Desert Snow: Act Two
Runa woke to the soft shink of metal on metal, the smell of succulent meat being cooked gripped her nose and pulled her from her slumber. Happily relenting Runa allowed the enticing scent to drag her to her feet into a draugr-like walk, bleary eyed and still half asleep she stumbled until the faint rays of a freshly risen morning sun cascaded over her face and a subtle layer of snow crunched under her cloth wrapped toes, they’d been travelling for almost a week and had managed to flee the harshest cold of The Pale until now they lay camped maybe a couple days ride from the border to Whiterun Hold.
A small campfire lay just outside the cave, Runa hoped it was the source of the aroma that had stirred her. Yet blocking her view; with his back turned to her, the Redguard kneeled. Ever poised and stoic he sharpened his oddly curved blade on a whetstone. Runa’s eyes instantly fell to his back, an unwavering shield of obsidian touched skin lay exposed, cutting harshly through the expanse of soft white snow that stretched as far as the horizon; his complexion was littered with a collection of scars, burns that glistened with a lasting wink of the magic that might have caused them, fang and claw marks so horrific Runa couldn’t imagine the creatures that had caused them and an array of gouges that streaked like canyons down the mountain of muscle that was his body. It was a sight Runa had grown used to. Every morning since they’d fled the horrors of her tavern she’d woke to find him unrobed, meditating beneath the rising sun; she recalled how he’d briefly dismissed her questioning of the ritual
“To walk a land, one must form a mutual bond of understanding and respect from earth to spirit.”
The Redguard seemed only willing to give Runa the most blunt or cryptic response to her questions and attempts at conversation; not even willing to tell her his name or his business in Skyrim, when pressed he’d gifted her an unintelligible poem;
“In the stone of this land I find easy footing for my walkabout.
In the blood that soaks the snows of Skyrim I hear the song of the blade.
In the spirits that linger on these battlefields I taste the potential of Shehai Shen She Ru.”
Runa pondered these words as she moved softly past his still frame, her stomach breaking the silence with a joyful growl as the sight of roasting deer came into view. She knelt down carefully on the opposite side of the flames, through the fire she watched as the Redguard honed his blade in a trance like state, his eyes softly pressed shut. Runa waited in silence, as she had learnt to during his morning meditations, the entire time her eyes took in every inch of the blade balanced on his palms. It was unexplainably awe inspiring, no fancy adornments, no precious metals, no magnificent displays of power or wealth; it was humble yet intoxicatingly beautiful, a true testament of master craftsmanship. Eventually she noticed its wielders eyes had opened, fixing her with a curious gaze.
“Morning.” She smiled to her companion.
He simply nodded in response before lifting a neatly rolled pack of clothes from his side and unravelling the garments. He clothed himself in the thick brown jerkin before wrapping a reddened cloth keffiyeh around the braids that lined his head, the excess cloth fell over his front and hung down like a makeshift poncho.
“Eat.” He spoke softly, his voice heavy and laced with the accent of his people.
Runa needed no further prompting and tore off a chunk of roasted deer, feasting on its crisped flesh. It was divine, The Redguard cooked in ways Runa had never had the privilege of experiencing before, using spices and seasonings that seemed fit for the highest warriors in the halls of Sovengarde.
The two of them sat in silence once more as they feasted away.
“Once you have eaten we shall continue our flight. If the stone is kind our path shall reach town before the sun falls.”
Runa nodded with a mouthful of deer, humming in acknowledgement until she’d chewed her fill. “…Sounds good, then what?”
“Then, our journey comes to its conclusion.”
“Wait what?” Runa spluttered.
“Our paths shall divert.”
“I know what you meant,” Runa rolled her eyes at his emotionless tone, “I didn’t ask to come with you just to get dropped at the next town over!”
“My walk is a solitary one. I let you shelter in my shadow for this short time so that your journey may continue on brighter horizons.”
“Brighter horizons? You can’t be that naïve!” Runa resisted her urge to yell, “The war spills into every corner of Skyrim, no matter where I run to I will never be safe.”
“Then what is it you will of me?”
“Show me how to wield a sword like you. How to defend myself from those who would harm me, how to never fear again. Teach me your ways.”
The Redguard seemed sincere as he pondered her request.
“My ways are not for you to understand.”
Runa gritted her teeth in frustration but composed herself, “Why?”
“The song that guides my steps is one requiring total devotion to its path. It is more than merely wielding a sword to battle.” The Redguard raised his sword and examined the steel, the flicker of flames casting hypnotic trails in its reflection.
“Then show me, let me understand!”
“No.” He sheathed the blade quickly and rose to his feet with a start, “We shall speak no more of this.”
Runa sighed in defeat before rising to help pack down the camp.
The two travelled in silence as Runa sulked several paces behind for the entire day. The Redguard walked with his usual sure stride; his palm resting at all times on the blade at his hip, gliding over the rocky terrain with ease which only fanned Runa’s burning frustrations as she proceeded to stumble along like an injured mudcrab. At first she allowed herself to take in the beauty of Skyrim, she had never travelled too far from her village and whilst the grey tundra may have seemed dreary to those from further lands it filled Runa with a warm feeling of hope as she was briefly able to forget about the war. Yet after one too many slips and stumbles combined with the growing resentment she bore towards The Redguards lack of struggle Runa became fixed on her feet and watching her steps, determined to keep pace with him. She became so focused on finding her footing and keeping herself from tripping that she didn’t notice The Redguard come to an abrupt halt in front of her causing her to crash into his back.
He silenced her with a raised palm.
Looking up, she saw the rising cloud of black smoke growing through the treeline in the sky above.
“That’s coming from the town!” Runa started forward as if a few more paces would give her a view of what was brewing.
“Slow your stride.” The Redguard called to her, “I will investigate, you will wait here.”
The anger and frustration that had been seething in Runa finally broke free.
“You have no right to give me orders!”
She broke off into a scrambled sprint that saw her stumbling onwards with a defiant start until she broke through the treeline and came face to face with the pain the forest masked.
It was as if Runa had stepped through a portal into a plain of Oblivion. Smoke and ash hung thick in the air, blacking out the evening sun and clawing at her throat, where once the small border village had lay now sat an abstract blight of charcoaled structures. She staggered forward into the smoke, her eyes widening as she saw the remains of recognisably human forms huddled in the ash, any semblance of life consumed and warped into black ashen frames that froze their final moments into grotesque statues huddled in fear beneath the embers of their homes. Choking back tears that burnt at her eyes, Runa pushed on through the maze of flame touched horrors. Every burnt shell she passed lay home to more scorched remains of the people within, their bodies twisted in poses of fear; huddled up in foetal balls to protect themselves from the flames that had consumed all. She saw hands sculpted in death; reaching for the heavens to claw at the air where doors had once imprisoned them, groups of golem-like remains huddled together to perish in each other’s arms, bodies so small and frail they could only have belonged to the children who had once played in these streets and then her feet carried her to the centre of the village…
A small clearing rose up in the town circle, untouched from the flames that had wreaked havoc on the surrounding structures. Four large wooden posts had been erected, their peaks lost in the black clouds that still burnt through the air, yet descending through the smoke from every post was thick ropes with the bloated, blue corpses of villagers strung up by their necks and left to swing as their village and people burnt around them.
Runa fell to her knees, gagging as her stomach turned at the sight, her tears finally broke free; leaving clear streaks down her ash covered cheeks. Her gag turned into a cough and she began to choke and splutter as the lack of oxygen finally dawned on her lungs, before she had time to react she felt a firm grip hoist her to her feet, she spun to resist but found herself looking into the sad eyes of the Redguard, the rest of his face masked beneath the wraps of his keffiyeh.
“There’s nothing we can do for them. We must move, less you want to die here with them.”
Runa nodded her understanding, the smoke would clog up her lungs in minutes if she didn’t get out of here; yet her feet lacked the willpower to flee. The Redguard didn’t hesitate, he pulled at her arm with remarkable strength for his size and dragged her into a hobbled march through the smoke, away from the pain and suffering that still hung in the air.
The two of them sat on a nearby bank, watching as the blackened stain below continued to breed smoke that blotted out the setting sun; the sky was red and stained with pain.
“Who could of done such a thing.” Runa finally wheezed out through dried lips.
“Stormcloaks… Imperials…”The Redguard spat each name out with a sense of fury Runa had not expected from his usual controlled demeanour. “This is the true face of the war they wage.”
“Maybe I should had just stayed in my tavern after all.” Runa croaked, she’d have shed a tear if she was still able.
“No, more men would have come for your head after what I did to those soldiers.”
“Sooner or later I’m gonna end up like those villagers down there, what’s the difference when it happens.”
“Runa…” The Redguard spoke her name for the first time as he turned to face her, “This is not how your path will end.”
Runa looked up at him in a new light for the first time, not seeing the fierce gaze of a warrior or the controlled nature of a protector, not seeing the cryptic mask of a mysterious poet. She looked to him and saw a person.
“My name is Ramah Al’ Skaven. Brother of the blade, disciple of the lost art of Sword Singing.” He paused, a slight smile touching his lips for the first time, “And you Runa, will become my apprentice.”