“On a scale of a Thalmor Justiciar found an Amulet of Talos in the lodge, to Molag Bal’s furious with us, how bad is it?” He asked, sitting on the chair he’d rammed under the door handle once I dived in our lodge.
I said nothing, just handed him the note with the Black Hand scarring it. He could work out for himself that I’d take another round in the Prince of Domination’s blood-filled bath over this.
“I thought they were gone. The…Savil, you got any ideas?”
Only one. “We stay away from Solitude. Hawk’s gotta come back, and don’t call me Savil at all. They know that’s my name, so it’s Silence only. You still got your old armour?”
Old was good…old meant supple and flexible, for an easy escape. The Dark Brotherhood would expect us to ditch our pasts and form new identities, but this might give us a few seconds extra time.
“Of course. What are you planning?”
“Just put it on, I’ll tell you afterwards.” When I’ve actually come up with a plan that isn’t don’t sleep and kill every shady-looking person that comes to Morthal. The Dark Brotherhood does not give up. Trying to kill every assassin coming to re-initiate me or whatever they want…well trying to empty the ocean with a mead bottle would be an easier task.
He got up, taking out the leather armour of a professional thief and slipping behind the screen with it. “The Cistern’s still a good hiding place. We’ve got a secret passage leading to it from the Flagon that not even the old Dark Brotherhood –”
“– knew about.”
The Cistern. That would be good for a while. “Eventually they’ll come looking down there. The Dark Brotherhood has been known to scour every inch of Cyrodiil looking for just one contract before.”
“We can deal with that obstacle when we get to it.” He replied, coming out in his Guild armour. “Is that what you’re wearing? You’re fleeing from a guild of cut-throats.”
“Dressing as them will only make it worse.”
“Then wear your armour underneath something regular. As long as it can take any blows for you.”
I sighed, slipping behind the screen and drawing back the secret panel in our wardrobe and taking out the black and red of my armour. The Black Hand glared on my chest like a wound, dark and grisly as I pulled on my armour and tugged the blacksmith’s dress over the top, tying the leather apron like a veil over the Black Hand. My plain shoes became shrouded boots, and the gloves tucked themselves with the cowl down the front of my apron.
“You still got Goldbrand?” I asked, taking down my bow and her arrows.
“Never leaves my side.”
“Good. Take anything you can’t live without and leave the rest behind. It’s not safe anymore.”
He didn’t bother. Just let me take the tiny chest from under the bed and hold it to my chest. That…that cannot be left behind. Not one bit. I’m not letting my family go again, their ancestral tomb included. Taking a spare sheet, I tore it in half and used the strips to bind the Summerstrider Sanctuary’s ancestral tomb to my left hip. Never, ever, am I letting go of it.
“You’re asking for that to be robbed, you know.” He sighed, draping his cloak around my shoulders.
“Let any thief try. You know a quick route to Riften?”
He sighed, rolling his eyes but cracking a smile. “The side road heads west before forking north to Solitude. We take the south route to Rorikstead and we can cut around to Whiterun. Then it’s carriage to Riften or cut south around the mountain to Ivarstead then follow the river.”
Carriages are risky. Drivers can be interrogated for information then bumped off when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Should be easy enough through Ivarstead.
“Ok, come on, let’s go. No time to waste.”
He took my hand as I lead him out across the bridge and into Morthal, running with him through the town and into the snow. Little flakes had begun falling as we turned west, settling into the caked snow smothering the ground. Every rattle of naked branches seemed to mean danger, and every crunch of our footsteps echoed again behind us.
“Fort Snowhawk just ahead. Necromancers. After that it gets warmer as we head into Whiterun Hold. Any strange man or mer in black robes offers you sweetrolls or says they have a puppy, you run away with me, hear me?”
Necromancers. You always gotta kill at least half of them twice. Maybe more if they can resurrect enough of their dead peers.
“Got it. If any come too close I can get them in the heart. Damage the heart and resurrection goes the same way as Meridia’s respect for them.” I replied, drawing closer and letting go of his hand as the ruined fort loomed from the rocks like a jagged tooth. Black-robed things flapped around the crumbling walls like bats, skeletons creaking behind them.
“Hey! Hey, you two! Come here, I wanna speak to you!”
I didn’t stop. Just turned and aimed at the black-robed figure, firing the arrow right into him and sending him flying backwards into the ruined fort’s courtyard. Once he was down I sheathed my bow and bolted, taking my Hawk’s hand and dragging him along the road, dodging a long-range ice spike.
“Rather necromancers than the Dark Brotherhood.” I explained before Hawk could yell at me. “Come on, where to next?”
“Follow this road as it curves around. Take the left path on both forks in the road. It’ll be almost a complete circle.”
“Why can’t we just cut across?”
“Rocky terrain, an old vampire’s nest that may have repopulated, and an ancient dragon burial mound. Plus bears, wolves, and Kynareth knows what type of wild animals. You sure it’s worth the risk?”
“You sure you’re not losing your touch? Where’s the quickest route through?”
He sighed and pulled me across to where the snow melted into the ground, guiding me to follow the melting line. “You able to climb a few little rocks?”
“You ever seen the Ne’Quin-Al?” I replied, following him and wedging my foot in a rocky ledge, clambering onto the jagged rocks.
“You could just go through the middle passage, you know. Just through here.” He tittered, slinking through a gap in the rocks. “Come on, nanny goat, this way.”
He’s gonna eat goat horn for that. Slipping down the rocks, I clambered off the edge onto the brown plains, landing by a hollow…if it were in a city, I’d say it was a drained pond. Like a giant bowl sunk into the land.
“You know what that is?”
“A giant’s bathtub?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. It’s a dragon burial mound. Couple o’ decades ago, the dragon god Alduin brought all the dragons back to life. They crawled out of their tombs and got their flesh back from the dragon god. These empty burial mounds are all that’s left.”
Dragons. Next he’ll tell me that vampires came out of hiding and hunted in broad daylight.
“Come on now, this way. Solitude’s not too far from here. This way, down this path, and don’t re-join the road until I say so. Bandits took over a gorge here ages ago and they’re still camped out there.”
He guided me across to a small cliff face dropping down behind the bandit’s camp. “Drop into sneaking when you get down and watch for traps. Wait for me before you do anything.”
Honestly. “I’ve dealt with bandits before. I know what I’m doing, Hawk.”
He just rolled his eyes as I lowered myself down the rocks, slinking down behind the gorge. Nearby, a Redguard woman perched atop a lookout tower, lopping off her ponytail with a dagger and neatening up the remains. Her lizard companion leaned against a post, flipping what looked like a ruby over and over again.
“Ok, now this way, and stay quiet.” Hawk hissed, landing behind me and dropping into a crouch. “Don’t get too far behind me.”
He took my hand and guided me around the rocks, sneaking behind a watchtower with an Orc barbarian atop it. As he sat on watch, we passed close enough to hear him drumming his fingers against a tankard, singing to himself.
“…with three beers down, the Orc did frown, and bid the Elf goodbye, for none could know, t’was not for show, and someone had to die…”
He tittered and flung an empty bottle over his shoulder, letting it smash as he leaned back in his chair.
“If you want to avoid a clashing of steel, then don’t you dare.” He hissed, feeling my hand twitch for my bow. “No need to kill any longer.”
No need to kill any longer. No need to take another life. Keeping crouched, I followed him around the outer rocks, padding through the soft earth where the river lapped against the banks.
“Ok, now once we get to the bridge, we run. We run, and we don’t stop. Not even when we get to the fork in the road. Go straight ahead to the village. That’s Rorikstead. Only there is it safe to stop.” He hissed, pulling me up around the rock and by the bridge. “Now!”
I bolted, following him over the bridge as the shouts erupted from the bandit camp. Iron arrows bounced off the stone bridge as we ran, following the road as it wove across the tundra. At my side gushed twin waterfalls, and the road forked to the west just ahead.
“Carry straight on. This is frostbite spider territory, so watch out. Weak little bastards, but they haunt your dreams forever.”
They’re like Jungle Queens then. Giant spiders weak enough to not be a threat, but many Tenmar Forest kittens yowl and whimper at even the words ‘Jungle Queen’.
“Watch the dirt track. The hut up there’s a dud. You wanna carry on up ahead. You see that? That’s Rorikstead.”
Oh I didn’t need to see it. I felt the thickness in the air and the whipping winds before the thatched rooftops came into view. Something dark and heavy had worked its way into the roots of this town, and it had been there far longer than both of us.
“This place is creepy.”
He looked at me like I was mad, glancing over first at the village of Rorikstead, then at me. “And Morthal isn’t? Rorikstead’s just really old, that’s all. It’s old and it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
Parts of Orcrest were much older than this, but were nowhere near as creepy. The winds tearing across the land seemed to howl like wolves prowling the tundra and searching for prey.
“Nowhere as old as this has this level of evil in the air.”
As we entered the village of Rorikstead, it was like when a spriggan entered a forest glade. All the animals, like the people of Rorikstead, peep out from their hiding places.
“See, it’s not that bad. Rorikstead’s just a normal farming town out in Whiterun Hold.”
Either he couldn’t see what I could, or he chose to ignore the people of Rorikstead watching us as they chopped firewood, tended the crops, and went through their lives. Yet all the while I could see them watching me.
“Hey lady, have you come from Morthal?” A Nord kid asked, running over from a wheat field. “Papa said that mama ran away to Morthal with an Orc. Have you seen her?”
“Galiand, stop bothering the nice Dark Elf woman!”
The kid blushed and shuffled his feet. “Sorry, lady.”
“No, it’s ok. I’m sorry, kid, there are no Orcs in Morthal. Not even with pretty Nord women like your mother must be.”
The kid’s face fell. “Oh, ok. Thanks anyway, lady.”
“Galiand!” Over in the goat pen, a Nord yelled over at the kid, waving over at him. “Stop bothering her!”
“Sorry, lady!” The kid turned and bolted, running across the fields and behind the inn as his father came out from the fields.
“Please forgive my son. His mother ran away to Morthal with an Orc labourer a few weeks ago. He still wants her to come back.”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry. He’s an alright kid.” Hawk replied, resting his hand on my shoulder. A simple warning: don’t say anything stupid.
“Aye that he is. So what brings you two to Rorikstead? Been such a long time since we had visitors.”
“Just passing through. Heading to Whiterun.” I replied, and the Nord farmer gave a little smirk.
“You’ll be wanting to stop for supplies then. The Frostfruit inn has all you could need.”
“Thanks, but it’s pretty urgent we get there soon. Nearest place with a carriage to Riften.”
The second I said it, the Nord grinned, looking at Hawk’s hand on my shoulder. “Oho, it’s like that, is it? Don’t worry, if anyone comes looking for a Dark Elf and a Breton, I won’t say a thing. Best get going, I won’t keep you from Mara’s bond and blessing any longer.”
He smiled and waved us away, returning to the fields as Hawk took my hand and pulled me along the road out of Rorikstead. “Nice save.” He hissed, taking me around a bend as it snaked through the tundra, straightening out to run alongside an ancient pillar stretching to the skies.
“Thanks. Only thing I could think of.” I replied, glancing past him. “Bandits to the side.” I hissed, spotting two figures with fur dripping off them patrolling along a fort growing up from the rocks.
He looked over and began sprinting, dragging me along behind him. “They ain’t bandits.” He gasped, bolting like a startled deer until the fort was out of sight and the road forked off to the west by one of those dragon mound thingies.
“Gods…whatever you do, don’t go up the side road. That fort’s a bloody Forsworn encampment.” He shuddered.
No wonder he ran. I may have killed a Briarheart with one shot to the prickly seed in their chest but that was just luck. My luck may not be in favour against a whole fort of those savages.
“Don’t have to tell me twice. Come on, I think I can see another fort ahead. That got any madmen or necromancers in?”
“Just bandits. Just make straight for the fort and you’ll see Whiterun on the way. Whiterun guards keep this place relatively clear.”
He was chuckling to himself as he glanced ahead, tapping my shoulder before taking off running. “You’re it!” He yelled over his shoulder. “Meet you at the fort!”
Right, he’d already gotten past the side road carving through the mountains, following the road as it curved around. Ha, too easy. Breaking free from the road, I skirted around the empty dragon mound, dodging rocks and leaping over a crack in the ground. Bet I can cut him off this way.
I leapt up onto a rocky outcropping, skirting around the back of a metal ore vein and bypassing a small pond. As I ran past, grey-shelled craps emerged from the water and clicked their pincers, watching as I leapt over a goldish-brown ore vein. Some kind of Nordic ruin loomed ahead with a dirt road connecting to Hawk’s path and another path streaking off across the tundra.
“Cheater!” He yelled, tearing himself away from the path to join me.
No way, pickpocket! I forced myself into a sprint though my thighs started to complain, aiming for the gap between two natural ponds. The fort was coming more and more into view, displaying archery targets, spiked barricades, and a body in a cage hanging over the entrance. A few bandits patrolled the roof in the sun, one taking off the fur cape part of his armour as he plonked himself on a chair. I bet I could beat him now. There’s no chance of him winning now.
“Got you, cheater!” He yelled, seizing me around the waist and hoisting me up over his shoulder, pinning me there. “Two can play dirty.”
He began carrying me, his grip tight around my waist as I struggled. “You never said I couldn’t go off the road.” I replied, hitting him in the back as he hauled me over the tundra.
“And you never said I couldn’t take out the competition.” He replied, skirting around some rocks and starting on final stretch to the fort. “Face it, you asked for this.”
“And you’re asking to be kicked. I’m in the perfect position.”
“You’d only regret it later when the sun goes down and we snuff out a few lanterns. Makes a good atmosphere, that.”
Dirty bugger. “For that suggestion you’re getting an extra kick.”
He let go with one hand as the fort drew near and a bandit peered over the crumbling wall. “You’ve got too much heart, you know.” He tittered, holding me in place as he leaned and touched the stone wall. “Beat you.”
Gods damn it. “Only as you cheated.”
“You did too. Come on, Whiterun’s just ahead.” He chuckled, letting me down. “You’re paying for the carriage as you lost, you know.”
Git. “Fine, but you’ll have to pay for everything else. I’m broke.”
He sighed. “Have you already forgotten your thieving ways? Pick a noble’s pocket or something. I thought you had nearly five hundred saved up anyway.”
“I had to pay the courier to send the Black Hand back.”
“What!?” He exclaimed. “While you’re at it, do you plan to stab a dragon where the sun don’t shine? You sent a Black Hand to the Dark Brotherhood!”
Always with the overreacting. “Technically it was a slicing the between-finger tendon. When people get pissed off, they make mistakes. The more I piss them off, the more mistakes they’ll make.”
Assassins are no exception. Spells splutter and die, feet find pressure pads, and dagger thrusts miss their targets. It happens far too often to not be useful.
“Sometimes I worry about what goes on inside your head. Come on, we should be able to get to Riften by sunset.”
The carriage driver seemed to stare at us as we approached, looking over Hawk’s armour and twitching a hand to the coin purse at his belt. “Need a ride?”
“You headed to Riften?”
“Aye, forty septims for you both.”
I handed the gold over and climbed in, pulling Hawk in after me. “Best watch your gold in Riften. Plenty of opportunities to lose it all.” The driver muttered, stirring the horse into action.
Believe me, there are worse things than gold to be lost. “I’ll be careful, I promise.” I replied, feeling Hawk’s hand brush mine as he drew closer.
“And if you’re not, I’ll be careful for both of us.” He whispered deep into my ear, squeezing my hand. Like we wouldn’t be the ones causing trouble.
“Hey, when we get into Riften, do you mind waiting for me in the Bee and Barb for a little while? I just gotta sort a few things out first.” He asked.
“You’re leaving me on my own?”
“You won’t be on your own. The Bee and Barb always has a small crowd in there. I promise, I’ll be back before you realise I was ever gone.”
He slipped his arm around me, rubbing and stroking my stomach. “Can’t you bring me with you?”
“Believe me, I’d keep you right by my side if I could. Look, if you’re really worried, talk to the older Argonian lady behind the bar and she’ll let you hide in the basement. There’s only one way down there and one way out.”
One way in and out…that’s good. I can line myself up and fire at anyone suspicious-looking that comes in without having to watch my back.
“You promise you won’t be gone too long?”
“I promise you, I’ll be gone about half an hour at the most. If I knew you weren’t going to be completely safe, I wouldn’t leave you there.”
He pulled me even closer, letting me lean against his chest. “My little flame atronach, I promise I’ll keep you safe.”
* * *
The drought of darkness lay warm against my skin as the sun looked back over the horizon on its shoulders. Riften skulked in cold shadows as we approached; the gate squinting at us as the carriage drew to a halt.
“Enjoy your stay in Riften.” The driver called after us as we climbed off the carriage in front of the gates. Guards in their blank-eyed helmets seemed to glare at us as we entered the city, one reaching for his sword as Hawk winked at them.
Riften was still falling apart and mould-speckled, filled with a soup-like fog bubbling up from the canal. Apart from the black banners being taken down after Bitch-Briar’s funeral fiasco, it was like the city had never changed.
“Never gets old, knowing the guards can’t do anything to you. Our Carmjalla’s had their balls in her purse ever since Bitch-Briar died and her brat was murdered.” He chuckled, slipping his arm around my waist and guiding me over the bridge to the tavern.
“You’re welcome for the last one, by the way.” I replied.
“All of Riften thanks you for Sibbi’s murder, trust me. Come on, Keerava will keep an eye on you. She’s a stubborn old lizard. Just keep that chest of yours close, ok.”
He guided me into the inn, bringing me over to the bar in the corner. Most of the tables were barren, but each of the stools on the bar had a mead-drinking Nord keeping the two Argonian women busy behind the bar.
“Keerava, you busy right now?” Hawk hissed, leaning close as the elderly Argonian looked up and hissed.
“What do you want, Mallory?” She hissed, drumming her claws on the bar.
“Look, I know this is a big ask, but please, can you hide my lady here for about half an hour? It’s really, really important.”
She hissed, muttering something to herself as she looked me up and down. “She piss off anyone to do with your lot?”
The Argonian sniffed, looking me over. “A nice girl like you shouldn’t be with a thief. Come on, I’ll show you where’s safe.”
“You’re all heart, Keerava.” He tittered, pulling me close and kissing me on the cheek. “Now you don’t worry one bit. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Not too soon, I hope. Go on, hit the road. You follow me now.” Keerava rasped, taking my arm and leading me towards a door to the basement.
He was about to leave when the Nord spoke up, looking back over his shoulder at my thief. “So you’re back at last? What’s with the sootskin, Mallory? We’ve got plenty of filth in the canal, don’t need any in the Barb.” He drawled, knocking back the final dregs of mead.
Git. Hawk paused, turning on his heel and leaning against a wall. “She’s my companion, and she stays, Mjeki.” He replied, glaring at the Nord at the bar.
“Pfft, on who’s authority?” Mjeki spat, getting up from the bar.
“On my authority, and the authority of the entire Thieves’ Guild, that’s who.”
The Nord laughed. “The whole guild? The whole guild for one Daedra worshipper? Are you serious? Come on, Mallory, you afraid to handle things yourself?”
“Not the best person to ask on that, Mjeki. Try your sister. She sure liked how I handled her the last time I was in Riften.”
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from snorting out loud, following Keerava into the basement.
“Bastard. And what do you think you’re laughing at, sootskin?”
He lunged across the tavern, seizing hold of my blacksmith’s apron and pinning me to the wall by it. “Think that’s funny, do you? Is this funny?”
“Hey, back off her!” Keerava rasped as Hawk drew Goldbrand, but it was too late. The leather apron and front of my dress had been torn clean off, leaving the armour underneath showing clear as day. The Black Hand on my chest stood out like a bruise, making the Nord scream like a girl child.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” I hissed, picking up my gloves and cowl from the floor, taking a step towards the Nord and making him back up even further. “Give another Dunmer trouble and I’ll know about it. No matter where it is or who it’s against, believe me, I will know.”
I smiled at the Nord as Hawk seized my arm and dragged me out of the tavern. “He won’t be bothering either of us again.” I chuckled, following as he dragged me to Mara’s Benevolence.
“Maybe not, but that was still really risky.” He replied, leading me around the back to the graveyard. Vines crawled over the ‘Guild’ shadowmarks in the wall, trailing and waving in the night air. “I know it weren’t your fault. Mjeki’s always been a bastard to elves. Just try to keep a low profile as an ex-thingy from now on.”
He pushed in the centre of the shadowmark, standing back as the fake sarcophagus slid into the wall. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it hidden.”
He smiled and squeezed my hand as he led me to the secret entrance. “That’s my girl.” He purred, as we entered the Cistern.
Nothing but the constant flow of water filled this place. Not a single person but us two. Oh, except Nocturnal, but a statue doesn’t really count as a person. She seems real though, as if the crows perched on her arms could carry her over to embrace her thief in a welcome-home hug.
“Nobody around, good. Ok, can you wait here for just a few minutes? If anyone asks, you’re looking for Carmjalla. I just need to-”
“So who’s the elf?”
He froze, not even bothering to look over at the other thief leaning against a display cabinet groaning with valuables. She’d stolen his cocky exterior for her own, her smile this smug little ‘v’ as her fingers caressed a ruby on a golden goblet.
“Just a companion? Carmjalla said you’d become a follower for a Dark Brotherhood assassin. You didn’t even tell us you’d hooked up with her? Tut tut, whatever happened to family first?”
That explained how she’d been able to get close enough to steal his mannerisms.
“Please don’t, Maim.” He begged, and she laughed.
“Mother, Vincinere’s trying to hide his new girlfriend from you!” She yelled, and Hawk cringed; Red Mountain was erupting in his cheeks as she drifted across the Cistern towards us.
“You are so dead for this.” He hissed. “Savil, I’m so sorry about this. I’d hoped to-”
“Vincinere, get in here!” A woman yelled from a side room.
“You’re welcome.” His sister tittered. “If you ever want to wind him up for some reason, Bloodstains, come find me. I’m an expert at this.”
She disappeared as if the shadows had snatched her, vanishing down a side passage as if floating through the air.
“Sorry about my sister. And all of this. I…I wanted to wait until you were ready to meet my family. You know…in case it brought back any memories.”
Really? Was that what all the cloak-and-dagger stuff was about? “I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
And with that, he took my hand and led me into the side room of the Cistern.