Breaking the Ice

A young Redguard’s arrival in Solitude does not yield the glorious beginning to an adventure that she hoped for.  


 

Rating: T
Length: 2010 words


She sat alone in the tavern, the warm flicker of fire and candlelight that danced against the worn pewter goblet before her seeming no more than a mockery. The murmur of conversation and the twangs of the resident bard’s lute being tuned were nothing next to the sounds that spilled from her memory, and she stared into the depths of her mead, seeing nothing there but waves, dark and thick with blood.

Nehadi had arrived in the port of Solitude less than a week ago, the cold winds and pitching seas that had brought her here a harsh shift from Hammerfell’s scorching, dry land and wide, relentless skies. She had come with wanderlust in her blood, and nothing to tie her to home but bad memories. Skyrim was a war-torn land of savagery—a place of few compromises, or so she’d heard—and it had seemed like a good place for a mercenary to make a living.

She’d come thinking she was, if not invulnerable, at least in a strong position to achieve what she wanted. The curved blades she carried, the thick folds of her grey cowl and cloak, and the quickness and agility they concealed… she’d allowed herself the prideful conceit of thinking those things made her more than the provincial sons of whores here had ever seen.

The first day, still queasy from the transition to land after weeks aboard the heaving deck of the ship, she’d made her way up the worn dock steps and approached the city. Nehadi supposed she should have known from the way it clung to that improbable arch of rock—teetering over the ocean, its very walls an impossibility, yet one that had endured for centuries—that Solitude should not be underestimated.

Her first stop had been to the market. Traders were good sources of gossip and therefore information, once the useful material was sorted from the chaff. They should have been, anyway, though it looked like fate was against her. She got little out of anyone, and the townsfolk seemed more concerned with their own problems—a recent execution had them riled up, though Nehadi was less than interested in their local squabbles.

When the Argonian approached her, she’d thought of him as nothing more than another fool: a small-time guttersnipe whom she could turn a septim or two playing.

He’d said he was called Jaree-Ra, and he offered her a cut in a job—veiled terms, deniable as suspicious yet idle chatter if anyone overheard it—but it had sounded strangely reasonable. Run a ship aground, shake the sailors down to make sure they were suitably grateful to their saviours, and take the vessel’s cargo.

It was the kind of work Nehadi had never really done before, but that she didn’t want to believe she’d shy from. Business was business in this new life she’d chosen, and it wasn’t as if the Argonian was suggesting killing the vessel’s crew.

Wrecking and looting were par for the course in port cities, and she couldn’t very well turn down the first job she’d been offered here. What message would that send? And, after all, what did she owe in the way of kindness? Nothing to anyone. Her life so far had taught her that. Her father dead not two months before her mother remarried, their old home sold off; the securities she had once known were all gone, and no one had cared for her happiness. She’d been but a child when it happened, but children learn lessons well.

No one was responsible for Nehadi but her, and she owed neither allegiance nor care to anyone but herself. That included the sailors on the Icerunner, although she had no desire to see anyone hurt for simply doing their job.

That was what made the Argonian’s proposition so appealing, she supposed. She had set her jaw, agreed to what he asked… however stupid she knew it was now.

Theft and assassination were not crafts to Nehadi, though she had known the warm splash of blood on her skin, and she had stolen to provide for herself before. Many times, in fact, though that didn’t mean she liked it. There was a dishonesty in shadow-skulking that she found uncomfortable.

She’d sought to make the role of mercenary for herself because it held some semblance of honour, because there were defined rules and boundaries, and Nehadi liked to know where she stood. It was easier to defend yourself that way. Better to see the face of the one you killed, and take responsibility for their death.

It was hard to really be sure why she’d accepted Jaree-Ra’s proposal. Perhaps because the townspeople had been so absorbed with their own troubles, with the tensions between Skyrim and the Empire, and the anger and hurt of a soured national pride. Nehadi had no interest in taking sides, and no interest in either their internal strife or their opinions.

All that mattered—especially to someone new in town, whose journey here had lightened her pockets so considerably—was the coin. Perhaps she hadn’t fully thought things through; perhaps she’d merely been stupid. Either way, it was too late to take it back.

That night, on Jaree-Ra’s word, Nehadi had crept to the top of Solitude’s single lighthouse, doused the fire… smelled the salt in the darkness and listened to the low swell of the waves. For a moment, she’d thought fancifully of sacrifices, as if the burn of ash in her nose—the quenched flames whose sudden absence spotted her vision blue—were her gift to the gods, unchaining their shadows and letting them roll out across the sea.

She just hadn’t imaged it would be a sacrifice that resulted in so much death.

The Argonian had lied, naturally. She should have seen it. He and his sister had wrecked the Icerunner, yes, but their marauders had swarmed her as she lay trapped in the ice. The crew were slaughtered, left where they fell, and the vessel had been completely gutted. Even the plates in the galley had gone—anything portable stripped and carried off through holds and decks slippery with blood.

Jaree-Ra’s sister, Deeja, had been directing the operation. Nehadi found her deep in the Icerunner’s belly, a rasping laugh in her voice as she greeted the stupid Redguard who’d done their dirty work for them. Jaree-Ra had sent Nehadi to her for a reward, and the scaled bitch was only too happy to oblige, offering her blade and her condescension.

Nehadi had enjoyed killing her, enjoyed cutting her open and watching the mocking light leave her eyes. There was a note on the body—Jaree-Ra, celebrating their cleverness, instructing his egg-sister to dispatch ‘the fool’, and detailing the rendezvous point for their later meeting.

That was stupid. It gave Nehadi far too much to work with. She’d operated almost entirely on rage, finding the location of the cove Jaree-Ra’s note mentioned on a map in the late captain’s quarters. It wasn’t too far. Nehadi’s anger propelled her through the crippling cold as she picked her way along the coast, ducking from shelter to shelter as snow blew in across the sea.

Broken Oar Grotto, they called it. They seemed to take pride in it: a broken, flooded cave, boats walled in and stagnant, and lives made on wrecking and looting instead of the open-water piracy this fleet had once seen. Marauders? They were more like petulant children, grown complacent and fat on the easy pickings they’d found themselves.

They disgusted Nehadi, but they nearly killed her. Some of them were fierce fighters, and they thronged the caves like skeevers. She snuck her way through the tunnels, hiding in the shadows she hated so that she could take down the stragglers she found in silence—or as much quiet as she could—and almost tasting the sweetness of revenge.

She found Jaree-Ra in the centre of things, of course, at the heart of the old ship transformed into a hideout; a relic of the grandeur his men had once known. She had to fight hard to get to him, but she was glad of it. Glad of showing them what this fool was capable of doing. It served them right, and it would repay them for the way they’d laughed. To see the one they’d labelled ‘idiot’ bringing their deaths to them with steel and whirling rage.

She saw the fear in the Argonian’s face before she fought him. He had nowhere to run, no one to hide behind now the Nord captain in his pay was dead.

Nehadi cut his throat, letting the blood spill all down his chest, and she relished the gargles and bubbling cries that broke from him as he died. She stood there, panting in the echoing quiet of the caves, the dead piled where they’d fallen and her blood mixing with theirs on the warped and splintered wooden boards.

She sat at what evidently passed for the marauders’ mess table to dress her wounds, feeling no pain until the pounding thrill of the fight finally ebbed from her veins. Then it was the work of hours to loot and strip the place, taking the best prizes—gold, jewels, and a few choice trinkets—in her pockets, and taking stock of the stolen cargo and inventories of pelts and mead that she couldn’t carry, but that would be worth returning to collect.

She took the late captain’s journal with her. It contained tallies of the ships wrecked, and the names of the Argonian so-called ‘treasure-hunters’. Perhaps it would provide proof of the service she’d done the city in ridding it of these pests… or at least defend her from any charge of wrong-doing.

The note from Jaree-Ra she left pinned to the wall with an iron dagger: a message to anyone who found it, and a promise of retribution. Then, she had made her way back to the city, her journey slow and agonising, and her pride hurting far worse than her wounds.

The Winking Skeever had been welcome solace when Nehadi finally stumbled in. A bed, a meal, a good long sleep… the innkeeper was a smart enough man not to question the strange hours, bloodied clothes, or grimacing expression of someone who paid with a fat handful of coins. The day passed without her, and Nehadi rose again for the night, shadows rolling around her like the darkness she’d set on the sea. Nothing felt bright anymore.

Now, she sat in the corner of the tavern, not hearing the bard play. The passing of time and the space between her and this first of her adventures in a new land had brought her no clarity or respite. Her brows drawn, she stared into her mead and thought of the dead men on that frozen ship. Men whose blood she bore on her hands, and that blood could not be washed clean with the blood she’d spilled since. An equal measure of vengeance didn’t feel like justice, it seemed. Strange… she’d believed it would.

In the morning, she would arrange for the remnants of all those months of cargo to be collected from Broken Oar Grotto. It had seemed as if the marauders were shipping the stuff out, rather than selling goods back to the city. That probably meant there was a bounty in this somewhere, if Nehadi played her hand right. If not, she would simply have to take to the road and find a more amenable place in this land to make her fortune… but she would take a lesson with her.

From this point on, she would know better than to trust at first word, or to agree to anything that seemed too good to be true. She would remember her mistakes, and atone for them where she could, and—just perhaps—she might begin to see those sullied shadows roll back, and a breath of light touch the dawn.

Nehadi hoped so. She owed that much to the dead, and to her honour.


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