There and Back Again

Previously: Forgotten

It was early morning in Karthwasten. The skies were gray and the fogs thick, reminding Zahra why she could never live here. The village was too sleepy for her, even though it sat atop a vast silver mine.

She could hear the ringing of a hammer and the sounds of chickens as she passed under the main gate. Unlike Markarth, which had seen countless changes since the end of the war, Karthwasten was just as she remembered it.

Despite being lord of the village, Ainethach was no stranger to working with his hands. The balding Breton swept and hammered and sweat alongside his villagers every day. But unbeknownst to many, his kindness and humility masked his ambition.

"Zahra?" he blinked, eyes wide. She smiled back at him slightly; it felt good to be recognized.

"It's been a long time," she nodded. "You look well, my lord."

"And you look magnificent," he gasped. "Court life has clearly agreed with you."

Zahra blushed, remembering what a broken little creature she was the day they met. She shuddered at the thought of her plain hair and worn widow's robes, and how she no doubt stank of cart and horse.

"What brings you to the Reach?"

"I'm accompanying Thane Rayya as she negotiates trade on behalf of Falkreath," she shrugged. "But the talk of politics bored me so I thought I'd pay an old friend a visit."

"And Markarth?" he asked tentatively. "How did you find it?"

"Grand," she admitted, "more beautiful than I recalled. Of course, no one recalled me."

"Why would they?" he asked simply. "You appear an entirely different woman from the last time you were here."

"So people keep telling me."

"Well, you are welcome to Karthwasten," he assured her. "My home is yours, of course. My maid will draw you a bath and prepare you a proper meal. We can catch up later."

Great. More Breton food. "My thanks, Ainethach," she smiled.

Karthwasten Hall was still the giant, barren place she remembered. Even with a fire going, the rooms were still cold.

How does he live here? Zahra wondered. And is this why he's still unmarried?

Ainethach was no pauper; he could afford some luxuries, even simple ones to make his home more comfortable. He owned a silver mine, for love of the Nine. Why did he not have a wife and heirs?

Probably waited for the war to end, she reasoned. He'll have better choices now.

His maid drew her a bath and fed her a meal of bread, cheese, and roasted with mutton with a few vegetables from the garden. It was bland and boring and Zahra had to force down each bite, promising herself a lavish dinner once she returned to Markarth.

At sunset, the lord of the house returned; she joined him for mead by the fire.

What Ainethach saved on furnishings, he apparently spent on mead, for this was no cheap vintage. It was of a particularly high quality, and flavored with juniper berries.

"What news from Falkreath?" he asked.

"Not much," Zahra shook her head. "I am no longer court mage, but Baroness Ilinalta. I had thought to find a new line of work, but all anyone talks about is marriage."

"Your husband's been gone over a year," he nodded. "And as an...elevated woman, you are expected to marry well and produce heirs."

"Then why aren't you married?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I was waiting for the end of the war." He paused. "Is Rayya married?"

"She's informally betrothed to her housecarl, an Akaviri warrior."

"Ah," his head rose and fell. "Kaidan. Those two were fated from the beginning." He sipped in silence for a moment before stating, "I suppose I will make my rounds to select courts in the near future. It will be hard to convince a highborn woman to move to Karthwasten, even now when the roads are safer."

"What are you looking for?"

"Youth, health, a sizeable dowry," he confessed. "My village needs heirs and as you can see," he gestured, "my home needs the touch of a refined woman."

Oh, so he's aware.

"The women of the West are mostly spoken for," Zahra told him. "You should try your luck in Winterhold or Windhelm. The women there would leap at the chance to move to the Reach."

Ainethach nodded, mulling her words over. "That's actually a good idea."

"I would start with House Shatter-Shield," Zahra continued. "They're quite rich, and they have two daughters, Friga and Nilsine."

"Didn't they support the Stormcloaks?"

"Yes, but they know better than say that," Zahra laughed. He laughed with her. "It's the same case with House Gray-Mane...except their daughter is rumored to love their sworn enemy."

"And they're poor," Ainethach reminded her. "Thane Bryling of Haafingar is too old, and besotted with the High Queen's steward. Thane Erikur's sister Gisli would never move to Karthwasten; that girl was born to wed a Jarl."

"Just find a common girl from a merchant family," Zahra casually waved. "Preferably one who's never lived in a big city."


Kaidan noticed an immediate change in Zahra once she returned to Markarth. It was sunny when she arrived; the warmth and light seemed to help improve her mood. While Rayya haggled over tariffs and timber rights, the two walked the city, taking in the sights.

"What happened in Karthwasten?" he asked her. "Did Ainethach give you a good roll in the hay?"

"No!" Zahra exclaimed, laughing. "What ever gave you that impression?"

"You've a certain glow about you," he raised an eyebrow. "I've never thought of Karthwasten as a vacation spot, but now I'm wondering if I need to take a trip."

"It's not like that," she shook her head. "It was just good to get away, that's all. It was nice catching up with. He's got marriage on the mind, like everybody else. And he's also got the best mead I've tasted in a long time."

"Rayya estimates we have about another day's work here and then we go home," Kaiden told her. She sighed loudly in relief.

"I miss my bed," she yawned. "I miss the lake, and Farida's cooking."

"You know Rayya's gonna marry you off as soon as we get back to Falkreath," Kaidan said, serious now. "You've got to prepare yourself."

She shrugged. "She still has to find someone suitable."

"That's just it, Zahra," he told her soberly. "I think she already has."


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