The Eve of Bloodft. @Hank
Reyna made sure to watch the crowd of the meeting leave the tent before leaving Isobel to herself, with the exception of Beordan’s company. There were some who lingered, whether to talk amongst themselves or talk to Isobel directly. She would linger longer, of course, to keep an eye on them before leaving herself, her eyes like a painting on a wall that would seem to stare at you no matter where one walked. Her gaze was a penetrating menace that sought to see through the barriers of flesh to seek their intent, to manifest her anticipation as lightning coursing through her veins. It was all to keep sure Isobel remained guarded--that which she felt was her responsibility. While the woman she held in such esteem had Beordan’s more than capable company at her side, who Reyna has personally witnessed destroy all those who entered his arena with him, it only takes a moment for things to change. Only a moment for someone to die. If Beordan wasn’t prepared for that single moment, or isn’t able to react fast enough for it, then she would be. At least, that was the idea.
The night had already fallen, her assigned patrol already over and the resolution of the meeting hallmarking the eve of blood, a name that was beginning to circulate around the camp. Some of the rebels were former militia members who would be invading and ransacking their own homes, but mostly farmers. They had a connection which tied them to this struggle, whereas Reyna fought out of loyalty to a debt. She couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like for them. Her own home is long gone, and any place she was otherwise “raised,” to be as liberal as possible with the term, she would be delighted to see crumble beneath smoke and fire. She thought about it often, and so she wasn’t quite so sure that it was delight she’d be feeling, no; it’d be anger. Anger fulfilled and appetite whetted, and when it's very memory invokes pain and rage, one can only help but think of crushing the hot coal that’s been used to poke and prod and brand you in your bare hands and the satisfaction you get from its destruction even when the burns and pain continues to linger.
Would these people feel that? Would they feel a painful satisfaction in burning down their own home, or would they seek to preserve it? How would they do that? And how would they react if what they fought to defend was taken from them? It was a dark thought perhaps, one that was birthed by the orcs and seeped into her own brain like venom, but it was a tactic that Hruldan could employ nonetheless: burning down his own city. Would that take away their reason for fighting, or simply replace it with what Reyna had? It was hard to say. Some of them seemed too weak and she herself was no philosopher, not like some of the other so-called “warriors.”
She returned to her own tent: a small, pitched thing that only had room for her bedroll, a crate, and a mess kit. She’d undo the buckles and straps of her armor and drop its pieces into the crate and slide her gladius in after it. It was positioned such that its handle was sticking up and pointed in the direction toward the bedroll for her to reach if need be, though she still kept the orichalum dagger secured in one of the tied wrappings of the toga just at her tailbone. The longer left-side of her red toga was now free to uncoil itself from her arm and hang freely in the air just above her knees, her black garments beneath just short and breathable enough to allow some airy comfort in the warm air of the night. The Cyrodiilic chill had little persuasive power over a nord, especially one raised in the Wrothgarian mountains. The pressure of her breastplate and gauntlet still weighed on her body though, its memory imprinting itself upon her skin. She let out a gentle sigh and moan as she rocked her neck and back side to side, making sounds in her back pop like when she would crack open a mudcrab’s leg.
An uproar of laughter from a nearby fire disturbed her moment of peace, replacing it with a moment of bitter and resentful growling, but when her head erupted from the tent flaps, she only saw men. Men with smiles and drinks in their hands, telling stories and jokes and whatever else, as if they had no idea what lies in wait for them tomorrow. It made her mind buzz with confusion, like a swelling of emotion that she couldn’t begin to organize or pick apart—where could she possibly begin? Why drink and dull the senses? Why stay up and tire yourself in the morning? Why make such loud ruckus, possibly letting every hunter and predator and killer nearby know where you lay your head? Why were they so comfortable doing the things she was never allowed? She didn’t have those luxuries, or rather, it is because she avoided them that she’s alive today. What did that mean for these men? What lies in wait for them tomorrow? This must be a mistake.
She’d make one last trip to Isobel’s tent.
It was during the march that she’d walk past some of those who she saw in the tent but did not know personally, or even particularly care for. Folks like Janus and Akamon, some nords and bretons like Quintus and Guifort, and one of the orcs she saw in the distance in the dry, blazing heat of their forge, all until she finally made it to the tent of Isobel Aurelia. She was hesitant to enter at first, remembering from her earliest childhood memories that it was polite to knock before entering someone’s quarters, but having not had to worry about that at all for such a while, she wasn’t quite sure if a tent technically counted. So, she opted for something simple, if still bluntly direct as is expected of her by now.
“Aurelia, I’m coming in,” she said, warning the occupant of her arrival in her distinct, underused voice. The pitched voice of a Nord girl with a similar grumbly inflection to the orcs they worked with. She pushed her shoulder past the entrance and found that only an empty tent awaited her. Not entirely empty, of course -- there were scrolls and clothes and equipment, but no Isobel. Instead, her voice came from outside the tent.
“I’m here, Reyna,” the Imperial woman said, calling out from a dark corner of the camp a little ways away from the tent, where she and the minotaur Beordan sat on a fallen tree, she on the stump and he on the trunk, in shadow and silence. “We were taking a moment to pray,” she explained, “but come. I would like to speak with you.”
“Me too.” The girl replied. She didn’t necessarily care much for or put much stock into praying, and she would’ve scoffed at anyone else who did, but she didn’t feel as if she had any particular ground to stand on in judging the woman who brought everyone together and saved her life. The woman could streak butt naked and croak like a frog for all she cared, if she thought it’d help her find her center. So Reyna paced forward, wading her feet through the cold grass as she went, until they brought her in front of Isobel and Beordan, who she addressed with a respectful nod (though more in a way that suggests “real recognizes real,” rather than any particular reverence). Like old friends. She couldn’t actually bring herself to care about the religion of the Imperial pantheon, or any faith really, but she cared about what Isobel thought and Reyna thought she was good at organizing people, so she found herself wanting to know what she ought to be looking for tomorrow morning.
“Which one is it this time?” Reyna asked irreverently. When the moment came she was given the inevitable look of confusion, she explained, “You pray to nine different people right? Which one are you praying to this time?”
The question made Isobel laugh. “Nine different gods,” she corrected the young woman. “Today it is Talos, who was Tiber Septim in life. He conquered all of Tamriel and created the Empire. He ascended to the heavens when he died and became a god. It seems only fitting to pray to him today, given that it’s his Empire that we’re trying to… protect, I suppose.”
“Repair,” Beordan grumbled.
She ignored him, a half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Then Isobel looked at Reyna more intently. After she mentioned Talos, she found her muttering Talos’ name under her breath, feeling the shape of his name in her mouth, and it suddenly made her seem much more like the nord she was supposed to be. “Who did you pray to, when you were alone in your cage?”
“I prayed to my enemies.” Reyna answered simply. “I prayed that they were weaker than me so I could live. I didn’t know any gods there. Ma and Pa used to pray to gods, I think.”
The implication of the allusion to her parents was clear. She wasn’t placing much stock into gods or things she couldn’t see, and the very word, “god,” seemed to fit uncomfortably in her mouth as if it was too big and unwieldy for her to use, or like she sat tasting it and found the flavor of the word unsettling and bitter. As far as she was concerned, she was alive today only because of dumb luck and her own strength. She found her eyes wandering towards the minotaur, privately suspecting that he was the same and had no experience with or has any need for these gods—even if he was here praying with her.
“Is that why you brought people like the half-breed with us? Because they pray?” Reyna asked. The question may have sounded accusative and aggressive, but she was earnest in her curiosity. She wanted to know what Isobel saw in them that she couldn’t, those who she rated based on what she assumed was their ability to survive conflict. Guifort, the name she could not remember, looked to her as the sort who would not survive very long. He wasn’t alone though; he was among company with the other soft-skinned and untempered fodder of the rebellion. She trusted Isobel's judgement, but she also sought to understand it. That was why she was here at this hour. She leaned in and said, “They’re going to die.”
Isobel shook her head. “Everyone here has their own way of contributing. There is more to war than just fighting. Guifort prays, yes, and in his devotion to his god he finds wisdom, and he uses that wisdom to speak encouraging words that can fortify the spirit. He knows healing magic to keep the wounded among the living, and funerary rites to guide the souls of the dead to Aetherius. You only see the fight, young Reyna, but Guifort sees what happens before, and after, and tends to us then,” she explained. “Reinette is the same, in her own way.”
“Not just them.” She insisted. “Witches who heal... I think I get it, but I’ve never seen it,” she glanced toward her own scars, healing either on their own or with the help of conventional medicine and bandaging. She shook her head as if to shake the memories off of her and continued, “not just them. Even the ones who will fight. No matter how long the lazy one makes them fight the air, they’ll never learn to kill. They’re loud and they’re drinking and they’re laughing… and they don’t know. Not like they should.”
Reyna exhaled a deep breath, unaware of the weight on her shoulders she was carrying previously. She wasn’t sure if she was communicating her thoughts exactly the way she wanted to, and it frustrated her. For the longest time, she only thought of fighting and killing as a means to live, but here she saw only men and women eagerly rushing to their own deaths just so they could fight. What kind of life was that? With a tone of finality to her voice, she added with certainty, “They’ll die. Some will run. A couple might live. Why are they fighting? What’s more important than living?”
“Freedom. Justice. Peace.” Isobel watched Reyna’s face for any changes to her expression and then laughed. “You didn’t grow up in the Empire. Survival is all you’ve known for years. I don’t expect you to understand what I mean. But many people here are fighting to create a better world for their fellow citizens. They fight for a good cause, something larger than themselves, larger than their lives. Hruldan is a cruel and greedy man. As long as he rules Skingrad, the people here will never be treated fairly. All we can do is take up arms for those who believe they are too weak to fight him themselves so that they might learn their own power, because rulers should always be afraid of their own people. And now there’s an army, two-hundred strong, inspired by our example, ready to fight. Ready to die, if they have to. So that their friends and family can know freedom, justice and peace again.” Passion had crept into her voice and she realized that she had leaned forwards while talking. “Sorry,” Isobel smiled and leaned back again, away from Reyna’s personal space when she noticed her muscles tensing up. “I just get fired up when talking about it.” She glanced sidelong at Beordan, but the minotaur was studying Reyna and did not say anything.
“All this air,” she responded, looking all around her, “the space. It’s new. Quiet. Gives me time to think about… things I haven’t thought about before. I don’t know what to do with it—the space—but I’ve thought what if I didn’t have it anymore. If I went back. I fought too hard to live just to die for it, but… I do want to keep my quiet. I think I get what you’re saying, but I don’t wanna choose between life or quiet. I don’t like that choice. I wanna live and have quiet too. I’ve been killing to live so I don’t have to kill anymore... but they don’t know how to kill. They don’t know that choice—not until tomorrow.”
“Everyone has to start somewhere,” Isobel said. “We can show them the way. You, me, Beordan, Ando, Akamon, Janus… there are plenty of experienced fighters here. And I’ve talked to the people. The farmers, the smiths, the tanners. They don’t feel like they’re making a choice to fight. They feel that it’s their duty to fight.” She smiled and pointed at Reyna. “Like you feel you have a duty to me. What you feel you owe to me, they feel they owe to Skingrad and its people. Their sons, their mothers, their neighbours. Do you see what I mean?”
“Not duty. Blood debt. But maybe. We’ll see what duty gets them.” Reyna found this type of… philosophical talk and playing around with words and semantics far too heady and annoying, and it gave her something of a pins and needles sensation across her skin, something that caused her to ruffle her hair with her hands and itch at her scalp as if it was her way of centering herself. A moment later her hair was looking wild again and sticking out in different directions, but there was a laser focus in her eyes, as if she finally committed herself to something, like the doubts plaguing her when she first arrived at the conversation were swatted away. Her focus realigned on Isobel with her composure returned. “You said you wanted to talk to me about something too.”
“Yes, I did,” Isobel said and shifted in her seat, uncrossing her legs and straightening them out on the forest floor, her hands ironing the creases from her tunic, with a look in her eyes that said that she wished she could do the same to all the worries and concerns that weighed on her mind and her heart. “Once Hruldan is defeated and order has been restored in Skingrad, there might be… well, a place for you there, I suppose. Robespierre will be the new Count and he will know all that you have done for him and his people. It would be the perfect opportunity to have your quiet, as you put it,” she explained and smiled. “You could have the life back that was taken from you. Not have to fight to survive. Learn how to read, how to work -- not killing, something peaceful. You told me once you still remember the farm, herding the sheep. Would you want that?”
“I…” Reyna started to speak but she stopped and she stared straight ahead like there was a ghost. Suddenly that composure she fought to reclaim was lost again. Her mind traveled to this suggested land of quiet, of stone walls and bridges wrapping around the thoroughfares of a Colovian hamlet, of the farmlands that covered its countryside. The fires that might light them. The past replayed in her eyes, and for a moment she didn’t seem present. So when her own words were caught in her throat, unsure of how to communicate the confusion and feelings of conflict in her heart, or the terror in her memory, words which threatened to choke her, she did as she always had when she felt in danger, and with no enemy to fight her feet slowly shuffled away from Isobel before fleeing away like wind back to her tent.
Beordan stopped Isobel before she could call out after the girl. “Let her go,” he rumbled. “All she has known is war. You threatened her with peace. It will take time.”
The Imperial woman lowered back onto the stump, having gotten halfway up on her feet. “I wish there was more I could do for her,” she said and chewed her bottom lip. “She fought so hard to survive and to escape and now I am leading her back into another fight? What if she dies tomorrow?”
“Her choice, not yours.”
Isobel hummed quietly and looked at her lap. Beordan sat back and exhaled in content silence, the burst of breath from his nose fogging in the cold night air. When Reyna arrived back at her tent, she was out of breath. Though the distance was not so long for her, it was only then that she realized she was holding onto it, keeping her breath from escaping her burning, rebelling lungs. It was enough even to cause a buildup of cold sweat beading up on her forehead, to which she quickly felt their chill in the cold night air and brought her some sense of comfort. Their icy touch pulled her back to reality, and soon she felt her breathing begin to slow and steady itself. Still, heat welled up in her chest again as she growled and snarled and groaned to herself, at no one in particular, before throwing herself onto her bed roll and clutching the straw pillow to her head, as if she was trying to wrap it around her and so firmly that she nearly ripped it into halves in her hands. She eventually would release a sigh, expelling all that anxious and flustered energy into the air of the tent, and allowing the heat in her chest to climb its way up to her face and cheeks, where she’d wear her embarrassment for the rest of the night until she slept. She put the orichalum dagger wrapped at her tailbone beneath her pillow and firmly in her hand, which would help to cushion that which she nearly destroyed.
Sleep, she told herself. Sleep for tomorrow. She could let it all out tomorrow.