There was nothing special about them. A family like thousands of others, her Dad a hunter in service of the Jarl of Falkreath, her Ma gathering and selling alchemy ingredients and tilling the patch of land they owned. She had a twin sister and a little brother, only a newborn, spending his time tied into a scarf to the back of their mother. The shock of black hair stood spiky into all directions, brown eyes poking out of his shelter. When she bent over too fast, he chortled with glee.
They were poor, but she wasn’t aware of it. Sometimes they were hungry, but never for long. Perhaps their parents starved for them, but if they did, they never let their children know. They had food, they had it warm when they froze and shelter from the dangers of the wilderness. And so much more.
They had each other. Their parents gave them everything they could, but most of all they gave them the freedom to learn and to experience the world, solace when they got hurt and sustenance for their curious minds. It wasn’t a formal education, but they were taught the land and how to live from it, hunting and the essential skills to survive in this harsh land with endless winters and short, cool summers. And their parents told them the stories they had already heard from their own, history and legends alike, and they learned from them too.
They learned that they belonged to no one but to themselves, that they could never be forced into a life they didn’t want, that they were free and strong and independent. Their parents taught them the pride and confidence to be able to take care of themselves, and their sisterhood taught them the ability to trust and to rely on someone else.
Her sister was her image, her match, her counterpart and mirror. Only with her did she feel whole. Inseparable, two bodies and two minds that complemented each other. Together, they knew, they could conquer the world.
They were so normal, and they were so happy. Like thousands of others, but this happiness was hers alone, even if she wasn’t aware of it. It was everything she had, safety and joy, the contentment of a full belly and the love of her family. The knowledge where she belonged and with whom she belonged. This safety carved itself into her being, never to be forgotten.
The way it ended was nothing special either, in this land harsh land devastated by war, where people didn’t care any more if what they took was theirs and if others had to die for them to survive. It ended in her tenth summer, and it ended in a rush of blood, in the triumphant yells of the outlaws that ambushed the cottage in the small glade, in the screams of her mother and her sister. It ended in a tangle of limbs, dead flesh clawed into each other – her mother with an arrow through her throat, the tiny face of the newborn still contorted in glee when she fell over, the back of his skull crushed by a mace, black hair glistening with red. She didn’t see her father die but she heard his dying scream, breaking off suddenly with a choked gurgle.
Her sister saved her, by her side like she had always been, sheltering her even in death. They tried to flee, together and hand in hand, but she fell when her sister slumped against her, hit by an arrow. She fell and felt something break, felt the weight of a body on hers, heard the screams of agony ringing through her ears. Another arrow pinned the corpse to her living flesh, and the world went black around her.
When she woke, she was surprised that she still breathed. Their blood pooled in a puddle around her, her sister’s as much as her own. She smelled the sharp stench of copper that decayed into the foul odour of putrefaction as the hours went by.
Perhaps they saw the smoke of the burning cottage or heard the frantic screeches of the cattle, perhaps they just passed by chance. But they found her between the devastation, the fire and the corpses, withered throat not even able to whimper any more, a patrol of Imperial soldiers, and they took her with them. The surgeon made her drunk, against the thirst as well as against the pain, gave her a piece of bark to bite on and and removed the arrow from her flesh. He patted her cheek with a false grin. “‘t will hardly leave a scar, pretty,” he mumbled. The foul liquid they forced her to drink made her warm and numb inside.
But when she woke screaming, with the stench of fresh blood and burning flesh in her nose and a sound that was a lullaby as much as a dying scream filling her ears, they cursed her for disturbing their mindless routine and the dangers her cries could stir out here in the wilds. Only one of them shared his water skin with her, his hands stroking soothingly over her hair. When they decided to leave her behind, an injured child only a burden, he was the only one who rose an objection.
“We can’t leave her behind now,” he said, “and we go to Riften anyway.” She didn’t know what it meant and was too tired to feel thankfulness. But they were soldiers, and allowing her to stay with them didn’t mean they’d consider her needs. They forced her to walk behind their lines until she stumbled with fatigue and pain, she drank from the creeks they crossed and scraped the burnt remains of their meals out of their iron pans, but in the nights she was allowed to curl together at the fire, and sometimes one of them remembered to throw a blanket over her.
But it was rare that one of them addressed her, and when they did they didn’t know what to say. She didn’t either. She was alone and withdrew back into herself, because she had nowhere else to go. It was the loneliness of a child whose childhood had ended all too sudden, and she forgot to cry, forgot the words that would describe her fate when nobody spoke to her, nobody asked what had happened and what she had lost.
She didn’t look back when the doors of the Riften orphanage closed behind her, and she still didn’t speak when the man came and took her with him, only weeks later. He came from the other side of the mountains, exotic and wealthy, and the scrutiny with which he inspected her, a scrawny child in a threadbare smock, pierced into her core and let the small scar in her abdomen tingle with fear and disgust.
But no child of ten had control over its fate, he took her with him over the mountains from Riften to Cheydinhal, and she became the lowest maid in the house of a noble.
At first, she only had to work, and it provided her with a strange kind of comfort. She was no child any more, but she had always had to work if she wanted to eat, and it was nothing new to her. She fulfilled her duties the best she could, quiet and calm. Only when she felt his eyes on her she recoiled, but she learned to obey his orders that were given solely to force her into compliance, and she learned to call him master.
When she had proven her servitude, she had to learn. The education she got was widespread and thorough, reading and writing, the history of the empire, data, numbers and facts. She learned about religion and philosophy and about the cultures of all the different people her master called guests and friends. She learned not only to set, but to use a dozen different kinds of cutlery, to dance and to converse about everything and nothing. And she learned not to be afraid of strangers, to be kind, attentive and obliging no matter what happened.
She learned to be good company.
Sometimes the cook gave her a look full of pity when she cleansed her hands and left the kitchen to attend her lessons. But she liked these lessons with all the other girls, she liked to learn about all the things she’d never see and never do herself. She never asked why she was taught.
It was a glorious night, hundreds of candles spreading their golden light from crystalline chandeliers and silver holders on the tables that were laden with food and drink, luxurious tableware filled, emptied, filled again and abandoned. Bards were playing on stages and in every corner, people feasting, drinking and singing. The huge ballroom of the estate was filled to the brim, couples swaying in elegant circles to the music, changing partners, laughing, separating and coming together again. Other rooms were filled with the concentrated silence of card players who shoved huge piles of gold back and forth, dimly lit niches were occupied by people clinging to each other, often more than just a couple. It was a feast like many others she had served in the last three years, clad in uniform, eyes lowered, invisible like a shadow, platters of delicacies and goblets filled with exquisite wine or rare liquors more important than the hands that brought them. But she felt eyes on her, and she felt selfconscious, and when her master ordered her to take one of his guests to his room, a fat old man in a stained brocade jacket with a greasy moustache and a false smile, fear and disgust let a shiver run down her spine.
She had heard the other girls talk. She didn’t understand all of it, but enough to know that she was no child any more. It didn’t matter that she still felt like a child and that she didn’t know anything.
When the man ripped the silver buttons from her livery, pushed her onto the mattress and weltered over her with a grunt that sounded to her as if he was in pain, hot flesh burying her, wobbly and soft everywhere but in one place against her thigh, a voice nearly forgotten wailed through her dazed mind, the instructions of her father.
“If it’s a woman, go for her throat. If it’s a man, go for his groin. Slash and pierce if you have a weapon, squeeze if you don’t.”
She was lithe and agile, and perhaps he mistook her writhing for excitement. But she squeezed with everything she had, and his scream released her.
She was locked away, unchained and unharmed, fed and warm but never alone, and they didn’t let her sleep any more. She was cut off from the cycles of day and night, learned to hate the light that burnt her eyes out and the music they tortured her with, the people talking to her, keeping her awake, with their deafening breathing, their presence and their touches that weren’t intended to hurt. They hurt regardless, disgusting and intrusive. After one week she couldn’t distinguish them any more, she cried and they laughed at her, and when someone wiped the sweat from her brows and her neck and fingertips wandered down her spine in a caress like a butterfly, she screamed and pleaded for help, her mind dazed, unable to withdraw from their attentions.
Her mother answered her plea to be saved from the songs, the smiles and the touches, for safety and darkness and sleep. She had always been there, she had always kept her safe, and now she appeared, a lullaby bubbling out of the hole in her throat. Her arms were stretched out wide, ready to take her in, ready to give her the shelter she needed so desperately. She had always taken care of her, and she had always kept her safe.
She fled into these arms, dead eyes looking at her with a smile full of love, the crushed head of the newborn resting on her shoulder. It was the only smile that was real, and she longed for it, longed for these arms to close around her, for these bloodsmeared hands to stroke her back and erase the memory of touches that were so different, that burnt on her skin.
But her mother had left her already once, and now she left her again, forced away by another song and another embrace, the lullaby fading before she could find shelter in her dreams. She screamed and fought and pleaded to her to stay, but even her mother left her alone.
She realised that the only shelter she’d find was the one in herself. Everybody who could keep her safe was gone. But there was no escape, not even into the refuge of her own mind as they used subtle pain and tantalising caresses on her body that made every nerve ending ache. In the end, her gaze lost its fear and wilfulness, turned into mindless humility instead.
When her master came and showed her what to do, what was expected of her, she finally obeyed again. Sleep was her reward, and her hair was white when she awoke.
From now on she obeyed, and she only spoke when she had to. Many more feasts, many more men, sometimes more than one, sometimes men and women and always her master. She stopped to wear the servant’s uniform and was clad in dresses that were too expensive for the bit of fabric they were made of, fine silk exposing her body, her hair braided into intricate styles and adorned with glittering jewellery. She was only another jewel, an exceptional attraction with her white hair, white skin and deep blue eyes, presented like an expensive wine, ready to be consumed. It was always her master who consigned her and handed her over to his guests like a gift.
It never stopped to hurt and it didn’t get easier, but she obeyed and she served, always, no matter what they did, no matter what they made her do. There was no escape, and her mind was numb and empty.
She became older, no child any more and the traces of the life she lived already visible in her face. There were other girls like her, forlornness in their faces and glimpses of hope when they started to wear the livery again, with lowered heads, jewellery and make-up gone. Or their bodies started to swell with unwanted progeny, forced upon them, and they vanished from the household, without a trace, never to be spoken of again, leaving behind only a subtle promise.
But she never dared to hope, and she stayed. Her master still fancied her, she was the jewel in the crown of his decadence, spared for those occasions when her experience, her servitude and the air of detachment that always wafted around her were required.
She was hollow and numb, a bottomless vessel for their desires and demands. Obedience and inurement buried what her parents had taught her: that she was free, that she was strong, and that she belonged to noone.
When he catched her watching the guards and the horses in the courtyard, her fists clenched as if she held a weapon and her body twitching in an imitation of the spar below her balcony, he fulfilled her wish. He always fulfilled her wishes… or what he thought her wishes were, and she never gave him reason not to. She was his, after all.
At first it was not much more than a game, exercises he allowed her to keep her in shape. It wasn’t trust when he told the captain of his guard to hand her a light cuirass and a simple iron mace and to instruct her, and he watched her amused when she faced the straw puppet, teeth clenched and running with sweat, knowing that behind the heavy doors the lavender fragranced bath waited for her and the oils and salves that kept her skin smooth, ready for the hands of a stranger. He knew she wouldn’t fight him, and that he had found only another way to make use of her. She was too used to obey, never spoke, never argued, lived to serve.
He never let her go out and fight real threats, brigands and wildlife, but she learned through her training, motions and reflexes her muscles had never completely forgotten coming back, and she welcomed the strain and the aches of the exertion. She trained all on her own, despised by those she tried to mimic. Only during the rare opportunities when nobody watched over her and a challenge full of disdain and contempt was spoken, spat into her face, she had a living opponent. She never refused the spar because she never learned more than on these occasions, and the open revulsion of the guards, of the men and women that looked like her in their homogenous gear didn’t reach her. Neither the disgust they didn’t hide when she wore her armour – “his puppet,” they hissed behind her back, “his whore,” – nor the scorn when they watched her with hungry eyes, whirling over the dance floor in the arms of a stranger while they had to guard the doors in uncomfortable uniforms.
When she went through the movements against her own shadow or against the lifeless dummy, she was alone with herself, emptied her mind into a soothing loneliness, uncaring for watchful eyes, and gradually she deepened the knowledge left from the lessons of her father, became stronger than she should be and as skilled as this kind of training could make her. Sometimes he praised her skill, like he praised a new poem or a good wine, and she knew she was allowed to protect herself because she was his and because nobody else was there who would do it for her.
It was an evening in late spring like so many others, the sun tinting the sky in shades of pink and purple, Secunda rising over the horizon. She knew she had to get in and ready for dinner, she was expected to entertain his guests, but she was reluctant to move. Just a few minutes for herself. She leant against the outer wall that had been the border of her world as long as she could remember.
The young man was new to the troops, a kinsman of hers from Bruma. His pat on her back made her startle, but he didn’t realise it. She wasn’t allowed to speak with him unattended – she knew it, and he should have known it too.
But he was jovial and friendly, chatting away about the wealth of their master and the prosperity of his business, his kindness and generosity. And he asked her how it was to live as the master’s fancy, not to have to live in the barracks, to have his favour and to be allowed to attend the glittering, luxurious nightlife in the estate.
He didn’t expect her to answer, too entangled in his own torrent of words and enthusiasm, but his curious, innocent envy broke with sudden force through her shell. He flinched from her when lifeless blue eyes suddenly flared with anger and something of which he only realised much later that it was sadness.
He dared to ask, he dared to be envious, and a yearning welled up in her like a flash that felt strangely familiar. A longing for the lessons she once learned, a longing for remembrance. The faint memory of a different closeness that wasn’t stained by demands, of lessons that were aimed to make her stronger for herself instead to make her a better servant. Once she had been safe, and once she knew where she belonged.
She knocked him out, discarded her armour and fled. Purposeless, aimless… but northwards, where once there had been a home, driven by a relentless force that pulled her forwards. When she couldn’t cross the border to her homeland, she trecked westwards through the mountains, lived off the land in search for another way. She wanted to go home where no home was left, but she needed a destination, something to start. And she knew nothing but the endless pine forests around the little village.
In the end, she was stopped again during another fruitless attempt to pass the border, was caught in a fight that was not hers, her mace crushing the skull of a man who approached her with a drawn blade and the lewd grin of a predator. He was the first man she ever killed, but it didn’t help her, soldiers clad in blue and red ensuring that no one left the battle ground. When the fighting was done she was made a prisoner again, and when she didn’t speak and didn’t tell the officer her name, she was sent to the block with all the others. For a moment she envied the thief who tried to flee and died fast with an arrow in his back.
It didn’t matter any more. She knew the little village where she was brought, and it gave her a strange sense of relief – not because she had reached her homeland, but because she had left Cyrodiil behind, and with it her past. One of the men said that in the hour of death, a Nord’s last thoughts should be of home, and this was the only moment that a sting of regret shot through her. She didn’t have a home, but in this moment of clarity she remembered what she once had, so many years ago. She remembered the warmth of a fire that was more than just the heat of burning wood, she remembered the love in the eyes of her mother, the closeness of her sister when they cuddled under one blanket at night, whispering and giggling of dreams they had and things they’d do, the pride of her father when he presented her with her first bow and dagger. Finally she remembered what had been only a faded memory, the feeling to belong somewhere, and this memory was a last gift she caged in her heart. With this memory she became a person instead of a nameless prisoner, someone with a past even if she didn’t have a future, someone unique. It was something she could take with her.
The moment her temple touched the stone, slippery and warm from the blood of those who had died before her, the scent of fear and death in her nose, she felt a calmness not even the rising axe of the headsman could disturb. She hadn’t listened to the solemn words of the priestess before and she didn’t pray now.
She didn’t put her soul into the hands of a deity. Her soul was hers alone. She would never serve again, never obey, never submit.