Mercy for the Chosen – Ch. 2 – 5: Lying Before a King

  • Eventually, he had to stop and rest.  The sun glared brightly off the snow, but the air still felt clean, which meant it was still morning.  The knight leaned against a rock outcropping under the shade of a copse of pines.  Earlier, he'd removed his cape from Ponks' face and washed it in the snow, letting it dry in the sunlight.  This he draped over his face, trying to ignore the smell of horse and focus on going to sleep.  He did finally lapse out of consciousness, though the events of the previous night clung to him like a bad dream.

    In retrospect, he probably should have killed her.  Necromancers of any kind could hardly be tolerated, but that woman, in spite of her affectations, looked lonely.  He supposed he understood how that felt.  The sentence he served in Jehanna hadn't been pleasant--no one really wants a convicted prisoner working on their farm, not unless they have no choice.  At best, they'd fed and watered him, but he had to find his own shelter, which ended up being a tool shed in the corner of the property.  How many nights had he spent staring at thin, watermarked walls, shivering; too cold to sleep, but too tired to truly remain awake?

    He was shivering now.  He was back in that shed, almost naked.  The walls rattled and shook, threatening to fall in on him.  He was alone, and the corners lay black with shadows.  Then, he wasn't alone.  Arnau couldn't understand how he knew this, but someone else lurked behind him.  Now in front.  Now to the side.  It breathed like a squashed frog.  His back pressed against the wall, and he drew his knees to his chest.  Suddenly, he was on his back, and the lurking thing was on top of him.  In the pale light of the shed, he saw the Nord woman's face staring at him, only this time it was half-rotted.

    "Won't you be with me?" she said.  Her fingers pushed the sloughing skin of her cheek back into place.  And then she started moving, and against his will he responded.  His hands reached for her, then he saw his skin falling off his arms.  He smelled her rotting breath and heard the maggots that swam in her eyes.  Someone was screaming as he thrashed to get away from her, but she had him pinned.  He couldn't breathe.  Her hands were on his mouth, then in it.  She grabbed his tongue and pulled, refusing to let go.  Why was she taking his tongue.  Why wouldn't she let go?  Why--?

    Arnau woke with an inarticulate cry.  Frantically, he scrabbled at the cape covering his face, his body coated in a cold sweat.  As he stood, he grimaced at the tight feeling in his groin, and remembering his dream, felt faintly sick.  Shaking the snow from his armor and cloak, he stowed the cape in a saddlebag and strapped his helmet behind the saddle.  They started down the road at a rapid pace, Arnau's head clearing a little in the cold air.

    With a deep breath, he pushed the dream from his head and focused on his impending meeting with Ulfric.  Provided he met no obstacles, he reckoned he'd reach Windhelm by mid-afternoon.  Aquillius' message plagued him, and though he'd resealed it, its contents began to circle the inside of his skull.  "I'll present Ulfric with the axe, as if I don't know what it really means.  He can't kill me if I'm ignorant, can he?"

    Ponks snorted.  They trotted past a mill, the noise of the water-spun driving out all other sounds and thoughts for several minutes.

    "Then, I'll hand him the message.  I'll act like I don't know what it's about.  Maybe I should speak as I once did at home, Wayrest dialect and all.  No.  That won't be believable.  He'll have done his research and know I've lived too close to Skyrim to still have that accent..."  The Breton stared ahead, unseeing, until his horse stopped just short of an icy stream.  Windhelm lounged over the Yogrim in the bright noonday sun.  Even under several feet of snow, or perhaps especially so, the city looked like a majestic fortress.  It was at this moment Arnau realized he knew nothing about the Jarl and would-be High King.  Was he soft and pliable like Elisif?  He thought not as he watched the tiny figures of guards and soldiers brushing through their marching routines along the walls of the fortified bridge.

    Dismally, he ran a hand through his hair.  "This is never going to work," he sighed.  But he had no choice and pushed on to the Windhelm main gate.

    *     *     *

    "Sir, please!  Help!  Won't you offer a fellow Nord aid in his time of need?"

    "Step off, whelp."

    "Please!  Someone!  My family tomb has been desecrated.  Doesn't that mean anything to you people?"

    The towns folk ignored the young man on the steps, clad in poorly constructed armor.  The man, barely more than a boy, huffed and stamped his feet to shock some feeling back into them.  He wasn't about to give up now.  Some sick Grayskin necromancer was out there playing with his dead relatives, and his aunt hadn't been seen since she went to confront the monster two days ago.  He would have gone after her, but the tomb terrified him beyond measure.  What if his own ancestors were going to rip off his flesh and kill him?  No, best to not go alone.

    An icy breeze played with the Stormcloak banners adorning the nearby wall.  Beyond it, lay the Palace of the Kings.  Before it, sat Candlehearth Hall.  The young man hoped that by waiting here, some guard or strong-arm headed for a drink might help him, but thus far they only snorted and told him to "man up" and "handle it himself".  One, Torsten, had even jeered and called him more woman than his own wife.

    Be that as it may, he still needed the help, and how was it his fault some Nord women came across rather mannish, especially Torsten's old lady?  Shielding his eyes against the sun, the boy scanned the square.  It was once again deserted save for a dirty, gray-skinned Dunmer lounging near the archway to the Gray Quarter.  He glared at the Elf as a heavily-armored stranger stalked up the steps.  To the boy, he looked dangerous, and excitedly, he turned to grab the man's attention.  But as he did, he saw the rusted axe on his back, in such terrible shape it couldn't even cut bread, and turned away, disappointed.

    The Dunmer sneered at him.  "Why don't you go back to your auntie, Golldir?  I'm sure she's lonely in that cave.  Or do you think she's found a lover in the necromancer?"

    "You take that back!" Golldir spat.

    "Why, it's only been two days," the Elf continued, "I'm sure her body's still plenty warm."

    At that, Golldir rushed the Dunmer, who ran down the steps to join the small crowd of his kin, many of whom had been watching the show.  Baiting Nords was their favorite tactic, especially when no single man would take on the entire neighborhood when assembled.  Several even clapped him on the back.  The Nord shoved past the stranger in the shiny armor, who spared him a passing, puzzled glance before he resumed studying the stones and counting the steps up to the palace.

    *    *    *

    The great doors of the palace towered over him.  In actuality, everything in this city towered over him:  the walls with their fierce eagle heads; the doors, tall enough to admit giants; the men, even some of the women.  Intimidating as even the forecourt was, it only confirmed Arnau's suspicions that Ulfric was not a man to be trifled with.  Standing by one of the warm braziers, the knight breathed as slowly and deeply as possible.  He tried to push the memories of the missive into the back of his head, and avoided thinking about it.  I have to appear stupid, groveling.  Just some hired hand.

    "My good man," he said, turning to the guard, "I'd request an audience with the Jarl.  I have a message from Lord Aquillius Aeresius of Solitude."

    "Solitude?  Not another Imperial come to treat for his surrender!"

    "No, sir.  This is a different matter."

    "Tsch.  You Imperials are all alike.  Stay here a moment."

    The guard disappeared into the tall building, leaving his partner to stare suspiciously at the Breton.  "I don't want any trouble."

    "I do not intend to give you any."

    "See that you don't."

    Arnau shifted uncomfortably, swaying slightly to distract him from thinking to hard about what was about to happen.  Even so, nervousness crept into his frame, and he couldn't keep his hands or feet still.  His leg jiggled impatiently as his fingers continually stretched and flexed.  How long has the guard been gone?  Did the Jarl want to see him?  Would he be rejected right at the door?  Stop thinking about it.  But he did anyway.

    "My apologies, sir.  Jarl Ulfirc has agreed to see you," said the guard, emerging from the door and looking thoroughly chastened.

    With an imperious nod, Arnau pushed open the door to the Palace of the Kings, drew the axe, and walked inside.

    To say the Jar's hall wasn't ostentatious would be doing it a considerable disservice.  The ceiling went so high, it lie shrouded in darkness.  Blue and yellow banners bearing the Stormcloak bear flanked the walls, alternating with screaming, bronze eagles.  Torches and thin, narrow windows were the only sources of light aside from the candles littered the banquet table in the middle of the floor.  Holding the axe horizontally, Arnau strode toward the far end of the room where a dais glowed orange and gray.  Silver plates gleamed up at him as he passed, and servants milled silently, inconspicuously, down side passages.

    It felt like the longest walk of his life.

    "Announcing Sir Arnau Jurard of Solitude!" called a burly-looking steward on the Jarl's left as the Breton approached.  Trying not to drop the weapon, the knight knelt, offering the axe over his head before laying it on the floor in front of him.  Arnau's head remained bowed, avoiding the stern gaze of the bear of a man on the throne.

    "You may speak when spoken to. Mind your tongue, you--"

    "That is enough, my friend.  Leave us to our discourse," said the Jarl.  His voice boomed through the hall, as if the room had been designed just for that purpose.  With a soft rustle, the steward left, leaving only the guards by the entrance.  They would be too far away to respond to any confrontation.  Arnau stared at the axe as a meaty paw reached to take it.

    "A gift to you, from Lord Aquillius.  I possess a message for you as well, sire."

    "I don't recall permitting you to speak."

    Swallowing, Arnau looked up at Ulfric Stormcloak to find his mouth quirked in a bemused smirk.  "My-my apologies I--"  His words were cut off as the Jarl idly turned the axe and placed the head against his neck.  The smirk twisted into a grimace.

    "This is a worthless weapon.  Why would you bring this garbage to me as a 'gift'?"

    "I--  Lord Aquillius--"

    "Tell me, what is this message?"

    Arnau handed the scroll to Ulfric, who dropped the axe and leaned the haft against his throne.  It shone darkly in the light of a nearby brazier, and for all its size, was utterly dwarfed by the great chair.  The Jarl thumbed open the seal and held it near the flames.  His eyes scanned the document, a storm growing on his brow.  At the end, he paused, his gaze becoming distant, then meeting Arnau's in a hard stare.  He held it, and the knight didn't back down, sensing the challenge.  Abruptly, he laughed.  It wasn't a chuckle.  Nor a chortle.  And not even close to a giggle.  It bellowed out of his throat in concussive waves; a hearty guffaw racked with incredulity.  The knight stood, crossing his arms and trying not to feel as if he was being laughed at.

    "You!  You?  You are 'elusive' heir to the Pelagius bloodline?"

    The Jarl, who had just managed to regain his composure, broke down into another spate of hysterical laughter.  "And you bring me this axe!"

    Suddenly, his face lost all warmth and turned stony and cold.  Slowly, Ulfric extracted himself from the throne and rose to his feet.  Thanks to the dais, he was a full head taller than Arnau, who hated that he now had to look up at the man.  He grabbed the Breton and yanked him close, baring his teeth in a feral grin.

    "This paper.  This decree.  This challenge!  It means nothing to me.  I will be the High King when this is all over.  Not you, nor anyone else," he said venomously, shaking the scroll in Arnau's face.

    "My lord, I know not of what you speak!  I have no wish to challenge you."

    "Do not lie to me, boy.  When you go back to your master, you take this answer to him."  With that, he spat on the knight's boots and threw the missive into the brazier.  Arnau stood speechless.  He stared at the spittle coating his boots, but made no move to wipe it off.  Not in front of the Jarl.

    "Guard!"  From an alcove trotted a lightly armored Nord adorning in intricate regalia--a court guard, no better than a bailiff.

    "Yes, sire?"

    "We are done here.  Escort this man out."

    "Of course, my lord.  Come along, you."

    Led by his elbow, the knight turned away from Jarl Ulfric, more than ready to be away and mentally cursing Aquillius for his foolish message.  He was no more than three steps away from the throne when the axe clattered behind him.

    "Take this waste with you."

    When Arnau bent to pick up the axe, it was then he realized how badly his hands were shaking.  Dismissed like a common servant?  He can't possibly think this will go over well with Aquillius or the Empire.  Then, following the insistence of the guard, he hoped Aquillius didn't believe his own letter, either.  As if Arnau was actually the heir of Pelagius, some bastard son forgotten amid the copious harlots the once High King had bedded.  Since when could such a claim be used effectively to ensure royal descent?  Had his lord lost his mind?  As he exited, he caught a glimpse of the screaming eagles on the walls, only now he was certain they were laughing at him.


1 Comment
  • Shimazu
    Shimazu   ·  July 18, 2013
    Damn it! I'm up to date :(
    The approach you have taken with this character is perfect. I can't praise you enough !