The story of Cael’s parents.
(Continued directly from the end of Part 4)
Three things happened at once. Charlize started screaming and dropped to the floor as the spray of blood from Peter’s severed neck momentarily blinded her and Adilia. Four other Forsworn emerged from the shadows all at once to engage all the present men in combat, meaning they all jumped on Skegge. Peter’s body crumpled to meet his head but Adilia’s attention was only held by the man behind it.
“Jorran!” She beamed despite the pandemonium around them and the lukewarm blood spreading into the carpet she knelt on. The relief flooding through her made the moonlight feel like sun rays.
He instantly leant over her to cut her bonds and she was gifted with the sight of padded wads of bandages winding over where his rippling stomach muscles would usually be displayed. “You’re alright.” He said, perhaps more for himself than her. Before either could comment further he was hit in the back by a blunt blow from Renald. However instead of falling forwards, his spine curved backwards and straightened like he was hit by lightning. The grunt he gave out only lured the man into a false sense of victory, Jorran was on his feet and charging towards him before he could blink.
“Adilia!” A voice called behind her with the uncertainty of someone who had never heard how the name was pronounced before. She’d just gotten to her feet to find Elijah had gathered her family and was herding them towards the opening to the right of the throne room. “We need to get to the bridge!” He beckoned, looking to the door revealed that a Forsworn she’d never seen before was blocking it and making faces at her still-screaming mother.
A look to the other end of the room showed that it was now Renald and Skegge against five Forsworn warriors. The Breton lord who had gotten too comfortable with his pies and fine furs was fighting well, even if he was hiding behind the throne after every other blow. Then what really made Adilia run was the arrows that flew from the Forsworn at the door. There was nowhere to hide as death blows swung from every angle and Rona’s outstretched hand was the safest place.
“Let’s go!” Elijah roared over the sounds of battle. Flames began to crackle, a brazier had been knocked over. They didn’t need his hands on their backs to make them run up the stairs faster than they had as children.
“You’re not fighting with your family?” Adilia asked him, the survival instinct was not enough grounds for trust. Especially considering he just watched his brother be beheaded.
“The idiots were asking for it.” He shouted back as they made it to the hallway, making her stop in her tracks for a second. The Martel parents blasted into the Emperor’s bedroom before they found the right one. They were the first out, but they were also the first back in.
The cool late-evening air brought calm to their minds only for a moment. The freedom that stretched before them in the form of a walkway was deceiving, a young urchin pelted towards them from the towering windmill on the other side. “They’re coming up the tower!” He screeched with flailing arms.
Screams began to drift up from the city below. The two groups of those running out and the ones running back in collided with each other at the doors. The boy slipped past them unnoticed.
“Back to the courtyard!” Elijah told the Martels and ushered them all inside before he slammed the doors shut on the emerging Forsworn.
However, the castle was no better than outside. The scattered embers that had crackled now roared. An overwhelming wall of heat suffocated them as soon as they made it back to the stairs and the shadows in the throne room were obliterated by blinding flames.
“We can’t go down while the barbarians are still there!” Charlize shouted through trying to clear her eyes of the smoke.
Elijah was looking back and forth between the direction of the doors that were now being hammered by Forsworn, and the stairs. Being composed entirely of stone saved them from being engulfed but Charlize was right, four Forsworn were now backed up in front of the door they needed to get to.
“What are they doing?” Rona asked. They were peering around the corner of an arch that looked down on the throne room but dared not get closer. The Forsworn were looking fearfully towards the flames, but their apprehension didn’t make sense to any of the nobles above. Adilia ran for the edge as soon as she found there was one specific Forsworn not in the line-up.
“Stay back!” Rona hissed and reached out to grab the trailing sleeve she expected Adilia to have, forgetting she had none. Adilia clung to the side of the arch in horror. Now she had a full view mostly unobstructed by smoke plumes she could see that Renald Bracken-Throne was backed up in a corner behind the frozen Forsworn, coddling some kind of injury. The only ones who remained near the throne and the fire were Skegge and Jorran. The latter was a fearsome fighter but she should have realised even he could not last long with such an injury. Skegge had him in a hold that echoed the one Jorran had used on her when they first met, but it was cold steel that hovered over his throat rather than bone. The yellowed linen bandages around the Forsworn’s waist were deep brown with blood and his legs sagged beneath him.
“Now the savage will get what he did to my brother.” Skegge seethed at Jorran’s men who were unable to do anything but watch for fear of Skegge slicing his throat.
“For what he did to mine.” Jorran wheezed. “When will the cycle ever end, Bracken-Throne?”
“You don’t want to watch this.” Rona murmured into Adilia’s ear. She instantly turned away, but it wasn’t to hide in her sister’s arms. A ceremonial knife lay on the table behind them. It was such a bright silver that it was almost white and was embellished with jewels. Adilia couldn’t tell if it was blunt, it looked sharp but that’s all it was for, looks. It was all she had.
“What’s she doing?” Charlize asked from their father’s arms.
“Lady Adilia…” Elijah began to forewarn as she backed up against the bookshelves to get a clear view of the arch.
She looked back at him. “I am not a lady.” Then Rona screamed as she ran and leapt.
The distance from the base of the arch to the throne room was not far but combined with trying to avoid flames, her landing was not an easy one. Nor was it quiet as she clattered and stumbled over the fallen brazier. All the Forsworn watched her with stupefied expressions she would normally have found comical, but right now all that mattered was that her target had not heard her over the burning of the fire. He stood before her and seemed twice her width and height. A Breton barely in her womanhood against a half-Nord battlemaster. He held Jorran in front of him so smugly, he had the ultimate insurance of his safety even though it left them all at a stalemate. Yet his rear was unguarded. His neck was so exposed its pale skin gleamed, not even hair covered it as he’d shaved it for the army. Adilia wavered with the knife in her hand. Could it really be so simple? Could she actually… Could she? Her grip on it began to loosen.
Jorran’s blood dripped onto the floor beneath him. Her eyes focused on it like a hawk finding traces of its prey. The body of the man he’d saved her from still lay on the floor, the lone head with its face frozen in fear was angled towards the flames. The hand around the knife tightened and her strides towards Skegge began to turn into a jog. She stopped a hair’s breadth behind him, only level with his height because she stood on the throne’s platform. She didn’t need to look back to know the horror on her family’s faces but the Forsworn were acting a little differently. Looking over Skegge’s shoulder she saw Herger draw a finger across his neck. Skegge cocked his head at him in confusion, making the back of his neck shine in the light of the fire.
“The cycle ends today.” Adilia whispered. He only had a millisecond to reflect the deathly strike of fear that went through him before the little knife sliced through the top of his spinal cord in one, swift motion.
Skegge’s body fell to her feet. She stared at it. His blood dripped from her knife, some had spilled onto her fingers. The Forsworn darted forwards to reach their chief and up on the next floor Elijah had the sense to rush the Martels towards the suddenly clear door.
Jorran twisted around from where Skegge had dropped him to see the killer who was likely to move onto him next. Instead he stared up at Adilia and how her pale hair waved against the flames bursting forth behind her, white against their orange. However, when she looked down she saw not the fear that was in her family’s eyes, it was awe.
The moment was broken by the one Forsworn who’d stayed by the door. “You don’t really think you’re going to get past me, do you?” Herger grinned and waved his axes at Elijah.
“Herger, let them past!” Adilia yelled.
Herger compliantly turned into an honourary doorman. “Yeah… You’d better just go really quick.” He mumbled and held open the door he’d been blocking. The urchin who’d darted past them on the bridge shot out, but not before Renald Bracken-Throne took the chance to slip out amongst the Martels.
Pained grunts came from the wounded chieftain as he picked himself off the ground but he scowled at Adilia whenever she started to try to help him. His hand reached out to her through the flames. “The fire will not rest until it has consumed everything!” He shouted and shook his proffered hand to get her attention.
She stood numbly with the bloodied knife in hand as she tried to register that the flames were now licking the trim of her dress. The alarm of impending death if she stayed was ringing in her mind but she couldn’t get her body to react accordingly. His hand was observed with equal apathy and shallow breaths struggled to get out of her. A blast of flames momentarily blocked her view of her family and they subsided to reveal widened eyes frantically searching for them.
Jorran pulled back his rejected hand. “Go.” He said as he saw how she stared after them.
Adilia blinked back at him. The unexpected move prompted her to regain control and step down from the flaming platform. Her heart was torn in two directions but before it could rule, her mind reminded her of how she was too used to being told what to do.
“The rest of your people are upstairs.” She told him and ran after her family. Regret bit at her heels every step of the way.
Herger watched her fly past him with confusion. “Jorran?” He asked when she’d gone.
“Our hunt is not over, you heard what she said.” Jorran growled and his friend darted towards the stairs without question. The chieftain’s hand was still held open.
The nobles spilled out into the courtyard and simply stopped. All except for Renald who took off at a sprint towards the Blue Palace with three Forsworn at his heels. None of them gave the Martels one flicker of interest and they were left alone in cold silence once more. Elijah was bracing himself on his knees and without his guidance all the women could do was back away from the tower as far as possible.
“Just like that.” The ginger heir mumbled. “All my father ever owned, under my control.” He panted at the floor like that would give him a clearer explanation.
“Don’t write him off yet, the man’s still alive.” Lord Martel pointed out.
“Do you really think they’ll let him go?” Elijah snapped and straightened up with a sigh.
Rona looked back at the tower whose blue windows were flickering yellow. “It won’t take them long to get their people off the bridge.”
“I’ll go and tell the captain of the guard.” Said their father and ran off in the opposite direction to Renald. It took him right past his second daughter, but he looked at none of them. Adilia just stood there as if stunned, moving back slightly in the breeze as he passed.
They all watched this unfold and looked aside as soon as Adilia stirred to look at them, Elijah stared the elephant in the room right in the eye.
“Skegge was a war hero but everybody forgets how many innocents he beheaded to get there.” He said and put his hands on her shoulders to make sure she looked at him. “Now they can rest. Peter… He was always a twisted bastard.”
Behind them Othella simply stuttered while Charlize stared. Though she did inch away from her mother and closer to them.
“And your father?” Adilia asked as he walked away.
He paused. “… He’s my father.” Then he moved to Rona’s side. “We need to get your family out of here.” He murmured.
Rona nodded and looked up at the city’s walls, where the Forsworn wouldn’t be running amok and causing havoc. Elijah followed her line of sight and stopped on the most elaborate building in front of them.
“For some reason I don’t think the Forsworn follow the Eight.” He said and herded Othella and Charlize in front of him. “Come on, we move into the temple.”
Adilia and Rona followed him into the gated courtyard and through to the building. No worshippers or priests were around at this hour and Othella rushed forward to throw herself before the shrines.
“Oh thank the Divines!” She gasped and Charlize sat on the first pew she could find, unusually quiet.
“We should be able to wait here until it’s safe. There will be food and drinks upstairs.” Elijah said vacantly and sat on a pew in the opposite aisle, staring at his hands.
“That’s a really good idea, let’s go and look.” Rona said and gripped Adilia’s hand in a vice to lead her upstairs. Elijah didn’t look back but as she was dragged past the small windowless squares situated over the aisle Adilia noticed Charlize giving her a small smile.
When she was certain they’d reached a room with a decent amount of privacy Rona let go of her sister and span to face her. She looked at a laid table beside them without any appetite and chewed over her words before she spoke.
“When you first told me about the Forsworn I thought it was a passing phase, an act of rebellion towards our parents for putting us in this situation. But when I saw how you looked at him… Like I look at Braden. Like he was the sun.” She laughed at herself and began to become more animate. “Charlize was screaming bloody murder when he killed Peter but you… You didn’t even flinch. Then when you leapt out of that arch… The look on your face, Lia, there was nothing you wouldn’t have done to save him, and it’s terrifying.”
Rona fell silent and Adilia scrutinised every movement she made. Of all that had happened this was scaring her the most. “What are you saying?” She asked so quietly it turned into a whisper.
“I’m saying you have a chance.” Rona smiled meekly. “It’s over for me. Elijah and I both have families we need to secure, we can do that together. I’ll have a baby soon. Then another. You know how it goes, producing all the heirs. They’ll stamp out Charlie’s spark, strap her into a corset and turn her into a proper lady. You never wanted to be a part of this, not even when we were children. The door’s right over there. Go, let the blondes be the only ones with any sense of sanity in this family.”
“But Rona…” Adilia said, not sure if she was smiling or crying.
“Don’t look so glum. I’ll be fine, Elijah isn’t so bad. Brady and I have already said our goodbyes, we knew this wouldn’t last.” She then sniffed along with Adilia. “You know, Sean left us in the dead of night without a word. The only thing I regret is not being able to support him.”
The girls embraced in the last and tightest hold they would ever have. “Thank you.” Adilia whispered into her big sister’s shoulder, tears freely flowing down her face.
“I love you, Adilia. So does Charlie, don’t forget that.” Rona squeezed harder in an attempt to fill the vacant space of their parents’ names.
When they pulled apart Adilia only smiled. Her throat was so thick she couldn’t have said anything even if she knew what words to say. The sisters didn’t need them, they both had no illusions about what this meant. Before she left, Adilia kissed her on the forehead. After having her hair ruffled by Rona one last time, she was gone.
Out in the darkness of Solitude’s walls she almost broke down several times. She’d remember Rona’s last words to her and her legs would wobble as if trying to make her go back for more. She began to get in more of a rhythm, a steady walk with a determination not to look back. It allowed her to begin to pay more attention to her surroundings but once she did, she stopped to frown and look around her. This was the capital city of Skyrim, yet there were no guards on its walls. She bunched her skirt in her hand and began to tear down the walkway as soon as it hit her. Forsworn had been seen in the city. They were already on the ground.
Her heart beat faster than a hare’s. The most dangerous and reckless thing she’d ever done was almost complete. All the guards she’d passed on the way down the city gate’s right tower were too busy with the attack to notice a young woman going in the opposite direction. Not one thing had gone wrong. Then Braden burst into the same alcove she had stopped for breath in.
They panted at each other, frozen in place by realisation of the other’s potential to bring down their lives. Neither had spoken since Adilia had burst in on him and Rona. Then Braden noticed her sideways glances towards the window and the forest beyond it.
“It’s an old story, the repressed noble who fell in love with the free people of the wilds. It didn’t start with your brother and I don’t think it will end with him.” He paused. Those were the most open words he’d ever spoken to her. “I didn’t approve when your brother left. He told me the day before. He’d fallen in love but in acting for it he left an explosion behind him. You… don’t have that.”
Adilia regarded the tortured man before her. “I know what you’ve sacrificed for us. You’ve always been a brother to us, and I don’t just mean after Sean.”
He laughed quietly. “No, you don’t. Maybe one day, but now? You have no idea.” He smiled sorrowfully and looked to the open arch that showed two familiar silhouettes on Solitude’s bridge. “I always dreamt of seeing Rona in a dress like that. Just, with a different man…” Sighing, he turned back to her. “You know, I think I have a mind to accidentally open the gates for the Forsworn… Goodbye, sister.” He then turned and left without another word. It was the greatest freedom he could have given her.
As Braden predicted the Forsworn were grouped together in front of the city gates. There were fifteen altogether, most seemed unharmed and all who could wield a bow were aiming at and trying to hold off the guards. Herger was the first to notice Adilia exiting the tower, but given her vivid attire it didn’t surprise her.
“Hoy!” He beckoned her with an astounded grin before any of his fellow Forsworn could mistake her for an enemy. “Didn’t expect to be seeing you so soon, O’ Lady of the Flame.” He then bowed with tongue in cheek as she approached.
“What did you just call me?”
“Didn’t you see your hair when you killed that Nord? It was whiter than the heart of the fire!” He enthused. She shook her head at him as more important issues came into her mind. Such as why the chief’s right hand was without his chief.
“Where is…” She asked as she scanned the ranks of Forsworn fanning out before them. Then she faded off as she saw one archer aiming for a target completely apart from the others. That target was a man on the bridge between the Emperor’s Tower and the windmill tower that wound down to the docks; a viable escape now that the Forsworn were no longer there. Flames from fire pits on the tower framed his ginger hair, beside him was a woman in white.
“No!” Adilia leapt towards Jorran, knocking aside several Forsworn during her graceless escapade. Just as he was perfecting his shot she stood in front of him. The look of confusion he gave the bruised, dishevelled, ashy and red-faced woman glaring at him was a sight. He discarded the questions he had for the issue that was quite literally staring him in the face.
“He’s the last Bracken-Throne, Adilia. Get rid of him and this is complete. Your family is free, just like you wanted.” He stood and tried to push her aside, but she was channeling all her stubborn tendencies into this moment.
“Free my family and you kill them. They couldn’t handle it. This ended when you killed Peter, you don’t need to carry on. Kale doesn’t need you to carry on.”
Jorran hesitated briefly but sidestepped her again. Five silhouettes were now on the bridge, three of them seeming to bicker with Rona and Elijah. Jorran pulled back the bowstring. He already had the perfect angle for Elijah’s heart, he just needed to loose the arrow.
Words had failed and she dared not barrel into him while his midriff still bled. For a lengthy argument there was no time, so with every single party watching she did the only thing she knew would work.
With hands as gentle as the feathers he wore she angled his face down to hers and placed her lips on his. The bow and arrow dropped to their feet. He stood there for a moment, hardly daring to move, then tentatively he began to respond. She could practically feel the doors to her family and everything that had been her life slam shut behind her, but the windows opened to so much more. She only pulled back when his slackened arms tenderly held her.
“They’ve chosen their lives, let us choose ours.” She smiled up at the war-painted man whose disbelieving pale eyes were making him seem as young as his late brother.
It took a moment for him to remember how to form words. “You’re… You want to come with me?”
She bit her lip and grinned, she couldn’t help using a sly tone on his vulnerable state. “Preferably before Solitude’s guards kill us all, yes.”
“Ah.” He stared at her for a few more moments before he shook himself out of the daze. His arms fell from her body and she was inwardly kicking herself for ending the moment when the great doors opened. “We move out!” Jorran called to his men in a voice that was trying far too hard to be gruff.
Behind where Jorran had stood was Herger. “So, uh, I guess we won’t be needing to find an extra tent for you then?” He asked her.
“Herger…” Adilia grinned. “Are you blushing?”
The Forsworn began to shuffle his feet and twitch his moustache. “I…Well…I knew this would happen but Jorran isn’t usually the…uh…romantic type and…” He was saved by the source of the fondest sound Adilia had ever heard charging through the open doors and butting its head past him.
“Nipper!” She grinned and hugged the head that bumped into hers. The horse nickered and nibbled the unfamiliar ruffles of her skirts as she mounted him.
“He came into the village like a thunderbolt, scared the children half to death.” Herger started conversationally as they all fled the closing city doors. “When we saw that scratch on him I told Jorran it was nothing but…” He fell silent as somebody came up behind them. That somebody grabbed Nipper’s saddle and mounted up behind her. “Yeah, he has the grounds to ignore me for a while now.”
Herger drifted into a tirade about who she’d meet at the village but the breath on her neck was blocking out all her other senses. It was haggard and exhausted but as Herger started about a sly girl called Brannan who spent too much time in the cities, she felt something rough but warm slink over her hand. Adilia closed her fingers around Jorran’s with a shy smile. She turned her head to look at him but before she found his eyes, she was drawn to a light in the tower next to Solitude’s doors. It was bright but blocked by the silhouette of a man she once called a manservant and a brother. It waved once before it vanished, then the only light Adilia was drawn to was reflected in Jorran’s eyes.
Rona had told her she looked at Jorran like he was the sun but she couldn’t have been more wrong. It was the moon that lit the slithers of pale, pale blue. Adilia smiled up at them and in return she watched them crinkle up as he looked at her as if seeing the stars for the first time. She turned back around and slouched back against him, feeling more safe and warm than those city walls had ever made her. Her eyes closed and she tried to keep his fresh in her mind.
They were like starlight.
Over a month later Adilia would be presented during a meeting of tribes from across the Reach, an organisation of patrol routes. It was a dull and frankly terrifying affair, she stayed near the horse she refused to give up in favour of an elk, rather than mingle with men of muscle who were more beastly than their varied mounts. Doing so enabled her to be on the outskirts to watch a smaller and very, very late tribe arrive to the meeting.
Their chieftain blankly stared at her for enough minutes for his wife to be concerned, and two small children wrap around his legs like an extra pair of boots. Adilia looked away every time she tried to check if he was still staring at her but she couldn’t help thinking one of the young one’s toothy grin looked familiar.
Then the chieftain spoke, the same grin slowly eased across his face all the while. “When I heard Jorran had taken a mate I was shocked, but I never expected this!” His voice had the harsh flick of the Reachman accent but she knew it. Oh how she knew it.
The usual excuses she’d have for welling up with tears vanished from her mind. “You’ve grown a beard.” She sniffed thickly, even though all she could see through the tears was a head of blond hair.
“Yeah, guess I couldn’t be bothered shaving any more.” The man also sniffed, trying to sound as indifferent and affronted as her. He then laughed up at the sky, trying to hold back from crying in front of his family. “I’d be, you know, running up to you and giving you a bear hug and a piggy back ride you’d never escape right now but these sprogs are kind of making it hard to move.” He waved down at his children and Adilia simultaneously gasped and laughed. She shook her head and stumbled, forgetting how to move in the shock. She stumbled again and started running, trying to shake the rapidly falling tears off her face before she got to him.
It didn’t work. “Sean!” She gasped as she smacked into him and broke into a blinding grin.
He held her tightly and rocked side to side, made a little awkward by her niece and nephew. “Adilia. Oh Gods, Adilia…” He sniffed deeply and buried his head into his sister’s hair. “Only you would make me brother-in-law to the bloody Wolf of the Reach!”
They both broke out into hysterical laughter that was interrupted by gulps and sobs. When they’d regained some composure he introduced her to his family of three, and an impending four. Many stories would be shared over the years to come, but before then another month would pass…
Adilia laid back on the soft grass that had only been gently trimmed by elk and smiled. The sun shone a cocoon of heat behind her closed eyes and the rush of the waterfall splashed her a gentle lullaby. Its chorus was interrupted by the disturbance of two approaching footsteps and a body lowering itself to the ground beside her. When that led to her splayed hand being enclosed in one much rougher and larger than her own, her heart swelled to the amount that she could consider her scene complete, but it wasn’t. Not quite yet.
For weeks she’d agonised over how to tell him, but she was no longer in a world where a life could hang in the balance of one word phrased incorrectly. Why say anything at all?
Without a flicker of hesitation in her tranquil expression, she took the hand that would never willingly let go of hers and placed it on her stomach.
The hand tensed up instantly as it felt a small bump under the furs of her dress. Her curiosity to see his expression was too strong to resist. She wasn’t disappointed. In contrast to her tranquility, Jorran’s eyes had shot open immediately and he’d frozen into place.
“Does this mean…?” He murmured.
“Why Jorran, your eyes are wider than your elk’s.” She chuckled. To any eavesdropper his question was left unanswered, she only bobbed her head once and snuggled closer to him.
That was all he needed. He slid his other arm beneath her neck and cradled her head, burying his into her shoulder and pale hair. She was unable to see his face but if the wildlife at peace around them could talk, they would swear the most solemn chief in the Reach shed tears that day.
Seven months later the walls of that clearing would echo with the cries of a boy whose blonde hair was as light as the rays of the sun. “Kale.” An exhausted Adilia would sigh. “I once knew a boy named Kale…”
“Kale?” Jorran repeated, full of skepticism. “Our son will be a chieftain, is it wise to name him after a cabbage?”
“We can spell it differently, my foolish husband.” Adilia chided as she lost herself in the pure blue eyes of her wailing newborn. He quieted as soon as he was cradled against her chest. “Without your brother he would not exist.”
“And that will make a difference?” He asked although the edge in his tone faded as he put an arm around his wife and let his son grasp his little finger with all the might his tiny fist had. “A chieftain does not need to write.”
“Mine will.” Adilia smiled and rested her head on the nook where his neck met his shoulder. “In fact…” She placed her free hand over his and guided his finger along the ground. “C. A. E. L.” She traced with him, their fingers leaving the faintest trail of it. “If it’s the only word you’ll ever let me teach you, let it be that one.”
“Cael.” Jorran whispered with a voice full of wonder. He stroked the side of their baby’s face tenderly and kissed her forehead. He didn’t break away, only kept his head on hers as he, too, was trapped in Cael’s eyes. Adilia closed her eyes and rested against him in pure bliss.
She would treasure the years to come like each was the last. If only she knew how few they were…
And there we have it. What did you think, folks?