Previously: Prologue

Of course, once she stepped foot back into the White Hall of Jarl Skald, she felt the familiar pangs of regret tugging at her.

It was relic of Nordic glory, with beautiful stone walls, goat horn sconces, and twin fire pits to keep the mead hall warm. She remembered the first night of her arrival, after just having been banished from the Blue Palace in Solitude and spending the whole day at sea.

None could remember the last time a Dibella courtesan visited Dawnstar; their jarls weren't known for being as wealthy as the western counterparts. Astridr's arrival was like something out of myth; the jarl's household gathered around, as well as his guests, to indulge their curiosity.

Jarl Skald was the oldest jarl in Skyrim; in fact, it was often joked he was the oldest man in Skyrim. His hair was long gone, as were several of his teeth. His rough, dry skin was thin, spotted, and hanging from his bones for dear life.

He was a widower and childless, so he wasn't about to turn her away.

"A Redguard stands before me, yet she is called 'Astridr'," he mused.

"The priestesses of Dibella named me," she remembered shrugging. "I never met either of my parents."

"Astridr of Markarth," he'd greeted her, eyes betraying his intrigue. He knew who she was; her beauty was famed all across Skyrim, yet for the sake of appearance, Skald wanted to feign a a believable amount of ignorance.

"Your Grace," she'd curtsied politely.

"I was told you resided at the Blue Palace."

"Yes, Your Grace. Her Majesty decided I would be better placed here, at the White Hall of Dawnstar." Oh, yes...it was that long ago.

Skald had been amused. "I hear Elisif is quite fair, yet not so fair she feels safe with other beautiful women at court." He cocked his head to the side, lips teasing a smirk.

"His Majesty complimented my face once," Astridr had blinked, not bothering with her usual feigned pleasantness. She was tired, her body ached, and she longed for a hot bath and a warm bed. "Apparently it was one time too many."

Skald had laughed aloud, despite himself.

It all felt so long ago, yet it had only been months in reality.

I'm getting old, she realized. She was in her late twenties, which was considered ancient in courtesan years. And she could feel it; her body was fit but her mind was tired. She'd grown weary of constantly smiling and working so hard to look stunning every day.

I didn't really have to do that here.

Despite his vaunted lineage, Skald was not a man of refined tastes, and had no time for pretense. He basically liked having a courtesan around simply because she was a beautiful young woman to share his baths with and be a warm body to sleep next to at night. He cared nothing about the status or image. His late wife had not been a great beauty, and this was his last chance before he died. He didn't require constant flattery nor attention. As much as Astridr loathed to admit it, the cantankerous old man was the best client she ever had, even if he didn't pay much.

As she packed her belongings in the chamber she shared with the Jarl, Astridr wasn't looking forward to the long journey home. She'd be traveling by land this time, which was thankfully safe; backed by the Emperor, the western jarls had all but driven the Stormcloak rebels back to their respective holds. Their mounting failures explained their growing desperation; at the beginning of the war, no one had cared which jarl had which mistress nor what race their servants were.

But now that the Stormcloaks had tasted the wrath of the Imperial Legion, their jarls were dismissing anyone from their who couldn't pass for Nordic. It was a pathetic response borne of desperation, and Astridr wasn't about to argue politics with a losing side.

She would take a carriage from Dawnstar south to Whiterun. From there she would take another westward to the Reach. She wasn't looking forward to the long hours of being uncomfortable; already her back and feet ached at the mere thought.

I'll need something to get me through the journey.

Though she wouldn't call Madena a "friend", the Breton court mage had never been an enemy either. Madena had to share both her chambers and workspace with the Stormcloak military adviser. She was getting by on a very meager salary, and so she wasn't too thrilled about Skald paying a courtesan to basically walk around and look pretty all day.

But for months now, Astridr had kept Skald in a good mood (mostly), and she was leaving now, so when she went to get some herbs and tonics, the mage's cold shoulder was gone.

"So," Madena raised an eyebrow, "back to Markarth?"

Astridr nodded. "It's time I went home."

"Will you be returning to the temple?"

"Actually, I hope to buy a house," Astridr confessed. "But I suppose staying at the temple wouldn't be the worst idea."

"You picked the perfect time to travel," the mage said, as she meticulous wrapped some herbs for dulling pain. "I hear the western roads are safe again."

"So they say," Astridr sighed.

"Will you be passing through Karthwasten?"

It wasn't the quickest route to Markarth. "Hadn't thought of it," Astridr shook her head slightly.

"That's a shame," Madena shrugged slightly. "A distant kinsman of mine is lord of that village. You may have heard of his. He's called--"

"Ainethach," Astridr finished, blinking in surprise. "I...I know him quite well, actually. For years now."

"Well, if you do pass through, tell him I said hello," Madena smiled. "And tell him to write me, if it's not too much trouble?"

She saved her last goodbye for the Jarl himself and Jod. Jod, his faithful housecarl, had not been an enemy either, but like Madena he wasn't happy about having a courtesan around. Rumor had it Skald paid him even less than the mage.

Unlike their first meeting, there was no humor and the usually unfiltered lord was working very hard not to show emotion.

"You're leaving then?" he asked, voice tighter than she'd ever.

"I am, my lord."

"I wish you safe travels then," he said noncommittally.

"Thank you, Your Grace," she curtsied. She was a little annoyed the old man hadn't put up a greater fight for her. But then again, she'd always known he was full of bluster. She looked to Jod, who gave her a tight-lipped smile and stiff nod, obviously eager for her to depart.

Fine then, Astridr grumbled to herself as she turned to go. May the Legion fuck your corpses.


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