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I put the Runt in Grunt

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I should be at the border soon. I need to be on the watch for guards, at least for the next half hour or so. Then it’s just east until a day until I hit the main road and another days journey to Riften from there. I wonder if Zaynabi has made it back from Dawnstar yet? It looked like such a long journey on the map she sent me.

The dark forest toyed with Gh’Aerost’s mind, the old tree’s roots lifted out of the ground to trip him, a cruel joke planned centuries in advance at his downfall. Any plan he had of stealthing past the border by leaving at night was all but forfeit. The orc’s footfalls were heavy with the weight of clumsiness as he blustered through the cluttered undergrowth, cursing under his breath.

He was not incautious, however. When a desperate cry rang through the heavy air, every muscle, tendon and tissue tightened and froze. As still as a statue, Gh’Aerost waited thirty whole seconds, not daring to breath.

Thirty slow seconds passed, and he heard it again, a distressed cry from some sort of animal, most likely a horse, calling out from not so far away from him. He heard a man, a young voice, though the strain on his throat shed some light on his years. The man was shushing the creature, apparently trying to comfort it, or scold it, it was hard to tell, since he was clearly quite rushed, and was muttering far too quickly for anything he said to be recognizable..

He knows there are others in this forest. Close.

Gh’Aerost needed to move, and fast. Deciding where to move would be a problem however, since the orc needed not only to avoid the presence he was aware of, he needed to avoid the presence the man was aware of and he was not.

And he, apparently, was not the only one who had come to this conclusion.

A booming voice from some 50 meters to his left shouted “SCATTER!” at the same time another yelled from not far behind him “CAPTURE THE TRAITOR!

It was panic and confusion, too much shouting to get a good bearing of what was going on around him, voices colliding in time with the clash of blades, the air was singing the song of steel as arrows flew by him from every direction.

Gh’Aerost couldn’t use his magic, that he knew, but he’d bet every bottle of skooma in his traveling sack that the fight was being surrounded, and that trying to escape would be a pointless waste of time and shed blood. An unfortunate arrow lodged itself into his left calf unexpectedly, shot by blind luck herself it seemed, or at least a mortal she was wooing with her favour, since even in the dark the projectile managed to lodge itself deep into the orc’s leg, barely a hair from poking right out through to the other side of tense skin.

The orc gritted his teeth at this sudden pain, I will bear it, I will not let them take me. I am stronger than this.

Another arrow propelled itself into his shoulder blade, and then another, into his front, he could see light, do they have torches now? Spirit’s ass I’m dead. Someone was shouting at him, was charging him, and he fell to his knees. I will not die today, take me if you must, I will not die before I reach Skyrim.

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Such a long trip. How far will we travel before these prisoners meet their fate? It’s not like it will be any less harsh whether we ride for Helgen or Solitude itself. It feels as if we’ve been going for days, are we delivering Ulfric and his boys to the pits of Oblivion in person?

“Hey, you! You’re finally awake!”

Hadvar jerked out of his reverie at Ralof’s voice, suspiciously glancing over the four in the back carriage that were his duty to watch over once again. It’s not like Ralof had been trying too hard to make amicable conversation the past 12 hours they’d been riding, what had changed?

But from what he could tell, Ulfric was still entirely incapacitated. He continued to watch the Stormcloaks with a heap of unease settling into his gut.

“You were trying to cross the border, right? Walked right into that Imperial ambush.” The blonde leaned towards the orc, who had yet to react outwardly to his presence in the slightest.

Finally he gave a gruff, “I guess you could say so,” and glanced down at his shoes, which Hadvar suddenly remembered had been removed from him, and been replaced with rag slippers. Swirling with the unease, he recognised hints of doubt and pity now sloshing around in his abdomen.

Ralof was nodding at him, a wide smile stretched across his face, trying to encourage the orc into speaking, and he gestured with bound hands towards the brown haired lad sitting next to him, “yeah, and that thief too!”

The mentioned man did not take kindly to being addressed as such, and whipped around to face Ralof, shouting, “Damn you stormcloaks! Skyrim was fine until you came along. The empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, could've stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell.”

The thief looked around and forced desperate eye contact onto the orc, who clearly did not want to be having this conversation, or any conversation right now for that matter. “You there… you and me, we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the empire wants!”

The orc chuckled a humorless laugh. “Last time I checked, stealing horses from an Imperial camp pisses off the empire too, kid. Hoping borders ain't appreciated either, but usually it’s just a fine, we managed to wander into the exact spot where a bunch of criminals to the empire had just wandered, and then we were dumb enough not to just surrender immediately.”

The thief looked at a loss for words, and proceeded to glance down into his lap, worriedly. Ralof leaned over to him to attempt to comfort the kid, patting his shoulder and saying, “We’re all brothers in binds now, thief.”

The orc scoffed. “I’m no brother of yours. Plenty blood will spill tonight, but the hearts that lie in the soil don’t beat together, they are dead, our living blood matters tenfold more.” The nord gave him a confused look, and he rolled his eyes, “of course you wouldn’t understand, most in Skyrim talk about death and Sovngarde so much it sounds as if they’d prefer it to the more substantial form of existence.”

Ralof just blinked. The carriage driver groaned and shouted, “Shut up back there.” The orc sighed heavily and settled into his seat.

A good half an hour passed without disturbance, but for the past ten minutes, tension had been building. The thief was staring intently at Ulfric, as if trying to recognise an old relative he hadn’t seen in years, Ralof was watching the thief in return, protective of his king, and Ulfric was staring and Ralof, trying to convey something with his eyes that Hadvar couldn’t see, but luckily, it didn’t look like Ralof was picking up on either. The orc was glancing in between the two traitors to the empire, mouthing the word stormcloak to himself over and over again.

He had possibly never been to skyrim, at least, not since the High King’s death, and Hadvar felt oddly protective of the man who was only now realizing he was trapped in a cart with the religious usurpers he had only heard fearful tales of from refugees in Cyrodiil.

Suddenly the thief spoke out, his trembling voice crashing through the tense silence like a cart that had lost a wheel colliding into a building, “And what’s wrong with him, huh?”

Ralof growled indignantly, and Hadvar could tell by the way his shoulders caved as if he were a feral cat, that if his hands were not bound, he would’ve punched the thief right there and then. “Watch your tongue!” He shouted instead, his rumbling voice unmistakably that of an angry nord. “You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King.”

Hadvar’s hand clenched on his horse’s reins, but he was a patient man, and he would not let his emotions overrule him. The thief on the other hand looked positively terrified, turning back to Ulfric without even trying to hide the horror etched into even line in his face. “U-Ulfric?” he stuttered, “The Jarl of Windhelm? You're the leader of the rebellion. But if they've captured you... Oh gods, where are they taking us?”

It seems he was the last to come to this conclusion, as both the orc and Rolaf only sighed in response. Rolaf elaborated a few seconds later, because of course he did, Hadvar just needed to hear his voice every second of this damned trip didn’t he?

“I don’t know where we're going, but Sovngarde awaits." The orc opened his mouth, as if to argue, but then glanced at the thief, and shut it again. The thief whined pitifully, dragging his knees to his chest, “No, this can’t be happening. This isn’t happening!”

“Hey, now” Ralof placed his bound hands on the man's shoulders, which were trembling something awful, “what village are you from, horse thief?”

The thief glanced up, eyes wet but narrowed in suspicion and brows pinched together. “Why do you care?” Ralof smiled kindly at him, and replied, “A nord’s last thought should be of home.” The thief swallowed a lump in his throat and murmured, “Rorikstead. I’m..” he trailed off, gazing into nowhere, then continued a little stronger a few seconds later, “.. I’m from Rorikstead.”

Rolaf nodded, and turned to look towards the orc, who cocked his head in response. “What about you, orc?”

He leaned back in response, elbows resting on the edge on the cart, gazing over the landscape of skyrim. “I have no home. I was thrown out of my birthed stronghold, Largashbur, before I could prove myself. I’ve travel many places from that day, but none have been my home.”

Ralof nodded and was about to look away, when the orc continued unexpectedly. “My last thought will be Nibenay Valley, I think. The water was always so still, so peaceful. A good way to die, no?”

“Aye,” Ralof agreed solemnly, though surprise was clear on his face. Not many an orc was this well spoken, and even less appreciated peace of all things.

They rounded a corner, and Hadvar saw the gates of Helgen. The amount of Imperial guards present suggested that this may be their final stop. “General Tullius Sir!” Cried out Gideon, a Legionnaire that Hadvar had often traveled with, “The headsman is waiting!”

He curved his spine up a little straighter when he heard how close General Tullius truly was, the gruff voice answering from just beyond the gate, “good, let’s get this over with.”

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