"What'd I miss?" A gravelly-voiced Dunmer stepped from behind a cave boulder. He had clearly just relieved himself. His darting red eyes registered Zagroth and his one-handed weapon's skill around the campfire. This fourth bandit's mouth fell open. He began to sing. As only a gravelly-voiced Dunmer can. About mud-crabbing over Morrowind beaches with bow and arrow.

Comprehension prickled up Zagroth's neck. His darting eyes registered among the fireside corpses the foul instruments of banditry. The tambourine. Bone flute. The lute, aglow by the flames. Zagroth glimpsed his own shocked face mirrored upon that accursed lute. Only swift action might save him from a protracted, possibly embarrassing encounter in the heart of a mountain with this most reviled of pacifist beings. This bard.

Zagroth lunged for the handiest axe-like weapon, the lute. He closed his hand about its neck. One fret nicked his thumb. He ignored it, swung the lute high overhead.

The Dunmer stopped croaking about mud-crabs. "Brain me with Hendricks' lute, yeah, cummon."

But he legged himself around the campfire from Zagroth as he swung. The bard scooped up the tambourine. A painted face, its red tongue rolled out, leered from the drumskin.

"DON'T," Zagroth growled.

The bard shook the jingling thing at him. Zagroth's vision doubled.

"Poor Fleetwood," grumbled the bard. "He was good. We sounded good. And not just practicing in caves. Along comes you...sneaking...and slashing. Because nobody likes a BARD."

Zagroth's vision cleared. Briefly. It doubled again. "Stand still. So I can brain you. Foul bard."

"Tully sounded sweet as the sweetest bird that sweetly twittered." The bard scooped up the bone flute, held it over his heart.

"That. Down." Zagroth felt alternately hot and chilled, as if he had drunk too well and danced too long round someone's three-day wake.

"Hendricks could swing that lute. You swing an Imperial."

Zagroth growled, swinging and again missing.

"Hendricks loved his lute. After our set, he'd smash it. Burn it, too. Again and again. Magical lute.'re noticing?"

Zagroth's hand tingled where the lute had nicked him. He blinked at his doubled swinging hand, and the two lutes, passing through each other. The wood glowed warmly, over both instruments. He wondered if ever he might learn to play one of them.

"How...are you feeling?"

Zagroth glanced over the three corpses cut open around the campfire. His vision had cleared. He was almost certain small and cuddly furry animals ranged just out of view. The pair of Nord orphans he had left in town with his partner might like to see them. His eyes misted over. "Sorry."

The bard smiled. Zagroth saw sympathy in the Dunmer's red-jewel eyes. "You wanna join a band?"

— — —

That moment, in a tavern kitchen several mountain ranges distant, the Argonian proprietress of the Lusty Argonian Maid wasn't feeling lusty, at all. Skyrim wasn't Black Marsh. She felt dry. Constantly. Her scales never liked the dry. It was late. She wanted her grand sleeping tub upstairs. That, or perhaps better, a reedy bed in the river outside. But the wines had now to be watered down. The girl had to be supervised.

The girl topped up each jug in turn along the tabletop with the unrushed grace of youth. She was certainly marriageable. Or sellable.

Of course Zagroth would never agree to selling her, or the boy. It was amusing how possessive Zagroth seemed over his pet Nords. He had found them five years ago, scared mute, near blackened adult corpses heavy with loot in a burned-down homestead somewhere.

The boy was useful. He could shift barrels until told to stop.

But the girl had grown into a problem. Every night, more eyes followed her. Too often now too much wine went out. And more water might've saved one fool's life the other night and kept gold for the house.

That recklessly frisky Khajiit had dared lay his paw on the girl. Swifter than the Khajiit might've said, "Oh, your sister, pardon my paw", the boy slipped a blade between his ribs.

An expensive night, that. Paying off the Thieves Guild for the loss of their reckless one.

The boy was useful, yes. And perhaps might be more so one day. Or night. Zagroth naturally would not approve. Wherever he might this night be...

The End

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