With Friends Like These
Upon his return to Fort Dawnguard, Maximus could see an ensuing skirmish between the vampire hunters and their sworn enemies. Max hopped from his horse and snapped free his ebony greatsword. He surged forward to the nearest vampire. It was locked in battle with the Nord, Vori.
Max could hear the vampire's hiss, which he cut short with a quick thrust into its back. The vampire crumpled to the ground. As Max withdrew his blade he noticed a black fluid now coated it. He nodded towards Vori and continued forward, encouraging her to follow. He continued up the path, never pausing from his pursuit of the vampires. Max cut down two more vampire thralls, leaving piles of ash and undead gore. Another thrall got a jump on Max, tearing just under the weak point of his left shoulder pauldron, causing him to drop his sword. He grunted as he brought his right fist into the thrall's face. He grimaced slightly as he brought his left arm around the male thrall's long hair, feeling the tearing pain in both his shoulder and hand. Maximus pressed his right hand against the back of the thrall's skull and pushed forward whilst pulling back with his left. A sickening pop filled the air and the thrall's struggling ceased. Max let out a deep breath as he dropped the lifeless body.
Maximus watched as Isran viciously cut down the master vampire with a bellowing battle cry. The man's icy eyes growing all the more cold as he hacked away. Max turned his good shoulder towards the nearest vampire and let out a whirlwind sprint shout as he blazed forward and sent it hurtling from the carved out walkway. Max knew quite well that a fall at such velocity would kill the vampire instantly.
Maximus walked slowly towards his sword and gingerly propped it upon his shoulder, unable to sheath it in his current state. He proceeded to check on the survivors of the onslaught. Fortunately, it appeared that no one was killed. There were a few wounds that could be remedied with salve and bandages.
Isran approached Max, waiting for an explanation for Dimhollow Cave. He was not pleased in the least. After a heated argument, Isran dismissed him, promptly ordering Maximus to track down two estranged members of the order. When Max complained, making his impatience known, Isran had said, "You are better at making friends than I. If we are to have any chance against the bloodsuckers, we need Gunmar and Sorine." The Dragonborn had reluctantly obliged.
For his first stop Max decided on Riften, a town he rarely got around to visiting. Being such an out of the way place in the corner of Nord country, Max rarely found himself in the area. The ride had been a good choice, as he had run into a hunter. After bartering with the odd deerskin clad man, he had learned the location of his first contact, Gunmar. He decided to follow his lucky gut and seek the help of a friend who knew a thing or two about the Dwemer, and if he was lucky, Sorine Jurard.
Maximus entered the Bee and Barb, a rush of warmth and the sweet scent of the hearth and mead greeted him.
"Ah, my dearest friend!" a thickly accented female voice exclaimed.
Max approached the table in the corner. There sat Mjoll the Lioness, and her 'friend', Aerin. The small man glared at Maximus as he approached. Mjoll appeared oblivious to this or simply chose to ignore it, he could not tell.
"Hello Mjoll," Max said with a warm smile, "Been a long while since I've been in the Rift."
Mjoll studied Max for a minute, "You look much better than last I saw you," she glanced down at his wrapped arm. "Well, mentally anyway," she prodded jokingly.
Max smirked, "Is it the beard or the bloodstains?"
Mjoll chuckled, "No, you have that look about you."
"And what is that exactly," he inquired, slightly sarcastic.
Mjoll smirked, "Purpose."
Max gave her a nod of understanding and glanced around quickly, seeing if anyone was within earshot as they sat down. He let a few people move from the bar before he spoke, "I've been working with the Dawnguard."
"Never heard of such a faction," Mjoll said, her voice quieting to match her friend's volume.
"They're a secretive alliance of vampire hunters," Max said, his expression showed he realized how ridiculous it sounded.
Mjoll smirked, obviously hiding a laugh behind her tankard of mead, "If it were coming from anyone else, I'd accuse them of abusing skooma."
Surprisingly, Aerin cast in his septims worth, "I have been hearing rumors of the Dawnguard recruiting from the guards around here. There have also been whispers of an increase of disappearances, which is disconcerting considering you took out that dragon."
Max was genuinely surprised Aerin was participating. The Imperial usually spent the majority of the time poking fun at the Dragonborn and staring him down. Aerin's jealousy was childlike in Max's opinion. There wasn't anything romantic intended in his retrieval of Grimsever, but Aerin didn’t see it that way.
"We lose a few of the poor to the skooma dens every so often and no one really gives a troll's arse, but when nobles go missing, that's news," Mjoll added cynically.
Max played with his beard a bit, "The vampires are up to something, I'm not entirely sure what, but I intend to find out. These aren't like the vampire masters and thralls we're accustomed to. These are powerful vampires, demons even."
Mjoll nodded warily, "Thanks for the warning, but a courier would have been just fine. What is it you need, friend?"
Max's gold-brown wolf's eyes flashed to her hazel, "I've been sent to recruit some estranged members, one of which is an expert on the Dwemer."
Mjoll nodded knowingly, urging Max to go on.
"Her name is Sorine Jurard, a Breton."
"Yes, I've ran into her a few times," Mjoll affirmed. "I've bartered with her. She likes Dwemer Gyros and will pay good money for them. She's quite the mechanical genius and very paranoid. Having her on your side would be worthwhile."
"Where would I find her?" Max inquired.
"Hard to say. She's quite solitary. Last I heard, she was camping out in The Reach somewhere. I would ask around," Mjoll recommended.
Max nodded appreciatively, "For your trouble, friend," he reached into a strange bag he strapped around his side. From within, he pulled out a pair of enchanted Dwarven gauntlets, the bronze-gold shimmer unmistakable.
Max knew of Mjoll's fascination with Dwemer artifacts, as well as armor. He knew it was a bullseye when he saw her expression.
Max had a tendency to go for tough women, and Mjoll was no exception. What Aerin didn't know was the two had a past that made any chance of a romance unlikely. This topic was a touchy one that neither Max nor Mjoll liked to discuss.
Max shifted uncomfortably as he realized he and Mjoll had been staring at each other just a bit too long. He could feel Aerin's pathetic glare on the side of his head. Ignoring the Imperial's distaste, Max nodded graciously to Mjoll and left the tavern. His talks with Mjoll were never as pleasant with Aerin hovering around.
He had a long ride ahead of him. Gunmar was his first stop. The hunter was somewhere near Pinepeak Cavern. The hunter Max had met earlier had pointed him north of Ivarstead. "A rocky outcropping," he had said.
Maximus decided to leave Shadowmere in Ivarstead, continuing up the path on foot. He was looking for a redheaded (and bearded) Nord. Max had elected to change into lighter, less restricting attire, choosing a leather outfit and strapping a mace to his belt. The Dragonborn was not one for sneaking, but he could hunt quite well, thanks to his late wife's patience.
After a few detours to avoid kicking up a group of grazing deer, Max finally found a cave he hoped was Pinepeak Cavern. His search was cut short when a predatory growl could be heard. Max quickly moved behind the cover of a nearby pine, hoping the odiferous tree would mask his scent. He allowed himself to think back to better days, when he and Aela would take on bears, sometimes for food, other times just for a challenge. Aela often surprised him with her compassion towards animals, allowing the bear to live if it was not causing anyone trouble. Acts such as this proved Max's assumptions of hunters incorrect.
Maximus relaxed ever so slightly when he saw the bear head the opposite direction. Something clearly alarmed it, as it stood on two legs and scanned the area. A battle cry could be heard as a muscular Nord leapt from seemingly nowhere, flanking the angry bear. The man had a full, red beard and long hair with two long braids in the front. They tossed about as he swung a single-handed war axe. The axe connected with the bear's hind leg. The massive creature roared in pain as its wounded leg gave out, blood flowing from a surely severed artery. The bear thundered to the ground on all fours, favoring the wounded rear leg. Blood and flesh continued to fly as the man, whom Max presumed to be Gunmar, hacked at the bear with tireless ferocity. Maximus decided not to interfere unless absolutely necessary. He continued to watch, slightly amused.
Gunmar had the situation under control and did away with the bear as quickly as possible. He managed to avoid any serious injury. He had only a few minor scratches, of which he was sure the redhead would brag about, as any Nord would. As he field dressed the animal, Max decided to approach the man.
"Are you Gunmar?" Max said, standing a good 15 feet from the man.
The man didn't flinch as Maximus had expected him to. He didn't even turn around from his gutting as he spoke, "You first."
Max watched as the man hefted the massive collection of vital organs from the bear's chest cavity.
"I work with Isran. I've been sent to ask for your help on his behalf."
"By the Eight, that's a name I never thought I'd hear again. Vampires are up to something, are they?"
Maximus nodded, "Something serious, Isran and I can explain once I round everyone up."
Gunmar nodded, "Been tracking this bear for two weeks. Soon as I finish here, I'll head to Fort Dawnguard."
The long journey to Morthal gave Max time to collect his thoughts and allow his mind to wander.
"Cut it out you arses!" a girl's voice shouted. A young Maximus could only watch in wonder as the surprisingly tall blonde beat the pack of boys ruthlessly. The Samuelsson boys had taken a liking to torturing the young and undersized Maximus. It seemed his peers resented him for his parentage. He was only half Nord.
Max's dark hair and eyes were strikingly similar to that of his Imperial mother. Alessia, an Imperial soldier, was forced to raise Maximus on her own for a majority of the boy's life as Max's father, Leif, died fighting the Forsworn at the infamous Markarth Incident. The Stormcloaks took back the city of Markarth under the promise that the Empire would restore the worship of Talos. As it so happened, the Empire crumbled under the pressure of the Aldmeri Dominion and rescinded upon the agreement. Ulfric Stormcloak was locked up, and the rest is history, really. Returning to his original memory, Max recalled the thrashing Mjoll had given to the neighbor boys. Though she was often called a 'freak' or a 'frost troll', Mjoll never seemed to heed the boys' taunts. She and Max would often go hunting and explore the ancient ruins together, in fact, Max's first kiss was in the frigid mountains of Haafingar, not far from the Nordic ruins. Sure, they'd gotten into loads of trouble and become friends and lovers, but nothing could prepare them for the disaster of which they would be forever bonded. Loss.
It was the 1st of Hearthfire, Maximus' fourteenth birthday. He and Mjoll had been celebrating in the form of hunting and harvesting a few stag. It had been a great morning, and the two decided to sit and watch the sun rise over Solitude. It was a spectacular view, the orange of the morning sun reflecting from the snow and crystalline icicles that lined the rooftops and towers. Even in the frigid morning, Imperal soldiers and Solitude guards could be seen going about their patrols and exercises. As a boy, Max had aspired to become a soldier of the Empire, but everything changed after his father's death. Alessia had resigned from her post and moved them from the city to the outskirts of the Solitude mill.
Max watched as a hawk coasted gracefully along the air currents high above the ground. Like his parents, Max longed to do something great for Skyrim. What that was, he had no idea, but he knew there was no glory in blacksmithing even though it was what his mother wished of him.
"Remember when we were in the ruins and your mum thrashed those draugr?" Mjoll fondly recalled.
Max frowned, "Yes."
After saving Max and Mjoll from being mauled by a draugr, his mother forbade Max from doing anything in the form of battle, save hunting. She still taught him how to defend himself, in the event that he should need to. It would come in handy this day.
"That was exhilarating! We're much stronger now, we should try it again sometime soon! I think we could handle it," Mjoll's voice filled with excitement and mischief.
Max laughed, "We would be the ones getting thrashed this time if my mum found out."
Mjoll chuckled, "You're probably right," she gazed off into the sunrise. "Can I tell you something? Promise not to share it with anyone!"
Max nodded. Mjoll continued to watch the orange sunrise, "My father wants me to be a hunter like my brothers."
"That's better than a blacksmith," Max interrupted with a snort.
Mjoll shoved Max playfully, "Listen! I wasn't finished!"
Max raised his hands defensively, "Fine!"
"Hunting animals for a living is okay, selling pelts and meat to traders and caravans. It's a simple life," Mjoll's eyes went down the edge of the cliff they sat upon.
Max waited for her to finish, knowing very well what she was about to say.
"But I want more of a challenge. I want to hunt something that can hunt back."
Max laughed, quickly speaking before Mjoll got the wrong impression, "Beating up the Samuelsson boys and your brothers getting old, is it?"
Being the youngest child of four and the only girl forced Mjoll to toughen up quickly. It was necessary for survival in that household.
Mjoll chuckled heartily. "I suppose that is rather new for you," she jested.
"Hey! I've only just grown. Don't be so harsh," he responded playfully. Max was just now beginning to grow, his body still in its awkward adolescent phase.
When Max looked in Mjoll's direction, her face was blank. Max reeled, unsure of what he had said to offend her.
Before he could ask what the matter was, Mjoll spoke, "Is that smoke? Coming from the mill." She pointed in the direction of the mill to their right.
Max could see a faint grey cloud rising from the east, obscured by the trees.
"That's too big for a campfire or a forge. We better go see what that is," Max said, his voice concerned.
Maximus returned from his intense memory, realizing that he had arrived in Morthal. Max rode Shadowmere to the nearby mill and dismounted, his fur cape sweeping the snow as he landed. Two men worked the mill, one of which Max knew from past encounters as Thonnir. Max had helped Morthal with its ghost problem and in return, he was quite liked by its denizens.
"Ah, hail Dovah! What can I do for you?" Thonnir greeted.
"I'm looking for someone," Max started.
"You've come to the right man," Thonnir assured as he and another hand rolled a log into the trench.
"Sorine Jurard, a Breton, expert on the Dwemer."
Thonnir switched on the saw, the log screeched as it was slowly cut in two. The two men pushed the log a bit further, allowing it to fall into the pile with other split logs. Thonnir walked back, wiping sweat from his forehead and smoothing his tied back hair, "The name sounds familiar."
"I was told she was camping out somewhere in The Reach. Any Dwemer ruins you know of?" Max prodded.
Thonnir hummed thoughtfully, sliding another log into place and feeding it through the saw.
"I've heard she set up camp south of Darkfall Cave, but that's about as close as I can point you. She's pretty cautious about who knows where she is," Thonnir said, not even attempting to ask the Dragonborn's purpose in finding the Breton.
"Thank you, Thonnir," Max said mounting his horse. "Here's a better axe, consider it payment."
Thonnir eyed the silver axe, ornate designs running the length of head, "Troubled times ahead?"
"Hopefully it won't even get so far as to create a ripple," Max said ambiguously.
Max had followed Thonnir's directions and after a bit of poking around, Maximus came across an abandoned satchel. Upon searching its contents he discovered it contained Dwemer gyros. Max decided it was against his better judgment to simply take the gyros. After all, who leaves a satchel of valuable Dwemer artifacts in the middle of The Reach? Max knew exactly who. If he were to gain her trust, Max knew he couldn't just go relieving Sorine of her things.
Max crossed a shallow brook, bringing Shadowmere towards a small camp. The location had been tactfully chosen, forest on the side facing the brook, and two small brush covered mounds on the other. Max couldn't help but recall Mjoll's comment labeling Jurard as paranoid. This camp fit the description.
The camp's owner stood facing away. She was a short woman with slightly longer than chin length brown hair. She wore leather armor and carried a tankard in her hand as she turned to face Max.
"Who are you?" the Breton asked, her voice slightly rattled.
"Isran sent me," Maximus responded blankly.
"That's a good start, but you didn't answer my question," the woman prodded, eyeing Max carefully.
"I am Maximus. Are you Sorine Jurard?"
The woman's eyes never fully met Max's as they talked. Her stale brown eyes always shifting along the area behind him, much to Max's annoyance.
"Isran requests your assistance at Fort Dawnguard immediately," Max said, as cordially as he could.
The woman finally relaxed and looked at him, "Fair enough. I'm in need of a favor, however."
Max suppressed an irritated sigh as he waited for her to speak.
"I seem to have lost my satchel. It has a few Dwemer artifacts in it. Could you find it for me?"
Max nodded and began to turn on heel towards the brook where he had last seen the aforementioned satchel. Before he could even take a step the Breton spoke, "Do you think Mudcrabs might have taken it? I saw one the other day…" the woman trailed off as if she were talking to herself.
Max did his best to suppress his short temper, clenching his fists and shoulders as he stomped over towards the satchel.
"Mudcrabs!" he muttered irritably as he picked up the satchel and took it to Sorine. Why is it whenever I am sent on a quest I always end up running blasted errands?
Much to Max's surprise, the camp was disassembled and efficiently packed upon a horse. This woman had clearly traveled a lot in her time.
As Sorine rode up alongside Max she spoke, "To Castle Dawnguard, then?"
Max nodded, "It would seem."
"Are there, by chance, any bandit bases on our way back? It's been a while since I've traveled these roads," Sorine inquired.
"One or two, yes," Max responded.
"Well, I've been working on schematics for a crossbow ammunition improvement. The blasted thing was taken from me back when I was stupid enough to travel the roads alone," Sorine said, clearly upset with her old self.
"I'm afraid I won't be of much help," Max said, shrugging his bum shoulder.
Sorine reached into a pack on her horse's back, "I should be able to handle it myself, but in case you'd like to tag along," she trailed off as she pulled a collapsed crossbow from her pack. With a flick of her wrist, the crossbow snapped into position. Sorine cocked the spring into position and expertly fitted a bolt into the groove and handed it to Max. Max carefully inspected the crossbow, trying to understand how it worked, the loading process was simple enough.
"How do you fire it?" Max asked, slightly embarrassed.
Sorine smiled, "On the underside, there is a trigger. Careful, it has some velocity!"
Max spotted the trigger, "I see."
"It helps to have one of those handy when you're on the road. Did you know there are at least thirty different ways of being attacked and killed in your own home at any given moment?" Sorine said matter-of-factly. Max only grunted as if interested.
Max gingerly mounted Shadowmere, his left shoulder still giving him grief. He lightly squeezed his heels into Shadowmere's side the horse began to work up to a gallop. Sorine however, had to be a bit more aggressive to get her horse to match pace. It was times like these Max realized how much he took his undead companion for granted.
Sorine's value was not understated after all.