Look who it is! If you need to dust off your memory, here’s part 4. I had no idea so much time had passed, I am sorry. But I thought I would post this now while I line up some downloads for you guys.
TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault (mostly verbal, unsuccessful, but it is what it is)
“WELL ACTUALLY” WARNING: Bad descriptions of medicine. If that’s your peeve.
Hopefully this isn’t a “fireworks factory” situation…
As promised, transportation in the form of a light cart and two horses were waiting for us by the city stables. Gwynne was standing by them as Sedave and I carried our small away bags.
“Now,” she said without waiting for us to stop, “The shipment is due tomorrow evening. What you choose to do between now and then is entirely up to you, so long as you don’t do anything stupid. I doubt either of you will, but you’re both young, and young people do stupid things from time to time.”
I nodded and lowered my head; wasn’t that the truth? Sedave just nodded amiably.
“This cart is the most valuable thing you’ll have in your possession, understand? It needs to be out of sight, but it needs to be accessible for you to get the goods onto it in a timely fashion. If something happens to it, you’ll either need to find a way to haul everything by hand, or brace yourselves for punishment. If word gets back that either of you has been caught, we’ll of course take care of you, but you’ll probably wish you’d stayed in jail.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“We won’t hurt you, if that’s what you’re worried about. But your chances for earning full membership will be seriously harmed, Aria, and both of you will be on grunt work until I decide you’ve learned from the inconvenience you caused. That’s mopping the floors, laundry, that sort of thing.”
Sedave and I looked at each other. My heart was starting to race.
“Once you’ve loaded the cart, you’re to take it outside Anvil to a place among the Ayleid ruins to the north. Follow the Atronach-”
“The Atronach?” Sedave asked.
“The constellation,” I whispered.
“Well, at least one of you knows what to look for,” Gwynne said. “Follow the Atronach until you reach the mountains. Beneath the constellation, there’s a small pass that you won’t be able to take the cart through. You’ll need to carry each piece through, and on the other side you’ll meet our client. He’ll have his own cart, and you will help him load it, and then the job will be done. This client has made a substantial down payment; you will not let me down. Am I clear?”
“Yes ma’am,” we both said in unison.
“Good. Now get going, you two. I’m looking forward to good news.”
“We won’t letcha down, Gwynne, no worries,” Sedave assured her.
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
Sedave climbed into the cart’s seat and helped me up to sit beside him. It was horribly uncomfortable; my lower back felt like it was buckling against the low backrest and the sharply-angled join at the seat.
“Do you know how to drive a cart?” I asked.
“Accourse I do,” Sedave said proudly. “This ain’t the first time Gwynne’s sent me to pick up somefink heavy. You just tell me where to go.”
I smiled and returned his kiss.
“I suppose that’s Jana’s first. D’you fink we still have time?”
“If we’re quick. It’s down the main road going to Skingrad.”
He drove the horses at a canter. One thing I had no point of reference for as a youth was the difference between walking and riding in something. Or on something. I was prepared for another long journey, but in no time, I saw Felix’s manor house and the apple trees, and the shed for his carriage.
“Go find a place for the cart,” I said, hopping down and nearly turning my ankle. I’d misjudged the distance by quite a lot. “I’m going to sneak around and see if his carriage is out or not.”
“Be careful, Speck,” Sedave said.
Carefully I sprinted to the shed, trying to keep my feet light on the old leaves that littered the ground. I found the chink in the wall that I’d looked through before and pressed my face to it, trying desperately to see into the darkness. Eventually my eye adjusted, and, indeed, all that was in there was the cover, thrown carelessly into a corner.
I ran back to the road and waved to Sedave, who was a short way off, having apparently parked the carriage behind an old barn, out of sight of the road.
“Alright, come on,” I whispered, even though it wasn’t entirely necessary. It just seems that’s the natural reaction to doing something one’s not supposed to be.
I led him around to the back of the house and found a small pebble on the ground. I backed up, pulling my arm back as I did, and hurled the pebble up and towards the window belonging to Jana. I picked it up when it landed, waiting.
“Maybe she’s in anovver room?” Sedave asked.
“Maybe…” I said.
I threw the pebble again, and this time, after a few moments, Jana opened the window.
“Aria!” she cried. “Hang on, I’ll open the scullery door.”
I grinned and ran over to the door she’d let me out through the last time. In no time, I heard the rattle of the lock, and Jana burst out. We threw our arms around each other.
“I didn’t think you’d actually ever come back!” Jana said.
“Of course I would! Look, I brought a friend, too.”
“I saw! Oh, Sedave!”
“Wotcher, Jana?” he laughed, catching her in his embrace. “It’s great to see you.”
“You too,” she said. “Both of you…but you’re awfully late. Felix will be home within the hour.”
“We’re on our way to Anvil,” I explained. “It was last-minute, but I wanted to see you before we left.”
“I’m glad. So, you two, you finally got together, huh?”
“Mara finally had enough of me waitin’,” Sedave said, putting his arm around my shoulders. “Bein’ wiv our Aria’s the best fing what’s ever happened to me.”
I looked up at him, cringing a little in the presence of Jana. Apparently he realized his mouth was running away with him, and he quickly added, “I mean, yeah, we’re togevver an’ all. It’s, um…It’s…”
“It’s okay, Sedave,” Jana said. “I might have made some bad choices, but that doesn’t mean you guys aren’t allowed to be happy.”
“Jana, I have a plan to get you out,” I said quickly, hoping to cut the growing pain in my chest off.
“A plan?” she asked warily. “What kind of plan?”
“Well, I can’t really say, not just now, but I’ll get you out of here. It might take a while, but I’ll get you out.”
Jana sighed. “I told you last time that this is the bed I made for myself. I should’ve listened to you and everyone, but I didn’t.”
“Just because you made a bad decision don’t mean you have to be punished for it forever,” Sedave said. “Aria told me what this fetcher does to you, and it ain’t right! I never told nobody this, but I ran away from home because I couldn’t stand me da’s antics no more. I couldn’t fend him off back then, and me mum wouldn’t protect me when he’d set himself on me, for fear she’d get it even worse.
“I know Aria says he don’t lay hands on you, but I reckon he don’t have to, to be just as bad. I couldn’t do nuffink for me mum or meself back then, and maybe I was a coward for runnin’, but I don’t want to see you miserable sharin’ a home wiv a lousy cur what don’t treat ya right.”
He was right. He told me everything even before we became a couple, and even I didn’t know any of that. My throat tightened, and I wrapped my arms around his closer one and leaned my head against it. Jana, it seemed, couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes and instead looked at a patch of grass to the side.
“If I leave, he’ll hunt me down, and he’ll know right where to go, and I’ll tell you the same as I told Aria: I’m not dragging anyone else into this. I’m not gonna be the one responsible for people being jailed or worse. And even if I didn’t go back to the City, where would I go and what would I do? I don’t have any money, and I don’t wanna go back to that life.”
“Jana,” I began.
“Look, maybe it was a bad idea for me to tell you to visit. This is how it’s always going to go, I know it is, and I don’t want to have this conversation anymore. This is where I live, and it’s…it’s better than the docks.”
“But people love you by the docks,” I pressed. “And you’ve got clothes now, and you’re clean, you could probably find a job at one of the inns or…or…you always liked enchanting! Maybe you could get an apprenticeship with the arcanist.”
“It was good seeing you both,” Jana said, ignoring my increasingly desperate banter, “but you really need to be going before Felix gets back. And, I don’t want to say this, but, don’t come back. We have different lives now, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve been thinking that it’s possible Felix is right, and I’m just not trying hard enough to be happy. He’s only trying to make me a better person. A lady and not some wharf rat.”
“Don’t say that!” I snapped. “You were always a lady! It has nothing to do with-”
“Leave, Aria. Leave, and don’t come back. I mean it.”
“Or you’ll what?”
“I’ll tell Felix there’s been burglars in the area, people trying to break in.”
I looked over at Sedave, who simply rubbed my back slowly.
“C’mon, Speck. Sun’s nearly gone, besides.”
“You have a plan,” he said.
“Go,” Jana said sharply. Her voice was tight and her eyes were wet. “Go now. Please. I don’t want help.”
I stood there as the door was slammed in my face. I was angry. Oh, so angry! I was so suddenly and viciously angry that I made a fist with my right hand and smashed it as hard as I could against the hard wood of the door. Tears of unbelievable pain filled my eyes to join the tears of anger and sadness that were already there, and as spears shot through my hand and forearm I felt like I was about to faint.
“Aria!” Sedave yelped. “What’d you go and do that for?”
“I don’t know,” I sobbed, hunched over and clutching my wrist. “Why does this have to be so hard?”
“There’s a carriage coming; we need to go. C’mon, love. Quick.”
I let myself be dragged to the old barn where our transportation was miraculously still waiting. When we stopped, Sedave took me in his arms and kissed my head. “Let’s take a look at your hand,” he said.
I brought it up and gasped when I saw it had begun to swell and bruise.
“That’s bad. Can you move your fingers?”
They were still mostly curled into a fist, but, try as I might, I couldn’t uncurl them without nearly screaming.
“Reckon it’s broken. Ah, Speck…”
“Let’s get going,” I said quietly. My hand was throbbing badly. “Suppose we can find a healer in Anvil.”
We rode in silence for a long while. I looked to the side, away from my boyfriend, watching fields go by. Sheep being penned for the night, olive groves, things I’d normally have loved to see, but now they barely registered. I didn’t want to look forward because I might have seen Sedave on accident, and I didn’t want to see him. My hand hurt like nothing else, and my heart felt like it’d been wrapped in sharp things.
“Aria,” I heard Sedave say after an hour or so.
I swallowed against a new wave of tears, but I didn’t say anything.
“There was nuffink I could do,” he persisted.
“You said when I first told you about her that you’d go rescue her!”
“And you told me not to because it would cause trouble!”
“And you were right. It would. The way you react to somefink bad right away and the way you react after you’ve had time to fink is different, innit?”
“How could this be any different?” I asked.
“And you said yourself you had a plan that might take a while. Sure she said she doesn’t want savin’, but you know that wasn’t our Jana.”
“She might be taller than me, but she’s not much heavier. You could’ve grabbed her.”
“That’s kidnappin’, Speck, and that wouldn’t end well for anybody.”
“How could she just tell me to go away forever?” I finally shouted. “How can she be happy to stay in that place?”
“So that’s what this is really about, yeah? Y’know I hadn’t planned on spillin’ me past today, but I guess that’s what’s happenin’.”
I looked over at him, his dark face glowing faintly with the reflected light of one of the cart’s lamps.
“I was angry a lot at me mum,” he admitted. “Between the way she’d hide away when I crossed Da’s path and the way she’d defend him to her friends, I just couldn’t take it. It’s infuriatin’. Young as I was, I knew it weren’t her fault, but of all the fings I didn’t understand, it was the way she’d insist on stayin’ wiv ‘im. And that’s what you’re wonderin’, right?”
“To this day I dunno what makes people behave that way, but what I did learn is that you can’t help a person who don’t want it.”
“Yes you can,” I said. “You just have to make them realize they need it.”
“Fink of it this way. You’re on the docks, yeah, and you see a fella just out of reach in the water, thrashin’ like. And you go and frow him a rope, but he don’t take it, and instead of yellin’ for help, he’s tellin’ you he don’t need no rope cos he’s on dry land. How d’you make him take the rope?”
All this was making my head hurt. It all seemed stupid and illogical, and yet, at the same time, I somehow knew that it wasn’t as easy as that. I couldn’t have explained it, but what I could tell you is that it was frustrating and hateful.
“Well,” I began, “if he thinks he’s on dry land…couldn’t you just tell him he’s drowning?”
“Reckon you could, but p’rhaps it’s not a question of him not knowin’ so much as it is he don’t wanna face the troof of the matter.”
I looked back at him, confused and hurting in more ways than one.
“Look, Mum knew she was gettin’ beaten, right? There was no way she couldn’t know. When her friends came by (and they had to sneak, just like you did), and they would tell her she weren’t in a good way, she’d tell ’em she couldn’t leave cos they just never saw his good side, or because he needed her. Occasionally she’d explain he’d try to kill her if she ever left, and honestly that were the only real troof she ever spoke about him.”
“But why?” I pressed.
“I don’t know, Speck. If I did I might not be here. Maybe it was that she didn’t want to be alone. Maybe she fought it were the best she could do. It’s not like we was any meaningful part of one of the big houses. We was just a poor family what came from people too stubborn to stay gone after Red Mountain.
“In any case, it’s just like what Jana’s doin’, and I saw enough guards come to our door to know she’s not makin’ empty frets about tellin’ Felix about burglars. I saw every one of Mum’s friends taken away and told to leave our family be, until finally no one ever came sneakin’ by to visit again, not even me gran.”
“He kept her from seeing her own mother?”
“I fink he kept her from seein’ people who cared about her because he knew what he was doin’ and he knew any sensible person would tell Mum to leave him, and naturally Gran was the loudest.”
I took a deep breath. It wouldn’t matter soon, whether or not she wanted to go. I would keep my lessons with Joe, sexual favors or no, and I would see an arrow between that filthy bastard’s eyes. And then the spell would be broken, wouldn’t it? Without the terrible ogre keeping her prisoner, the princess would realize that she could leave, and we all would live happily ever after.
“It’s hard, darlin’, I know,” Sedave said. I didn’t realize I’d been crying. “Let’s not worry about it for now, hey? We’re goin’ to Anvil, and you were so excited.”
I managed a weak smile. “Are you cold?”
“Not really. I packed a blanket, though, if you want it.”
I got up and managed to clamber into the back of the cart while it was moving and managed to pull Sedave’s scratchy wool blanket from one of the bags with my good hand. Getting back into the seat with only the one hand was a bit more of a task, but Sedave helped as best as he could, and then helped me wrap the blanket around my shoulders. He held his left arm out, then, and I nestled into it.
How lucky was I, I thought again, to have been chosen by this young man. I breathed deep his scent and turned my head to kiss his neck. He smiled and sighed.
“I love you,” I said. “I’m lucky to have you.”
“Ah, Speck,” he answered. “I feel much the same.”
I drew a bit closer and reached over to move my good hand over his crotch. He was soft, but the moment I touched him, I could tell it wouldn’t take long to remedy that. He moaned quietly and his muscles relaxed. Up and down I slowly rubbed him, feeling him get harder and harder. I felt his chest rise and fall against my head slowly. He tucked my head beneath his chin and held the reins in his right hand while he stroked my hair with the left.
I fumbled with the buttons on this trousers and took him out, admiring him in the unsteady light from the swinging lantern. The soft, dark skin of the shaft, the skin of the head so dark it was nearly black. Slowly I pulled, letting him enjoy the feeling.
“Oh, love,” he moaned after a good while. “Go faster…”
Happily I granted his wish, reaching up to breathe into his ear and cherishing the deep shiver that shook him. As my rhythm picked up speed, I licked his earlobe and sucked it gently.
“Oh, Aria, please,” he gasped.
I pointed him forward as he came, massaging the ridge of the head with my thumb as he liked. I loved how he moaned so deeply and shook from head to toe. I tugged on him softly as he came down, sliding his foreskin over and back again.
“You’re so good to me, sweetheart,” he sighed, slumping down in his seat. “Shall I return the favor, then?”
“If I’m honest, my hand hurts too much for me to enjoy much of anything.”
“Ah, yeah. Wish I knew anyfink about healin’. Settin’ bones and the like, I mean, so’s I could at least try to put your hand in a…in a splint or somefink.”
“I guess it wouldn’t be a bad idea for both of us to learn those things.”
“Well, at least healin’ magicka’s in your blood, innit?” he asked. “That’s what they say about Imperials.”
“I guess so,” I said. “All I know is alchemy, and obviously that still has some way to go, especially since I had nowhere to really practice in all this time.”
“We’ll figure it out, Speck.”
The sun was up over the horizon by the time we reached Anvil. I’d fallen asleep in the crook of Sedave’s shoulder, and it was the smell of wild lavender and the sea that awakened me. As we rumbled over the road which had, at some point, turned to dirt, I looked up to see a massive palace at the very end, jutting out into the sea.
“That must be the target’s house,” I yawned.
“Reckon so,” Sedave yawned back, although in his case for lack of sleep. “Can’t wait to get me head on a pillow of some stripe. Bet I could sleep on a rock if nobody told me ovverwise.”
I laughed gently and kissed his cheek. “Let’s find a place to stash the cart, board the horses, then you can go find an inn, and I’ll go about finding a healer. I’ll catch up after.”
“Sounds good, love.”
There was a perfect spot to hide our little cart right in between two rocks that were close enough to the estate to make this quick, and that faced away so nobody who lived there would see what had been stashed there. Once everything was squared away, Sedave took me by the shoulders.
“You’re okay from yesterday, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said somewhat truthfully. “Yeah I’m okay. I’m sorry I lost it. I’m sorry about you and your mum.”
He looked down for a moment. “Fings happen sometimes is all. I’ve got you, haven’t I?”
“Always,” I smiled.
He kissed me hard and hugged me before we stepped into the small city and parted ways. I looked all around, smelling not just baking bread, but bread being baked with herbs. The houses were much more to my liking: small, stucco buildings with thatched or terra cotta roofs. It would have been better apart from the worsening pain in my hand, which was only swelling harder and getting blacker. My skin was so tight from the swelling I could feel the stretch. So I looked around as I walked the streets that were not nearly as crowded as those in the City, until I found a sign with a neat white phoenix painted on it.
I opened the door to the sound of a bell and the smell of incense. It was dim and almost uncomfortably warm inside, and I wondered why that was until I saw the proprietor: an old Altmer with a case of arthritis that turned his fingers to claws. Long, pretty white hair was bound by a clumsily-tied ribbon.
“Well aren’t you a sight for these old eyes,” he teased, approaching me with a cane. “What can this old healer do for a young one like you, hm?”
“I, um, decided to pick a fight with a wooden door,” I answered, holding up my hand.
“My, my,” he said, scrunching his nose a little to push up a pair of small spectacles, studying my hand with narrowed, rheumy eyes. “You shouldn’t go doing that, my dear. Doors aren’t known for having to dodge a punch.”
“First thing’s first. I’m Rumaiel. And you are?”
“I knew the name would match the face,” he smiled. “Now you just go have a seat over there, and we’ll get that hand of yours back into its proper door-punching condition.”
I smiled as I took a seat in a chair that, while still clean and clearly high end, was so old and well used that there wasn’t much spring left in its cushion. I let my feet swing back and forth, holding my bad hand to my chest and lightly gripping the side of the seat with the other, taking in the sights in the dim room. It was nice and tidy, lined with shelves filled with books and books and cabinets with glass fronts filled with differently-colored bottles.
“What are these books?” I asked, as Rumaiel picked ingredients from jars that sat on a counter.
“Oh, just a bunch of medical this-and-that, much of which I’ve written, myself. I’m of the opinion there’s far more to healing than simple potions and magic, but those are the easy ways, so that’s what many of us default to. Do you know surgery?”
I shook my head before stopping and answering, “Well, if you mean something not magical, I know of people sewing wounds closed and pulling out arrowheads.”
“That’s a kind of surgery, yes, even if it is simple. I’m talking of mending bones and being able to learn just how things work. In my heyday I would work on bodies, you know. Cadavers – not easy to obtain, I assure you! Essentially taking them apart and putting them back together. Oh! The things you learn!”
He began grinding his ingredients, putting more effort into it than I’d suspected he’d used to, holding the pestle in the cradle of his thumb and index finger and only gingerly gripping with his others.
“Would I had gained more traction in my studies. I had one patient, a man who’d suffered an unfortunate accident to the spine. A horse caught him on the lower back after he’d been pushed out into a busy city street. Other healers had managed to fix the bone and managed to allow him to walk again, but not well, at all.”
“What was the problem?” I asked.
“There was a persistent and excruciating pain in his right leg. To call what he had to do ‘limping’ would be generous. The poor man was in so much pain, that he could barely stand but for a few minutes at a time, couldn’t sit for much longer, and even lying down couldn’t grant him reprieve.”
“That’s awful,” I said, as he began to properly mix the potion. “Were you able to help him?”
“Magicka only does so much. It does a lot, but, sometimes not enough, and sometimes it can make things worse. He couldn’t describe the pain adequately. To him, it felt as if it was emanating from his hip, and so every time he saw a healer – for the better part of fifty years! – they couldn’t help, and eventually each healer caused more damage. He found his way to me, eventually, in my little shop in Shimmerene, at the time. I convinced him, then, of my methods, and the things I had learned, and I told him of surgery, that perhaps I could find what was wrong without simply the laying on of hands. Drink this, darling,” he said, handing me the vial.
The smell made me retch.
“I know, I know,” he said. “You’re small, but I sense your spirit is rather big. You can handle it.”
I swallowed, put the vial to my lips, and downed the viscous liquid as quickly as I could. It felt as bad as it tasted – slippery, as if I were trying to swallow an eel. I retched again, but somehow I managed to keep it down.
“Good girl,” he said proudly. “I have to charge some patients for more than one bottle it’s so hard for them to swallow.”
I was glad I wasn’t one of them; I had more money than I ever had, but that was like a beggar getting a loaf of bread and saying it was the biggest meal he’d ever eaten.
“Alright, now, give me that fighting hand of yours,” he said, and I obliged, noticing the swelling was already going down and that the pain was very nearly gone. There was an odd shifting feeling in my fingers.
“So what happened to that patient?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, taking my hand and very gently rubbing it, loosening my joints, “he agreed, just so long as his partner was with him. And so it was arranged: I put him into a deep sleep, and I cut into him. It’s amazing what you see magicka can do on the internals. It was extraordinarily clear where the bone had been broken; the magicka had fused the break together, as well as the bone below it. As for his hip, the side he erroneously thought was the culprit had all sorts of extraneous bone growth from all the subsequent attempts at healing. I couldn’t do much about that.”
I took a hissing breath through my teeth as my fingers were loosened.
“I’m sorry, Aria, but we have to get those fingers straight, or they won’t heal properly. That potion’s already started working, you see, if we leave your fingers as they are, they’ll quite literally freeze that way.”
“Now, running down your back is something like a rope, you see?” he continued. “It runs down your spine, protected by your backbone, and if it should be damaged, it appears that certain parts of your body can be affected in many different ways. It’s why people whose necks are broken tend to perish, and why people whose lower backs are broken lose the ability to walk, you see, there are strands in that rope that let us move our legs, and, from my experience, many of them also cause pain.”
Now our palms rested against each other, and his other hand was on top of mine, rubbing in circles, presumably continuing the process of loosening things along with the potion.
“One of the initial healings had taken care of the broken bone, but in doing so, it had pinched one of these strands, one that I strongly suspected was causing the pain. I managed to work the bone at the join using very careful spells and rather unpleasant tools, and after a few hours of being extraordinarily mindful of the other fibers, I managed to work it free. A little restoration magicka was involved, of course, in the final stages to ensure the fibers were healthy enough, and to sew him back up.”
“So you fixed him?”
“I did,” Cyrean said proudly. “He wrote me not too much later and thanked me not only for the ability to live normally, but also, he said, for improving, well, his love life. I imagine it’s not as enjoyable when one is in that much pain.”
“I learned that on the trip here.”
The healer chuckled. “Alright, now, here comes the good part.”
Holding my hand flat between both of his, golden light surrounded our hands, and I felt the beautiful warmth as it worked inside me, mending bone and sinew. When all was done, my hand was just like new, and I studied it, grinning and giggling a bit giddily.
“Now the secret to that isn’t the magicka,” he said. “You remember that. The potion loosened you and started the mending process, the massage set you straight, and the magicka was the bow on top that finished sealing everything broken. And I guarantee the mend is so clean that you will never once experience arthritis. At least, not from this experience.”
“Thank you so much, Rumaiel” I said. “I’ve been healed before, but not like this. Oh…”
“What is it, my dear?”
“I wasn’t expecting such an expert,” I said. “There’s no way I can afford you.”
“Oh, posh. It’s not every day a lovely young lady comes in and expresses interest in my work. Consider this free of charge.”
I gasped. “No, absolutely not! You did amazing work. I can’t just-”
“Hup-” he interrupted. “Always take an offer like this with grace.”
I smiled at him and felt like crying. “Can’t I do anything?” I pressed.
Rumaiel chuckled. “You’re a visitor to our city, aren’t you?”
“Well, perhaps you’d consider writing every now and then. There are so few these days who care to listen to my ramblings, and I don’t suppose I blame them.”
“I’d love to,” I said happily. “And I’ll visit you whenever I’m here.”
“That is all I could ever ask, my dear,” Rumaiel smiled. “Now run along. The world’s too big and time too short for a bright young lady to dally in an old mer’s den.”
“Thank you again.”
As we rose, I couldn’t help putting my arms around his waist for a hug. Altmer are tall, anyway, but for a person like me, it occurred to me it could come off as, well, something else. Luckily he didn’t say anything in regards to that, but he patted my head and saw me out the door. I waved before running off to find the inn. An inn. The city might have been small, but it was large and busy enough to accommodate more than one.
Indeed, it wasn’t the first, but the second that I found Sedave, who had thought ahead to tell the keeper to expect me. I was shown his room, a cozy little affair with frosted glass that let in the sunlight, but scattered its rays so that everything took on a nice, golden glow. A vase of lavender flowers sat on a dresser by the window, filling the room with their lovely, nearly earthy scent. Sedave was out like a candle, but I didn’t much feel like lying down, as much as I knew he’d want me to. It was a bad idea, anyway. If I’m awake in bed I tend to squirm around, and my love needed rest after going nearly twenty-four hours with no sleep.
So I left the inn again with my coin purse on a rawhide strap around my neck, tucked into my tunic. Some would call it silly, but when you live on the docks, and when you’re a pickpocket yourself, you learn really quickly that, stylish as it might look, wearing valuable items at waist-height and just out of your vision is a very bad idea. I walked the cobbled streets, hearing the distant calls of merchants in the plaza. I ran towards the sound, dodging people left and right, and saw all sorts of stalls selling wares I just never saw in the City. My father and I had visited this very plaza, and it was almost exactly the same after all that time. We were poor, so actual shopping was out of the question, but he did splurge and bought a doll for me in the shape of a striped senche. It was one of my few belongings, but after those years on the docks, the damp eventually caused the fabric to mold, and between that and its loosening stitches, it didn’t make it long past my fourteenth.
I gasped, then, excitedly, and I wandered quickly around, hearing men and women alike appeal to my ego in attempts to sell things like cream to make my skin “glow” and perfumes guaranteed to attract good, wealthy men. I ignored them all in my sudden quest, looking around the open stalls, feeling disappointment begin to dampen my hopefulness. But then I saw a sign on one of the proper storefront windows behind all the stalls. It was adorned with a bright painting of a doll with the words: “Portia’s Pastimes – Games and Toys” above and below it.
I tried not to just burst in, in my excitement, but I still managed to startle the woman who was sewing in a chair behind the counter.
“I’m so sorry!” I said. “I was…”
“No need,” she answered, laughing. “I get so lost in my work, sometimes. How can I help you?”
Suddenly it seemed very silly, my being there. “I’m wondering if maybe…I mean, I’m looking to replace something very dear.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“I was here very long ago with my father,” I explained. “There was another toy seller, out in the plaza.”
“Well, that was me!”
“Yes, I started out in a plain stall out there, and I was lucky enough in my business that I finally could afford to purchase this place when it was up for sale. I’m Portia. Like the sign says.”
I grinned. “That’s brilliant! We bought a striped senche from you back then, and it’s all I really had left of my father, but it fell apart. I couldn’t keep it in the best conditions.”
“Oh,” Portia said. I could tell she knew what I meant. “Well I’m very sorry about that. I’m afraid I don’t have any striped senches at the moment. But I do have other exotic creatures looking for a home. Here…”
She walked around the counter and to the display window at the front of the shop. I watched her lean over the curtain that served as a backdrop for the display, and lift out a fair-sized stuffed animal.
“It’s beautiful!” I said as she presented it to me. It looked like a deer, but it had a long tail, and there were embroidered scales on its neck and rump. “What is it?”
“Why, it’s an indrik!”
“What’s an indrik?”
“They live in the Summerset Isles. They say Y’ffre himself created them out of the very essence of the woods.”
I took the indrik and held it, feeling its weight, and then, most importantly, I hugged it.
“He’s perfect!” I said.
“It’s a he?” Portia smiled.
“Yes. He seems like one, I think. How much is he?”
“Twenty septims, my good lady.”
In retrospect I should have just run back to Rumaiel’s practice and thrown my purse at him whether he wanted me to, or not. Twenty septims wasn’t all I had, but it was enough. I had only made an assumption about the cost of my healing. It was made in a moment of panic, and if I were gracious in the way Rumaiel had admonished, I would have just asked about what I owed and proceeded from there. It was what it was, though, and I stepped out of the toy shop with a stuffed indrik held to my chest.
(I did, in fact, write the healer fairly frequently, and I told him of my folly early on, only to receive in reply that indriks don’t belong in stuffy toy shops and that he was likely much happier roaming with me.)
I left the plaza, then, being suddenly light in my purse, and I followed the streets until I found a leatherworker’s shop situated in the middle of a rather quiet stretch of road. In the window was the most beautiful corset I had ever seen. It was a rich reddish color with intricate designs stamped into it. There was absolutely no way I could afford it, even without an indrik, but I couldn’t help imagining how it would look with my new hide leggings and boots.
“That corset would go great with your skin tone,” I heard a male voice to the side. I looked over and saw him leaning against the open door to the shop. “That one might be a little big, but of course I do custom work.”
“Oh, I’m only here for a little while,” I smiled. I knew better than to bring up the money situation.
“I could ship it when I’m done,” he persisted. “I’d only need a place to find you.”
“No, really, it’s okay.”
“Aw, come on. Look at it. If you don’t like the color, we could certainly find something you’d like more. Something dark, maybe? A deep chocolate brown? It’d go well with those gorgeous eyes of yours. Pair it with a nice, cream-colored blouse? I’m sure you already have to fend off the men with a stick, but imagine if you had something fine like that.”
“Sir, no, I appreciate the offer, but I’m really just window shopping.”
“At least try it on,” he said. “For me?”
So that’s where this was going. He was terribly handsome. An Imperial in his mid-forties, maybe. Curly, dark brown hair that lay close to his scalp, equally dark brown eyes.
“What for?” I asked, hoping the vibration I felt was just born of ego, that I was just misreading something.
“Maybe I’d like to see you in it? Buy it or not, I’m very interested to see the fit.”
“I…I have a boyfriend,” I said. I looked around the street, noticing that it was glaringly vacant, save a few shopkeeps sweeping their stoops and a few people wandering.
“Who said anything about that?” he grinned. “Like I said, I’d just like to see you in that corset. Perhaps without the tunic? I’m always fascinated to see what a little boost can do for girls less endowed, shall we say. Not that I’m complaining.”
I bit my lip. My stomach tied itself in knots, and all of a sudden I felt my throat close. There was a pressure, a fear. What if I did say no? Would he be angry?
“Well,” I said timidly, “only if it’s for a moment. I need to get back to the inn.”
“Oh, far be it from me to make your boyfriend wait! Come in, er,”
“Aria. Come in and sample some of the finest leather you’ll ever experience.”
I took his hand and let him guide me inside. I hoped my whimper wasn’t audible.
“I’m Antoninus, by the by. Born and bred right here in Anvil.”
“Oh, indeed! I am the third in my family to own and run this shop.”
My ability for small talk was never that amazing, but right now it was almost non-existent. Thankfully Antoninus didn’t seem to care.
“Now, just slip behind the screen over there and strip off that fetching little tunic of yours,” he said before chuckling lecherously, “and feel free to stand on that stool. I think I’ll need it to properly lace you up.”
Soon he came back, carrying the corset from the window. I tried to slow my breathing and pulled my shoulders back, pretending to be confident.
“Look at that skin,” Antoninus purred. He moved a hand from one side of my body and over my stomach to the other side. My muscles seized. “You’re from up north, aren’t you?”
“My parents were from Bruma.”
“Ah, some Nord blood, I’d wager?” he asked as he held up the garment, indicating to me that I should hold a couple of the panels while he walked around me. “Although I doubt too much, you’re such a tiny thing.”
Sometimes it was nice when men would comment on my stature. There was just something about it. Not now, though. Now it made me want to throw up.
Unsurprisingly, the corset didn’t fit. As much as he tried, even after having me lean over to plant my hands against the wall, he could only manage to get it to stay where it was.
“Well that’s certainly a shame,” Antoninus said. “Still, it does something for you.”
“Well it must, judging by those hard nipples of yours.”
My stomach flipped.
“It’s certainly made me hard.”
“Would you perhaps pose for me?” he asked.
“Pose…” I repeated quietly. The word suddenly didn’t mean anything.
“While I take care of this, I mean. It would be nice to have you here rather than leave it up to memory.”
I was shaking as he fell into a nearby chair and began to pull himself out. Finally my brain properly recognized all those terrible feelings, and it told me to move.
“I’m sorry, I need to go,” I said quickly, fumbling clumsily behind me for the knot in the laces. I nearly fell off the stool I was so terrified.
“I beg your pardon?” Antoninus asked. “You can’t just get a man aroused and then leave!”
“You were going to do it yourself, anyway,” I stammered. I finally found one of the lace’s loose ends and pulled the knot loose, letting the corset fall unceremoniously to the floor.
“And you were going to be my material!”
“I don’t want to be!”
I gracelessly pulled my tunic back on and my purse and made for the door. I didn’t get very far before Antoninus grabbed the collar of my shirt.
“Well now it’s a matter of principle. It’s time you learned, little girl, exactly why you shouldn’t go around catching men’s attentions.”
A hand was on my shoulder as he spun me around and held me so that my arms were pinned to my sides. I’d always been lucky in that I’d never had to defend myself from men like Antoninus before. The rare times one showed up, I could always slip away and into the more crowded areas of the City. It wasn’t hard to figure out what to do now, though. I might be small, but it’s a rare breed whose family jewels are out of reach of my knee.
He tried to curse as he collapsed onto his knees, but the pain took his voice for a moment.
I didn’t wait. I scrambled out the door and began sprinting down the street, hoping I was going the right way.
“Run, you little cock tease!” I heard him shouting. “Next time I see you, I swear I’ll get what you owe me!”
I didn’t stop running until I barrelled into our room in the inn. My nose was running, my vision was blurry from tears, and I’m sure the patrons in the tavern wondered what sort of monster I’d seen. I wondered if they knew.
Sedave snorted when the door slammed and startled him awake.
“What in all of Oblivion-” he gasped before he registered me presence and my tears. “Speck! Aw, Speck, darlin’ what’s wrong? What happened?”
I looked into those wide, scarlet eyes, wondering if I should say. I felt so filthy, and for so many reasons.
“The leatherworker?” I sobbed. “The one on the east side of the city. He…Oh, gods, Sedave, he…”
“What? What did he do to you?” Sedave asked, a look on his face so deadly serious I felt like I was the one about to be beaten senseless. “He didn’t…you know…”
“He tried. I got away, but I feel so awful!”
“Come on,” he said, lifting me up and walking me to the bed. There was a pitcher and a wash basin in the corner, and he wet a small towel and brought it over to clean my face. “Now. You’re gonna show me where he is, right? I’ll make sure he finks twice before tryina have his way wiv young girls.”
“Oh, Sedave, I don’t know,” I said in a small voice. “He said if I come back there he’ll-”
“He’ll have a hard time walkin’ by the time I’m through wiv him is what he’ll do.”
“…Do I have to go with you?”
He looked at me with a softer expression and pulled me close. “I don’t guess so, love. I dunno why I fought you’d want to, facing that skeever again.”
I wrapped my arms around his waist and wiggled my head under his arm to lean it against his side. Suddenly I was afraid that Antoninus would lie, and for a shameful moment I worried that Sedave would believe him over me.
“No,” I said finally. “I’ll come with you. I don’t want to be alone.”
I nodded, but then, as clarity began to settle, I realized: “My indrik!”
“I bought a toy indrik in the plaza,” I explained. “Like my old senche. I don’t have him. I must have left him in that awful place!”
“We’ll rescue him, then. Don’t you worry, love. Let me get dressed, and then we’ll go.”
I took a deep breath as he stepped into his pants.
“So how did this happen?” he asked.
“There was a corset in the window I liked. He asked if I wanted to try it on, and I said yes.”
“And that’s when it happened, huh?”
I nodded. “He wanted me to take my tunic off and everything. I was so afraid to say no, Sedave! When he took himself out to…that’s when I ran away. He tried to catch me and do much worse, but I got away.”
He was cursing under his breath as he laced his boots so viciously I was afraid the laces themselves would snap before he could tie them.
We left the inn, and for most of the trip I had to jog to keep up with Sedave’s pace. It wasn’t really very far, but in my terror it seemed like miles between the inn and that shop. When we arrived, Sedave kicked open the door. It took a couple of tries, but he managed.
“What’s the meaning of this?! Antoninus cried. “You’re going to have to pay-”
“Oi,” Sedave barked. “What’s this I hear about you forcin’ yourself on my Aria, hey?”
“Oh so she’s your Aria,” Antoninus sneered. “Well I didn’t see a brand on her. In any case, I have far better things to do than ‘force myself’ on common little whores.”
Sedave got so close to the leatherworker that he had to actually look down into his face. “Say that again,” he said. “You say that word again.”
“I’m sure doing that won’t save me from a beating. But if this is where this is going, it might behoove you to know that your precious little angel was the one who willingly took her shirt off.”
“I’ve known Aria since we was kids,” he said. “She don’t lie about shit like this. You? I don’t know you, but I know that face, yeah? I know that voice. Slimy little pervert, you are, intimidatin’ girls into doin’ fings they don’t want.”
“Well, I suppose if that’s how it’s going to be,” Antoninus sung. “Another fine man, snared by a harlot’s wiles. Does she at least suck your cock on your birthday?”
Sedave’s fist smashed into Antoninus’ face so quickly I wasn’t sure what had happened, but if there was any doubt, it was washed away by the sight of the leatherworker doubled over with his face in his hands and blood pouring from between his fingers.
“Feel like apologizin’?” Sedave yelled.
“Fug you!” was the muddled answer.
Sedave lifted his foot and forcefully pushed Antoninus to the floor with the sole of his boot. When Antoninus landed, he exposed his stomach, the perfect target for the pointed, steel-clad toe of the same boot to come drilling in, just below the ribs. He couldn’t cry out for the sudden lack of air, but he curled into a ball, moaning.
“Apologize!” he barked. “Apologize to Aria, and apologize for every girl you’ve done this to!”
“Fffuggid greyskid trash!” Antoninus sobbed. “So whad, you’re gudda kig me to death over this?”
“It don’t have to be kickin’ if you’d prefer somefin else?”
“I’b not gudda apologize because your girlfred is a cocktease, and I don’t think you have the guts.”
“You don’t, hey?” he said. The slightest undercurrent of trepidation colored his words.
“Do it then,” Antoninus choked. “If you’re so tough. I bean, I’b just living by life. It’s dot my fault if a piece of tail suddenly decides she doesn’t wannit.”
Sedave, his anger once again stoked and reinforced, barely waited for Antoninus to finish his sentence before slamming the same reinforced toe into Antoninus’ face. The soft tapping sound of teeth falling onto the floor made the hairs on my neck stand on end.
I stood in the doorway watching with wide eyes, shaking far more than I was before. Sedave could rough people up – I’d seen both him and the people he’d been scrapping with come out of the tavern covered in bruises and blood – his nose was even very noticeably crooked from the times it had been broken – but I never in my life could have imagined he’d kill someone, let alone in such a gruesome manner.
“What now?” Sedave asked, getting down on one knee.
Antoninus was moaning pitifully, his face disfigured and covered in blood.
“You don’t have to say anyfin’ if you’re unable, but just give me a little noise. A positive noise.”
Antoninus didn’t really respond. I don’t know if it was just because of the pain, his continued inadvisable stubbornness, or if he was just, at least in terms of mentality, gone.
“I don’t think he’s gonna say anything, Sedave,” I said quietly. “I don’t think he can do much of anything.”
Sedave looked over at me and sighed before standing back up. Looking back down at the crumpled man on the floor, I saw his arms draw up slightly and his hips and shoulders pivot in opposite directions before sending one more kick straight into the leatherworker’s face and spitting on him. What was left was a mangled mass of bloody flesh. His nose was well and truly smashed, and I wondered if he could even breathe anymore.
“C’mon, love, quick. I’m sure there’s a back door.”
“Wait,” I said quietly.
I stepped over the barely breathing body to the modesty screen where my indrik sat, patiently waiting. I picked him up with shaking hands and held him close while I stepped over the body once more to follow Sedave into the kitchen where, sure enough, there was a door that opened onto an alley.
I took a slow breath as we navigated the garbage-strewn path, wondering if the shaking was ever going to stop.
“Speck,” he sighed, turning around and putting his hands on my shoulders. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I never thought you could do something like that.”
“I never did eiver, if I’m honest. I just saw a man who’d violated you. I saw my da. Everyfink kinda went black except that disgusting little fetcher. I’d say I didn’t mean to make him suffer and to leave ‘im like that, but, I mean, that’d be a lie.”
I saw his throat work, and I raised one of my arms so it could hook under one of his and wrap over his shoulder, and I pressed my head against his chest. I felt his hands clasp behind my back and his cheek on top of my head. His chest was shuddering, and I felt tears fall onto the part of my hair.
“It’s been a long day,” I said. “For both of us. Between Jana, my broken hand, your dredging up your past, we’ve got a lot to think about.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too, Speck,” he said, squeezing me. “I’d do anyfink for you. I’ll protect you from anyone.”
“I know,” I smiled.
“And I’ll make sure nobody ever kidnaps your indrik, too.”
I laughed somehow, and slowly I felt that maybe things would be okay. We couldn’t go back to the inn; the street may have been relatively empty, but people certainly would have noticed Antoninus yelling after me and then me showing up not ten minutes later with an unusually tall, lanky dark elf in the sort of leather only ruffians wear. Someone would discover that mess, for sure, and all it would take would be one shopkeeper out sweeping their stoop when it all went down.
Gwynne had told us not to do something stupid, and this certainly qualified. It would be one thing to be jailed for thievery; I’m fairly certain if we were put away for murder, our chances of getting bailed out would be less than nil. So we gathered our things from the inn, took back our horses, and found our way back to the stashed cart which we tried to obfuscate further.
The smart thing would have been to eat any punishment Gwynne gave to us and go back home, but we were determined to demonstrate our prowess and our willingness to serve the Guild. We even had more odds against us now that Sedave had probably murdered someone! And that had to count for something, right? We were given an important job, and come hell or high water, we would see it done.