Silent steps. Careful movements. Arrow notched. Bowstring drawn. Deep breath. Steady hand.
Asa was so familiar with the routine now that it was practically instinct for her. When she had first left the stone city, she learned the hard way that being discreet in the wilderness was a different matter entirely from sneaking around guards and merchants. In towns, one had to watch their step as to not stumble (with a fall being especially dangerous in the high walkways of Markarth), but other than the odd uneven tile it was only the softness of the contact with the ground and the line of sight of nearby people that one had to consider. Here, it was different. The creatures of the wild could detect a threat through the slightest sound or smell. Keeping distance and striking with a bow was essential, but even then the snow and grass could make it difficult to see twigs and branches that when snapped would warn the prey of the hunter's presence.
After a few initial failures, Asa had quickly learned what must be done. Perhaps her experiences in the city had helped despite the differences, but Asa always felt that there was something more to it, almost like she was born to live in the wilderness. Unlike many skilled with the bow, she did not think of herself as a natural predator; no, she was simply natural and living out her place in the world. She did not go out of her way to hunt other predators like wolves, bears and sabre cats, only fought them when they threatened her or her camp, and the same rule went for the men, mer and beastfolk of Tamriel. She killed for food, like many of the other creations of Kyne that roamed the wild with her.
Like the wolves, bears and sabre cats of Skyrim, the hunt was drilled into both her mind and body. Her prey did not even suspect any danger until it was too late. Asa released her grip and the arrow flew towards the goat, embedding itself deep within the animal's side. The goat bleated in surprise and darted off into the distance, the wound not yet impacting its movement. Soon, the pain will set in and it will slow down, and in time the loss of blood would cause it to collapse.
At this point many would claim that the most challenging part of the hunt was over. True, hitting the target required the most skill, but skill could be honed. Tracking down the wounded prey however was more susceptible to chance. The scent of blood often drew the attention of other predators, a sudden change in weather might cover up the passage of the fleeing creature or sometimes the prey would simply disappear, dying in some remote and difficult to access location. Horkers were especially notorious for the last one- they were slow on land, but if they managed to reach the icy waters, it would be impossible for anyone (save perhaps a skilled Argonian hunter) to retrieve the body. Failing a shot was a disappointment, but one could simply retrieve the arrow and find a new target; having all your skill and effort be successful only for the gods to take away your reward was far more disappointing.
Asa knew of two ways she could prevent this disappointment. The first was of course to set after the prey quickly before anything could happen to its tracks. Fortunately, in the landscape of the Pale, the goat made hoof-prints in the snow which were easy to see. She had also struck in the day, meaning that she had more visibility and also that many other predators such as wolves were not active yet. The sunlit snow contrasted greatly with the crimson blood trail that the goat soon left in its wake, leading Asa towards her target. After a long walk, she came upon the spot where her wounded prey had finally collapsed, still breathing but too weak to flee any further.
She knelt down beside the fallen creature and ran a hand through its fur several times, as if calming it down. The goat let out a soft bleat, staring up at her with an almost sad look in its eyes. It made no attempt to struggle or flee, knowing now that its fate was inevitable. Asa stared back, as solemn as her prey despite her victory. She didn't like to kill, but such was the way of the world, especially in the harsh land of Skyrim. She gave the goat one final pat before drawing her knife.
"Mother Kyne, I send this child back to you so that others may continue to live, as was intended by your design."
Before the goat even realized what was happening, she slid her knife across its neck. Asa had performed this gesture hundreds of times on various animals across Skyrim an
d had perfected it to be as quick and clean as possible so that the creature suffered the least amount of pain. When that was done, she returned the knife to its place and reached further up, closing the eyes of her prey as the light of life faded from them. Then, she spoke again.
"This sacrifice shall not go to waste and every piece shall be used to further the lives of your other children. On my honour I will keep this promise."
That was the second measure. Like many other hunters, Asa believed that fortune during a hunt was very much determined by the gods. Kyne, or Kynareth as she was known to the Imperials and Bretons, is the Aedra most heavily associated with nature, and thus the one most revered by hunters. She was the Mother of Men and Beasts, and to the Nords, their guide into the afterlife of Sovngarde. There was another 'god' of the hunt, the Daedric Prince Hircine, but he represented the challenge and thrill of the activity rather than its role in the natural world. Some hunters evoked him before or during a hunt, but Asa had never been one for worshipping the Daedra. While Hircine was among the more honourable of these spirits, he was also the patron of the unnatural werebeasts that add to the dangers of the wild.
When she had finished the customs she followed in each hunt, Asa collected her gear and began to lift the goat so that she may move it to a safer location in which to prepare the creature. As she did so, she noticed a lone wolf in the distance, seemingly staring right at her. She had done everything right, but perhaps the gods' favour was not with her today. Perhaps it was her association with the deserters at Fort Dunstad, or her hurry to silence the fleeing elf at the Shrine of Talos- an action that Cato had to prevent her from carrying out. Regardless, it was only a single wolf. If she could not best it, then it was the will of the gods, but as with all predators, she was not about to give up her prey so easily.
Asa dropped the goat and reached for her knife, but to her surprise the wolf simply turned and began to walk away. Her efforts had worked after all. What followed surprised her even more, though. The wolf stopped in its tracks and turned its head back to her, freezing in that position where its body was pointed away from her but its eyes stared at her. It almost looked as if it expected her to follow. Asa moved her hand away from her weapon and took a few cautious steps forward. The wolf continued on, but halted again shortly after Asa had, turning its head once more to observe her.
She continued to follow the beast, both wary and curious. The two walked for some distance, and Asa realized from her familiarity of the environment that it was leading her towards a road. To what end, she could not guess. She simply followed, having a strange sense that she was supposed to. Just as suddenly as the wolf had appeared, it came to a halt, its stance now alert as it sniffed the air. Asa stepped up to it, almost about to ask it what was wrong when she heard the noise in the distance.
It was not the thunderous footsteps of giants and their mammoths, but a symphony of many lesser sounds that conjoined together into a constant drumbeat. Asa could make out the noise of hoofs, of rattling metal and of boots on stone and knew immediately that it came from the road. With bow in hand she approached as silently as she had approached her prey earlier. She spotted a toppled tree that lay along the side of the path and made for it, moving from one still standing tree to the next to cover her until she reached the thick horizontal trunk which shielded most of her body whilst she peered out.
She recognized the sight immediately as soldiers of the Imperial Legion. There were few who were not familiar with the distinctive armour worn by the troops of the Empire. Asa had come across their scouts in the wild many times and even witnessed entire legions marching across the province when the Empire was mobilizing troops during the Great War with the Aldmeri Dominion. However, these legionnaires were marching north and there were only few locations of note north on this road. One was the port town of Dawnstar. From what Cato had told her, the war was over with an uneasy truce. Asa was not a military tactician, but she was sure the Dominion would never sail their ships all the way through the treacherous Sea of Ghosts to attack the Empire from Skyrim. If anything, the Imperial troops should be moving south.
There was only one explanation for where they were headed- Fort Dunstad. The fort was not only home to bandits, but many of whom were deserters from the Legion. That was reason enough for them to attack, but it was also possible that the Thalmor had somehow discerned that she and Cato went to the fort after killing their agents; they might have requested that the Legion deal with them as it was Imperial territory. Asa was no expert in the politics of the land, but she knew that if these Imperials attacked Dunstad and found Cato there, they would be obligated to turn him over to the Dominion, assuming he wasn't killed in the fighting.
Cato had helped her against the elven attackers, and while she did her best in leading him to safety, she knew that it would not be right to leave him at the fort to die. The wolf had led her here for a reason. It was possible that Cato had long since left, but she had to check. By cutting through the forest and mountain paths she could reach the fort faster than the legionnaires could. Backing away slowly from the tree, she returned to the wolf first, remembering the goat that she had slain. She had promised not to let it go to waste, and she was not about to break her word. Perhaps that was why Kyne had sent a wolf to her. Kneeling down in front of the beast, she gave it a whiff of the goat's blood that had inevitably stained her glove. Taking in the scent, it immediately ran off in the direction they had come, leaving Asa alone as the Legion marched on in the distance.
She took a moment to thank Kyne before moving through the forest as well, making for Fort Dunstad with haste.