She swears she can hear Baan Dar laughing from his aetherial hiding place as she runs; enemy arrows whistling so close as to slit the skin of her pumping arms and legs. She flinches at the familiar thud of impact into tree trunks, earth– the thick material of her pack. Her heart is a thunder of panic in her chest as branches break off in her hands, are discarded behind her. A curse, a heaving breath, a sob, escapes her: These trees cannot be climbed.
The will to run is draining fast; she can feel the spasms of fatigue starting in her calves. She leaps over a crop of rock, hopes in vain to elude the three– three— bandit chiefs behind her, with their axe, hammer, and greatsword. She cuts a corner, doubles back– right through her pursuers before they have a chance to react, to swing.
The archer has no such failing.
Pain erupts in her arm, but she refuses to stagger, to stop– Blood like liquid fire races in rivulets to her fingers; flinging red drops into the unbending, unaiding trees. She thinks she knows, now, what the Red Mountain must have felt like when Baar Dau cleaved Vivec.
Desperately, she tumbles down an incline, slides behind a fallen log– crouches, cradles her arm; hopes the wind tears away her heaving breaths. Salt blooms in her mouth. She realizes she is weeping.
Her teeth clench so hard she can feel them nearly splinter. With a few hasty breaths through her nose and Healing lighting her good hand, she wrenches the arrow from her arm. The magic balms the agony, knits her flesh before she can cry out. She fills her lungs when her magicka empties, Healing blinking out of her palm. She can hear the bandits searching for her, calling her out of hiding as if expecting her to respond. Her jaw sets with fury.
Where, in Yffre’s name, is Skjarn?
Canted, lion-esque eyes scan the field before her; the road they two had been walking when the bandits had appeared from nowhere, steel blazing. She’d been in awe of the barrow they were passing and its great stone arches. Deaf to the snapping of twigs and rustle of grass beneath heavily armored feet.
There– against the slope of the barrow’s hill, the glint of Skjarn’s armor silhouettes a huddled form. Dead?
Her hands flash to her bow, her arrows, just as the bandit archer steps hard to jump over the log she hides behind. Her shot pierces him from under chin through top of skull. He is dead in the air, and broken when he hits the ground.
The chiefs are not far behind– the enraged roar of the Orc like a flame beneath her, and she runs.
“Skjarn!” She yells, sprinting toward his body for all she’s worth. She can see his thick arms shaking with pain; the knuckles of his axe hand clenching white, useless around the weapon. Alive. She barely has time to reach through the top of her pack and feel for cold ceramic before the telltale grunting shout of a killing blow sounds at her back.
In one slow blink, time protracts. She thinks of the small, brown deer she used to hunt in Valenwood– how they could jump so high as to use the low branches of the trees as footing to escape an arrow shot. And when time snaps back like a bowstring, she is already jumping. Once, twice; the healing potion landing square in Skjarn’s lap as the battleaxe swings beneath her feet.
She lands, turns, has no time to get her bow back, the Orc is bearing down– she is that little deer, isn’t she? Brown skin trembling, dried tears on her cheeks as she scrabbles, scrambles to get far enough away, just–
Skjarn staggers behind the Orc, makes himself stand. She can see color filling his cheeks over the heaving shoulder of her killer’s armor. The Orc is pulling his weapon behind him, bending like an oak for the executioner’s blow. Skjarn hefts his axe in his hand, coils his body to strike– so much faster than the heavy Orc– like a cobra, like a king– The sun glints off the axehead, the wind pulls at his armor, and suddenly– She can see all the things he has said. All the praise that has been given him. Her eyes widen and a smile pulls her thin lips in that moment. He is noble, he is a hero, he is–
The Orc whirls– striking Skjarn right back down. His little axe falls with a clatter and a whimper.
“No one bests an Orc!” The bandit chief sneers, spits into the dirt beside Skjarn’s– again– trembling, feeble, beaten body.
She sighs, rolls her eyes, and grabs her bow. Two rapid arrows later, and the Orc is off to meet his god. But there are still two chiefs more.
“Come on, Skjarn,” she picks up his arm, shoves another potion into his weak fingers. “You’re not even bleeding.”
And then she’s running into the trees, focus fixed on the remaining bandits charging down the field toward Skjarn. This had been her plan all along, when she’d met Skjarn in Dragon Bridge. He’d been painfully arrogant, pandering his own praise, but his neck was as thick as his biceps, and she could use a bit of melee to hold her targets still for the sting of her bow.
Again, Skjarn pulls himself up. Axe in hand, he plants his feet as if the oncoming bandits are a tide and, he, the immovable cliff shore. This time, she beams wickedly, notching an arrow and following the leading bandit’s pace. She can almost hear future bards singing Skjarn’s heroism as he stands his ground, raises his axe in counterpoint to the bandit chief’s rising sword, and…!
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
A few poison-dipped arrows find their marks and the Bosmer stomps from the trees to her staggered companion. He heaves a breath, pushes himself up, and is just finding his footing again when she reaches him.
“What was that?” She demands in a snarl, seeing dented armor but not a single wound upon his body. “What on Nirn was that?”
He fixes her with a look that wouldn’t turn the gaze of the homeliest tavern wench, though he clearly believes it would.
“Some call me Skjarn the Magnificent.” He drawls. “It’s a little redundant, don’t ya think?”
Her fist flashes with her temper.
“Come on.” She snaps, wrenching the arrows from her pack and stuffing them in her quiver. She should’ve known when he hadn’t so much as mentioned coin when she asked him to follow her that something was up. Free help is free help, she’d thought then.
Yeah, she retorts now, assuming a pace she hopes will get Skjarn lost in the mountains. And I got what I paid for.