’ clothes may not be anything to look at but they are sturdy. You would be warmer if–”
“No.” Othella sobbed and waved him away with a dainty hand before he could come any closer. “I can barely bring myself to look at you when you don them, my dear. To see what we’ve come to…”
Adilia was fuming to the extent she was about to blow but luckily her father saw it before she could.
“Your mother and I have some talking to do, children. It would be best if you returned to your rooms.” He said and turned his back to them, pouring his concerns into the document he’d taken from Charlize.
Rona grabbed Adilia’s arm and marched her out before she could begin to vehemently remind him they were no longer children. Charlize scuttled after them with confusion still lingering on her face. Braden had waited at the top of the stairs out of mind and out of sight. The two elder sisters blustered past quickly but with a nod to the worried Rona he stayed behind. When the youngest made her way up, deep in thought over her cream and salmon dress, he put a consolidating arm around her shoulder.
“Even princesses wear pinafores.” He whispered to her with a smile. Charlize immediately beamed back at him. Any trace of concern had vanished by the time they reached the bedroom.
Adilia shook herself from her sister’s grasp and stalked over to the furthest window. She braced herself against it and glared at the latticework as the cold it emanated soothed her face.
“Do I have to guard the doors now or are you done?” Rona asked with arms folded.
She didn’t answer and instead stalked back to the middle of the room. “‘Another option?’” She asked with ridicule as Braden and Charlize quietly came into the room to resume their former positions.
“So he said.” Rona replied, trying to balance out Adilia’s burst of emotion by giving off none.
“You know what that means.” Adilia scoffed. “Peter the Pervert has had his eyes on us ever since–”
“Ever since when? When he set our barn on fire as a ten-year old child?” She didn’t mock her sister but it was so ridiculous she didn’t need to.
“…Yes.” Her argument was lost but she meekly replied anyway.
“We don’t know what it means as he hasn’t told us.” Rona lectured her gently. “Never immediately assume the worst, you don’t want to be like mother.”
Adilia scorned. “As if I would ever be like her!” She then sprawled on the bench between the room’s bookshelves in the most unladylike posture possible, just to prove her point. Rona rolled her eyes and Braden snorted. She soon returned to a more normal position and Rona took to arranging a small pouch of ingredients on the bed aligned against the room’s north wall.
Now that something of a calm had returned, Charlize spoke up from quietly scrutinising all of their outfits. “If we’re poor, then why are you still wearing jewellery?” She asked Adilia innocently.
“I’m not…” Adilia replied but then she looked down at the diving neckline of her dress and saw the jade tooth hanging there. “This isn’t… A merchant gave this to me when we first came here. It isn’t worth anything.”
“You’re still wearing it though.” Charlize said. “Three weeks later.”
“Well, I like it. The green matches my eyes.” Adilia covered it with her hand a little too defensively.
“A merchant?” Rona asked, sounding as skeptical as her raised eyebrow.
“Yes, the Khajiit at the gates.” Adilia groaned and they let it go. Then she was drawn to the way Charlize got lost so quickly in the books she’d valued over bread. “Charlie, in all these books you read about princes and princesses, is that it?” She asked, missing definite movement on the mountainside her window looked out on.
“What do you mean?” The young reader looked up at her with her head cocked. “Sure, there are donkeys and fairies and other–”
Adilia stopped her before she could list every fairytale animal in existence. “I mean do they ever focus on anything else? Like the workers or the farmhands or… Like the bodyguards. What about the people whose life revolves around making sure their charge is safe? Surely there’s some chance for… development there. More than with the prince they’ve never met.”
Braden dropped the book he’d picked up again and was so flustered he took several moments to get a grip on it again. Charlize was alarmed until she saw it was a book she no longer cared about and she shrugged at Adilia.
“Well, no. They’re dull. They never say anything…”
Adilia was considering this when Rona finally placed the book Braden was attempting to retrieve on a shelf, a little concerned by how long it was taking.
“I’d better go, before your parents blow another gasket at the finances.” He excused himself. They all would have said goodbye but the man with messy stubble of a goatee was out of the door before they could look up.
After an exchange of clueless looks the sisters returned to their activities. At least, two of them did. Adilia looked at the window and immediately came away from it. The rain had stopped.
Haarfingar wasn’t nearly as wet as the hold below it so Adilia was able to resume her daily rides for weeks on end. With regards to her little sister’s words she tried to get Jorran to talk more. Her degree of success was subjective, the calls of questions about the state of the damp underbrush often got ignored, but one time she was certain that Jorran got so sick of it that the wet leaves that hit her face came from him.
Other questions came with more of a victory. As her tactics of waiting around tight corners and pulling Nipper in sudden 180 degree turns became incredibly noticeable to simple passers-by, he began to walk closer and clearly be in earshot.
“Wouldn’t you prefer we swapped places for once?” She asked while taking an intentionally long and mountainous ride. On the third repetition he responded.
“I’m afraid a fine lady would find that the roots don’t move out of her path before she falls into a ditch.”
She was silently acknowledging his point before she recognised his tone. “O-ho,” she grinned, “the savage knows sarcasm?”
In the brief moments his face became visible in the gaps between the trees she found he was smirking at her amusement. “It’s used too much in my village.”
“Who uses it?” She asked, heart leaping. The most enthusiastic user of sarcasm she knew was her brother.
“Kale.” Jorran responded quietly and her heart sank in every way it could.
As if sensing her emotions Nipper slowed to a plod so all were hardly moving. “I’m so sorry about what happened to him, we’ve never spoken of it…”
“Do we need to?”
Neither said anything for a few moments. “I had a brother once.” She volunteered out of the silence.
“I’m sorry.” He meant it at her use of past tense, she knew, but it still made her giggle. Then the look he gave her only made her laugh further at the irony of the madman considering her a madwoman.
“He didn’t die.” She clarified and tried to return some sanity to her voice. “He left to join your people, four years ago. We didn’t hear from him again.”
“His name’s Sean.” She smiled sadly at the lack of recognition in his eyes. “Kale hadn’t heard of him either. The Markarth Incident was around the time he left, I hear it was a big battle…”
“The Forsworn have many camps, I don’t know all of them.” Jorran asserted very firmly. “Your brother could be in any of them. Did you… get along?”
“Well, considering we once ganged up on our entire family, meaning half the Breton monarchy, at the biggest gathering to date and got them all drunk by replacing the punch and performed antics we planned for months in advance… Yes, we were close. My sister was closer in age but let’s say she would never have agreed to putting cheese in the duke’s undergarments so we could watch the dogs chase him all night.” She coughed. “He was a nasty duke… And you?”
He went from an amused, if perplexed, smile to his usual pin-straight expression with those two words. “No. Kale is… was, fourteen years younger than me. I was the chieftain, he was the child trying to run through and entertain the entire Reach. We never had many chances to get to know each other. At least, I never created them.”
Adilia brought Nipper to a halt and looked directly at him. His face was hidden by the bushes and by the sorrowful pitch of his voice, she knew why.
“You know,” she began in the kindest voice she could muster, “this is probably the longest we’ve ever spoken.”
With a near indistinguishable sigh hidden in a clearing of the throat he continued their journey onwards. “Speaking makes my presence obvious. Do you want to have a battle following you all the time?” When he didn’t hear the clattering of Nipper’s hooves he crossed into the centre of the road and folded his arms. “I can make him follow me without your permission you know.”
She laughed. “Please. You can hum this lazy-guts to sleep but not even a master of Illusion could force him to move.” Nipper then snorted himself awake to prove her point. “Besides, have you seen anyone following me lately?” She asked and turned her horse away from the setting sun. “Talk next time.” She smiled coyly and urged Nipper into a gallop towards Solitude.
Next time he did. It wasn’t always much but he made an effort to be closer to her. Once even responding to her infuriating queries on the weather with: “I’ve seen the Old Gods piss worse.”
Then one day she did not speak at all. She was only left to chewing her lip to the point of tears for so long. He was walking at their side the instant they were beyond the city’s eyes. Silently he waited for her to speak. They’d taken to riding in the south of the hold where it was somewhat less frozen. Jorran balanced along the snowy rock ridge at her shoulder but when she didn’t respond he made the first attempt at small talk in his life.
“The weather is…acceptable…today…”
It almost made her smile. “The Bracken-Thrones voiced their true intentions today.” She said dolefully without raising her eyes from Nipper’s mane.
He grabbed the horses’s bridle and turned him into a grassy clearing as soon as the trees opened. Adilia dismounted and left him to eat in the lazy sunlight as she circled aimlessly before Jorran.
“What?” He demanded.
“They want us to marry into them. Apparently my father giving them the land isn’t enough, and believe me, that was a desperate decision. They want our name and our blood too.”
The corners of his mouth pulled down in combination with his eyebrows knitting as he watched her gracelessly take a seat on a log. “Can’t you refuse?”
She looked up at him and smiled without warmth, how could such a fierce warrior be so naive? “And have them devour us over the debts our grandfather owed them? Oh yes!” She sighed at how harsh she sounded to her own ears and held her head in her hands. “Rona is the one most affected, being the heir. I don’t know how she’s taking this, I just came out here. I don’t even know why… I’m sorry, you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.”
“We have arranged marriages among my people, too. But it is a sacrifice of loyalty and strength between tribes, not a dance of who owns what.”
“Oh? Next you’ll be telling me you have assassins and spies.”
He didn’t respond.
“…I thought Sean left to get away from all of that.” She muttered. “I never asked, why are the Bracken-Thrones going after you?”
“They may act like Nords but they are Bretons. Before that they were Reachmen. Once they sat on the Bracken Throne but they have long since dwindled into cowards. I do not know why they want to return to their Breton heritage but their Reachman roots taint it, especially when we took Markarth. Our leader is already targeted by many and I am his closest known ally. In short, they want to punish anyone they can. They think I am an easier target than Madanach.” He snorted. “It seems they’re using your family to try to regain their position in High Rock.”
“That explains a lot.” She sighed. “They’re even bringing Skegge up, the eldest son. I’ve never met him but apparently he’s a war hero. His mother was a Nord so he’ll have more muscles than you – as hard as that is to imagine.”
“I…” He wisely decided not to follow-up on it but even though he gave her an aloof look of derision he still tried to pull down the fur around his stomach. He tried to put off her chuckles with a cough. “So the family will all be together… Do you know when this will be?”
“We meet our proposed suitors this Sundas. Traditionally only the eldest will be united but… it depends on their mood.” She seethed. “There are three of us and three of them after all.”
“All of you?” His eyebrows shot up instead of down this time. “Why would your family agree to that?”
“The Bracken-Thrones have been holding us to ransom for over a month. If we don’t comply we’re left stranded in a province where nobody knows us and without a coin to contact those who do… Though in all honesty those people hate us so much thanks to our debts, they’d only laugh.”
“Our king rose from the gutter himself, a lot of our people did. Not all Forsworn started out as Reachmen…” Jorran stated. It took a moment for her to realise what he was alluding to.
“Ah, no, your people… We couldn’t…. No. You’ve never met my mother. Throwing my family out onto the streets would as good as kill us.” She said it calmly without any trace of the exaggeration he looked for. “Selling all we had left only lasted so long, we went without food some days as my parents didn’t want to attract attention by asking.”
When he finally took it in he paced three times before throwing his sword. Adilia jumped when it thudded right next to her into the trunk. “My people have waited for weeks and you didn’t tell me you suffered?! I noticed your change in clothing but I thought you were being sensible.”
“Well, I was. I just didn’t do it by choice.” Seeing that her glib tone wasn’t doing the situation any favours, she tried to take on the serious tone he usually sported. “My problems don’t affect what happened to you or Kale, it doesn’t matter.”
She didn’t expect him to look so taken aback before his narrow eyes sparked and he marched right up to her face. “But it affects you!”
It took several blinks and pants through flared nostrils for him to realise how close they were. When he leant back out of her personal space she found she hadn’t moved an inch, even though the free space to do so was behind her. She hadn’t wanted to.
Jorran huffed and yanked his sword out of the tree like an axe. “Find me when it begins. I will gather my people.”
A feeling of panic began to spread in Adilia’s stomach as the situation was going out of control and she had no idea how to stop him. Then by watching his retreating back she found the path he walked towards seemed familiar.
“Wait.” She spoke out and span around to look at the clearing behind them. In the distance some heads bobbed behind a ditch in the ground. “Isn’t this where I first saw you?”
Jorran wandered over to follow her line of sight and exhibited a flicker of a smile. “You remember that?”
“Well it’s hard not to. You were about to shoot me.” She sniffed.
“I was aiming for the Thalmor.” He grumbled. “Nipper looked a lot like his mount.” He was then barreled over by the aforementioned horse charging into him. “Is your horse enchanted to understand speech?!” He yelped in an unusually high pitch as he tried to get off the ground. Adilia giggled but then they discovered Nipper had planted a hoof on the skirt of Jorran’s fur tunic and she outright laughed.
“No, but he doesn’t like mumbling.” She explained as she hefted herself into Nipper’s side and tried to free the Forsworn. “You mumble a lot.”
“I do not.” Jorran mumbled as Nipper finally moved off him and he got to his feet. Adilia only smiled with lips pressed tightly together.
“Bandits control the ruins over there.” He said, returning to what drew her attention earlier. “Volskygge. There are more of them than you think – the ground dips suddenly beyond what you see. The Elves that attacked barely caused a scratch.”
“Were they the ones you attacked Solitude with?”
“They owed me. That favour is now spent, I wouldn’t ride too close if I were you.”
They were standing simply enjoying a lull of peace in the uncommon sunlight when Adilia noticed the bandits weren’t the only heads bobbing on the horizon. Of all the days they’d spent together, Jorran had chosen this one to value the sight before him instead of checking over his shoulder. The day a team of hired mercenaries grinned at them with the prospect of the largest payment they’d ever seen shining in their eyes.
Adilia grabbed his shoulder as soon as she recognised their branded iron armour. “You sure those bandits don’t owe you just a little more loyalty?” However when they looked over at the bandits’ ruin they found they’d vanished into their huts.
“Stay back.” He snarled and pushed her behind him. The mercenaries only grinned wider.
“Oh we’re not here for the girl, Madman.” Their leader reassured him with a sneer that showed off his permanently split lip. “Sure, we were sent to find her, but no, we came to kill any rabid wolves who’ve travelled too far from their pack.”
“Witch!” Another spat.
Jorran smacked Nipper’s rear to wake him up but the horse immediately bolted in the direction of Volskygge. The mercenaries roared with laughter.
“Even the beasts know your odds, Madman!” The leader clapped and came to a halt before they were within a fighting distance. Jorran swung his sword at them and crouched to a supple position, ready to leap and spin in any direction where blood could be spilt. “Come on.” The mercenary smiled knowingly. “You can’t get past us. You aren’t really going to run away, are you?” On cue five of his friends brought forth bows and trained their arrows on the lone warrior.
“Jorran, there are sixteen of them. I’ve seen amazing feats of bravery but I’ve also seen stupidity. This would be the latter.” Adilia hissed over his shoulder.
Instead of a reason to pause, he took it as a signal to leap. Before they could begin to be ready he dived into the circle of mercenaries. Adilia hit the ground to avoid the loosed arrows but most of them missed as they wildly try to catch their moving target. Three of the mercenaries had their throats slit before they could draw their weapons and another two killed each other as Jorran ducked beneath their blows. He brought down another on his own and struck his shield-brother down with his own sword. He was doing damage to their fringe but it didn’t last long when they came to their senses. With the element of surprise lost he was surrounded in seconds. The mercenaries were grinning again and trampling over the bodies of comrades they no longer cared about when Jorran let out an ear-piercing whistle. The shrill outburst stunned the men for a short moment but it was cut off when a seemingly deaf mercenary lunged forward and used the opportunity to slice Jorran’s exposed side. The Forsworn began to keel over with a grunt but caught himself in time for his plan to fall into place. Summoned by the whistle, Nipper charged through the mercenaries to reach him and Jorran leapt up onto his back with what adrenaline he had left. They immediately went to pick up Adilia but he wasn’t planning on not having to stop. Before they could slow from a canter she mounted with a skill he hadn’t expected and ripped the reins from his hands. Using Nipper’s uninterrupted momentum she split the mercenaries like a tide to reach the other side of the clearing. The mercenaries all jumped aside with cries fearing for their toes under Tamriel’s heaviest horse breed.
“Where do I go?” Adilia shouted after disturbing the hornet’s nest for the mercenaries behind them by charging through Volskygge. The sheer amount of blood spilling out onto her leg was beginning to become more alarming to her than their attackers.
Jorran took the reins from her with a feebleness she’d never have expected from him. “Just keep him going. I need–”
“Pressure.” Adilia finished and wrapped her arms around his slit waist as tightly as she could. “I’ve held in my brother’s guts before.”
Jorran snorted then winced harder than when she’d initially gripped him. “Careless?” He wheezed.
“Don’t laugh.” She said with a sudden surge of concern. She dug her heels into Nipper’s sides and placed her head on Jorran’s shoulder. Both to see where they were going and to keep him upright. “But yes, he was.”
As she expected his head soon began to loll. After that came the slipping of his hands. Her solution was to keep her left arm around the wound to continue stemming the blood and take the reins with her right. Skyrim may be an unfamiliar land to her but she’d seen maps enough times to know where the roads led.
“Come on Nips, what are the odds he was heading for the Reach?” He didn’t respond but in all fairness he was hurtling two grown humans along at a breakneck speed. They turned towards Dragon Bridge but the problem was she had never been this far east of the main road. Through blindingly bright green fields of goats and past a hostile Orc stronghold they fled. She eased him into a canter as the ground began to roughen and twist but for the sake of the man leaking his life force all over her she didn’t dare go slower. The steadfast horse never tried to.
Judging by the rapid rate of his body falling against her, Jorran was still awake and in pain but he didn’t try to stop her when she realised they’d long passed Dragon Bridge. She held him tighter but it wasn’t for the blood flow which had now stemmed to a manageable trickle against her arm. They were now in the forbidden region, the Reach. Fraught with twisted blood magic as gnarled as its roots, savages who foamed at the mouth and wore naught but the remains of their kills, crooked crones who ate their babies and bewitched harmless citizens to give them new ones… The Martel sisters hadn’t exactly been given a good reputation of it since their brother left them.
Either he sensed her disquiet from Nipper’s sudden slowing or he recognised the wooden stakes of the village they approached because Jorran quietly took the reins again. Meaning he placed his hand over hers to show dominance to the tribe now watching them. She began to pull her hand away from his side in case that would help her appear less of a threat, but his sharp intake of breath stopped her. “Go.” He murmured and placed his other hand over her arm. He was making Nipper veer around the village. She didn’t need anymore encouragement to make her horse speed past the unblinking eyes following them.
They continued past several more like it and crossed a river deep enough that Jorran’s blood spread in the fabric of her dress so much it turned brown. She was beginning to fear she was losing him when they came across a village less suspicious than the rest. In fact the young Forsworn woman picking herbs by the entrance was downright blasé when she noticed him.
“A horse this time, Jorran?” She asked, eyes rolling to the skies before she could look further behind him. “Wasn’t it you who was telling everyone how easy they are to be tracked last week? I may be new to this but–”
Then Adilia found what he’d been saving his energy for.
“Uncle Jorran!” A little girl’s voice cried, vibrating as she made it extend to last her entire run down the hill towards him. She only had one arm to wave with.
“Hey!” He smiled and sat up straighter, supporting himself so she wouldn’t see anything wrong. The woman however, did.
“Oh…” She whispered and covered her mouth with her hand as the gaping flesh of his wound came into full view. Her basket of herbs and flowers fell to the ground.
“Looks like the horse isn’t the only thing he found.” A deep voiced hunter noted as he stared right past his chieftain to see Adilia.
Jorran’s focus was on the little girl and they all rushed towards him as he tried to dismount. As she was unable to stop him, Adilia obligingly leant back and held her left arm up so he wouldn’t slip backwards as he swung his leg over Nipper’s neck.
“What did you do this time?” The woman sighed as he refused her efforts to try to support him when he landed. He hugged the little girl instead and ruffled her short hair.
“Enough, Eshne.” He grumbled and tried to get back to his feet when Nipper distracted the little girl by gently chomping her hair with his lips. The chieftain needed their support then.
“He tried to save me.” Adilia explained with a meek voice she didn’t know she was capable of. Her stomach was doing all manner of acrobatics in comparison to her frozen body but the giggles Nipper was incurring from the child broke out a smile.
“And was successful by the looks of it.” Eshne replied prudently as she poked and prodded at Jorran’s wound. He tried not to show how he was wincing every time.
The gruff hunter who’d run forward from his post to help his chief glared up at her. Then he saw her neck and pulled out his axe. “She’s city scum. What’s she doing with Kale’s pendant?” He demanded. Her heart felt like it had jumped out of her body even after Jorran had waved him down.
“This is the woman helping us take down the Bracken-Thrones. She brought me here of her own will when I was dead in her arms, if she was going to betray us I would be on an Imperial interrogation table.” Jorran told him. The few sentences left him gasping for breath.
The little girl went wide-eyed at the story and Nipper went from her mind completely. She ran forward and smacked straight into Adilia’s unbloodied leg, nuzzling against it to make up for the lack of a two-armed hug. “Thank you for saving Uncle Jorran.” She whispered. Before Adilia could stammer reply the girl pushed one of the red flowers Eshne had dropped into her hands and shot back to the village faster than an arrow.
Adilia blushed down at the slightly crushed flower with a repressed smile that was causing dimples to appear. Nipper stretched his neck forlornly towards his new playmate, pulling the reins out of Adilia’s hand and making her realise everyone was watching her to judge the newcomer’s reaction.
“‘Uncle?’” She asked Jorran when she found she was unable to come up with a reaction that would appease them all.
Jorran smirked, but it wasn’t hostile. “By name only. That was Nia, her parents died after a sabrecat got into the camp. The beast took her arm and some poison got into her blood. It wasn’t fatal but it weakens her daily. We don’t know how long she has left so we make what there is as comfortable as possible. If she wants to call me her uncle, then I am.”
Before either could react further, Eshne stuffed a handful of fresh herbs into Jorran’s wound and a booming voice came down from the village.
“He’s finally brought you down from that prison you call a home?!” A moustached Forsworn warrior grinned and jogged down to them, concurrent with Jorran’s yelp at the intrusion of plants in his body.
“Herger!” Adilia grinned back, noting he was also proudly sporting a crushed red flower amongst his armour’s tooth necklace.
“Chief, if you don’t let me bind this wound now you’ll drop before we get to the tent.” Eshne warned him as he staggered. “If this woman is going to stay with us Herger could–”
“No.”Jorran shook his head and looked up at Adilia. “Return to your sister. An arranged marriage is a grave sacrifice, but to a child-killer?” It wasn’t only the blood loss that made his voice go weak.
“Ah. Another time then.” Herger said delicately, but then he focused on Jorran’s wound and his voice raised two octaves again. “By the Gods man, I just ate!”
“And what about you?” She asked stubbornly even though she picked up the reins. Nipper began to shift around in anticipation of moving again.
“My village has healers, I’ll be fine.” Said Jorran. Eshne grumbled something under her breath and he smirked. “Herger, take some of the hunters and follow her. I don’t know how many mercenaries were left. Adilia…”
“Don’t stop.” She finished and urged her horse into a trot down from the village. “Until Sundas, Madman of the Reach.” Horse and rider then took off at a gallop towards Solitude.
“Oh come on!” Herger complained as he ran back with four Forsworn warriors behind him. “She got a head start!”
“What did she call you?” Eshne asked. Jorran only smiled as he finally let her lead him away to the village. She looked back to watch the hunters turn left to try and cut corners to catch up with the strange woman. With a shrug she decided her chief was more important. After all, it wasn’t often she got him to do as she asked.