First thing the next morning, they bid Windhelm farewell. Until they reached Ivarstead, Zahra felt it was best if she wore her necromancer robes. She'd noticed that even though people didn't address them directly, they were less like to address her at all. They were also good for keeping other mages at bay, seeing as how necromancers were unilaterally considered the lowest and most despicable members of the magical community.

Eastmarch was an admittedly beautiful realm once they left the ragged city behind. The cold river waters were clear, and the crisp air smelled so clean and pure. Around them, snow-capped mountains towered.

"I've never left Haafingar before," Roggvir confessed, as they made their way south, passing the village of Mixwater Mill. "The bards would share so many stories and songs of their travels and I would envy them."

"How come you never traveled?"

"I had a niece to help look after," he shrugged. "And an overprotective sister. And a brother-in-law whose fishing stall never seemed to make enough money."

"You had a family," Zahra nodded understandingly. "You had responsibilities."

"And you?" he asked. "You seemed well-traveled."

"I'm well-traveled now," she laughed softly. "Before, I was just passed from home to home. I spent my days studying. I didn't play or have friends. I never visited any cities and I certainly never got to experience Skyrim like this."

"What was the name of your last guardian?"

"Psymia," Zahra scowled. May she rot in Oblivion. "She was an Altmeri mage. Every time she spoke to me it was a command. 'Fetch this, Zahra. Wash that, Zahra. Sweep here, Zahra. Don't speak, Zahra.' After a while I realized I was nineteen, a woman, and no longer needing guardian. So I gathered what little I had one day and left."

"I figured you raised by an Altmer," Roggvir murmured. "You have a touch of their accent."

"Do I?" Zahra blinked. She'd never noticed.

"You are clearly well-read, well-bred even," he nodded. "You could get a job teaching at a temple, or an orphanage, or even as a tutor in a noble house."

She shuddered. Zahra had ready many books about nobles and wanted nothing to do with them.

"I prefer to steer clear of nobility," she said bluntly. "They're all liars and schemers and backstabbers. And they never seemed to marry for love, only land and money."

"That's true," Roggvir agreed, "but I have hunted and fished and chopped wood my whole life, yet never made as much coin as a servant in a great house."

"Do you know what servants have to put up with?" Zahra raised an eyebrow. "Constantly being chastised, fondled, sometimes even swindled out of their salaries. With war in Skyrim, many of these nobles are about to be heavily in debt and expecting the common folk to serve them for free." She looked bitter. "Nobles have too much power. If we attach ourselves to the wrong house, they can make our lives hell."

She paused suddenly, and stopped walking. She'd just noticed that the weather was warming up, and before them was a great waterfall, its waters loud and rushing.

She took off before Roggvir could say anything, climbing the high rocks like a nimble goat seeking the highest point.

Hearing the rush of the waterfall, feeling the spray of water on her skin and watching the sun reflect off the river gave her a heady rush. All her life she'd heard about the beauty of Skyrim, and she'd thought she'd seen it from her time in the wild, but clearly she'd been missing so much.

Roggvir watched his betrothed, amused by her childlike wonder. He understood the spell of the wild all too well, from hunting in the woods outside Solitude and fishing upon the Great Sea of Ghosts. He smiled, falling just a little more for this strange woman. He felt a surge of optimism about their life together.

As they continued their journey, she continued to display a fascination with rivers, with waterfalls big and small. She had to stop and gawk at each one, and Roggvir was content to indulge her. He made a vow that when the war ended, they would travel across Skyrim once a year, so she could maintain her wonder.

They reached the northern border of Ivarstead just before sunset, despite all of Zahra's stops. She went into the woods to change out of her robes and put on a dress common women across Skyrim wore. When she returned, she was beaming even more brightly than when she'd dressed as a noblewoman.

They entered the town together and Roggvir had to admit, Ivarstead was very beautiful. There seemed to be flowers and apple trees everywhere, and the people were in high spirits despite the times. Deep in the valley, they enjoyed the smell of farm, forest, and falls.

There was a newfound skip in Zahra's step as they walked past fertile farms and along a beautiful river.

They came to a bridge draped in leaves and stood upon it, marveling at the charm of the small town. Ivarstead had such a peaceful calm that Roggvir had never known, not after living in the busiest city in Skyrim.

"I want us to live here," Zahra told him breathlessly. Ivarstead had such a normalizing effect on her. She was no longer a member of a shameful cult, and he was no traitor. She simply a normal Redguard woman with her handsome Nord warrior, standing on a beautiful bridge in Ivarstead.

"What's that, love?"

"I want us to live here," she repeated. "After the wedding. I'll get a job at the apothecary, or on one of the farms. You can hunt and fish."

"My love," he told her ruefully. "Ivarstead has no walls, and war is coming. These people are in a good mood now, but wait until the Imperial Legion arrives and burns their village to the ground."

Her shoulders immediately tensed. "But this place is perfect!" she protested. "Think of our children! Think of how happy and healthy they would be here!"

"After the war, perhaps," Roggvir nodded, though he had no intention of living here. Ivarstead, despite all its charm, was simply too small and boring for him. "But until then, we need to find a city with some strong walls."

"What about Whiterun?" Zahra asked. She'd spent some time in a fort nearby, and even from the distance, she could tell it was a beautiful place to live. It was surrounded by thriving farms, and the castle of Dragonsreach was a marvel that actually lived up to the expectations set in her books.

"I said strong walls, my love," Roggvir replied. "Every traveler I've ever met tells me about how that place is falling apart.

Zahra grimaced. "We can't stay in Riften."

Roggvir visibly shuddered. "Talos, no. I was thinking...Markarth."

Zahra's whole faced soured. Do you know how many cannibals live in Markarth?

"Why Markarth?" she asked.

"Their walls are massive and practically impervious to breach," he began. "Jarl Igmund supports the Empire, but the city is run by the Silver-Blood family, who have never supported the Empire. If I could get a job in one of their mines, you probably wouldn't have to work. You could focus on our children." He nodded resolutely. "Until the end of the war, we should live in Markarth."

Yeah, okay, whatever. She wasn't about to argue the point just now, especially since he was partially right. Riften, Windhelm, and Solitude were all out of the question for sure, but she still wasn't convinced Whiterun wasn't a good option.

Ivarstead's tavern was large, clean, and filled with song. Zahra and Roggvir ordered the goat leg with bread and an Imperial stew of onion, tomato, garlic, and lemon. They washed the meal down with Black-Briar mead.

"We should leave at first light," Roggvir suggested, waving a tavern wench over for seconds. He didn't want his wife-to-be getting too attached to this quaint little town.

"Do we have to?" Zahra frowned slightly. "It's not like Riften is far from here."

"I want to be married to you already," he teased lightly. "If we leave at first light, we can arrive in the afternoon, and be married by nightfall. The day after, we can book a carriage to Markarth. Not the safest way to travel, I know, but for now it's the fastest. The sooner we get to Markarth, the sooner I can find work and a small place to rent."

Zahra didn't want to leave Ivarstead, but the thought of being married already and settling down after days of traveling and being on edge sounded welcome.

"Fine," she sighed. "First light."

Next: The Fort


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