“Are we all packed up, Julan?”
“Aye, love. We’ve loaded up all our ill-gotten gains from Ald-Daedroth. Annika, I swear there’s enough here to feed the Ahemmusa for a year.”
“Idiots. I love it when stupid people wear expensive armor. So, we have at least six hours to kill while you steer our little ship to safety through the Inner Sea. What shall we talk about?”
“You could tell me a story…about your life…about Anvil.”
“Julan, you know I hate talking about that.”
“Look, you know everything about me, about my bastard birth, my crazy mother—well pretty much everything.”
“It’s pretty gory. I guess you should know everything before we marry. I probably should have told you this sooner.”
“Nothing you tell me could ever change my mind about marrying you, Annika. Besides, it can’t be that bad.”
“Yes, Julan, it can.”
Everything was lost.
The gold sun slowly melted in the sea as the smell of brine and salt invaded my every pore. Again, I wiped my eyes as a stream of salty tears seeped into my lips. The night was coming; the last of daytime’s gold and pink light lingered on waves of the vast sea. I knew I should be leaving, as the docks were not safe. But I couldn’t move. I just didn’t have the strength.
I turned slightly, examining a rip in my tattered frock. Within the splintered wood pier, I saw a beetle weaving effortlessly in and around the aged planks. I closed my eyes and for a time imagined that I was as slight as this insect, as insignificant as speck and safe and secure within a little nook with no one and nothing to fear.
I spent a few comforting moments in that idle reverie until I was startled by the sound of large boots and creaking wood. The tiny creature I was studying scuttled away and disappeared entirely. Turning, I saw a large figure approaching.
“Well, what do we have here?” boomed the loud, female voice.
“A…uh, a girl. I’m a girl,” I murmured with some trepidation. Looking up I saw a tall woman, with a halo of fuzzy blonde hair.
“I can see that,” the woman said slowly as she knelt down to my level. “I’m Erica Bone-Bottomed—don’t even think of looking at my ass.”
I kept my eyes on Erica’s face and not the plank of her backside.
“I’m Annika Blue.” I said, rising. This Nord was a giantess. Standing a full height I barely reached her chest. “I’m new to Anvil.”
“Not really, you’re not. I’ve seen you down here before,” Erica countered. “You usually wait here for that boy that worked Hurley’s Haul. I haven’t seen him in a few days—haven’t seen you either,” she said, noting the newly formed tears that sprung into my eyes as she spoke. “Left ya here, didn’t he?”
I nodded; it was all I could do as my throat was choked by repressed sobs.
“Well, you can’t stay here. It’s not safe, that is unless you’re trying to court those shipyard boys into paying customers.”
“No! I’m not that kind of girl!” I said that but I knew the odds were not in my favor.
“Well, you will be one of those girls if you continue to stand out here,” Erica said gruffly. “Look, you come and stay with me, help me out with the blacksmith shop. Maybe pick up a few shifts at a tavern. You’re pretty, your ass isn’t bone-bottomed so you should be able to make some sort of living.”
“Thank you for your kind offer,” I said. I knew she was right: that would be my fate soon, unless I could find someone willing to help me.
Erica smirked, “It really isn’t so much of an offer as it’s a proposition.”
Well, this is interesting. I gulped as I looked beyond Erica to men on the docks and the ladies of ill repute that were standing beside them. I looked back at Erica standing there with her hand on her hip and wry smile.
“Wait, Anni, you’re telling me that you and Erica…”
“What? Shared a bed? Yeah, Julan we did. What of it?”
“Well, it’s just… um…I…I didn’t know that. You never told me that.”
“You never asked. Can I continue?”
“Sure, Anni. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.”
In the following months I learned my role in this odd partnership. We were lovers sometimes, yes, but mostly she wanted a confidant, a friend, a sister, and someone she could mother. I was Erica’s wide-eyed young protégé. I was the one who listened at night to her fears and failures. Erica was a master blacksmith—an artisan, really— but often the strain of competition was more than she could bear. ‘It’s a woman’s lot,’ she would say bitterly, when ship captains and the like passed her stand up for her male counterpart in the stand four stalls down.
Erica also had another job. To supplement her shop’s meager income, Erica peddled skooma, a highly addictive drug. Most of her customers came from Cana’s House of Pleasures, the brothel round the corner. The girls would come in either before their shift would start, as a way to face the night, or they’d come in the morning as Erica set up shop, to forget the things they’d done the night before.
One morning, Nan, a frequent customer, came and approached Erica for her fix. “Cana saw your girl,” she said, looking over at me.
“Yeah, so?” Erica snapped.
“Well, she just wanted to let you know there were some open shifts—either for a serving girl, or…acrobat.” Acrobat being the polite euphemism for prostitute.
“We’re not interested,” Erica said sharply.
“Maybe,” I spoke up with some force. Business was not going well at the shop and over the weeks I had watched Erica become one her own best customers. The habit was always there, she told me she had started young, but as the business failed her used of skooma, or as it was commonly called sugar, increased. Over the course of weeks on several occasions I had held her as she vomited heavily and shook after taking in too much sugar.
I looked over to Nan, whose long, red locks gleamed against the sun’s early rays. “I’ll consider her offer, as a serving girl, perhaps.”
Nan nodded as she took fix and left. I turned to Erica, who looked crestfallen. “By the fucking Nine,” she muttered, hunched over the forge.
“Erica, I only said I would consider it. You and I both know business isn’t what it should be.”
“It’s winter; business is always a bit slow this time of year,” she said, still feeding wood into the kiln.
“Erica, look me,” I said. She stopped and turned toward me, and I reached out to her, clasping her hand. “You and I both know I’m terrible at this. For fuck’s sake I’ve shattered countless swords--”
“I fixed them,” she countered. “There were no complaints.”
“Erica, I smash swords, botch shields and drop tongs. By the gods, I can’t even keep a bloody fire burning. Last week you called me ‘Cold Iron Anni.’”
Erica smiled at that. She held my hand as we walked toward the bench near the worktable. “You just haven’t given yourself enough time.”
“Time has nothing to do with it, Erica.” I then unfolded her hands, placing my palms against hers. Even unfolded, my fingers barely reached her knuckles. “You have these,” I said as she sobbed quietly. “These hands are your gift. With these hands you create things that, even if I was given a hundred years, I couldn’t possibly make."
She leaned back and wiped the tears from her eyes, then turned to me. “I guess you’re right. Annika, there are many, many things you’re wonderful at, but by gods you’re right—a blacksmith you are not.”
“Well, I might not be able to forge steel, but I’m pretty sure I can schlep drinks.”
“What?” I asked as she released my hands. Erica was cradling herself.
“It’s just Cana’s such a bitch—she’ll eat you alive,” she said, holding her head in her hands. “Even her sister fled. I hear Dresele now has her own brothel on that gods-forsaken rock, Vvardenfell. She drove her sister halfway across Tamriel. She shorts the girls and she wants them hopped on skooma.”
“Is that how you started, Erica?” I asked already knowing the answer. She said nothing as she stood and wiped the tears from her eyes. She quietly walked over to the wood pile and gathered the logs, placing them into the forge.
She said little to me the rest of the day and I did not force the matter. We both knew the inevitable was upon us. I loved Erica and she knew this, but I could sense that she was also afraid that she’d lose me, not only to sugar, but perhaps to a handsome patron of Cana’s House of Pleasures. In the evening as we made love, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I kissed them away, but she turned from me still sobbing.
“I know I’m going to lose you,” she said. I wanted to promise her that she wouldn’t, but the words wouldn’t form or pass my lips. I loved her too much to lie to her, and I knew deep down that she was right.
“Did you go?”
“Yeah, Julan, I did. Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?”
“I’m not sure Anni. I do, but I don’t. I’m sitting here picturing everything you say and seeing someone else who is going through this.”
“We can stop.”
“No, no. This is the life you led. This is what made you Annika Blue. I’m in.”
“Okay. Could you hand me a smoke, please.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll need one too.”
The building was much larger than I had expected; the house itself was a whopping three stories. Hardly a hole in the wall where dirty deeds are done secretly in the night, Cana’s House of Pleasure seemed to send out an open challenge—it was brazen and brightly lit, with girls lingering on the large porch, flirting with the patrons. Inside the home was just as extravagant; the walls were covered with rich, red damask silk. The air was heavy with smoke that swirled and danced in the pale, morning sunlight that stubbornly streamed in through the shuttered windows. Richly decorated couches and chairs lined the walls. Tables large enough to stand on dominated the middle room. In the far back I could see two girls on a stage. They were naked. Their bodies moved mechanically around the pole as a few scattered patrons looked past them with utter disinterest. I could feel goosebumps rising on my neck.
“Our best girls don’t come out until the night,” said the rich, female voice behind me. I turned around to see a tall, lovely brunette. Her eyes were large and deep set, her lips full and her smile beautifully insincere. At the zenith of her youth, she must have been incomparable; as it stood now she was still a great beauty—enough to take your breath away.
“I can see that,” I said with more confidence than I possessed. I extended my hand. “You must be Cana.”
“I am,” she said as her unimaginably soft fingers enveloped my own calloused hands in firm shake. “And you must be Erica’s girl.”
“Well, Annika,” she said as she wrapped one lithe, perfumed arm around me, “this is my House of Pleasures. Come on; let’s take a seat and talk.”
I followed her to the bar. The blond, topless girl serving drinks looked me over and then nodded to Cana. “She’s not bad,” the girl said as she handed me a steaming cup of tea. I saw Cana glare at the girl, who quickly scurried behind the bar.
“Do you like that?” Cana asked, motioning to tea. “The leaves come from Black Marsh. We’re fortunate here in Anvil to receive Tamriel’s great bounty.” I smiled and nodded, but in truth, I had never considered myself fortunate, especially since landing in Anvil. I certainly had not benefited from the city’s bounty. Most nights, Erica and I considered ourselves lucky if we could afford to eat. I looked up at Cana, but found I was too afraid to make eye contact.
“It’s really lovely,” I said I closing my eyes; taking in the tea’s sweet aroma. I’ve never tasted it’s like. I lived most of my life in Chorrol and never tasted anything like this.”
“That surprises me, your being from Chorrol. I would have thought you from High Rock, given your Breton features,” she said, smiling warmly. There was something hypnotic about her eyes; the moment I looked into them I found myself pouring out my life’s story to her as she continued to pour the tea. I divulged everything—my early abandonment, my upbringing in a monastery, all the way to my failed efforts as a blacksmith.
“I can see you’re nervous,” Cana said, taking my hand in hers. “I’m sure Erica’s told much about me. But let me ease your fears by being honest with you. “
“Okay,” I answered timidly.
“Here at The House of Pleasure you can make money one of two ways. You can serve drinks to our patrons and make money off of the tips. As you’ve seen, our servers go topless. While that might be daunting to you now, especially with your monastery upbringing, it won’t be after a few days. “
“And the other way?”
“Is to be an acrobat, a dancer—“
“—A whore,” I said bluntly. I could see Cana was taken back, but I refused to let her sugar coat my options.
“Yes, Annika, a whore,” she responded coolly. “Our whores set their own prices, but they generally take in about a thousand septim a week. Now understand that forty percent of that is mine. Thirty percent is my cut and ten percent is room rental. There are twenty rooms here.”
That’s still six-hundred septims! “Are servers…acrobats too?”
“They can be, but I wouldn’t encourage it. You won’t make the money that girls do on stage. Annika, you’re a beautiful. Your hair color is unique, your face remarkable, and your body delightful. Make the most of it. My advice to you is to work as a server for a while; that way the regulars can drink you in and wish. Then when you finally make the stage, you can command a high price.”
“Is there any other advice you can give me?”
“Don’t fall in love, and for godsakes, don’t get pregnant,” she scowled. She then reached into her purse pulling out several gold coins. “You can come in tomorrow night—after you’ve shaved and bathed.”
“So you worked there, as a serving girl? Is that why you hate it when I drink?”
“Yeah, you could say that. I don’t know, Julan, it’s just something about the smell of alcohol on your breath. The smell just triggers a memory.”
“I’m sorry, Anni.
“Well, how could have possibly known? I never told you any of this. Anyway, for two months I had been working non-stop as a serving girl, tolerating the constant barrage of indecent proposals and unwanted gropes. I had put up with all of that for the wages were descent and little was expected of me. ‘Just stand there and smile. Act like serving those cretins is your greatest pleasure. You’ll rake it in,” Cana would say. She was right, yet despite the coin I’d made from the House of Pleasures and the money from the smithy, we never seemed to have enough. Waking up I often found my coin purse was much lighter than what it had been the night before. Then one morning everything changed. I had just come home an hour ago from Cana’s…..
“Anni wake up!”
I woke to Erica’s hysterical shouts on a cloudy morning.
Skooma had taken Erica completely. Most mornings I would wake and find her naked body stretched over the cold, wooden floor, with the sickly sweet stink of skooma hanging in the air. Before, when I was at Erica’s side daily, her use had been controlled. Without me, her loving gyroscope, she slid further and further down the spiral. Prayers, pleas and empty threats of leaving did not stem the tide that threatened to envelope us both.
“Anni, they’re going to kill me,” she said through choked sobs.
I shot up like a spark. “Why, what’s happened?”
“Three days ago, a large shipment had come in. I had sold a good deal, but—
“—But not enough to cover what you took for yourself,” I snapped angrily. Erica stood there, with her arms cradling her chest and her head hung low like a child chastened. I shrugged and simply said, “You’ll have to sell your father’s tools.”
Erica took in a deep breath and gulped, “I sold most of them already, Anni. There’s nothing left but the stall and that doesn’t belong to me. You know that.”
“Take the coin on the table.”
“It’s more than that. Anni I’m short four-hundred septims.”
I sighed deeply, knowing there was only one way I could get that kind of money. I held Erica’s head in my hands and looked at her. I wanted to scream, shout and shake her wildly.
“I’ll speak to Cana this evening. Tell them they’ll have their gold in the morning.”
“Julan, perhaps I should stop. Your eyes look like they’re going to pop out of your head and you’re not concentrating on steering the ship. I’ll stop.”
“No! I mean, I’m kind of invested in the story. Please continue.”
“Fine. I’m taking the helm. We’re not going to die in the Inner Sea today. You just stand over there. We’re about to enter the bowels of this particular tale.”
“You mean it gets worse?”
“Oh, much worse, Julan. Much, much worse.”
“Cheer up, girl, nobody likes a sad whore,” Cana said as she passed me a glass aged brandy, as I spilled Erica’s story. “We’ll make a show of it tonight. It will be fun and you’ll get the money you need.” I drank down the brown liquid, feeling it warm the whole of my body. I drank several more drams as Cana laced up my serving girl corset.
That evening as crowds of men came in from the dock. As the rich captains lefts their wives and families for an evening on the town, I served drinks to them wearing virginal white. Suddenly, the music stopped and I looked to Cana, who nodded giving me my cue. I flung the tray of drinks to the floor making a loud crash. Every eye was on me as I strode toward the main stage. Climbing the stairs, I could hear the patrons cheer as I unlaced the front stays of the corset and tossed the garment carelessly on the ground.
I could feel the drum beats throughout my body. The brandy’s dizzying effect was now at its height, burning and tingling throughout me. Gyrating my hips against the pole like it was a lover, I danced. As the beats quickened, I swayed; my hands caressed my breast and stomach, pretending they were Erica’s hands, the farm boy’s hands, every man’s hands in this bloody brothel. And then it stopped.
As the drums died down, the lute switched to a softer melody, I looked over at Cana who nodded. As another girl took the stage I walked in the dark, grabbing a flimsy cover the girls wore after exiting the stage for a successful bid.
Standing beside Cana was an older gentleman, with a strong build and dark brown hair. He looked me over; his icy blue eyes were appraising my worth. “She’ll do nicely, Cana.”
“I think you’ll like her,” Cana purred. “She’s a bit inexperienced.”
“All the better,” he said as he led me into a cheerfully lit room.
“What a treasure you are, my dear. Let’s see what you have to offer,” he said sliding the robe from my shoulders letting the soft cloth pool at my feet. His hands bore down on my shoulders until I was kneeling before large bulge in his pants that longed to be set free. He took my hands and placed them on his breeches, nudging me to unlace them. I heard his breath hitch as I pulled his dripping cock free. He hands moved from my shoulders to my mouth. He took his thumb and circled my lips, wetting them with my own saliva. I could taste the salt at his tip and feel his hand threading through my hair as I took him in entirely. Back and forth I moved against him as he groaned loudly, crying out the Nine; his cries urging me to go deeper. I could feel his fingers digging into the back of my neck as his cock throbbed releasing the warm, salty liquid in my mouth.
I rose slowly, looking him in the eye, silently questioning him about what came next. Gently he wiped my lips and then turned, pouring us drinks from the bar. “You put on quite a show tonight my dear. Cana tells me it was your first; I find that hard to believe.”
I shrugged. “Cana told me no one likes a sad whore. If figured if I was going to do it, I’d give it my best.”
“Well, you were truly magnificent,” he said as I walked toward the bag of gold lying on bureau. “Wait, where do you think you’re going?”
“I thought you were done with me,” I answered sheepishly.
He placed the drink down on table and approached me again, saying nothing. Wrapping his arm around my waist, he picked me up and threw me stomach-down on the bed. Plunging into me, his graveled voice bled into my ear, “No, my dear I’ve bought you for the night.”
“I don’t want hear anymore, Annika.”
“Tough shit, Julan. You wanted to hear about this. I warned you that it was awful.”
“I don’t want to hear about you fucking another man, Annika! Gods, I wished I never asked you about any of this.”
“You’ve asked me several times about my early life and I’ve always avoided talking about it. ‘Tell me about Anvil.’ You constantly ask that over and over again. Well, guess what, Julan, ask a fucking question, and you get a fucking answer.”
“I wasn’t prepared for this!”
“Neither was I! But don’t worry, Jules, that was the last trick I turned. I swore I’d never allow myself to feel so empty again. So can I continue?”
In the morning I woke to the sounds of birds tweeting. The bed was empty, but still warm. I turned over and saw my patron dressing.
“Oh, you’re awake,” he said with some disappointment.
“Aye,” I answered quietly as I shook my head. I was groggy; my head hurt from all the drink and my body ached from last night’s exertions.
“Well you were entirely enjoyable—worth every septim.”
“Thank you,” I said in a hushed tone.
An awkward silence ensued. “Well, good day,” he said briskly, as if he was embarrassed. I said nothing but nodded. I waited for him to leave before I rose. The nauseating smell of stale liquor hung heavy in the air. I felt sticky and sore, empty and used. Moments after he left, there was a knock at my door. I opened the door slightly. It was Cana.
“You did well last night, darling,” she said, as she entered the room cheerfully, handing me my clothes. “You brought the house down. I already have more bids for you tonight.”
“Forget it,” I said while slipping on my sandals. “I’m done with this. I never want to see this place again.”
“Really?” Cana asked, her voice a sweet and insincere as before. “Annika, the coin purse on the bureau is full of golden septims. You’re angry now and that’s fine, but you’ll get over it. Trust me, you will. Now, here’s some tea; you need to drink as that particular gentleman is ceaselessly fertile. He ruined a few of my best girls.”
I looked at Cana and took the cup from her hand. I gulped down the bittersweet, steaming liquid and nearly choked. It was the most disgusting concoction I had ever tasted. “Did these leaves come from the Black Marsh too?” I asked acidly.
“No, thank the gods, or I’d be entirely without girls,” she replied. “The tea comes from a native plant grown here. You’ll have to drink more over the course of the next few weeks for it to be entirely effective.”
I took another sip of the tea. That smell, that unmistakable smell—it wasn’t just the tea leaves—I had smelled this sickly sweet odor day in and day out for months. Skooma. That bitch was adding skooma to the tea. This is would explain why most of Erica’s clientele came from Cana’s House of Pleasure. They had no chance. They probably didn’t realize what they drinking until it was too late.
“So this how you keep your girls in check, Cana?”
“Whatever do you mean?” she replied sweetly.
“Cut the crap, Cana, I can smell the skooma,” I said, glaring at her. “Cana, you are the most detestable creature I’ve ever met. Gods, Erica warned me, but she never said it was in the tea—maybe she never knew. Perhaps I should alert the Imperial Guard.”
Cana laughed heartily at this. “Don’t bother, little one. Who do you think you serviced last night?”
“This is how it works, Annika—this is how real life works,” she said as her eyes bored holes into mine. “I ensure that Captain Avidius gets the pick of the litter, so to speak, and in return he kindly looks the other way with all the House of Pleasure’s business. So go ahead and tell him, though I’m sure it won’t get you anywhere other than a long drop off a very short pier.”
I stared blankly at her. This woman, this hag, would never get caught. She would continue to destroy the lives of everyone she touched and she would get away with it—and that’s just life. I grabbed the gold purse; I hurried past her, and ran out into the cool, mid-morning air. Erica, I whispered to myself, praying I wasn’t too late.
I ran like a madman to our flat. Upon entering I gasped, for our home was demolished; blankets and clothes were strewn all about and the floor was carpeted with shattered skooma vials. She wasn’t here. I ran down the cobblestone streets, calling out to her. The smithy was emptied entirely. I checked the docks and taverns. I ran blindly through Chaplegate, Westgate and Guildgate looking for her throughout the day. She was nowhere to be found. As the last of the evening light faded, I returned our home, empty, aching and exhausted. In the dark, I struggled to find a single candle and match.
Finally, after cutting my hands on shards of broken glass, I found my quarry and lit it—then screamed, for I was not alone.
A large lizard-man—an Argonian— emerged from the shadows. I picked up a broken mug and flung it at him. With lightning-quick reflexes he caught cup in mid-air. Madly, I dashed around the room looking for the sword Erica kept hidden.
“Ah, were you looking for this, little one?” he asked as he tossed the heavy saber at my feet. He then pulled out a slim sword and stood there, expressionless. With every ounce of courage I possessed I charged toward him. With almost no effort, he managed to knock the ungainly sword out of my hand.
Resting his blade against my neck, the creature spoke, “That sword is not the right size for you, it is large and clumsy, and you are small and unskilled. This one would be a better, for it is sharp and light, though strong enough to slice through your pretty little neck.”
“What do you want?” I stuttered, while tears of fear streamed down my cheeks.
“You have something of mine, I do believe.”
“I don’t know you. What could I possibly have that you’d want?”
“I’m here to collect a debt that your Nord friend incurred. She promised you’d have the gold on the morn. It is well past morning, little one.”
“Where’s Erica?” I gulped. “I won’t give you anything until you tell me.”
“No, I could take all now, if I wished,” he said playfully, pushing the sharp blade further against my skin. I could feel the blood pooling around my shoulder.
“Please, just tell me she died well, that you didn’t make her suffer.”
The Argonian sheathed his blade. “I did not kill her. At first light she was taken in by the Imperials. What they did with her after that is beyond my knowledge.”
“And so you waited here for me to return.”
“Of course I did. I knew you’d return at some point, though it took much longer than I expected.”
“I spent the better part of the day looking for her. Here, there’s your bloody gold. Take it and be gone,” I said without emotion. I was drained and just wanted to sleep.
He stood there counting the money, when he was done he looked over at me. “You must have worked very hard to get this.”
“You have no idea, Argonian.”
“Do you like that kind of work?”
“You mean do I like being whore?” I hissed. “No, not particularly, though that all that’s left to me. I have no skills; as blacksmith, I break blades, taverns are out as most are family run and want no encroachers; I couldn’t even find a job as a bloody maid and I’m afraid of the docks.”
“You should be, but…you could be an adventurer,” he suggested. “I could teach you.”
“Why would you do that?”
He walked around for a moment, touching the wooden paneled wall. “This is quite a nice home you have here; much better than the hovel I’m living in now. It will be many weeks before my ship leaves this port, so I propose trade of sorts. The racist fools that own this abode will not let it to lizard scum like myself and unless you decide to go back to Cana’s, you can’t afford this place on your own. I could stay here with you.”
“You won’t expect—
“—No,” he said forcefully. “I will not meddle with you as your kind does not inspire my passions. As I was saying, I could stay here, teach you a bit about swordplay and stealth, maybe even find you work in one of the sea captain’s homes.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to do. He was right; this was my only option—and yes, I longed to live the life of adventure…but most of all, I longed to be unafraid.
“What do I call you?”
“My name is Hslshur-Je, though the humans call me Hides-His-Blades.”
“I like Hslshur-Je better.”
“So be it.”
“So for the next several months Hslshur-Je trained me in the fine art of theft. He taught me how to pick a lock and pocket; he taught me how to gauge whether or not a cavern or barrow was worth robbing. He taught how to choose a blade and then how to swing it. He trained me in the way I trained you, Jules.”
“You just threw me in.”
“Exactly. Anyway, this went on for the next three months, until I discovered something.”
“Well, I never went back to Cana’s to finish the tea…”
“Yeah, I was pregnant.”
“Annika, you’ve saved enough money to leave. Just go and forget about me. I’ve brought you nothing but trouble,” Erica whispered from her cell.
“Erica, I can’t go back to Chorrol, I stole a great deal from the monastery. It’s just not possible. Look, you have two more months to serve. Hslshur-Je found me a job with Oaken-Hull's House as maid. Yeah, sure Hasathil, is a bitch—“
“When she not screwing Enilroth.”
“The blacksmith—no way!”
“Yes, way. Look, Anni, you should get out of here while you can. Heinrich can be a real bastard. Just ask anyone of the girls who work there.”
“Look, I’ve never met him. He spends all his time at sea. I can make it there for two more months and then we can leave this pit for Dagon Fel. We can start over.”
“Anni…I don’t know.”
“Erica, you’re the only friend I have. Please,” I begged. “I don’t want to do this alone.”
“Okay, fine, we’ll do this. I’ll serve the time and we’ll leave. Just make sure you’re nowhere near that house when Heinrich returns.”
“Sure, Erica,” I said. Of course I didn’t tell her that Heinrich had returned over a week ago.
I had kept my head down, and tried my best to disappear into the walls. I served their meals, cleaned chamber pots and changed their sheets unnoticed. Until one day. One morning I arrived to angry shouts coming from the bedroom. Accusations were hurled back and forth. I saw Hasathi sweep out of the home in a rage—most likely running to her lover. A sense of dread washed over me when I was instructed by the butler that I would be serving Heinrich that evening.
I walked and poured his wine. I was relieved that he didn’t even look me. I went to get his soup and while serving it, I felt the baby stir. I tripped and poured hot soup all over him. He then rose, shaking the soup off himself and as he looked up me—a twisted smile spread across his face. He seemed almost joyful; like he wanted me falter so he could punish me, in the place of punishing his errant wife.
“Sir, I’m so sorry,” I uttered.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it, wench,” he said, shaking the soup from his sleeves.
“Please, let me help,” I said as I handed him a rag from my apron.
“Oh, you’ll help me, alright, you ruined whore,” he said as he approached me. “I saw you at Cana’s, you slut. My wife keeps hiring those sluts—probably to make her feel better about her own whoring.”
“Please, don’t hurt me,” I begged as I backed away. “Please, sire, I’m with child.”
He then lunged me, throwing me to floor. I landed on all fours and from behind I could feel him yanking at my skirt. He tore it as he held me in place. I could hear him unlacing his breaches as I struggled to get free of him.
In front of me was the fire place. I grabbed the poker and swung wildly, knocking him back. I stood and went to hit him again, but he grabbed poker out my hand and swung it at me. As fell, I grabbed a small statue mantle and flung it at him. It hit head and fell. I picked the statue up from the floor and continued to hit him…”
“You know the rest, Julan.”
“No, no I don’t. What happened to you, to the baby?”
“I took what I could off of Heinrich and ran to one of the sea coves. I stood in the waves and let them wash over me. The water wiped his blood from my body and carried my still-born daughter out into the deep. I was found shortly after, half-starved and raving. I was tried for murder and sentenced to die. Then, I was thrown head-long into a dank, little cell until such time that my sentence could be carried out. Erica was still there and I think it was she that saved me for I had lost my will to live.”
Time was unfathomable; one day melted ceaselessly into the next. I had no idea how long we’d been in that cell. Finally, the guards came and told me to prepare myself; on the morn my sentence would be carried out. In a way it was a relief; finally the agonizing wait and the unending fear were over.
“Erica, I’m going to die.”
She held me close in her long arms. “I know and it’s all my doing. I’m so sorry, Annika. I’m just so goddamned sorry.”
“You’ll live,” I said, without any bitterness or anger. “You’ll survive, so long as you leave this wretched place behind. Erica, I want you to promise you’ll leave. Go to Dagon Fel, go to Chorrol, go to Oblivion for all I care; just promise me that you’ll leave Anvil. Get the hell out and don’t look back. Erica, I want you to promise me that. My life will have meant something if I can save yours.”
Erica promised over and over, and in between sobs, that she would leave. I fell asleep to the sound of her tears and promises.
In the morning, I heard the cell door slam open. I woke with a start as the guards lifted me from the cold ground. I heard Erica scream and plead for my life until a guard backhanded her, knocking her to floor.
“Quit crying, you cow,” the guard shouted. “Your girlie’s got a change of plans.” He then turned to me, and grabbed my face, as he shook my head back and forth. “That right, doxy, you’re leaving here and going to the Imperial City to die proper.”
“I’m not going to die at all,” I said, then spit in his face. I knew if I were truly to die, they wouldn’t bother dragging my carcass across a continent. Fate had something entirely different in store.
“And so fate brought me here. It brought me to this tiny rock in the sea and it brought me to you, Julan. A good end to a rather grim fairy tale.”
“I don’t know, Anne, I’m hardly a prince.”
“No, Julan, you’re much more, much, much more. You’re the Ashkhan to a great tribe of people. That is something far better, far more interesting than some petty prince locked in a moldering tower. I think fate was kind to me.”
“It was more than fate, my love. It was the will of our blessed mother of the night’s sky—it was Azura’s will— that you live so that one day you, Annika Blue, our fearless Nerevarine, would beat the baddie under Red Mountain and save all of us lunatics from ourselves.”
“Something like that, Jules,” I said as our hands met and fingers interlaced. “Something like that.”