Tara is one of Cael’s writers so this story is canon to his storyline and may be referenced in his mod.
An obligatory thud followed the number.
The harsh call sounded no less striking than a sergeant drilling his soldiers. The boy holding the shaking bow didn’t have to assume, he’d heard plenty of military regimes many a time whilst hidden behind rocks. They were usually a precursor to screaming and destruction.
The wind was obstructing his uneasy aim. He blamed the weather for his unsteady hands, his long hair for not being able to see the target, anything other than admitting his failures. But he knew he could never voice those excuses, not unless he wanted a thrashing.
Another thud followed, even the arrow sounded limp, wimpy. No matter how hard he tried not to, he winced away.
Was this sergeant, Chief Jorran, sounding a little bit…exasperated?
The boy looked up at the warrior as carefully as he could without looking like he was taking his eye off the target. He carried himself tall, muscular and proud, a true chieftain. The little boy’s back straightened at just the sight of it. His chopped black hair, usually flat other than a small tuft of a quiff at the front, was ruffling in the wind. Then the boy’s gaze made it to the chieftain’s expression and his shoulders sank again. The man’s mouth was pulled down and pressed together tightly, making the dimple on his chin stand out.
He was disappointed, and it shot through the little archer crueler than any barbed arrow.
The boy jumped like a baby deer. He was skewered into place by the chief’s piercing blue eyes, forgetting that those should be familiar to his own. Cael hurriedly looked back to his bow and his target. How was it possible to want to succeed and fail so badly at the same time? With quivering arms he pulled back his shoulders and did both. He drew the string and let fly the strongest arrow he’d ever shot, but did so blind.
There was an immediate sigh from the chieftain and all the sudden fire that had lit up in the boy flickered out into a meek vapor. He opened his eyes to find the source of the disappointment and saw the three targets before him. All his arrows had hit them, but not one of them came close to the centre ring.
Three quick arrows suddenly hit the centre targets, each thud was a painful reminder of what he should have done.
Cael felt a strong shove in his side, not enough to topple him but enough to send a clear enough message. He was not wanted in Helvi’s limelight. She looked down at him with an overconfident smirk, “Maybe when Oblivion happens you’ll be able to aim straight.”
Though he could not win the fight she was bracing for, there was one thing he could do. He narrowed his eyes and gave her a cold stare. The same as his father often gave him. Slowly she backed away, edging further away from him muttering: “freak.”
Cael smiled, just to add more fear into the cocky little huntress’s heart and because the thrill of watching her crumble over eye contact was his personal warfare.
“Uh, um. Look, Chief!” The archer called out proudly, turning her attention away from Cael. His grin went wider as her feat had failed to attract the Chief’s attention. Her young chest puffed out proudly and coal black hair braided away from her face flew back in the wind. She’d managed three bulls-eyes in three seconds despite the conditions. A quick glance from the Chief trampled any joy the young boy gained with a sour expression.
“Don’t leave your arrows in the targets, Helvi.” Was the only thing the Chief said to her.
Helvi rolled her eyes and dramatically stomped over to the targets. She whipped out her arrows and strode out past, her chin in the air. Though that didn’t stop her sticking her tongue out at Cael as she passed him.
After she left he could only stare at the dents her arrows had left in the hay. They should have been his marks. “Father I’m sorry, I’ve practised, really–”
“Enough.” Jorran snapped curtly. He sighed, fixing his gaze on the targets in shame. “We all know this isn’t your strongest area, that is why we must make it strong. You will be ten soon, then twenty. What happens if you need to bring down a Nord? Your weedy muscles couldn’t begin to fight before he reached your throat. Or your mother’s, or Robin’s! What if–”
“Jorran!” A bloodied moustached hunter cried as he thundered into the training area. He shot the boy a few uncertain glances before deciding that business was far more important than discretion and ignored Cael completely. “Blind Cliff. They’re trying to take it again. Jacyn’s dead.” He panted. He looked like he’d just run uphill through twenty thorn bushes, but most Forsworn did.
The Chief scowled and darted away in alarm at the same time. He took one bound to follow his hunter out of the clearing, but then he skidded on his heel as he remembered his son. “We’ll continue this later. After you’ve practised.”
“But…” The boy trailed off. It was no use to protest, Jorran just looked at him skeptically and hurriedly followed the hunter to the war tent.
The failed arrows were quietly gathered and dispensed into the quiver that leaned against the side of one of the targets. No small amount of sighs came from him as he did so and trails were left in the dirt from feet that dragged as he left. The foot with the open-toed sandal soon regretted that.
“Somebody made the daddy grumpyyyy!” A singsong voice trilled as he walked out into the tents of the village.
He glanced around to see a bob of brown hair shorter than his own framing a permanently innocent face. An infuriating one that always got her out of trouble. Cael shrugged, keeping his mouth shut tight in humiliation.
“You failed the archery test… again.” The girl emphasised and fell in step beside him.
The boy scowled at her, snorting and tossing the bow to her. Daring her to do better.
It threw her off guard, she juggled the bow before dropping it in the mud unceremoniously. “I don’t need a bow when I can kill you faster than an arrow!” She harrumphed.
He tilted his head to the side, “really?”
“Yeah.” Robin crossed her arms and pouted, then her expression turned wicked. She started crouching and sneaking elaborately around him. “I circle around my kill, making sure they don’t have no way out.”
His blasé appearance was getting harder to keep up as he became more disconcerted with her advancing. With one strike her hand darted out like a lightning bolt and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.
More than one head poked out of the tents as the boy squawked louder than a downtrodden rabbit. His shoulders immediately hunched up as far as they could go and he tried to duck away but it was too late; Robin already had him in a death hold. Then she began to tickle him.
“No! No, no Robin! No– nyahahaha,” He protested through screams of giggles lashing out before falling to roll on the floor.
Robin laughed menacingly as his refusals dissolved into pure laughter. He lay on the floor in a weak, giggling ball as Robin still had a hold on his neck. As the chortles began to fade she relented; Robin was victorious once more.
But the chieftain in training was not one to be underestimated. His hand darted out and caught her ankle, yanking her feet out from under her. He grinned wolfishly. Now was the time for his revenge! He pinned her down and proceeded to tickle under her armpits until she was smacking the ground in utter surrender.
“Cael, I can’t breathe! I’m gonna wee!” She screeched.
“Out the way, skeevers.” A grizzled warrior grumbled as he nudged the screeching duo aside, attempting to jog along with arms full of weapons, ammunition and armour that reached his chin. They were sent rolling down the slope of the village in a frenzied wrestling match of kicking and tickling.
The children rolled unceremoniously to the side, panting as their laughs faded into smiles. They watched for how many items the warrior would drop before he got to the chieftain’s tent. He really began to struggle up the small hill.
“Duck.” The boy uttered as a helmet clattered down towards them. He dipped his head in order to avoid its path only to let it clock Robin in the face.
“Ow!” She protested indignantly at him for not taking the blow. After a few seconds of checking her nose she just grinned and rubbed the mark off, not being one to bruise so easily.
Cael smirked. “They never wear helmets. Something’s happening.” He mused as he picked up the winged steel head, examining the steel and watching his own reflection in the shiny metal. Robin had picked herself up and was looking at it just as curiously when it was plucked out of his hands.
“Or we just need it to hold all the berries you keep eating out of my stocks each week.” An older voice teased, he looked up to see his mother’s best friend and the village’s wisewoman smiling down at them.
“Eshne, it’s not me!” He protested, a furious blush crossing his face as he pointed at the girl next to him. Robin just turned on the big, bush baby eyes to full on innocent.
“Right, of course not.” Eshne chuckled and shook her head. “Go to your mother, she wants to see you. Oh Robin dear, stop trying to poison the Briarheart’s stew with carrot peelings. Carrot isn’t poisonous.”
Robin scoffed and crossed her arms. “It is when Blacwin does it, they reek! And how can they make eyesight betterer when he’s as blind as a bat at forty?!”
Eshne just sighed, patting the little girl’s head. “Just… stay away from the hunters, you two, they’re… busy right now. We all are.” She took her leave and headed towards the war tent, holding the helmet like a basket as the crook of her hip was stuffed with several creepy-looking ingredients.
The boy watched her progress to the tent without a hint of the smile that Robin had.
“You know,” She started as she sidled up to him, speaking more gently than usual. “I don’t think you need to worry about the archery anyway. Everybody knows it, a chieftain needs to know more useful things.” He looked at her with a shadow of a grateful smile on his face, then her gentle tone vanished with a grin. “Like the art of stabby stabby!” She proceeded to poke him in his ticklish areas and he began to laugh again. She chased him all the way to his mother’s tent.
“Ain’t no way no chieftain is ever gonna get away from me!” Robin cried as they were getting dangerously close to sprinting face-first into one of the tents, cornering him in the mouth of his home.
The boy flashed a wicked grin over his shoulder and responded by grabbing one of the tents’ flaps and rolling himself into it as she flew past. The unexpected move had Robin’s momentum carry her on, her eyes so preoccupied with his gloating grin that she didn’t notice the tree she ran face first into.
He began to chortle, snorting as Robin slid down the tree. It was cut short by a delicate hand clamping down on to his shoulder from the shadows of the tent. A willowy voice cleared her throat chidingly. Robin crawled over from where she’d fallen back on her bottom to eagerly watch him get in trouble, wiping the tiny stream of blood trickling from her nose with the back of her hand, proceeding to smear it on her face. Then they both looked up at the woman’s face and gulped.
“Robin, you used so many negatives in that sentence I do not know where to begin. Did you remember nothing from our lessons?” She chided, sighing and spitting on her fingers to wipe the blood off Robin’s face.
“Uh, no, I didn’t not… Not, not not?” Robin sheepishly retorted, attempting to be clever but getting lost in her own words. She wriggled around in the woman’s firm grasp at being cleaned, scrunching up her face in displeasure.
The woman giggled. “Just speak properly, my dear, leave the wordplay for Branna.”
Robin smirked and beamed up at her. “Yes, ma’am!” She chirped but intentionally mumbled her vowels so it sounded like “mum.” It made them both smile a little wider.
Then the hand on Cael’s shoulder tightened and his relaxed eyes popped wide open. “As for you!” The woman chastised fondly and turned around to kneel in front of him to reach his level like she had so many times before. She was caught off guard by how the position only made her have to look up to reach his eyes instead. “What have I told you about using the tactics your father teaches you on your friends?”
“Sorry, mother.” He responded with just the right amount of guilt and remorse required. None of them missed the mischievous glance he gave Robin right before he said it.
“Especially not your foster sister!” She enthused in the cutesy tone reserved for children as she drew them both in for a hug. He frowned, she hadn’t used that tone for years now. He returned the hug just as eagerly as them but was even more alarmed as he heard a shake in his mother’s breath. Robin noticed it too, she curled her head into his mother’s chest in order to convey a frown to him. They followed the woman’s gaze over their heads but she pulled away from them before they could see who was approaching. He could swear her body had jolted in a sob just before.
Their suspicions didn’t last long as the figure was fast in its approach, in full battle gear no less. She pulled them both to a stand next to her.
“Adilia.” The figure greeted her warmly. As soon as he got past the blinding sunlight, however, they could see it sadly didn’t translate to his face, which was stoic and grim.
“Jorran.” Adilia replied hesitantly, the exchanging of names indicated that something was very wrong.
“We’re going to Blind Cliff.” He said, his voice cool but laid heavily with hints. Adilia replied to none of them, but her hand tightened around her son’s.
“We?” She asked, innocently clueless.
Jorran sighed at that and looked to the skies. “Blind Cliff needs all the sword-arms it can get. He’s ready, Adilia, I saw it in him this morning.”
The boy stared at him in stunned shock. Adilia’s eyes were wide, but quickly her expression turned to outrage. She dropped both children’s hands instantly and stepped towards her husband.
“How can you say that? How? Stuhn have mercy, he is not even ten! Forget sixteen!”
“You know our customs are different to the ones you grew up with.” He reminded her.
“But this is my son, OUR son! I don’t know what you’re planning in that head of yours but I don’t quite want to give him up yet!” Adilia snapped, waving her hands at him in wide, furious gestures.
Robin sent looks of sympathy to her foster brother at the ensuing argument and Jorran relented as he caught sight of them. “It’s not like he wouldn’t be safe. He wouldn’t be out of my sight for one second! The fighting will be over before he can hear it.”
“You just said that they need every sword-arm they can get.” Adilia folded her arms, drumming her nails on her forearm impatiently.
“You know what I mean. He needs to see this, why we fight these bastar… men every day. What’s happening at Blind Cliff, you know people there–”
“You do not need to tell me what is happening there!” She snapped. If her son looked up at a certain angle he could see that her eyes were watering.
“Then you know why he must go with me?” Jorran asked, he was the tentative one now.
She paused, sniffing deeply, and rubbing her forehead with slender fingers. Trying to make it look like she was making her decision rather than crying. “He’ll be safe?”
“Well,” Jorran smiled wryly. “The boy will be with me.”
She smirked slightly at that. Her shoulders slumped and went from crossing her arms to hugging her waist. She could only muster a small nod of affirmation, biting her lip as she stepped aside.
He approached the children, about to lead their son away when she suddenly darted forward. Adilia cupped a hand around Jorran’s ear and fervently whispered something. Her teary doe eyes couldn’t help but glance at Cael, taking Jorran’s wrist in a vice grip and leading his hand to the hilt of his sword as she did. Their puzzled son wouldn’t figure it out for many, many years. She hoped he never would.
Jorran nodded in response to her message, murmuring something in return as their eyes locked in sincerity. Adilia’s crafted mask quivered and finally cracked. She flung her arms around Jorran’s neck in a lock of an embrace. Quickly but firmly he kissed her on the lips, knotting his fingers in her feathery blonde hair. What seemed like decades of authority and age faded from his face as he held her, but alas, it was brief. As they pulled away Adilia transferred her affection, turning to her son she kissed his forehead and quickly hugged him as if she would never release him. “Go with your father, I’ll see you later.” She whispered in his ear and gave him an unusually wonky smile.
When she let him go Jorran stepped forward as the child looked between both parents to try and figure out what was going on.
“Cael.” He held a hand out toward his son to herd him out of the tent..
Adilia watched them leave with no small amount of melancholy, but then she remembered the other child still present and turned to her perkily. “Come on,” She smiled and took Robin’s hand. “What apprentice of Eshne would I be if I didn’t teach you what the real poisons were?”
That was the day Robin learnt which parent Cael really got his mischievous spark from.
The sun may be high and bright but the wind was biting, it whistled incessantly through the rocky crevices of the Reach and had all of the elks on edge. And these were the battle-accustomed ones.
Cael followed his father obediently, jogging after him would be a more accurate term as he could not yet meet the chieftain’s strides, but it didn’t stop him questioning everything that was happening. Inwardly of course, his younger self had learnt that his father, amongst many, wasn’t fond of insistent questions. Though it didn’t always stop him.
“Where are we going?” Was the most important out of the twenty questions he had in his head.
Jorran surprised him by actually responding. “Blind Cliff Cave.” He said as they approached the armed Forsworn hunters struggling to keep control of their mounts. He placed his son on a brown striped one that had a particularly young rider, going by the near-beetroot colour of his cheeks and nose he wasn’t having an easier time with his elk than anyone else.
“Chief Jorran?” The rider greeted them in surprise as he winced at the effort of squeezing his elk to keep it in place.
“Stay with Anu. When it’s safe I’ll come for you.” Jorran said to his son.
“But why?” Cael asked as he clung to the young teen’s waist until he got used to the elk’s movements.
Jorran raised his eyebrows at him questioningly but Cael held his gaze, his father knew exactly what he’d meant. Plus this was going to be one of the only times he was going to be taller than him.
“You will see.” His father replied simply. He then left without one look back.
“Well, uh, hey.” Anu awkwardly greeted the boy he couldn’t see behind him. His elk suddenly skittered to the side but they both moved with it and he let out the boom of a laugh Cael would come to know him for one day. “Don’t fall off!” He grinned and turned the elk around with his heel as what it jumped at became clear. They were on the move.
Even though there were only seven of them, Cael felt he was part of a great march to war. His vantage point was so far down that he could hardly see his father at the head of them.
The ride to Blind Cliff Cave was quiet and uneventful. That was strange for a Forsworn tribe, but as they got closer to their destination the quiet became silence. What was more unsettling was that their supposedly battle-wrought destination sent nothing but silence back in return. The scouts that Jorran sent ahead came back grim, relaying nothing but shakes of the head.
Blind Cliff Cave lay on the side of the main road through the Reach. As such its entrance is unremarkable other than the obligatory goat’s head on a pike. Built into the mountain and hidden by overgrown flora, you wouldn’t notice it. Not normally.
This was not normal.
The sight before them made the patrol of elks stop dead on the road. To any passing traveller they would have made the oddest sight, one to report or attack on the spot. But there was not going to be anybody. Because they were all dead on the ground in front of them. This once Anu was glad of the small nails that dug into him from behind. They reminded him that there was some reality other than the horror in front of him.
“Kyne’s Arse…” One of the more vocal of the hunters muttered, though the usual humour in the statement was lost to the dull void of revulsion in his voice.
A countless pile of bodies was in front of them. You could not get to the entrance of the Forsworn cave without going through the pool of blood that seeped over nightshade, Forsworn fur, the green of the Markarth guard attire, the padded steel of mercenaries, the leather and hide of bandits, and so much torn flesh. A hand so small it could only be that of a child poked out in the middle. A matted ball of fur beside the warrior below it might have been its teddy bear, once. The blood seeped into the Karth’s riverbed, making the water next to them a sickly brown. Just not with mud.
“Chief Jorran?” One of them asked as he’d paced his elk from side-to-side for several moments. They had come as reinforcements, the saviours to an unjust raid, he’d even planned for expansions to be made to their village for the newcomers. For the survivors…
“Survivors. We look for survivors.” He told them all. His authoritative voice was muted, Cael didn’t hear it echoing from the mountainsides like he was so used to.
They all dismounted as they regained their coherence. Anu swung his leg over his elk’s neck and was on the ground with his arms out, prepared to turn around and lift Cael down, but he found he was already there.
Cael’s eyes were open wide and his eyelashes were twitching and flickering at every sound, but the little boy stood tall, proud. He was prepared for whatever his father thought he was ready for.
Anu chuckled wryly to himself. How was a boy not yet past his shoulders making him feel like a small, quivering coward? “Come on then,” He murmured, steeling himself with courage inspired by his young charge, “Your father told you to stay with me remember.”
They all stepped through the body pile with tentative steps that enchantments could not have made lighter, and yet with every squelch came a wince. A few flies had begun to settle and were now buzzing around, disturbing both the air and its smell.
One of the Forsworn had to dive aside to the rock wall in order to prevent himself from hurling up the contents of that day’s meals, but he found blood spatters even there. One by one they went in through that door, an old wooden thing that you would find on the entrance of a mine. It was poor protection, but back then the clan of Blind Cliff Cave hadn’t been a threat… They had been a family.
Eventually all but three had entered.
“Chief…” Anu began as he and Cael approached him by the door. At first Anu had thought he was watching everyone’s backs as they went in but… He was just staring into the distance. “Jorran.” He said more sharply. Jorran’s eyes instantly snapped back into focus and looked at the two boys in front of him.
His face didn’t change, but he seemed to pale slightly. Maybe his jaw slackened, or maybe it was the shock. Anu wouldn’t have blamed him, but in truth he had forgotten his son was there. He had meant to bring him to witness the finesse of a battle they were sure to win, not the aftermath of a nightmare.
He had to cough and reassert himself twice before his shoulders straightened and he addressed them. “Follow your men. A battle is never over until all are accounted for.”
He made a body count sound so heroic. Anu knew he had directed those words at Cael, and they were one of the few that the boy would come to live by, but he still took heart in them. At least, as they followed Jorran into the silent cave, their backs were a little straighter.
Cael cast one glance back before the unhinged doors swung shut. All of the elks had their heads ducked to the ground, as if bowing in respect to the fallen.
The incline and the ramps up were previously littered with bodies until Jorran’s men had lifted the dead down to the pits beside them, but the ramps were still slippery with fresh blood. Anu and Cael lost count of the times they had to catch each other in order to keep their balance.
Most of the work had been done by the adults before them so they just had to follow Jorran up and keep an ear out for sounds of life. They never heard any, not even an insect. It was a silence both would come to wish as men that they could defamiliarise themselves with. Much like the smell. It had not been long enough for rot to set in, but you did not have to be a cannibal in order to taste the bitter mineral tang of blood in the air. Even if you closed your mouth it layered your nostrils and choked your breath.
Cael held his unravelling woolen sleeve to his mouth in an attempt to filter the air, but the movement made him turn his head to the right. What faced him there almost made him fly back off the ramp. Anu caught the little boy but he had to steady himself too when he saw it.
“Where are you two?” Jorran asked, poking his head around the corner of the rock face above them irritably. They were almost out of this death-pit. His face became blank and caught in a vulnerable state of disconcert when he saw what had halted them in their steps.
“Is that…” Cael began. His voice faded away as sightless eyes identical to his mother’s stared into his, frozen in glassy horror. Those eyes belonged to a child, one whose blood ran down from an arrow in their chest as they hung upside down from a broken ramp they had tried to flee over.
“Get her down.” His father replied sorrowfully, as disconcerted by the eyes as Cael was. He started to move down towards the body but Anu stepped forward instead. He took the girl by the chest and lifted her down from her hanging grave. Cael rushed in and cut the rope keeping her suspended from the broken ramp. With one final tug her leg came loose and they lay her on the rock gently. The young boy touched her cold cheek but couldn’t bring himself to close her eyes. His hands shook too much as he accidentally left a red smear on her innocent face. Anu placed a hand on Cael’s shoulder and closed the eyes of the girl himself.
“She was my cousin.” Cael stammered, trying to find the right words to say as he stared at his own bloodied hands.
“She runs with Orkey now.” Anu said quietly. They looked at her in respect for one more moment before Anu gently pushed on his comrade’s shoulder and lead him to his father.
Cael’s feet were moving a little more numbly, but he kept a strong poker face. Jorran said nothing but nodded to Anu in thanks as they passed through the door he held open. Anu returned the gesture before heading outside.
As soon as they passed through the gloom of the cave was vanquished by a glassless window in the tower wall. It was so tall that they could all step through it into the lush grass of the mountainside beyond.
Their hearts were stopped by a Forsworn hunter yelling out on the bridge above them. “Hoy!” He called, thinking they were survivors. His hands flew up in apology as Jorran and Anu’s arrows were instantly trained on him and they all lowered their weapons, slightly disappointed that they would not be acting in vengeance upon any of Blind Cliff’s killers.
Cael lowered his fists in confusion. How had he thought he could kill anyone with just his hands? After finding his cousin he felt he could.
They went back through the tall window to climb up the stairs and join their men on the bridge. The sunny and bountiful meadow had been a disturbing contrast to what awaited them, if they thought there were too many bodies in the cave then they were completely corrected when they found the bodies of those who had tried to flee into the towers and the mountains. To the Forsworn, mountains were safe. Mountains were where they could traverse and move nimbly in the shadow of stone more than any other creature. It should never be a place littered with their bodies like an unfinished graveyard.
A rattling began to reach their ears as they crossed over the bridge. They looked down and Jorran began to growl. The walkway was covered with hordes of steel arrows, not Forsworn arrows. The people of Blind Cliff had been attacked from above, below, behind and the front. The tribe with more books than combatants had never stood a chance.
The moustached hunter who had first brought news to Jorran met them in the centre from the other side of the bridge.
“We found Jacyn’s body.” He informed him, his eyes and voice as hollow as they all felt.
“And him?” Jorran asked. The hunter shook his head and he sighed. “Survivors?”
They both then began a short and informative exchange, their responses curbed by grief. Anu tried to look as though he understood it all and Cael was just as confused as he was over the “him” question, but his attention drifted…
There. In the top window of the tower on the opposite side. His keen eye spotted a flicker, a flicker he thought he recognised.
Jorran only noticed he was gone by the time his fleeting son was disappearing into the tower’s gateway. “Cael!” He barked.
“We haven’t scouted that tower yet!” The hunter said and they sped after the young boy.
He stumbled over several bodies when climbing up three staircases before he got there. He stopped at the windows to check if he was high up enough. When he wasn’t he did it again with the next floor. Eventually he got there.
The room he was in had no roof and only half a floor, a plank was placed between both halves to provide a walkway to a small shrine. Cael then saw what had drawn him up there with a flicker of hope, his aunt’s scarf fluttered in the wind. Her cold and brittle hand clutched it. Oddly her body was the only one up there, there was no sign of the rest of her family. Cael gingerly tiptoed around the body to the shrine she’d fallen before. An arrow had gone through her neck from behind.
The shrine seemed to be for no deity in particular, in fact he had been told that it was for every spirit. He had only met his cousins once but for children tied by family, once was more than enough to show off your secrets to each other. But as children would forever be children, this shrine’s foundation had been corrupted. At least, the wall it hung on had been hollowed out to store the children’s most precious item of the week.
Cael smiled a little at the memory and reached out to push the round tapestry aside. Unsurprisingly the little cache had been emptied before the attack, but one thing remained: a musty leather-bound book. It must have been deemed not valuable enough or too cumbersome to carry. He decided right then and there that he would carry it for them.
“Cael!” A voice yelled from two floors below him. Anu and his father. As the book had Nordic detailing on the cover it wouldn’t be the best thing for his father to see, he hurriedly shoved it into his tunic.
Giving his aunt one last glance of farewell, he scurried down the stairs to his own family as fast as he could.
He thumped straight into his father. “Cael.” His father whispered. His son looked confused by how anxious he sounded. They recovered from the sudden impact but the damp wooden floor that had just borne the weight of a battle did not; it gave way and sent them falling to the floor below.
The fall was not far at all and Jorran protected him from still-falling debris by holding him to his chest, ducking Cael’s head under his chin.
“Father…” Cael whispered as wood flakes settled around them and they could see their surroundings. They had landed in the nook next to a stone staircase that held a chest in the corner. In his hurry to reach the top floor Cael had completely looked it over. Jorran followed his gaze and lost all colour in his face. They hadn’t been the first to seek safety in this place.
They had found “him”.
There lay Cael’s uncle, Adilia’s brother, and in his arms was the final cousin. Though what had so deeply disturbed Jorran was not their demise but the position they were in. His brother-in-law held his son in death exactly how Jorran was holding Cael now in life.
Fuming rage began to take over and Jorran pushed his son aside, if only to give him a clearer view of their fallen relatives.
“You see this, son? Now this isn’t just our family, it’s the entire clan. All of these clans, the ones the Reach will never hear from again, have had their lives taken from them with one flick of a Nord’s wrist. They’ll never laugh and make mud pies in that meadow again, they’ll never smile, never see, never breathe again. We must live for them, take back the home they could never call their own.” Jorran’s voice was thickening at the same rate Cael’s vision was blurring. “This is why we fight.”
Cael nodded. He wanted to dive into his father’s arms and never let go, but no. They were soldiers now, they were men. That would never happen.
“Saol Fad Anam.” Anu spoke the words of life behind them and Jorran nodded curtly. The circle of life was all they could find solace in now. Father and son rose, neither speaking a word. Cael moved to follow his father as he stormed out of the doorway but Anu caught his arm, bringing him to an abrupt halt.
It only took one look for the two boys to acknowledge and understand what had happened. In that instant they knew their emotions were safe with each other, and the older boy pulled the younger one into a tearful crushing bear hug.
They parted with manly back-slaps and clearing of their throats. It would never be spoken of again, but despite the circumstances both found in themselves the capability to smile a little. No matter what would happen, from now on they would have a friend.
Eight of them left and eight of them returned. It was the outcome the people of the Rudahan village dreamt of every time their warriors left; but not this time. When a second body, Cael, was spotted behind Anu hopes were raised only to be pulled down by the long faces of the hunters.
Nobody expected anything as they dismounted and the elks were taken away in silence. The clatter of their hooves on the ground seemed painfully loud to Cael as even his father was only murmuring to Eshne and his most trusted. His lip reading skills were not yet keen enough to make it out, though he certainly practised that more than he did archery.
Cael stumbled forward as he was nudged in the ribs, probably harder than Anu intended. “Your father needs you more than you think, kid.” He gave him an encouraging half-smile and nodded towards Jorran.
“You’re a kid too.” Cael muttered, unconvinced.
“Yeah, well… You’re more of a kid.” He announced awkwardly, rubbing his neck with his hand. He pushed Cael towards his father again. “Go on. I’ll see you around. Like the next time you decide to run across our hunting path with your head up with the fetchin’ sparrows.”
“You mean when you….” Cael started to retort but turned to find the teenager had vanished into the flurry of adults. He was left with only two options, stay standing in the middle of everything like an awkward gourd or go to his father. He chose the latter.
“We’ll have to organise a retrieval for the bodies.” Jorran was saying to his next-of-rank as Cael approached.
“But there are so many–” The moustached hunter protested.
Jorran glared at him. The discussion was over.
“Chief.” The hunter replied and his ginger moustache twitched before he scuttled off.
Jorran closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Eshne watched him with a sad smile that echoed many years of sympathy.
“You should be the only one she hears it from.” She said to him. “Go, both of you go.” She added as she saw Cael come up behind them. Jorran opened his eyes in surprise and looked at Cael through his fingers. It took him a moment to consider the boy before him until he nodded and rubbed his face with his hand.
“Make sure Herger doesn’t persuade anyone to do a mass burial, Eshne.” He said to her before walking to his wife’s tent.
Eshne smiled. “He won’t put a toe out of place with me, Chieftain.” She watched them leave for a moment before she left. As always, Cael trotted after his father who didn’t need to turn back to know it.
“What are you going to do with the dead?” Cael asked, genuinely curious. There was not a plot of land around their village he knew of that would hold so many bodies.
“Honor them.” Jorran replied. With anyone else that would be the end of conversation, not this time.
“All of them?” Cael questioned. “Or just family? Because–”
Jorran brought them to an abrupt halt outside the tents and frowned down at his son. He began to silence him when they both heard the most beautiful voice in their lives.
“Did you find him?” Adilia asked from the entrance of their tent, her arms wrapped around herself again. “Did you find any of them?” She was attempting to make her voice sound steeled for the worst, but like poorly smithed iron that had been submerged in water too long, it was cracked.
It didn’t take her long to connect the dots between the facts that her brother was found but not in front of her right now. “Ah.”
“We found all of them.” Cael quietly added with a quivering lip that mirrored hers.
She turned her head to the sky, being careful not to tilt her head in any direction that would allow the waterworks to begin. Even her quick mind couldn’t come up with an excuse to fool herself about why she started sniffing and stumbling back to steady her legs. Not this time.
Any attempt at maintaining an authoritarian reserve was dropped, Jorran strode over to his shaking wife and secured her in the closest embrace he could give her. She let herself be soothed and hidden in his broad figure for a while, but this wasn’t the time for tears. She could hear the echoes of questions being called out for Chief Jorran all over the village. Pulling him against her in one last hold, she kissed his cheek and stepped away.
“Are you…” He began.
Adilia breathed a little more evenly and nodded. Then she grabbed Cael’s hand and pulled him to her side in a hug. He’d just seen the horror she imagined, and there was no way she was going to let it hurt him. She smiled at Jorran, the one that he knew as ‘I got this.’ Still, he was hesitant as he stepped away from his family and to his people.
“Go, there will be time to remember them for the rest of our lives.” She assured him.
He nodded, though his eyes still looked like a wounded puppy being sent away to the naughty corner. To combat the emotion that was displaying on his face like a book, he turned to go from them at a run. He paused mid-step when he passed Cael though. The identical sets of blue eyes in man and boy looked at each other, they had both just seen the same abomination and yet nothing could be said.
Cael’s hair was ruffled and his father left them with authority in his stance once more. He shouted instructions to the first person he saw, then he was gone. It wasn’t much, but right then it was all Cael had needed.
Adilia had observed the entire exchange but said nothing. Though when her hand patted an oddly flat object around Cael’s waist she frowned. “What is this?” She asked. When he didn’t respond she led him into her tent and gave him a questioning eyebrow. He knew he wouldn’t be allowed to leave until he answered.
“I found this book. It isn’t like your writing, I can’t read it.” He sounded so put out she immediately held out her hands for it. He reluctantly brought it forth from under his fur tunic.
She looked at the stolen treasure her son had hidden so guiltily and smiled. It was a short and simple tale, The Cake and The Diamond.
“Can you teach me?” He asked, the tone of his voice sounding like the fate of his world was hanging on this one answer.
Adilia didn’t respond, she only sat down on the soft furs in the middle of the tent, opened the first page and smiled at her son. “Come here.” She softly beckoned.
He looked at her hesitantly, casting glances over his shoulder for his father or approaching warriors, but his curiosity burnt out all trepidation. Cael scurried over into his mother’s lap. She held him there by holding the book in front of him, closely pinning the boy between her, her arms and the pages. She’d lost her brother, her sister-in-law, her nephews, her niece and her friends. But she would always have her son.
She nuzzled his hair and read the book over his shoulder. “I was in the Rat and Pot, a foreigner cornerclub in Ald’Ruhn,” She began. “Can you read that? Scribes like making their first letters all pretty. Now, this story takes place in Morrowind, a land faaar on the other side of Tamriel…”
The simple tale would become his favourite.
Cover Photo Link