Dead Man's Drink

Previously: Karthwasten

I'm supposed to be in Solitude.

It was the only thing Zahra could think during the long carriage ride back to Falkreath. To be fair, Lord Ainethach had spared no expense, hiring a covered carriage escorted by mercenaries. He impressed upon them that they were carrying a very important gift for Jarl Siddgeir. They probably thought she was some high-priced whore.

Whatever anyone thought, Zahra had to admit Roggvir was right: there were perks to having friends in high places. She just simply despised the Silver-Bloods.

She had no idea what awaited her in Falkreath, but at least the Jarl wasn't a Stormcloak bootlicker. And Ainethach had assured her his court was fully in charge of Falkreath, unlike with Jarl Igmund and the Reach.

The ride was largely uneventful. Occasional they saw an Imperial patrol or Khajiit caravan on the road, but no bandits, no wild animals, and thankfully, no Stormcloaks. As autumn in Skyrim faded, a chill in the air deepened as they headed further south.

She'd forgotten how lush and thick the forests were in Falkreath, and how wide the mighty White River was. As they crossed the border into Siddgeir's hold, she saw more and more hunters carrying dead prey from the woods and fishers hauling their catches back to their homes. No two faces looked alike; they were Nords, Bosmer, Dunmer, Bretons, Imperials, and Redguards.

Hunger didn't seem to be an issue in the Imperial-allied holds, Zahra suddenly realized. The people didn't look haggard and their clothes weren't worn beyond repair.

She arrived the Dead Man's Drink Tavern late in the night. The proprietress gave her a room, and though the beds of Karthwasten were softer, anything was better than sleeping on stone.

The food of Falkreath at least proved to be welcome. The Reach hold was filled with farms and vineyards, and a very large indigenous Breton population. Falkreath, however, was heavily Nordic, and they were hunters and fishers above all. The meat was freshly killed and roasted over a spit with oil and herbs; the fresh fish was fried in butter with salt, garlic, and leeks.

She ate a late meal and washed off her travels in the bath house. She slept deeply but asked to be wakened before dawn, as she had to be presented to the Jarl as soon as possible.

Day or night, Dead Man's Drink appeared to be a popular spot; she overheard one of the many patrons saying that even the Jarl frequented the location. There was no shortage of soldiers, traders, mercenaries, and wanderers here. Markarth might have had a larger population, but there seemed to be much more variation here.

It's the war, Zahra realized, as she sat down for an early breakfast. People are gravitating to whichever hold aligns with their political views.

There also appeared to be less tension in an Imperial hold. The walls of Falkreath were nowhere near as great as Markarth's but they were tall and thick enough to keep the people safe. She also noticed for the first time just how new the walls seemed. And there appeared to be a good number of city guards.

Which begged the question: how did such a small hold of hunters and fishers afford so many walls and guards?

Zahra forced the question from her mind as she left the tavern. The Jarl's finances were none of her concern; no good could from getting mixed up in them. She was here to be his mage, not his steward. As long as he paid her a salary in full, she didn't how he got his money or whom he owed it to.

She was greeted by gloomy skies and heavy mist drifting south through the mountains. She remembered this about Falkreath, its gray countenance and morbid atmosphere. Its greatest claim to fame was its massive cemetery, and Zahra hated to admit how perfectly comfortable she felt in a place like this. Falkreath had the perfect balance of big city benefits with a small town charm.

The Jarl's hall was a far cry from Understone Keep; it was mainly wooden, and in the center of town, rather than a sprawling labyrinth of stone set apart from the city.

But once she was inside, she saw it was a classically beautiful hall with carved wooden pillars, fur rugs, goat horn sconces and candelabras...and a collection of dead animals adorning the entry way.

Siddgeir is young, as young as you, Ainethach had told her. More than anything, he enjoys a good hunt.

Zahra never understood of the appeal of preserving animals in this manner. As far as she was concerned, it was a great waste, especially for a society of hunters and fishers. It suddenly struck her that the Jarl's hall was really beautiful, clean, and well-maintained. She knew that maintaining such a residence was no small expense. He would need builders, woodcarvers, and an army of servants to keep it clean. So how exactly was he doing it?

The main hall had the luxury of two large fire pits; the warmth was welcome, while the smoke was thankfully at a minimal. The Jarl was seat on his throne, flanked by what she presumed was his housecarl and his steward. His housecarl was a tall, hulking Nord in studded armor while his steward was a blond High Elf draped in Imperial blue lace gown. The Jarl himself was a young, dark-haired Nord in fine green robes, with a circlet of jade and emeralds upon his head.

As Zahra slowly approached, it was the Jarl who noticed her first. He seemed surprised to see her at first, but then his lips spread into a slow, curious smirk. She stopped just at the stone dais and bowed slightly, stiffly. She knew better than to speak first.

It was the elf woman who spoke. "You must be the mage Ainethach told us about." She had a gentle voice, and spoke with an Imperial accent.

"I am, my lady," Zahra replied in low voice as emotionless as her face. "My name is Zahra."

"I am Nenya," the elf said. "This is His Grace, Jarl Siddgeir of Stuhn. And this is Helvard, His Grace's housecarl."

"My lady," the housecarl bowed his head. Zahra nodded slightly. At least he sounded like a Nord.

"I thought the mages had retired that style of robe," the Jarl mused. He clearly had an Imperial upbringing, and was mostly likely educated in Solitude. "Also, aren't they supposed to be blue?"

Zahra had ditched her widow's robes in favor of plain black mage robes. They were old, faded, ill-fitting, and requiring several washes, but she didn't care.

"I am recently widowed, Your Grace," she replied, this time with just a hint of ice. "I dress to honor my husband whose body still lies warm in the cave where the Silver-Bloods left him to rot." She really didn't care if they kicked her out.

Siddgeir raised an eyebrow. "Your husband got mixed up with Silver-Bloods?"

"He refused to see reason, Your Grace."

Nenya slightly scowled. "A disease which is most unfortunately spreading across Skyrim as we speak." She looked Zahra over once more. "What is your specialty, Miss Zahra?"

"Alchemy, my lady," the Redguard mage replied. "I am also skilled in Restoration magic. I have a thorough understanding of anatomy for all Tamrielic races."

"Perfect!" the Jarl beamed.

Wow, Zahra blinked, surprised. He really doesn't ask too many questions.

Nenya, however, did. "Ainethach speaks highly of your abilities. How come you didn't attend the College of Winterhold?"

"I was raised by mages," Zahra shrugged. "I received a private education starting at age four and culminating at eighteen. They saw no reason to expand beyond that."

"Nor would they," the Jarl snorted. "I spent four years at the Bard's College in Solitude and didn't learn a damn thing."

Zahra's lips teased a smirk. I knew it.

"Nenya, find a room for Lady Zahra and brief her on our situation in Falkreath. And draft a letter thanking Lord Ainethach for his generous gift," Siddgeir shrugged. "This was no small favor."

Next: Rayya

A/N - So sorry about the delays between chapters! I'll try to be good.


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