From the Barrens
Dawnguard, the Barrens, Winter Y380

Thank you for coming.” Virtue’s eyes were shrouded by the mourning veil, the black silk covering her red-rimmed eyes.

The wagon rocked over the bumpy road, jostling Vitória awake from the light sleep she had managed to get on the journey. The weight of her chain dug into her, pulled her down, and her shoulders rolled back and forth to loosen the knots that threatened to form.

“Of course I would come.” Maric’s voice as she welcomed him into her villa was warm, as was his hand on her cheek as she escorted him into her bedroom.

Only a few more hours and she’d be off the trods, she’d find Andrea and would spend the night in a bed and not in armour. She could hide, take off her mask, lower her hood, and relax in the company of friends– but more important, she’d feel useful, and it had been 6 months since she had truly felt like she was needed somewhere.

“And you’re staying for the season? It’ll be nice to have you at home this winter.” Her mother’s voice, sounding older than she remembered it sounding, so pleased at the visit from an errant daughter.

She pulled out Andrea’s letter and read it again, as the wagon rocked over another bump. Better to be useful than left behind. At least this time, no one could accuse her of running away.

***

Her fingers flicked through all the paperwork taken from home, stashed alongside the documents and judgements she managed to salvage from the rain and mud and storms from the Solstice.

A copy of the Pledge, though at some point she’s lost a page of it, but thankfully not the one she’s mentioned in. That should go in her keepsake box, and a profuse letter of thanks was due to Ozren. Tucked inside — to keep it dry– was the very slightly muddied copy of the Looking Glass that Maric had bought as a present.

Her list of votes and judgements, along with a treatise on Courage that Levitia had recommended. It was followed by a stack of correspondence from her congregation, appointment forms for a new priest, and requests for a new triptych for the chapel. Then, there were those accounts of the first true liao visions. She still felt nervous just having read them.

Of personal correspondences there were few. A thank-you letter from the theatre for organizing the Mask Room. A wonderful drawing from Balthazar that still made her smile. A letter from Sarietti that she really should reply to promptly.

Of course there was her songbook, alongside Felice’s, and twelve more songs to copy into it.

At this rate, she had another eight hours of work to occupy her time. Nowhere near enough to do, but it was better than having the Dawnish stare at her face and mutter barkbleeder under their breath.

***

“How are you finding it here, Vee?”

“No one really wants me here; it’s hard to ignore the glaring whenever I pass. Wine’s good, though,” she shrugged and pulled the poker from the coals, swirling it into a jug of wine to warm it through before she poured two glasses for them both.

“They not treating you well?” Andrea took the warm beverage, a crease forming on her brow.

“Nothing I can’t handle. At least you get more respect, you’re the General.”

“I think there’s much they’ll forgive me for, when they want my army.” Andrea’s face cracked into a silly grin. “Heh. My army.”

“Hasn’t really sunk in yet, has it?”

“Nope.” Andrea reached for her hand and grasped it tightly. “If they keep harassing you, you let me know.”

“I will.” Vitória sipped her wine. She had no intention of doing so.

***

She crossed her arms and leaned back against a tree, maintaining the image of indifference and nonchalance. She was bored, fighting the urge to demonstrate just how angry and annoyed she was at being held back in reserve. She watched as the lance pushed forward, glory barely restrained on their gleeful little faces as they drove into the sides of the orc patrol.

She’d barely call it a skirmish, it was over so quick. “Like Dawnish lovemaking, isn’t it?” A chuckling voice in her ear rang. She rolled her head aside to look up at Lupo hovering over her, leaning one arm against the same tree holding her up.

“So many little knights with something to prove,” She chuckled darkly.

“Come on, Little Fox. They’ve had one glory, soon they’ll be calling for the physicks.”

***

“So will you do it?” She shouted through the door.

“Yes, I already told you.” The voice was exasperated, tired, and she paused a moment, ear pressed to the wood, chewing her lip.

“So when can we start?” She jumped back from the door as it suddenly opened and Lupo’s face glared down at her in irritation.

“Come on, Little Fox, how eager are you to have me kick your ass?”

“Eager. Can we start after lunch?” She smiled like she used to as a child, warm and innocent and eager; she couldn’t tell whether it antagonized the changeling more.

FINE! After lunch. You do realize I’ll soon make you regret asking me, right?”

“Doubtful. Courtyard, after lunch!”

***

Her fingers ran down the pole, tracing the grain along the dark polished wood. Her fingertip reached the cold metal and it’s sharp edge, so broad, different from the needle thin line of her rapier.

Rodrigo hadn’t been in his shop when she had stopped by to borrow it; she couldn’t remember the last time she had successfully found him here. This time, he had been gone for days already, not even Samantha knew where he had disappeared off to. She had done her best to point her in the direction of a suitable length weapon, one that another of his newer apprentices had finished recently as a special interest project.

It would do to learn with. But later on, she would still go back to ‘Drigo and get him to weigh in. He might be willing to make her something special.

She rested the spear by her bed, beside her sword and knife, a contrast in size and purpose. The rapier did nicely for show, an elegant weapon for when she desired elegance.

There were some places where elegance would still get you killed, though.

***

She smiled as Andrea rambled on, enthusiastically emptying her brain as the General went over routes and plans and troop assignments and siege schematics and–

While she rambled, Vitória went over what she wanted to ask her, phrasing each word carefully.

Andrea, I need to ask you something. It’s important, life and death. Andrea, I need you to know something… I need you to do something for me, if…’

Andrea shuffled the papers on the table, looking for the supply tally she had just had to hand. Vitória slid her palm under a sheet and pulled it out for her, passed it with a smile.

There’s evidence that people are being taken away from the settlements here, probably to slavery.’  They were still trying to learn who had taken them, and where. The burned out shells of farms and homes from the Carmine Fields burned her eyes, until she shut them. She stood and moved to put another log on the fire, poking the embers until the smoke provided an excuse for her eyes to be watering.

I’ve not got… Would you…’ Vitória’s fingers twitched around cold metal, and she looked down to see her hand on her knife. She returned to the table, sat down, watching Andrea’s face and the life within it.

Once, she had seen that face pale, colourless, as Druj poison fought to take hold and nearly succeeded. A friendship begun with one dose of herbs, in exchange for a life. This is an equivalent debt. This should not be so hard to voice.

If ever in your power, save me from that fate, even if it sends me to the Labyrinth.’

“More wine, Vee?”

“Oh, yes please.”

***

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