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Balance and Composure

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The target stood forty feet away, a beaten bundle of straw propped up against a wooden frame. Angi raised her bow, notched an arrow and sighted along its length. After a long moment she let fly and the arrow imbedded itself deep in the center of the target. Exhaling slowly Angi approached the target, examining her target and herself. It was a perfect shot, made from a place of perfect balance and composure.

It was a good summer day, clear skies and breath misting before her. She returned to her practice line, notching another arrow. She’d finish this quiver, she decided, then hunt for something to eat. Her home -her hideaway- was far enough from Falkreath that the game ran free, wary of men and mer but unfamiliar with the danger of the bow.

Breathe deep. Exhale. Angi drew her bow and held, examining herself for the smoldering embers of emotion and finding none. She released her fingers: another perfect shot.

Out of the corner of her eye, motion. Someone emerged from the woods, though she couldn’t see anything about them for the layers of fur he or she was bundled with. Not a Nord, then. Angi turned to face the visitor, bow at the ready and her free hand idly toying with the fletching of her arrows. “Hello there,” she called.

The visitor approached in silence, finally stopping some twenty feet out. She unwound the scarf around her face and lowered her hood, and Angi realized there was a small Bosmer woman hidden under all that fur. “I wondered,” the elf said, “if you might be willing to answer some questions for me.”

Angi raised an eyebrow at the Bosmer’s presumption. Nords as a rule were blunt, but introductions were a basic civility. “Women without names receive few answers.”

The elf bent slightly at the waist with mocking formality. “Lonelilly.”

“Angi.” She noticed that Lonelilly carried a bow slung across her back, and a quiver of curious chitin arrows. “Are you a hunter?”

“I hunt,” Lonelilly responded levelly. What exactly she hunted was left open to interpretation, and Angi decided it might be more a question of who.

“You’ve found me in my day’s practice,” Angi said, turning back to her target and notching an arrow. “Come, let us talk of your questions and hone our skills. Maybe I can teach you a few things.”

“I very much doubt that any of your kind has anything you can teach me.”

Angi paused at that, feeling a sliver of emotion jab between her breasts. She looked back to the Bosmer who now stood with arms crossed, dark red eyes watching Angi’s grip on her bow. Angi raised her arm, sighted along her arrow, quelled the frustration and irritation she felt, and sent the arrow straight into the center of the target. A glimmer of satisfaction stirred in her, and Angi pushed it back down. Balance. Composure. “What questions do you have?”

The elf stepped forward to the practice line. “There’s a place, not far from here. Southfringe Sanctum. What do you know of it?”

“That it’s dangerous,” Angi offered. “An Orsimer necromancer and his coven live there. They mostly stay to themselves.” She shrugged. “Mostly.”

“Necromancers…” Lonelilly mused. “Tend to be a knowledgeable sort.”

“I suppose so,” Angi said, confused.

Lonelilly grunted, eyes flicking over the target. Then she pulled one of her strange arrows from her quiver, notched it, drew back and released it, all in one fluid motion. Despite her haste the arrow flew true, embedding itself right next to Angi’s. Before Angi could speak the elf fired another three volleys in less time than it took to tell, all within inches of first.

Angi’s respect for the Bosmer rose. Her arrogance had actual skill behind it. But that wasn’t all she noticed about the other woman; as she let her arrows fly, Lonelilly’s face was twisted with rage, as if fantasizing her arrows thudding home in someone despised. “It seems to me,” Angi ventured, “that your anger might be a distraction.”

“Distraction?” Lonelilly retrieved her arrows, and Angi’s. She returned to the practice line.

“I learned to shoot a bow from my mother,” Angi explained, accepting her arrow back. “My father was frequently gone, and Skyrim is a dangerous place to be without a skill at arms. She taught me that the secret to marksmanship is a firm stance, and emotional composure.”

I learned to shoot a bow from myself,” Lonelilly replied. “My mother was an indentured servant to a Thalmor flunky, and my father was murdered by said flunky during one of the purges.” She leaned forward conspiratorially, whispering low. “Valenwood is a dangerous place to be without a skill at arms. I learned that the secret to marksmanship is making sure to hit something vital.”

The elf’s tone was mocking, and Angi felt the familiar anger stirring in her, and she clenched her teeth. “If you are ruled by your emotions, your aim will be as well.”

“Really?” Lonelilly asked, and gestured to the target. “Say that’s an Altmer who I’d like to see with an arrow in his belly.” She drew and fired, and the arrow sank into the center of the target. “Or one of the Khajiit who serve their Thalmor masters by hunting free Bosmer?” Another arrow, next to the first. Lonelilly’s voice turned to a snarl. “Or one of the blasphemous Bosmer who gave up their heritage?” The third arrow hit the target with a thud. “I’m angry, not sloppy.”

“I know about anger,” Angi said. “My parents were murdered. By Imperial soldiers, drunk and violent.” The scene was fresh in her mind, despite being years old: returning home to Helgen, only to find her mother dead on the floor and her father just outside, trailing blood from his feeble attempt to find help. The soldiers, seated at her family’s table and eating from their larder. Her mother’s bow, hung over the mantle.

Lonelilly looked blandly at her. “And you politely asked them to leave with your ‘firm stance’ and ‘emotional composure?’”

“I…I lost myself. I forgot what my mother taught me. I killed them,” Angi answered simply. “It’s why I live here now, away from everyone. The Imperials would execute me if they found me.”

The Bosmer collected her arrows from the target. “Killed them, did you?” She snorted. “You must just be so disappointed in yourself.”

“I think I’ve had my fill of you,” Angi replied. Her tone was level, with effort; she could feel the anger burning in her chest and fought to squelch it. “You’ll be leaving.”

Lonelilly raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” she said, collecting her furs. The Bosmer trudged back out to the forest, and Angi watched her disappear into the treeline.

*

Angi crept through the forest, conscious of the wind moving through the trees and the faint sounds of a rabbit moving through the brush some distance to her right. Her focus narrowed to the three deer in the clearing ahead, two does and a buck. Barely daring to breath, she drew her bow and lined up her shot. Balance. Composure.

Her aim was true, and one of the does fell to the ground. The other two deer fled, and Angi approached, knife in hand. The does’ suffering didn’t last long.

“You’re actually not a bad shot, for a Nord.”

Angi cast about for the speaker, only realizing to look up after a few seconds. The Bosmer crouched poised in the branches overhead. Lonelilly swung down, landing lightly next to Angi. The jib wore at her, but Angi held her peace. “I trust your trip to Southfringe Sanctum was productive?”

“You could say that,” Lonelilly said. “I’ve been…busy the past few weeks. The Empire really doesn’t take well to Stormcloaks, do they?”

You joined the Stormcloak rebellion?” Angi asked, incredulous.

“What? No.” Lonelilly laughed. “I’d just as soon stay out of the way of whatever politics are happening here in Skyrim. Unfortunately, my…activities…were a little too close to those of some Stormcloaks, and the Imperials captured us all.”

Angi took to dressing the deer, her knife tearing into the hide. “And what are your ‘activities?’”

“Well. There’s business, and there’s pleasure.” Lonelilly shrugged. “I was indulging in a bit of the latter with some Thalmor when things got out of hand.”

“I see.” The Thalmor were loved by none in Skyrim, and Angi looked the other woman over. Her heap of furs were nowhere to be seen; instead she wore simple leather armor, the type cobbled together by bandits across the province. She carried a different bow now, and her strange arrows were gone. “It seems you’ve had an unfortunate change of fortunes.”

Lonelilly nodded. “As I said. A busy few weeks. I thought I might ask you about Bleak Falls Barrow.”

The elf’s condescending tone was absent, but Angi knew better than to trust that. “Surely there’s nothing a Nord could teach you.”

“That’s…” Angi watched as Lonelilly struggled to find the words she wanted. “I need to retrieve something from the Barrows. I would be appreciative for your help.”

Angi wrapped hunks of venison in cloth and packed them into her bag. “Dinner.”

“What?”

“Dinner. If we’re going to talk, it’s going to be over dinner.” Angi shouldered her bag. “It’s been too long since I’ve had company for more than an archery lesson.”

Lonelilly thought about it for a moment. “Agreed. But…” she looked down and the bloody mess of the deer, spread across the ground. “You’re going to just leave it?”

“Well…” Angi frowned, but Lonelilly was already moving. In the span of a few minutes, the Bosmer disassembled what remained of the deer’s corpse, claiming the hide, bones, sinew, and several organs that Angi only recognized as being inedible.

“Use everything,” was all Lonelilly said as they set off for the camp.

Angi’s camp was a rough log cabin, but functional. She started a fire in the hearth, filling the hanging pot with water and then the chunks of venison. “Take a seat,” she said, gesturing to the table. Lonelilly eyed the wooden chairs, and crossed her arms.

“I’ll stand.” The Bosmer glanced around the small room. “The Barrows?”

Angi looked up from cutting potatoes. “I don’t know what to tell you about it. It’s an old place. The dragon cult used to bury their dead there, in days gone past.”

“Dragons,” Lonelilly scowled. “I had my fill of dragons in Helgen.”

Angi dumped the potatoes into the stew and started on the carrots. “What happened in Helgen?”

“The Empire tried to execute me,” Lonelilly answered.

“With a dragon?”

“I’m fairly certain the dragon wasn’t doing the Empire’s bidding. Not after it burned the entire town to the ground.”

The knife clattered to the table. “Helgen…burned?”

“Thoroughly,” Lonelilly confirmed, blithely unaware of Angi’s pale pallor. “By the time it was done there was hardly a building standing.”

For a moment Angi felt the world go grey. Her last memories of Helgen were stained, both with her parents’ deaths and her own profound loss of discipline, but…the village had been home for most of her life. The Bosmer was looking at her strangely, and Angi took a deep breath. Balance. Composure. With effort, she shoved the sorrow deep down inside of her. “That’s unfortunate,” was all she said.

“Why are you so scared of yourself?” Lonelilly asked abruptly.

“Scared of myself?” Angi laughed at that. “Hardly. “I’m scared of Imperials looking for revenge for the soldiers I murdered, and now also of dragons.”

“So scared of Imperials that you tell people wandering by of your crimes.” Lonelilly shook her head. “No. You’re not here in secluded Falkreath to hide from them. You’re here to hide from yourself.”

Angi spilled the carrots into the pot with more force than was strictly necessary. “Ridiculous,” she muttered.

“Is it really?” Lonelilly paced the brief length of the home. “You killed some men, and in that moment you abandoned your precious poise and control. You lost yourself to fury and rage.”

The familiar sensations were coiling in her gut, and Angi fought to sooth them. “Yes, I did,” she allowed. “Acting out of emotion like that was a failure.”

“You only stop having emotions when you’re dead,” Lonelilly commented drily. “Actually dead, not just hiding away from the world, pretending to be dead. Shooting targets over and over again to convince yourself that your will is unbreakable and you’ll never lose control again. Too scared to leave because you know that it’s all lurking right below the surface.”

Angi snapped: “Is this why you come around? Information about landmarks and to torment me?” She realized her fists were clenched, lips pulled back in a snarl. She tried to balance herself, but the need to lash out was almost overpowering. Almost.

Lonelilly was silent for a long moment, watching with glittering red eyes. “I understand feeling scared of yourself. Of seeing your anger and seeing it…fly loose. Even of hiding like a coward from it. Even if it’s pathetic.”

The pot boiled between them. Angi clenched her fists, then unclenched them slowly and deliberately. “I appreciate your concern,” she said eventually. “Unwelcome though it is. I have a good life here. I practice with my bow, I teach those who want to learn.” She speared a chunk of venison, and judging it done enough ladled it into a bowl. “I offered you dinner, and dinner you’ll have. After that, I don’t want to see you again.”

*

Breathe deep.

Exhale.

Angi’s fingers loosened, and her arrow struck the target…four inches from where she’d intended it to.

She swore under her breath. Maintaining her discipline had been impossible in the days since the Bosmer left. The woman was a poison, stirring up the muck and sediment that Angi had worked so hard to let lie.

Breathe deep.

A rumble from the east shook the ground under her, loosing Angi’s arrow early. She scowled off at the distance; even through the echoes she could hear the sound came from High Hrothgar. For a moment concern crept over her; what could rouse the old men of the mountain? But she found her tranquility soon enough, and notched another arrow.

“Help!”

A plaintive cry drew her attention; a man stained in his own blood trying to run towards her but only succeeding in falling to his knees. Angi dropped her bow and ran to him; his back was gouged deeply, but he tried to speak. “My brother…”

“Let’s get you inside.” With effort she got an arm under him, half-dragging him back into her home. By the time Angi had him laid out on the floor, the man lost consciousness. She dug through her basket of ingredients, coming up with equal measures of wheat and blue mountain flower. A few minutes work produced a weak potion, and she tilted his head back to force it down his throat. He sputtered but came to, his eyes flashing wildly around. “What happened to you?”

“My brother,” he gasped. “Olveg. We were travelling to Markarth for his wedding, and…we were beset! By men wearing antlers and animal skins. They captured my brother, but I was able to get away.”

Angi nodded, feeling the familiar anger swell. “Forsworn. If they have your brother, he’s likely soon dead.” And that might be for the best; Angi had heard stories about the Forsworn of the west and what they did to their captives; the less fortunate were mutilated and sent back to their families, or chopped up for food. The children of Helgen used to tell horror stories about a pregnant Brenton who had been taken by the Forsworn, only to have the baby cut out of her for the crime of having been fathered by a Nord. As she’d grown up, Angi had come to understand that horror stories came from a place of truth.

“No,” the man cried. “This cannot…he’s to be married! This can’t…!”

He broke down, his wounds and is sorrow overcoming him and Angi roiled. It wasn’t right. She sought her center, but the thought kept intruding. It wasn’t right. She had to do something.

“Stay here,” Angi called over her shoulder, racing out of the house at a sprint. She snatched up her bow as she ran by, and if her steps were a bit out of balance for it she didn’t notice.

It wasn’t hard to find the site of the ambush; the man had fought hard for his brother. Blood splattered the road, and it was no effort at all to follow the trail of the wounded Foresworn, headed off the beaten paths and up into the mountains. “This is madness,” Angi murmured to herself, creeping through the brush. “You are out of control. Stop now.” But still she pressed forward.

The Foresworn had erected an altar on a stony outcropping where the rock began to reach for the sky. Four of them were clustered around it, indecently clad in scant leather clothing and wearing animal parts, almost at random. Their savage look was only made more obvious by their ritualistic chanting. Angi saw the Nord -Olveg- bound hand and foot to the flat stone. He struggled mightily, but desperately; she could see there was no way he could escape.

One of the Forsworn climbed up atop the altar, brandishing an ax adorned with animal teeth. Angi recognized the scene for what it was, a sacrifice to their horrid lords. Her fingers tightened around her bow. That they would, that they could do this to an innocent man set her to a rage. No one deserved this.

But a quiet voice cried in her for calm. It reminded her that an uneven stance sent the arrow wide of the target. It begged her to find her tranquility. It sounded like her mother.

On the altar, the Forsworn man said something in their dialect that set the others into an uproar. He held his ax high over his victim…

…and screamed as an arrow sprouted out of his wrist. He dropped the ax, clutching at his arm even as the other three Forsworn turned to see Angi still poised with bowstring vibrating.

“Step.” She intoned. “Back.”

A riot of emotion flowed through her; fury and excitation and indignation and fervor. Sorrow, as well. Her mother’s voice reminded her that of the murders her volatility had caused.

The closest Forsworn, a woman with a saw-toothed sword and wearing a regalia of feathers, screamed and charged at Angi. Her weapon was drawn back for an eviscerating blow, but stumbled as Angi’s arrow found her foot, pinning her to the ground.

Angi notched another arrow, outwardly watching the remaining Forsworn back away with dispassionate attention while inwardly delighting. She could feel emotions churning in her chest, but despite them her balance and composure were strong. Even through her passion, her aim was true!

She flicked her fingers, sending an arrow the ropes binding the man’s ankles, then his wrists. “Olveg. We’re leaving.” He stumbled to his feet, staggering away from the altar and behind Angi. They backed away from the snarling Forsworn until they reached the road and broke into a run to safety.

*

She’d stayed at the house long enough to make sure Olveg and his brother had a headstart back to Falkreath. Next time, they swore, they’d hire a cart. Once they were out of sight, she gathered what she could carry and abandoned the house. It was far too close to where the Forsworn had made their camp for comfort, and she couldn’t imagine they’d have any trouble finding her. Forsworn retribution was something she’d sooner avoid.

Angi left Falkreath Hold after that, wandering east to see the ruins of Helgen. Nothing remained of her childhood home but charred timbers, and this time Angi allowed herself feel to grief. She later made her way through the mountain pass to Riften. She found it to be a lawless place without a center, but still fought hard to defend it when a dragon attacked.

Eventually Angi turned north, and found herself in the city of Windhelm. It was cold there, cold enough to suit her tastes, and she decided that this would be a good place to settle down for a while. She let it be known that her services as an instructor were available, and soon made a tidy living teaching others how to put arrow to target.

It was some weeks later that Angi found herself in Candlehearth Hall, waiting for friends with a flagon of mead in front of her when an elf bundled in furs entered the hall. She shed her cloaks and scarves as she entered, revealing Lonelilly underneath.

“Hello there,” Angi called. The Bosmer frowned at her before a flash of recognition crossed her dark eyes.

“I certainly didn’t expect to see you here,” Lonelilly said, taking the seat across from her. “What are you doing so far away from your contemplative retreat?”

Her words had the same caustic edge that Angi remembered. She felt irritation stir in herself and she accepted it, answering honestly. “Being alive.”

Lonelilly’s look turned somber. “Better than the alternative.”

“And you?” Angi asked. “I trust your trip to Bleak Falls Barrow was productive?”

“Ah…” Lonelilly sighed, and for a moment Angi could see the weariness weighing on her. “It’s been a busy few weeks.”

A blast of cold from outside heralded a dour-looking woman in armor, stepping in and scanning the room. Lonelilly moaned quietly, but made no attempt to avoid the woman’s gaze. “Lydia.”

“My thane. I’ve purchased our supplies. We can leave for Alftand whenever you like.”

“Thane? You?” Angi felt her eyebrows rise. “You’ve certainly moved up in the world from hunting necromancers.”

“I suppose I have,” Lonelilly said. “It was…it was good. Talking.” With that the Bosmer and her armored shadow stepped back out into the night. Angi chuckled and went back to her mead. Skyrim could be such a small place.

Angi weathered the chaos of the months that followed, and when the Dragonborn called for warriors she was among those who answered the call. She was wounded fighting on Lonelilly’s behalf in Solitude when the chaos came to its violent and inevitable conclusion, but still followed the Bosmer up the Seven Thousand Steps to confront Alduin atop High Hrothgar. Angi was one of the few who heard the dying god’s last words, even if she didn’t understand them.

But then again, no one did.

Not really. Not until it was too late.