“Insanity,” Ciraire spat out, as she ran. The clash of metal on metal from somewhere behind her only served to spur her onward, the leather boots on her feet uncomfortably large, causing her to stumble rather than glide with the normal grace of her people.
They were not her boots. In truth, most of what she was wearing was not hers. The boots had been dug out of a wagon, broken and abandoned at the side of the road along with a number of common items that she assumed at been replaceable. The leggings she wore were taken from an abandoned house, the fit more snug than she was used to. They were short, leaving most of the length of her calves exposed; the brush and brambles she scrambled through leaving her skin crisscrossed with angry red lines. The sleeveless tunic she wore was given to her by a Khajiit she had camped with for a night.
That had stung. To see the look in the Khajiit’s eyes and knowing that her discomfort and misery had been so apparent that someone had taken pity on her. On her – the only daughter of an Altmer noble. Never mind that he was a minor noble. She was raised to be above this. Above them. Above all of these petty, dirty, destructive people that squandered the given gifts of the gods themselves to slaughter and conquer and destroy. Her people were the most powerful, the purest, the nearest to perfection in all things and for that one look of pity, she had almost rejected the gift for the charity it was. Almost.
It had been the image of her father’s face that had stilled her refusal. Goblin… Argonian… Khajiit… Nord… he had had an opinion on everyone and everything and he had worked with an inexorable patience to instill his opinion upon her. Ciraire had struggled to understand him, but her attempts had always left her baffled and searching for reasons that did not exist. Had there been an ounce of hatred in him, Ciraire was certain she could have understood, maybe even accepted his doctrine. Hatred had a source, a fire that spurred it onward, no matter how unreasonably. But her father was not a man of fire any more than he had been a man of hatred. He was void of such simple things as compromise and tolerance towards any not of his blood and there was a depth to his indifference and disregard that ignited her, setting her blood aflame with the need to prove that he was wrong. She had long lost count of the times she had confronted him, her arguments in order, her proof in hand, her speeches prepared. Every word from her lips had been a waste, heard but not heard, valued for the depth of her argument and presentation but not for the subject. She may as well have been speaking to a wall.
Clear in her memory was the night she and the Khajiit had made camp. There had been an ideal clearing, obviously used for travelers in the past, with a stream that ran near. They had gone to the water to wash the worst of the road off them before eating and the Khajiit had watched her with the same curiosity as many who had had little contact with the Altmer. The cream colored silk of Ciraire’s tunic had once been fine and soft but on that last day it had stuck to her flesh, the sleeves stained with the residual inks and blood of the Bosmer Tharnor’s work and the dirt of travel and sweat, the skin beneath tender and raw. The Khajiit’s eyes had dropped almost painfully fast, her ears drooping as she adverted her gaze. Later that night, she had pulled out the tunic, talking quietly as she plied needle and thread with surprisingly deft fingers, making what had seemed like a myriad of minute adjustments before presenting the soft blue linen to Ciraire. Fitted and sleeveless, it had freed up her movement, eased the increasing heat so unlike her home, and her tender arms were far more forgiving to the open air than to the constant friction of what she had been wearing. It was a generous gift and far more than Ciraire felt she had deserved.
“Madness.” Ciraire flung herself the last few yards up a small incline and against the stone wall of a small outbuilding, one of many that marked the outskirts of what appeared to be a small town. Humiliated to the point of near cursing, she slammed her back against the wall, ignoring the pain across her inked shoulders. She struggled to breathe; each short gasp burned her chest and stuck in her throat. She was exposed and had no time for wallowing, just yet. Sparing only a moment to catch her breath, she pushed onward, sliding along the length of the wall towards the corner, checking briefly before rounding it and pushing into the apparently abandoned settlement.
Slipping from shadow to shadow, building to building, she finally came to rest in the corner where two buildings met. There was a small gap, large enough to pass through but too small to have ever been considered an alley. It offered escape, if needed, and the shadows added some comfort as she fought to still her racing heart. She let her back touch the stones behind her and immediately dropped to the ground, mostly hidden in the shadows of the two buildings.
“Insanity,” she spat out again, the word like a curse on her lips as she drew her knees to her chest, arms resting on her knees, fingers burrowing into her hair.
It took more effort than was civilized to ease herself, to reach within and find the small flicker of power that whispered of warmth and silence that her father had long ago taught her resided in all Altmer. She drew on that small spark, fanning it like a flame, breathing life into it and allowing the heat to spread through her limbs, deepening her breath, soothing the worst of her aches, and slowly easing the flutter of her heart that seemed to slam itself against her breast like a caged bird. At long last, cloaked in the long shadows of the wall, the power ebbed and her body sagged in a pool of weariness. Her fingertips tingled with the memory of magick so close at hand, her skin prickled, her cheeks flushed.
“Someone please tell me why I left?” she growled softly, tightening her fingers in her hair until it hurt. “Every last living thing on this damned ground is insane. Mad! The whole lot of them!”
An echo of voices near at hand reached her sensitive ears, and she immediately silenced herself, dropping her hands and raising her head to scan her surroundings. Swallowing, she rolled onto the balls of her feet and with her cheek pressed to the wall she eased to the corner, moving until she could just see around the edge of the building.
The pounding of boots and a cry of alarm were quickly met with a resounding crash of metal on metal that echoed off the empty walls. Ciraire huddled further into herself, fixated on the end of the narrow path between buildings, wide eyes watching the sunlit street beyond for any indication of what was to come.