Valleri could do nothing but scream. A steel toed boot collided with her side as two other bandits watched on from a distance. They laughed, two deep voices resonating while the third was the throaty cackle of an Argonian. Blood sputtered from her mouth and onto the ground after the bandits had stopped beating her. If her hands weren’t bound, Valleri probably would have tried to squirm away. She had already lost the fight.
The one wearing the cursed boots finally knelt down, coming face to face with Valleri. He was smiling, eyes wide and crazed. His mouth was moving but whatever he was talking about was inaudible. Valleri could only pick up pieces of the conversation but nothing she could bring herself to care about. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she could see a bloody trail and the Argonian dragging a heavy, blanket wrapped object. Valleri felt nothing suddenly, not the bruised ribs or the sprained wrist or the bleeding gash on her face.
Only one thing made it to the surface of her mind.
She was going to die.
There was no panic or wriggling as the Nord in front of her brought out a rusty knife. If that was what he was going to end her with, then so be it. There was no sign of her friends anywhere nor anyone coming to help. If she was going to die she may as well do so with as much pride as she could. Valleri tried to garble out a curse as the knife moved in slow motion. Finally, the blade was pushing into her neck.
Her eyes scrunched closed and then… nothing.
When Valleri fell to the ground, she could hear the Nord being called by the others. The knife had been pulled away from her bare skin and she allowed herself to breath as he walked off. Valleri could only barely register the bandits in the distance now. Every time she breathed in her lungs burned. Was the sun beginning to set or was she finally passing out?
It didn’t matter now. The bandits were gone. Her friends were gone. But she was not gone.
Sleep finally took her as everything went black.
Waking up was as painful as Valleri thought it would be. Everything hurt and the smell of what Valleri presumed to be her own blood was quickly becoming nauseating. It took her what seemed to be forever to work up the courage to pull herself up from the dirt.
It was dark now, stars littered the night sky and Valleri was able to make out a constellation here or there. But with the night came the cold. Her fingers were numb and stiff. Valleri could feel a light layer of frost forming on her forearms. The bandits probably took everything she had, including anything that could keep the imperial woman warm. Even if they did, Valleri was too sore to check. Slowly she crawled her way to the closest tree and huddled at the base. Teeth chattering, she brought her knees up to her chest. Even if it only gave an illusion of warmth keeping herself in wouldn’t give the wolves something easy to chew on.
Valleri allowed herself one final look at the sky before leaning her head back against the trunk of the tree. Masser and Secunda were now beginning their descent into the horizon. Morning would arrive soon. Her eyes shut slowly and she breathed out unsteadily. Valleri would sleep and if she didn’t wake up that was fine. She didn’t give a shit anymore. The dull pain in her side flared up each time she breathed and her side felt like it was on fire. Her friends were more likely dead than alive and her reason for coming to this blasted province was gone.
It didn’t matter if she woke up, it didn’t matter.
There were voices in the background, but that was the only thing Valleri could acknowledge. Her eyes fluttered open barely; sun light and leaf litter took up most of her vision. She must have fallen over while she slept during the night. Her arm was trapped underneath her side while she laid huddled on the ground. The sun was blinding but Valleri tried desperately keep her sore eyes open.
The owners of the voices had started to come closer. Their footsteps crunched on the forest floor then stopped next to her side. One of them crouched down then said in a clear, deep voice, “You think she’s even alive?”
The second voice, soft and womanly, spoke, “I don’t think so. Would it matter anyhow?”
“If she’s dead we should at least bury her. Last rights and all that.”
“Fine. Let’s do what you want. We always do what you want. Especially when that fence is still broken.”
There was a light tap on her arm as the man Valleri had now decided the voice belonged to spoke, “Oh don’t be like that. Poor lady died before her time. I’ll carry her.”
The man bent over and slipped a hand underneath her ribcage, causing Valleri to jolt with pain. The man jumped back to his companion and started muttering in low tones. Valleri groaned and tried to face him but with no luck.
“Shit! We’ve got to get her home. You wait here; I’ll get a cart.” The woman said before running the way she came. The man, recomposed and calm, made his way back to Valleri. He laid a hand on her arm before reassuring her that she was safe. Valleri would have sighed with relief but the pain emanating from her side was almost too much.
Valleri didn’t know how long the man had kept her company before the woman arrived with the cart. She could hear the woman disembark and rush to the man to mutter something in hurried voice. Once again, Valleri had begun to fade back into unconsciousness and couldn’t register their conversation. Slowly the man picked her up, mindful of her side and put her in the back of the cart. The wood was hard on Valleri’s back, but much more comfortable. Leaf litter wasn’t poking her awkwardly and the woman sat in the back with her so she wouldn’t be jostled during the ride back to where the two strangers had come from. The ride was shorter than Valleri had anticipated and the sun seemed to be at its peak in the sky. The cart stopped with lurch in a clearing. In the distance there was a small cabin and a windmill; clearly these people were the only ones that lived this far out in the middle of nowhere. The man once again took hold of Valleri and rushed into the house.
The interior of the cabin was dark and warm. Inside was a single room with a table and hearth at one end and a bed at the other. The man all but tossed Valleri onto the bed then went to the hearth to begin boiling water. Meanwhile, the woman threw open the windows to let in the light then rushed over to the bed. She tore open the side of Valleri’s shirt to examine her side then gasped.
“Shor’s bones! She’s all purple.” The woman’s fingers grazed over her ribs to start a more thorough inspection. The bones burned and pulsated as the woman felt for fractures. “She’s got a broken rib. I’m gonna need a sheet.”
“Watch the water; I’ll be back.” Valleri could hear heavy footsteps exit the house and felt the woman take hold of her hand. It was soft, not like the burly fingers of the man when he carried her into the cabin. She whispered in low tones and a warm feeling filled the room. Valleri faded into unconsciousness once again.
Valleri woke up in the cabin once again; sunlight was pouring through the window and the hearth was dying down. Looking down, Valleri had expected to see her blood stained, tattered clothes, but instead found herself dressed in an old night gown. No blood, no dirt. Only the softness of the sun light and blankets.
She ran her hand over her side absentmindedly, feeling a break in a rib. She winced as the fingers brushed over her skin. That was inconvenient. Slowly, her fingers moved upwards, feeling for a gash on her left cheek. The wound had scabbed over now and was promising to scar. One of the only things she could remember clearly was the Nord’s face as he sliced deep into her face. The expression was sadistic; eyes wide and a toothy grin from ear to ear. The gash was dry now and starting to scab over. It was long, starting a few inches left of her eye and ending just above her jaw. Valleri sighed when she thought about the new scar.
She looked around the room and saw an open door outside, sunlight pouring into the room form there as well. Shuffling out the bed, Valleri stumbled forward onto the floor. She held onto the wall for balance; but her legs were shaky and it was going to time to get her strength back. The door wasn’t far off and it had only taken a second to reach it. Valleri paused to catch her breath. The fresh air hit her like a hammer; it was cool and damp, the light was mottled on the ground as it passed through the trees. In the distance was the windmill Valleri had spotted when she arrived. Opposite of the windmill was a vegetable garden with chickens. Two people were working in the garden, presumably the man and woman who had taken her in. Valleri watched them for a few minutes before the woman took notice of her.
“Jalfi! She’s awake!” the woman shook the man by the shoulder before rushing out of the garden. She met Valleri at the door and took her by the shoulder, a soft expression of concern washing over her face. “Are you okay? What’s your name?”
Valleri stared at her for what seemed like forever before blinking back into reality. “Where am I?”
“You’re safe now. That’s all that matters. Come on inside and I’ll get you something to eat.” The woman led her back into the cabin, draping Valleri’s arm over her shoulder for extra support. The woman cautiously sat her down at the end of the table and went to the hearth to begin cooking. The man came in only a short time after, kicking his boots free of any heavy grime that had collected while he was in the field. He took a seat on the bench next to Valleri. The woman was the first to speak, still cutting up vegetables and meat to put into her soup, “You’ve been out for almost two days. My name is Helgi and that’s my husband Jalfi,” She gestured towards the man sitting at the table, “He’s the one who found and insisted we bring you back. You’re lucky we even found you out there.” The woman poured her ingredients into a pot hanging above the hearth then came to sit next Jalfi, “Now, what’s your name and what can you remember?”
“Two days?” Valleri looked around the room for a moment, “Has it really been two days?”
“Yes, what’s your name?”
“Oh! Valleri,” she looked at Helgi, “My name is Valleri.”
“All right, Valleri, where are you from?”
Jalfi furrowed his eye brows and stared hard at Valleri with anticipation. “Are you with the legion?”
“I’m asking if you’re with the legion. I apologize, but I don’t want any soldiers in my home. It only brings trouble.”
Valleri shook her head, “I’m not with the legion. In fact, my friends and I didn’t even come through the main gate.”
“Why are you here then?” Jalfi’s scowl deepened as Valleri went silent.
Helgi looked at her husband and laid a hand on his shoulder. The attempt to calm him down was ineffective, but Jalfi didn’t move to speak again. Helgi looked back to Valleri then spoke with an even voice, “We’re farmers. There’s not much we can do out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Valleri quickly found Helgi’s meaning and paused. Her eyebrows furrowed together and she quickly muttered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I came here with a small group of researchers.”
“Ah. What happened to them?”
“We were ambushed by bandits shortly after we entered Skyrim. I’m guessing they’re probably dead,” Valleri felt her throat tighten as she recalled the events that led up to the present. Memories of metal clanging and the smell of blood crawled at the edge of her mind. They were still too fresh. “I don’t remember too much about the attack itself. Only that it was two Nords and an Argonian.”
Jalfi replaced his scowl with a more concerned look, “That could be anyone.” Helgi nodded momentarily and got up to check on the pot behind her. Satisfied, she took three bowls from a shelf nearby and filled them with the stew.
“Here, Valleri, eat this. You’re in need of nourishment if you’re going to recover nicely.” Helgi insisted in her soft, calming voice as she placed a bowl in front of the Imperial. Valleri looked at the stew in the bowl before eating it. There were potatoes and leeks in the stew with warm bits of meat here and there. She felt the broth going down her throat as her body began to warm up. The taste was bland, but Valleri was hungry enough to eat anything. Helgi smiled contentedly as she watched Valleri eat.
Jalfi was already finished with his portion as he started talking once again. “You said you came with a group of researchers? Maybe those bandits were after what ever your group was searching for?”
Valleri shook her head, “No, that’s not likely. My group was looking into some obscure stuff. Even people in Cyrodiil wouldn’t know much about it.”
“A random attack then.”
Valleri looked down at the empty bowl in front of her then sighed, “This is just great though. My first foray into Skyrim and I get attacked by bandits. I feel like such a fool.”
“You’re not a fool. Things are only so chaotic right now because of the war.
“How hard do you think it’ll be to track them down?”
“Difficult, especially when you’re not familiar with the territory. Winter will be coming soon as well.” Jalfi answered and leaned forward onto the table, hand resting on his chin.
“The Companions could probably help.” Helgi quipped before moving to collect the bowls.
“A warrior band based out of Whiterun. They pride themselves on being the best fighters in the province.”
“You think they’ll actually help me?”
Jalfi shrugged, “Maybe, probably.”
Valleri could almost feel the hope welling up in her chest for the first time since the ambush. Her heart pounded against her chest and she forgot about the dull ache in her side. Maybe, just maybe.
Helgi stared at the two figures sitting at her kitchen table. Valleri’s eyes were wide with anticipation, but Helgi could remember the shape they had found the poor woman in. She gave her pot a sharp tap with a wooden soon to get their attention. Surprised, both Valleri and Jalfi jolted and looked at the woman by the hearth. “Valleri, I get that you want to go after those men right now, but you’re still in no shape to even be leaving the house for too long. Your rib is broken; it’ll take at least four weeks to heal,” Helgi paused to sigh, “I’m not gonna let you go all the way to Whiterun until I know you can at least walk without falling over.”
”Wait,” Valleri looked back to Jalfi next to her, careful to avoid the disapproving eyes of Helgi, “How far is Whiterun? Do you have a map?”
Jalfi laughed a bit, “Now that’s funny, lass! Whiterun is about a week away by foot if you were in a hurry.”
“Where are we now?”
“We’re in western Falkreath hold. And don’t even think about leaving yet.” Helgi said from her spot by the hearth. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at Valleri across the small room.
Valleri’s expression went serious as she began thinking about the bandits and her friends, “Soon though. I need to know what happened to my group. I want vengeance.” Jalfi and Helgi stared at the woman, a calm, sure figure, sitting at their table. Valleri seethed quietly, barely moving.