Trendil and associate stumbled into Windhelm exactly one week after they had left. Well, Trendil stumbled. Koren strode in insufferably confident steps. But, then, his head wasn’t twice the size as usual (excluding his hubris), nor was he pale and shaking. He had even been able to eat food on the trip back. Trendil, on the other hand, had all those symptoms and had been disinclined to ingest anything heartier than broth. She felt moderately better than she had the day after the encounter with the wraith, but only by a modicum.
Besides her health, the walk back had been surprisingly uneventful. Koren appeared to have set aside his hostility, at least for the moment. Which didn’t make him any chattier – he walked in silence, for which Trendil’s pounding head was grateful, the entire way back. She was likewise surprised and grateful that he had not decided to force himself on her while she slept, which she did at every opportunity. She was quite certain she would not have been able to fend him off, had he tried.
Something had changed, likely having to do with the fact that she had probably saved his life. She didn’t have the energy to think upon it much (and certainly had no inclination to bring it up with him) – she just accepted it, which much relief, as the way things stood.
They checked in with Bearmane, who looked unsurprised by the news that Rell had not made it (“three out of four wannabe Stormcloaks die or piss off back home during their trial”). “Congrats on becoming Stormcloaks,” he said as he tossed the wraith heart into a box by the wall without so much as a glance. “We’ll make it official one week from today. Give others a chance to get back. Be here at dawn.”
Dismissed, they turned as one and walked out of the building. It was at that point, in the same courtyard they had met, that Koren turned back into himself. He stopped, grabbed her arm, and yanked her around so they were face to face.
“Wha…” was as far as Trendil got.
“Listen, bitch. We’re even now. You saved my life, I saved yours. I don’t owe you anything.”
The vision of him planked over her while his unwelcome dick emptied itself into her swam into her brain and some of her lethargy gave temporary way to a rush of anger, but she shook it away. Her fault. Dammit. “Fine.”
“Fine.” And that was that. He released her, spun on a heel, and stomped away. Trendil rubbed her arm – the man had a grip like a vise – as she watched him go, then made her way to the inn, where she emptied her purse of nearly every coin left to her on a private room, eschewing her usual frugal method of sleeping on the floor in the common area like most others. It was an extravagance, a luxury, but she didn’t have anything else she needed and, soon enough, the army would be taking care of her basic needs. Money well spent, she felt, as she closed the door, dumped her armor and weapons in a heap on a random spot on the floor, and collapsed on the bed, asleep almost before her head touched the pillow.
It was a fresh and revitalized Trendil who entered the Palace of the Kings a week later, hair pulled back into a tight tail, swords strapped on her back, armor as clean as she could manage to get it. She didn’t need the promptings of the guards at the doors to see where to go – a group of people had gathered along one wall, milling in aimless and uncomfortable silence near a long table that was covered in neat rows of stacked Stormcloak armor. Each pile of leather and mail was topped by the distinctive Stormcloak helmet, something she preferred not to wear – she found helmets limited her vision. Well, one problem at a time.
Speaking of problems, she spotted Koren as she approached and altered her trajectory to a spot as far from him as possible – his constant diatribe was the last thing she was in the mood for. As she took her place, she saw, out of the corner of her eyes, a figure detach from the general mass and head in her direction, and she braced herself for the confrontation she had been trying to avoid, but when she turned to face him, she found herself looking at the short-haired blond woman who had stood up for her in the courtyard that first day.
“Oh good! You made it!” The woman beamed at her, and Trendil smiled back.
“As did you, I am happy to see.”
“Yes. We lost Petr,” with a sad glance over her shoulder toward some indefinable other person, “but we made it back.” She cast a furtive glance around and leaned forward and sort-of-whispered, “Did…he make it as well?”
It took a moment for Trendil to realize what the woman meant. “Hm? Oh. Yes. We lost one as well, but not him. He was too stubborn to die that easily.”
The woman laughed and held out an arm. “I hope he was not as much trouble to work with as he seemed! I’m Prid, by the way.”
“Trendil.” She grasped Prid’s arm with a brief squeeze. “Nice to finally meet…”
Trendil just managed to keep herself from jumping as Bearmane’s distinctive voice boomed behind her. She released Prid’s arm and turned as the bushy-faced Nord strode across the hall, stopping before the group as two other Stormcloaks moved to the table and began organizing the bundles.
“Welcome to the Stormcloaks! Here is how this is going to work: you’re going to take the oath and get dressed in proper gear,” he motioned toward the long table. “Then, we’ll get to work. Right, fists over hearts, repeat after me. I do swear my blood and honor to the service of Ulfric Stormcloak (just the mention of his name caused a noticeable jolt race through the company, but the murmurs that sprang to inevitable life were stomped out by an incendiary glare from Bearmane), Jarl of Windhelm and true High King of Skyrim.”
Trendil spoke the words in unison with the company, though, in her head, she added her own addendums involving the slaughter of murderous Imperials.
“As Talos is my witness, may this oath bind me to death and beyond, even to my lord as to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms.”
The “and beyond” part felt a little troublesome – she hoped they wouldn’t really be held to that. The last thing she wanted from an eternity in the afterlife was to be tied down to a (by that point) obsolete military affiliation.
“All hail the Stormcloaks, the true sons and daughters of Skyrim!”
She finished the rote and let her hand fall as Bearmane moved to the table. “All right, Stormcloaks, time to look the part. Come forward when I call out your name, get your gear, then get dressed. Aafold!”
A man detached himself from the crowd and stepped to the table, where one of the Stormcloak attachés handed him one of the bundles. He took it, then seemed uncertain where to go.
A woman, this time, the third of a total of four women in the groups, as far as Trendil had been able to determine – the other forty-odd new Stormcloaks were all men. Azled stepped forward as Aafold shrugged and took the bundle with him back to where he had been standing, where he held it in his arms.
Azled followed Aafold’s lead, taking her bundle and moving back where she had been. Bearmane glowered at them as Boren moved to the table. “What are you two waiting for? Get dressed!”
The two glanced at each other, then back to Bearmane. Azled cleared her throat. “Um…where should we…”
“Where should you what? Bool!”
Azled reddened as Boren resumed his place. “Where…should we change?”
Bearmane gestured at Boren, who had already removed his shirt. “Where do you think? Right here!”
“Where do you think you are, Primrose? A picnic? These are your brothers and sisters, now!”
“You’re going to be in the field together.” He took a half step toward her as his voice rose. “You’re going to be sleeping, eating, shitting, pissing, and fucking right in front of each other until this war is over!” He gestured to take in the entire company. “This goes for the lot of you! You are all brothers and sisters now! You will be doing everything – and I mean EVERYthing – together! Your reason for joining Ulfric’s righteous cause are your own, but whatever differences we might have are irrelevant in the face of one truth: the Imperials need to get out of Skyrim and let us rule ourselves under Ulfric! The bloody Points need to get out too!”
He huffed as Aafold and, more hesitantly, Azled began to remove their clothes.
“What about the dragons?” Trendil couldn’t tell from where she was standing who asked the question, but Bearmane was not to be put off.
“The Imperials and Points are our main concern! Everything else is secondary. Even the bloody dragons.”
“Yeah,” a different voice this time, again lost in the crowd. “Besides, I heard there’s a new Dragonborn. He’ll take care of the dragons!” This proclamation was greeted by a low murmur of agreement.
“Oh, yeah!” This from a young man who stood just behind Trendil. “I heard about him! They say he’s thirty feel tall and can breathe fire like a dragon!”
Prid rolled her eyes. “First of all, the Dragonborn is a SHE. And, second, she disappeared months ago, so…”
A snort. "The Dragonborn ain't a woman. And HE didn’t ‘disappear.’ He's just training with the Greybeards. They…”
“Enough!” Bearmane slammed a fist on the table and the company quieted in a moment. “None of that matters right now. What matters right now is that, at this point, most of you would have trouble fighting a mudcrab, say nothing of a dragon. We’re going to change that starting right now, so let’s get back on task. Cort!”
Trendil took her gear when her name was called out. She shared some of Azled’s trepidation – there were a lot of male eyes in the room, including the lascivious Koren – but it was too late to back out now. She steeled herself from looking at her nearest neighbors as she removed the armor she had owned for all of two weeks and pulled on the lighter leather-and-chain hauberk and fur leggings. Fur-lined bracers and boots completed the ensemble.
Well, almost completed. She strapped her swords back on, then picked up the helmet, but kept it in the crook of her arm instead of putting it on, as most of the others had. She knew she would be required to wear it, but she was determined to keep it off until someone told her otherw…
“Now you’re looking more like Stormcloaks! Put on your helmets – you are required to wear them all the time when you were on duty. Let’s move out!”
So much for that. Trendil pulled on the helmet with a sigh, then spent the next several seconds as she followed the rest as they…well, marched was not the right word. As they walked more or less the same speed in a ragged line out of the Palace of the Kings, into the courtyard and the world beyond, tugging at the ungiving metal of the helmet, trying to find a way to give herself some peripheral vision. The helmet remained recalcitrant, and she resigned herself to a life of partial blindness as the heavy metal doors slammed shut behind her like an omen.
Edited by jfraser