So this has been on the backburner because I think it’s kinda dumb and just not very good as a chapter, in a very general sense. But Cymbeline has been neglected, and we ought to move her on, oughtn’t we?
This in no way has to do with me being a lazy slug with mod screenshots 😀 (mod’s up tomorrow lol)
Enjoy, guys. Feel free to call me out on the dumb parts, but it’s safe to assume I know they’re dumb! Mostly, I just think it’s cute because, well, it’s a very safe thing to say that Cymbeline is very much Sabrael’s prototype. ~*~WhAt Do YoU tHiNk?~*~
Early autumn mornings brought rolling mists across the mountains like white ermines, gamboling over rocks and chasing their tails around and between the juniper shrubs. Rosy sunlight got caught in their silvery substance and was scattered into shades of gold. Nearing the paved road at the bottom quarter of the mountain, which spanned the distance between Markarth and Solitude, was a pair of improbable silhouettes – mere wraiths in the distance – obscured by the low clouds. One of the pair was an enormous four-legged beast with a massive skull sprouting a rack of antlers bearing ten points, in all, and what looked like a thick snout with a sharp hump. The second was tiny, with no discernible body shape but sporting small fawn-like antlers of its own.
Cymbeline had risen well before the sun, bundling herself in furs and plaiting feathers into the white mane and tail of her horse Suibhne before adorning his fine, sloping head with a headdress made from the skull of an elk felled by one of her own arrows. As discussed, Gaithan joined her, and they made love twice more before they felt the creeping intuition that Math and Cerridwyn would be waking soon to see their daughter off.
The night before, they had gone four rounds. At first it was awkward; finding rhythm was difficult and Cymbeline would only get to the vague, maddening precipice of ecstasy before Gaithan could no longer keep himself. But such was the lust of a girl entering womanhood in earnest and a man made chaste only for her that after a small respite between the second and third couplings, the priest was hard again and desensitized enough that when she climbed on top of him, Cymbeline was able to ride him to her own wondrous completion. Not once, but twice that time, as she pressed herself down to feel his manhood filling her and the hair on his pubic pad brush against a beautifully sensitive spot between her small outer lips. Flames coursed through her entire body, filling her and seeking a way out through her aching fingertips and toes.
That time she did tell Gaithan she loved him, over and over, as she kissed him repeatedly. And she told him one last time, before her parents, as the sky began to lighten along the horizon. She had never hugged her parents so long and so hard. All four had tears in their eyes, but Cymbeline tried, for once, to be the one whose tears didn’t fall. She forced herself to depart quickly in the hopes that perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for very long, but now as she found herself, for the first time in her life, setting foot onto an Imperial road, she never felt so alone. It had only been an hours’ journey to this point, and looking back up the mountain, she could see no trace of her people’s hunting grounds, let alone any other part of their territory.
She sniffed and rubbed her forearm across her upper lip so hard she felt and heard the cartilage in her nose shift painfully, wondering what Akatosh would think of his chosen warrior now.
“Best not to think of it,” she said aloud. “Are you hungry?”
Suibhne snorted. Cymbeline never understood why she talked to her horse. He knew his name and a few commands, but she knew that was the extent of his understanding of verbal language. Still, even if he couldn’t tell one word from another, he had been with her for ten years, the entirety of his life. She was there when he was born to her father’s mare, and she was there with the stable keeper when he was broken. A scar on the back of her head, though hidden by her hair, would forever mark the first time she’d attempted to mount him, only to be thrown backwards and onto the ground where a sharp pebble lay in treacherous wait.
No, he probably didn’t understand half of what she said, but he was her friend, and friends talked. She thus chose to interpret his snort as an answer in the affirmative, so before pulling out the thick vellum map her father had given her, she rummaged in another saddle bag for a rutabaga. Suibhne seemed pleased enough, and while she listened to the soothing sound of huge, grinding molars, she unfurled her map.
Akatosh had said to go south and east, and the easiest way to do that was to go through the Reach towards Markarth. Her studies had been sufficient enough she didn’t need a map to tell her that, but she also didn’t need a map to know that if she ran into one of the Nordic guardsmen while wearing her tribal furs, there was a good chance she’d be arrested on sight, regardless of affiliation. And on that note, she didn’t have much desire to tangle with any Forsworn. Depending on whom she ran into and which tribes they pledged immediate allegiance to, they might recognize her, but she had no desire to be dragged into politics – and that was being optimistic. With that route removed, it seemed the best route to take was one that turned east at Dragonbridge and cut through Hjaalmarch Hold, and so, once Suibhne had finished his snack and the map was put away, Cymbeline grabbed the lead once more and headed north to the fabled stone bridge built into the shape of a dragon’s head.
It wasn’t long before she saw another person coming the opposite direction. His skin was the color of storm clouds, and his jet-black hair grew in matted locks past his shoulders. Even from the distance, Cymbeline could tell he was malnourished, but the scowl on his face put her on her guard.
“Well lookee, here,” the Dunmer drawled as he drew near. “That’s a mighty fine animal you’ve got there, love.”
“Thank you,” she answered. Subconsciously she wrapped her hand more tightly in the lead, wishing she had mounted Suibhne when she’d reached the road. “Can I help you?”
“Such nice manners! I reckon you could help me, if you like. Y’see me feet are mighty sore from all this walkin’ I’ve been doin’, and I’m a mite hungry besides. And it seems to me that’s a whole lot of horse for such a tiny fing. Fink you could help…” he paused, noticing her ears and casting a derisive glance at her horns before continuing: “…a fellow mer?”
Cymbeline didn’t like the way he looked her over, but she remembered her father’s words. “I have some food I can share, but I’m afraid I’m going the opposite direction, and I couldn’t let Suibhne from my sight, even just to lend him out.”
“Well, my pet, fing is I’m not lookin’ to borrow. I’m rather lookin’ to take. And if it’s all the same to you, I reckon you could be dessert.”
Cymbeline realized she had been backing away, and her free hand had gone to her back to undo the catch holding her axe in place.
In response the Dunmer withdrew a rather nasty blade from a scabbard at his hip. “Now let’s not make this messy, love. P’raps you ought to let me have that axe, as well; it’s much too heavy for a girl your size.”
As if to corroborate his claim, Cymbeline found her right hand was so tightly wrapped in her horse’s lead that she couldn’t work it free, and indeed, in one hand she couldn’t wield her weapon very gracefully. Real panic was beginning to take hold. The more she tried to free her hand, the tighter the leather strap seemed to get, and the more she struggled, the more uneasy Suibhne became.
“Havin’ some trouble, hey?” the highwayman snickered. “Do your parents know you’ve taken their horse and their axe?”
Finally, before she could reply (not that she really knew what to say, anyway), Suibhne had had enough of his handler’s panicked struggling and reared up and back. For a moment Cymbeline was weightless as she felt her feet leave the ground, and in the next moment she was met with blinding pain. On her way down, the lead pulled taut. Her hand was forcefully freed, but not before her shoulder was yanked upwards just before she hit the hard, paved ground on her backside.
The Dunmer laughed at the entire display, but his mirth was on another plane of existence as Cymbeline’s stomach churned with the pain in her shoulder. She was only just coming down from the pain when she realized her assailant was no longer laughing and was instead making a move for her axe which had fallen from her left hand when Suibhne reared. A jolt of fear ran through her like electricity, and she scrambled on hands and knees, making a dive for and grabbing the weapon just as the bandit did.
“You’re playin’ a dangerous game,” he snarled as they both tugged at the axe’s handle.
Without thinking, Cymbeline raised her right leg and thrust it forward, digging her foot deep into the elf’s solar plexus.
He let go of the axe and doubled over, coughing and gasping for breath. “You…you little…s’wit!” he panted, falling to one knee.
Cymbeline leapt to her feet and held her axe in front of her, ready. It occurred to her that she might be about to take another person’s life, and her heart seized. She hadn’t been traveling but an hour!
“You need to leave,” she said, hoping her voice wasn’t as shaky as it sounded in her head.
The Dunmer was regaining his breath and stumbled to his feet. “Nobody makes a fool out of me, especially not some little Reachman trollop.”
It happened in a second. The highwayman lunged, his dagger pointed at Cymbeline’s stomach, but in his state he was still clumsy. Again, acting on the lessons that had been hammered into her head since she was thirteen, she turned the handle of her weapon parallel to the ground and thrust it upward. Her aim was simply to deflect the dagger from its course, but instead the hardwood handle caught her assailant’s fingers.
He cried out in pain, dropping his dagger to clutch at his smashed digits. Cymbeline, torn by an innate desire to apologize for hurting him, grabbed the dagger from the ground and hurled it into the ravine to the east of the road.
“I ask you again,” she said slowly, “to please leave me alone and be on your way.”
The highwayman scowled, grinding his teeth. It was clear he couldn’t decide whether to throw all caution to the wind and attack her bare-handed or run, but in the end common sense won out and he pushed by her and continued on the road to the south without looking back.
Cymbeline watched until he was small on the horizon. She rubbed her throbbing shoulder, pressing her fingers into the knotted muscles that had been pulled in ways they weren’t meant to be. It would be fine with a few potions to ease the pain. She was thinking more about how close she had come to mortal combat. Her father had been right to worry and right to warn her, but she wondered if she could bring herself to do it. There were other Grey Hawk she knew who would have seen the dagger plunging towards them and swung their own weapon with intent to kill. They wouldn’t have liked it any more than she would have, but at least they seemed to possess whatever twisted courage which allowed them to choose the lethal option. She had gotten lucky this time, she knew, but the journey was long ahead of her.
The swamps of Hjaalmarch weren’t anything compared to those of Black Marsh, but something about them compelled Anum-La to linger after her long walk across Tamriel. She was alone now, but it wasn’t so bad. It was, in fact, a lot like old times, before all this “Swamp Knight” business. She leaned against a gnarled tree, doing what she could to soak up the last remaining rays of the setting sun. Her black mourner’s dress helped a little, but there was no denying that Hjaalmarch was just a mite colder than she preferred.
She heard the sound of hooves behind her, heavy and measured, accompanied by the stride of a person. It was a plodding gait, one that betrayed exhaustion. Anum-La remained still against the tree, cutting her eyes over to the right, waiting to see who would pass. She saw the horse first, a gigantic white beast decorated in bones – something that gave her pause – but beside it, holding its lead loosely, was a small person covered in furs from head to toe. Anum wondered what kind of eccentric sorcerer or hunchbacked witch hid beneath those furs, as even she didn’t need that many layers to keep from freezing in this part of Skyrim.
The person glanced over briefly as they passed, and jumped almost completely out of their skin when they noticed Anum-La leaning silently against the tree. The hood fell back then, revealing the oddest thing Anum had yet seen of the people of Skyrim. Opting to ignore it for now, she said, “My, aren’t we jumpy?”
The girl didn’t say anything, only stood in silence with blue eyes as big as saucers. Her chest was still heaving as she caught her breath.
“Well, what do you want, stranger?” Anum asked, suddenly in the mood to exacerbate the girl’s flustered state. “I don’t have time for chit-chat, especially with someone who’s just going to stand there gawking.”
“I-I’m sorry,” the girl said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there. I was just passing through on my way to Morthal and…”
“So pass! Be like the wind! At least it has the courtesy to do it silently.”
The girl drew back, obviously stung. “I beg your pardon, it’s just that…I just…I haven’t…I mean…”
“Out with it.”
“I’ve never seen an Argonian before.”
“And I’m sure I’ve never seen a Breton with horns sprouting from her head.”
She looked down and touched her horns self-consciously. “I’m Cymbeline.”
Anum began to get the sense that this Cymbeline was looking for more than just to pass through. She was young and quite clearly inexperienced to be spending so long talking to a stranger in the wilderness.
“May I ask your name?”
“Well, used to be my clan called me Anum-La. Fightin’ folk tend to call me the Swamp Knight.”
Cymbeline’s eyes widened still more, though this time it seemed to be in awe. “How did you win that title?” she asked, entranced.
“Win it?” Anum chuckled. “I carry a sword. I come from Black Marsh. Can you put it together yourself?”
“Surely there’s more to it than that. In books people don’t just get called knights because they carry a sword.”
“Well I suppose I can’t say it was a storybook situation, but you are a clever one. Saw right through my glib response. I’ll tell you, but first let’s get you to Morthal before your feet catch a case of frostbite. Boots of that stripe aren’t the best thing to wear out here in the water.”
Anum-La pushed herself off the tree and began walking towards the small hold capital. She realized quickly that she wasn’t actually being followed and turned back. “Did you just come down from the mountains yesterday? Come on.”
“Today, actually,” Cymbeline chirped, tugging on her horse’s lead and trotting, herself, to catch up.
“Ha! I make a joke and you really are mountainfolk. Forsworn?”
“No, of course not. My people don’t associate with them.”
“I didn’t know there were Bretons who called themselves Reachmen who weren’t Forsworn,” Anum mused.
Suddenly she stabbed her sword downward and into the head of an upset mudcrab; it barely had time to squeal before it was picked up by the claw and tossed into the bag of other crabs she carried over her shoulder. Today’s was a good enough haul and the innkeeper, Jonna, would pay well enough.
“How did you do that?” she heard her new companion ask.
“Asks the girl with an axe on her back.”
“No, I mean, how did you do it so casually?”
Anum looked over and saw Cymbeline furrowing her brow in dismay. There was a curiosity beneath it all, but mostly she only saw dismay.
“If you’ve stumbled on as many of those ornery things as I have, you learn real fast how easily they can cut through skin. I’ve got scales, and they’ve given me more than a few nasty snips. Best to get rid of ’em before they have the chance.”
They walked in silence a while longer, Anum-La contemplating the trouble ahead for Cymbeline if killing mudcrabs was enough to make her squeamish. Soon enough they came upon Morthal, a town of raised foundations and houses on stilts to keep them out of the swamp water. Wood walkways connected just about everything until the place where the town converged with the mountains to the south. As the sun began to disappear behind the distant Druadach Mountains, Anum-La led her new companion into the Moorside Inn, wondering vaguely if Cymbeline knew what money was or if she had any.
“Welcome to the Moorside,” the innkeeper Jonna called as they entered. “Kick off your boots and have a drink.”
There weren’t too many others in the inn; traffic through Morthal was thin, at best, and tonight it seemed most of the residents were taking their meals at home. That left, among a few others, an aspiring Orc bard named Lurbuk, and the brusque barmaid Ingarte, neither of whom Anum felt much love for.
She led Cymbeline to a couple of chairs by the fire and sat down. “Well?” she said, “Go ahead and take those wet boots off before you catch a fungus.”
“Oh,” the Breton said again, lowering her hood to the stares of the other patrons. She hunched her shoulders and looked around self-consciously. “I- I thought it was just a manner of speaking.”
Anum laughed. “Even if it was I doubt anyone would expect you to keep those things on. If you’re going to walk around here, traveler, you’d do well to find some properly treated leather boots.”
“Well, I have some furs and other things to trade,” Cymbeline said. “Is there someone here who could make me a pair?”
“Well, there’s Al’Hassan. He’s the smith here. I reckon he could.”
“Seems we’ve got a new face around here,” Ingarte loudly interrupted. “Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
“Um,” Cymbeline said uncertainly, “Would you accept a trade?”
“What kind of trade? I’ll have to talk to Jonna.”
“Never mind, Ingarte,” Anum said. “Tonight dinner’s on me.”
“Are you sure?” Cymbeline asked.
“Of course I am. I’ll have the seared slaughterfish and a mug of ale.”
“I’m not sure what you have,” Cymbeline said meekly.
“Look at you all shy,” Ingarte laughed. “Ain’t nobody here but friends. As to what we have, let’s see… There’s venison, potato, and carrot stew; seared slaughterfish as you heard; and-”
“The stew sounds nice,” Cymbeline said, “and, um, do you have mead?”
“Do we have mead,” Ingarte chortled. “Honningbrew, though; none of that fancy Black-Briar stuff.”
“I wouldn’t know the difference,” Cymbeline admitted, smiling slightly.
“By the Eight and Three…”
“She’s mountainfolk,” Anum explained. “This is a bit of an adventure.”
“Well let me say welcome to ya.”
When dinner came, Anum beckoned Cymbeline to join her at one of the tables lining the walls.
“So what brings you down here?” Anum asked eventually.
“I had a vision of Akatosh,” she said. “Though I’m not entirely sure where I’m going or what it means. I’m supposed to be heading southeast, but I wanted to avoid the Forsworn camps.”
“That’s quite a detour.”
“You said you would tell me why you’re called a knight,” she said.
“That I did, traveler. It’s an old story, or it feels old, anyway. It started when I was a hatchling. My family was a bit like yours; we lived in the middle of nowhere, isolated from most of the big cities. But every year, someone from the nearby cities would show up to pick the hatchlings that were the best fighters. But none of them were ever girls! Even though I could best every fighter they chose.
“So I set out into the swamp to prove myself. I told myself I wouldn’t return until I killed a feathered serpent. That first night found me in a hole, shivering against the cold, jumping at every small noise. I didn’t kill a feathered serpent that night, or the night after that, or the night after that. But what I did do was listen and watch. I listened to every movement, I watched how animals hid in the mist. By the time I was grown, I could kill five feathered serpents with a single slash of my blade.”
Cymbeline listened wide-eyed as she ate her stew.
“One day I found a courier dead in the marshes. I don’t know what happened to him, but I looked through his satchel and found a letter inviting the intended recipient to join a group of fighters. I made my way to Gideon and discovered the company. They were esteemed fighters all of them, some from far away guilds, tribal warriors, powerful sorcerers, even a member of the dark and secretive Shadowscales.
“I introduced myself as a knight, to a lot of laughter. Truth was, I didn’t even know what a knight was. All I knew was that when knights were spoken of, it was always in hushed, reverent tones. So the company called me the Swamp Knight, and the name stuck.”
“Did they accept you into their group?” Cymbeline asked.
“Most of them didn’t want to. They knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. But the leader, Dalum-Ei, saw something in me – I don’t know what it was to this day – and let me stay. Soon enough the others accepted me. We called ourselves the ‘Honorable Eight’. We were similar to your Companions here in Skyrim.”
“What happened to them? Why aren’t you with them now?”
“Oh, that’s an even longer story,” Anum said. “Suffice it to say, this puddle the Nords call a marsh is starting to grow on me.”
“Aren’t you cold here?”
“As long as the sun’s in the sky heating the rocks and ruins around here, I’m content.”