Lying with the Truth

 
Previously: Waking

It was a sunny day when they left Solitude. They were able to leave the city and arrive at the docks without incident. Zahra had never been to a harbor before and the sheer size of everything caught her off guard. She stood mute, taking in the giant ships, the towering stone buildings, the ringing of the bells, and the simple beauty of sunlight upon the water. Her nose filled with the cold salt sea air.

"Ever been on a ship before?" Roggvir asked.

Zahra wordlessly shook her head.

"Me neither," he confessed. "I guess we're both in for an adventure."

They booked a comfortable cabin aboard a passenger ship. There was a large bed with embroidered covers, a large chest to lock their valuables, bookshelves, and table and chairs for dining. At this point, Roggvir was no longer surprised at having nice things. He wasn't sure how he knew Zahra, exactly, nor what had led to their betrothal, but he sure as hell had no regrets.

They enjoyed seared fish, bread, and some fresh fruit for lunch, along with a bottle of alto wine. While they ate, Roggvir found a way to tactfully ask his questions.

"My love," he began tentatively, "was I in a fight? With the city guards?"

Zahra nodded. "They were angry you opened the gate for Ulfric," she told him. "You were gravely injured, but I brought you back."

Roggvir paused. "You're a mage." It wasn't a question.

Zahra smiled slightly. "Yes...my love," she said, a little shyly.

Their betrothal seemed a little awkward for her too which, in an odd way, made him feel better too. "It all makes sense now," he nodded, even though it didn't. "I feel like my memory isn't working."

"It may never all come back," she warned him. "You were very badly hurt. It took all of my magical knowledge just to heal you. I know you can't remember everything, so you can ask me whatever you want. I won't be offended."

Roggvir relaxed. "So how did we come to meet?"

"Your sister," Zahra told him. He found her voice strangely calm all of a sudden, almost measured. "I met her near the market, the day I first arrived in Solitude. She told me about you."

Roggvir chuckled to himself. Of course this was Greta's idea. She'd been trying to marry him off for years.

"After you were attacked, I brought you back," she added. "You were out of it most of the time, but when you were awake, we...bonded."

Oddly enough, he did remember that. Or rather, he remembered some of it. Roggvir remembered waking somewhere cold and dark, probably a hideout. The walls and floors were stone, and there was only a single candle burning.

He remembered being in pain, and his hand instinctively flew to his neck at the memory. He remembered asking questions, learning her name, answering questions about his pain. She had changed his bloody bandages repeatedly and given him several potions to drink, until his wounds healed and the pain went away. He didn't even have so much as a bruise now.

He remembered lying on a slab of some sort the whole time, and that there was a Solitude guard in full uniform slumped over in the corner.

He's just unconscious, Zahra had assured him, but Roggvir couldn't recall the man ever waking.

"What happened while I was out? Did Ulfric manage to escape Haafingar?"

Zahra nodded. "Ulfric made it back to Windhelm, where he immediately called his banners and launched a rebellion. The Empire responded in kind." She paused as the gravity of the situation finally hit her. "Skyrim is now at war."

He tensed. "My sister--"

"You can never contact her," Zahra said quietly, simply. "You were declared a traitor to the Empire. You were supposed to be executed. I...liberated you on behalf of your sister. Captain Aldis declared you dead anyway. So we can't return to Solitude, Roggvir. Not for a very long time. And if you want Greta to remain alive, and unharmed, you won't drag her into this. She's suffering enough."

He was quiet for a time, sullen even, as though feeling the consequences of his actions. After a time, he mustered up a smile and asked, "Well? What about you? You know all about my family. What about yours?"

"I'm an orphan," Zahra shrugged. Her voice was less measured now. "I lost my parents when I small; I never actually knew them. I was raised by friends, then later friends of friends, but no one who actually cared about me." She snorted softly. "The last woman I stayed with treated me like her personal servant." She shrugged again. "So I left."

"Did you ever attend the College of Winterhold?"

Zahra shook her head. "No. I was privately taught."

Ah. Roggvir's head rose and fell. Rich girl then. Explains all the coin. He smiled to himself. Good job, Greta.

"So how ever did a fugitive traitor become the luckiest man in Skyrim?" he asked, beaming brightly now.

It was her turn to blush a little. "I'm nineteen," she murmured. "I should be married by now."

He laughed. "I'm twenty. And you sound just like my sister." He paused, tilting his head to the side. "I owe you my life, Zahra. I may not remember everything, but I do understand that now. Once we are married, I promised I will remain by your side always."

***


The ship docked at Windhelm some time during night. They slept next to each on the large bed, huddling for warmth. At dawn, they rose and pulled on their noble clothes as Norion had suggested, and disembarked.

Windhelm...was not what they expected.

"I had heard tales of the great city," Roggvir blinked, his voice halting. "In the tavern, Lisette would sing many songs of the Palace of Kings."

Zahra gave her furs a hitch. "I've read countless stories about Windhelm," she said flatly. "Granted, most of my books were really old. Things appear to have changed."

Windhelm appeared to be a city of rubble. Broken walls, broken stairs, and broken people arguing between the crumbling buildings. Everything was covered in snow; none of it was shoveled from the streets. It was appalling.


"Eastmarch has always been under Stormcloak rule, has it not?" Zahra asked, as she and Roggvir cautiously navigating the decaying city. A small girl asked them to buy her flowers. They were cheap, common mountain flowers but that didn't stop Zahra from buying everything in her basket. The child's face lit up as she skipped away, probably to enjoy her first real meal in a long time.

"Aye," Roggvir nodded, answering her. "Ulfric's father was Jarl before him."

"Then Windhelm is a reflection of the man who seeks to lead this kindgom," she raised an eyebrow. "And a poor reflection at that."

"Ulfric has spent much time in prison and in rebellion, fighting for his beliefs," Roggvir countered.

"Then his first act upon getting free should have been to clean up this city," Zahra scowled. "This place is a disgrace. These people are starving and clearly on the brink of turning upon themselves. Yet what's he doing with all their taxes? Funding his fucking rebellion."


Roggvir was silent for a time as they walked through the desolate waste that was Windhelm. The wind whipped at their clothes, bitter and shrill. In shadowy corners, beggars hid from the chill, Nords openly harassed Dunmeri elves, and Argonians went about their business, grumbling to one another about the state of things.

"This is the future Ulfric brings," Zahra warned. "Austerity and hostility."

"Austerity and hostility were plaguing Skryim long before Ulfric," Roggvir assured her. "Elisif will not be a better leader."

Zahra didn't know anything about Elisif; in fact, this was the first time she was even hearing the woman's name. It was her turn to fall silent until they reached the great entrance to the Palace of Kings.


"I should go in," Roggvir said lowly. "We need to find lodgings and Ulfric will welcome me a hero."

Zahra was amused. "You really think he remembers your face? You never even met. You opened a gate for him while he fled to his freedom and left you to die."

"But if I have been branded a traitor by the Empire, he will have heard of me by now," Roggvir insisted.

"He will have heard you were executed," Zahra reminded him with a smirk. "You really want to be the one who tells his guards that a dead man has come seeking shelter in his palace? And what of spies, Roggvir? Every noble court has its spies. Imagine if word got back to Solitude? General Tullius would arrest your sister at once and detain her indefinitely."

His jaw tensed but he listened to her nonetheless. Zahra was encouraged; he seemed to have a reasonable personality, willing to embrace logic. Hopefully it was a trait he would pass on to their children, along with his broad nose and gentle eyes.

"Let us find the tavern," she suggested gently, as he gazed forlornly at the palace. "We need breakfast and a bath."

Candlehearth Hall was the tavern's name, and it was the largest tavern Zahra had ever seen. It stood towards the town entrance, facing south, and she wondered if it was the one good thing left standing in Windhelm.



Of course, she soon found her theory of "bigger cities, better rooms" was shot to hell.

The room was large, but the wood floors and walls were aged horribly and had slightly foul smell. The rugs had not been clean in ages, and the furnishings needed to be thrown out. The bed was small, and there was a stand for washing faces and hands, nothing more.

Though she said nothing, Roggvir read her disappointment. "Perhaps they have good food," he joked lightly.

In Windhelm, fish was an obvious staple, but Zahra found it undercooked and poorly seasoned. The bread was freshly baked but dry, and their beverage selection was disappointingly common. Even Roggvir was surprised by the lack of finer vintages.



Zahra didn't know if it was her noblewoman disguise getting to her or her brief time in Solitude, but her tastes had changed forever and she was no longer the girl from Boulderfall.

"We should leave at first light tomorrow," she suggested in a low voice. "We can be in Ivarstead by sunset if we follow the river south."

"How is Ivarstead?" he asked.

"A much cheerier place than this," she assured him. "I only slept there one night on my way to Solitude, but from what I remember, the people seemed happy. And there was no snow."

"It will be dangerous walking to Riften," he pointed out. "It's a good thing I brought my bow."

"I bought you some armor as well," she told him. "Best we don't wear these clothes on the road."

Roggvir smiled at her and for the first time, she felt his warmth. It reminded her of her dream a little. "Talos has truly blessed me with such a considerate wife-to-be. How are we for coin?"

"Enough to feed us a few months, provided we don't buy anymore clothes or weapons, and don't spend every single night in an inn," she assured him.

"I can hunt on our way down," he shrugged. "Meat always fetches a good price, furs even more."

Zahra smiled back at him, shyly now. "You're a hunter?"

"All my life," he grinned. "As was my mother, and her mother before her. She gave me my first bow. Her name was Gunnvarr."

"And your father?"

"His name was Arnlaugr and he was a fisherman. They were well-matched." He paused. "Did you ever learn your parents' names?"

"Alem and Bahiyyah," Zahra nodded. "They were wanderers. Their constant adventuring got them killed and left me an orphan."

"We won't do that to our children," Roggvir shook his head adamantly. "We will settle down in a proper city and make an honest living. I promise."

Zahra smiled wider now, her heart warming at the thought that he also wanted children.

"I'll hold you to that promise," she teased, before returning to her food. It was strange how much better it tasted now.

Next: Ivarstead

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