A Chance Meeting

Previously: Prologue

The morning air of the Rift was cold, crisp, moist from the freshly fallen rain. As always, the sky was a lovely deep shade of gray, heavy with clouds. And the mists...seemingly ever-present mists drifted through the beautiful Autumnshade Clearing. In Katarinya's opinion, it was the most beautiful place in all of the Rift.

And it didn't hurt that like the rest of Skyrim's wilds, it was exceedingly dangerous.

Now that the rain had stopped, the wild animals were out in force. They had already killed and eaten two hunters near an overhang, and now the wolves, bears, and sabre cats set their eyes on her.

The trick was to use her vampire speed just enough to stay ahead of them. She bobbed and weaved through the tall trees, her nimble feet crunching against against the wet grass and fallen branches. Despite their great sizes, the bears and sabre cats were fast. Along with the wolves, it was important that they only see her and not smell her, otherwise they'd lose all interest.

The chilly wind whipped through Katarinya's long black hair, as the cold droplets kissed her skin. She'd forgotten this, the simple pleasure of running through a forest on a cold, rainy day in Skyrim. How did she ever think the castles of the Imperial City could compare to this?

It didn't take long for him to find her. When all the wild animals in Autumnshade start running after a single target, it's pretty hard to miss.

Luckily, he was a better archer than a swordsman. Unlike his sword, which often missed its mark in the courtyard of his mother's castle, the his arrows sailed through the air with impeccable precision. She could hear the bodies falling behind her, as he dropped the beasts one by one.

She slowed a little as he felled each them, waiting until he killed the last before she finally stopped and doubled back to survey the carnage.

He really is an efficient killer, she raised an eyebrow. If he decided to join the fight in earnest, he could do some serious damage from a distance.

"Are you all right?"

Showtime. Katarinya whirled around, wide-eyed and breathing fast. "I am," she nodded. "You're quite the hunter!"

"And you're quite the runner," he laughed. He was a tall Nord with long reddish hair. He looked her up and down, taking in her long black dress and noting the large lute strapped to her back. "This clearing is dangerous. Don't you know anything about this area?"

She shrugged haplessly. "I'm new to the region," she told him, keeping her voice light and breezy. "I was just trying to get to Riften."

"What business do you have in Riften?" he asked. "Never mind," he chuckled, remembering her lute. "You're a bard, I take it?"

"Guilty," she laughed. "And what brings you to such a dangerous clearing? Is it wise to hunt here alone?"

He sighed, looking around them. "I needed to get out of the castle," he replied distantly. "Needed to...clear my head." He turned back to her.

"Castle?" she blinked. "You're saying you're a lord?" She looked him up and down, noting that the armor he wore was quite common among soldiers and bandits alike in Skyrim.

"Forgive me," he nodded politely, lighting touching his chest, "my name is Harrald Law-Giver. My mother is Jarl of the Rift."

She looked at him disbelievingly. "The Jarl? Really?" She glanced over his shoulders. "The Jarl lets her son walk about with no guards, no attendants--"

"I'm not supposed to be out here," he laughed softly. "I snuck out during the changing of the guard."

"Why ever would you do such a thing?"

He smile didn't reach his eyes. "Most people don't realize this, but castle life can be quite stifling."

Indeed it can.

"Well, my lord," she said with slight curtsey, "I thank you for saving my life. If you could point me in the direction of the city--"

"You don't believe me," he interrupted, eyes wide. "Fine then, Miss--?"

"Katarinya," she replied helpfully.

"Miss Katarinya," he bowed his head slightly, "I'm going to return to my family's castle. We don't currently have a bard at court, so I know my mother would gladly grant you a hot supper and a warm bed in exchange for music." He gestured towards the city. "Shall we?"


"Maven! Always a pleasure to receive you. What can I help you with today?" It was never pleasure to receive Maven Black-Briar at court, and she was always at court.

The forbidding, black-haired matriarch flashed her signature look of disdain at the Jarl and her steward. "I'm certain you're aware of the loss I sustained a fortnight ago," she stated bluntly, bothering with neither greetings nor honorifics.

The redheaded Jarl patiently nodded. "Yes, indeed. An entire caravan shipment of your mead taken by Imperial soldiers. What of it?"

As always, the older woman scowled. "Well, I'm also certain you're aware that our own city guard failed to provide the protection required to ensure safe passage of the shipment."

"Indeed," Laila blinked, maintaining a neutral face. "We lost three soldiers in that attack. A sad day for Riften."

"Quite," came the clipped reply. "To be brief, I need compensation for the lost shipment. Since Riften was responsible for it, Riften should pay for it."

Laila exchanged a quick look with her steward, bordering on frantic if just for a second. Awkwardly, she began, "We...don't have enough to..."

"Laila," Maven stated coldly, Riften is my home, but if my meadery can't be safe here, I'll just move it elsewhere."

Laila glanced once more at her steward, who gave her a stiff nod. "No," she said softly, trying to mask her defeat. "That won't be necessary. You'll have compensation for your loss."

"Thank you, Laila." Maven promptly turned to leave, as usual without bothering with bows or farewells. However, she did briefly stop to gauge a new face at court.

Katarinya kept her gaze lowered and didn't linger too long in the woman's presence. If there was one person's attention she absolutely didn't want, it was Maven Black-Briar's.

The Black-Briar clan first started making mead some fifty years ago, generating significant wealth in the Rift. Though originally a family of commoners, they quickly rose to the status of nobility on virtue of money alone. Over the past five decades, they'd since married and bred with enough actual nobles to solidify their social standing.

But that wasn't what concerned Katarinya. If anything, that made them valuable in her eyes. Their taste in associates, however, was enough to give her pause.

"Mother," Harrald called as they approached the throne, "this Katarinya, a bard. She's new to the Rift. I rescued her from some wild animals in Autumnshade."

"Your Grace," Katarinya stepped forward and curtsied. "It is a great honor."

The Jarl was a subtle woman of woman of taste. Like her Bosmeri steward, she was garbed in a fine lace dress, and wore sapphires set in silver upon her brow.

"Katarinya," she raised a slight eyebrow. "That's an interesting name. Did you choose it yourself?"

"I did, Your Grace," the bard nodded, "years ago when I first graduated from the College."

"Explains why you look like a Redguard but sound like a high Elf," Laila smirked. "You change that as well?"

"Yes, Your Grace," Katarinya smiled brightly. "My tutors advised it. Took me years to master their manner of speaking." Actually, Vingalmo gave me three months to learn it if I wanted to be his student, she smirked to herself.

"Well, Katarinya," the Jarl smiled tightly. "I'm sure my son has already told you we are without a bard at court, and has no doubt promised you lodgings on my behalf." She tilted her head slightly. "Play something?"

Katarinya cheerfully obliged.

Usually, when vampires posed as bards, they made sure they current in their musical selection. They routinely toured taverns to learn the most popular songs.

Not Katarinya.

She found that the older, rarer, and more haunting the songs, the better. They made her stand out, and created greater demand for her performances. She played a song in the old Nord tongue, singing of some ancient hero from the time of the Atmorans. By the time she was finished, all of Mistveil was silent. Even the servant girl who'd been sweeping near the throne stopped, and the mage emerged from her office near the firepit.

It was a while before the Jarl spoke.

"Well now," the redhaired woman murmured, "I haven't heard that song since I was a girl."

I know. Katarinya gave a humble bow. "Your Grace."

"Anuriel, find this girl a chamber," Laila instructed. She leaned slightly to shoot her older son a look. "And as for you...as a sign of my patience and generosity, I will forgive you for leaving the castle unattended, only because you brought me this gem."

Harrald smiled back broadly. "Thank you, Mother."

"You can thank me by not doing it again."


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