Nora took the morning shift after catching a few hours’ sleep, waking Eldawyn to stand watch with her and leaving Valdimar snoring away. The man had given his all, as usual, and Nora chuckled as she saw the same grin that she carried gracing the face of the elf. Sore and relaxed, she knew she might pay for the lack of sleep later, but for now she rode the tingle that continued to course through her skin.
“Not a match for Auryen,” said Eldawyn, taking her first swig of wine for the day. “But then, few are. Valdimar is a satisfactory substitute.”
Nora nodded. She took a rag down to the river and soaked it, then rubbed the sticky places on her body, preparing herself for the day. Elda stripped down and did the same, and soon the two giggling women were standing around the rebuilt fire absorbing the heat.
“You know, you are really fitting in well here, my friend,” said Eldawyn, smiling as she pulled her underclothes back on, then pulling down the robe she wore under her armor from the tree. “No one would guess that three months ago you had never seen magic, or swung a sword.”
“I've swung swords before,” admitted Nora, pulling on her gambeson prior to her mail. “Not as well though. And remember, I've had practice landing on my feet.”
“You poor poor dear,” said Eldawyn, walking over and hugging Nora, planting a gentle kiss on the shorter human's forehead. “Maybe this time you'll get to grow old in one place.”
Nora still wasn't sure what she thought about that. Home, the Commonwealth, still called, but Tamriel had more need of her. And growing old didn't seem likely in her business.
“Glad you signed on?”
“Why, yes, dear heart. I've never been more scared in my life, and have come close to shitting my britches more times than I care to count. But the adventures have been thrilling, the company delightful, and even the satisfaction of helping people has been an unexpected bonus. And the sex. By the Divines, the sex has been mind blowing.”
“So happy that you have found my service to be so rewarding,” said Nora with a laugh. “Now, we only have to figure out how to get rid of your demon.”
Eldawyn gasped in pain and Nora grabbed her to steady her.
“My demon does not like talk like that, as he just reminded me.”
“Then we won't talk of it,” said Nora, though she was more determined than ever to help free her friend. As soon as she found the means she would drop everything to kick that damned spirit out of Elda's body.
As soon as the rest of the party was up Nora shouted into the sky, something that she had neglected as of late. She could feel the approval of Kynareth, and energy flowing through her that would strengthen her shout. After that they all mounted up, grabbed the reins of a pack horse, and moved out.
Three hours on the road they spotted a block ahead. The road went through a small cut in the rocks, and someone had constructed a wooden palisade along the right-hand face of the opening. There was a walkway over the road connecting two small towers of logs. Men in mismatched armor stood in the road, stopping travelers and taking items from them. A pair of bowmen stood in each tower, covering the road and the approaches. It reminded Nora of the Robber Barons that had blockaded the Rhine river in Medieval Germany. It looked like a strong position, but surely one that would not stand up to a Hold army coming to take it. When she mentioned as much she was surprised by the answer.
“That's Robber's Gorge,” said Sofia, who seemed to know much about this region. “The bandits have been ensconced there for many years. Many times the Jarl of Whiterun had ordered an attack on them, wanting them off the main road up to Solitude. And every time it is attacked something happens. The guards are bribed, or the bandits are tipped off in time and evacuated to the caverns underneath. And, since they don't kill anyone who cooperates, and only take a portion of any traveler's goods, the guard has mostly given up on them.
Nora turned to look across the river, where some people were slogging on a mud road. There were bandits over there as well, covering them with bows as they came around a bend, more of their number demanding payment. So crossing the river really wasn't a viable option.
“What do the traders do?” asked Nora, studying the bandits through narrowed eyes.
“The Khajiit and others go around the very long way,” said Sofia. “Into the Reach and through a series of bridges and narrow roads, but they still run the risk of bandits, the kind that kill everyone and take everything.”
“What about couriers, and the Legion?” asked Eldawyn, herself studying the fortifications, looking for weaknesses. “The Thalmor?”
“Oh,” said Sofia in matter of fact tone. “They let them pass through unmolested. These bandits aren't total fools.”
Nora had expected the Thalmor wouldn't give a shit about the people of Skyrim, but the Legion? Weren't they supposed to be protecting the people of a land that was still in the Empire? That didn't make sense. Well, she could do something about it before the bandits were able to run and hide. And there was no bribe that would make her look the other way.
“Everyone dismount, except Lydia and Valdimar” she ordered. “Sofia, I want you to target that left tower, Elda, you the right. Annekke and Elesia will take down any bandits that they can get a clear shot at. Lydia and Valdimar, you get ready to charge in when I give the signal.”
“And what's the signal?” asked Lydia, concerned eyes looking at the woman she was sworn to serve.
“When I shout and attack,” said Nora with a smile.
“But, you'll be outnumbered,” cried Lydia, Valdimar nodding in agreement. “They'll overwhelm and kill you.”
“You should know me better than that,” said Nora. “I have no intention of dying. But I am determined that these bandits are deposed, now.”
The orders given, Nora starting walking quickly toward the gap, Dawnbreaker sheathed, only the buckler on her arm. She could see the people of the towers tracking her with their bows, arrows drawn, while unseen eyes also watched. The bandit leader, or at least the lieutenant that had been put in charge, walked to the center of the gap and held out a hand.
“Halt. There is a toll to pass through the gap. Pay up.”
“And if I don't want to pay?” yelled Nora across the hundred yards that separated her from the bandits.
“Too late. You either pay or die where you stand.”
Nora's sharp eyes took in the bows. Two of them were hunting bows, not powerful enough to pierce the armor she wore. But another pair, one on each tower, were sturdy warbows that radiated magic, and she was sure a shot from one of those could spit her like a deer, not that she intended to let that happen.
“I am a Thane of Whiterun, and I demand that you cease and desist at once.”
The bandits all started laughing. “And is that your army?” asked the bandit leader, looking past Nora to her people.
Nora looked back to see that her party had held up all the travelers behind her. Now she only had to hope that the break in traffic from the other side continued.
“Well, the big man looks like he could be a handful, except we will be filling him with arrows. The women. Well, we might want to take some of them captive, because the nights are cold around here. Now walk forward, slowly, and don't make any casting motions. As soon as we have you, you will order them to come in.”
Nora stopped herself from smiling, afraid that might let the bandits know something was up. She had almost gotten to the leader, who was smirking at her, when she made her move.
Nora moved at speed, much faster than anyone the bandits were likely to have seen. Drawing her sword and shoving it right through the throat of the armored chief. People were yelling, and she knew arrows would be striking her any minute, so she shouted.
“Feim,” The arrows struck, passing right through her, one striking a bandit through the chest. The towers exploded in flame, the mages unleashing hell on them. And arrows came arching in to take the bandits still in the gap under fire, dropping a pair.
Nora sprinted full out though the gap and up the path to the right side, her implant timing how long she would remain Ethereal. She ran past one bandit on the way down, armored and swinging a greatsword. The weapon passed through her and she continued on. Arrows came down, also passing through her, and she ran flat out for the barrier ahead, another of the spiked wood things meant to make people go around and slow down the assault. Nora was having none of that, and jumped into the air like a hurdler, clearing the barrier and coming down, just as her shout wore off. As soon as her feet hit the ground she set her stance just like her Housecarls had taught her and swung a vicious blow into a half-naked archer who was trying to line her up. The force of the blow drove Dawnbreaker through the shoulder and into the chest cavity of the woman, dropping her dead to the ground with flames playing over her.
Nora pulled the blade loose and turned to throw fire at the armored man she had passed before, who was coming back up the path breathing hard. And caught sight of Lydia spurring her horse around the corner and charging ahead. The bandit, whose armor must have had an enchantment against fire, tried to turn at the sound, only to take the Housecarl's sword onto his helmet, dazing him and pushing him to his knees. Valdimar came around the bend next as Lydia leapt from her beast before the barrier and ran around to support her Thane. Valdimar swung his hammer from horseback, not an easy thing to do, and took out the bandit Lydia had incapacitated.
The compound was in turmoil. The two towers were ablaze, along with some tents and a wooden stand. A dozen bandits were running for a well to get water, or trying to get in armor. Nora threw fire at the ones closest to her while running forward, cutting down the bandits who were too busy trying to put themselves out to defend against a charging blur. Another fireball struck, soaring overhead from behind, right in the center of a trio of bandits who were trying to organize a defense, setting them on fire. Arrows struck down more, and Nora knew her reinforcements had arrived.
At the end the boss of the bandits came out of the one wooden house in the compound, waving a glass great sword and wearing steel plate. He roared his defiance and ran forward, only to be felled by a lightning bolt cast by the Dragonborn. And the compound was theirs.
“Let the looting begin,” yelled Elesia from a distance, and Nora knew the woman was watching the horses. She had forgotten to arrange that, but her people had covered her slack.
The looting went on for an hour. They took everything of value save armor and unenchanted weapons. Taking the key from the boss they let themselves in through a trap door to the cavern below, grabbing more gems, potions and gold, along with some magical scrolls, and making sure that there were no bandits hiding down there. After that the three mages burned everything, making sure that this place would not be used as a redoubt in the future. Or not without a lot of work.
People started cheering them, those who had been held back coming forward to pass through the gap.
“Thank you,” said one woman.
“This place has been a pain in the backside for years,” said a man with the look of a merchant about him, driving a wagon. “About time someone took care of those scum.”
Nora felt a surge of pride that she and her team had made this small part of the world a better place. Someone might eventually rebuild the fortifications, but it was clear for now.
“Eldawyn,” said Nora as the elf finished burning down part of the log wall. “Dawnbreaker seemed to weaken at the end of the fight.”
Elda held out a hand and Nora gave her the sword hilt first. The Altmer looked at the blade from several angles, then regarded Nora. “Its charge is almost done. It needs to be recharged from a soul gem. With a sword like this either a few greater soul gems or many smaller ones.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yes. I can. But I won't. It's about time you got over your fear of enchanting and learned how to take care of your own weapons.”
Nora thought that over a moment. She still didn't like the idea of soul trapping, but it was a fact of life here. She refused to allow the trapping of black souls, those of men or mer or beast races. But she had come to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done for the poor sods who had been trapped. They were forever in the Soul Cairn, so some use might as well be made of their energy.
“Very well. Show me. If anyone charges my weapons, it should be me.”
“That a girl,” said the Altmer, sitting with her friend at an intact bench that hadn't been torched. “Now, you want to attune your mind with the weapon, then take a soul gem,” Eldawyn held out a grand gem, filled with the soul of a grand creature like a mammoth. “Then you just say this incantation, a simple one really, and the energy transfers.”
Elda repeated the words and made some gestures with her hands away from the sword. Nora tried them and nothing happened. Elda demonstrated again, and Nora mimicked her, and this time the soul gem flared and crumbled to dust, and the gem on the cross-guard of Dawnbreaker glowed strong again.
“I think it needs a little more,” said Eldawyn, handing over a common soul gem. “And you need to learn how to enchant gear as well. You never know when you’re going to be in some place and don't have the enchantment you need on your jewelry. When we get back to Whiterun we'll go over some of what I know.”
Nora smiled at her friend, realizing that she had crossed a bridge she had refused to in the past. Soul trapping just seemed wrong. But then, flinging Fat Man rounds into enemies had seemed wrong to the survivor of the nuclear war, but she had got over that. Eldawyn was probably one of the best enchanters in Skyrim, based on how powerful her work had been on their armor. Might as well learn from the best if she was going to do this.
The rest of the day they rode through farming country, houses scattered here and there, fields of wheat rippling in the sun or substantial plots of well-tended vegetables. There were a lot of side roads, dirt paths that led to more farms in the distance. They passed several dairy farms, the long-furred cows of Skyrim lowing in the fields or being driven to the barns for milking. Every farm had pigs and chickens in their yards, and a few had fenced in fields of beef cattle. Nora saw one sign that advertised a slaughtering to the neighbors of a prime beef steer.
“Why advertise,” she asked Sofia, who she had learned grew up in this area.
“So the neighbors can come around and claim their share. The meat won't last for long, so people need to cook it, often into jerky that will last through the winter.”
“Claim their share?”
“Well, the farmers can't use all the meat they get from their steer, so they share it among friends, then get some of the meat when those friends slaughter cattle. Or take it in trade for sausage or eggs. Whatever they have a shortfall of.”
They rode past mile after mile of farms, the breadbasket of Skyrim. There were numerous wagons on the road, bringing produce or wheat to one of the markets in the numerous small towns and villages along the way. Some of those villages were little more than a cluster of houses and outbuildings, often less than a dozen, along the way. Most lacked an inn, though all of them boasted a tavern. Nora learned that people could crash in the tavern if they didn't mind furs on the floor, along with constant noise through the night. She preferred camping to that, and the party made camp in a small stretch of woods near the sign announcing that Rorikstead was fifteen miles down the road.
Of course there was time for training. After the initial shock of being hunted had worn off, her friends had encouraged her to keep improving her skills. She was getting better with her stances, with shifting from spells to open hand blocks to buckler with her left hand, while swinging a blade with her right. And she tried to get in a half hour of martial arts each night, scrubbing off the rust on her form so to speak.
“You're becoming quite the spellsword,” said Sofia while Nora was wrapping up one session.
“Thank you,” said Nora, smiling at her friend. Sofia seemed to be well on the way to recovery. While she hadn't engaged in any heterosex that Nora knew about, the woman bantered with the others about it, including Valdimar. Nora thought it was only a matter of time before she let the horse mount her.
They continued on through hour after hour of farmland, all with their family houses, some with barns or animal sheds. Nora was curious about this largess of food, and asked Sofia if it was all used in Whiterun Hold.
“Oh, no, Nora. My home here feeds much of Skyrim. When the harvest is in, within the next couple of weeks, the Karth, its tributaries and many other streams will be covered with longboats, all filled to the brim with wheat. The warehouse in Solitude will be filled to the bursting.”
“So these people help to feed Solitude? I was wondering how a metropolis like that survived.”
“Not just Solitude,” answered an animated Sofia, who seemed to really like answering questions about her home region. “Sea going vessels will bring some of the harvest to Dawnstar and Winterhold. I think the same holds true of Windhelm, Ulfric's city, though only to Dawnstar and Winterhold, since they are loyal to his cause. The Rift, of course, feeds itself, as does Falkreath Hold. The Reach is much more complicated. They grow enough food there, when the Forsworn aren't on a rampage, burning and killing.”
Nora made a mental note to ask more about the Forsworn. The way Sofia said their name made it seem like there were totally at fault, but Nora thought there might be more to it than that.
“What about Whiterun? Does it have access by river to the sea?”
“By the Divines no,” said Sofia, shaking her head. “Like most of the rivers in Skyrim, there are just too many rapids and waterfalls. Boats would be loading, unloading, and carried overland all through the trip.
And they know nothing of canals and locks, thought Nora, wondering if that was another opportunity. If she could perhaps get working steam engines. While not an engineer herself, she had taken basic science courses in college, and understood many of the principles well enough. Maybe if she contacted someone at the College of Winterhold who had an interest in engineering, if such a person existed.
Early the next morning, after another camp, they reached the town of Rorikstead. About the size of Dragonbridge, it boasted a real inn, as well as a blacksmith who advertised swords and armor, and an apothecary. The party was in need of none of that as they passed through, but they did stop at the Frostfuit Inn for a late breakfast, something they had planned on when breaking camp. The inn had a house cat, something Nora had seen too little of since coming to Skyrim. Most of the cats here were big and wanted to eat her, but soon she had the little tabby eating out of her hand.
There is no way I could take a cat with me now, thought Nora, looking down into a basket of squirming kittens. She resolved to find out if there were any in Whiterun, and if they could take down skeevers.
While they were eating Sofia told them about how nothing would grow here a hundred years ago, but now it was some of the richest soil in Skyrim. She didn't have an explanation. Since the Nords did use cow manure in their fields, Nora thought that was the explanation. Or maybe not. Yet another thing to keep her mind occupied.
Nothing happened during the rest of the day. This part of Whiterun Hold was well patrolled, the only threat the Reachmen who might come over from the Reach and try to grab some quick plunder. They were quiet, for now, and the party rode on just enjoying the day, They stopped at a signpost that pointed toward Rorikstead, indicating that it was fifty-three miles away, and toward the Whiterun/Markarth/Solitude/Falkreath crossroads. Or just The Crossroads for short, forty-five miles further on. Nora went through her training routine, finishing with karate attacks and defenses, then ate her fill of the food the party had cooked and fell into bed with Valdimar and Eldawyn. She knew she couldn’t monopolize the man lest there be a round of complaints, though with Lydia and Sofia out of the picture there was only Annekke and Elesia to contend with.
By mid-afternoon they had reached The Crossroads, home to a small town of about fifty houses and buildings. There was an inn, and the obligatory mill to handle the timber from the forest that was now all around them. Three roads met, the road to Falkreath actually running into the Whiterun road a mile from the crossroads. The party hadn't had a bath since leaving the vicinity of Robber's Gorge, so she thought it might be time to let them clean themselves and sleep in a warm building.
They woke before the sun, loaded the horses, and rode down the paved road to Falkreath. Now they were in forest, thick, almost virgin growth, trees towering to the sky. They saw numerous farms off the road with small fields of vegetables, or gangs of furry cattle. The sound of axes hitting trees could be heard the entire way. Deer bounded across the road, and in one place they saw some hunters with a kill, waving to the party as they dressed their prize.
“How are you feeling?” asked Eldawyn of her friend as the darkness started to close in around them.
It had seemed time to camp, and Nora decided to call a halt despite being so anxious to confront the Brotherhood. There was a large and beautiful lake just off the road to the north, and the party had helped themselves to baths. Now it was just the passing of time before she met her enemies.
“Nervous. Anxious. Just a little afraid. And wanting to get on with it,” said Nora.
“Perhaps Valdimar and myself can relieve some of those feelings.”
“Valdimar is Annekke's tonight. She called dibs. So I guess it's just you and me.”
“The things I suffer for my friends,” said the Altmer with a laugh, moving close to Nora on the log and putting an arm around her.