"Her? I should've guessed. Yes, I know her."
As I sat across from my subject, I saw a change come over him. Still in front of me was the old warrior I had been directed towards by nervous mountain villagers, a black and alien blade resting in his lap while he doted over a fraying bit of its grip, but his mind was gone from this place. To where I could only guess, and I was never brave enough to ask.
“I haven’t had to think about those days in a long time,” he continued. His names were many, but I found it comfortable to refer to him as the Reachfolk did - the Ebony Warrior. A description lacking in frivolity but effective in communicating his role and stature in the region. Simple, much like the man himself presented.
I had expected a soldier and got one, but he looked much older than the stories of him painted within my mind. He had a greying scalp and beard covering old scars that had long faded into dark skin, and his arms and hands reminded me of gnarled bark, tough but aged. I must have let that impression get to me because I asked if he wanted time to gather his thoughts, as if I was giving due respect to a tired elder with too many memories to bear. He seemed offended by the suggestion.
“Its been awhile but I remember every moment clearly.” He glanced around at our shelter of convenience, an old tomb long devoid of valuables or purpose high in the winter-chilled Druadachs. “Not that its preferable to forgetting. I suspect most would've put those days behind them.”
I bit my tongue. I had been through enough of this years-long journey to know how wrong he was, how many souls remained torn apart by the war and his part in it. His part, and that of his partner. I doubted very much he wished to hear of such things then.
“Let me ask you boy - when you pass on, what sins will be weighed against the worth of your soul?”
The question, while rhetorical and cloaked in his superstition, still stunned me. I had no idea and therefore had no answer, at least none that he couldn’t see through. The Warrior continued on without much of a care, talking as he wrapped new cloth around the black hilt.
“One of mine, one of the big ones, will be vanity. The second will be that I’ve lived far too long in spite of it. I'm not sure how this project of yours helps that. I don't want to be immortalized as you said, but...”
My heart stopped in the silence.
"But I do want to send a message. I'll give you the story you want."
I nodded respectfully, though giddy anticipation boiled over within. Before I was becoming annoyed at having to dip my quill repeatedly into an ink bottle, its tip having dried in the stale air while we meandered through his earlier questioning of my very presence - but all that was forgotten now. I nearly found myself laughing with him when he started, though what was so humourous I still don't know.
“Well, I can only really start from the beginning can I.”
Through haze and dust the sky remained a vibrant blue, marred only by a few high clouds that kept pace with the slow turn of the day. It was easy to lose oneself in that kind of peace - dreams of gliding in the air, eyes always focused on the distant horizon, the sort of place where your problems flitted away with the wind and were forgotten by the next revolution of the heavens.
Eluned told herself she wanted that one day. She told herself a lot of little lies like that.
The last thing recalled before such musings was a violent snap and a heavy pound against her chest. Then she was coughing out the heavy dust breathed in during a momentary void in consciousness. Sharp pains caused by her half-plate digging through the thin undercoat pierced through the dull ringing that smothered her mind, prodding her to action lest something worse than being knocked off a horse happen.
That was a very lucky shot.
Scattered pain from Eluned’s hip and legs gave voice to some further concern, but it would have to wait. The mercenary focused what strength was there to scramble to her feet and quickly find the nearest cover. A low rise nearby offered the best she was going to get.
Wincing and hobbling aside, she made it in good time. Another crackling snap split the air and vaporized a bit of the deadlands nearby where she fell. It seemed the clinging brown haze of the land was throwing off the aim of the enemy mages, just as it was obscuring her own view. Lucky shot for a lucky break. Somewhere in the haze came a scream, and underneath that were the sound of hooves and hollering and the distant clashing of warriors. Eluned settled herself behind what amounted to a slight incline in the land with a bit of a lip at the top, crouching on her haunches before the pain became too much. She doubled over and vomited, grateful only then that her helm lacked a face plate.
She should’ve just kept running - a moment's rest allowed the damage to catch up with her. Everything hurt, from toes to ears, with basic senses so overwhelmed it felt like a cloth had been wrapped around her head, muffling and obscuring her very dangerous surroundings. With every laboured breath she could feel the metal of her cuirass centered on a spot just above her chest, pinning the coat to her skin. The cheap armour she cussed the quartermaster for selling high was worth the price after all, so long as she survived the rest of the day.
Eventually she was lucid enough to crawl to the top of the rise, peeking above through star-specked eyes for another view of the on-going battle. There were rushing shadows passing her by in scattered directions - those were her allies, her ‘fellow’ mercenaries. The enemy was much more obvious.
Shining under the midday sun were a hundred golden warriors stretched across an open field in one long line. They were part of the Aldmeri Dominion’s military vanguard, marching forward along the small plain unimpeded by the blind charges of the child races and the stupid. The mercenaries only advantage was numbers, but the disciplined ranks of archers and mages were making very quick work of any fool that got too close.
That included herself, she supposed.
It was on that thought Eluned reached down for the grip of her sword, only to find air. Even its scabbard was gone, ripped from the belt loop by the chaos of her fall. Survived only to have no weapon - what a stupid idea that horse was.
Those criticisms were interrupted by the sounds of someone coming close. Out of the haze a figure materialized, bulky and tall even in a low run. Whizzing shots of magicka passed overhead as the armoured figure came to be by Eluned’s right, their closed helm turning to greet her.
“You’re alive, that’s a good start.” The blunt comment came by way of a muffled baritone.
“Not a, common, thing?” Eluned gasped out. Speaking wasn’t worth the effort right now.
The figure shook his head. Covered top to bottom in plate, he was basically featureless steel, save for grime and red streaks on his pauldrons that formed into a crude mimicry of roses.
“Not out here. Why don’t you hold still for a minute?”
She thought she was still.
“Hope you didn’t break anything,” he stated while positioning his hands so they hovered over her prone form. “I don’t think this spell is strong enough to fix that.”
“Wait-” Eluned's protest was cut off by a hard press on her back. It was painful, very painful, then absolutely bliss. A flowing warmth spread throughout her body, swirling and moving and soothing every aching part. All too soon it ended, and Eluned caught dying tendrils of soft light as her eyes opened.
“That should help.”
“Healer?” she asked dumbly while testing her renewed body. A few dull aches but nothing like before.
“Sellsword,” the man replied. “If we both survive, consider this a debt to pay.”
“What if only one survives?”
“You won’t care if I take your share then.” Eluned suspected the man was grinning underneath that helm. She couldn’t help but return it. "What's your name elf?"
"Eluned," she offered a hand to him, which he didn't hesitate to shake. His gauntlets dwarfed her own and were of significantly higher quality metal, and now facing him properly, she could see he had two sheathed blades at his hip. He was either a noble, or very good at his job.
"Talla, and you're welcome by the way." He turned to look over the top of the rise, then rather abruptly stood up. Without another word he made to climb over and head out onto the battlefield.
"Hey wait!" Eluned shouted. Without thinking she leapt up to grab him, only to find a hand pushing back. She was about to protest again when the air in front of them both began to glow bright, then exploded outward in a shimmering wave. Talla made his own step backward, careful and purposeful, even as a number lethal bolts slammed into the ethereal shield he was holding.
Eluned crouched back down low, very low, as increasing amounts of fire or ice or whatever peppered the dry dirt around them. Drawn to his sudden flaring spell like insects to light, the Aldmeri mages couldn't help themselves.
Talla turned on her swiftly after crouching below the rise, movements that were a bit more hostile than before.
"Are you an idiot?" The question seemed sincere as spells continued to be flung above their heads.
"Or have a death wish?"
"You should've told me before I healed you, could've found another fool to attend."
"Shut up!" That's going to help. "I lost my sword, I need one of yours."
"What?" Talla scoffed through his helm. Eluned could hardly blame him - she was a stranger, even if an ally, and carrying two blades into battle meant you expected to have need of both. But he had magic at his command - she didn't. Surely he could be convinced.
"I-I also have an idea, a strategy, but I need your help and a blade. I promise I'm good with both." By that time the mages had seemingly moved on, finding more pliant targets on the field, but it wouldn't be long until they were directly on top of them. She doubted they'd been slowed any.
"Alright," Talla relented, reaching down and unsheathing one of the blades at his hip. "Take it. What's your idea?"
Eluned let go of a breath, as much out of surprise than anything else. There was still obvious hesitation, but she would at least get a weapon - a long dagger, steel, and of good quality of course.
"That shield thing, you're good with it?" He nodded. "It catches the eyes of those piss skins. So, I took note of how this place looked when we came down the cliffs, right, and there's a grove of little and big trees this side of the road. Coast side. We should run for it with that ward up and distract them."
"Distract them, two of us?" Talla repeated. "You do want to die."
"No, no," she started. "We can make it so long-"
"We'll both be dead, elf."
Eluned squeezed her eyes in frustration. "We'll be dead here or there, might as well choose one!" The warrior remained silent and unreadable, and she had little further patience for it as the sounds of battle got closer.
He wasn't convinced. "If you're going to kill yourself, just give me my bla-"
Eluned set off at a run to the right of the rise, or the leftward flank of the Dominion lines, without a look back. By the details she was able to pick out they were maybe five hundred yards away, sporadically fighting off mercenaries that had made it through the chaos but never advancing farther than necessary. That kind of discipline in a battle was impressive in its own way, but rigidity also made things easier to break. Such was the case here, where typical Altmer strategy would be to close flanks around the bulk of the attacking force. The unintentionally scattershot approach of the mercenaries seemed to preclude that for now, and gave her something of a chance. Not much but, something.
The original plan she'd sold herself and a couple of others on was very similar to her current path, except it involved going at the speed of a charging mare. Now that horse and the fools who listened to her likely lay dead somewhere in the dust cloud. Eluned had to rely on her own two legs to make it this time, and make herself a target for the enemy flankers while at it.
So she began to scream.
If it wasn't in the middle of a battle and wasn't herself doing it, it would've been funny. It still kind of was. Eluned screeched as loud and consistently as she could between deep intakes of choking air and weaving through the uneven terrain of the old flood plain where the battle was taking place. Her arms swung wildly in a desperate bid for balance while she did her best to keep tight grip on the stolen blade. It didn't take long before her throat started to hurt, and she had no idea if this was even working as slowing to check meant certain death. In the distance the shape of a tree's canopy began to form clearly, wide and low, providing shady respite in the baked coastlands of western Hammerfell, and the excuse for her insanity.
Yet as with much in life, it was pointless before it began. The Aldmeri line had already made it in front of the grove, and three soldiers stood directly in her path. They could see her clearly by now, this screaming lunatic coming toward them. All three had shields the shape of spread eagle wings held ready to stop this nonsense from continuing further.
This really was a dumb idea. Eluned didn't stop, couldn't stop, running at full speed toward the easiest target of the three, a woman in-between the others whose shield stance seemed barely balanced. Eluned wasn't taller than the Altmer facing her but it was a good bet she could pack more of a punch, especially at a run. It was the only bet now. Her left shoulder collided painfully with the shield and her right hand went upward, so as the pair fell together her blade came dangerously close to sliding underneath the Altmer's chin. As it was, she escaped a quick death.
Eluned bounced and rolled off the shield, coming to an ungraceful but effective landing on her ass. She scrambled swiftly onto her feet before the others could respond, with a hard step on the fallen Aldmeri's face for good measure. She jumped back for room to fight, waving her brandished steel around as invitation for both to test their luck. The one to the right was first, stepping toward with shield raised and sword held back, ready for a quick strike; the one to the left did much the same but a few steps behind, holding back a mace that would make quick work puncturing her armour.
Eluned took to the leading soldier, watching their feet closely for the tale of how they expected this little annoyance to end. With every step forward she gave a half-step back, allowing them to close in for a kill, build up their confidence in overwhelming a single shieldless opponent. Once within reach they attempted to prod forward with the sword, hoping to force Eluned to stop and block, or step back too recklessly. She played into it, feinting a parry to the thrust before springing off her heels to their left. She was countered by the shield, but it was a clumsily attempted block that put the soldier off balance. Eluned moved faster than they could turn, and was behind them within three strides. With a hand on their shoulder, she pulled down and drove the dagger hard under the back of their helm.
It was a solid kill, but lodged far too deep. The dagger was stuck within the neck of the Altmer soldier, and the body's falling weight ripped it out of Eluned's grip as she was forced to prepare herself for the other's swift reaction.
The second soldier ran straight for her with shield and weapon raised. In her haste Eluned left herself without any good options; she threw herself to the right, hoping to land on the ground out of their reach, maybe even trip them with a bit of blind luck. It wasn't to be. While she avoided the blow of their mace, the grunt smacked into her with the shield, throwing her backward onto the hard dirt. The world became a pained blur once more. She kicked and flailed and rolled in hopes of stopping the coming attack, but the bright golden silhouette was already above her. It was too late.
Then the figure became too bright. Flashing heat washed over Eluned as the soldier was blasted by fire until they fell over, landing beside her wreathed in flame and terror. She screamed and kicked herself away from pyre, backing up until another bright shape caught her attention. It was tall, on fire, and looking at her without any eyes.
"Get up!" The command came from behind. By sound alone she could tell someone clad in plate was approaching at a fast pace. Eluned obeyed, blinking through the pain and surprise to her feet.
Talla spoke again, but the words weren't recognizable to her. The fire-person seemed to understand though, ending its incessant leer to begin gliding toward the rest of the Dominion line, a thin trail of fire and scorched ground following it. Eluned was so entranced she didn't notice the sellsword walking up to her directly until a hand jostled her shoulder. His visor was open now, revealing a youthful face with eyes as blue and deep as the sky, staring past her into the distance.
"Stendarr's mercy, what was that?" Eluned asked, as much to herself as to Talla. It seemed to her a demon, and he seemed to control it. Something only a justiciar would do.
"A distraction," the Redguard replied simply. "You intact, Sai? Grab a weapon then."
Eluned nodded and did as asked, grabbing a shield and the mace from the burning corpse's light grip. Once she was ready there came another surprise - a loud sound similar to large bellows being pressed down in the distance, followed by screaming. There were several distinct flames off in the direction of the Aldmeri lines, some of them running wildly about. Only after that sight did she realize what he had said.
"What did you call me?"
Talla gave a small laugh as he closed his face plate. "I called you lucky. Ready to move?"
Eluned nodded. The mace clanged hard against her new shield twice. Her vision was still a bit blurry, but her heart and mind was focused once more on the task at hand. Sporadic lights and the sounds of battle were coming from where the golden warriors had dispersed - the shadowed forms of her allies were focusing in on new wound in the Dominion's side.
"Thank you," Eluned blurted. If he acknowledged it she didn't see.
"Let's get this done then."
"When I first saw her out in that desert, I didn't think much of anything. Another purse to collect once I got to Sentinel, all you needed was a description and a name after all. Eluned, elf, brown eyes, thin face, dour look.
"I can't tell you what changed exactly. I can tell you that of the many things I do regret, following her in that stupid charge isn't one of them."