Mercy for the Chosen – Ch. 2 – 2: Lying Before a King

  • "Sir, I can't let you inside.  We're officially closed," said Sorex, shifting uneasily under the heavy presence of the noble.

    "Sorex.  Are we not friends of a kind?  My armor is inside and I am in need of it."

    "You're rich!  Just buy some new armor.  Isn't that what you people do?  Besides, can't it wait until morning?"

    Arnau glared balefully at the innkeeper's son.  "No and no.  I thought you of all people would understand the inherent value of family heirlooms."  His gaze flicked to the wooden sign of the Winking Skeever.  "Suppose you just, how did you put it?  'Buy a new inn?' "

    "All right!  I get your point.  Listen, how about I go get your armor for you?  I'll bring it right down in an hour or so.  Faster if you pay me."  The Imperil grinned lopsidedly, if a little smugly.  Twenty septims clinked into his waiting palm, and his eyes went wide.  "Urgent are we!  Don't worry, I'll be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail."  Sorex clapped the inn door closed and darted across the eerily empty main room.

    As the knight waited, he watched the street,keeping his back to the Winking Skeever's door.  A passing guard nodded to him, his face tight with sudden suspicion.  He made a motion as if to speak, but thought better of it and resumed his patrol.  Arnau couldn't have done it.  The man always aided the guards when possible; he even donated his own weapons and armor when they were short.  No, he wasn't the one.  In fact, the guard felt utterly certain the knight was conducting his own investigation into the matter.  Comforted and assured, Rufus decided to pry into the activities of the tailors across the street.  Maybe the knight had been right after all, and in light of he circumstances, well, one could never be too careful.

    "Here you are, sir," piped a voice behind the knight.  Sorex panted and wiped a sleeve across his damp brow.  The armor sat on a wooden dolly of the kind used to haul barrels and crates from the docks up to the inn.  "Nearly dropped the load just getting it to the balcony and pulley, but no harm done."  The young man beamed proudly at his inventive solution.

    "Thank you, my friend.  If you don't mind, I'd like to put it on away from everyone in the street."

    "Oh!  Of course!  My mistake.  I forgot you might want to wear it.  Here, come just inside the door.  No one's here, anyway."

    In a few moments, his armor was strapped to his body and his weapon, pack, and cloak were clipped into place along with the rusted axe.  For his trouble, Arnau gave the innkeeper's son an extra septim and headed for the stables.

    There his horse stood waiting amidst the dark breeds of the other courtiers. A boy of about twelve winters emerged from a pile of hay nearby.  Straws stuck out of his hair and shirt.

    "Get your horse for you, my lord?"

    "If you would.  Bring me his leather barding, it's cold as a witch's tit out there and this won't be an easy journey."  The boy cackled at the phrase, as Arnau thought he might, and retreated into the barn for several minutes.  When he returned, he lugged a bulky bundle across the yard, scattering the pigs and chickens as he went.  While he draped the padded barding over the horse, pulling straps and adjusting the concealed ceramic plates, Arnau studied the scroll Aquillius ordered him to deliver.  It lay light and innocuous in his hand.  What's so important that Aquillius would send me?  Then, with a shake of his head, he dismissed it as merely a punishment.  He was being ridiculous, delusional.  The noble sent him away to clean up the mess he made.

    Except, I don't remember making it!  That vision could have been just that--a vision.  A daydream.  Nothing more.  Whoever killed White-Horn was still out there.  Someone framed me.  Someone who knew of my orders--who knows me.  Just as quickly as the thought surfaced, it, too, disappeared.  Secret plots to frame Arnau?  No, just ludicrous.  What had gotten into him lately.

    "My lord, Ponks is all ready!"  

    Reflexively, the Breton cringed at the name.  Why did I let that kid name my horse?  "Thank you, Blaise."  He smiled at the boy fondly and ruffled his hair.  If only he weren't so young.

    Blaise pushed his dark hair out of his eyes and stood a little straighter.  "Take good care of Ponks.  Don't make me follow you to protect him!" he said as if he truly wanted to do just that.  Truth be told, he was enamored with the knight, and when no one was looking, he raced around the cliffs breaking Solitude from the bay and marsh in an effort to protect his home from spiders and mudcrabs with a sharpened stick.  At night, when he slept in the barn, he fancied himself a solitary hedge knight, sleeping until morning to look for his next glorious deed.  The illusion helped him through his daily chores, which were endless, and to ignore Katla, who liked to take her frustration out on him.

    "I will.  Of course I will.  A knight always cares for his steed."

    Under the boy's gaze, guilt pushed the hand weighing the scroll back into his pocket.  Later.  When no one's around.  Idly, he tossed Blaise a coin and led Ponks out into the yard.  The rust-flecked stallion whickered and stamped, ready to be off.  Arnau nodded to the boy, then to Katla, who owned the stables, and trotted down the dirt track that wound around the windmill and scraggly patches of cabbage and leeks.  He squeezed through a field of potatoes, their browned leaves hissing in the wind.

    Overhead, the clouds hung heavy and white.  They were snow clouds, though they did not yet shed their frozen scales.  The road stretched ahead along the shear cliffs of the mountain that shielded Solitude on its western side.  On his left, a gentle frosted slope rolled down to a second drop off.  Here, snow clung to the trees and grass like a spiteful lover, slashed and scarred by footprints and trails created by foraging animals.  Arnau's breath puffed into the air with his horse's as if they were a steaming machination of the Dwarves.

    "Why couldn't this have waited until morning?  I'll be lucky if I reach Dragon Bridge by nightfall."  But it was hard to be sure.  The clouds obscured and scattered the sun so it was difficult to tell the time.  Even the shadows were diffuse shapes that mimicked twilight, though the Breton was certain the hour wasn't that late.  Again, his thoughts wandered to the scroll and its contents.  Just a peek.  No one will know.  Not if he was careful, anyway.  He did carry the wax and seal of Lord Aquillius' station.  He could reseal the scroll, provided he didn't tear the paper.  

    Slowly, he removed it from his pocket, squirming in the saddle and startling Ponks with a poorly aimed kick to the side.  The horse skittered and unsettled him, so that he had to grip the saddle horn tightly to avoid falling off.  At last, he extracted the message and fingered the seal.  There as a moment of doubt, but he removed one of his gauntlets and started to peel back the wax with a fingernail.

    "Armored knights should not pry into business that is not theirs," called a voice.  It said "business" like "busy ness".  Arnau snapped his head around, but saw no one.  Quickly, he stuffed the half-opened message into his saddlebag.

    "This one saw that.  Hiding and peeking and prying.  You should be a khajiit."  There as laughter coming from the surrounding trees, rough and dry like stones.

    "Show yourself!" Arnau cried, readying his spear.

    The laughter continued, leaping ahead down the road.  Determined, Arnau followed it, surging his horse toward the intersection where the road broke off into the mountains on a tangent that eventually led to the pass to High Rock and Jehanna.  A pang of recognition sent him unconsciously edging Ponks toward that path, which only resulted in another wave of sniggering.  A tree branch shook, sending snow crashing to the ground below.  Arnau's arm shot out and he yanked at the space with magicka.  Icy snow collided with his helmet, and, for a moment, he couldn't see.

    "Let Khajiit have a look at this message." 

    Suddenly, a weight dropped behind him, and Ponks reared and bucked.  Then, the weight was gone and the Khajiit hissed at the horse.  Arnau wiped the snow from his face as the sun finally peered through the clouds.  Turns out, it was only late afternoon, not twilight.  On the ground sprawled a young woman, if it could be called a woman, covered in fur and bearing a feline face. She wore a dark leather suit that fitted her form.  If Arnau disregarded the head and tail, he thought her at least attractive.

    Arnau raised his spear, ready to pierce her and pin her to the ground like an insect.  He hesitated.  Most likely she was a thief, poor and uncultured.  Did he have any right just to slaughter her where she stood?  In the wake of the previous night's possible activities, it might be prudent to avoid encouraging whatever force was acting against him.  But...

    The Khajiit put on her most pitiful expression.  "You could skewer this one like a rat?  Why must all humans behave the same."  Above her, the man's posture softened a little, tough that one blue eye of his did not change--it remained fierce and distant, almost glowing through the hole in his helmet.  The combined effect of both expressions was unsettling.  Nevertheless, he lowered his weapon and dismounted.  S'tharra waited a moment more.  She would catch him off guard, send him falling to the ground like an Elf tree and take his horse.  She would laugh at him as she disappeared into the snows and the mountains.

    Slowly, the Breton bent, extending his ungloved hand to help her to her feet.  I don't want to kill her.  I've had enough blood and death for a while.  As her delicate, leathery palm clasped his, he saw her foot curl around his.  Inwardly, he sighed and began to resign to Stendarr's call for mercy.  Outwardly, he kept himself carefully composed, leaning forward just a little more in search for empathy and equality.

    "I'm not going to hurt you so long as you don't try to steal anything else."  He smiled.  It was warm and friendly and met his eyes, beaming through his helmet.  S'tharra scowled; was he joking with her?  No human had smiled at her like that in this land.  Now, it was her turn to hesitate.

    "Khajiit will not," she answered to her own surprise.  Yet, even as she considered simply running away, survival instinct overrode this notion.  Mafala of the secret words whispered in her ear and told her of the way his weight had shifted, and how his weapon drew back like a scorpion's stinger.  With her wiry muscles, she pulled her foot to her.  It caught on the back of his knee and he began to sway.  At the same time, she yanked hard on his arm.  A look of surprise passed over his face, and S'tharra saw victory within her grasp.  Then, the knight did the inconceivable.  He compensated for his poor balance.

    The scorpion's stinger pierced her, and all she could see was that cold, blue eye staring at her.  "You lied," she hissed, then grinned.  Shaking, she coughed and hacked, spattering blood onto the steel mask so close to her.  It hurt like nothing else she'd ever experienced, but it was worth it to laugh in his face as he froze in confusion.  Yet, this only made the S'tharra laugh harder.  A man acting as tricky as a Khajiit and the Khajiit wanting to trust a man!  "It is a good joke."

    As she slumped to the ground, Arnau thought he heard her say something else, but what came out was a strangled purr.  She lay on the ground, dyeing the snowy road red.  The effect looked momentarily beautiful with the contrast of that pure white mingling with bright scarlet.  Arnau watched it for several moments as the weight of what he'd just done settled on his shoulders.  He'd been moved by pity--by the vision of her curled up cold and alone in this harsh land.  She wasn't with a caravan.  I doubt she even had a family.  And she's so thin!  But then, she was right.

    "Yes, madame.  I lied," he said with a dry mouth.  She felt so light as he lifted her into his arms.  A dull wheeze escaped her lips.  "I lied.  I wanted to hurt you the entire time.  And now, I regret doing so, even though it feels so good to know you'll soon be joining the others in the Dreamsleeve.  Go to sleep, mon chaton."

    Arnau glanced to a snow drift slouched against a cluster of trees.  If he buried her there, come spring, she'd emerge whole and undisturbed like a frozen pig for First Seed.  Some young woman might stumble upon the filthy creature and be traumatized.  He couldn't allow that.  Then, he saw the drop off on the side of the road.  It fell hundreds of feet to a marshy bank, but midway down the slope sat a niche in the rock.  Down there, she could decay in peace, her body fully exposed to the bright eastern sun.  Her soul could escape freely there.

    So, tucking a sprig of dried lavender into the collar of her suit, Arnau knelt.  Quietly, he uttered a prayer for her passing, then sent her in a calculated roll down the cliff toward the crevice.  The body tumbled and flailed, making soft thumps as it fell.  Her leg caught on a stray rock and hung there for a moment. Arnau hissed in a breath, his heart pounding anxiously as he waited.  Just a little more, he thought.  Then, gradually, the weight of the torso pulled S'tharra down into the hole, where she lay gazing up at the sky with empty, golden eyes.  Her weapons found her soon after.

    The sun cast long shadows on the ground, drenching the snow in cold shade and warm light.  The knight returned to his horse and hurried onward, leaving the patch of bloodied snow where it was.  It could easily have been caused by a wolf or a bear or a deer.  No one would really bother to investigate.  In fact, the frozen blossom only meant others would hurry on in case the cause of such a grave injury was still lurking nearby.  Dragon Bridge lay ahead, then the forest leading to the high, white snow fields of The Pale.  He wanted to get as close to this as possible before the moons rose, which wouldn't happen until late in the evening anyway.  Stopping in the village was now out of the question.