(Continued directly from the end of Part 1)
A voice growled stiffly in Adilia’s ear. “Why did you kill him!?”
She didn’t reply at first, she couldn’t. Shock had rendered her unable to do anything but gape. “I haven’t killed anybody!” Adilia protested when the thick arm around her midriff held her tighter. She would have struggled but the individual teeth on his sword had her pushing her head back into this stranger’s shoulder just to stay alive.
“You led him to his death!” He shouted back.
She tried to wriggle in protest but the points of the sword scraped her neck so harshly her eyes almost rolled back in fear. “We were escaping, to find you!”
The man holding her growled. The rumble of it against her body scared her more than the sound.
“You have blood on your hand.” He informed her, sounding like he was seconds away from spreading that blood to her throat.
“Woah there, chief.” Said a new man who walked in front of them to inspect Kale’s body. Another joined him, a woman. “That’s her own blood.” He said calmly and gestured to her bleeding ankle.
The sword held across her neck lessened its pressure somewhat but the grip crushing her stomach did not. The movement made it catch against the necklace around her neck, swinging the tooth pendant out into the light.
“Where did you get this?!” Her captor demanded, the sword regaining its choke hold against her neck.
“A Khajiit gave it to me a week ago. Kale knew about it – he trusted me!” She stammered through the haze of denial and alarms that were going off in her mind.
All the Forsworn looked at her with wide eyes.
“Kale knew her?!” The woman exclaimed dubiously.
“He wouldn’t have let it go to anyone he didn’t.” Said the man.
The one holding her captive decided to talk with more civility, but even that sounded hostile. “This was Kale’s pendant. He’d give it to traders to guarantee them safe passage. So how is it around your neck?”
“It was an accident! It was given to me, I didn’t know it was supposed to mean anything.” Adilia stated again, trying to return all the dignity she could to her voice while four huge teeth were pointed at it.
“This is why I didn’t want to trade with those cats!” The chief groaned.
“What’s your name?” Asked the man crouched next to Kale’s body.
The chief frowned. “Herger, this is not the time to–”
“Adilia Martel.” She replied.
Herger snorted. “Sounds like a noble.”
“That’s because I am!” She shot back impertinently.
He nodded at her while looking at the man who held her. “There you go then. She’s a pansy, do you really think she could have shoved an arrow through a neck so hard it came out the other side? You’re not thinking straight. We saw what happened, Jorran.”
“Doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved. They could have been in league, getting a pretty woman to gain Kale’s trust.” Said Jorran, refusing to let his captive go.
Herger replied before Adilia could, but in his late friend’s defense rather than hers. “Do you really think Kale would have fallen for that? Give the boy some credit, he was smarter than all of us. You know he didn’t go for the ladies either.”
The woman groaned at them from where she stared at the spot Kale’s killer had been in. “You’re both delaying. Tie up the girl and we go for Bracken-Throne. Simple.”
“It’s too late, Karryn.” Jorran sighed. “The bandits have caused chaos in there. The trail was lost the moment he left and the rain removes his scent. Solitude will be on guard for weeks.”
Adilia looked between them all with eyes as rapid as her heart. For a moment she’d been forgotten and the sword had slackened from her neck again. Now she could think properly. “I know the man you’re looking for!” She burst out to them, drawing back the focus of the warriors. “The one with the ghoulish moustache,” Herger touched his own moustache self-consciously, “his name is Peter. My family is trying to make a deal with his so we’ll be out of debt. I can get you close to him.”
Karryn walked up to her with arms folded. “Trying to save your own neck are we?”
“I was never in league with him, we haven’t met since we were children!” Adilia scowled. “I only knew him for a few days but Kale was a friend. I can’t kill Peter, but you can.” She said and just like that, Jorran let her go. Adilia swiftly staggered away from him. “Well that was quick…” She said warily and rubbed her sore neck.
“Are you insane?!” Karryn hissed at him.
“She’s not going anywhere.” Herger reasoned and pointed at the ankle the Breton staggered on again. “We can shoot her faster than a sitting duck.”
Jorran ignored them both and regarded the woman in front of him. “You do know what you’re putting yourself in the middle of? The Bracken-Thrones want only me and my people. They kidnapped Kale in order to bring me here.”
“If you knew that then why did you come?” She asked in bewilderment.
“My people were hit hard when the Nord shouted Markarth from us. We have been hunted down for years, there is no distance I won’t go to return one of my tribesmen.” He paused and looked back at Kale. Red blood now matted the bright ginger of his curls. “And he is my brother.”
All of Adilia’s fear and adrenaline dived into the pit of her stomach as she was suddenly filled with sorrow and pity for this fearsome warrior in front of her. She opened her mouth to try to voice it but he cut her off before she could.
“The Bracken-Thrones have killed my blood.” His mouth formed strangely around the name like he was eating a particularly nasty new food. “If they find out that you spy for us, you are dead.”
When Adilia held her hand out in front of her it had turned so pale it was near white, but that could have been the blood loss. “I know.” She replied and matched his steady gaze.
The chieftain’s face twitched. If she didn’t have the memory of his blade fresh in her mind she would have thought he almost smiled. No, sneered.
“Then return to your city. Herger will find you when you have recovered. Until this is done I will follow you whenever you leave. The Bracken-Thrones will not touch you while I am there.”
Adilia frowned at him. “A moment ago you were about to slit my throat, now you’re offering to protect me?”
Jorran shook his head. “No. You have no choice in this. I protect my assets.”
She didn’t try to pretend she wasn’t disturbed by that. “But what exactly do you want me to do? I don’t know if you noticed when I jumped from the tower but I’m no lithe assassin–”
“Everything.” Jorran replied. “Watch them and tell us all you see. Herger will find you. Return to your family, Adilia Martel.”
Kale’s body was lifted by Herger as gently as possible but that didn’t stop the dripping stream of blood falling from his neck. Herger sorrowfully stemmed it with his fur bracer.
“Wait!” Adilia called out as they began to leave. Jorran turned around wearily and was surprised to find a deep green tooth pendant hanging before his face. “This doesn’t belong to anyone but his next of kin.”
Jorran regarded it with the torture of a hundred memories flashing before his eyes, then he stepped back. “Keep it. If what you say is true then he would have wanted you to have it. If not… The guilt it brings will pain you more than I ever could.”
The Forsworn then took off at a run over the steep mountainside and disappeared into the trees. Adilia stared after them until her ankle stung her back into reality. She lifted it with a wince and looked around. The only way down was a shaky wooden set of stairs in the small corner tower. With several groans she limped over and tried to avoid the many splinters, which in turn led to even more splinters. She cursed them with every step.
Nobody had noticed the tawny brown eyes of a little girl watching them from a tower who cried in silence.
True to Peter Bracken-Throne’s word, a meeting was arranged with the two families days after the attack and they were moved into Castle Dour immediately. However, of Chief Jorran she heard nothing. No matter how many times she left the city he did not appear to guard her like he’d promised. Her patience grew thin and so Castle Dour’s halls echoed with her footsteps as she ran down its many stone steps. The cut on her ankle had healed but she made a conscious effort to wear boots from now on.
She clattered into the castle’s parlour and strode to the side like a crab when she passed a stressed Braden. “If you see the others can you tell them I’ve gone for a ride?” She asked.
He was on the verge of giving up trying to count their gold inventory but did so for good when her unexpected entrance made him knock over the towers of coins he’d made. There wasn’t much to knock over. “And where will you be?” He asked her before she could go through the doors.
“Dragon Bridge.” Was the response he got.
He frowned down at the collapsed gold like they’d give him an answer. “Why in Tamriel would you want to go…” The door was swinging shut before he could finish.
The skies were clear for once and allowed Adilia to see the extent of the ‘damage’ Solitude’s citizens had been complaining about so badly. The attack from the bandits hadn’t done much harm other than put the Winking Skeever out of business for a few days and brought down a few flimsy stalls.
“Don’t you think the bandits could have come up with some other distraction to smuggle goods under?” One of the stall-owners grumbled the explanation the Solitude guards had been giving out. “The Four Shields’ ale is so dry compared to the Skeever!”
She grinned, there was the source of their complaints. It was also the reason for the streets being so deserted. It was only the late hours of the morning and yet a stream of people joined her journey past the Winking Skeever. Those that didn’t stay there to help fix it in a community effort to get their booze back carried on with Adilia down towards the next port of call, The Four Shields Tavern of Dragon Bridge.
At the farm she was the one who diverted from their dogged path. The stables only housed a few horses at a time but she was relieved to find hers had been given priority. Or more likely he had refused to leave his stall once he was put there.
“Hey, Nipper.” Adilia greeted the half-asleep horse and bumped her head against his deep brown nose fondly. Nipper idly chewed his mouth as she petted him but upon realising that he was doing it on nothing but air, he went for her hair.
“Oh no, you’re not getting away with that today.” She pulled away and moved where he couldn’t reach; his back. Nipper harrumphed but obediently plodded forwards anyway.
The farm hands went from miserably ploughing away at their potato patch to staring at the lady and her horse with slackened jaws. “When I tried to do that he bit me!” Exclaimed a teenage boy who was too tall for his clothes and too thin for them at the same time.
His younger sister hit him. “That’s because you stink!” She cried. Their father groaned and pushed them into the hay bales to stop their bickering. It only muffled them.
When her horse had woken up properly she soon overtook the party of people heading for the tavern. She didn’t let Nipper go beyond anything faster than a steady trot but still she didn’t see any sign of a Forsworn warrior in the trees or mountainsides around her. She wasn’t sure if that made her relieved or not.
At The Four Shields she dismounted Nipper on the grass next to the sign. Luckily he was far too lazy to consider moving from any position she left him in. He found grass rather than air to chew this time and she left him to it. She was about to go inside the tavern when a flicker of coppery fur disappeared around the corner of the building. She scanned the area for any overly curious citizens but there was nobody other than a boy skipping up the road. Nobody outdoors at least, as the noises coming from the tavern could only be described as a din. Following the fur she’d seen led to an empty fire pit on a small piece of land. The edge of it was framed by stones before it dipped to the height of the bottom of the hill Dragon Bridge sat on. On the other side of the fire pit was the wall of the tavern. Leaning against that wall was a grinning Herger tipping a tankard at her. All he’d done to disguise himself was to throw a robe over his Forsworn armour. Even the skulls on his belt hadn’t been removed and made for some very strange bumps.
“When your chief told me you were going to find me…” Adilia said.
“Yeah well I wasn’t going to sneak into Skyrim’s biggest city was I? Even when I’m naked, I practically scream ‘Forsworn!’ You made it down here eventually.” He whined.
“I…” She shook her head and decided not to pursue the subject. “So, you’re supposed to tell me what I have to do. Why couldn’t he have done that himself?”
He leaned back and used the tankard to gesture. “Ah, well the thing about Jorran is he isn’t the most vocal of types… Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’s right behind you.”
Adilia was so startled she span on her injured ankle and winced down to it, just in time to be face-to-face with the blade that had almost ended her life a week ago. She backed up towards Herger rather than stay this close to Jorran’s crossed arms.
“Why are you both out in the open?” The chieftain asked, making Adilia cast a skeptical look at his primitive armour. “There’s no one around. I scouted the area, as I have been doing for the past week.” He replied to her unvoiced questions. “And I hope this will not take long.”
“But I have not seen you!” She said.
“And neither did your enemies.” He sighed at the shift in her expression. “You have none yet, but that will change if they begin to suspect you. Why are you here?”
“My father is meeting with them in three days. What do you want me to do?”
Jorran frowned, considering. Herger just shrugged and downed his ale. “Nothing yet. We are not ready. Find out what they want with your family.”
“Then Herger will…” Jorran paused as Herger belched across them and amended his own words with a defeated look. “Then I will find you.”
“Alright…” Adilia drew the word out as she turned around. “But what if–”
He had gone.
“It happens.” Herger patted her on the back and discarded his empty tankard.
“Don’t drop the tankard.” She muttered to him distractedly as her attention was drawn by a scuffle from the front of the tavern.
He looked down at the fallen mug in bafflement before joining her to stick his nose around the corner. He had his hand at the ready to draw his sword but he was the first to giggle and pull away from what they saw. Nipper had apparently found Jorran’s feather shoulder pauldron appetising as he tried to slink past and now refused to relinquish his bite on it.
“Does your beast never unhinge?” He asked gingerly as trying to poke Nipper’s mouth to make him let go didn’t work.
Adilia simpered and walked over to her horse, perfectly aware of how uncomfortable he was at being caught out trying to disappear. “If you really have been following me like you say then you’ll know his name is Nipper.” She tickled the apathetic animal under his muzzle and he threw his head up in the air with a nicker of glee. Jorran’s feathers were released, though they now fell limp and frayed out in the few places they weren’t laden with slobber.
“Thank you.” Jorran said stiffly. Adilia wasn’t sure if the lack of reaction to the sodden feathers slapping against his bare shoulder made it funnier or not, but Herger’s coughs behind the tavern turned into unrepressed snorts and she smiled guiltily into Nipper’s mane.
He repeatedly opened his mouth as if to say more but found he didn’t know what else to say. Neither did she and the apprehensive pause between them became as tense as a bowstring. Eventually he ended it with a curt nod and headed for the Karth River path to the Reach behind Dragon Bridge’s mill. This time he was in full view and she watched him leave from the nook of Nipper’s neck as the horse planted his head on hers.
“Don’t judge him too harshly for it.” Herger told her as he sidled up to the tavern bannister behind her. “We just buried Kale. Not that he’s a good talker normally, but…” He stopped talking when he saw her face fall at the name. “Yeah.” He sighed deeply. “You’ll be fine. There won’t be a skeever that can sneak up on you while he has your back, forget assassins.”
Her eyebrows flashed up as she stared sheepishly at the ground. She chose not to state the obvious of hoping so and instead swung up onto Nipper. “Goodbye, Herger.”
His eyes shone at the unexpected recollection of his name and he gave her a little wave as she trotted back to Solitude. He went to take a sip from his tankard but was disappointed to be reminded he’d thrown it away. It didn’t last long as his cupped hand had a new, full drink placed in it.
“Hey.” His new friend grunted and leant effortlessly against the steps, even in his overly shiny armour. Herger smiled at him tentatively and raised the drink, not knowing what else to do. The tanned man with the accent of a seasoned sailor from foreign lands gestured towards his strangely bumpy belt and the short fur tunic that was showing beneath it. “Uh, nice armour.” He said, his eyes lingering on the Forsworn’s exposed knee. Herger’s eyes flickered around wildly until he was almost certain he saw the man wink. Terror grasped him but the golden ale was swirling so temptingly in the tankard before him. He shoved his face in it so only his round eyes looked at a fixed point firmly away from the smirking man. So this was why his village’s wisewoman had told him not to go to any of Solitude’s inns. He tried to inch away as subtly as he could. Far too fancy.
Over the next few days, Adilia would begin to notice signs on the daily rides her family were becoming accustomed to her taking. She never saw him directly but now she was looking, indications of Jorran being there were more evident. A momentary view of fur in a region where there are no sabrecats, a shrub that wasn’t flattened before, the snapping of twigs and falling of a rock where there are no animals… In hindsight they were most likely intentional for her reassurance, but she liked to think that she sometimes caught him off guard. Like the time where she abruptly turned Nipper into a side path and made him spin on his hind quarters. Jorran was caught right in the centre of the road in his rush to get her in his sights again. He retreated back into the foliage when he realised what she’d done, but not without an amused smirk.
“How’s the weather back there?” She’d sometimes call into the trees behind her. She never received a reply but for the scantily clad warrior’s sake she never went up into the frozen white mountains.
Despite the lack of communication she found his presence to be a comfort, regardless of if it was his intention. If only it came close to preparing her for what awaited her in Solitude’s strongest fortress on the third day.
The sky was fading from orange to purple, clouds swirled in the mix and provided highlights like a pastel easel that had been upturned. She’d stayed out too long this time. All of the shop doors had been shut and locked already. From the grim looks the Castle Dour guards gave her she fully expected Braden to be waiting in the foyer with an abridged version of her mother’s rant prepared. When she first saw her mother sprawled over the couch she thought that Lady Othella had come to deliver it herself for once, but then she saw her father pacing and Braden chewing his lip over at the counter, now void of the coins he’d been counting a few days ago.
“Mi’lady there is nowhere to go, they took everything.” The manservant uttered, his voice sounding empty.
“But why?!” She wailed. Adilia’s entrance had gone unnoticed and she stayed in the shadows.
Braden gulped and waited to see if his employer would speak before he did. “It’s my understanding that they wanted some kind of guarantee until our side of the fee–”
“We can never pay them.” Lord Martel snapped. “And they know it.” He sighed.
Othella wailed again. “Are we worth nothing?” She asked the heavens. It wasn’t a question she was expecting an answer to.
“No.” Her husband replied. “Not us…” He looked pointedly at everyone who was in the room, then in the direction of everyone who wasn’t.
If Othella had gone pale at his first response, she might have well have been a ghost by then. “But… you can’t… They are our children!”
Lord Martel dug his hands into his flawlessly neat locks. “I know!… I don’t know what they want from us.” He turned back to pacing before he pulled his hair out. “Knowing them they’ll take their time telling us.”
“Then… Why are we still here? We must be worth something if–”
“You think we are guests, Othella?” He laughed bitterly. “Did you not hear Braden? We have no funds to go anywhere. We are prisoners in their gilded cage, being ripened for the picking of whatever the bastards want.”
She gasped and shakily covered her mouth in horror. “But what of the house? Surely our estates can cover whatever they want.” He only shook his head and she raised her voice in desperation. “But, land! The mines! Crops… Beautiful views?”
“My dear…” Lord Martel began gently. “The house only just covers the debts your father left us. We would still be left with nothing. The old man did love his battles.” He laughed bitterly and Othella began to sob.
“Then we escape! Before they ensnare us! Take the horses and run!” She exclaimed very gravely and all of the others present looked at her in concern for her sanity.
“And where would we go, Othella?” Her husband asked and carefully walked over to take her hands in his. “I’m afraid you would not fit well to life on the road, my fine lady.” He said as he stroked a dishevelled lock of hair from her tearful face and rose to pace again. “They took the horses too. Do not be mistaken, the Bracken-Thrones will treat us well as we have what they want. We may continue our lives but never forget, it is an illusion. No matter how fine they are, as of today we have only the clothes on our backs.”
With strong faces they then left the room in private conversation. Braden was forgotten as usual but while she was so observed in her parents’ words, Adilia hadn’t noticed he was staring right at her.
“They’re upstairs.” Was the only thing he said to her. He had been on their estate since he was a child, their history went back too far for anything more than a look to convey understanding of the sorrow they felt.
As soon as she entered the bedroom they shared, Charlize shot into Adilia’s arms in a blubbering mess. Rona stood in the corner with her arms wrapped around herself.
“You know then?” Adilia asked as she patted her little sister. Rona nodded, looking like she was trying not to throw up.
“Did they take yours too?” Charlize asked and looked up with eyes so shiny they could have been glass. “Did they take Nipper?”
“No.” Adilia told her and she pulled away with a sniffle.
“That’s something then.” Charlize said. “He can carry three of us, right? Skyrim’s horses are so fat–”
“We’re not leaving, Charlize.” Adilia chided. The youngest sibling looked confused while the eldest looked at Adilia with the familiar dread of an eldest child. “This will end and it will not be with them telling us how to do it.” She then stormed towards the door.
“Lia…” Rona began to warn her but closed her mouth when Adilia looked back with the angry determination of a mule. “Be careful.”
“Peter Bracken-Throne set fire to our home once, he isn’t going to do it again.” Were her last words as she slammed the door behind her.
“So it was that Peter!” Charlize realised and shuddered several seconds later at the memory of him.
Rona didn’t register a word after the middle sister had left. “Excuse me.” She said and dived for the door as quickly as she could without running, the back of her hand over her mouth.
Charlize watched her go in the opposite direction Adilia had and shrugged as the door swung shut. A bed with a blanket and a book awaited her and she dropped down onto it gladly. “At least I’ll always have you, Prince of the Puddles.” She grinned over the top of her book at a hand-sewn stuffed grey frog. Once it had been made of the finest velvet but it was so worn with use and age that it was now a matted, fuzzy ball of memories. “Oh and you, Prince Pierre.” She grinned and looked back down to her book, licking the tip of her finger to eagerly turn the next page.
Meanwhile in the parlour, Adilia had such a face of thunder that Braden dared not question her as she strode out into the evening. She was going to find the best vantage point to watch the Bracken-Thrones from in Solitude.
A thunderstorm raged the next time she left the city. A good thing too because she’d been nervous about taking Nipper out of the stables while he was still recognisable. In this downpour, a Breton could appear to be a hulking Redguard warrior if they were more than an arm’s length away from you. At least there was the fact Nipper would refuse to be moved even if she was recognized.
She smiled as she led him out and flung her long grey cloak across his back as she mounted him. The thought of Peter Bracken-Throne being hit into the roof of the stables as Nipper bucked was amusing.
“Yeah.” She patted him as he looked around them in every direction and sneezed. “We’re going to find the man with the feathers again.”
They made it to the mountain crossroads before Adilia stopped and began to consider turning back. Her horse shivered and so did she. In this downpour there was no scent, with her hood up she was unrecognisable but in all honesty she would have been without it, too, as she no longer wore the bright coats of a noble. They’d sold most of their outfits in order to pay for their food and she’d taken to wearing the practical, if patched, dresses of the working folk. Especially as over a week had passed, there was absolutely no reason for Jorran to find her. Yet she turned and there he was, stoic as ever even though the rain made the muddy facepaint run down his face like he’d had a face-to-face meeting with a puddle.
She was trying to think of the most suitable greeting when he began to move towards them. “Give me the reins.” He said, his sopping fur armour sending water droplets everywhere as he held his hands out.
“Not even so much as a ‘hello’?” She laughed uncomfortably but held out the reins for him regardless. Instead he planted his hands on Nipper’s hind quarters and jumped up to sit behind her. As she blinked and tensed up at their sudden proximity, he got ahold of the reins with an arm across either side of her body.
“Talking at the crossroads is not a good idea. I know where we can.” He sounded much clearer now he was right behind her ear. To her confusion, he urged Nipper up the road that led into the mountains.
“Hey, Madman!” She called over the roar of the rain when the cobbles of the road disappeared beneath the snow. “We’re all sodden, are you trying to freeze us to death?” So close were they that she could feel even him begin to shiver.
Before they could reach the top, he briskly yanked Nipper to the left and rode into a clearing not clearly visible from the road. “Is your horse always this clumsy?” He muttered as the animal stumbled at the unfamiliar riding style. Before Adilia could respond she had to grab the pommel of the saddle as Nipper bucked, a move that affected Jorran more than her. He had to grab her waist in order to stay on the horse’s slippery back. It could be considered as Nipper simply recovering from his trip but the snicker he let out suggested otherwise. Either way, Jorran dismounted before they had completely stopped at the entrance.
Adilia looked around before she gave her horse a smugly proud pat. There wasn’t a trace of the deadly cold snow in all the grass but the pond in the centre only doubled the noise of the deafening downpour. “This is worse than the crossroads!” She exclaimed before he beckoned her under a canopy of half-fallen trees that leant against each other.
“And now we can’t be heard.” He pointed out and glanced towards the entrance again. Nipper was the only one there to stare back at him dourly as he chewed on thin air and got even more wet. “I’ve seen you come here before.” Jorran sounded almost sheepish before he looked back at her with the steel eyes that were never any less frigid than Haarfingar’s winds.
“If you’re watching me all the time, who is taking care of your people?” She asked.
“I am not the only one who knows how to lead a tribe.” He replied. She tittered nervously at how obvious it was and in the silence he tried to think of something to add. “I have somebody in my place until this is complete. The village is not safe while I am targeted. Kale proved that…” He coughed and rolled his shoulders. “Did you find out what they want from you?“
Now it was her turn to be closed off. “No. They’re toying with us for now.” She tried to release the wet sleeve that was plastered against her skin and leant against the tree trunk behind her. “But I discovered something else. They never leave Solitude, not even to go to the docks. Their routine is almost a ritual to them. When they eat is the only time they come together. It’s impeccably guarded but it also never changes.”
The thick black lines of his eyebrows came close to becoming his eyelashes. “This is useful to us but I never asked you to find out these things. What made you?”
A big gust of wind gave Adilia an excuse to rub her arms. “They threatened my family.”
With increased alarm he was about to question her on it when Nipper spooked at the sudden gust and galloped into the space between them. He obstinately stood there and gnashed his teeth at Jorran until Adilia petted him.
“Rude.” She scolded and scratched his ear, leaning back to try and stay dry. It didn’t work. “I take it you aren’t used to horses.” She said to Jorran over the horse’s ducked head.
Jorran’s face was as still as stone as only his eyes moved around to squint at the innocent horse. “My people ride elk.”
She blinked at him. “Elk?! But how do you even get them to go near you… No, don’t tell me.” She shuddered at the dark rituals she just imagined and fiddled with her mount’s bridle. “I suppose the antlers have advantages, but my people ride carriages being ridden by people riding horses.” She snorted bitterly. “We only rode here because the roads were too narrow for them. Mother was indignant about leaving her plumped cushions behind but the moment Nipper stamped on my father’s foot I knew it was meant to be.”
Jorran already had his mind on the next subject but even he knew it would be rude to change it when she’d put so much into it. “Why is your horse named that?” He asked the only thing he was remotely curious about while rubbing the bite Nipper gave him to return circulation to it.
“Haven’t you figured it out by now?” She grinned and let Nipper go for his feathers again before pulling him away to be fondled.
“Ah.” For one startling moment he laughed along with her but that ended as soon as he realised it. All traces of it vanished when his awareness returned to the world around them. “This storm won’t last all day. You’d better return before it’s wondered why you stayed out in it.”
Adilia nodded but didn’t trust her mouth to say anything, she wasn’t expecting to feel so disappointed.
“Continue to watch the Bracken-Thrones. No man’s armour is without a chink.” He said as they walked back towards the cold snowy entrance. “Something will bring them out of the nest. We will wait until you find it.”
“And when I do?” She asked.
She never found out what was going to follow the small smirk that twitched on his face.
Maybe it was another howl of wind disguising the sounds of their approach or maybe he didn’t expect them to come out the same way. No matter what the reason, an armoured mercenary was caught in the road mid-sneak. For a suspended moment he and the mounted noble stared at each other, neither daring to blink. A quick glance down showed the trail of steel plated boot prints leading from him circled all around the entrance to the clearing. If he’d expected the weather to have hidden them by now, rain wasn’t quite so forgiving as snow. Instead the footprints were only made clearer as the mounds of snow around them were melted by the warmer moisture.
One quick glance to the close copse of trees on his right showed his thoughts exactly. A horse could not possibly follow him through there, but the revelation was his undoing. He had never once looked to the left. The mercenary’s throat was slit before he could tense up for a leap to the trees.
“So somebody was following you.” Jorran grunted as he sheathed the sword that had once almost done the same thing to Adilia’s throat.
The clatter the armoured body should have made was muted to a thud by the snow it fell in and she had to gulp back as the white immediately began to dye red. “You knew about this?” She whispered with eyes as open and flared as Nipper’s.
“I suspected it.” Jorran corrected her coldly. “The snow proved it. No spy could resist listening into a closed clearing with only one way in.” He then dipped down and plucked a piece of paper from within the mercenary’s breastplate.
Panic was beginning to enter her voice but it was overridden by her concern in his tactics. “Why did you kill him? Now they will know for sure!”
“Accidents happen out in the wild, cutthroats are behind every corner. If he had lived he would have told the Bracken-Thrones you are in league with a Forsworn.” He said, trying to examine the letter before the rain soaked it all.
Adilia struggled with Nipper’s panting and pacing, making them go back and forth like a cart with its wheels stuck in the mud. “But how did you know he was a spy? I mean he could have been a hunter or–”
He held the paper up to her face, his finger placed over a blue illustration of a Nordic throne constructed from twigs. “I don’t need to read to know their seal.”
She snatched the sopping paper from him and tried to shield it beneath her cloak, despite her skilled posture Nipper’s jittery movements nearly threw her off as both her hands were off the reins. She quickly grabbed his mane to steady herself, the paper ripped as it was still caught in her cloak but there were not many words in it to be seen. “I…”
“What does it say?” He asked.
“He was sent to watch me. Did you not see it already?” Her confusion was then put on hold as a change in the wind blew sleet straight into the unsettled Nipper’s face. This time he reared up and the lack of friction between him and his rider made her slip back no matter how tightly she held.
Before he could do so again Jorran darted forward with no apprehension and a hand held out above the horse’s head. Nipper snapped around to bite his fingers several times but gradually his aggression lessened. At first she thought it was the wind but as Nipper quieted she was sure Jorran was humming.
“I didn’t expect them to be onto you this soon.” He said almost apologetically when Nipper allowed him to rest his hand on the arch of his nose.
However, Adilia’s attention was still on the previously panicking horse who had almost gone asleep beneath her in the space of a few seconds. “How did you do that?” She asked in a hushed voice so as not to disturb it.
“My people don’t get elk to come near us simply because of our smell.” He reminded her with a small smile. She would have laughed if she wasn’t so shocked at the revelation of humour. His expression returned to austere sincerity in an instant as he looked up at her through the downpour. “I cannot protect you in the city but they care too much about the status of their name to do anything there. Remember, they have nothing to suspect you of yet.”
“Not yet.” She muttered, the bloody corpse on the ground was beginning to disturb her more for the fact it was there in the first place rather than its demise.
“Whenever you leave they will not touch you, that I can swear.” He said as he noted her glance to the dead mercenary. “And the storm is ending.” He reminded her.
“Oh, um, yes.” She said, still trying to take in the implications of what he just said. Nipper happily trotted along as soon as her heels touched his flanks.
Him returning her fleeting glances with wary looks was the extent of their communication in their journey down the hill to the crossroads. They stopped at the signpost. “I will make sure no others follow you to the gates.”
Adilia nodded and looked down the separate paths they were about to take. Although the rain was thinning it was still coming down heavily and wouldn’t stop for hours. She looked back at the man who’d just saved her life probably three times in one afternoon and had sworn to continue to do so. He stood there with water streaming off his fur and she was sure he shivered. To the teeming mass of muscle it was likely nothing but he had a long walk back to the Reach and she had less than a minute of a gallop to a warm castle. Her stomach somersaulted one more time before she unhooked the clasp of her cloak.
“Take this.” She said and held it out with one hand. “I have others.” She stated and shook it as he stood staring at it.
“But–” He said, regarding it. The outer layer was completely sodden but the weave prevented any water getting inside. It was not fur but it would be dry and warm with her body heat.
She sat as straight as possible in the saddle and took on her most dangerous tone of voice. “You would dare refuse a lady?” He had a momentary glance of her arching eyebrow before she threw the cloak at him and he had no choice but to catch it.
“Don’t stop.” He said softly as she galloped away before he could say anything. In the rain’s curtain she vanished from sight in seconds but he stayed standing there for a few more moments. With an indecipherable twitch in his expression he fastened the cloak around his own neck and disappeared into the murk towards Dragon Bridge.
The signpost was left alone once more. Who knew the centuries of beginnings it had seen before it, or how many more.