~ The Big Bad Wolf ~
Gypsum & I trotted into Riverwood a day after I had fought the dragon. I was dusty, hungry, thirsty, & my backside was starting to go slightly numb from long hours in the saddle. I had pushed my horse as hard as I was willing to but we had made good time. The sun was high in the sky, the weather was warm, people were sitting outside on their porches as they did some of their chores.
I led my mount into the small stables, tied his lead to a post, removed my saddle-bags from his back & made my way over to Lucans’ shop. I pushed open the door only to find him & his sister in an argument. Again. I arched a brow at them both but they stopped shouting at one another as soon as I let the door slam shut behind me.
“You’re back! So you are still alive. Do you have my claw?” Lucan threw a smug glance at his sister, who grumped & stormed out.
I paid no attention to her as I walked over to the long counter & tossed my saddle-bag onto it. After undoing the toggles, I drew out the golden claw. Lucan made to grab it from my hands but I pulled it back out of his reach. “I believe we agreed on a payment….” I prompted. Normally, I wouldn’t care but I wanted to pay Gerdur back… & I needed supplies.
His sketchy brows drew down in a frown then his expression cleared. He brought out a fat coinpurse & plunked it on the counter in front of me. I didn’t count it right there in front of him. But I would later. I handed over the claw to him. He actually burbled happily, like a baby, once he had it in his hands, clutching the thing to his chest & crooning to it. I stuffed the bag of coin into my saddle-bag & left, heading for The Sleeping Giant Inn, highly amused.
Farengar had caught me right as I was leaving Dragonsreach, asking me to do him two favours. One was to run some frost salts to Arcadia down at her shop in the square. The other was to deliver a sealed note to Delphine at the Inn here in Riverwood, on the off-chance I would be heading that way. When I said I was, he paid me with a couple of bottles of stronger healing draughts in advance, saying he would have another two for me when & if I returned & the job had been done. So I was headed to the Inn to deliver the letter.
The same two men were down near where I had stabled Gypsum, both appearing to still be quite drunk. One of them grabbed me around the waist & hauled me back against his body. His breath was hot & sour as it fanned across my cheek. “Come on now, lass, & sit on me lap!” he crowed, grabbing one of my breasts in his hand & giving it a squeeze. I reached down, back behind me & got a handful of what was between his legs, delivering a much harder squeeze of my own. He dropped like a stone, releasing me, yowling & clutching himself, as his friend guffawed.
“Word of advice. Don’t harass the lasses unless they want to be harassed.” I said jovially over my shoulder as I headed for the stairs of the Inn. I stopped, one foot on the lowest step as I spotted that ranger lounging against the wall in exactly the same spot I had seen him in before.
His teeth flashed white from the shadows under the porch. “The conquering hero returns! Back to see if anyone will buy you a drink?” His golden eyes glinted, sparking amber as he shifted so a shaft of sunlight fell across the lower half of his face. I found myself staring at his lips, tracing their curve with my eyes.
“You offering?” I quipped.
He actually snorted at me. Like a horse. “Dream on, lady. I got better things to spend my coin on & better things to do with my time. Besides, don’t you have a gaggle of admirer’s waiting to fawn all over you?”
I pointedly looked around at the townsfolk going about their own business & completely ignoring me. “Oh yeah, lots & lots. Oh wait, no. No, I don’t. But if you’re busy, holding up that wall & all….” I grinned, arching a brow at him. “How about I buy YOU a drink instead?” He blinked, looked like he was about to tell me to go fuck myself. I shrugged & went up the rest of the stairs, hand on the lever of the door. “Do or don’t. Choice is yours, ranger. No strings.”
“Are you trying to imply I can’t afford my own ale?”
I had the incredible urge to clout him over the head. My hand tightened on the lever. I got the niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that he was just toying with me. He obviously didn’t think much of me. I’d met men like this before, some in my own priesthood. I let my fingers slide from the lever, dropped my saddle-bag to my feet as I drew my bow instead. “I’ll tell you what, ranger. How about a little friendly competition. That is, if you feel up to it.” I took an arrow from the quiver at my back & twirled it nimbly between my fingers, smiling tauntingly up at him & waggling my brows as he didn’t reply right away. “You’re not afraid I’ll beat you, are you?” My tone implied that was exactly what he was afraid of, that a woman who barely reached his chin, was half his size & looked like a guileless young girl could beat him.
“I’m sorry, I thought I heard a frog croaking. Oh, no… that was just you. You couldn’t beat me, not even on your best day.” He scoffed as he folded his arms across his chest & stared down at me.
“Hur hur. Well, if I’m a frog, I’ll just call you Prince Charming then.”
One corner of his mouth twitched, a light of amusement came into those bewitching golden eyes. “That still makes you a frog, Princess.”
I twirled my arrow around in my fingers, poked him in the belly with the feathered end. “Come on. Or are you chicken?” I started clucking like a chicken, flapping my arms.
He unslung his bow & drew an arrow, muttering, “Fine. Anything to shut you up.”
I felt like I had won a small victory.
I shot first, pointing out my target to him carefully. It happened to be the hat of one of the drunkards down by the stables. I bet I could shoot it off his head without scratching him & lodge my arrow in the back support-beam of the stall, hat & all. He was still laughing even as I took careful aim, closing one eye, sighting down the shaft of my arrow, drew back the bowstring till my knuckles brushed my cheek. I held my breath a moment, made the slight adjustments for wind & trajectory, my fingers loosened & my aim was true. The taller drunkards hat lept off his head & was pinioned to the beam in the back of the stables. The man patted his head in confusion, as if he didn’t know what had just happened. He likely didn’t, drunk as he was. I planted the end of my bow on the wooden planks of the porch, folding my hands atop it & looked at the ranger, expression carefully neutral. “Your turn,” I said, just as casually.
He drew his own arrow, matched my technique. I could see him watching me tho, from the corner of his eye. I folded my arms over the tip of my bow & leaned on them, my breasts pressing together, swelling above the low neckline of the leather top I was wearing. It cost him. His arrow flew off mark. He cleared his throat, muttering, “I meant to do that.”
“Suuure, whatever you say. So? How about that drink?” I was having a hard time keeping from grinning like an idiot. That had almost been too easy. Sometimes having a pretty face, even a scarred one, came in handy. & men were sadly predictable creatures.
“We did your test, Ladyship. How about we do mine next?” he was staring down at me with that disconcerting unblinking gaze. I shifted, suspicious. He caught the fleeting expression that crossed my features & snorted again, rolling his eyes. “Not anything like that. You’re not my type.”
“Good. You’re not mine either.” I shot right back, his words wounding me slightly. What the hells was wrong with me? WHY should I be hurt, even a tiny bit, at such a comment? If I wasn’t his type, whatever that was, it shouldn’t matter one bit. Still, it stung, like a slap in the face.
“Now that we’ve got that cleared up…. Why don’t you help me get my wolf back?” he said in a completely natural tone of voice.
I blinked. Wolf? My Lady’s words floated through the back of my mind; only trust the wolf. She couldn’t POSSIBLY have meant…. No way. I shook off that completely ridiculous assumption. “You have a pet wolf?”
“Karnwyr isn’t my ‘pet’. We’re brothers. We grew up together. We’ve hunted, tracked & fought together. One day, we’ll die together & that suits me just fine. But why am I even asking you anyway? What would YOU know about the bond between a ranger & his wolf?”
“You’d be surprised…” I murmured, picking my saddle-bags up & slinging them over my shoulder. “I had a fox when I was a girl. My father gave her to me when she was just a cub.”
“A fox! She had a fox, she says!” the ranger laughed. I frowned at him.
“What’s so funny?”
“You. Where’s this fox of yours that your father gave you?” He asked, leaning a shoulder against the wall & crossing his ankles, folding his arms over his chest.
I looked down at the silver ring that he wore on one hand. Old, battered, a stylized wolf’s head. What he asked wasn’t easily answered. By all rights, my fox was dead. But when I was still alive the last time, she had run away one spring, probably looking for a mate. I told the ranger that.
“I hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but I don’t think it was that.”
I shrugged. “So, about your wolf, Karnwyr? That’s what you said his name was, yeah? What happened to him that you need my help to get him back?”
“Whoa whoa whoa. I never said I NEEDED your help, Ladyship. I said this was a test, a competition, just like your little archery…. thing.” He flipped a hand at the stables. “You come with me, help me get him back. You survive…” it was his turn to shrug, “then I’ll consider helping you out by coming along on some of your adventures with you. You know, watch your back for you.”
“Ahhh right. Because I’m such a helpless little girl, in need of protection, huh?” I found myself actually quite enjoying this mans rather acerbic personality. He could dish it out AND take it. How refreshing.
“Darling…” he drawled, his deep voice dropping an octave & becoming rougher, pushing off the wall to take a step closer to me so he loomed over me, forcing me to tip my head far back to meet his golden eyes, “to any man, you are a soft, tender little morsel just waiting to be devoured.”
I lowered my lashes, dipping my chin in a facsimile of demureness. “Looks can be deceiving,” I cooed sweetly.
I dropped Farengar’s letter off with Orngar, the barkeep at the Sleeping Giant, seeing as Delphine wasn’t around right then. I made a quick stop by the mill to give Gerdur half the gold Lucan had paid me as well as that large sapphire I had found in Bleak Falls. She balked at taking the gem but I insisted. She hugged me afterwards, kissed my cheek & made me promise to come visit. I, of course, agreed.
In no time at all, the ranger & I were on horseback, thundering our way down the road out of Riverwood with him in the lead. We rode in silence, getting used to each others presences. Near late afternoon, I decided I needed a rest, if only for a little bit. I called a halt. He turned in his saddle to cock a ruddy brow at me.
“I’m not used to riding…” I admitted sheepishly, rubbing my offended posterior as I limped along for a few steps.
I expected him to berate me, maybe make some cocky or snide comment. But no. He slid down off his horse, taking the lead rein from my hand & adding it to his own. I noticed he didn’t limp at all. I wondered idly if his rear was made of leather. I shouldn’t have even thought that. It brought to mind the image of his naked buttocks. & no, it wasn’t leather. It was smooth tawny skin, nicely shaped, just the type of rear that begged for a good groping. I felt my cheeks heating up & refused to look at him. I had an unnerving feeling that he could tell exactly what I was thinking. & the last thing I wanted on such a short acquaintance was this guy getting it into his head that I was the type of woman he was likely used to; fast, loose & easy.
“What do they call you?” I asked instead, mostly to distract myself.
He seemed to mull over several things he was thinking of saying before he answered me. “Bishop.”
I had the feeling he didn’t tell many people his name. “Just Bishop?” I glanced at him, walking beside me. He’d actually shortened his strides to match my shorter ones without my even having to ask. I wondered if he noticed he’d done it.
“Just Bishop, ladyship.”
We walked in silence for another half a mile or so. I was beginning to move easier, the long muscles of my thighs to stretch, working the circulation back into my posterior. The day was wearing on to dusk as we rounded the base of the Throat of the World, heading roughly in the direction of Ivarstead. I glanced up at the giant peak, it’s top wreathed in tattered clouds, snow-capped & remote. I shivered & rubbed my arms. The Greybeards were up there, at High Hrothgar. I imagined them, old men wearing hooded robes, locked away in their eyrie, looking down on Skyrim, watching my every move. Waiting for me to answer their summons. I still fought against the idea of being Dragonborn. I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt like I was in the jaws of a slowly closing trap.
That was even more depressing.
“Huh?” I turned my eyes towards the ranger; I’d forgotten, momentarily, he was with me, wrapped up in my maudlin thoughts as I was.
“Are you cold? I can see you shivering from here & the gooseflesh breaking out all over your skin.” He didn’t sound like he cared one way or the other. Still, he had asked. I thought that deserved an answer.
I shook my head in the negative. When I didn’t elaborate, he didn’t press me further. “My name’s Kalla, by the way. Kalla Lightheart.”
Bishop nodded. I waited to see if he would say anything further. We walked on. He remained silent; so did I.
The sun sank lower, stars starting to prickle the darkening sky. Ivarstead was still several miles distant. I suggested making camp for the night. He lifted his head, nostrils flaring as he appeared to be scenting the wind. He looked straight into the setting sun, golden eyes narrowed. I imagined I saw his ears twitch. He led us off the road, into the trees. I followed, curious. He seemed to know where he was going.
We’d ridden past the outskirts of Whiterun, taking the highroad that was a few miles distant from the walled City, & had been working our way around the base of the mountain, following the road. It was a beautiful city but I felt no desire to return there so soon. I much preferred the company of trees, the quiet of the forest, to the noisy bustle of the town. So when Bishop picked a spot, well back amid the trees, in a small clearing with a small pond of fresh water nearby, I was more than happy to stop there.
As he was hobbling the horses & getting them settled, I scavenged about for tinder & firewood. By the time he’d unsaddled our mounts & had our packs & saddle-bags in hand, I had a good fire going, the small blaze circled by rocks & anything that might catch if the wood popped with resin & threw up sparks cleared well away from it. I’d even laid out our bedrolls, one on either side of the small stone ring that contained the fire & inside the barrier of fallen logs. I sat back on my heels, looking up at the ranger. His face was expressionless but I thought I saw a flicker of surprise in his eyes, like he wasn’t expecting me to know what I was doing.
“Trust me to cook?” I couldn’t help but tease him, my lips curving upwards at the corners in a hint of a smile.
He gave me a droll stare. “I’m sure I’ve had worse, Princess.”
“Well, you’ve never had my cooking before so that’s a pretty blanket assumption you’re making there, Prince Charming,” I replied, just as dryly.
He leaned a shoulder against a tree, just on the perimeter of the circle of light the fire cast. I caught the glint of his teeth flashing white as he grinned. “Go ahead, if it’ll make you happy.”
I groused quietly as I retrieved the small campfire cooking pot from my horses saddle & went to the little spring to fill it. I took the iron tripod too & set it over the fire, letting the pot hang suspended over the flames so the water could start to heat up. & all the while Bishop’s hooded gaze followed my every move, not speaking. He barely seemed to breathe, didn’t so much as move from his stance against the bole of the tree.
I found some wild garlic, fennel & thyme growing around the edges of the pond & after a little work with one of my daggers, I had it all chopped & in the pot with the chunks of dried beef, carrots, potatoes & leeks. I brought out one of the small loaves of bread I had packed in one of the bags of supplies I had, along with a small wheel of goat cheese & a big bottle of mead. As dinner simmered, I sat back, cutting slices off a green apple with the intention of giving them to Gypsum as a well-deserved treat. I closed my eyes a moment, listening to the sound of the waking night forest stir all about me.
I’d never felt more at home than I did when out in the woods. The natural peace reached out & enveloped me in a thick tapestry of scent & sound, neither too smothering nor too ephemeral. It was perfect as only nature can be. I felt my body start to relax, the soft joints in my back, knees & shoulders beginning to loosen & pop. If I didn’t have any obligations, I could have gladly disappeared into some forgotten glade & lived like one of the spriggans, becoming a wild denizen of the forest.
A lone wolfs howl broke the silence of the night, rising up towards the evening sky, eerie, beautiful, haunting in its sadness. A little while later, another howl rose; then another & another. They were singing to each other. I closed my eyes, tipped my head back as I listened to their lonely moonlight serenade.
“Why’re you smiling, ladyship?” Bishop’s voice broke in on my reverie, a quiet rumble from close at hand. I opened my eyes, lifting my head to find him squatting not even three feet from me, red head cocked slightly to the side, arms resting on his bent knees, large scarred hands dangling loose between his thighs. I hadn’t even heard his approach.
I brushed the fingertips of one of my hands over my mouth, unaware I had in fact been smiling. “I didn’t know I was,” I admitted with a rueful twist of my lips, feeling the heat rising in my cheeks at being under his direct scrutiny, feeling like I had been caught doing something I shouldn’t, red-handed.
We continued to stare at each other, neither one speaking for what seemed an eternity. I was again caught at how beautiful his eyes were. Thickly fringed in long black lashes, in this light they glowed like the heart of the flames, a flickering golden yellow. “You’re staring, ladyship,” his deep voice held the ring of amusement.
“So are you,” I shot back but I broke eye contact first. I found the reaction I had to Bishop unnerving. I’d never had this type of fascination before. The tendency to pay particular attention to the small details of another person, especially after only two meetings & a few hours of being in their presence. Like the way the tendons stood out in his neck when he turned his head, the way the pulse lept in the hallow of his throat, the way the thick stubble on his jaw glinted copper in certain lights, auburn in others. The fact that his eyes weren’t just gold but held flecks of amber & citrine in their depths, his left brow was cut through with a thin, old, silver scar, that his voice when he spoke quietly reminded me of summer storms, with the thunder rolling low in from a wind-tossed sea.
I stood up abruptly, thrusting my dagger into its sheath at my calf & went to give Gypsum the apple I had been quartering. I needed a moment to myself, to just breathe, away from the over-whelming presence of my traveling companion. I stood, leaning against the piebald’s side, stroking the silky neck as the horse plucked the pieces of apple from the palm of my hand. He butted me in the shoulder with his nose, whuffling softly into my hair I had pulled up into a tight roll at the back of my head. I stroked the white star that blazed on his brow, twisting the long fringe of mane that hung down between his upright ears between my fingers. Gypsum wickered softly, velvet lips gently nibbling at my pants. “Glutton,” I chuckled, knowing he was looking for other treats.
A twig snapped behind me & I turned, swinging on instinct. A huge hand caught my wrist, held it captive in a powerful grip. “Easy! It’s just me,” the rangers gruff voice came out of the darkness.
I gave a nervous little laugh, rubbing my wrist when he let go. He was stronger than he looked, a lot stronger. I don’t think he was aware his grasp had been that tight. “What’re you doing sneaking up on me anyway? I might just have to put a bell on you!”
His white, even teeth flashed in the gloom, canines just a touch longer, giving him a slightly feral cast. “I was just thinking of bringing the horses closer to camp. I wasn’t expecting you to actually build a proper fire.”
I blinked stupidly up at where I thought his voice was coming from, about a foot above my head. “Oh.”
“ ‘Oh’. Oh is all she has to say after she tried to take my head off.”
I sputtered then said, with great dignity, “If I had wanted to take your head off, you wouldn’t have one right now.”
He snorted. “Don’t make me laugh, ladyship. Many have tried, all have failed.”
I ground my teeth, wanting to box his ears, the cocky bastard. “If you say so,” I said lightly instead & took Gypsum by the halter, untying his lead from the branch & leading him closer to where the fire spread its glow.
Bishop did the same with his horse. It was the only one that Lucan had been willing to part with. A large black stallion with a broad chest & a bit of a temper. The beast reminded me of my traveling companion, actually. I dubbed the animal Sleipnir on the spot.
By the time we got our mounts settled again for the night, the stew was done. I ladled out two bowls, cut the loaf of bread in half & sat with my back to one of the logs, staring into the flames, dinner neglected in my hands. Instead of the campfire, I saw the attack at Helgen, that giant black bat-winged monster with the glowing red eyes spewing flame & destruction. Smelled the stink of burning bodies & sulphur. I set my bowl down hastily as bile rose up the back of my throat, drew my knees up to my chest & laid my head down on them, curling my arms about my thighs as I fought down a wave of nausea.
I felt a light touch on my shoulder a moment later that made me nearly jump out of my skin. I jerked back with a sharp “Don’t!”, feeling a sickening kick of panic in the pit of my belly.
Bishop removed his hand, was squatting on his haunches not even a foot away from me, watching me with those fathomless, unblinking golden eyes. I could only meet them briefly, feeling shame rise up to choke me. I felt weak, out of control of my own life, of what was happening to me. & I HATED that sensation more than anything, of feeling so utterly powerless. I dragged my hands over my face, shoved my fingers into my hair, pushing it off my face. “You can sleep. I’ll take first watch.”
The ranger remained where he was, long fingers laced together & elbows propped on his bent knees. “How long has it been since you last slept?” No hint of accusation, no condemnation, not even mild curiosity.
That was a good question. I recalled sleeping at Gerdur’s house, again at the Bannered Mare. But since what had happened to me at the Western Watchtower, I wasn’t altogether too sure. “I’m fine.”
The look in his eyes screamed LIAR! but he didn’t say it. He merely rose to his feet with a grace I’d never seen one of his sex possess, lay down in his bedroll & threw an arm over his eyes. I added more wood to the fire, emptied my untouched bowl back into the pot & adjusted it over the flames so it would keep warm till morning without burning. I washed the bowl, dried it, stuffed it back into my pack before sitting down again to stare into the flames. I clasped Meridia’s amulet tightly in one hand. & began to pray.
I woke in the wee hours, just before dawn, sitting just as I had been against the log with my legs drawn up to my chest. Someone had tucked a blanket around me. I looked around in the pale half-light, half expecting my horse, packs & saddle-bags to be gone. But no, everything was accounted for.
“Do you know you talk in your sleep?”
I skittered to the side, away from the ranger who was sitting so close to me I could feel the heat of his body. I pushed tangles of curls & the blanket out of my face, blinking owlishly up at him. “Huh?”
“You talk in your sleep, ladyship. Sounded like a lot of nonsense to me,” he said, cutting a slice of apple & popping it in his mouth.
I scooted up to sit on the fallen log, folding the blanket. “Did you do that?” I lifted the blanket a bit, in illustration.
He ate another slice of apple, shrugging one shoulder. “Your teeth were chattering so loud I thought you might attract bandits so I covered you with a blanket. & you’re prevaricating.”
I felt the urge to bop him over the head with the rolled-up blanket but refrained. It had been a kind gesture on his part. I wasn’t going to spoil it, even if his acerbic comment almost had. “Sorry I’m such a nuisance.” I grumbled, rising to begin packing away my bedroll.
A soft low growl made me look over my shoulder. I’d bent over to pick up the thick leather matting without thinking, right in front of the ranger. Bishop was staring at my rear. “What?” I asked him, straightening with the mat in my hands. What in the name of all the divine’s was ailing him? He’d already told me I wasn’t his type.
He popped another piece of apple into his mouth, shifted it to his cheek & grumbled “Nothing.”
I snorted. Yeah right. Nothing, my ass. HA! Exactly. I almost giggled. “Now who’s prevaricating?” I asked, making him glower at me. I packed away my bedroll then his. Took the leads for the horses & led them to the little pond to water them. The sun wasn’t quite up but since we were both awake, we might as well head out again.
I returned to camp to find Bishop had torn it down. There was absolutely no sign we had ever been there, other than our equipment that our horses would carry arranged in a neat pile. I had just gotten Gypsum’s saddle up onto my knee when the ranger came over & made as if to try to take it from me.
“Give me that before you hurt yourself,” he grumbled at me.
“I’ve got it,” I said, hoiking the saddle up onto my horses back & adjusting it over the padding. I saw one of Bishop’s brows twitch. I grinned as I adjusted the girth strap. “I told you, looks can be deceiving. I’m a lot stronger than I appear to be, Bishop.”
His eyelids dropped about half-way, he stood looking at me for about fifteen seconds then he turned away to his own horse. In no time, we had the horses laden with our camping gear & were back on the road, headed towards the border of the Rift & Eastmarch.
I let Gypsum have his head & he trotted along happily, occasionally falling into a canter before dropping back to a trot or walk. The sun was warm, there was a bank of clouds that hung low in the sky to the North, laden with rain but they were miles away. The wind would occasionally whip my hair into my face, gusting my long curls forward so they fluttered like a banner. I didn’t really care. It was a beautiful day with birds singing, bees humming & Bishop’s tart-tongued personality was starting to grow on me. He was really rather cheeky & had a dry sense of humour if a bit morbid at times. Just like mine. More than that, I was beginning to notice that while he put up the front of not giving a shit about anyone but himself, he seemed to be keeping a careful eye on me, as if to make sure I was comfortable on this little excursion. But he did it in a very… Bishop sort of fashion.
“You hungry, ladyship, or do you have a case of gas or something? I can hear your belly rumble from here.” he asked me about noon. The sun was just a bit past its zenith & my stomach had started to growl.
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing & didn’t look his direction as I asked “& what if it was gas?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Then I’d just point your backside at any bandits or wild animals we meet & let you take care of em that way. At least until I can get you to a healer to do something about your stomach.”
I suppose most women would be offended. I wasn’t. He actually reminded me a bit of my irreverent brothers-in-arms who had served Meridia with me. I was starting to relax, to enjoy this journey. & it was all thanks to that bar-girl who had tripped me, pitching me head-long into a surly ranger. If it weren’t for her, I likely never would have spoken to this man.
“It’s my stomach growling, Bishop, I don’t have gas…” I paused, waited a moment then went on “Of course, I did do the cooking last night.”
He tsked. “No wonder you’re hungry. Can’t stomach your own cooking.”
“I didn’t hear you complaining.”
I glanced his way & saw the corners of his mouth curled upwards just a touch, a glint of amusement in his eyes. He turned Sleipnir’s head without tugging the reins & led us off the track & into the sulphur springs. Our horses hooves splashed along in shallow water. My nose twitched. I felt a cold sweat break out on my cheeks & upper lip, prickle along the back of my neck. The smell was so similar. I was sure all the blood had drained from my face, leaving me looking even paler than normal. But the ranger couldn’t see my face as he was in the lead.
I bit my bottom lip, wanting to ask if we could go another way. But I didn’t. Sheer stubbornness on my part; I had my pride & I wasn’t going to let this man know that the smell of the sulphur springs upset me. A couple of miles & we reached a hunters sprawling camp. Tents, stakes with fish hanging, another with rabbits. A huge rack where a black cave bear’s pelt was stretched & drying. One male hunter sat in what looked like a leather loin clout at a camp table, poring over a map. The others, another four women & three men, were naked as the day they were born, lounging in the warm water, laying on the sun-warmed rocks or engaged in what I took at first to be a serious wrestling fight but only turned out to be play; they were all laughing.
Some of the tension eased out of me as I saw that & heard their laughter. They hadn’t a care in the world beyond their next quarry.
“Are we stopping here?” I asked Bishop when he paused & I drew up alongside him.
He looked at me & I had the suspicion he was searching my features & eyes for any signs of recalcitrance or distaste at the thought. He shrugged. “Your call, ladyship. It’s your stomach making all the noise.”
I shrugged back, as if nothing was bothering me & made a motion with one hand to proceed.
The hunter’s turned to look, caught sight of us & hailed us with a volley of greetings. One of the naked women elbowed another, tipping her dark head towards us. Her red headed friend turned & looked, leaned in to whisper excitedly to her companion. I slid a glance to Bishop, could read nothing on his face, not familiarity, not that he had noticed the women were unclothed, absolutely nothing.
Bishop urged his horse closer so I followed. One of the naked women came up, took Sleipnir by the headstall. “Greetings. Welcome to our camp,” her accent proclaimed her a Nord as did her features but her voice had an unpleasant purring to it.
One of the men reached for Gypsum’s reins but my horse backed, tossing his head, eyes rolling & snorting in agitation. I leaned forward & patted his neck, making soothing hushing sounds to him. I slid from my saddle, having seen Bishop dismount, & led Gypsum in a small circle. He didn’t like it here.
The female hunters were clustering about the ranger, each smiling flirtatiously, elbowing one another to secure a spot closest to him. I arched a brow at their antics; but I couldn’t really blame them. Bishop was handsome, in a very unconventional rugged sort of way. Still, it was amusing to see them act like a bunch of cats in heat.
It was then I noticed all the men were either Nords or Bretons, all the women wood elves aside from the lone Nord female. That was… interesting, given the current political upheaval. You heard things in a tavern if you listened closely enough. I had. I dismissed that observation as inconsequential for now. One of the men was speaking to me.
“I beg your pardon, what?” I’d missed what he’d said.
The man, black haired, grey eyed, was a Breton. Not quite as tall or as muscular as Bishop or the other male Nords but taller & larger than me. He smiled kindly down at me, reaching out a hand to pat Gypsum’s neck. “I said, welcome to our camp. You & your friend there can stay for as long as you like. Maybe even join us on our next hunt. I’m Aledor, by the way. Tracker by trade, hunter by… well, call it necessity.”
“Nice to meet you, Aledor. I’m Kalla. I think my companion & I are only stopping for lunch. You’d have to ask him,” I replied with a friendly smile.
Bishop came over then, tossing me a small satchel. I caught it against my chest, opened it & peered inside. There were strips of what looked like beef jerky & paler strips of dried meat too. I looked up at him in askance.
“Food that doesn’t need to be cooked. We still have a ways to go to get Karnwyr back,” he explained.
Oh. Good point. I mounted Gypsum again, tucked the satchel into another bag & smiled down at Aledor. He looked like someone had just stolen a present from him. “Thank your friends for us for the food, will you please, Aledor?”
The hunter nodded & drifted back towards his companions. I caught Bishop’s gimlet eye on me as we turned our horses in the direction we needed to go. “What?”
“I paid them for the food, Princess. You didn’t have to say thank you to them for it.”
“Well… thank you too. & yes I did have to thank them. It’s called good manners, Bishop, as well as common courtesy.”
The ranger snorted & laughed. “My my aren’t we Miss Manners, all prim & proper.”
“Hardly!” But I caught the glimmer of amusement in his eyes, that he had so easily goaded me. I snapped my teeth closed with a click & determined to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the day.
We were just passing by the base of a small cliff that rose from the sulphur springs when I heard it. The long, mournful cry of a dragon. Bishop had heard it too, had stopped his horse & was looking towards the sky, eyes shaded with one hand. I felt a trickle of ice slither down my spine. No. Gods, please no, not here, not now. An image of the ranger lying burnt alive flashed through my mind, making my stomach twist, bile rise in the back of my throat.
“Get out of here, Bishop!” I shouted, as I kicked Gypsum’s sides & turned his head towards where I could see the huge beast skirling lazily in the azure sky. I didn’t wait to see if the ranger listened to me or not, was already galloping, bow in hand, in the direction of the huge winged monster.
I came over a small hillock to see the dragon on the ground, jaws spewing fire at a wagon. Khajiit ran about, some looking for cover, others facing off with the beast. I jumped down from Gypsum’s back, noticed Bishop at my side. “What are you doing here? I told you to go!”
He smirked cockily, had his bow drawn, an arrow nocked. “Can’t let you have all the fun.”
The dragon shot into the air, screaming. I raised my bow, sighted, aiming for a wing. I let my arrow fly. It went wide. My hands were shaking in fear for the man that fought beside me. ‘Meridia, please, don’t let him be hurt because of me. Don’t let him die because of me’ I prayed silently.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath & grabbed a hold of my fury with both hands. I could feel it, starting to bubble up inside me, building from my backbone to my breast. Aine, Raynar, Brynna, Keira, Losgann, Hodan, Aara, Rory, Muiras; I repeated the names over & over in my mind, of my family, my friends, my home, that the marauders had killed, butchered & left where they had fallen. By the time I opened my eyes again, I was burning with a glorious rage. I screeched, the sound of loss, of agony, of despair so great it seemed an endless abyss echoing in my voice that the Khajiit all stopped & stared. Even Bishop stopped in his tracks & was looking at me strangely.
I felt like my Lady’s light enveloped me, that I was glowing with Her strength. The dragon plummeted to the ground, landing in front of me. Its jaws opened, I nocked an arrow. Fire glowed in its throat. I took aim, let my arrow fly. Those flames never erupted. The beast reared with a snarl, head snapping to the side as my arrow struck it deep. Radiance burst, the dragon bellowed. I drew another arrow, moving swiftly around its head & fired at its wings. More arrows flew, striking the rusty brown flesh. Bishop was laughing, sounding joyous.
The giant tail raised high & slammed to the ground. The Khajiit ran in panicked flight. I staggered but kept my feet. I saw the dragon, throat glowing like a coal, swivel its head towards Bishop who had fallen to a knee. My vision went gold. Pressure built inside of me.
“Fus!” I Shouted at the beast, driven by desperation. It growled, swung round to face me. I slashed at it with my bow, trying to keep its attention on me & off the ranger. I cracked it right across the snout with no effect. It’s tail swept out again, caught me against the backs of my legs. I tumbled, ass over tea-kettle, & fetched up flat on my back, bow knocked from my grasp, the dragon stalking towards me, jaws filled with razor-sharp teeth gaping. I scrambled for my dagger, got it free just as the beasts head came down. I reached up, grabbed a hold of the bony protuberance on its nose with my other hand & shoved my hand holding the dagger inside of its mouth. I felt the soft, pulpy sensation of flesh give as I drove the point up through the roof of its mouth, the warm slick of blood flow over my fingers. The dragon screamed, head jerking back & swinging wildly from side to side. The long teeth scored my arm open from elbow to wrist. Blood welled as I skittered backwards, fumbling gracelessly to my feet.
Bishop was attacking again with his own dagger, slashing at the dragons wing closest to him, shouting imprecations at the scaled fiend. Blood covered its mouth, whether mine or its own, I didn’t know. I pulled my greatsword from the harness on my back & while the beast was facing off with Bishop, I charged with a crazed bellow of rage. At first, there was no give then the point of my blade sank into the scaly flesh, just behind its jaw. Its head dipped, & the ranger lept forward, thrusting his dagger to the hilt between its eyes. The great body heaved, went still & fell to the ground. I let go of the hilt of my sword, staggering back as the body began to crackle, flakes rising into the still air. I clasped my wounded arm to my belly, stiffened, preparing for the ravaging that was to come.
When the power or whatever it was left the dragons burning corpse & surrounded me, I was prepared to be yanked into the mouth of chaos. What happened next was… beautiful. Flickering rainbow lights swirled & danced about me, gentle warmth engulfed me. But I wasn’t emptied as I had been before. I was filled, as easily as one cup pouring its contents into another. The dragons own memories danced in my mind, its knowledge, its essence mingled with my blood until I became one with the beast. I was it & it was me. I flew with others of my brethren, soaring through the brilliant turquoise skies of Skyrim, the land spread before me, emerald green & citrine, a tapestry of fecund beauty. Nights black as any, studded with the soft glow of stars, the twin moons riding high in the darkness as the auroras burned their path of light along unknown trails that I would travel on great, beating wings.
I came back to myself with a small bump, realized I was sitting on the ground, legs sprawled, the blood from my wounded arm spreading in an ever-widening crimson pool at my side. I rose unsteadily to my feet, blood dripping from my fingertips & stared at the skeleton, my heart aching for… something I could not name right then. I was still half-lost, only returning fully to myself when Bishop grabbed my bleeding arm & lifted it above my head. I winced & his hold on my wrist immediately loosened but didn’t let go.
“Are you out of your bloody FUCKING mind?!” he snarled viciously at me as he began winding a strip of cloth tightly about my forearm in a pressure bandage in an effort to stop the bleeding.
“Wh-what?” I was feeling light-headed & right at the moment, the look on his face made me want to laugh. The corners of his lips were pinched & white, the fine lines at the corners of his eyes etched more deeply than normal. He looked like he’d tasted something really really sour & didn’t like it one bit.
“Don’t you dare…” he began in an ominous growl, got a good look at my face & cursed vilely. Next I knew, he was swinging me up into his arms as if I weighed nothing at all & carrying me over to where our horses milled. Gypsum wickered nervously, poking his nose into my face once we were close enough. I stroked the bright star on his brow before Bishop elbowed the horse rudely aside.
The ranger plunked me down on a rock, went to go digging in one of the saddle-bags. I saw his shoulders were set stiffly, his movements jerky, almost angry, lacking any of their usual grace. He came back over to me & shoved a bottle of healing draught under my nose. “Drink it,” he commanded.
It crossed my mind to tell him to go fuck himself but under the circumstances, I took a sip to placate him, shuddering at the taste. Now that the danger was passed, I was starting to tremble as the adrenaline rush was wearing off. I clasped the bottle in both hands but the glass still clacked against my teeth. Bishop snorted in what I took for disgust, wrapped his big hands about mine & steadied them so I could get another swallow. He placed a finger beneath my chin, tipped my head back & shoved the tangle of pale hair out of my eyes. He let his breath out in a long ragged sigh. “As I was saying…. are you out of your ever-loving mind, taking a dragon head-on?”
“You were going to.” I tried to sound meek but fell dreadfully short.
He dropped his hands from my face, took a step back & folded his arms over his chest, giving me a look full of censure. “Yes, I was. I’m at least a foot taller than you, weigh probably twice as much &…”
“You’re a man, right? It’s the mans job to protect the woman?” I couldn’t quite keep the acid out of my tone.
His features went stiff, the golden eyes hard & glittering. “Being a woman has nothing to do with it. I know how to handle myself. I was hunting giants for fun likely before you were even a glimmer in your daddy’s eye.”
“So… not because you’re a man but because you’re older then?” I tried, I really truly tried, to keep myself from smiling. I didn’t quite manage it; the corners of my lips twitched. If he ONLY knew. He looked like he wanted to strangle me. “Bishop…” I began then broke off. I sighed, hung my head. “I’ll help you get your wolf back then maybe… maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Maybe we should part ways.”
I heard the gravel crunch before the toes of his boots came into my view. “Ladyship… the risks are mine to take.”
I looked up, met those golden eyes. “Yes. They are mine to take. & yours as well. I’m sorry I told you to leave. It’s just…” I broke off again, biting my bottom lip as I rolled the glass bottle between my palms. “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine now. We better get back on the road.” I rose to my feet, brushed past him as I went over to the skeleton to see if I could retrieve my dagger & sword. I swore I felt the weight of Bishop’s quizzical gaze on my back the entire time.
The rest of the journey was uneventful; a bear & sabrecat only, easily dispatched. Bishop didn’t question me about what I had been going to say to him after the fight with the dragon, for which I was thankful. I didn’t feel comfortable enough with him quite yet to explain that the thought of anyone being hurt, because of me, was enough to set my hands to shaking & rattle my nerves so badly that I was near useless in a battle. I’d lost people, people I loved & held dear, because I could not protect them & I blamed myself for their deaths, even after all these centuries.
We reached the cave that Bishop had tracked the bandits to when the night was at its darkest. We left the horses hobbled at the base of a hill across a small pond, about a quarter of a mile from the bandit cave. Shaded lanterns bobbed on the roadway as a group of people, no more than three, paused at the winding track that led towards the roadway that passed beneath the track that led up another hill & to the cave.
Bishop & I crouched in the shadows of a big hedge of bushes at the base of the hill, a fold of the short cloak I wore drawn up over my head to hide any tell-tale flash of my pale hair, watching. The trio turned up the hill after a short conference & began walking again. We tailed after them, silent wraiths. When they reached the track that led up another hill, towards the bandit cave, the ranger & I ducked behind an out-cropping of rock to watch. I looked at my companion but his gaze was locked on the people as they made their progress up the track, golden eyes taken on a feral cast. Impulsively, I reached out & touched his arm, in an effort to offer comfort & reassurance. “He’s still alive, Bishop. We’ll get him free,” I whispered then slithered out from behind the rock without making a sound.
There was a lone guard at the door that someone had built into the cave entrance. He didn’t see me as I slipped from the shadows & snooved my dagger between his lowest ribs, piercing his kidney. Bishop rose up before him out of the darkness like an avenging spirit, clapped a hand over the bandits mouth & slit his throat. We eased his body to the ground, dragged it over to the thick hedge that lined the path & rolled it down into the shrubbery, making sure it was well hidden.
I nodded to the ranger, sheathed my dagger at my calf, drew my bow & nocked an arrow. He sheathed his dagger & drew his own bow. Silently, we entered the pits.
I was expecting gloom & darkness, a sort of furtive atmosphere where these people plied their trade & made a mockery of nature by having beasts fight each other for the humans entertainment. But no. The light was bright, the sound of muffled shouting & the snarling of animals reaching my ears. I crept along, taking the lead & came to a cage that housed the largest wolf I have ever seen. He reminded me of one of those Northern giants that roamed the icy forests & snow-laden peaks out past Winterhold. But he was black as night with yellow eyes that narrowed when they spotted me. His upper lip lifted to bare his long, sharply pointed canines. I made a hushing sound, holding a loosely curled fist out for him to sniff. I tried, with some success, to throttle down my own energies so as not to irritate the animal.
“You must be Karnwyr,” the large triangular ears flickered back & forth, the big lupine head cocked slightly to one side, as if he recognized the use of his name. I moved over & Bishop stepped up into view. The wolf’s plumed tail began to wag & he let out a yip of recognition & happiness. I went to work on the lock; thankfully, it was old & rusty. A good knock with my foot & it fell to the floor, allowing the gate to swing open, reuniting Karnwyr with his brother.
“There you are! Freedom at last, huh, buddy? What do you say we do what we did when we were younger? I put a few arrows in these bastards & you chew their faces off?” Karnwyr reared up on his hind legs, forepaws planted in Bishops chest as he licked the rangers face excitedly while Bishop ruffled the thick ruff of fur at his neck.
Sure, I was all for dispensing some justice. Having been nothing more than a trapped animal myself at one time, I was more than happy to help these beasts who could not help themselves. I inclined my head to the ranger, fell in behind him & his wolf as they took the lead, heading towards the sound of human revelry & animal suffering.
Karnwyr burst from the opening of the tunnel with a roar of fury echoed by Bishop. The wolf launched himself at the nearest person, a female dunmer. She went down under the weight of his body, his fangs sunk deep in the vulnerable flesh of her throat. The ranger was laughing with what sounded like glee as he rained arrows down on the milling crowd. I slung my bow across my back, drew my greatsword & waded happily in.
An Imperial man with a paunch straining the dirty fabric of his shirt fell before me as he tried to brain me with a pickax. Karnwyr had lept onto a fleeing Argonian woman, had her pinned facedown on the ground & was savaging her back & tail with his fangs. Her screams echoed those of the animals I had heard earlier. Bishop was still firing arrows at those trying to make it out. I saw a man go for the occupied wolf & I ran for him. I was stopped by someone grabbing a hold of my short cloak & jerking me roughly back. I went flying into the cave wall, made contact with the hewn rock with a sickening crunch & a groan as the air was knocked out of me. A huge Orc loomed up in front of me, wielding a warhammer.
“You’re going to die, bitch!” he snarled, raising his weapon high.
“Don’t you touch her!” Bishop bellowed right as one of his arrows thudded home into the big Orc’s shoulder hard enough it spun him around. I stooped, grabbed my sword that had fallen from my hand & drove the point of it upwards into the Orc’s belly. Before I could blink, Bishop was at my side, a hand under my elbow as I tried to catch my breath while the Orc twitched on the ground, another arrow protruding from his right cheek as he vacated his bowels.
I shook my head lightly, pointing down towards the pit. “That… way,” I wheezed painfully. I think the Orc may have cracked some of my ribs when he threw me up against the wall. I took a small vial of healing draught I had in my belt & uncorking it, took a large mouthful. Damn, I was rusty. Being alive again, back in Skyrim, was reminding me that I needed to get back into shape & training again against someone who didn’t pull back at the last crucial moment.
I replaced the corked, half-empty vial at my belt & followed the sounds of snarls & the clashing of steel deeper into the cave. Bishop had one of the men pinned to the ground when I got there, a boot on his chest to keep him from rising. Not that he could. Karnwyr stood over the man, snarling, muzzle dripping red, eyes blazing. The man was whimpering, begging for his life.
“P-please!” he whined. The ranger leaned down, fisted his hand in the mans shirt, twisted it & jerked him roughly upwards so their faces were only mere inches apart.
“Why should I spare you? Tell me!” Bishop snarled, his face contorted with rage.
The man cried out, caught sight of me. “My Lady!” he pleaded, “Please, we weren’t harming no one! Make him let me go, for mercy’s sake!”
I came closer, into the spill of light. I looked down at the man, face expressionless, the tone of my thickly accented voice just as inflectionless. “Harming no one? & what about the innocent animals you slaughtered for your amusement & the amusement of others? What about the anxiety you caused my friend here, when you trapped his wolf, kept him prisoner? Do you call that harmless? Do you proclaim yourself innocent of doing such deeds? Did you show any of the poor beasts you made fight each other mercy?” I knew I must look like the apparition of his impending doom.
“P-please!” he whined again.
“Enough!” I hissed, eyes narrowing to slits, dropping down to my haunches to meet the mans terrified gaze. His mouth snapped shut. “Your life is not in my hands. Give my friend here one good reason to let you live. A good reason, not any of your empty, sniveling promises.”
The man was silent, lips trembling. Then “Mercy!” he cried piteously.
I looked at Bishop. “His life is yours & Karnwyr’s. Were I you, I’d give him a taste of his own type of ‘mercy’.” I almost, but not quite, sneered the word.
I watched as the ranger pressed the tip of his dagger into the mans chest, over his heart, & slowly sank it to the hilt. The mans legs kicked as he struggled, begging, even as blood welled in his mouth & spilled from his lips. I rose lithely to my feet, sheathing my sword. “The world does not need men like him in it,” I muttered, surprising myself with the amount of bitterness & vehemence I heard in my voice.
I turned away from Bishop & started back towards the entrance to the cave but was stopped as a weight pressed against my legs. I looked down to see Karnwyr at my side, red tongue lolling. I squatted down in front of the wolf, took his head between my hands & proceeded to scritch him under the chin & behind the ears. I was rewarded with a very dog-like grunt of pleasure & him sniffing me enthusiastically about my ears & into my hair.
“I think he likes you,” rumbled from far above my head. I tipped my head back to find Bishop standing over me, arms folded across his chest, one corner of his mobile mouth quirked just the tiniest bit upwards.
I looked back at the wolf, touching my nose lightly to his. “Well, I think I like him too.” I was rewarded by a wet tongue barely brushing my chin in a fleeting wolf-kiss. I gave him one more scritch under the chin & stood up.
I didn’t see the wolfish smile that ghosted across Bishop’s face as I led the way out of the cave.
We made camp just about sun-up, several miles from the bandit cave. My companion informed me we were now just over the border in the Rift, a place he was very well acquainted with. & so it appeared, for he led us to a clearing on an out-crop that looked down on a valley. The valley itself was filled with the last sunlight of the dawn, looking like a golden bowl where trees & flowers rioted before emptying into a lake. It was beautiful, serene. I stood staring, the wind teasing through my hair, blowing my pale curls out like an unfurled flag.
“What do you think, ladyship?” I caught the hint of amusement in the rangers deep voice & could already feel the blush creeping up my cheeks. “Nothing like being away from the city.”
I brushed back tendrils of my hair that floated across my face as I turned to look at him. Karnwyr sat beside him, eye’s gone to slits, tongue lolling as he panted lightly. The sun gilded them both with a golden halo. The ranger looked like he belonged here, in these woods, living free. “It’s lovely, Bishop.” I didn’t know what else to say so fell silent.
As if making up his mind to something, he stepped up close to me, so close I was forced to tip my head far back to even meet his gaze. He didn’t blink as those amber eyes flickered over my face. I felt a subterranean shiver start in my belly, could feel my hands aching, wanting to touch his arms again. I curled my fingers into my palms to stifle the impulse. Bishop raised a hand, brushed a fingertip softly beneath my left eye, capturing an errant curl that had strayed across my cheek. He tucked it behind my ear & I felt his fingers linger just a moment on the pulse that beat erratically in my neck. My lips parted slightly as I looked up into his face, surprised at the gentleness he showed. I swallowed hard, dropped my gaze & stepped back from him.
After surviving the dragon fight, having him prevent that huge Orc from crushing my skull, I was both frightened at the idea of having him along with me & grateful. Frightened because, regardless of what I said, that I would respect his choice to stay if he wanted, I was fearful I would be the death of him. Grateful because… I didn’t want to do this alone. Whatever THIS was.
“I should… maybe make a fire & get dinner started.” I muttered, heading towards where we’d set up our perimeter. Thin rope, strung between the trunks of the trees about chest high & again at about knee high, pieces of round metal attached to the rope at intervals; if anyone or anything tried to get past them, the metal would chime together & alert us of their presence. I heard his snort from behind me as I retreated. My shoulders stiffened but I kept on walking.
I found a low fire already burning, circled by stones, the brush cleared away. Gypsum & Sleipnir had already been unsaddled & hobbled. They grazed contentedly at the long grass & wild flowers that grew abundantly around the bases of the white-barked birch. I stood, staring stupidly. What was there left for me to do?
I plunked myself down close to the fire, drew my knees up to my chest & curled my arms atop them. I closed my eyes, planted my chin on my folded arms & just tried to still the rapid racing of my mind. Why was I drawn to this man, especially after just a handful of days of being in his presence? Why did I both want for him to touch me, to smile at me, yet feared his touch & felt giddy when he did smile, even a little bit? I’d learned long long ago, I was nothing but a prize to men. A trophy, there to be pursued, dominated, hunted & finally conquered. & when they could not get what they wanted, either because of my refusal to submit to them or their own bodies betraying them, I was there to be punished. Beaten, whipped, branded & scarred, testament to their failure as men. Evidence that a little slip of a girl would dare to defy them. Nothing more to them than that. I was nothing but a pretty face or a whipping post.
‘Damn you, Jakob!’ I cursed him silently. The man that had been my husband. The one that had left his mark not just upon my flesh but branded into my mind, heart & soul as well. Barely thirteen winters old, I foolishly thought I was in love with him. Under Jakob’s smooth-talking insistence & cajolery, my father had agreed to the match. Jakob was almost twenty, owned & ran a prosperous farm over near Whiterun. After gaining permission from my father to court me, Jakob had brought me small gifts, written me poems, sang me songs. Everything a young girl could have dreamed of happening. Naive, I had fallen head over heels for him, for his dark handsomeness. Black haired, black eyed, his heart was just as black as his soul, I later found out.
We married before the altar of Meridia in the temple not far from my village, the temple to Mara being too far to travel to. I pledged to love him, now & forever. He pledged the same. & that night, the night that I thought would finally make me his, I found out the secret he kept hidden from everyone. Jakob was impotent. A swelling sickness, just a few years before, had attacked his genitals. Ashamed, he had not gone to the temple for healing. Now, he could no longer get his manhood to rise. The more he tried & failed, the angrier at me he became, saying it was my fault, that I had bewitched him with my pale beauty, with my oddly colored eyes. Made him want what he could never really have.
For more than a year I lived like that, trapped in his house, forbidden to speak to my family, my friends, miles from my home, confined to this prison of my own making. One night, after he had gotten roaring drunk, he threw me up against the wall; his hand closed about my throat, choking off my breath. He was screaming at me, madness burned in his dark eyes. He dragged his dagger down my cheek, saying that if he could not have me, no one could, that if he could not put his child inside of me, I was of no use to him. I was yet virgin even after a year of marriage. I realized then what he meant to do. He meant to kill me. I fought him with a desperate strength I did not know I possessed. I got the dagger away from him somehow & in the struggle, it found its way deep into his belly. Horrified at what I had done, I fled to Meridia’s temple.
I spent weeks there, hiding. Finally, it was one of the warrior caste who confronted me. He backed me into a corner, acting as if he meant to rape me. After the repeated assaults by Jakob, all the times he had beaten me because his body failed him, a cold, pervasive anger welled up inside of me. NO ONE would ever touch me again without my permission. I screeched, knocked the man back with a straight-armed blow across his chest, then another swing that made contact with his jaw, snapping his head back. I lept on him, knocking him to the ground, was kneeling on his chest, crying hysterically & screaming bloody murder as I attempted in earnest to beat his face to a pulp. It took three other Warriors of Meridia to pull me off of him & restrain me.
Instead of being angry, the warrior who had attacked me first nodded his head in approval. The very next day, my training began. I found a home among the Warriors of Meridia, a family, camaraderie among the other castes that served Her. I swore my service to Her, to protect those who could not protect themselves. At last, my battered & bruised soul began to heal.
Then came the massacre. & everything was taken from me yet again. I watched as my beloved younger sister Aine died of her wounds in my arms as I wept bitterly over her. I died protecting my Lady’s temple, just days before I was to turn eighteen. I was saved from being raped, unlike others of my Order, by dying before one of the marauders could commit the act. I went to my Lady’s realm virgin still.
& now… I shivered. I had fallen into a comfortable space when dealing with men. I kept them at a distance, had schooled my body to accept that it would never know a mans touch. That I didn’t need or want it. Until I had looked into a pair of bewitching golden eyes, whiskey-warm, fire bright, deep & fathomless they seemed to see right through me, to the very heart of me. Now all I wanted was to be held, just once, by this surly ranger, without any conditions or demands being made of me. Just to know what the illusion of closeness felt like. & yet, if I was truthful, I was afraid of him because he was a man. Afraid if I showed him my weakness, that he would use it to his advantage to take more than I was willing to give.
I sat still, head cradled on my arms atop my drawn-up knees, not feeling the warmth of the fire that burned or the sun as it rose higher in the sky. Weariness dragged at me, making my neck, shoulders & back ache. The ghosts of my past danced in the flames, taunting me. So many I had failed. I didn’t even notice when Bishop slipped up behind me & sat down.
“I thought you said you were making dinner?” came as a low rumble close at hand. I jerked up straight, my head thumping him squarely in the chest. He oomphed, I froze, my heart in my throat. I made as if to rise but one large hand fell heavily on my shoulder & prevented me. I went perfectly still, still as a deer in the forest is still; I didn’t even breathe. “Why do you always run from me whenever I come close to you, ladyship?” His voice was that same low drawling rumble.
I turned my head just slightly, enough to catch the gleam of one golden eye. My hair swung down over my face, obscuring most of it from his direct line of sight. “I wasn’t running. I haven’t run…” my voice was a hoarse whisper.
The ranger snorted, left his hand on me. “You’re not a very good liar.”
“I’m not…” his fingers tightened then relaxed, cutting me off. He pulled the pin that held my short cloak & removed it, setting it aside. I didn’t so much as twitch. He gathered my hair up into a thick coil, his fingers gentle in the riotous curls, draped it over my shoulder so it fell in waves down my chest, fanned out across my thighs. His nimble fingers undid the clasps holding my pauldron on & he removed it too, setting it atop my cloak on the ground. Then I felt his hands, large, warm, calloused, settle on my shoulders again, his thumbs lightly stroking up & down the nape of my neck. I let my head fall forward onto my arms crossed atop my knees as he began to rub & press the tension from my sore muscles.
I was beginning to relax as I realized this was all he was going to do. He wasn’t going to press his advantage. & still, those capable hands worked the knots from me, long fingers curling delicately about the back of my neck, rubbing just behind my ears, moving up into my thick hair, tugging softly. I groaned in pleasure, shoulders dropping a fraction as the ache was being eased, bit by bit.
I had just started to doze off when Bishop stopped what he was doing & I realized I was closer to the bulk of him, that he now sat on the ground, same as me, & I was snugged between his thighs, in the protective space between his bent knees. I blinked blearily, hearing nothing but the humming of bee’s, the calling of the birds of the forest, the soft breathing of the ranger behind me. I blinked again, slowly, as my eyelids began to drop. I closed my eyes, lay my head back on my arms folded atop my bent knees again & floated in a dreamy cloud of contentment, lulled by the warmth from his body & the comfort he had given me. I fell into a dreamless asleep.
He looked down at the small woman that slept between his thighs, her pale head resting on her arms as she sat with her knees drawn up to her chest. His palms still tingled at the sensation of her silken skin against them. She looked so vulnerable, so young, tender, a fragile flower, there for the plucking. A wild flower with thorns, craftily hidden. Yet he knew better. Instinctively, he knew better. While Kalla might look sweet, innocent & helpless, she could hold her own, even tho she doubted herself. She walked with a warrior’s stride, her head held high, her black eyes always scanning the area around her, one hand resting on the head of the waraxe she carried at her hip. Small, slight as she was, she wielded that greatsword that was bigger than she was that she wore strapped to her back like it was an extension of her arm. She was a decent shot with her bow too.
She murmured in her sleep, twitching, full, wide lips turned down at the corners, the finely-arched brows drawing together. Bishop lay a hand lightly on her shoulder & she stilled tho her mouth was still set in a frown. Some time later, she lifted her head, looked at him like she didn’t see him, turned between his legs, leaned into his chest, tucked her head against his shoulder, curled her hands under her chin & drifted peacefully back to sleep.
He blinked, taken aback at her actions. As skittish as she had been of his physical nearness since the moment they had met, what she had done just now surprised the hells out of him. As a rule, he liked his women fast, uninhibited, willing & eager. Yet this pale girl, who had a tongue & wit as sharp as his own, was none of those things. & still, as they had fought & killed that dragon together, when he had seen it about to take a bite out of her & she had reached up into its gaping maw, dagger in hand, he had felt a thrill of fear & pride that she was no coward. Reckless perhaps; she was looking like she would have that nasty habit of self-sacrifice, something he didn’t understand.
No one was altruistic anymore, if such a thing had ever been. One person didn’t die for another, didn’t rush head-long into battle without a second thought, without some ulterior motive. Everyone was selfish, they did nothing for someone without expecting some sort of payment in return, be it coin or flesh & blood. He did what he had to do to survive. End of story. Yet… there was a respect to be had among warriors. & Kalla was a warrior, through & through. The same as him. Sure, she might lack his greater sense of self-preservation, but she was young yet. She’d learn. Provided she lived long enough.
He looked down at her again, sleeping innocently in his arms. A wayward curl lay against one rose-petal cheek; he lifted it off with a fingertip, gently brushed the hair back from her face. Those lips of hers curved upwards at the corners, ever so slightly, in the ghost of a smile so sweet, so beautiful, it took his breath away & all he could do was stare.
His chest felt tight as he watched that smile fade, saw her lips turn down at the corners again, her brows knitting together. She twitched in her sleep, mumbling words he couldn’t decipher, one of her hands tucked against her chest moving to clench the leather of his shirt in a death-grip. He saw a single tear slide down her pale cheek, crystalline in the sunlight.
Bishop lifted his arms off his knees, hesitated a moment, then gingerly wrapped them about Kalla. When she didn’t wake or make a sound of protest, he shifted, got an arm under her knees, the other supporting her back, lifted her, straightened his legs & set her down on his lap. She still didn’t wake or make so much as a sound as he lifted & maneuvered her into a more comfortable position, keeping one arm behind her back to support her, the other snaking around her waist, his fingers tangling in the rich spill of her pale silvery-blond hair. Kalla let out a long, soft sigh, rubbing her cheek against his chest, keeping one hand over where his heart beat heavily in his chest, her other curled upon her breast, fingertips brushing the strange amulet she wore, still fast asleep.
Bishop felt a surge of possessiveness sweep over him. She may not be his type, but there was something about her that beckoned to him. He didn’t think she would be an easy conquest. But if it was one thing he reveled in, it was the thrill of a long, hard hunt; he had absolute confidence that he would be able to seduce this woman in time, that she would provide him with a wonderful chase. Which would make claiming the spoils all the sweeter.
I woke slowly, blinking heavily, still muzzy & half asleep. I was warm, laying on my side snuggled back against a very large male body, one of his arms curled possessively around my waist, holding me securely to him. I could see the hand that must belong to the man behind me right in front of my nose; masculine, the knuckles scarred, a silver ring with a wolf’s head adorning one of his long fingers. Beyond the hand, a low fire burned in a circle of rocks. It was dark, I could see the numerous winking stars that dotted the night sky, the twin moons floating serenely in the inky blackness when I cast my gaze upwards.
A pair of glowing yellow eyes floated up out of the darkness on the other side of the fire & a large black wolf trotted over. When he stuck his snout into my face, brushing his nose to mine, I came fully awake, my mind becoming clear & focused in the space between heartbeats. I reached up & scritched Karnwyr under the chin, who promptly plopped to the ground in front of me & rolled onto his back, all four paws in the air as his eyes went to slits of pleasure as I proceeded to rub his belly.
“I guess you’re on guard duty, huh, boy?” I whispered low to the wolf. Karnwyr grunted, wriggled & stuck his muzzle close to my nose again, long red tongue snaking out to flicker over my chin. I giggled then immediately went silent, clapping a hand over my mouth. Cautiously, I turned my head to look over my shoulder at Bishop. I hadn’t woken him. I let my hand fall, curled it back on my chest. He looked different when he was asleep, the almost constant expression of disdain gone, replaced with the utter relaxation of those deep in slumber. His features were softened of their harsh lines; thick black lashes fanned against his tawny skin, his brow was no longer creased, the curve of his bottom lip was fuller, the deep lines that bracketed his mouth erased as he lay wandering the land of dreams. The firelight flickered over his features, catching sparks in the coppery hair of his head, his brows, glinted like pale silver on the old, thin scar that cut a path through his left brow & continued down over the curve of his cheekbone where it stopped.
Like this, when he was sleeping, I didn’t mind his being so physically close. The aura of subdued savagery, of raw, predatory masculinity, was throttled down to something that didn’t frighten me so badly as when he was awake. Oh, it was still there, all right. Just not as… forceful as when he was upright & conscious, stalking me on two legs. Most of the time, I could tolerate it, even ignore it. But when he focused it on me… part of me wanted to run the other direction & the other part wanted to separate his head from his shoulders, mainly because I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t turn out to be the same type of monster Jakob had been.
Karnwyr rolled over onto his side so his muzzle was just inches from my nose. I sank my fingers into the thick guard hairs of his ruff & stroked my hand down his shoulder. He huffed quietly, that great plume of a tail thumping against the ground. “I don’t suppose you’d keep a look-out, would you?” I asked the wolf. One of his ears twitched & he rolled onto his belly, placing his head down on his forepaws, yellow eyes wide-open & flickering over the area. I’ll be damned if he didn’t understand me.
I didn’t think sunrise would be for a few hours yet & I was still very tired. If anyone or anything tried to invade our camp, either Karnwyr would let us know or our perimeter of rope & bells would. I snagged a blanket that was folded up at the foot of the bedroll with my booted foot, being careful not to wake the man behind me, & brought it up far enough I could catch a corner of it in my fingers. I did the best I could to cover us both with the blanket without disturbing Bishop or waking him then settled back down to get some more sleep.
We took our time heading back towards Whiterun. To be honest, I was in no rush whatsoever to go back into a City. Even the illusion of freedom the wide open forests afforded me was just… too enticing to pass up.
I fell into an easy routine with the ranger in the days, that turned to weeks, that followed, discovering a cautious friendship with him while we did odd jobs here & there to make some coin. He really wasn’t that bad at all, once you got past the churlishness & barbed comments. We both hunted for game while I cooked it & he took care of the horses. Gypsum as well as Sleipnir were becoming horribly spoiled with all the apples & carrots Bishop kept giving them. Every time they saw him after an absence, they would wicker happily in greeting, necks stretched out & ears upright, tails flicking. Karnwyr was warming up to me too, even laying stretched out across my legs while I stroked his fur, working out any brambles or twigs I found in it patiently so as not to hurt him as I sat before the fire when we made camp for the night.
Some nights tho, I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t stay in camp. If Bishop was sleeping, I would quietly ask Karnwyr to watch over him before I would slip into the forest, silent as a ghost. Once far enough away from our camp, I would mark my direction in my mind by the position of the stars & then….simply run through the woods for the sheer pleasure of it. I barely felt the ground beneath me as I raced, fleet-footed as a deer, leaping fallen logs & rocks alike, splashing through rivers & creeks in the glow of the moons. I felt like I was flying, like one of the hawks that soared so high & effortlessly on the thermals as my blood rushed through my veins, my heart beat fast in my breast, the wind whipped my cheeks & tangled in my wild, unruly curls. Freedom. Blessed sweet freedom.
Sometimes, hot, sweaty, calm in my heart, mind & soul for all-too-brief, fleeting moments, I would stop at one of the ponds to bathe in the icy waters & glory in the soft light of the moons & stars as they danced & flickered across the rippling surface. It was on one of these nights that… I met with my true temptation.
I was naked, standing under the small falls that tumbled down into a little pond, letting the cool, thin spring water pour over me, basking in the peace I had found yet alert, as I always was, to my surroundings. Old habits died hard.
Perhaps it was a scent on the wind, or I felt eyes upon me, maybe the snapping of a twig that brought me to full attention. I lept for the grassy bank of the pond where my greatsword lay unsheathed, got the grip in my hand, raising it as I stood straight, prepared for battle.
The most beautiful pair of golden eyes I had ever seen watched me, unblinking, beneath heavy eyelids. He was shirtless, the moons-glow casting shadows over the smooth, tawny skin that was stretched taut over rippling muscles, battered into hardness by a life spent in the wilds, facing adversity & triumphing. He wore a simple pair of leather breeks, laced at the front but not tied, was barefoot. It was Bishop. His very aura was that of an old god of the forest; he radiated masculinity, an unabashed alphaness that sang like a wolf’s song on a cold, clear moonlit night, beckoning.
“What’re you doing out here alone in that state, Princess?” his voice was two octaves deeper, rougher, as he spoke to me, his arms lax at his sides, his ruddy head slightly lowered as he watched me. As if I were prey, or something he intended to devour.
I didn’t answer right away as I lowered my sword. My mouth had gone dry. He was so very beautiful. Broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, thighs that promised power, speed & strength encased in those brown leather breeks that fit him like a second skin. Thankfully shadows fell across the center of his body, obscuring the heavy bulge there. I stood staring, captivated, feeling the fine down hairs on my body stand erect, my nipples pucker hard, a quiver of unfamiliar desire beginning to coil in the pit of my belly; this was a type of battle I was not familiar with, not at all. I eyed the ranger narrowly. “I was… Why are…?” I was stammering like a fool. I took a firmer hold on the grip of my sword, lifted my chin a fraction of an inch & met his gaze unblinkingly, unflinchingly, haughtily even. “I went for a run then I came here to bathe.” I made no attempt to cover my nakedness; to do so would only attract his further attention.
I got the strange impression that Bishop & I were a couple of wolves, warily circling each other, testing each other. Who would break eye contact first? Who would attack first? Who would be the first to turn away & admit fear or defeat?
I do admit honestly, normally I would have been the one to break eye contact first, to retreat, using it as a pretense to regather before the next encounter. This time, I didn’t. I was buoyed up, exhilarated by my night-time run through the forests, enervated, strong, powerful. Maybe it was the Dragon-blood or the Dragon Soul inside of me, but I felt no fear. Only a wondrous & wonderful confidence that pervaded my very being.
Perhaps he sensed it; his head rose, a streamer of moonlight slanting across the bold planes of his face, gleaming in those citrine-flecked amber eyes that burned like the heart of a flame. His nostrils flared, the muscles of his chest, shoulders, arms & belly flexed & relaxed. He took a step towards me, then another, & another, a low growl rumbling in his throat. I felt my heart start to race; should I run? Let him chase me? The thrill of seeing if I could out-pace him, out-wit him, was heady tonic. But no. I met him squarely, as an equal.
Bishop stepped into the water with me, moving lithe & silent as the forest god I had thought him to be but moments before, until he stood before me, so close I could feel the heat of his body like a physical caress. One large hand lifted, fingers sliding over my droplet-speckled shoulder, under the heavy sheaf of my water-drenched hair, curled delicately about the tender nape of my neck. I lifted my head again, never breaking eye contact with him, kept my arms still at my sides, my sword lowered in my hand.
“It’s dangerous to be in the forest alone, Princess,” he rumbled down at me, his thumb idly stroking up & down the side of my throat where my pulse beat as those beguiling eyes of his that smouldered like wildfire flickered over my features.
“I’m not afraid of the big bad wolf,” I murmured low, my light voice uncommonly husky, without a note of uncertainty or trepidation. I was slightly surprised at how unintentionally sultry it sounded to my ears.
I caught one corner of his mouth twitching upwards before he lowered his head, his stubbled jaw sliding against my own smooth one until his lips were pressed close to the shell of my ear. “We’re all prey at one time or another, Ladyship. What are you?” his deep voice was an erotic promise of deliciously wicked pleasures.
“I’m no longer prey. I’m the hunter. Whatever comes my way, I will meet it with courage… & it will fall before me.” Even tho my voice was quiet, it rang with certainty; not boasting, not cockiness. Just simple, plain truth. Fear… had ruled me for too long. Now it was I who would rule myself. I would make my own way, tread my own path. Forge my own destiny with fire, flesh, blood & steel if I must.
The rich sound of his deep laughter sounded in my ear. “Brave… very brave, Princess. Or very foolish.” His other hand rose, captured the other side of my neck as the first had. His thumbs continued stroking up & down the sides of my throat as he lifted his head, stared down at me, his features caught, suspended, in a shaft of shadow, his eyes gleaming, predatory, from the darkness.
I kept my body perfectly still as he maneuvered even closer so my breasts brushed his ribs. We were toe to toe now, eyes locked tight as a lovers embrace. & I felt no fear, no gut-wrenching need, no shivering compulsion, to flee him. I was free, free as one of those hawks on the wing, free as a wolf in the woods, free as a dragon soaring high above the mortal world. I dropped my sword into the water with a small splash, raised both my hands, curled my fingers about his thick wrists. & left them there. “Do you think me foolish, Bishop? Or brave?” My voice was again that low, husky, sultry whisper.
His thumbs stilled their motion, rested lightly on my collarbones, his head lowered just a bit so that the moonlight played over his features, danced like flickering flames in his citrine-flecked amber eyes. He might as well have been a statue. His large hands, warm, calloused, drifted down over my shoulders as I let my own hands drift upwards to rest on his biceps. They skimmed the out-side curve of my breasts, tickled lightly down the slope of my ribs until they rested on the swell of my hips. I could see the rapid beat of his pulse leaping in the hallow of his throat, practically feel the tension coiled in that large, powerful body. & instead of fear, I felt elation. “I” had done this to him; “I” was having this effect on him. Me, with my scarred face & body.
Bishop stepped even closer to me, so not even a breath of the night breeze could pass between our bodies, breast to ribs, his hips against my flat belly, thighs brushing softly. & just like that, his arms encircled my waist roughly, he dragged me even closer, lifting me up onto my toes, so I swore I could feel his heart pounding against my chest. I gasped, more in delight of his easy strength, than in surprise or fear. Pleasure at the heat of his bare skin against my own naked flesh. I could feel the very core of him, hard, heavy, riding the hallow between my thighs. I glowed, burning like the sun as one of his hands played over my lower back right above my buttocks, holding my hips tight to his, the other hand snaking upwards, into the thick mass of my unruly mane of wild curls, cupping the back of my head. My arms encircled his broad shoulders, fingers dancing lightly through his short-cropped coppery hair, sliding cool & velvety soft between them. His mouth descended, stopped a breath short of my own.
“I would say… this is only the first battle of many, to see if you are foolish… or brave, my Lady,” the ranger whispered in a low sultry rumble of his own before his lips finally came down on mine & he crushed me to his chest, lifting me clear off my feet, there in the pond with the waterfall tumbling down, under the moons & stars as the auroras flared & danced wildly overhead.
I laughed, low in the back of my throat, against his lips. They WERE as soft as I had first imagined; silken, warm, yet hard & demanding. Just like his body pressed tight to mine. I wanted to rip my lips away from his & shout joyous to the heavens at my new-found sense of freedom but I had no breath left in my lungs to do so.
Bishop gave me his, parting my lips, his tongue sliding in, teasing, taunting, challenging. I rose to the challenge, nipping lightly at his lush bottom lip, making him growl again. I cupped his face in my hands, brushed my mouth over his cheekbones, his jaw, closed eyelids, down the blade of his nose until I found his lips again & devoured them like the feel of his mouth against my own was the only thing keeping me from bursting apart in a radiant shower, just like the souls of the slain dragons did.
He backed me up against the wall of rock that was behind the falling sheet of water & pinned me to its rough surface with his body. I laughed again, that same low, throaty laugh, full of challenge, of joy, wild, untamed. His hands fell to my hips, slid down the smooth expanse of my slim thighs & he lifted me higher, one of his knees wedging itself between my legs. They opened willingly & I felt the top of his thigh make contact with the aching center of my body. I threw my head back on a gasp, throat straining, as I burned, fierce & hotter than the Red Mountain.
It was Bishop’s turn to give the same type of laugh I had, low in the back of his throat, as his teeth sank delicately into the flesh exposed so willingly to him. His lips trailed, teasing, along the arc of my left collarbone as he parted my thighs still further until I felt him, what made him male, captured by the leather of his breeks, come to rest where his thigh had been but moments before, hard, insistent, seemingly warmer than the rest of his body. I lifted my legs, wrapped them tightly about his lean hips & tugged his head back with a low growl of my own so I could pay service to his throat just as he had mine.
My tongue swept up the side of his neck, stopping at his earlobe. I took it gently between my teeth, nipped lightly, as he ground his hips forcefully against me. I skidded up the wall a few inches, lifted a hand to prevent my head from smacking into the over-hang. We both stopped, locked tightly together, yet not joined in the flesh, breathing heavily, staring at each other. Neither of us dared blink that this moment might prove a dream, unreal.
His lips were slightly swollen, his neck bearing red marks from where my teeth had sunk into his flesh. Water, cold, clear, poured down over us, slicking his hair back from the bold features of his face. He was actually smiling. I placed the palm of my free hand lightly against his cheek, thumb stroking below his eye. I was sure I had the same smile on my lips.
“Challenge accepted.” I murmured, watching in avid fascination as that roguish, wolfish grin spread over the rangers face.