The journey from Darkwater Crossing went well, at first. They made a much larger footprint on the road with the addition of three people, their horses and a dozen pack mules loaded with fine corundum ore. Which led to the problem of trying to move quickly and stealthily over the road, and failing miserably.
Annekke Crag-Jumper and two of the guards from the mining community came with them. Annekke wore a good set of leather armor and handled her sword and bow with expertise. Nora had no idea as to the proficiency of the guards and decided to treat them as if they were novice warriors. That way she wouldn't be surprised if they let her down in battle.
Nora was now equipped with the first word of the Frost Breath shout. She had tried it out, satisfied that it had been effective. Still, it was only the first word, and so of limited power. Any word added to her repertoire was good, though, giving her more flexibility in battle.
“Well, there it is,” said Eldawyn, looking at the fortress looming in the darkness ahead.
It had been raining all day now and it was really coming down at this point. Everyone was drenched and Nora was thinking they needed a place to dry off before bedding down. But where? The pack train was a mile back, stopped and waiting for a decision. Go down the road, or try to bypass it? There were lights on the battlements so sentries were out, and since the fortress contained many mages, there was a high probability that there was a magic user up there.
“We could just go down the road,” said Sofia, grimacing as the rain rolled down her face. “They probably won't see us and we're home free.”
“And if that mage up there has night eye,” said Eldawyn, referring to the spell that allowed the caster to see in darkness, “they will see us and we will be attacked.”
“Your call, my Thane,” said Lydia, standing close to her charge.
Yes, it is, thought Nora, not really liking the situation at all. She was in charge, just as she had been all those years back in the Commonwealth, and people would live or die on her decision. She didn't like the pressure, but also recognized that she was the best war leader in the party. While it would be nice to have a warm shelter there were too many unknowns for her to risk their entire party, as well as the ore for Adrienne.
“Here's what we'll do,” she finally said, outlining her plan.
Nora stood in the woods on the other side of the road, a subdued magelight in her hand. Eldawyn stood a little further on using the same spell. Two of her people were on the road a half a mile ahead, while two more brought up the rear. The horses were already across, and Annekke and her two men were leading the mules in three sticks along the path. So far so good, as nothing had stirred from the fortress. They were almost through, the last group, a guard and four mules, moving along.
Suddenly everything changed as one of the mules decided to act up. It bucked and cried, and a light rose up on the battlements, illuminating the area. The recalcitrant mule broke away from his line and ran into the open, the guard, Bjorn, running after it.
Just let the damned thing go, thought Nora, cringing inside.
Too late, and a fireball arched out from the battlements to hit man and mule, turning them both into torches.
Toccata and Recorder came running up from the rear and the group hurried on. Nothing they could do for the guard or the mule, and the fortress was now aroused. They gathered everything up a half mile down the road, mounted, and rode on into the night.
“Poor Bjorn,” cried Annekke as they came to a halt and made sure they were all accounted for. “He has a pregnant wife back at Darkwater Crossing.”
And he died under my command, thought Nora bitterly. She was angry. At herself. At the mages. She thought of revenge and was soon stripping off her armor and clothing, pulling her nanoarmor and helmet off her pack horse.
“What are you doing, my Thane?” asked a concerned Lydia.
“Going back for some payback,” said Nora in a low, dangerous growl.
“There are mages back there,” said Eldawyn, clearly frightened that her friend was about to do something truly stupid. “They will be able to see you in the dark.”
“Not in this armor,” said Nora, hastily donning the suit, then making sure her weapons were attached.
“So, you're going to attack that fortress while the mages are alert?” asked Lydia, disapproval in her tone. “They will kill you.”
“No,” said Nora forcefully. “They will not. Look, I'm not going to try and take the fort. But I will take whoever they have outside of it looking for us.”
“I'm going with you,” said Annekke, a determined look on her face.
“Can move as well in the dark as anyone here. This isn't up for debate. I am accompanying you.”
“Very well,” said Nora, putting a hand on the woman's shoulder. “But stick close and let me lead.”
Nora engaged the invisibility field and Annekke gasped. “Where did you go?”
“I'm still here. The rest of your stay here and watch out for mages. I'll be back within the hour.”
Nora moved out, running quickly over the road, Annekke cursing once then following silently. A mile from the fortress they ran into their first mage. The woman was stumbling about in the dark despite having a mage light overhead. A figure with her moaned, and Nora felt a chill run up her spine when she realized the thing was a zombie, raised from the dead by the mage. If she understood it right, killing the mage would get rid of any risen revenants.
The mage had no way of seeing Nora. The rain might outline her invisible form, but unless she was in strong light it wouldn't matter. She soft footed it right up to the mage and swung her knife, slicing completely through the neck. The body folded up on itself and down to the ground, while the zombie fell flat on its back, glowing for a moment as it reduced to ash.
“That wasn't enough for your man?” whispered Nora to her companion.
“No. It wasn't,” said Annekke, shaking her head. “And I would like the privilege of the next kill.”
“It's yours,” replied Nora, turning and walking toward the fortress.
A hundred yards further were a trio of figures looking through the woods. Nora shook her head at their ineptitude. They had no skill at stealth and would probably accomplish nothing even if their quarry were still in the area. Nora disengaged her stealth field, tapped Annekke on the arm, then pointed at one of the mages. She then tapped her own chest and pointed at the other. The zombie shambling along behind the mages they could ignore, since killing the summoner would take care of it.
Nora decided to make this kill without invisibility, wanting to match herself against the Ranger. She had to admit that Annekke, despite her lack of practice, was very good, blending into the shadows and moving on cat’s feet toward her victim. Nora felt she was just as good, gliding along without a sound. She looped around and came up behind her victim, avoiding the zombie by a couple of feet. She glanced over at Annekke, seeing the woman was also behind her target. A nod from Nora and they both moved, grabbing hair, pulling back heads and exposing throats, then sliding blades across flesh. Both mages died, Nora's a little faster than the Ranger's, though to be fair Annekke only had a normal dagger. The zombie moaned and fell, dissolving to ash.
“Helga. Gertrude. Are you okay?” yelled out a male voice, and a torch approached out of the darkness.
Nora waved for Annekke to stay in place, then engaged her stealth field. She moved silently toward the man and the glow of a flame atronach. That last concerned her, since it was a summoned creature, and she didn't know how its senses worked. Not that well, obviously, and she gutted the mage and let him fall to the ground, gasping in pain. The atronach turned toward her and Nora realized she had made a mistake. Dropping to her knees she rammed her knife through the skull of the man and the summoned creature exploded in a blast of fire.
“Shit,” growled Nora as she felt the pain of burns on her face. The armor had protected the rest of her, the faceplate her eyes, but her mouth and jaw had been badly burned.
“Let's get the hell out of here,” she hissed at Annekke. The burns were already starting to heal and she was tempted to cast a spell, but not here. Voices were yelling from the keep and torches were at the gate. Nora smiled despite the pain. The mages would find their victims, if not tonight then when the sun rose. She hoped they appreciated the present the pair had left them.
“Let's get the hell out of here,” growled Nora when she reached the others. She cast a quick healing spell on herself, then mounted her horse and spurred the mare down the road, the rest of the party on her heels. Five miles down the road they went into the woods and pitched their tents, tethering the beasts. Eldawyn cast an alarm spell, guard shifts were chosen, and the rest headed to their bedrolls and an uneasy sleep soaking wet.
“How many?” asked Eldawyn as she crawled into their furs.
“Four. And Annekke was as good as advertised.”
“Was that enough to pay for Bjorn?”
“No,” said Nora, shaking her head. “It was a down payment. Eventually I want to clean out that nest of snakes.”
Eldawyn nodded, then turned over to go to sleep.
“I'm in the mood, Elda,” said Nora in a little girl's voice. “If you want to.”
“You ready for a mere mortal?” asked the elf, turning back to look at the human.
“I'll never forget Kynareth,” said Nora, sighing. “But as wonderful as it was, it's over, and I've got to go back to living in this world.”
“I'll try to fill in the gap,” said Eldawyn with a smile, reaching for her friend.
The next day dawned with overcast and the threat of more rain. The party hit the road, moving around the base of the great mountain on the road to Whiterun. By mid-morning the sun had come out and steam rose from the wet roadbed. By afternoon everyone was dry and the spirits of the party lifted.
They reached the stables around midnight, waking the horse master and arranging for the board of all the animals. The party walked through the gates to a sleeping city, very few people up and about. Nora said her goodbyes as her party went to their beds. Annekke woke Adrienne to seek accommodations for herself and the remaining guard in War-maidens, while the rest sought rooms in one of the inns. Whiterun had a much lower population now that people had returned to their farms and their harvests. The disaster had been averted, for now, and Nora felt pride that she had helped get the region back in order.
She herself went to her room in the palace, bringing Eldawyn with her. Both were too exhausted for love making, but it was comforting having someone she cared about sleeping in her bed. They both woke as the sun rose and went about their business. Eldawyn was going to talk with Farengar, while Nora thought it might be a good idea to talk with the Jarl, then deliver her gift to Danica.
“You met with the Greybeards?” asked Balgruuf, sitting his throne.
“I did. I learned one of the other words of the force shout, as well as another. And I killed a dragon on the road. Without my advanced weapons.”
“I knew you could do it, Dragonborn.”
“It wasn't just me,” admitted Nora, smiling. “My group is working well, and we killed it as a team, though I did strike the last blow.”
“And did you remember to avoid the front?” asked Balgruuf.
“I did. I jumped on it from the rear and ran up its back to the head.”
“By the Divines,” said the wide-eyed Jarl. “I'm not sure that was a better tactic. But you survived, and the dragon didn't, so it seems you did the right thing. So, what next?”
“The Greybeards gave me a mission to retrieve an artifact up in Morthal hold. At some ruin called Ustengrav.”
Balgruuf went pale at the mention of the ruin. “That is a much-cursed place. Are you sure you want to carry out that quest?”
“I pretty much have to, Jarl. The Greybeards insisted that I retrieve the horn of Jurgen Windcaller if I wanted to be recognized as Dragonborn.”
“Then you must do it,” agreed the Jarl, still looking troubled. “Tread carefully in that place and make sure your weapons are ready.”
Nora went to the Temple of Kynareth after meeting with the Jarl. Danica was there, as usual, casting healing magic on some poor soul who had been injured in the war. Toccata and Lydia were there as well, praying at the shrine. Nora was moved to join them, and knelt beside Lydia at the altar, giving thanks to the goddess for seeing them all safely to Whiterun.
“Did someone discover something about herself on the road,” said Danica, walking to stand over the trio.
“I had an experience,” said Nora, smiling. “Kynareth contacted me, and I learn more about her.”
“And are you resolved to your role here?”
“I still want to go home, but I'm willing to be her champion until the dragon crisis is over.”
“That's quite a change,” said Danica, looking surprised. “She much have touched you.”
“Oh, she touched Nora, alright,” said Toccata with a smile. “Most intimately.”
“My word,” said Danica, a smile creasing her wrinkled face. “The Goddess made love to you?”
“Uh, yes,” said an embarrassed Nora. “Does that happen often?”
“Not at all, and only with someone the Goddess considers dear. It was quite an honor.”
“It was amazing,” said Nora, her face beaming. “And she healed me, making me capable of having children again.”
She had told Danica about her damaged ovaries when the woman had examined her early on. And Danica had made it clear that there was no healing magic available to regrow her eggs. She hadn't mentioned direct intervention by a Divine, though. Probably because it was so rare.
“You have been blessed, my friend,” said the priestess, getting to her knees beside Nora. “All praise to the Goddess. And to her champion.”
Nora blushed. Even after all she had accomplished she still got embarrassed at having the labels hero or champion applied to her.
“Tell her about the sap,” said an excited Toccata.
“What sap?” asked Danica, brows furrowing.
“From the Eldergleam,” continued the enthusiastic redhead. “I told her what I had heard. Is it true that the sap from the mother might revive the daughter?”
“Yes,” said Danica, a thoughtful expression on her face. “But I didn't think it was something our Dragonborn should attempt, since she would need to take Nettlebane from the Hagravens. Did you get that blade?”
“Didn't need to,” said Nora, tapping the butt of her knife. “My trusty blade did the job.”
“But, that's impossible,” stammered the priestess. “No ordinary metal can cut into the tree.”
“It seems that the knife I brought with me from another world could do the job.” Nora reached into her backpack and withdrew the small bottle filled with the glowing sap and handed it reverently over to the priestess. “I hope this helps.”
“With the blessing of the Goddess I am sure it will. Thank you.”
Nora could feel the energy flow through her, the blessing of the Goddess she now called her own. She had the impression that her shouts would be stronger, slightly, the cool down time lowered.
Adrienne was happy to see her and stopped cataloging the ore she was going to smelt for a little down time. “I am so grateful to you, my friend,” said the smith. “You have saved my business.”
“You're welcome, neighbor.”
“Neighbor?” asked the woman, raising an eyebrow.
“I bought Breezehome. Just up the road,” said Nora, smiling.
“I wondered who was moving in,” said Adrienne, returning the smile. “There were women going in and out with cleaning equipment, and men bringing in furniture. But are you sure it will be sufficient for you?”
Nora wasn't sure, but there weren't any other houses available in Whiterun. The house had a smallish living room/kitchen on the bottom floor, and two bedrooms above. Not enough for her entire crew, but it would do until she found something better. There was a castle on the outskirts of the city, Valkyrja she thought it was called, that was vacant, though still staffed. There was no way she could afford it now, but with some more looting and saving it might be possible. Until then she had a house to call her own, a place she could do with as she wanted.
“I'm going to have a housewarming party in a couple of days. I hope you and your husband will come.”
“A what kind of party?” asked the confused smith.
“A tradition on my world. At least from the time I came from. A way to show off a new house to friends while celebrating the possession.”
“That sounds like a wonderful tradition,” said Adrienne. “Might be it will catch on here. We'll be there if I have to drag Ulfberth by his ear.”
Nora laughed, imagining the pretty smith dragging the massive warrior by his ear. It was a funny image, but she didn't doubt that Adrienne could do it.
Three more days, she thought. Three more days to rest and relax, and then they would be on the road to Ustengrav. And whatever terrors awaited them in the quest for the artifact.