Traveling to the Forsworn encampment just outside of Rorikstead took much, much longer than the actual battle they faced there. It was a three day journey on foot through the mountains to Serpent’s Bluff Redoub , but it felt more like a week in the company of her silent housecarl.
Drusilla was used to traveling with someone she could talk to, and attempted to make small talk with Argis several times, but the only time he seemed to express himself was when they came across a sabrecat on the road and he growled at it like some animal before dropping his heavy sword into its skull with an almost barbaric level of skill before she could even summon her magicka or draw the Elven blade from her scabbard to join in.
Whenever they made camp for the night, he crouched quietly by the fire while they ate before insisting in less than five words that she sleep while he take watch. He called her thane constantly, and she began to wonder how much of his staunch loyalty was a sarcastic attempt to mock the unconventional way she’d earned the title.
Even if it was unconventional, she was going to fully prove that she deserved it, she decided. Growing up with Ondolemar, she learned early that one never did anything with only half their heart—it was all or nothing, and if she chose nothing she might as well choose death because she was worth less than her choice.
Pride aside, there was a small part of her that wondered why she cared so much about impressing the jarl of Markarth, when she had no way of knowing how long she would actually even be staying there in his employ. As much as she wanted to stay and serve Ondolemar, once Elenwen caught wind of her survival she’d be called back to her duties. Throwing herself into her work until that day came was one thing, but maybe it was better if she didn’t get to know Argis; she probably wouldn’t be his thane for very long.
They reached the rocky ridge leading into Serpent’s Bluff Redoubt just after sunset, the lingering shadows of twilight disguising their presence as they crept in to survey the camp before formulating a strategy. Despite his size, Argis moved stealthily behind her, leaning just over her shoulder to inspect the camp.
“Seven targets,” he whispered. “And who knows how many in the ruins.” He gestured toward the scattered bits of stone littering the ground and leading toward the ridge that dropped into the old dungeon just beyond their camp.
Three crouched in front of the fire warming their hands, another three were already nestled in their beds and the Briarheart stood with his arms crossed over his broad, scarred chest in front of his tent, the antler headdress he wore casting a sinister shadow across the camp.
“If we take out the Briarheart and the three by the fire first, the others won’t know what hit them,” she surmised. Argis only nodded agreement, reaching around to unsling the bow he carried across his back before slinking right to position himself in the rocks.
Drusilla summoned her magicka, feeling the chill of frost tingling in her blood as she prepared to cast ice spikes at her targets. Argis watched her from across the space between them, waiting for her signal to attack. She nodded once, and then unleashed her first spike, freezing her unsuspecting target on impact and allowing Argis to put him down with an unexpected arrow. He fell into the fire with a thud, scattering sparks and pluming smoke in black clouds toward the twilight sky.
The other two around the fire jumped up in a panic, scanning the shadows for signs of their attackers and alerting the Briarheart to their presence. He stepped into the fire’s light, golden orange glinting off his unnaturally blue skin and immediately drawing her gaze to the gaping wound in his chest where his heart used to be. Without another signal, Argis charged into the camp, vaulting himself over the rocks and swinging into battle with the panicked survivors who’d been crouched near the firepit.
“So much for stealth,” she called out, leaping to action and sending bolts of shock magic at the raging Briarheart. He countered her attack with fireballs, charging her like an angry bull while shooting flame in her direction. She ducked and rolled out of harm’s way, but felt the heat whizz past her shoulder just before she rose from her landing and shot a spike of ice into her target.
The ice didn’t slow him nearly as much as she’d hoped. Her enemy spun into action dual-bladed, his thorny blades spiraling toward her. She jerked back, arching skillfully outside his reach, but not far enough. The tip of his blade nicked the exposed skin of her cheek, a rivulet of blood warming her cold face as it fell. She drew her sword quickly, lifting her arm to block his attack and bashing him backward with the hilt. He staggered enough that when she brought her boot up to his midsection, toppling him to the rocky ground almost felt too easy.
She dropped in fast and twisted her sword into his heart, watching the light in his eyes flicker out when she tugged it free again and watched thick, black blood drip down the blade. With the Briarheart out of the way, she and Argis made quick work of the three groggy survivors rising from their bedrolls. When the last one fell, she scanned the empty camp and turned her sights on the dungeon.
“Did he cut you?” Argis approached, tilting his head to look down at her in the firelight.
“It’s just a scratch,” she shrugged it off and edge past him, toward the entry into the dungeon that awaited.
She hadn’t expected to come face to face with a hagraven inside, but the magic-wielding abomination spat at them when they entered and began shooting bolts of lightning at the door. Argis pushed her behind him and threw himself into the fray as if she were a child in need of protecting, rather than a fully-trained battle-mage who’d spent her entire life preparing for instances exactly like the one she was facing.
A flare of anger bubbled inside her, and she jetted past him, shooting jets of fire at the incoming Forsworn shouting war cries and promises they’d never be able to keep. Let him handle the magic-wielding bitch-bird if he thinks he can take her. She rolled her eyes, dodging an ice spike and spiraling in to hack off her nearest targets hand before pulling her dagger around and plunging it in under the woman’s ribs. With a twist and jerk, she shoved the gasping body out of her way and spun into her next target with a fierce cry.
She’d finished off the entire onslaught alone, volleying between magic and steel until a circle of bodies lay at her feet. Catching her breath, she ignored the sting of trickling sweat dripping down her cheek to sting the wound there. Hitching up her shoulders, she jumped over the body behind her and doubled back to find her housecarl still hacking away at the hagraven, who cackled a hideous laugh and healed herself again despite his many attempts to take her down.
Drusilla cast a stream of fire at the old hag, watching her feathers catch as she screamed and drew back in surprise. Her appearance beside him surprised Argis just enough that she was able to shove his massive frame out of the way with a push of her hip and charge in to finish what he’d started.
At least he’d weakened the monstrosity enough that finishing her off wasn’t a chore. She plunged her sword in with one hand while continuing that stream of fire from the other and it wasn’t long before the dying wail of the hagraven brought silence, save for the crackling of fat and flesh as the dead body at her feet withered into a pile of smoldering ash. The black smoke of burning feathers and skin barely fazed her as she stepped back and turned over her shoulder to level a hard look at the man behind her.
“Tell me, Argis, are you very skilled in magic?”
The leather of his armor was scorched in places, wisps of smoke trailing around his body. For a moment he lifted his head to look at her, the hard, battle-worn look on his face softening before he lowered his head in shame. “No, my thane, but I’ve been fighting the…” he stopped himself in mid-sentence, as if the glower she raised toward him had actually cut through his confidence. “No, Thane. I don’t know any magic at all.”
“Then perhaps the next time you think to shove me behind you so you can charge into battle with an enemy whose greatest offense is magic, you should reconsider that tactic.”
“I am sworn to…”
“Follow my orders?” she interrupted.
“Clearly, I can protect myself.”
She edged past him, her shoulder catching his bicep, and made her way back into the dungeon to inspect its contents. There was a closed gate at the top of the stairs with no lever to open it. Scanning the view from where she stood, she saw Argis standing with his hands folded at his waist near a table below.
“There’s no lever up here,” she called out to him. “Look in that room where we found the Hagraven and see if it’s in there.”
“As you wish, Thane.” He shuffled right, disappearing from view just before Drusilla turned back to look through the gate.
There was a chest inside, buried in the rubble, and while she couldn’t imagine it contained much worth writing home about, she hoped to at least salvage a few trinkets she could hock in Markarth in order to start saving her Septims for new armor to replace the elven set she’d sold in Riverwood. With Elenwen alive and well, getting rid of that armor was a slight that wouldn’t be forgotten, but if she could replace and re-enchant it, the ambassador would never be the wiser.
“Did you find the lever?”
The sound of footsteps below drew her attention, and she turned around again to see him searching near the table below. “No lever.”
Shuffling through the items on the table, he lifted a pot and moved it onto a hardly noticeable pressure plate amidst the books scattered across the surface. The gate behind her began to rumble open, but just as quickly started to reclose.
“Wait, what did you do?”
“You did something,” she remarked, leaning back over the edge to look down at him. “The gate started to open, but it’s closing again. Is there a lever near the table? Maybe on the floor by your feet?”
He stepped back and scanned the floor, shrugging his shoulders before lifting his gaze to where she stood on the stairs overhead. “Nope.”
“What about the table?”
He swept his hands through the debris littering the table, spilling it onto the floor and revealing the pressure plate he’d activated by mistake only moments earlier. “There’s a pressure plate here.” Pushing down on it with his hand, the gate rumbled downward again.
“Hold it down for me while I inspect this chest in here.”
“As you wish, Thane.”
The lock was harder to pick open than she inspected, breaking several of the picks in her pack before finally releasing. The trunk lid popped open with a bounce that almost caught her off guard. Unfortunately the loot within was hardly worth all the picks she’d broken to get inside. A rusted old sword, a pair of greaves and a few unpowered crystals covered the bottom, but she scooped them all out and pushed them into her pack anyway, hoping to get a few gold septims for her efforts.
Even after she emerged from the gated room, Argis leaned on the pressure plate, almost staring at her with unspoken derision as she trotted down the stairs.
“That was a wasted effort,” she announced, landing on the stone floor with a huff and walking past the table. She expected him to follow her toward the door, but he didn’t. He remained firmly planted over the pressure plate, even when she stopped in the doorway and looked back at him. “Are you coming?”
“Do I have your permission to let go, Thane?”
Drusilla’s brow furrowed. She swore she heard him mutter in that gruff tone that he was just following her orders, and for a moment that made her feel so small and insignificant—a feeling she should have been used to considering the circumstances under which she’d been raised, but had never endured by another of her own kind before.
“Yes.” She swallowed the shaken feelings of doubt in her position his question had roused in her. “You have my permission to let go.”
“As you wish, Thane.” He let go of the plate, the gate above rumbling back down again and sending a spray of dust through the old ruins.
“Come on. I need to get the Briarheart before we leave, so I can show it to Igmund and prove we did what we came here to do.”
After carving out the Briarheart and wrapping it in a bundle of leather she’d cut off the tanning rack, she lowered it into her pack and slung it over her shoulder to begin the descent down the mountainside. Through it all, Argis stood by with his hands folded at his waist, watching and waiting for command, but something told her it wasn’t his unyielding sense of duty, but wounded pride that forced him to obey every single thing she said to the letter.
Things had been so different when she’d been paired with Lumelinor. She’d been on the receiving end of his superior command since they were old enough to scout together, and finding herself in a rare position of power she’d treated Argis the same way Lumelinor had always treated her: with righteous supremacy. She’d always respected him for being so brutal with her, and she couldn’t count the number of times his vigilance had saved her life—including his final command for her to stay put in Helgen Keep, but she couldn’t deny how small he’d often made her feel when pulling rank.
Glancing sidelong at Argis, it was hard to imagine making a man that big feel small and insignificant, and even harder to envision ever sharing the same kind of relationship she’d had with Lumelinor with her seemingly indifferent housecarl. She didn’t think she’d ever have that kind of bond with anyone, ever again.
Pushing out of her crouch, she scanned the empty camp and tried to ignore the smell of burning flesh that still permeated the air. It would have been a good, secure place to spend the night, if not for that putrid stench. “We’ll make camp near that stream we passed down there,” she announced, brushing past him and starting the decline. He followed without statement or question, his heavy boots crumbling stone and dirt beneath every step.
They traveled quietly until they made camp, with several hours to spare before dawn. Without a word Argis immediately set to the task of starting a fire, while Drusilla sifted through the side pocket of her travel pack for something to eat. She sat down on the cold, damp ground and watched him feed bits of kindling to his growing fire, tilting her head to study him.
She hadn’t been in Skyrim very long, but judging from everything she’d learned Argis the Bulwark was everything a stereotypical Nord should be, from the blond braids in his hair and bulging muscles beneath his leather armor to his battle scars and silent disposition. The Nord heathens needed no words, Ondolemar once told her. They began negotiations with their fists and generally ended them with a single hard swing of a two-handed sword that probably weighed almost as much as she did. They fiercely distrusted magic, and upon further reflection she imagined that was the reason he’d gone after the hagraven in the first place.
Destroy the largest threat at any cost—just as she had done with the Briarheart outside.
“I shouldn’t have snapped at you back there,” she finally spoke up, barely garnering a twitch of acknowledgement from him. “We obviously have very different fighting styles and I think it might take some time for us to get used to working together.”
“No, you were right to put me in my place, Thane. I’ve been out in the field by myself for so long I forgot who I was. I was out of line and I needed to be reminded, but it won’t happen again.”
“You weren’t out of line,” she laughed a little and drew her knees up under her chin, wrapping both arms around them to hug them closer to her body. “You were just doing your job, trying to protect me.”
“Obviously you don’t need protecting,” he mumbled, tossing the last stick into the fire before leaning over to grab a log from the pile he’d gathered together. “While I was focused on a single enemy I wasn’t even able to defeat, you cleared the rest of those ruins alone and then finished what I started. I failed you, Thane.”
“You didn’t fail me, and you don’t have to keep calling me Thane, Argis. My name is Drusilla,” she said. Her familiarity brought him discomfort, she could see it in the slow twitch hidden beneath his mustache. “And besides, we both know I didn’t really earn that title. So when we’re alone, please, just call me by name.”
“Whether you earned the title or not, you are still my thane.” Dropping the log into the leaping flames, sparks jetted into the darkness before fizzling out and drifting as ash on the wind. “I will watch the camp while you rest, Thane. It’s a long journey back to Markarth and you fought a hard battle this night.”
She sat near the fire for a while after that, chewing on a hardened strip of jerked meat and watching the flames lap at the darkness. From time to time she found her gaze lingering on Argis, who silently paced the perimeter of their tiny camp as if he was guarding the most important thing he’d ever watched over in his life. When she finally yielded to the idea of rest, she laid awake in her bedroll for hours trying not to think about the strange turn her life had taken from the beaten path that had always been laid out before her. She dozed in and out of sleep for several hours before finally sitting up and telling him to get some rest.
He only nodded and unpacked his bedroll, then slipped inside to lie down. She’d noticed it back at Vlindrel Hall, but it was as if he just turned himself off completely the minute he laid down. He didn’t rustle around or move, didn’t groan or yawn or sigh. He just went completely silent and that silence drew attention to the unfamiliar, eerie sound sin the night. Birds she wasn’t used to hearing, amphibian song echoing off the distant stream, the scuttle of some small animal through the stones on the road behind them. For nearly an hour she focused on that scuttle, tried to identify its source but then a low murmur began to interfere with her concentration and she turned her head to find its origin.
Argis shifted in his bedroll, a quick, jerking movement followed by a stifled whimper. She took a step toward him, tilting her head to watch as he struggled in his sleep with the darkness of his own dreams.
“No, please.” The desperation in his voice sounded almost childlike, striking a cord in her heart that made it almost hard for her to breathe. “… my mother! Not my mother. Don’t!” He thrashed, muttering that same phrase over and over, his breath quickening into ragged desperate draws.
“Argis,” she took another step toward him, preparing to reach down and shake him awake, but at the sound of his name he bolted upright and shot a startled, almost wild look over his shoulder at her.
“No, you…” She stopped herself, the light of their small fire glinting off his face to reveal damp tracks cutting through the dust and dirt on his cheek. Suddenly not wanting to embarrass him by drawing attention to his night terror, she swallowed hard and grabbed the first thought that came into her head. “You need to go and check out this sound I heard. Scratching,” she added. “In the rocks over there, it sounded like something pretty big.”
Swiping his hand into the tangles of his hair, he pushed the edges of his bedroll down and dutifully crawled out. He turned toward the direction she pointed, facing away from her when he asked, “Where?”
“Over there,” she pointed in the direction she’d heard the insignificant scuttling of what was probably only a skeever or some other wild rodent scavenging through the grass for food. “It’s probably nothing, but I’ve heard stories,” she went on, “about the dead of this place climbing out of their tombs to haunt the night.”
“There’s not a crypt for miles,” he said, cocking his head and listening for signs of the mysterious sound she claimed to have heard. Lucky for her, whatever it was began to scratch and rustle in the brush again and Argis started toward it, drawing the sword off of his back and crouching into a silent stalk. His shadow merged with the darkness the minute he was outside the range of their fire’s light, and though she wasn’t really scared, for a moment she almost believed her own lie. A shudder moved through her, and she hugged herself against the cold night, watching for signs of him in the darkness.
There was a loud clamor, the sound of metal striking off of stone, and then bootsteps through the gravel. Argis reappeared within view, holding up a small, mangled body by its broken neck for her to inspect.
“Bunny,” he tossed it down at her feet, its glassy black eyes catching the orange glow of the fire. “Hardly dangerous, but he won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“It sounded so loud from over here.” As she turned away from him, she swore she caught the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Even the smallest beast would sound like a dragon on a night as quiet as this, my thane. If you would feel safer I can keep watch with you.”
“No,” she shook her head, looking up to see all traces of the tears he’d shed in his sleep were gone. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s just going to take a bit of getting used to the different sounds of this land, is all. I’m sorry I woke you.”
He sat down on his bedroll again, but he didn’t climb back inside. Instead he sat in the silence for the next few hours, watching her keeping watch. She could feel his gaze, burning like fire into her back, but he didn’t say a word to her until the sun came up and it was time to pack up camp and return to the road.