In the Flesh – Chapter 1

The girl with the broom scurries with her head held low out of the way as the court mage walks swiftly through the hall, the hard gleam in his eyes shadowed by thick brows and a low hood. He is in a hurry, but he will not rush. The guards left and right of the heavy doors refuse to recognise his presence as well, fully aware that the times when they could ask himfor a quick treatment of a bruise or a hangover potion are over. Their gazes are set firmly on the empty throne, only the man shuffling in respectful distance behind the mage gets looks of open fear and disgust.

He has earned them, Wuunferth thinks, suppressing a malicious grin. Calixto is a monster, an abomination, he deserves the hate and loathing and should actually rot away in that cell that he has hauled him out of for the rest of his days. Wuunferth will never admit it, but he still dreams of the interrogation that unveiled the grisly deeds and the putrid mind of the man.

But for the greater good, sensitivities have to stay behind. To make the the mad murderer his assistant has been one of his more brilliant ideas. The man knows… things.

The Jarl agrees. The Jarl and he, they think alike.

His gaunt features unmoved, he enters the war room with billowing robes, interrupting the quiet conversation of the men already present. He can afford to come last. He doesn’t have to prove himself, not any more, not like the others. It is his work and his plan that will change the fate of the province, after all. Perhaps of the whole Empire. These men, the leaders of Ulfric’s army, will thrive or fall with his success. Bowing his head slightly towards the impressive figure at the table’s head he takes his seat, his assistant standing devoutly behind his chair.

That the others pretend not to notice his arrival doesn’t bother him. If anything, he enjoys the obvious discomfort his presence causes, and the manic grin the Jarl offers him is acknowledgement enough. There’s nothing mirthful about it, nothing like the former open, honest smile that used to win him hearts and sword arms, always containing a booming laughter. Now it’s just a mocking twist of his lips, teeth flaring up between scruffy stubble, moustache and lips gleaming with reddish grease like those of a whore. Wuunferth knows that this grin only retains a Shout. And it’s unable to veil the barely contained hunger, greed vibrating in every frantic movement, in the erratic shifts of his gaze. He needs me and he knows it, the mage reminds himself.

For a moment, his eyes linger on the Jarl’s pet, standing like his own assistant submissively behind the heightened seat of its master. The only difference between them is the steel chain attached to its collar, the leather loop at the other end always wrapped twice around the Ulfric’s wrist.

The pet is a gentle soul in the body of a beast, able to do amazing magic with so little means. Wild thyme… the scent hasn’t left the hall for many weeks now. No one knows what exactly it does, but it’s obedient and servile, even thankful for every scrap of attention. Calixto on the other hand nurtures the mind of a beast in a frail, brittle body. Easily breakable. And when he works his magic, it reeks of decay and corruption.

When Ulfric tugs absently on the leash, the pet scurries closer, head lowered, never making eye contact. With no one. It carries a pouch, red leather lined with oiled paper. When he reaches inside, the greasy jerky leaves the same sheen on the Jarl’s fingertips as in his face.

The others carry their own pouches. When the Jarl stuffs a strip into his mouth and begins to chew, they serve themselves as well.

“Report, mage.” A spray of red spittle marks the map in the middle of the table as he speaks with his mouth full. No one cares. All the flags are blue anyway, feigning facts that still have to come true. The red dots between them mark the blood of the Empire.

Wuunferth nods and straightens himself, his palms flat on the table.

“First, we need another corpse to feed the troops. As far as I understand, the entrails are not edible, and there’s not much else left of the blue one.” His gaze shifts to the point above Ulfric’s shoulder. The pet stares at him, eyes scared and wide open. Only when the Jarl pulls the leash impatiently, it nods barely noticeable.

Ulfric knows this is a just demand. Provisioning of the troops is paramount, and he has seen the carcass in the courtyard himself. “Take the green one in the back corner. They’re like flies, we’ll find a new one. Anything else?”

Wuunferth straightens himself. “Yes. Our… project.” The pause he makes is heavy with meaning. “I think… we found something. To get access to their souls.” He does not begrudge Calixto his scrap of fame. The man works hard.

“Is that so?” Ulfric’s eyes gleam with excited frenzy. He wipes his lips with the back of his hand, smearing the grease over his cheek.

Wuunferth bows his head in feigned submission. Ulfric knows he doesn’t mean it. “Aye. It’s… difficult, but possible. I think. I’ll need more soulgems.” Black soulgems, but he doesn’t say it out loud. They’re conscious after all, those souls. He wonders if that’s why they don’t rot, the heaps of corpses in the courtyard still as fresh as the day when they were slain. Ulfric has them dusted off the dirt of the city daily to keep the scales shiny. There are rumours that the Dragonborn has turned Azura’s star into a black soulgem. If he could only put his hands on it… but this is a problem that will be settled soon, once and for all.

His gaze wanders through the room. He relishes in the undivided attention of these men, the leaders of the Stormcloaks, the most powerful men in Eastmarch. In all of Skyrim, soon. And still, he hesitates to reveal the details of his knowledge to them. Not that they’d be able to exploit it.

“I see, I see. We’ll talk later.” A cackle erupts from the Jarl that turns into a bellow as he addresses the man sitting opposite of the mage. His moods are as erratic as the weather over Windhelm. “Galmar! Report!”

The old warhorse startles nervously and bows his head towards the Jarl. He’s the General of Ulfric’s army, Wuunferth thinks annoyed. The chief strategist. He shouldn’t behave like a scolded schoolboy.

But Galmar swallows hastily and lowers his head even deeper, studying his fingernails as he speaks. “Everything’s fine, my Jarl. We’re ahead of our schedule, thanks to the new rations. Amazing what the men are able to put up with suddenly. The camps in Haafingar and Hjaalmarch are disbanded and the troops assigned along the border. No skeever will enter Eastmarch  unnoticed.”

“Fine, fine. Then it’s time. You know what you have to do?”

Galmar offers a feeble grin, only a shadow of his former perky aplomb that always treated the Jarl like a friend  and equal. Not that Ulfric would it allow it any more. No one is equal to the future High King. “Aye. I will establish the contact. For old times’ sake… I’m sure she’ll see reason.”

A dangerous growl that makes bottles and goblets clank comes from the Jarl’s throat. “And if she doesn’t… she will be wiped out. Eradicated like the vermin she hosts.”

=======================================================

My half of a story trade with BluRaaven that derived from a pretty silly comment conversation over at AO3, relating to a short scene in chapter 12 of “Eyes on the Enemy”. Much crackier than her take and not to be taken too seriously.
As I generally don’t like Ulfric Stormcloak, I don’t consider this AU though. YMMV.

Please find her story “The Price of Freedom” here.

 

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