It must have been two days before Hawk allowed me to come out thieving with him, saying it would get me to shed my – no, their – armour I’d been treating like a second skin.
“Daylight robbery, really?” I hissed, leaning against the wall. The guard by the old Talos statue seemed to be taking her sweet time to head around the corner, and the longer I lounged against the wall wearing men’s clothes, the more suspicious I looked.
“Nobody expects it during the day. Has that guard gone yet?” Hawk hissed back.
“Not yet. Got an idea for a distraction?”
“You are the distraction.”
“Thought I was the lookout?”
“There’s a difference?”
I straightened up from the wall, brushing dirt off his ‘commoner disguise’ as I peered over the wall at him lying in wait. “You owe me if this goes wrong.” I muttered to him, before making my way over to the guard.
“Staying safe I hope.” She said, looking me up and down through the hollow pits in her helmet.
“Aye, ma’am. Say, you wouldn’t know anything about this city’s history, would you? Something about murders in Riften in a book I read.”
“City’s quiet enough now. But when the sun goes down, you’d best be on your guard. No assassinations bar old Sibbi Black-Briar, and he had it coming. Didn’t hear it from me, but if I caught the assassin that brought him down, I may or may not have forgotten to lock their cell.”
Well that was a minor relief. Or rather it would have been when I shot the last Black-Briar. “Nothing at all besides his murder?”
“Well there was some trouble a good long time ago, when I was a girl. Thalmor in the Ratway. What’s next, Spriggans in the Bee and Barb?”
“Well there’s an innkeeper in Hammerfell with a pet spriggan, so it’s possible.”
“Been all the way out to Hammerfell then? Figured you for a scholar, elf. So what, you studying crime?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, you want the mystery of Honorhall Orphanage then. When old Constance Michel was executed, bless her good soul, they found child skeletons under the floor in a side-room that had been boarded up. Jarl Sibbi accused her of necromancy, but in time all the ex-wards of Honorhall came forward. Said it was Constance’s predecessor. Old crone, like a hagraven but worse, they said. Apparently all the Honorhall kids had a big reunion when someone murdered the old hag.”
That was what the couple in Cidhna Mine wanted Sibbi Black-Briar dead for. Constance Michel’s execution. “Sounds like the old woman who ran the place had it coming.”
“Must have done. As do you know who did it? Who murdered that old hag?”
Lots celebrated her death, she clearly wasn’t that good a person, and people don’t know the exact identity of the killer. Even so far away, so long ago, they haven’t thought to cover up the stink of their killings.
“The Dark Brotherhood. Now that’s more like it.”
Beneath the chain mail and Riften’s purple banner, I could hear her shaking. “More like it? Now, I know who you are. And…and I know your business… Just please… These are good folk we got here. Mostly…”
Damn! Quick, quick, think of something… “Whoa, take it easy. It’s not what you think. I’m researching the Dark Brotherhood, not part of them.”
She seemed to calm down, settling back into her armour. “You chose a dangerous path of study, elf. I’m afraid I don’t know much else about that old case, but if you’re still interested in the Dark Brotherhood, ask Blanche Parry at Honorhall if you can talk to the new kid. Galiand, I think he’s called. Whiterun guard escorted him all the way from Rorikstead.”
Galiand of Rorikstead…wait, that’s... “When did he get here?”
Just yesterday? Damn, they must have been close behind us if they hit Rorikstead that soon. Hawk…damn, if he hasn’t cleared out that manor yet, he’s on his own. This…a night in the dungeons he can be broken out of is definitely preferable to a coup de grace.
I thanked the guard and slipped past Mistveil Keep, heading to Honorhall. Over the noise of the market it sounded like the children were playing some kind of skipping game, singing a rhyme over the thuds of the skipping rope hitting the floor.
“The old hagraven here had to go
so began the work of Saint Arentino!
He set them on her, didn’t you know?
The Dark Brotherhood just couldn’t say no,
and split her in half from head to toe!
If it hadn’t been for Saint Arentino,
we’d all be under the patio!”
Bunch of morbid kids in there, that’s for sure. They’d started another rhyme as I headed inside. “Grelod the Kind, you old hagraven. You were even worse than the dead Jarl Maven-
Their song died away as I entered the orphanage, shutting the door behind me. It was a small place for an orphanage, but comfortable and lived-in. A big dining table took up most of the main room, cloaks had been hung up along one wall, and a straw doll with wool hair peeped at me from inside a toy basket.
“What can I do for you, ma’am? Are you here to adopt?” A red haired Breton woman – must be that Blanche Parry the guard mentioned – came out from a side room, sweeping the floor as she asked.
Would she appreciate the lie? “I heard a young boy recently arrived here from Rorikstead.”
“Ah, that would be Galiand. Poor lad arrived yesterday. Doesn’t want to go outside with the other children, doesn’t want to play with anything in the chest, nothing. All he does is sit by the fire. I don’t blame the poor little mite after what’s happened to him though.”
If the guard was right and this was Dark Brotherhood related, I don’t blame him either. “Mind if I talk to him a bit? I may be able to help him out.”
“You’re welcome to try but don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response. Kid hasn’t said a word since he came here.”
Must be traumatised. Camena was like that. Would clam up completely whenever something reminded her of what happened in her past. No speaking, no whispering, not even a whimper. She’d try to talk, that’s for sure. Open her mouth to speak but no sound came out. Reckon she was so scared that anything not needed for fighting and running away shut down. Kid’s probably got the same thing.
Blanche let me into the main bedroom with the fire, where Galiand sat on his knees and stared at the flames. “Galiand, there’s someone here to see you. You ok?” She asked, and he looked up.
It took a few moments, but he noticed me and scrambled up to his feet. “You’re the lady that came through Rorikstead!” He yelled, running up and hugging my legs. “You’re the one they were looking for.”
I staggered back from the impact, letting the kid get a grip. “Easy now, who’s they, kid?”
“The dark people. They came looking for you, but papa didn’t tell them. Not one bit.”
Dark people. Gods no, looks like the guard was right after all. “Can you tell me anything about the dark people?”
“I hid under the bed when they came in. I couldn’t see their faces, but both of them wore black robes with hoods. They wanted papa to tell them where you were, and he didn’t, and they got mad, and he said they couldn’t get in the way of young love, and they got really mad at him, and they put a knife through his throat like what papa does to the goats so we can take their hides and meat in the winter. One put black stuff on their hand, and they left their handprint on the wall of our farmhouse, and they laughed as they did this!”
He let go of me and ran over to the fireplace, stretching up and slamming his hand onto the wood. “Yes, they laughed and laughed, and the one that put black stuff on their hand said, ‘Young love, too easy. Notify our contact in Riften.’ and then they left. I stayed under the bed all night until the guards came, and they were all really scared.”
I can see why they’d be scared. The Black Hand…by the Gods, they’re fast and they knew I spoke to that man in Rorikstead! Dammit…who else did I speak to? Who else did I put in danger by associating with them? Keerava in the Bee and Barb, Mrs Mallory, Maim, Feline, Arrow, Blitz, Hawk, and who else? Got to be a few more than that.
“Lady, are you ok?”
Huh, oh right! “I’m fine…I’m fine, kid. Did you see anything else when they left that handprint?”
“Only that they had really red hands. Not like papa’s hands when he brings in the corn or fixes a fence, but like blood. Lots of blood. It was all over their hands. They were the same colour as wood.”
Skin like wood…of course there had to be a member of the pygmy flea-folk involved in this. Cockroaches are always found exactly where they’re not wanted: alive.
“Lady, why are they looking for you?”
Galiand looked up at me with round, blue eyes, coming over to me from the fireplace. “You and the man you ran through Rorikstead with. Why are the dark people looking for you?”
“I don’t know, kid.” The lie dripped off my tongue, as warm and thick as blood. “I don’t know at all, but I’m gonna make them pay. I promise.”
“Thank you. Papa was right about you, you’re a really nice lady.”
If only you knew the truth, kid. “Thank you. I promise I’ll take care of the dark people. They won’t come anywhere near you ever again.”
Whether they’ll come near me and Hawk again is another story.
I gave him a few septims and told him who sells sweetrolls in the Bee and Barb before heading out of Honorhall and bolting back to the manor Hawk was robbing. They knew we were in Riften and were coming, so we’ve got to go. Go hide somewhere else, but not in Skyrim. Not here. Too risky. Gotta find a place, hide there, and then move on to somewhere else in a few weeks.
As I approached the manor, the shadows through the glass twitched, reaching up for something before the window swung open and a familiar thief dropped a golden statue from the window. Shifting, Hawk edged out, plummeting down from the manor, rolling once, then hauling the statue into his arms and staggering across the garden. “There you are…give me a hand with this thing. Thought Dibella’s worshippers were the only things this heavy.” He passed me the statue, groaning as he heaved it over the wall. “Father will get us a fortune for this. Tell you what, what’s something you’ve always wanted, my little flame atronach? My treat.”
His pockets strained to stay shut as he hopped over the wall, revealing sparkles tucked deep within. “Hawk, we’ve gotta go.”
“Damn right! The Broken-Claws will be back soon and they ain’t gonna be too pleased to find the place empty.”
“No, I mean out of Riften. Right now.”
He took back the Dibella statue and began hauling it towards the fake sarcophagus in Riften’s graveyard, clutching it to his chest like a child. “You only just got here and you want to head on out already? Honestly, thought you’d want to settle down.”
Believe me, if I could settle down right now somewhere I knew would always be safe, then I’d put down roots in a flash. “I’d like to, but the Dark Brotherhood have other ideas. They’re coming, Hawk. They killed the farmer in Rorikstead and they know I’m in Riften.”
“Pfft, you’re worrying too much,” he chuckled, “and how could they possibly know you were here? You’re paranoid, Silence.”
“They do know. The Rorikstead kid in the Orphanage said so.”
The golden Dibella slipped from his grip, thudding to the ground with a dense thunk. “If this is a joke, it’s not very funny.”
“It’s no joke. I gave him a few septims to buy sweetrolls after he told me, and if you’re quick enough you’ll catch him.”
He swore, taking me by the hand and bolting to the fake tomb. “This is really bad. Silence, do not leave the Cistern, you hear me? Wait for me there and I’ll come get you in a bit.”
He pressed the button and followed me in as the tomb slid back into the wall, looking over his shoulder as I removed the cover. “You sure this is gonna work?”
“I promise. I’d do anything to keep you safe, my little flame atronach.”
He sealed the cover behind us as I leapt off the ladder. “Lullaby, guard the entrance a second for her! Baby, until I get back, hide and do not come out until you hear me call you my flame atronach.”
He vanished through the door to the Ragged Flagon, leaving me with about half the Guild as I slunk around to the training room. It had taken ages to drag that double bed in, but we managed, and Hawk didn’t seem to mind sleeping with the training chests. He’d even set up a shadowed corner for the ancestral tomb and hung up a rug so nobody could see it. Good thing too, as somebody had come in and left some books on the bed. Must be leftovers from a haul.
As I pulled my armour and bow out from under the bed, I spotted the title on one of the books. It seemed…newer. Freshly picked out on the leather spine. ‘Corrupted In Blood’
I flipped it open as I began pulling on my armour, perusing over the first page. ‘Corrupted In Blood – The Deserved’, by The Fang of Molag Bal.’ Huh, yet another arrogant vampire thinking they’re gonna show the world how superior they are.
‘Sweet blood of man, we were made to consume it. Were we not, would we have been blessed with the guile of a wolf that stalks the forests for its prey? Would we have been blessed with the eyes of the cat that glow with light even when there’s none to be seen? Mortal, would we have been blessed with the fangs of the witches’ athames that pierce and drain sacred blood?
Would we have been gifted the varied blessings scattered across our land?
Of course not, mortal. I assume the one who has picked up this book has done so willing to know the truth about the ‘blooded ones’ or the ‘abominations’ that stalk the night? Well the truth is there is no ‘willing’ in vampirism. Not in the thralls of today, that only the sweetest I keep and feed from when this month’s sacrifice is just not enough. Not in the clan-fathers, the strongest of all, who can offer power beyond measure but are the target of many a so-called hunter. Certainly not in those we call Mother. Who’s swollen breast we suckled our first taste of such sweet blood.
You may know her as Lamae Bal. Formerly she was known as Lamae Beolfag. We who are true to the Father know her as The Deserved and scorn those who show her pity. She knew nothing of suffering since Molag Bal’s blood entered her veins and caressed her forehead. Such a fair lamb deserved her blessing and her entrance into this world of immortality.’
Lamae...Lamae…that was the woman in Coldharbour! Molag Bal called her his bride! Wait…was she the one who…well, let’s say she was the Mother of Coldharbour? And he said she deserved it! As I pulled on my armour, the more I read this book the more I loathed this ‘Fang of Molag Bal’ or whoever he was.
‘It is only right that the King of Corruption took only the best for himself. Would you expect a dog to accept the common offal presented to it when a fine filet of beef is placed in range but the hound is expected to ignore it? It is only right that those in power and those with privilege take what they deserve, and the deserved are taken in a way most appropriate to their station below their dominators. The weak and the pathetic asked to be dominated and they deserve all that comes to them in the past, present, and future. The thralls deserve the draining of their veins for being too weak to fight us night-blessed. The clan-fathers deserve the hunters that stalk their shadows for being too idle in fighting them off.
And Lamae Bal, the Brood Mother, deserved the violation and the blessing it came with for being too innocent in the eyes of the Prince of Domination.’
I slammed the book shut as I tightened the final buckle. Whoever this Fang of Molag Bal was, he was by far…well he was something I couldn’t say out loud, in case a young one like Feline was listening in.
He embodied the Prince he claimed to worship perfectly. So damn perfectly.
I slipped on my cowl, seizing the book. Someone in the Guild had to know something about that book and its fanged author. After all, how else would the book get into the Cistern?
“My flame atronach, you ok? I’m ba- why’d you put that on?”
Hawk poked his head around the corner, looking me up and down from shrouded boots to cowl. “It offers more protection than plain cloth. Hawk, do you know who left this book in here?”
He shrugged, chucking me a priest’s robe. “Put that on over the top, then go ask Blitz and Trajar. They’re the ones that probably stole it.”
Slipping the robe over the top, I slipped on my bow and her quiver, following Hawk through. Over by Nocturnal’s statue, a thief practiced shooting with some kind of…it wasn’t quite a bow, but still used a string and shortened arrows. Another leaned on the Guild-master’s desk scattering septims and writing something down between each throw.
“Hey, you’re Hawk’s new lady! Heard about you. Name’s Trajar.” The coin-tossing one looked up, waving over at me.
Trajar…Hawk said to try him. “You’re the one that stole recently, right? Know anything about this book?”
I handed him the copy of Corrupted In Blood, letting the Nord look over it. “Ah, I remember this! Found it on some Dawnguard guys heading west. Say, ya from Elsweyr, right? Know the cat language? Perhaps we can work out a deal. I’ve got a little problem with the ‘jiits outside the main gates. Ya help me, I’ll tell ya all I know.”
Of course, a thief is the embodiment of avarice. “I know a little Ta’agra. What’s the problem?”
“Well, ya see there are these ‘jiits outside the main gates and I deal with them frequently, selling off hot loot. One of them, Ji’lashaar, kept saying my name as Traajir, and eventually they got like a full sentence for it as a nickname. Well, it turns out that nickname of theirs means ‘take your dick out and suck it’ and I need to learn how to say something back in the cat language. How do you say ‘your sister did that for me last night’ in cat?”
Oh dear. I couldn’t help but snort at that, but I could see where that nickname could come from. Trajar, traajir, take…eh, it could happen.
“You wanna say ‘jer roliter sajka jaji dorr ahziss zedro tenurr’ just like that. Roll every ‘r’ and you’ve got it.”
He scribbled something down on the paper before handing me back the book. “Ya helped me, I’ll help ya. The Dawnguard guys we stole this from were headed to Solitude. Ship docked there, the Mary Jeanne, is heading over to High Rock. Author of that book has a castle in Evermore and the Dawnguard wanna slay him. Apparently he has Queen Lirileigh and her High Court in his pocket.”
Got it. He’s definitely manipulative if he’s got a queen in his pocket, and if he’s like how he is in that book, he’s cold, emotionless, and pretty much as close to evil as a vampire can get.
“What’s this vampire called?”
“Calls himself the Fang of Molag Bal. Nobody knows his real name though.”
An anonymous vampire with a penchant for manipulation and cruelty. He’s perfect. “Hawk, fancy a trip to Evermore?”
“You said the Dark Brotherhood were still after you.”
“I said they know I’m in Riften, and Evermore sounds pretty far away from Riften.”
“It’s also pretty far from anywhere safe. You seriously think you’re going vampire hunting, you can forget it.”
“Gladly. I’m going vampire finding. No stakes, sunlight, and religious thingies involved.”
“You’re going to wind up a thrall if you go alone.”
“I won’t be going alone.”
“If you get me turned into a vampire, I’m dragging you to Coldharbour with me.”
“You’re forgetting I’m already on a first-name basis with the Prince of Coldharbour.”
I could see the rest of the Guild watching as I led Hawk through to the trapdoor. Some looking shocked, others a little more afraid, and Feline probably muttered something racist judging by how Midaural Mandvi clipped him around the ear.
“I’ll never understand you worshipping the Daedra, will I?”
Probably not, but eh, he could try. “Could always give it a go. You’ve made the first steps with Boethiah.”
“Don’t remind me.”
He followed me through the trapdoor back out to the Riften streets, his hand yearning for mine as we headed for the gates. “Can’t believe you’re still going through with this. I’d have thought after meeting Molag Bal twice, you’d do everything in your power to avoid the Prince of Corruption and his devotees.”
“Would you rather I faced the Dark Brotherhood?”
He stopped and pulled me back a bit, guiding me into his arms. “I’d rather I didn’t risk losing you in any way. I love you, Silence – no, Savil. I love you not as just you as a thief, but you down to your very core. As a thief, as an assassin, and as a person in your own way.”
He kissed the tip of one of my ears then, going across to kiss my forehead. “I love you.”
“And I love you too. I promise, nothing will happen to me one bit. You’ll be wondering what you were so worried about,” I replied, leaning up to kiss him back. “Now come on, once we get to Solitude I bet we can sneak aboard the Mary Jeanne. Hold’s always a good hideout for stowaways.”
* * *
I’d lost count of the weeks spent at sea by the time the Mary Jeanne docked at Evermore. The waters of the Bjoulsae River sparkled just through the anchor hole, and the smell of rain filled the air.
“Welcome to the land of pissing it down. Come on, I’ll go first. High Rock’s not as pleasant to outsiders as people may think.” Hawk hissed from my side, seizing the anchor chain and sliding down it through the hole in the deck. “Hope you don’t mind getting wet!”
I followed him down the chain, locking my thighs around the slick metal and slipping down into the storm. Rain pelted Evermore, leaking from the iron grey sky into the river, making everything slick and dripping. As I let go, the water took me in, cold and smelling of metal as I thrashed to keep afloat.
“Over here, come on!” The drenched blonde on the riverbank called to me, though strangely not as out of place as one who’d taken an unexpected swim should be.
“Is it always raining this bad here?” I made my way onto the shingle of the river bank, wringing out the front of my dress.
“In Evermore, not exactly. Must be approaching the rainy season. Come on, let’s go dry off. Been ages since I was in High Rock but there’s gotta be a tavern somewhere.”
As we approached the city, wading through the mud, it seemed like life shook all the rain off its back and carried on as if nothing happened. The buildings – white walled things held up by black beams – stretched up to catch the rain on their blue slate roof tiles. A stone chapel stretched up like a snaggled fang in an Orc’s underbite; the grey marble a blinding white against the grey clouds and moss green hills just beyond the city. High above the city sat the grey castle, bathing in the mist that the rain kicked up. Cold and dangerous just to look at, the castle’s very presence unnerved me more than the wild ravens with empty eyes and cruel beaks seeming to spy on us from their perches. Occasionally one of the birds would let out a harsh caw, looking down at us before taking off with wings spread wide, gliding silent as wraiths. Between the buildings, the citizens of Evermore simply huddled under hide cloaks and hoods, carrying on their lives ankle-deep in mud and under covered market stalls creaking with everything from cooked meats to iron cooking pots.
“So you got any idea where to start?” Hawk asked as he guided me down the middle of two stalls groaning under chunks of fresh meat and fish. Either side, the vendors yelled, giving their salesman’s patter a workout on anyone with enough gold to be interesting. Aside from the market, a gang of children belted around a leather ball in a game of ‘who can get the most plastered in mud’ as a Breton woman carrying a baby in a sling weaved around their game with her basket of fresh vegetables.
“Anywhere out of the rain would be good.” I replied, dodging a young Redguard bolting out in front of me with a basket of apples tucked under his tunic, sprinting away from the cries of ‘Get back here, you little brat!’ and vanishing into the crowd.
“Think that’s a tavern sign over there. Come on, let’s go dry off. Dying for an ale or mead right now.”
I began following him to the tavern when I spotted the ones from the Dawnguard striding through the city, squares of steel on their armour dappled and stained by the rainfall. At least one had another one of those…thingies almost like a bow. Exactly like what that thief in front of Nocturnal had.
“Change of plan, Hawk. See the two Redguards and the Imperial in the strange armour? Follow a band of vampire hunters and find a vampire.”
“More like follow a band of vampire hunters and find death by two sharp fangs,” he muttered, following me as I tracked the hunters through the city.
I really chose a pessimist. Yes, there’s always danger when facing a strange vampire, but vampire hunters always have to know what they’re doing. Especially the Dawnguard. They have to know what they’re doing otherwise they wouldn’t have left Skyrim for the city of wild ravens and mud.
“Seems like they’re judges for the annual Festival of Fops at Evermore Palace. Features every noble in High Rock stuffing themselves as far up Queen Lirileigh’s backside as possible.” Hawk pointed ahead at a palace made of sea blue and white held together by nothing but the ivy climbing over the walls. At the oak double doors, a noble stood beneath a canopy stretched over his velvet tunic by two maids in rags and aprons, lighting some kind of pipe as a footman with a long, golden horn strode past.
“Think you may have found what they’re looking for. City crier there gets his announcements directly from the Queen her very self. Block your ears.”
“Huh?” I didn’t have the time to question what he meant by that when the city crier blew on the golden horn, knocking wild ravens from their nests and disturbing citizens from their daily lives.
“Divines bless the Queen!” he yelled, “A proclamation from the High Court of Evermore! Be it reminded that by city ordinance, all carriages and steeds are prohibited within the city walls except those carrying members of the Queen's court or granted rite of passage by the Queen!”
So much for finding what I was looking for with him. I was about to drag Hawk towards the palace and track the Dawnguad members when the city crier spoke again, voice ringing out like a bell.
“A proclamation from Count Lefanu! The sacrifice of First Seed is required to be chosen and delivered to Castle Lefanu by midnight tonight! Be it reminded that compliance with the Pact of Blood is for your own protection! Divines bless the Queen!”
Lefanu…that had to be him! Trajar mentioned how the vampire who wrote that book had Queen Lirileigh in his pocket. If she was making it mandatory for a person to be sacrificed to him once a month…Lady Azurah’s Nerevar, how’d he manipulate the rest of his pawns? Can he teach me? Could be one way of getting the Dark Brotherhood off my back if he did.
“Well that’s your vampire. You going after him with those hunters or what?”
With them? “No chance in Oblivion. Too risky.”
Be safer to go alone, maybe just after them. If I go with them, this Count Lefanu may think I’m part of the Dawnguard and drain me dry as hay. He’s less likely to assume I’m a vampire hunter if I arrive alone.
“Too risky? Having experienced vampire hunters around you? I fail to see the logic behind your reasoning.”
“If I were to send you into a Vigilant of S’rendarr camp with an army of dremora, daedroths, scamps, Golden Saints, winged twilights and hunger, what do you think the Vigilants would assume about you?”
“Good point. So what, you gonna get them to flush him out?”
Vampires never back down. Especially not when they have such a bountiful territory to defend. “Not exactly. I’ve got an idea though. Wait for me in the tavern. I’ve got a little bit of…let’s say the thief’s answer to shopping to do.”
With that, I vanished back into the crowds of the market, bent low under the rainfall as I weaved through the stalls. If I could steal something noble-looking or otherwise unlikely to draw unwanted attention, then all was gold from here out.
Wait…there! Perfect. Keeping low, I crept past the stall loaded with folded clothes and neat pairs of shoes. Must be a pretty upper-class stall to have things like velvet and silk on display. Probably ran by a – yep, that’s why it’s upper class, it’s ran by an Altmer. Seemed pretty distracted too, drifting around some Breton girl in a leather tent attached to the stall as he switched between measuring her up with a length of string and getting her to decide between swatches of fabric.
Distracted, excellent. I crouched just behind the stall as the Altmer clothier nipped over, muttering to himself as he took a bolt of blue silk and nipped into the tent with it. “Now, hold still a second, ma’am and tell me how this fits on you,” he called as the bolt unravelled in his arms.
Now! I seized a black and burgundy bundle of velvet and shoved it under my robes, turning and dashing through the crowds as the cries rang out behind me. “Stop, thief!” I ran as they yelled, skidding through the mud to where Hawk said he saw the tavern sign. They can’t arrest me if they can’t recognise me, and they can’t recognise me if they can’t find me. Skidding down a side alley, I slammed my back against the far wall and paused, holding my breath and listening.
Nothing. Good. Couldn’t be better in fact. With the stolen clothes still tucked down my priest robe, I resumed pursuing the tavern sign as the rain pounded down. An early strike of luck, even in something as simple as stealing a set of noble’s clothes, can be a sign of a greater blessing to come. Nocturnal herself knows I could use all the luck I can get.
Finding the tavern, the Shield and Hunting Hounds, was a welcome relief from the deluge outside. Inside the dim building, Hawk seemed to blend into the candlelight as he waited by the bar. “I see it was a success. Come on, before the barkeep realises I tricked her.” He hissed, beckoning me to follow him upstairs. “Queen Lirileigh reminding Evermore of the Pact of Blood set people on edge, so you need to stay hidden. Apparently foreigners are chosen for the monthly sacrifice more often than native Bretons.”
Foreigners they can afford to lose. Natives that have done everything to support High Rock on the other hand, are valuable.
“More like I need to get chosen. Block the door will you, I’ve got an idea.”
I dragged Hawk into a storage cupboard with me and had him shut the door, taking out the stolen clothes and peeling off my waterlogged priest robes. Damn, to leave the shrouded armour on or not? I guess it does offer protection, but it could raise a few suspicions if that vampire, Count Lefanu or whatever his name is, catches sight of a hem at the wrist or neckline. Even worse if he spots a handprint through the fabric. Nope, gotta go.
“Wait, what? If you think I’m letting you offer yourself up to some glowing-eyed corpse-”
“I think you mean, if you think I require your permission to do anything. This might be the only way of getting him to help us.”
I can understand his concern though. This was…well, it was literally wearing a dress made of meat and walking into a lion’s den. The Lion, in fact. The Mighty Lion of Evening, Vulgar, and Low and his servant in Evermore; both of which have stitched the threads of fear and pain into the hearts of many mortals, but without them I stand in front of greater danger from the terror of the Utter Nothingness.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to find someone who’s not a vampire but still holds Molag Bal’s favour?”
“No such thing. Only those who have known His defilement hold His favour.”
I could hear him whisper something as I shed my armour and slipped the dark velvet over my head. Be a nightmare sneaking around in this, what with every seam pinching and the long, tapered skirt forbidding me from taking too large a step. “Then I’m offering myself to this vampire instead.”
What!? “He wouldn’t accept you. The Prince of Corruption takes only the unsullied and I bet his servant is the same. No point in forcefully defiling what has already been willingly defiled by mortal kind. That and you don’t know what to offer as a bargain of summoning.”
“Then tell me what to offer. Can’t be too hard to steal it from around here.”
“You wouldn’t know what to say to indicate why you’re offering it up to the Prince, nor would you last a minute in the ceremonial drainage of blood.”
“And what makes you think you would.”
He seized me, holding me to his chest. “I would rather see every last drop of my blood drained by some fanged predator than see you hurt again. So if you’re gonna offer yourself to some vampire, then I’m coming with you. Argue and I’m going instead of you. Are we clear?”
His thumb brushed the scar on my cheek, tracing the raised break in the skin. “I’m never letting you get hurt again.”
Though he may be an idiot trying to get himself killed, there was still a heart nestled amongst the stolen gems and gold in his pockets. “And I’m not letting you get hurt at all. So if you are coming with me, ditch the blade.”
He reached his hand down to grip Goldbrand, feeling the bound hilt of the golden katana mould itself to his grip. “You do realise going up against a vampire without a weapon is sheer suicide, right?”
“Facing anything connected to the Prince of Domination with Boethiah’s artefact in your possession is worse. The hatred felt between Boethiah and Molag Bal extends down into those who they have granted favour to. Often pleasing the Prince of Domination involves killing champions of the Prince of Deceit.”
I had him. He’d been using that burning katana like a third arm since I gave it to him, abusing the power that a Daedric artefact – especially one as distinctive and unique as Goldbrand – came with. Admittedly he chose a Prince that didn’t seem to give a damn about their artefacts being abused and manipulated, but bringing it to face an aspect of their sworn enemy is a step too far up the ladder of stupidity.
“You’ll be going in defenceless.”
“I can defend myself and you know it. Either you ditch the blade for a bit or I’m going on my own.”
“Or you could just not go.”
“Not an option I’m afraid. The Dark Brotherhood won’t just go away, Hawk. Not until the one they’re searching for is dead or captive. Their trails never go cold, their leads never reach dead ends. If I don’t go and convince that vampire to help us, the Dark Brotherhood will never stop following just a few steps behind.”
I don’t know how I’d done it, but I’d won. My thief knew he had to have some way of defending himself but was left at a loss without the golden katana that had become his old faithful. He believed he had to defend me but knew he’d only draw unwanted attention to us; he knew now that his presence, as long as he had Boethiah’s favour, would cause nothing but trouble.
“Ok, fine. You can go alone, but don’t think for a second that I won’t be keeping close watch on you and this Count Lefanu fiend. After all, name an honest vampire.”
“Her twin sister, Skogsra Bronze-Heart.”
“Name a third.”
He’s making it too easy for me now. “Well there’s…wait!” Not the Redguard, I forgot she went feral. “There’s…damn!” Maybe not that lizard, he went and joined a brood coven. Don’t think the Altmer turning an entire Imperial garrison into her thralls would be much use in proving my point either.
“Can I get back to you on that?”
“Once I’ve made sure that fiend is no danger to you, yes.”
Eh, fair enough. “Fine, just try not to get spotted. Gods, you sound like you’re in the bloody Dawnguard.”
“For you, I will sound like anyone.” He lay his hand against my cheek again, thumb brushing the scar that travelled from my jawline to my nose. “I will be whoever you need in your world as long as you’ll always be in mine, my little flame atronach.”
His free hand drifted, fingers tickling the back of my neck before slipping into my hair. “Your hair’s still wet from the rain. It’s beautiful,” he whispered, drawing nearer before nipping the very point of my ear, lips tracing down from the point to my jawline. “Gods, if only you knew what everything you do does to me.”
Then he melded his lips to mine, pulling me in closer to him and tightening his grip on my hair. Without pause to let me settle, his lips parted and teeth brushed my lip, nipping it and tugging on it as he begged for entrance.
“You’ll always be part of my world,” I whispered back, parting for air as his warm breath tickled my cheek before stretching up and kissing him again, granting him the entrance that he craved. Though one hand remained guarding my cheek, the one gripping my hair seemed to relax, running down from the back of my neck to trace my spine, lowering his hand a little mor-
“Yes mother, I’ll see if it’s in the store room- Oh!”
It was when we sprang apart as the door opened and a Breton girl in tavern clothes stood there too surprised to say or do anything. It was Hawk blinking in the sudden light, slowly turning red as he looked for an explanation that wasn’t something that he may have used when he was Feline’s age and got caught around the back of Riften’s stables with his first few girlfriends.
It was that and so much more in that split second that made me start laughing, gathering up my shrouded armour in the soaked priest robes as the tavern girl chased us out of the inn.
“Did you see her face when she saw us?” I chuckled, hunching into myself as the rain trickled down the back of my neck.
“It was better when you started laughing. What got into you?”
Really? “You of all people should know that. Come on, the sun’s setting. You willing to stash my armour somewhere?”
“I can find a hiding place for it. You absolutely sure about this?”
You mean about going alone into the brood lair of a vampire known to be manipulative and powerful, with direct ties to the Prince of Domination and Enslavement - whom I’ve been in the presence of twice now - and offering myself as a false sacrifice for said vampire despite the risk of exsanguination, infection, and angering the Prince that lords over all vampires?
“I’m sure, I promise.”
“And you’re positive that this will get the Dark Brotherhood to stay away from us?”
Pushing it a bit there. “I’m positive. If I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Hawk took my hand under the rain and led me out of Evermore, guiding me into the hills behind the city. “If something goes wrong, I’m coming right in after you. No exceptions.”
If something goes wrong then you might not be able to. “No exceptions. Are you sure that castle we saw earlier is the right one?”
“Can you see any other creepy places that the undead would be caught lurking around?”
“Hey, not every vampire prefers to lurk. Some prefer hiding in plain view.”
He rolled his eyes but still held tight to my hand, tugging me closer as the sun proved to be a coward and fled behind the hills. “I still don’t think this is a good idea, you know,” He said, pulling me closer as the wind shifted, ordering the army of raindrops to emerge from their cloud fortress and charge.
“I know it’s not a good idea, but it’s the only one we’ve got. You remember the plan?” Or the thrown-together mess that can almost be considered a plan?
“Stash your armour then vanish into the shadows. Stay sneaking, stay hidden, but do everything possible to get us both out if anything goes wrong.”
At least he learned fast. “Best do it now, before we get close enough for the vampire to smell both our blood types. I promise you, I’ll be fine.”
It might be a bit soon actually. Huldra Bronze-Heart could smell who’d just entered the Sanctuary even from all the way down in the bedrooms. Out on a rainy night, even with the wind blowing in our faces, Count Lefanu might even be able to smell every individual citizen in Evermore.
“I don’t doubt you for a second, my little flame atronach.”
And with that he kissed me, taking the bundle of my armour and the priest robes and vanishing into one of the tangles of bushes growing between the hills.
Guess there was no going back now. Castle Lefanu loomed ahead, the black wood of the doors like a screaming mouth beneath window-like eyes glowing with candlelight. Two stone beasts crouched on their podiums, fangs bared as I approached. For one who worships the most feared of the Princes, he sure did flaunt his controversial beliefs. A a short chain hung from a knocker in the shape of Molag Bal’s skull-like face, and a hearth banishment spell had been painted above the door in blood.
“The only supernatural and ominous force in this dwelling is me and I was here first. The unaffiliated, the lost, the ghostly, and the vengeful towards the True Prince are banished and shall burn upon crossing of the threshold to this place.”
What about those begging for help? Will they burn? Though drenched with rainwater, my hand did not shake as I took the chain and rapped upon the door. From within came a demonic hissing, and all light within the castle was snuffed out as the double doors swung inwards to reveal two flame atronachs flanking a bipedal, scaly thing with a head like one of Black Marsh’s crocodiles.
“Purpose, mortal?” It rasped in a voice of nails and rust, slit-like nostrils flaring as it drew closer.
Must be some kind of summoned creature. “I-I’m here to see Count Lefanu. For this month.”
It grunted, jerking its head at the two flame atronachs. “Describe! Flavour, mortal?”
Describe my flavour? Well…rust and salt is generally the taste of blood. Maybe a little hotter from Morrowind’s embrace. Best not mention that though. Count Lefanu needs to be tempted into accepting me. Attract more bees with flowers, and all that.”
The creature grunted, hissing at the two atronachs before they drifted away, vanishing up twin staircases at the back. “Mortal! Follow! Master!”
It turned and wandered into the darkness, rasping “Follow!” over its shoulder every few steps. Gods, if that thing spots Hawk…
No, don’t think about that. He’s a thief, he belongs in the shadow with me. Dripping onto the stone floor, eyes flicking for every movement, I followed the summons into the castle as the doors began creaking shut. It stank of blood and death here, and the more I listened to the silence, the more I heard. Dying, hissing, screaming, and all manner of creatures making their home in the darkness.
“Master? Elsweyr’s Peony.” The thing rasped, before something shushed it. Something cold and smelling of blood that seemed to be everywhere at once.
“Excellent work, Zuyv’ocath. You always treat my guests with such…sweet respect.”
Wings flapped in the darkness. Not feathered like a bird, but leathery, soft as bat wings. “I can smell your fear, oh flower of the desert. This won’t hurt a bit.”
N’chow! I turned to run when he lunged, knocking me to the stone floor and making everything sting as leathery, jagged wings wound themselves around me. Like an animal his teeth sunk in, piercing through, drawing out blood as the darkness became fuzzy. No…no… “Run…” I whimpered as he bit in further, but no flash of pale blonde came from the darkness.