The first few days of travel were actually rather boring. No bandit attacks, no rogue necromancers, no dragon assaulting us from above. Just the normal tedium that comes from traveling the well frequented roads connected to a major city. We did run afoul of a small band of wolves looking for an easy meal, but a few underpowered sparks into their hides made them think better of attacking us.
Despite the rather boring trip, it did give me some time to learn a bit more about my new traveling companions.
The first thing I learned was never to trust the two nords with any cooking more complicated than ‘roast on top of fire’ since Erikur lived up to his over-the-top personality there as well and would season things so heavily you couldn’t taste anything besides the seasoning, and Jordis had proven to be a menace that somehow turned a light stew into a blackened mess as if by magic.
I actually watched the second time it was her turn to cook, trying to find out what she did wrong. Yet, somehow, it turned out the same way even though I didn’t see her make any mistakes in the preparation. When I asked how Erikur could eat something like that without issue, I discovered that after subjecting himself to Jordis’s cooking so many times trying to win her favor it simply didn’t affect him anymore. After that I decided to take over cooking duties full time. It was worth it just to ensure these two didn’t manage to poison me by accident.
The further away from the bigger towns and villages we got, the more the increasing tensions from the civil war stood out. The men and women we came across were all either too young or too old for the work they were expected to do. All the people of prime fighting age had run off to pick a side, either Stormcloaks or Legion.
Normally I wouldn’t care much. I had no real connection with either Skyrim or the Empire at this point. In fact I would really only get involved if it meant ruining things for the Altmer that enjoyed sticking their fingers where they weren’t wanted. But the constant wary glances we received every time we entered a new place was getting annoying. Every single one of them was watching to make sure we weren’t bandits before doing their best to gouge us for coin. Well, gouge was probably a strong word for it.
This far out coins had much smaller value simply because there was little to spend them on or bartering was more useful. So while the farmers and villagers haggled like it pained them to sell their goods, the prices were often lower than what we would find in a city.
All told, it was pretty uneventful. So naturally the next place we stopped for the night, issues presented themselves.
“Please, I’m begging you to help my daughter!”
I sighed as the gray-haired Nord woman clung to Erikur with tears in her eyes.
It was a common story in the less settled areas of the province and growing even more common as the Civil War began to grow more heated. Bandits had raided the small village and run off with some of the girls for...purposes I didn’t like thinking about.
Erikur had been telling stories to the villagers while we prepared dinner and the mother approached our group, begging for help. The boisterous Nord accepted of course, there was simply no way he could pass up the opportunity to act like a hero. And a request to save a girl from bandits while showing off for his crush? It was perfect for him.
“Don’t worry! We would be happy to assist in retrieving your daughter!” the Nord promised loudly.
“Oh, thank you! Mara bless all of you.”
I just sighed again.
I made my way silently through the thin treeline heading towards the direction the villagers guessed the bandits left from. There wasn’t much of a trail left, but bandits aren’t always the quiet, careful types after a successful raid, so I was able to find something. That, or I was tracking a particularly ungraceful bear.
Thankfully, I was on the right path. The trees thinned enough to let me catch glimpses of a cookfire and a couple bandits idley wandering around camp. Crammed up against a rocky outcrop was a wooden cage with several figures hunched around. Looks like I had found where the bandits ran off to. Now I just needed to figure out how to get two nords up here to help without alerting the entire camp before we got back. The last thing I wanted was them to kill the prisoners out of spite.
“...So that’s about what we can expect.” I finished explaining to Jordis and Erikur as we drew closer towards the bandit camp. “Any idea how we should handle this?” I asked the two of them.
“We’ll take them head on.” Erikur said seriously. When he said nothing else I was just about ready to smack him for being an idiot until Jordis spoke up.
“You get the captives.”
How the hell did ‘we’ll take them head on’ translate to me reaching the captives? I was good. I wasn’t ‘cut my way through a dozen people before someone moves five feet to kill someone trapped in a cage’ good.
“Exactly.” Erikur nodded like that made perfect sense. Also, why the hell is this the one time he chooses to be economical with his words?! “We’ll charge them to draw attention after you sneak around and get close enough to cover the cage. You could even hit them from behind with your bow.”
I must be having a really off day if Erikur was proposing better plans than me, but I could work with this one. And this was a good reminder that despite acting like a heroic fool, Erikur did manage to live through whatever antics he involved himself in.
“Okay, give me fifteen minutes to get in position and then you can start.”
I kept an eye out for lookouts, but bandits being bandits, they seemed to have not bothered. So the first hint the camp got of us being in the area was when Erikur and Jordis tumbled out of the treeline and into the clearing the camp was in.
The camp exploded into activity as the bandits began to grab weapons, yell demands and insults at the two nords, and just generally get ready for a fight that no one noticed the two guards at the cage fell over with a pair of arrows sticking out of them.
Or noticed their archers getting shot in the back until it was too late. By the time one of the bandits turned around to yell at their archers for not shooting my companions, more than half of them were dead or dying and Erikur only had a small scrape on his arm where a sword scratched him after he planted his axe in the owner’s ribs. The rest of them didn’t last much longer than that. The realisation that there were more than two enemies broke their morale and they either flung themselves at the Nord pair if they believed that death in combat would be more honorable or something like that, or were shot down by me as they tried to flee and live to prey on helpless townspeople another day. None of them managed to escape though, so we didn’t have to worry about this group bothering anyone ever again.
“Are- are you here to help us?” a weak voice distracted me from the scene of death the camp had become. I looked into the cage to see a gaunt almost skeletal woman looking up at me with hope in her eyes. I told her we were and to just sit tight for a second before we got her and the rest of the girls in the cage free, but in my mind I was practically screaming that something wasn’t right. Yes, being a bandit’s prisoner was going to be hell on the body, especially for girls, but usually the bandits were good about keeping the girls fed.
No one wanted to screw a skeleton afterall.
So finding another three women just as skeletal meant that something was very wrong here. Unfortunately none of the captives were in a state to answer questions at the moment. They were far too happy at the prospect of being freed from their nightmare right now for me to start interrogating them. I would wait until they could get a bit more settled.
The bodies were cleared from the camp and unceremoniously dumped in the woods. The animals in the wild would handle their disposal. Jordis and I took over the cookfires so we could properly feed the now freed captives. None of them seemed like they could handle solid food very well so I was making a thin soup while Jordis assisted with cutting the vegetables. And that was it. I wasn’t going to allow her abysmal cooking skills poison these people after we freed them. Similarly banned from cooking, Erikur was simultaneously entertaining the freed captives with his over the top stories and subtly investigating for additional injuries. He was actually quite good at it too. For a Nord.
Every once in a while he would call me over to look at one of the girls. There were ten of them in total and five were basically skeletons, three of them looked like they had been starved for a month and the last two were mostly healthy although very pale. And all of them had bite marks on various parts of their bodies where they looked like they had been savaged by a wild animal so I had a pretty good idea why the girls were in such poor health.
A strong one too if he was able to control an entire bandit camp into not forcing themselves on the captives and keeping them around as cattle. I don’t know if slowly being eaten alive by an undead creature of the night was worth not having to deal with an entire camp of bandits forcing themselves on you, but I was relieved that none of the captives would have to deal with motherhood as a result of their time here.
As the day went on, the girls fell into a cycle of thanking us profusely, crying, and staring off into the distance. Obviously their captivity hadn’t been kind but we managed to get most of them ready to head back to the village we just left. It would be slow but the bandits had plenty of horses for us to repurpose a cart for the girls to ride in so we could get there before sunset. In fact the second I mentioned sunset the girls were practically begging us to leave as quickly as possible.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the vampire dropped by at night to feed on the captives. Problem was with the camp destroyed, there was no way of knowing where the vampire would go next. No chance the villages in the area could do anything about it either.
I shared a look with Erikur and Jordis.
Looked like we had a vampire to hunt tonight.