She had been small, when first she’d held a bow.
Created for a child’s hands, it had been cunningly crafted from horn, bone, and resin. The grip had been wound with rawhide, weathered by many hands before hers. It was heavier than she’d thought it would be- felt strange, and not at all a part of her. The Elders had always held them as an extension of their very selves; she felt clumsy, instead. Awkward.
The sinew bow-string bit into the soft tips of her fingers as she tested it. The arms of the bow barely bent at all, though she pulled as hard as she could. The blunt-tipped arrow was too long, was hard to balance and settle just so.
Her father watched with a solemn expression, waiting- expecting. Her forehead furrowed as she lowered the bow, uncertain. “Papa?” The question in her eyes became a question in her voice, and she shifted towards him, uneasy. The look on his face was inscrutable- distant. It was not an expression which frequently captured his narrow features.
He shook his head, as if to dismiss something, and when he met her worried gaze again, there was a small smile on his lips. Her father carefully took a knee beside her, lifting his big, knobby hands to rest firmly on her shoulders. Warmth replaced the worry in her belly and she smiled back. His voice was soft and low.
“This belonged to your sister, when she was your age. She would have been proud, to teach you its use. She was an exceptional marksman; it took her many years to master it. I don’t doubt that you will too, someday.”
Vlyn studied her father’s features, feeling her smile fade from her lips. “They couldn’t fix her?”
“No, sweetling. She was too sick.” His grip on her shoulder tightened and he looked aside. Her father was a smiling man, more often than not; the very lack of a smile should have told her sooner.
The child’s throat grew tight, eyes brimming with tears that she knew she must not shed. Her jaw clenched and her small, pale fists gripped the bow more tightly- her sister’s bow, Acantha’s bow, that she had had when she was small like Vlyn. Acantha had been long and nut-brown where Vlyn was pale, her hair the shade of a raven’s wing where Vlyn’s was ghostly gold. Though they’d resembled each other little, they had been as close as only sisters could- had tormented each other, as only sisters could, and shared secrets.
Her father rose to his full height – he seemed so tall to her, so strong. So, too, had Acantha. Fear stiffened her spine and, impulsive, she reached for his hand, hauling the heavy compound bow up under her arm. The thin man hesitated a moment, glancing back to his daughter, and favored her with a soft smile, enfolding her little hand in his own much larger one. His fingers were strong and calloused, rough like weathered leather. He felt solid and real. She studied her dirty bare feet as they walked the branches, taking comfort in his nearness.
Falinesti moved slowly, ponderously, beneath them; she could feel its movement as a rhythm in her legs, like the rolling of water beneath a boat. She had been enchanted at first, by the creaking motion, the constant breeze of the wind through the branches as the Great Oak slowly strode through Valenwood. The many dwellings in the branches reminded her of large bird’s nests, built of beautiful imported woods- a moving city, vivid with life and full of strange people she’d never seen before. Only days ago, she had found it the most beautiful, exciting place in the whole world.
But none of these people had been able to cure her sister’s disease. Acantha had died anyway. She could feel her throat constrict again, and held more tightly to her father’s hand and the bow that had once belonged to her sister and best friend.
The sigh of the wind through Falinesti’s strong limbs was no comfort to her, as they climbed the silver ladder to the herbwoman’s dwelling. A natural tangle of branches had become her floor, smoothed by time and any number of feet. Smaller trees had been grown together to form walls, and her roof was comprised of tin shingles; they made music when it rained, Vlyn recalled dimly. The house smelled of herbs and leather and burning coal- carefully tended, of course, in a clay oven. She could smell vegetable broth cooking, and the scent was strange to her nose.
The herbwoman herself was an old tawny Khajit whose fur had long lost its luster. She barely seemed to notice the two bosmer as they entered, lost in her moon-sugar visions.
Acantha lay wrapped in deerskin, her skin pale and grey in the dim light of the glowing fungus. Vlyn let go of her father’s hand, clutching the bow more closely to herself, and crept to her sister’s body, reaching to stroke a strand of black hair from her forehead. This time, she couldn’t blink the tears away, her heart a painful lump in her chest as she pressed her lips to her sister’s cool cheek. “Why didn’t you get better? I need you, ‘Antha… you were supposed to get well.” Her words were whispered, inaudible to anyone but her sister. Then her throat got tight and hot, and she couldn’t speak again.
The still corpse didn’t answer, and Vlyn laid her head into the deerskin blanket, letting the tears dribble into the short, dense fur where nobody could see.
A sudden thud interrupted the silence- the sound of a leather satchel full of gold hitting a table. This got the Khajit’s attention, and she blinked owlishly at the willowy Bosmer who had dropped it. “Di’jarl could do nothing for her; she was lost before you arrived.” The creature’s voice sounded pitiful, a whining mewl to it, and she cowered beneath the man’s hard stare. Vlyn quickly swiped an arm across her eyes, sitting up and gripping her bow.
“We never should have taken her to you, woman. Your herbs did her in! This is the food of food- I should have trusted in the Pact’s wisdom, and not let myself be swayed by your nattering! Take your gold, and may we never cross one another’s path again; I have a daughter to mourn.”
She had never heard her father’s voice sound so hard, nor so bitter. Her own grief dulled as an ember of anger sparked within her. Tight lipped, eyes salty and wet from her brief, bitter tears, she rose like a puppet, rigid. Her father reached down to scoop his dead offspring from the furs. Acantha looked so much smaller in her death than she had in life- like a leather doll that had lost its stuffing.
Like their lives without her laughter.
They left the herbwoman’s hut without saying anything else, emerging into the fading twilight to a cold breeze.
“Your mother has left to gather the family; they will share in our grief.” Her father’s voice was quiet and measured again, but it held a brittle edge. Exhaustion lined his features in the growing dark, and he looked old to her eyes. Vlyn hurried after him, trying to match his longer stride, fingers wrapped tightly about her bow. “It is to us to take the first of what is left. We will abide the Pact, Vlyn. This is what happens when we take leave of its wisdom.”
They had been frightened, when Acantha fell so gravely ill, when she didn’t get better. Desperation had driven them to try remedies not sanctioned by the Pact. In the end, it hadn’t helped. Perhaps it had been a test of their faith- one which they had failed.
She watched her sister’s lifeless hand sway with her father’s step and hardened her resolve. “Papa… I would like her fingers.”
He paused, not looking back. “And why is that, sweetling?”
Her own steps echoed his pause, and she looked down at her bow. “I want to be as clever as she was- I want to shoot an arrow from the treetops into the hearts of my enemies, like she could.”
Now he looked back, favoring his youngest daughter with a tired, sad smile. “Well, tiny one, you’d best take her whole hands then. It takes more than fingers to draw a bow; you’ll need her vision, too, to see from so high in the air.”
She nodded numbly. “Yes, Papa. Her hands and her eyes.”
“Very well, Vlyn.” He turned and began to walk again. “They are yours, but remember – you must eat the whole thing, or you will dishonor us all in Y’ffre’s gaze. Do you understand?”
Acantha would be with her soon – her clever hands guiding her, her keen eyes watching. Vlyn bowed her head and followed her father, heartsick but certain.
They never should have defied the Green Pact.