Sier nodded, taking her at her word, and tentatively looked around. The moons were just starting to descend by now, but they gave enough light that Sier could see a black smudge of a cave along a cliff face. It was close enough that—perhaps—they’d make the journey without collapsing.
“S’a cave,” Sier muttered, nodding in the right direction. “We’ll rest there…”
Beyond that the Altmer didn’t want to think about it. He hobbled toward the cave, keeping Gaelle in his line of sight, but otherwise reserved his energies for the painfully slow walk to nominal safety.
When both of them entered the cave and it became apparent that nothing was there to attack them, the Altmer simply folded up. Days of restless sleep and the events of the past 24 hours caught up with him at last, forcing rest on the mer so his body could recover.
Gaelle had hoped that Sieralon might cut her bonds. As she’d said, he’d already taken her weapons. She’d been half-drowned already and was ready to drop from exhaustion. The least he could have done was to cut the ropes on her wrists; they stung terribly. But she resigned herself to follow his lead, silently, until the dark mouth of the cave enveloped both of them.
It was quiet. The cave was rife with wild grasses and moss, but there was no sign of any dwellers inside.
Her back against the wall, Gaelle slid down against the wet, hard ground, farther from the cave entrance than Sieralon, but not by much. There was nothing left to say between them. They were cold, and beaten, and likely lost. She blamed the young mer for their situation, but she knew that he just as likely blamed her. But blame wasn’t going to get either of them out of this, she thought, as her head began to nod, and she drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Twice before dawn, she woke, a droplet of water straying close to her eyes, or a distant sound pulling her from her rest. Both times, her eyes wandered to Sier’s sleeping form. Thoughts of escape half-formed in her mind, disappearing before sleep took her again.
Where am I…….
I could….. I could get away.
She didn’t wake again until dawn.
She’d rolled onto a somewhat sharp stone. It jabbed her uncomfortably in the back. Lifting her face from the cold ground, she wiped it on the back of her bound hands.
The binds….. All in a rush, she remembered where she was, and why. And that there was a stone poking her in the back. A sharp one. Quickly, she rolled over, grasping in the misty dimness until she held the piece of slate rock between her palms. She pushed downward, trapping the rope between stone and floor and hurriedly cutting through the fibers.
After yesterday’s adventure in the river, the rope hadn’t much resistance left, and within a minute she’d broken through. Her lower arms were freed, but her upper arms were still bound against her torso. If she could just get the slate against her side…..
Sier remained silent. He stared at her, eyes glazed with fatigue and struggling to remain focused, mouth turned down slightly. Her movement brought attention to her wrists—her bindings—how they cut into flesh and ate away the skin, until nothing stopped it from rubbing against raw nerves as they yanked him out of the cell—
A shuddering, raspy breath turned into a cough, aggravating the mer’s side enough to snap him back to the present. He shuddered again, turning away from Gaelle and curling into himself slightly. He remained that way, shivering, until unspeakable horror subsided into a nagging sense of guilt—but at least that he could live with. And could push through.
Through the fuzzy haze in his mind he tried to think, come to some kind of conclusion on what to do next. They needed to move, or at least seek shelter. Being out in the open tempted fate far more than he was comfortable with.
Unsteadily the Altmer struggled to rise. He managed, barely, leaning heavily on his good leg but able to remain vertical. He turned to Gaelle, then, any pretense of a facade gone; he could barely stand, let alone keep up the impression of being a proper Thalmor.
"Can you stand…?" he murmured hoarsely. "We need… move…"
He swayed, caught himself, and shook his head. Darkness threatened his vision. If they were going anywhere it had to be now, before he lost himself.
Without answering, Gaelle shakily rose to her feet. At this point, she wasn’t sure if she was in any better condition than Sieralon; not to travel far, certainly not to fight. Any plans she might have had to break away dissolved in her head instantly. She’d not make it far bound like this. And she couldn’t leave Sieralon, injured as he was.
Perhaps she could. But something told her that she wouldn’t, whatever that something may have been.
Wearily, she gestured to her bonds. “You’ve already unarmed me. I won’t fight you, but I can’t fight anything else like this.”
Sier trembled under her touch. He gurgled, cursed, and rolled onto his back once the arrow was extracted—subconsciously bringing the wound away from Gaelle—before he concentrated on a healing spell. Nothing else registered with the Altmer; fuzzy darkness threatened his vision, cotton wool stuffing his head, until it was as if only one thought at a time would even fit.
Light emerged weakly in his hands, swirled, stuttered—went out. He tried again. A third time. Restoration surged briefly on his fourth attempt, slowing the bleeding before guttering into oblivion.
Sieralon let his hand fall with a wet sigh. Good enough. After a moment of struggling he slumped forwards, resting his head on his knee and clutching his side with an arm, hissing through clenched teeth.
How were they going to move now? Sier’s heart skipped a beat. He’d been counting on his horse to take them swiftly to his superiors; without it, it would be several days indeed before they even left the Reach behind. Going back to Markarth meant risking another run-in with the forsworn they’d just escaped. He found himself at a great disadvantage—even if he’d been well-rested and the pinnacle of health. In his current condition he was a step above dead weight.
Slowly he turned his head toward Gaelle, dread climbing with the realization.
Gaelle’s hair hung in wet strands over her face. With her bound wrists, she pushed them away, breathing deeply, heart still beating rapidly from her earlier panicked state. Drops of river-water still running down her face, she met Sieralon’s stare with one of her own.
She was angry. But exhausted. Too exhausted to do much more than breathe, sitting on the pebbly, muddy shoreline, somewhere deep in the Reach.
"Is it….." She coughed. No more water came out, but she was very hoarse. "Is it worth it now? Out here, in the middle of….” She gestured angrily at the rocky slopes around them as best she could, her brow coming together in tired frustration. “….this fucking…. nowhere? No horse, no….”
She winced then. All her twisting and writing in the ropes’ grip had begun to burn the rough twine into her wrists. They were raw, and the dirt and water from the river wasn’t helping. It looked like they were beginning to bleed. Lowering her wrists onto her lap, she let out a slow breath. This isn’t helping me get out of this, she had to remind herself, biting back more frustrated, angry words.
The shock of hitting icy cold water helped Sieralon focus, drawing on reserves he didn’t possess to keep hold of Gaelle and forge the river as quickly as he could, praying he didn’t attract slaughterfish before he could get them to shore. At first, his plan appeared to work: they forged onward, the current digging into Sier’s side but also carrying them away from danger.
Then he slipped, plunging them into currents he hadn’t intended. A full foot taller than the Imperial, Sier touched something when he reached out with his good leg, but Gaelle’s panicked thrashing threatened to knock her out of his grip, and he didn’t have the breath to last for long.
He was too tired to panic. Too dizzy to even guess at where the shore was; if there even was a shore, and they hadn’t somehow ended up in the ocean. The arrow wound at his side had numbed, but part of the mer’s brain suspected that wasn’t a good thing.
A surge—a flash of air that the mer gulped eagerly—a horrible sensation of falling—Sier registered the waterfall before it slammed them back into the river. He choked on water, pain, and another horrible wave of dizziness, but thought he’d spotted a bit of hope. The water calmed a short ways off, twisting into an eddy that was shallow enough to wade through.
Or crawl. Sier felt he could about manage that, but little else.
The moment the cold night air touched Gaelle’s face, when finally she could release the horrible burning breath she’d held for so long, she found herself thanking every star, every god and even the bitter wind itself that she could breathe. That she didn’t meet her end thrashing about like a fish on a line. For a moment, she even forgot the situation she was still in.
When her feet finally touched the river’s bed again, after the horrible spinning and sensations of falling had subsided, the woman managed a few shaky steps before she fell to her side onto the pebbly bank. She never thought the feel of cold stones against her cheek would be so damn comforting. Coughing, and spitting up what cold water she’d been unable to avoid inhaling, she rolled onto her back, her chest heaving. She breathed, deeply, but only a moment later she realized she was not the only one gasping for air.
A turn of her head revealed Sieralon, a mass of tangled hair and soaking black robes, lay in a heap at the water’s edge. The arrow was still in him. He seemed like he could move, but just barely.
"Damn….." Gaelle hoarsely coughed, heaving herself onto her shoulder. What was she supposed to do, still bound like this? The ropes burned, now heavy with water and still no looser. Slowly she brought herself to her knees, and with some effort, made her way towards Sieralon. She coughed up more water; now her throat burned as well as her lungs.
"Before it gets any deeper…." she said when she reached his side. "Have to get it out." Her wrists still bound together, she pushed part of his robes aside and gripped the base of the arrow’s shaft; with one hand she braced, and with the other, she gave a sharp yank, and out the arrow came. And blood followed swiftly after it.
WARNING: Adult language Sean and Robb bring in some backup in the form of Fan-Turned-Tin-tern, Hannah! Banter ensues. Thief aka Thief 4 is © Square Enix
[Hey guys, peeping my head out of the dirt for a moment to promote Tin Plated, a “let’s play” Youtube channel run by two friends of mine. This episode here actually guest-stars the Gaellemod potato herself.]
[……don’t make fun of my face. ;P]
Light erupted around the Altmer as he released his flame cloak spell, his first instinct upon seeing the shadowy forms running toward them. Teeth gritted, Sier dragged himself to his feet, moving toward Gaelle with a heavy limp and a prickly sense of dread…
For how many precious seconds he’d wasted disentangling himself from his dying horse—he’d barely avoided being trapped beneath it—it was likely they were already surrounded. His leg wouldn’t kindly allow him to walk for long. Even if it did, archers could easily take them both down. Their only hope at this point, he felt, lay in something desperate.
Grabbing at Gaelle’s arm, he lurched away from the road and toward the river, a bone-deep instinct keeping himself between her and the archers. He hoped his flame cloak would distract any Forsworn that stood between him and the short drop before the water—if not kill them outright.
A lack of bodies getting engulfed in flame was a good sign. A heavy thunk as an arrow buried itself into Sier’s side wasn’t. He screamed in pain even as the frigid waters splashed up to meet him, his grip loosening for a heart-stopping moment of pained confusion…
It was too late to say, much less do, anything about it by the time Gaelle realized what Sieralon had planned. He had her by the arm, and as it was still bound to her side, she could only gasp in shock as suddenly she was falling, and the frigid cold waters of the river came over her.
Then she heard a cry beside her. The grip on her arm loosened, and it was only then that she turned to her captor and saw the blood running into the water, and the Forsworn arrow sticking out of the mer’s side.
She struggled to keep her footing in the rushing water. The opposite bank was not too far off. If she wasn’t shot, she could make it….
And leave him here to be killed by these people?
The water was running fast and strong. It carried them out of range of the archers, but they’d be coming to the river’s rocky edge soon enough. If she abandoned him to them, they’d not take him prisoner. Not a uniformed Thalmor agent, alone in the middle of the Reach. But she could save herself.
Indecision still plagued her, up until the very moment the current pushed the two of them into a deeper part of the river. Gaelle felt the pebble-covered river bed disappear from under her feet, and with no arms free to swim with, she had no time to gasp as her head sunk beneath the cold waters. Suddenly everything was dark, cold, and she became disoriented. Her feet could find no purchase beneath her; she writhed kicked in panicked frenzy but she couldn’t find the surface, and still the water carried her further. Desperately she held her breath, but the water was so cold; her lungs ached terribly. She couldn’t last but a few moments longer.
[I’m used to playing games with a keyboard and mouse. So, the minute I start trying to play with a controller plugged in (in an effort to make gameplay easier), everything’s ten times more difficult and is making me dizzy as hell. I feel like I have less control now.]
[What are you guys’ preferences? Controller, or keyboard and mouse?]
[Finally began playing Dishonored, and was determined to get through the first level without killing a soul. And yet despite my best efforts, it seemed I killed someone, somehow, which I don’t even remember doing.]
[Unless you count the unconscious body that I may have dropped into the water…..]
Sier growled in annoyance even as he pulled the horse down to a walk. He almost retorted, but anything he could think of to say either sounded juvenile or was a flat-out lie, so he muttered darkly in Altmeris and tried to ignore her.
The moons were high above them now; the road twisted and turned, following craggy mountainside and a river that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be calm or frothing with rapids; foggy mist was just starting to churn up by the water, but the road stayed blessedly clear. By all appearances, there should have been smooth riding for the next several miles.
He knew better than to let his guard down, but exhaustion—ever-present since coming to Markarth—threatened the longer they rode without incident. Nerves only carried him so far; before long adrenaline wore off, replaced by leaden fatigue and the dreaded realization that he’d need to make camp.
The Altmer turned his horse to do so when an arrow whispered though the air where its head had been.
He didn’t—possibly couldn’t—react right away, but his mount made up for its rider’s impairment. Jittery from Sier’s mood already, the sudden movement spooked it into a full-on gallop, hooves kicking up sparks as it fought for momentum.
Rider and unfortunate passenger were left to hold on. Sier cursed as he gripped with his legs, once he realized what was going on leaning slightly forward to encourage his mount to go faster. It meant drawing himself closer to Gaelle, which he would have avoided if at all possible, but they were out of options. Forsworn already poured out of the scenery behind them, drawing bows back for another shot at the careless travelers.
Gaelle heard the arrow before she saw it; whizzing past the two riders just as Sieralon turned the horse about. The arrow landed with a thunk in the ground to one side of the road, and Gaelle had but a moment to glance at it before the horse shot forward at full speed, nearly unhorsing the both of them.
It certainly wasn’t a Nord arrow, that much was obvious.
She braced herself against Sier’s chest, fighting to hold on with her legs while the already-worn mount galloped blindly ahead. She feared the animal would trip, and send the both of them to the ground.
But had she been able to see behind them, able to see the dozens of fur-and-bone clad Bretons appearing out of the brush and bramble, tripping would have been the least of her worries. All she could hear were the sounds of distant yelling, the whizzing of arrows as they flew past, and the thundering drum of hoof-beats as they tried to get away from danger.
And then all at once, the horse let out a cry of pain, and they were falling. Even as well as Gaelle had been able to hold on, she was thrown sideways from the saddle, with barely enough time to brace herself before the rough road met her side with terrible force, and she skidded and rolled over the damp grass into the ditch at the road’s side. Her arm and the side of her face burned; they’d likely been cut and scraped from the fall, but she didn’t feel as if she’d been injured badly.
Not that she could do much to check. Her arms were still bound to her midsection, and the Reach was dark, even with the moon on the rise.
"Sieralon…….!" she gasped hoarsely, eyes straining in the dark. She couldn’t tell where he had fallen, but she couldn’t get up to find out. She could barely get herself onto her knees before she heard the sound of footsteps approaching. And they weren’t approaching slowly, either.
"He’s the sole reason you have a bounty in the first place!” Sier hissed, rage more intense than he’d ever felt before surging. “If we didn’t bloody care we never would have approached you, Gaelle! You’d never have gone to the Embassy, we never would have crossed paths, and I’d—!”
He’d never have left the Thalmor. He’d have stayed, apprenticing under Morlindil, until he achieved the impossible or something killed him. His friends, his loved ones, none of it would have been sacrificed over something so misguided, so unintentionally damaging to so many lives. He’d have lived.
It was impossible to know what might have laid on that particular path. But Sier couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been better than this.
”Yes, we damn well care about Magnus! He’s an innocent child, in gods-forsaken Skyrim, no less! It’s not a matter of if these damn Nords hurt him—it’s when! We’re trying to bloody help him! Why can’t you bloody see it you stupid Imperial!?”
He didn’t realize he’d been shouting until he paused, felt the harsh rasp along his throat as he sucked in a shaking breath. He almost couldn’t unclench his fists long enough to stretch his fingers, calm the shaking in his limbs as he pulled his horse down to a trot—the animal’s labored breathing wasn’t a good sign if they needed to sprint—and looked around.
Nothing jumped out at them. No signs of imminent ambush. The mer twitched restlessly, dissatisfied with such a slow pace in such dangerous territory… with such aggravating company…
Gaelle had to fight to bite back; bitter retorts lay in wait at the tip of her tongue. Magnus isn’t the only elf in Skyrim, she could have said, knowing full well there were many mer who made their livings in this province, Nords or no Nords. But she could see there would be no dissuading Sieralon on this point. Not after what had happened to him. Even Aldari hadn’t wanted to describe what that handful of Stormcloaks had put him through.
"You really believe that, don’t you….." she said, half-muttering as she lowered her eyes to the road. The horse slowed; it’s breathing was labored, and sweat was beginning to coat its flanks. She felt her heart twist at the thought of Calamity waiting for her back at the stables in Markarth. The truth of it was that he’d been her first friend and companion since coming to Skyrim, even before meeting Valund. And he was a good horse, strong and loyal. If only they’d taken him instead of this old nag….
With barely a thought, she found herself saying, “She’s going to exhaust herself if you keep pulling the reins that hard. You’re making her anxious.” Not to mention the mer’s entire body seemed made of trembling stone; a nervous rider made for a nervous mount.
She wasn’t sure why suddenly remarking on Sier’s horsemanship seemed like a good idea. It likely wasn’t. But it seemed better than fruitlessly going in circles about the Thalmor.