Karthwasten

 

Previously: The Storm

Zahra rose early, just before dawn. She wordlessly went to the bath house and bathed in cold water, before returning to her room to pack. She headed to the shop across from the inn to sell her husband's things; she had no use for them now, and she needed the coin.

Except for my wedding ring. She unconsciously touched her left ring finger. I'm keeping that.

The shopkeeper was a tall, red-headed Nord woman with a thick accent. An obvious beauty, the scent of blood curled off her like a subtle perfume.

How quaint, Zahra sighed. Another cannibal. She was so glad to be finally leaving Markarth.

"I am Lisbet," the shopkeeper greeted her kindly. "I heard about your husband, and I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you, Lisbet," Zahra replied neutrally. "These are his things." She paused. "He didn't have much."

"There are always new smelters and miners who could use these," Lisbet assured her. "I see you kept them in good condition."

"I tried," Zahra murmured.

"Fifty septims for the lot," Lisbet offered. "And, if I may, I do have a mourner's gown, if you'd like to wear it in honor of your husband."

Last night, she had no patience for promises of honors and monuments. Today she was tired, numb, and all cried out.

"I'll take it," she nodded solemnly. "Thank you again, Lisbet."

***


"You're leaving us?"

She felt the least she could do was say goodbye to Bothela and Muiri, but her heart ached at the sight of Bothela's sad eyes. She knew how she looked to them when she arrived in her plain widow's clothing. They pitied her and she didn't want pity.

"I can't stay here," Zahra admitted. "Not only do I not care for this city, it's not safe. I shouted at Thongvor, threatened him in Understone Keep. Even my hours are numbered."

"He wouldn't!" Muiri gasped. "You're a grieving widow."

"Who loudly condemned the Stormcloaks," Bothela reminded her. "That insult will not stand right now. Zahra's right. She has to leave." She turned and rifled through one of her chests for a small coin purse. "For the road. Take a carriage when you can, though a caravan is better."

"Thank you, Bothela," Zahra smiled, her eyes tearing a little. "You've both been so kind."

"It'll hurt less," the old woman promised. "It'll take some time, but it will hurt less. For now, you have to let it hurt a lot."

"I'm getting that," Zahra nodded. "I have to go."

The women hugged and Zahra was off, setting out beyond the high walls of Markarth.

***


It was a beautiful day in Skyrim, and thankfully so. She couldn't imagine having to travel in cold, rainy weather; it would've been too cruel. She took Bothela's advice and hired a carriage to Karthwasten. From there she'd hitch a ride to Dragon Bridge, then onward to Solitude.

The Nord carriage driver and his Orc guard were a chatty pair, but Zahra tuned them out pretty quickly. They didn't press it; her widow's robes worked like some sort of social charm. She didn't know if they'd heard about Roggvir, but if they had, they likely assumed she was his wife.

Karthwasten wasn't far; they arrived in half a day. To her dismay, the fogs were back, along with the cold. Thankfully, Karthwasten was a proper Breton village, where the beds weren't made of stone. After a hot meal and pitcher of wine, Zahra planned to curl up on the softest available bed and cry herself to sleep again.



The walls of Karthwasten were low but the village was backed by cliffs and impassible mountain. It was the perfect location for a settlement, defense-wise, and yet when Zahra arrived the villagers seemed involved in some sort of face off with armed mercenaries.

She stood, listening to them trade barbs back and forth in what she deduced was some sort of mining dispute. Which she found confusing; the owner of the mine and his workers wanted to return to business as usual, so why were outsiders telling them they could not?

After the small crowd dispersed, Zahra decided this had nothing to do with her. She was leaving at first light anyhow. All she wanted was some warm food and a bed, so she approached the head of the village to inquire about only that.


"Can you believe the audacity of these Silver-Bloods?" he grumbled. "If the Forsworn aren't attacking my town, the Nords are trying to force me off it."

Zahra suddenly forgot about her grumbling belly or the growing cold. She was sharply awake now, with a familiar heat filling her body. Her voice came out low and deliberate.

"Those men work for the Silver-Bloods?"

"The Forsworn attacked the mines," the man scowled, "now suddenly all these sellswords show up to 'help'. They won't let anyone work until I sell it off."

"And...you are?"

"Ainethach," he introduced with a weary sigh. "My family has owned Karthwasten for generations. Rare for anyone in the Reach that isn't a Nord. Not that it does me any good. Nords think I'm working for the Forsworn. Forsworn think I'm working for the Nords."

"I see," she nodded slowly, deliberately. "I'll be right back."

She set down her things at his feet and turned, following the mercenaries into the mine. She didn't speak. She didn't try to get their attention in any way save with generous blasts of lightning from behind.



Zahra moved with a purpose. They weren't expecting an attack, not from these simple miners and villagers, and certainly not from some strange young woman. After all, who in their right mind would raise their hand to Silver-Blood sellswords?

No stranger to caves or abandoned mines, she navigated the tunnels intuitively, killing anyone she met without hesitation until there was a trail of bodies in her wake.

I may not be able to cut off the head, she consoled herself, but I can still render its arms and legs useless.


She soon came to stand before the leader, a tall, shaven-haired Nord in full armor. Zahra greeted him with a smirk and a snort.

"Perfect. You're going to love what lightning does to armor like that," she jeered in a low, dangerous voice. "It's like it just fries the whole body at once. Very thorough."

"What the hell do you want?" he growled back her, not bothering to draw his weapon. They both knew there was no point.

"Haven't you heard?" Zahra cocked her head to side. "The Silver-Bloods don't care who dies for them. If I kill enough of their minions, then perhaps no one else will be stupid enough to listen to their propaganda."

"We're not here because of any propaganda," he retorted. "We just got paid to do a job."

"Enough to die?" she chuckled.

"Obviously not," he grumbled. "I made a deal with them. I can do the same with you."

"The mine is back open for business."

"Done."

"Karthwasten is off-limits."

"I can't promise no one else will try," he shrugged. "Business is business."

"Then you can return to Markarth, and tell anyone who wants to merc for the Silver-Bloods that they'll just end up a body in a cave." She snorted. "They'll know exactly what you mean before you even tell them about what happened here."

There was a flicker in his eyes, as though he'd caught the gist of her meaning. He nodded stiffly, eager to get this over with.

"Done."

"Then go," she said lowly, eyes narrowing. She gave him time to leave first before heading out of the mine.

***


"Thonar's wrath will be terrible," Ainethach worried, as he watched the only surviving mercenary saunter off into the sunset.

"I doubt that," Zahra chortled. "An awful lot of people have died for that family recently; it'll be a while before anyone else volunteers."

"You forget the power of coin."

"I know the appeal is to spend it," she shrugged. "Can't spend coins if you're dead."

Ainethach turned to her, amazed. He looked her up and down, pondering from whence this comely stranger came.

"That's no small favor you've done for Karthwasten," he told her. "What is your name?"

"Zahra...my lord." It was only fitting. He was the best dressed man in the village. She'd seen nobles in Solitude with the same robes.

"And where are you from?"

"All over," she replied flatly.

"Married?"

She turned to him, surprised. She hadn't been expecting that...but then she remembered this was Skyrim.

Less than an hour in my company and he already wants to wed, she raised an eyebrow. And I didn't even have to bring him back from the dead.

"Widowed," she blinked. "Recently."

"My apologies," he bowed his head slightly. "Life can be all too brief in Skyrim, unfortunately." He paused. "I take it the Silver-Bloods had something to do with it?"

"You could say that."

"We could make a good team," he tried once more. "I am a silver lord, and can provide for you quite well. And you are clearly a formidable mage."

"Lord Ainethach, I am a necromancer," Zahra stated bluntly. It felt unbelievably good to finally say it aloud. "Where I go, death follows, and the last thing I need is for yet another husband to learn that lesson."

"Ah," his head rose and fell. To her surprise, his eyes were alight. "Have you ever been to Falkreath?"

"Briefly," she nodded. "Why?"

"The Jarl is a new a friend of mine. He's young, supports the Empire, and his court is currently without a mage. I would be happy to draft you a formal recommendation."

Zahra laughed shortly. "My lord, Jarls only want graduates from the College of Winterhold."

There was a strange twinkle in Breton's eyes. "Siddgeir is...different. He won't ask questions and he pays his employees in full. A rarity for Jarls these days, I might add."

Zahra turned back to the horizon. "You don't have to do me any favors, my lord. What happened in your mine wasn't about you."

"I realize that, but you see," Ainethach insisted, "you'd be doing me a favor. As I said before, Siddgeir's friendship is new. I need to find ways to encourage it...and he's always looking for fresh, new talent."

"You got a tavern in Karthwasten?" Zahra asked.

"You can consider yourself my honored guest at Karthwasten Hall," he bowed. "Food, wine, hot bath, a bed not made of stone...whatever you desire, my lady Zahra, it is yours."

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