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Trendil's Story part 11 - A Special Assignment


jfraser

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There was something different in the air when they entered the briefing room, and the company quieted as one. After so many months together, they had learned to read each other well, and Whip’s expression as he sat at the head of the conference table bespoke something different than their usual patrols. The company filed in and took their places in uncharacteristic silence. Whip tapped the table a couple of time with his thumb, a sure sign of his internal agitation, and the tension in the room mounted. Finally, Dragonbait could stand it no more.

 

“Are you going to tell us what’s wrong or just sit and wait for the room to explode?”

 

Her words sent a chuckle like a wave through the room and the tension eased a bit. Whip tossed her a smile and stood. “Aye. Sorry about that. This is just…big. Huge. Possibly game-changing.”

 

Bent snorted. “Well, since the game so far has been to sit on our asses patrolling the same three routes over and over, I’d say that’s a good thing.”

 

Whip nodded. “I agree. But we haven’t had the manpower to expand beyond a hold, maybe two, before our lines became too thin to sustain. But this…this might change that. If Galmar is right.”

 

Dragonbait nodded and motioned with her hand. “So tell us what’s going on, already.”

 

“Right. Galmar says he has found the Jagged Crown.”

 

A shock ran around the room followed immediately by murmurs of disbelief. Dragonbait frowned – it clearly meant something to the Nords. “Um…could you fill us non-Nords in on what that means?”

 

The shock at her words was smaller than the announcements, but no less palpable. Whip raised an eyebrow.

 

“Have you not heard that ancient verse?

Maw unleashing razor snow

of dragons from the blue brought down

births the walking winter's woe

the High King in his Jagged Crown.

Going way back to King Harald's time or possibly before, the High King always wore the Jagged Crown. However, the location of the crown was lost with King Borgas after the Great Hunt killed him. But legend says his body was secretly returned to Skyrim and buried with the crown. Problem is, the location of his tomb was lost in the years following the Wars of Succession. Until now."

 

“I see. So, if Ulfric had this crown…”

 

“It would legitimize his claim in the eyes of a great number of wall-straddling Nords. The crown is from a time before Moots were used to crown kings, so having it would circumvent the need for one.” Whip turned to the rest of the room and held up a hand, quieting the murmurs in an instant. “Not many people know about this. One company is going to have the honor of retrieving the crown, under the direct command of Galmar himself.” The tension began to build again, but this time with a tenor of excitement. Whip nodded at the unspoken question. “That’s right. We were chosen, thanks to your exemplary work over the past year.” He placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. “We have a chance to break this stalemate and get this war moving in earnest. Let’s make sure it happens. Muster in three hours at field six – we head out tonight.”

 

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“Wait. Do you see that?”

 

Dragonbait peered forward where Wooly pointed. “No. What should I be seeing?”

 

“Wood smoke. Someone has a fire going.”

 

“Well, it’s perfectly natural for there to be a fire. Outside an ancient crypt. In the middle of nowhere.”

 

“Mmhm. What do you want to do?”

 

“Well, no need to rush into things. It’s probably bandits, but let’s check it out. Wooly and Poke, swing around the left. Bent and I will take the right. Be careful.”

 

“Aye.”

 

The pair moved off and Dragonbait gestured at Bent and eased through the trees to their right.

 

It was funny, the games time played. A year ago, she had hated the man who crept through the trees to her right. Now, she hated him and had to work with him, since Whip had seen fit to replace Gutpunch with him for her squad.

 

Although she supposed she didn’t really hate him. Much. Anymore. It was odd because he had been so belligerent, caustic to the point he had raped her (yes, yes, her fault), but had been nothing but a steadfast companion-in-arms ever since. He was the only man in the company who had not groped her since the company had been formed. It was almost like he was a completely different person.

 

Hmm…could it be that someone had…

 

“Look. Imperials.”

 

The words snapped Dragonbait out of her reverie and she blinked as she focused her gaze on the path his finger pointed. The ancient crypt was built in the manner of old – steps led to a man-made canyon of sorts while more steps led back up on the opposite side to the entrance to the tomb. It was a design that had never made much sense to Dragonbait but, then, much about the Nord way of doing things remained a mystery. Sure enough, several figures wearing familiar Imperial armor huddled around a campfire at the bottom.

 

Dragonbait shook her head. “How did they know about this place?”

 

Bent shrugged. “Only one way they could – we have a spy in our midst.”

 

A chilling thought, but she couldn’t find a way to refute it. “Well, that’s for the future. Let’s get back and tell Galmar.”

 

“Aye.”

 

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“Is it me, or did those Imperials seem greener than usual?” Bent tapped his hammer against the stone wall, knocking off blood and a bit of hair.

 

Whip nodded as he peered down the next tunnel. “Aye. They have taken no precautions at all. Not even sentries up top.”

 

“Tulius must not have thought this was worth the effort to send a seasoned company.” Galmar shook his head. “Bloody fool. He’ll learn his mistake soon enough.”

 

“Aye.” Whip motioned toward the hallway. “Dragonbait, we’re ready.”

 

Dragonbait nodded and signaled to her squad. They moved with care, but the hall held no secrets – it led only to a circular room. Six sealed sarcophaguses lined the walls, three on each side, and a gate-like door the only exit, though the lever on the doorframe next to it implied an easy means of egress. They stopped as one and stared at the lever.

 

Bent grunted. “That screams ‘trap’.”

 

“Agreed.” Dragonbait glanced around the room. “Bets on what’s going to pop out as soon as that lever is pulled? Wooly, go back and tell them to come up here.”

 

“Aye.” Wooly took three steps toward the entrance. On the third step, something clicked and a gate slammed shut across the opening. At the same time, the sarcophaguses slammed open and blackened, withered corpses shambled toward them with ancient rusty blades raised.

 

Dragonbait swore. “Wooly, Poke, left side, Bent with me.” She would have preferred someone – anyone – else, but Wooly and Poke had developed a sort of symbiotic kinship after the skirmish on the road and their fighting styles had adjusted to suit each other’s. it was impressive to see in action. Not that she would be able to now.

 

The draugrs’ bodies had long since decayed, leaving brittle-looking husks, so the stench she had feared did not come to pass, but their blades worked just fine, as she learned on the first parry. Steel scraped against steel, sending sparks into the air and a jolt down her body.

 

“Pretty strong for walking corpses,” she muttered as she pushed the draugr’s blade to the side while twisting to avoid a double-handed blow from a second dead body on her right.

 

“Aye.” Bent smashed his hammer into the face of his draugr, a blow that would have felled a human. The corpse stumbled back but then steadied itself and raised its sword to attack again. “And stubborn to boot.”

 

“Reminds me of you.” They both said the words at the exact same time, then there was a pause a heartbeat long as they stared at each other before hissing blades and a swinging hammer broke the moment and they went back to work. By the time the last of the draugr crumpled to the ground, Dragonbait had put it out of her mind.

 

“Well, that was fun. Anyone hurt?” She received the expected silence as an answer and motioned toward the lever. “Guess we triggered the trap after all. Poke, go ahead and pull the lever. Be wary lest it springs a second trap.”

 

But it did not. Poke yanked the lever downward and the doors on both sides of the room retracted into the walls. Dragonbait nodded. “Wooly, go ahead and report. Watch where you step this time.”

 

As he left the room, she glanced down at the first fallen draugr. The sword it had carried reflected the torchlight. She picked it up and studied it. As far as she could tell, it was in remarkably good shape. The leather on the pommel had long since rotted away, of course, but the metal itself seemed sound and its balance and weight seemed well-suited for her style. Better than the blade she had taken from the side of the road, all those months ago, at least. She shrugged off her pack and tied the draugr sword to its side.

 

“Memento?”

 

She glanced up to find Bent watching her. “Of sorts. Gonna see what the smith says. It seems pretty solid.” She gestured toward the hammer of the second draugr. “Might want to do the same.”

 

He snorted and spun his hammer. “Nah. This is good Nord steel. I don’t need some ancient brittle hammer.”

 

“Suit yourself.” Dragonbait stood and gestured. “Let’s take a glance at the next hallway before they get here. Might as well see if there’s anything else waiting for us.”

 

Poke and Bent nodded and they moved as one toward the exit, but not before Dragonbait noticed Bent glance back at the hammer on the floor. Maybe, if they came across another one, she would have the smith look at it as well. She could surprise him with it if it turned out to be decent. The idea appealed to her, and she resolved to do so, because…

 

She frowned to herself as they entered the hall. Why was she contemplating doing something for him? Well, because he used warhammers and this one might make him more efficient. Simple, really. She had been forced to accept him as part of her squad, so what was good for the squad was good for her. Nothing more to it. It certainly had nothing to do with the way he had seemed to gravitate to the idea, despite himself. Although she hadn’t thought to do the same for Wooly. But that was because she hadn’t been talking to Wooly, surely. She would do the same for him, of course. If she came across two more warhammers, that is. And a pike for Poke, although so far none of the draugr had carried anything akin to that. Yes, she would get weapons for everyone in her squad. Not just Bent, who was a complete ass who she hated and for whom she would never do anything just because it might make him happy.

 

That settled in her mind, she re-focused on the task at hand, ignoring the quiet whispers in the back of her head that wanted to argue.

 

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“How are all the torches in this crypt still alight?” Wooly peered at the nearest sconce. “You think it’s some sort of Dwemer magic?”

 

Dragonbait shrugged. She had wondered the same thing, of course, but she had no better answer.

 

“Must be something like.” Bent shook his head. “The dwemer didn’t build this place, though, so probably not them. Some other form of magic, I suppose.”

 

Poke spat against the wall. “Magic. Can’t trust it, or those who use it. Give me good steel any day.” He patted his pike, which was more wood than steel, though Dragonbait didn’t think that a necessary point of quibble.

 

“Looks like it’s opening up ahead. Be on guard.” She shifted her swords and eased forward as the chattering stopped.

 

Only to resume again a few moments later.

 

“You think that’s it?”

 

They clustered at the entrance to the large room and peered toward the center. A lone figure slumped upon a stone throne in the middle of a large dais. On its head was the unmistakable shape of a tall crown. It did, indeed, look quite jagged. Two sealed sarcophaguses bracketed the throne, but any illusions Dragonbait may have held about their contents had been shattered by the dozens of similar sarcophaguses they had encountered throughout this bizarre tomb.

 

“Must be. Wooly…”

 

“Already gone.” He slipped back the way they had come and Dragonbait settled against the wall and studied the room.

 

It was roughly two thousand square feet, though it was broken up by the dais with the throne and a stone stair on the left leading to some sort of walkway above. The throne and the sarcophaguses obscured the back of the room, so she could not make out any details, but she assumed it was more of the same. Plenty of room to maneuver for the entire company.

 

Speaking of which, footsteps muddled the silence and a moment later, Galmar and Whip stood beside her.

 

“I knew it!” Galmar’s voice vibrated with his excitement. “It’s here! The war is as good as over!”

 

That seemed a bit of an overstatement to Dragonbait, but she declined to voice her doubt – she had learned long ago not to argue with those above you. Such as the hopefully-soon-to-be-king’s right-hand man. Or your mother.

 

Whip apparently felt the same, because he gave a simple curt nod and tossed an “Aye” on top.

 

“Let’s get this over with, then.” Galmar lifted his axe. “Ralof, I assume we are going to have more guests. Let’s split up the company for this. One squad with me, focusing on our crown-wearing friend. I’m sorry, King Borgas, but we need it more than you. Shouldn’t have been buried with you in the first place. Other squad take care of whatever is going to pop out of those coffins.”

 

Whip nodded again and motioned to the company. “Squad one with Galmar, Wally, Primrose, right side, Fodder and Derry, left side. Watch those sarcophaguses. Gaunt and I will watch for any other surprises and jump in where needed. Don’t get too close to the dais until the trap is sprung. Any questions? Right. Go.”

 

The company spread out and Dragonbait walked beside Galmar toward the throne. She was prepared for anything when they stepped onto the dais, including the nothing that actually happened. They approached the figure on the throne and got their first close up view of the crown. It was an ugly, unwieldly thing made of bones and dragon’s teeth, but it did, in fact, seem to radiate some sort of energy.

 

Or maybe that was the draugr it was attached to, because its eyes began to glow and it raised itself to its feet as they got closer. On cue, the sarcophaguses slammed open and two more draugr stepped out.

 

“Here we go!” Galmar rushed forward, axe raised high, and Dragonbait kept pace, her swords already moving. With multiple people focused on a single target, it was important to ensure her strikes did not interfere with the others’, so the lower angle of ee êzhaa would…

 

…do nothing because dead King Borgas opened his withered lips and made a sound. It was a strange sound, nothing exactly like Dragonbait had heard before, but somehow hauntingly familiar. It was like a vague and brief echo of a dragon’s roar, if said dragon happened to be much smaller and composed of what looked like paper-thin skin (although experience had taught her the skin was much tougher than it appeared) stretched over an ambling skeleton. Whatever the actual words (assuming there were any), the effect was immediate: the entire squad was thrown back.

 

“What the…” Dragonbait began but her words were overwritten by Poke, who yelled, “That thing can Shout!”

 

“Shout?” Dragonbait ran forward only to be pushed back again by the invisible force.

 

“Yes! Like the Greybeards or the Dragonborn or the dragons themselves can do! Like Ulfric did to Toryyg!”

 

“I don’t care what that thing can do, we need to kill it.” Galmar waved his hands. “Spread out! It can’t shout at all of us at once!”

 

This proved to be false as well – Borgas was far quicker than any of the draugr they had thus far encountered, and none of them could get close. As she tried her third approach, Dragonbait noticed the fights off to the sides – more draugr had appeared from somewhere else, and the split squad appeared on the verge of being overwhelmed. “Bent, Poke, Wooly! Help the rest of the squad! We’ll keep him occupied until the rest are down.”

 

To their credit and her gratification, all three turned to their new assignments without hesitation. Bent smashed the head of the nearest draugr on her left side while Poke and Wooly waded into the fray on the right. “Now for you…no!”

 

Borgas had finally shifted from his spot in front of the throne. With battleaxe raised, he turned and aimed a blow at the back of Bent’s head. Dragonbait moved forward without thinking, and Borgas paused to turn to her, another shout rattling in his dried larynx. Dragonbait raised her swords and, in a flash of inspiration or instinct or…or something, she angled her right-hand blade up and, as the shout left the draugr king and headed her way, she brought it slashing down in a bêr êngee.

 

She had no idea where the idea had come from. She had never been able to picture a practical use for bêr êngee – it had always just been part of Form 17, variation 8, but it would never work in combat against an opponent because it left the entire body exposed. Perhaps the mention of dragons brought it mind since the term translated to “dragon’s bane.” Whatever the case, it seemed to work – she cut through the shout and could somehow feel it split, leaving a clear path to her target. She shifted to vod enmê as she reached him and laughed out loud as her blades sank deep into the think leathery skin.

 

“Finally! Die, you dead bastard!”

 

Of course, it was not that easy. The damage she caused appeared not to affect the thing and it turned its axe toward her, again much quicker than the other draugr they had faced. Almost as fast as Bent with his hammer, in fact. Dragonbait danced back and the axe whooshed by, then stepped forward to attack again just as she heard the next shout begin.

 

“Dammit.” She shifted back to give herself room and once again split the shout before diving back in for another hit.

 

Once started, the two of them seemed locked in a pattern - she hit it, it swung at her, she fell back, it shouted, she countered it then moved forward, and the cycle began again. She tried to think of another way to approach the fight, but she didn’t see any other options.

 

Well, she did, but they weren’t as good – she could shift stances to get in more hits, but those hits wouldn’t carry the same power as vod enmê. This seemed a case where fewer but stronger blows would be most effective. A nice lebzus êzhaa would speed things up by allowing her to place her strikes more deliberately, thus hitting more critical parts of the dead king’s decayed body, but the extra split second required would not leave her time for the withdrawal she needed for bêr êngee.

 

“You are very annoying,” she grunted as she lunged forward. “This is going to take forever.”

 

“Then let’s speed things up a bit, shall we?”

 

The words broke her concentration for a fraction of a moment, enough time to throw off the pattern – the thing’s axe caught her side and she cried out as pain sprouted along with a gush of blood. She reeled back and her mind reeled with her, but not because of the pain. Did that thing just talk to me?!

 

Her answer came in the shape of Bent’s hammer connecting with the back of Borgas’ skull. The creature’s attempted shout fell apart as he stumbled and dropped to a bony knee. Galmar appeared as if summoned and brought his axe down on Borgas’ neck even as Bent smashed the draugr’s back. Others rushed in from the sides and joined in the attack, although it became less of an attack and more of a massacre with each blow – Borgas stopped twitching long before the last blow was struck. Dragonbait plopped onto the floor and held her side as she watched the weird light fade from the dead king’s eyes.

 

As the group stopped swinging and Galmar prized the helmet from the dead king’s head, Whip sheathed his sword and moved to kneel next to Dragonbait.

 

“Are you all right? I didn’t know you could even be hit.”

 

She frowned. “Of course I can be hit. Especially when I’m distracted because a dead thing seemed to talk to me.”

 

“Is that what happened?” Whip laughed. “Still, unlike you to become distracted like that.”

 

“Now you sound like my mother. So your civvy name is Ralof. That’s an odd name, isn’t it?”

 

“No more odd than Trendil. Or was that a misspelling on your application?”

 

“It was a misspelling, but not on the application – on my birthform. Apparently the midwife got confused.”

 

“So your name was meant to be Tendril? That...doesn’t seem an improvement.”

 

Dragonbait snorted. “Tell me about it. Or tell my mother about it.”

 

“Your mother again? How does she keep coming up?”

 

“She’s pervasive.” Dragonbait grunted as she tried to stand.

 

“No, wait. Here.” Whip nee Ralof reached into his satchel and pulled out a vial of red liquid. “Drink this.”

 

Dragonbait stared. “Is that…”

 

“Healing potion, yes. We were allotted some for this assignment – that’s how important they felt it.”

 

“Wow! I’ve never seen one before. But I’m fine – give it to someone else.”

 

“I’ve already given it to the others who were hurt. Good thing we had them or we would be down two more members.”

 

Dragonbait nodded as she took the vial. A part of her was curious who had been so nearly fatalized, but most of her didn’t want to know. She unstoppered the vial and drank. It was much too sweet – clearly sugar and flavorings had been added in an attempt to cover the bitterness of the actual potion. In this, the sweetness failed – instead of masking the bitterness, it seemed to highlight it somehow. Still, there was no arguing the results – the moment it passed down her throat, the pain in her body eased. In only a few heartbeats, the pain had gone and only the faintest trace of a scar showed where the axe had cut her.

 

“Remarkable.”

 

“Isn’t it? Learn to make those and you’ll be rich enough to buy your own island. Or a small house in Solitude. Come on, you don’t have any excuses for laying around anymore. Grab your squad and check out the back of the room to make sure there are no more surprises. We’ll be heading home soon.”

 

Dragonbait nodded and stood, but there turned out to be nothing of interest in the back – just a smooth curved wall with faint inscriptions of some unknown language carved in it. She ran her fingers along the chilly surface of the wall on the off chance it might hold a trigger to a secret passage opening or something – someone had created this wall for some reason and this was exactly the sort of place that treasure hunters were said to hunt, so it stood to reason there might be hidden treasure somewhere. But by the time they left, both the wall and the tomb kept whatever secrets they might have held to themselves.

Edited by jfraser

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this was a long one - more than twice the length that i usually aim for (which is 1200-1500 words) but it was a special occasion. ;)

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