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The Book of Love

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Sunlight scattered across the water, and Onmund shaded his eyes with his hand. Spring had come early this year, chilly and bright with promise, and nature was still waking wherever he looked, gray and brown giving way to pale green. Shallow waves lapped at the toes of his boots. "Are you ready to go?"

"I will be in a minute," Rhiannon called from the shore. She was crouched on a cluster of damp rocks, a thick leather-bound book open across her knees. She squinted while she sketched some of the spiky grass growing around her, lower lip tucked into her mouth in concentration. Her braid was half-undone and the hem of her robes were damp. "Sorry for taking so long."

"It's alright." He turned back around, looking out over the deep waters of the Sea of Ghosts. During winter the waves were icy and sluggish, but spring had brought them back to life, fading from black to a deep, mossy blue. A pair of gulls wheeled overhead, chasing each other on an updraft.

Rhiannon snapped her book shut. "There!"

She ran to meet him, cramming it back in her bag. A spare quill fluttered out and was swept away by the breeze. "Drevis said canis root grows around here, but I haven't seen any yet, have you?"

"Not yet. I'll point it out if I do." He stretched, cracked his knuckles out of habit. "How's the compendium coming?"

"Much better since we left the Pale." She wiped ink-stained fingers on her robe absently. There was a grass pod in her hair. There was almost always some kind of vegetation in Rhiannon's hair. "Book's nearly a quarter full now."

Onmund nodded. He envied her a little sometimes. He was still trying to figure out which School he wanted to concentrate on, and she had a project she'd been working on for near a decade.

"I want to make my own guide to alchemical reagents across Tamriel someday," she'd told him one night while they were studying, just as they were becoming friends, and she seemed so determined that he actually believed she could do it, even though she couldn't use Destruction and was scared of the dark. He'd been prepared to hate her when she first arrived; soft little rich girl from the Imperial City, Colette's star pupil. But then she turned out to be not nearly as spoiled or stuck-up as anyone expected, and they'd accidentally become friends before he realized what was happening. Plus, as Brelyna pointed out, she was Colette's only pupil, so it all worked out in the end.

"I checked our coin and I think we can afford to stay in Solitude for a few days." They were running lower than he liked, but he figured they could look for work while they were in the city. There was usually something that needed doing, if you weren't too picky.

Rhiannon sagged with relief and looked skyward. "Thank Mara, a real bed again." She hiked her bag up around her shoulders and nudged a loose chunk of driftwood into the water with her toe. The current sucked it away. "Do you want to go up there now?"

"We can stay down here for a little while, if you want," Onmund said, because he knew Rhiannon wanted to keep looking for canis root and wouldn't ask him to stay with her. She perked up a bit and agreed, and they went walking along the shore, Solitude rising high above them on their left. A horker grazing in the nearby shallows watched them go by, but they gave it a wide berth and it returned to its meal, ignoring them. But there was no canis root to be found, and both of them soon grew tired of walking, so they found a log to sit on that overlooked the sea and ate the last of the provisions they'd picked up in Dawnstar.

"Did I tell you I got another letter from my mother?" Rhiannon asked. Onmund snorted.

"I'm not surprised."

"She's still on about me leaving the College. Those poor couriers." She popped a chunk of cheese into her mouth. "She's acting like I've completely abandoned my studies."

"Mine don't know that I left." They'd be overjoyed if they found out, though, which was the exact opposite of what he wanted. Just because he'd opted to take some time away after his objection to Saarthal's excavation didn't mean he was never going back. "At least yours are supportive."

"We can trade, if you like. Let's see..." She dug a crumpled piece of parchment out of her bag and smoothed it out, clearing her throat. "We're worried about you traveling by yourself, Skyrim is dangerous, you're breaking your father's heart and so on... here we go. 'Your father and I agreed to send you to the College to complete your studies, not drift all over the countryside like some sort of vagrant. Work whatever this is out of your system and return to Winterhold, or come home. That is our final word on the matter.'" Her accent was presumably an imitation of her mother's, a blunt Colovian burr entirely unlike her own Nibenese drawl, which heralded straight from the center of the Heartland. She wrinkled her nose at Onmund and folded it again. "It goes on like that for a while."

"On second thought, you can keep them."

Rhiannon laughed and stretched her legs out, heels digging into the sand. A dragonfly buzzed lazily nearby, investigating her bag, and she shooed it away. "My parents feel the same way about Skyrim that yours do about magic. I had to beg them for a year to get them to agree to me coming here."

"They sound fun," Onmund said. Rhiannon giggled, and then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking guilty.

"I shouldn't be so hard on them. They care. They're just a little... overprotective."

"Is it because you don't know Destruction?" Onmund asked. He didn’t like to bring it up, even though it wasn't as if it was any great secret - it was half the reason she'd asked him to accompany her on her tour. But he also got the sense that, like him, she'd been reminded of her shortcomings plenty growing up. It wasn't polite to remind your peers that you were proficient in areas they lacked. Unless you were J'zargo, he supposed, who delighted in telling you all about his experiments and how his cleverness outstripped yours at great length. But Rhiannon nodded, hugging her middle like she was cold.

"I told them I was traveling with a friend who happens to be a very talented battlemage, but that didn't seem to help. My mother's convinced that you're going to try to take advantage of me - " She cut herself off and looked at him with big eyes. "Sorry! I shouldn’t have told you that. I don't think that, obviously. She's just... well. Herself."

"You really think I'm talented?" His ears were hot.

"Of course I do! If your family had any sense, they'd be proud of you."

"So would yours."

"That's really why she's so cross with me. Getting my Mastery in Restoration at twenty-three, becoming a priestess or a physician... now there's something she could really be proud of." She shot him a half-smile and got to her feet, brushing her robes off. "But I think I'll wait a bit longer. There's more to see before I settle down."

"I can't believe you're that close to being ready for the Master Ritual." She'd hidden it from them for a while, until they'd all gotten horrifically drunk on Phinis' secret stash of moon sugar mead one night and convinced her to tell them stories of the strangest wounds she’d ever treated. She’d blurted it out halfway through a tale about a man with a dagger handle wedged somewhere unpleasant, and they hadn’t let her live it down since. She turned scarlet now and ducked her head, hair shielding her face.

"It's not that impressive... there are plenty of professional healers younger than I am. And I studied for ten years before I came here. You and Brelyna and J'zargo will have your Masteries in no time."

Onmund hid a smile as he got up. He felt a little bad for how much he enjoyed winding her up now and again, but he couldn't help himself. She was cute when she was flustered. "I'm just teasing. Ready to go?"

"You have no idea." She looked up at the cliffs, where the spires of the Blue Palace were visible in the distance. "I can't wait to sleep in a real bed again."

"Me either. You're going to like Solitude. Trust me."

----------

"I swear," Onmund said for what must have been the twentieth time, "I had no idea."

"It's not your fault." Rhiannon sniffled and blotted her eyes on her sleeve. They were puffy and stung from crying. "Who knew we'd show up just in time for an execution?" They were sitting on a bench in a small, grassy courtyard near the entrance to the city, away from the crowds and the noise, but she could still hear the doomed man's last words and the roar from the crowd that swelled to drown him out. Her stomach churned. "Did you hear those people? Cheering on his death, all because he opened a gate."

"It was who he opened it for," Onmund said. He was serious most of the time, but his expression was grave now, face drawn. "As far as most of the people here are concerned, he signed his death warrant the second he aided Ulfric Stormcloak."

"Answering death with more death," Rhiannon said, and dabbed at her eyes one last time. "What sense does that make?"

"There's a war on. He knowingly committed treason. I'm not saying it's right, but that's how it is." He offered her a hand up, and she took it reluctantly. She was ashamed that she hadn't paid much attention to the war. The College was remote, insulated against the distractions of the outside world, and her recent travels had been along the desolate coastline of Skyrim's northernmost holds. She'd seen more animals than people in the last two months. "Come on, let's go to the inn. You'll feel better after we eat a real meal."

Rhiannon forced a smile. "Sure." The wet thunk of the axe against the block was still fresh in her mind. She didn't want food, but it was drawing towards evening, sun sinking low in the sky, and the thought of a bed lured her to her feet. She followed Onmund to a nearby building. The sign hanging over the door read "The Winking Skeever" in jaunty lettering. She had to read it twice to be sure. "Is that really what the inn is called?"

"Sure is." He swung the heavy wooden door open, and they walked into a room with high, arched ceilings and molding that could have come straight out of the dwellings she remembered from back home. A fire crackled in the hearth, the tables were packed, and a pretty Breton girl stood in the corner, strumming her lute over the din. Onmund maneuvered his way to the bar, Rhiannon following in his wake, and signaled the innkeeper. The rooms were expensive and there were only two singles available, but they handed over their coin without complaint, and Onmund ordered dinner for both of them since it was his turn to pay.

"I'll have Sorex bring it to you when it's ready," Corpulus shouted cheerfully as he slid them two flagons of ale. He was jovial and bearded and seemed like he would be shouting regardless of the noise level. "Can I get anything else for you two lovebirds?"

Rhiannon went blotchy with mortification, and Onmund nearly dropped his ale, liquid sloshing over the rim and all down his arm.

"I'm not - I mean, she - we're not," he spluttered, and Corpulus looked between them, puzzled.

"Why is this place called The Winking Skeever?" Rhiannon interjected before he could ask them about it again. It was all she could think of, but Corpulus didn't seem to mind the subject change.

"Well, young lady," he boomed, "when I was a boy, I had a pet skeever. He was the cleverest little beast I ever did know, and I'll eat my hat if he didn't wink at you when you gave him a morsel!"

"You don't have a hat, Da," said the irritated young man polishing glasses on the other side of the bar.

"You had a pet skeever?" Onmund asked. "Why?"

"Seemed like a good idea at the time," Corpulus said. "They were much smaller back then."

----------

There was an empty table tucked away in the back, and they ate in silence. Neither of them wanted to mention the awkwardness at the bar. "What do you want to do tomorrow?" Rhiannon finally asked, once she was finished.

Onmund mulled it over while he stirred his soup. "Find work," he said. "If there's any to be found."

"It's a big city. There has to be something."

"I hope so. We're going to be completely out of money if we stay longer than three days at this rate."

Rhiannon nodded. "I'll look around, see if the local alchemist or the temple need any spare hands."

He pointed his spoon at her. "Don't think I forgot where we are. You just want to see if the temple is taking on new apprentices."

"It's the Temple of the Divines, Onmund! Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to see it for myself?"

"Fair enough." He chuckled. "We should see if there are any bounties available. Those usually pay pretty well."

"Okay."

They lapsed into silence once more. Rhiannon stared into her mostly full tankard, and Onmund watched her for a moment. "Hey," he said. She looked up at him. "I know what happened earlier was terrible. But don't let that ruin your night, yeah? Tomorrow will be better."

She brought the cup to her lips and drank to avoid answering him right away. Privately, she thought he was being too cavalier about the whole thing, but maybe that was just the way of things here. The people of Solitude had known the man - his family, his daily routines, his hopes - but half of them were in the tavern mere hours later like nothing was wrong. She could hear her brother Marcus in her ear now, calm and pragmatic as ever. What can you do about something that's already happened? Let it go.

She put the tankard down. "You've been here before, right?"

"Once or twice, years ago." Onmund was from a small farming village near Falkreath, she remembered. He didn't like to talk about it.

"What's the one thing you want to do most while we're here, then? What's your Temple of the Divines?"

"I dunno... the Bard's College, I guess." He looked a little self-conscious at this admission, for some reason, and she nodded encouragingly. "They put on outdoor performances in the spring and summer sometimes. I always wanted to go, but there was no time, so..."

"We should go," she said. “That sounds fun.”

He took another bite of stew, cheeks pink in the firelight.

"It's not a big deal," he mumbled, but he was smiling.

----------

They went their separate ways after dinner. Rhiannon hadn't stayed in enough cities to know for sure, but so far Solitude had the most Imperial influence, likely due to the Empire's presence even in peacetime. The Winking Skeever was modeled after Cyrodiil's inns and custom, with mostly single rooms, and for this she was grateful. She was determined to respect Nordic ways while she was staying in Skyrim, but bed-sharing was the one that had given her the most pause so far. Onmund had reassured her that whole families often shared a single bed, whether it was out of respect for the old ways or just to stay warm in the winter, and there was nothing unsavory about it. She believed him, but she still built a barrier between them out of the spare quilt the first few nights.

It wasn’t so bad after the initial shock wore off, but he snored and she was relieved to have her own space again. She locked the door and dumped her bags on the floor, then sprawled on the bed and kicked off her boots. Then she sniffed herself and made a face. Oh, that's... not good. She'd have to see if there was a bathhouse somewhere in the city. She didn't want to show up at the temple smelling like a goat farm.

The Temple of the Divines. She rolled over and buried her face in her pillow, suddenly giddy. It had been too long since she'd had somewhere to offer Mara a proper devotional. She also wanted to speak with the priests about what it took to join their ranks. Not that she was expecting it to be that simple - she didn't even have her Mastery yet - but it couldn't hurt to ask. She could dream.

In reality, she supposed that once she completed her studies, she'd go back home and try to find a nice, quiet temple in need of a healer. If she was really lucky, maybe she'd find a place at the Great Chapel of Mara. Bravil wasn't so bad, despite what most people thought. It was downright nice in the spring. Her father had said more than once that she should become a private physician, but what was the point of becoming a healer if she wasn't going to help those who needed it most?

She got undressed down to her shift and hung her robes up in the wardrobe, then tried to sleep. But sleep wouldn't come, so she got back up after some tossing and turning and sat at the desk to work on her book by candlelight, refining her most recent sketches and jotting down more facts about spiky grass properties.

Compared to the rest of the family, her accomplishments were modest, and she really did try not to compare, but it was hard at times. Lalatia Amorell was a now-retired Champion of the Chorrol branch of the Fighter's Guild, and all five of Rhiannon's siblings took after her and became adventurers and city guards, with the exception of Zeno, who was still a scarily proficient battlemage. Marcus had been a seasoned warrior of over a decade when he lost his leg, and instead of retiring, he'd become a successful merchant like their father within two years' time. She knew what she looked like next to all that. But she'd handwritten her own illustrated guide to Cyrodiil's flora and fauna, and now she was working on a second volume for Skyrim. She scratched at the parchment, shading in the leaves. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Her other dream of being a traveling healer and seeing all of Tamriel was more remote, and one she’d resigned herself, with a wistful kind of sadness, to leaving unfulfilled. She wasn't a fighter. She'd only begun to learn Conjuration so she could defend herself if it became necessary, and she still wasn't very good at it. But her wanderlust persisted, and that was ultimately why she'd left. She wanted to see as much of Skyrim as possible before she completed her studies and was called home to settle down, even if it meant a letter every other week. She’d never said no to her mother before, and she still didn’t know where it had come from. Some long-buried spark of defiance, perhaps. She'd written back to the most recent one, just so they knew she was still alive, but she had no intention of turning back. Not yet.

She worked until she couldn't keep her eyes open, then blew the candle out and crawled under the quilt. Maybe Onmund was right. Maybe tomorrow would be better.

----------

She was up and dressed before the sun could crawl over the horizon, stuffing her spare robes in her satchel and slipping on her boots. She scribbled a quick note to Onmund and slid it under his door so he knew where she'd gone, and then she left the inn. It was the hour between sleeping and waking - streets still shadowed with pearly fog, shop windows dark, square deserted. No birds sang, no breeze stirred. It was like stepping into a dream. Buildings loomed in the distance, indistinct shapes like giants in the mist. She didn't know where she was going, so she wandered along the main street, squinting at the signs hanging above various doors until she found the bathhouse.

There was no one there to disturb her, so she gave a few septims to the yawning attendant and found herself a quiet corner next to the vents where she wouldn't get overheated. It was a nice bathhouse, with wooden privacy screens and basin-like tubs big enough to hold six men at a time, and towels and little cakes of soap sat on nearby shelves for her to choose from. She spent the first little while luxuriating in the hot water, letting the grime seep from her skin, then cleaned herself with soap that smelled like lavender and scrubbed at her hair until she was sure it was at least somewhat presentable. Then she dried herself off, put on her clean clothes, and went back to the inn, feeling much better now that she'd had a proper bath. The fog was lifting by then, and Onmund was already waiting on the bench out front. He waved when he saw her.

"Should I have woken you up?" she called out when she got closer. "I just couldn't sleep anymore."

"When given the option, always let me sleep." The marketplace was starting to come to life now. Merchants chattered sleepily to one another as they opened their stalls and stocked their wares, and the faint crackle of the forge heating came from the ramparts above them as Castle Dour began to stir. Onmund stood. "So, where to first?"

They couldn't decide, so they wandered the market for a while, seeing what was for sale and peering in the windows of the various shops. But there was too much to look at and neither of them had any coin to spare, so they moved on and walked down the hill, cobblestones slick beneath their feet with morning dew. Now that the sun was out and the day was new, Rhiannon thought Solitude was rather beautiful, despite her initial misgivings. Everywhere she looked, flowers were bursting to life in a riot of color against the stonework, and the buildings had the sort of gravity that came with being old and elegantly constructed, jutting out in great domes and arches all around her.

They found the Bard's College easily enough, a crowd of students hanging around on the steps before classes began. The bard from the inn was there, so Onmund went and introduced himself, Rhiannon in tow. Her name was Lisette, and she was no longer a student, but still came around occasionally to assist with shows and see how things were going with her old professors. "You're travelers, right? Did you come here to see the College?"

"Not exactly, but I was wondering if you knew... do they have any performances scheduled?"

"Well, normally the Burning of King Olaf would be in the summer, but the Jarl called it off this year." She tapped her chin, thinking aloud. "I suppose they might do something around the equinox. Why, are you looking to perform?"

"No, I'm not a singer. I was just curious." Onmund rubbed the back of his neck. "My sister went to one a few years back. Sounded fun."

"Well, why don't you sit in on one of the classes? Viarmo wouldn't mind, I don't think."

Nobody minded, as it turned out, so the two of them spent an enjoyable hour watching the apprentices try to outperform one another on the lute and drums. When they left, Lisette called after them, "Keep an eye out. The equinox is soon," and winked at Onmund. He nearly walked into a pillar. Rhiannon was still giggling about it when they went back out to the street.

"It's not that funny," he groused.

"I'm sorry! It was cute." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "Should we go to the Blue Palace next?"

"What? Uh. Right." Onmund seemed even more flustered now, if that were possible. "We probably should, yeah. It could take a while for them to see us."

"So, do we just go and wait to be summoned? Or is there more to it?" She'd never been to court before.

"Oh dear," a new voice interrupted. "You're not planning on going to the Blue Palace looking like that, are you?"

The Altmer that approached them was tall and slender and wore quilted finery in a pale blue that made her skin glow like burnished gold. She was eyeing them like an artist facing down an unfinished canvas. "You could look worse, of course, but you could always look better. Much better."

"I don't remember anyone asking," Onmund said, scowling. Rhiannon looked down at her robes, the ragged edges and the stain near the hem that she secretly liked because it was shaped like an oak leaf. She rarely thought about her appearance outside of being clean for important events, but under the womer's gaze she felt shabby and lumpy, and kept her mouth shut. "Who even are you?"

"My name is Taarie, and my sister and I are the proprietors of Radiant Raiment," she informed them, voice cool and haughty. "And as for the two of you, it's your lucky day."

"Really. And how's that?"

"If you go to the Blue Palace wearing our clothing and tell Jarl Elisif where you got it, I'll not only pay you, but you may keep the outfits as well." Her expression indicated that this was a privilege they ought to be paying her for, if anything. "You won't get another offer like this, so I suggest you take it."

Onmund narrowed his eyes. "Why us?"

"We're still relatively new to the city. Patronage from the Jarl would mean a boost in our revenue, and you two are the first people I've seen heading up there today. Are you satisfied, or should I find someone else?"

Rhiannon touched Onmund's forearm, tense beneath her fingertips. "We could use the money," she whispered. His expression didn't change, but after a second he nodded, reluctance lingering at the corners of his mouth. She looked at Taarie. "Okay. We'll do it."

"Excellent." Taarie seized Rhiannon's wrist, all business now. "Come with me. You." She pointed at Onmund with her free hand. "Go to the bathhouse and make yourself presentable. You're not coming anywhere near my shop smelling like that."

"I was going to, anyway," Onmund snapped.

"Good for you," Taarie said, and swanned off. Rhiannon had to jog to keep up. Taarie's legs were much longer than her own, and she nearly stumbled and fell when she was pulled into the shop, her boot catching on the doorframe. Taarie looked down her nose at Rhiannon and clucked her tongue. "Watch your step."

Endarie, Taarie's sister, was somehow twice as rude as Taarie despite speaking half as much. She sorted through piles of clothing in the back, glowering at Rhiannon and making pointed remarks under her breath about having to find something she could let out at the seams until Taarie sent her to mind the counter. "My apologies," she said, not sounding sorry at all. "My sister is having a hard day."

Rhiannon just nodded and let Taarie take her measurements, trying not wince whenever a pin jabbed at her. It wasn't anything she hadn't heard before. Her siblings all took after their mother's lean, athletic frame, while she looked like her father, short and round. "Generous," he called it jokingly whenever he patted his belly, "like my prices." Endarie’s words still stung, but she was numb to it now. She'd said far worse to herself in the looking glass.

To her credit, Taarie worked fast. By the time Onmund showed up, she'd plucked and coiffed Rhiannon within an inch of her life, slathered her with sweet-smelling oils and lotions, and stuffed her into a corset that gave her an uncomfortable amount of cleavage and felt as though it was rearranging her insides. She even coaxed Onmund into letting her give him a haircut, pointing out that he looked more distinguished with short hair. Then, finally, came the clothing, but not before Taarie launched into an explanation of how she was trying to blend Alinorian fashion with Nordic sensibilities to create something entirely new. Rhiannon only understood about half of what she was saying, but it involved a lot of fur and clinging silks in bright patterns. Still, she thought Taarie was much nicer when she was being passionate about something. She smiled more, anyway.

After they'd both been dressed and pronounced passable, Taarie wrangled Rhiannon's curls into a braid and lined her eyes with kohl, then dabbed at her lips with color before looking her over one last time. "Good enough." She even got Onmund to let her line his eyes as well, for dramatic effect - "Think of it as war paint" - then escorted them to the front door. "Now, remember. The shop is called Radiant Raiment, and if the Jarl asks, you're favored customers."

"We're not idiots, we'll remember," Onmund said, just in time for the door to shut in his face. He sighed. "This had better be worth it."

"At least you can breathe." Rhiannon tried to adjust the corset discreetly. All it did was put her cleavage in danger of colliding with her chin. "Promise you'll catch me if I faint?"

"Of course." Onmund offered her his elbow. "If it's any consolation, you look... nice." He hesitated, stumbling over the last word, and she linked her arm with his and plastered on a smile. "Nice" was probably as good as she was going to get.

----------

Nice. Julianos help him, he was a moron. All you had to do was say beautiful. Pretty, even. Way to cock that one up. Onmund berated himself all the way down the hill and up again, Rhiannon clinging to his arm so she didn't fall in the heeled boots Taarie had given her.

"I am never wearing these again," she puffed as they crested the hill, and then promptly forgot her discomfort in the face of grandeur. The Blue Palace towered over them, venerable, sun glinting off the azure rooftops. "Oh..." She let go of his arm. He tried not to look disappointed. "It's amazing." Her gaze drifted to the edge of the garden that surrounded the palace like a green-gold moat, and he nudged her shoulder with his elbow.

"Money first. Then plants."

"What? Oh! Right, sorry." She glanced at it longingly as she trailed after him through the archways to the entrance. Once inside, they were directed up a long, spiraling staircase by one of the guards, and there they joined the small crowd waiting to speak with the Jarl.

The throne room was spacious, with big glass windows paneling the back wall and banners hanging on either side, crimson with a snarling black wolf in the center. Sunlight poured into the room, dust motes swirling in the air, and in its center, Jarl Elisif sparkled. She was young, fine-boned and red-haired, and at his side, Rhiannon shifted her weight. "I don't know if I can do this," she said, so quietly he had to strain to hear her. "All these people..."

"It's okay. I'll do most of the talking."

She looked up at him then, relief in her eyes, mouthed thank you with a smile. His stomach jolted a little and he smiled back awkwardly, palms starting to sweat.

They waited for some time. The new boots pinched at his toes, but he ignored them as best he could. The farmer ahead of them wanted someone to investigate the strange noise and lights coming from Wolfskull Cave. Elisif first wanted to send a full patrol to secure the town, but her steward gently reminded her that they were short on men, and she flushed and amended her proclamation. She seemed overwhelmed, even as the crowd thinned out, and Onmund felt a little sorry for her. Surely this wasn't what she'd pictured for herself when she married High King Torygg. Then the steward was beckoning them forward, and they were standing in front of Elisif and she was even prettier up close, eyes wide and blue as the sky. He swallowed and folded his hands behind his back, standing up straighter. "Jarl Elisif. I hope today finds you well."

"Thank you, traveler." She smiled. "What is it that brings you to the Blue Palace?"

"My friend and I have come to Solitude to see if there's any work to be done."

"Falk?" Elisif looked at the steward, who shook his head. He looked worn out, forehead lined and dark circles beneath his eyes.

"No bounties, I'm afraid. Not unless you want to investigate Wolfskull Cave, put Varnius' mind at ease."

"We'll consider it," Onmund said carefully. He didn't want to insult anyone by refusing outright. "Sorry to have troubled you."

"Not at all," Elisif said. She looked them over. “Are you nobles?”

“We’re mages.”

"Do you come from the College?"

"Yes, my Jarl," Onmund said, vaguely confused until he saw how eager she looked for him to continue. He wondered how long she went without company her own age. Most of her court appeared at least twice that. "We've taken a leave of absence to focus on other parts of our education."

"Your friend is very quiet," Elisif said, and turned her hopeful smile on Rhiannon, only for it to give way to concern. "Are you alright? You look pale."

Onmund looked at her. So did the rest of the court, and Rhiannon went from bone-white to blood-red. Oh no. He'd seen this before, in the open forum part of lectures; put her in front of an audience, and she became incapable of coherent speech. He opened his mouth to rescue her, but it was too late.

"Do you like my outfit?" she blurted, voice shaky. Both Elisif and Falk blinked at her, nonplussed, and a ripple of laughter spread through the corners of the room. "That is - what I mean to say is... yes. We're from the College." Elisif's housecarl coughed into his fist. Rhiannon looked at Onmund, eyes wide and white around the edges like a frightened rabbit. "I... um... "

It was Elisif herself who came to Rhiannon's aid. "Now that you mention it, your outfit is quite fetching. Both of you, actually. Who made them?"

"Taarie and Endarie at Radiant Raiment," Onmund said, and Rhiannon clamped her mouth shut and nodded furiously.

"Here in Solitude? I had no idea they were so talented." Elisif tucked her hair behind her ear. "Well, if you see them, please let them know I'll be putting in an order soon."

Onmund bowed, hopes lifting. Surely they'd be paid well now, if nothing else. "Of course. We'll be sure to do that."

"Thank you. What are your names?"

"Onmund."

Barely audible: "Rhiannon."

"Please, come back again sometime," Elisif said. "We may have work soon." They thanked her once more, and then they were dismissed.

Rhiannon held her composure until they reached the bottom of the stairs, and then she slipped off to the side, down one of the long stone hallways. Onmund caught up to find her leaning against one of the pillars, face in her hands. "I'm an idiot," she said thickly. "Why am I such an idiot?"

"You're not," Onmund said. His heart throbbed dully to see her so upset. He wished he was brave enough to put his arms around her, but his body wouldn't cooperate, and he ended up patting her shoulder instead. "It's over now. You made it." She didn't move, and he pulled his hand back. "At least we're getting paid?"

"I… I suppose." She didn't look convinced, eyes still brimming with unshed tears. He was trying to think of something more comforting to say when he heard voices drifting from further down the hall. They were faint, but there was something about the tone that made his skin prickle. Rhiannon frowned, and he knew she heard it too. She looked down the hallway, chewing her lower lip.

"I'm not sure we should - " But she was already walking, and he had no choice but to go after her. They followed the voices to the end of the hall, where a wooden door was ajar, light spilling through the crack. Both of them moved closer, wary, to peer inside.

It looked like an unused storage room, dusty and barren but for the lit torch bolted to the wall. One of the maids, the younger one he'd seen sweeping on his way in, was backed up beneath it, hands crossed protectively over her chest. There was a man. The edge of the door hid his face, but he wore fine, dyed-wool clothing and jeweled rings, and his hands caged the poor girl in on either side. "Oh, come on." His voice was a deep drawl, oozing arrogance. "It's just a bit of fun. What's the harm?"

"Thane Erikur, please," the girl said, voice wobbling. "I have duties to attend to. I have to go."

Thane Erikur. The warning prickle grew into full-fledged alarm, and Onmund tried to signal to Rhiannon frantically behind the door. She didn't move. Erikur's voice dropped from a purr to a growl. "Now, now. Stick around. I insist."

Onmund barely had time to jump out of the way before Rhiannon threw the door open. It crashed against the wall and Erikur was away from the woman like a shot, face twisted up like he'd nearly touched a leper.

"There you are!" Rhiannon said, louder than he had ever heard her. "Jarl Elisif has been looking for you everywhere." She marched into the room and planted herself between the Thane and the bewildered maid. "You have to go right away," she said, pointing at the door. "She needs you to put in an order for some new dresses. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes, Miss," the maid said, and edged around her and Onmund, glancing back once before fleeing the scene.

Erikur stared at both of them, and for a split second, his confusion flickered and blurred into a poisonous rage. Rhiannon took a step back, and Onmund stepped forward at the same time, fingers twitching with barely-suppressed spellwork. But then the anger was gone as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by an oily smile, and he nodded at the two of them. "Excuse me."

His footsteps had no sooner faded than the color drained from Rhiannon's face, and she caught herself on the wall, shoulders shaking. "Gods," Onmund said. It was all he could manage.

Rhiannon looked up at him, terror plain in her eyes, kohl smudged around her cheekbones. "Do you think she'll be okay?"

"I hope so." He went to take her hand, then thought better of it. "Let's go back to Taarie."

"Okay." Her eyes were wet, lashes clumped together and glistening. "Onmund, what if I made things worse for her?"

He didn't say anything. He didn't have an answer.

----------

Their coin purses were full to bursting, but Rhiannon's head was also full, and the thoughts beating against the inside of her skull kept her from sleep for the second night in a row. Eventually, she got up and got dressed.

The temple was only a short walk up the hill from the inn. She'd wanted her first visit to be a happy one, unclouded by fear, but this was important. More important than her own selfish whims. The little courtyard in front was lined with stone benches, and an outdoor altar sat in an alcove flanked by two wrought-iron chairs. She paused to admire them for a moment. They must perform beautiful weddings. Then, she crossed the courtyard and pulled open the heavy door, and her breath caught in her throat.

Candles lined the aisle and hung from the overhead fixtures, bathing the interior in soft, flickering light. Potted juniper trees mingled with snowberry and lavender shrubs in the corners and overflowed along the walls, and the air was thick with their perfume. The shrines shimmered in their alcoves, firelight rippling along their metal surfaces. She was alone, and she padded down the aisle, runner shushing beneath her feet. She found Mara's shrine and laid the dried mountain flowers she'd brought in front of it, then clasped her hands together. My lady, I beseech You to send Your love to that girl. Please protect her in Your infinite compassion. She touched her hand to the shrine, and the relief was instantaneous. A kind of peaceful joy settled around her shoulders like a cloak, tears budding in the corners of her eyes. "I've missed you," she said aloud, and wiped them away. "I'm sorry it's been so long."

And she had missed this. She still prayed every night, but she yearned for the solemn, contemplative atmosphere of the temple when she was away. She felt whole in a way she felt nowhere else; the anxiety and doubts that plagued her quieted in the face of something outside herself. There was no judgment in Mara's love, no weakness or uncertainty. You just were.

She sat in one of the pews, a couple rows back, and bowed her head. Empty your mind. Today is not tomorrow. She wasn't sure if she believed that the residue of the past two days could be wiped away so easily, but she clung to it all the same. The candlelight flickered behind her eyelids, and she breathed deeply, in and out. Mara, I seek Your guidance, and Your wisdom. Allow me to read from the book of Your love, so that I may look upon the coming dawn with new eyes.

How long she sat there, she didn't know, but eventually she grew drowsy from the heat and the cloying sweetness of the air and dozed off. At one point during the night, she woke to see she had company - a tall, armored woman with fair hair was standing in front of the empty alcove where Talos' shrine had once resided. She reached out and touched the stone, lips moving in some silent prayer. Rhiannon's eyes fluttered closed. When she opened them again, it was nearly sunrise, and she was alone once more. She thought maybe she'd dreamt it.

Chapter Text

It was the crash of glass against wood that finally brought Onmund out of his room, bleary-eyed and yawning. Rhiannon was already on the landing. He joined her at the balcony railing, trying to smother another yawn. "What's going on?"

"Come along now, Hjorunn." Corpulus' voice floated up from the ground floor, cajoling. "I can't in good conscience serve you - " Another crash drowned out the rest.

"You can't cut me off!" A man, presumably Hjorunn, howled, words slurring together in an incoherent mess. "I'm a payin' customer!"

More guests were starting to emerge from their rooms, drawn out by the racket, and Rhiannon looked at Onmund. "Should we help?”

"I'm not - " More glass shattered, and the yelling began in earnest. Onmund sighed.

Downstairs, broken glass was scattered across the top of the bar and the floor beneath, glinting like shards of crystal. Corpulus and Sorex were gamely trying to soothe a wild-eyed Nord as he brandished half a broken bottle at them. "If you just put that down, we can talk this over like men," Sorex said, wielding a wooden barrel lid like a shield. "There's no need to get violent."

"What's going on?" Onmund called over the noise. He stepped forward carefully, hands spread wide to show that he was unarmed. Hjorunn was big and broad-shouldered, with red-rimmed eyes and a swollen nose to match, and Onmund didn't want to fight him if he could help it. But the second the man's gaze fell on Rhiannon, her soft blue robes and the amulet of Mara around her neck, he dropped the bottle and began to weep. All four of them exchanged looks, alarmed. More guests peered over the railing. Rhiannon took a tentative step forward.

“Sir? Are you alright?”

To Onmund’s horror, the blubbering man stumbled forward, glass crunching as it ground against the floorboards, and grabbed one of her hands, dwarfed by his own. “Mara sent you, didn’t she? Bless ‘er!” He pressed Rhiannon’s hand to his wet cheek, apparently overcome. Onmund started to move toward them, as did Sorex, but Rhiannon looked back at them and shook her head. They stopped. She looked up at Hjorunn.

“Why don’t we go outside? You can tell me all about it,” she said gently, and to everyone’s amazement, he allowed himself to be led out of the inn, docile as a newborn calf. Corpulus whistled as the door swung closed, the guests above murmuring, and Sorex put his head in his hands.

“This is going to take forever to clean up.”

“Who is that man?” Onmund asked. Corpulus shook his head.

“That’s Hjorunn. Owns the sawmill. He’s always been a bit of a lush, comes into town just to get drunk more often than not, but… not like that. And never at six in the morning.”

Sorex looked at the door, then back at Onmund. “Is your friend really a priestess of Mara?”

“She’s as close as that one’s going to get,” Onmund said, and went outside to keep an eye on them.

----------

“When did he throw you out?”

“Coupla days ago.” Hjorunn was beginning to approach sobriety, and he blew his nose into the handkerchief she’d given him. He tried to give it back, but she shook her head quickly.

“No, no, you keep it.” Onmund stifled a laugh from his spot next to the door. She made a face at him, then turned back to Hjorunn. “You’ve tried apologizing? Right?”

“Doesn’t wanna hear it.”

“Well, what did you say?”

Hjorunn scratched his beard, blew his nose again. “Said I was sorry an’ that I missed ‘im.”

“He wouldn’t accept that?”

“Well… I might’ve also said that it’s my mill and he doesn’t have the right to kick me out.” Hjorunn ran his hand through his hair and looked at her out of the corner of his eye, exhaling. “Maybe shouldn’t have said that last bit.”

“Maybe,” Rhiannon said. Onmund rolled his eyes. “You should try again. But you have to mean it.”

“He told me not to come back.” Hjorunn stared down at the crumpled handkerchief in his fingers. “Me ‘n Kharag, we argue... ‘s just how we are. But I never thought he really wouldn’t forgive me before.”

She knew he was the one at fault, but the sadness in his voice pierced Rhiannon’s heart all the same. “Why don’t you go inside and get some rest? Maybe… try to think of ways to show him you’re sorry.”

“Would you speak with him?” Hjorunn asked abruptly, twisting the kerchief in his hands. “You know… soften ‘im up for me.” Rhiannon opened her mouth and closed it, unsure of what to say. She’d probably already made a mistake getting involved to begin with – she’d just gone along with it to get him to leave the inn before things got worse. She didn’t have a clue about the inner workings of romantic relationships, let alone how to mend one. But he was looking at her with so hopefully that she couldn’t bear to turn him down.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Divines bless you. You’re a kind one.” He got up with some difficulty and wobbled inside, catching himself on the doorframe, and Onmund took his place on the bench. He no longer looked amused.

“You’re not really going down there, are you?”

“I said I would. The man clearly needs help.”

“You’re not actually a priestess of Mara, remember?” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Besides, we need to be focused on finding work. That gold the elves gave us isn’t going to last forever.”

“I know, but we have a little time.” She looked down at her lap, fingers gripping the fabric of her robes. “I know I’m not a priestess yet, or maybe ever, but I went to the temple last night and prayed. I… I think this is a sign, Onmund. I think I’m supposed to try to help them.” He didn’t answer right away, and she snuck a peek at him through her lashes. He still didn’t seem happy, but he sighed when he caught her looking.

“Want me to come with you?”

“Please,” she said, relieved, and he scratched his chin. He was in need of a shave, stubble patchy on his cheeks and jaw.

“Alright. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

----------

“No.” Kharag crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at her. “The deed to this place might be in Hjorunn’s name, but I’m the reason it’s still running, and I’m tired of him drinking away all our profits. There’s nothin’ to discuss.”

“He’s miserable without you,” Rhiannon tried. She’d spoken with Corpulus before she’d gone down to the mill. Hjorunn and Kharag’s fights were apparently legendary – Hjorunn had spent more than one night cooling off in a jail cell – but never lasted more than a day, which was heartening. She held her ground. “He was crying on my shoulder not even an hour ago. He nearly wrecked the ground floor of the inn.”

“So? He cries at everything when he’s drunk.” But there was something in his eyes, a little flicker of interest before the anger smothered it again.

“I know this is none of my business, but he obviously misses you. He’s distressed.” She clasped her hands behind her back, resisting the urge to fidget. “He prayed to Mara. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

Kharag looked at Onmund. “Why are you here, then?”

He shrugged. “Never seen a grown man cry like that before.”

Kharag was silent for a long moment, leaning against the doorframe, and Rhiannon tugged at her sleeves behind her back, straightening them out. “There must be something he could do to prove he’s truly sorry,” she hedged. “Whatever it is, I’m sure he’d do it.” Kharag snorted.

“Sure. Tell you what. You go back and tell him that if he wants to come home, I want a real apology, and he has to stop drinking. He won’t do it, but if you think you can talk him into it, go right ahead.” He slammed the door so hard the frame rattled, making Rhiannon jump, and Onmund scrubbed a hand over his face, squeezing his eyes shut. Both of them were silent.

“I guess I can’t blame him for not wanting to live with a drunk,” she said finally.

“I guess not.”

They walked back to the city, Onmund in front and Rhiannon lagging behind. The day was sunny and warm, a pine thrush warbling from the nearby treetops, but she barely noticed. I should have told Hjorunn no. If this was Mara testing her, she was surely mucking it up. What if she hadn’t been supposed to agree to help? What if they were supposed to work it out by themselves? There was a crumbling stone wall just past the guard tower, framing a bed of lavender and red mountain flowers, and she sank down it, elbows braced against her knees and chin in her hands. Onmund stopped once he realized she was no longer following him. “What’s wrong?”

“I feel like I failed before I even began,” she said, and he sat down next to her.

“Maybe it’s not a test after all. Or maybe you’re not supposed to succeed. Not every couple is meant to last forever.”

“I know, but…” They still loved one another; that much was clear to her, at least. She fiddled with the end of her braid, chewing on the corner of her thumbnail. “It feels wrong not to at least try.

“I never pegged you for such a romantic,” he teased. “You never got this invested in people's’ love lives back at the College.”

“Well, there’s not much to get invested in, is there? Unless you count Nirya and Faralda.”

Onmund stared at her.

“Nirya and Faralda aren’t…”

“Well, no. Not yet.” She plucked one of the flowers and threaded the stem through her braid, bright red blossom clashing against the auburn of her hair. “Those two have a lot of unresolved issues. They’ll have to work it out in their own time.”

Oh, sure, Onmund thought. She notices that.

----------

Hjorunn was sitting on the ground outside the Winking Skeever when they got back, nursing a flagon of ale – no more bottles for him, Rhiannon was relieved to see – stinking of old sweat and liquor. When he saw them, he brightened some, but there was still anxiety lurking in his bleary eyes. “What’s the good word?” Rhiannon and Onmund exchanged uncomfortable glances.

“Well,” Rhiannon started. “He… um…”

“He doesn’t want to see you,” Onmund said. “Unless you apologize.”

“I did apologize!”

“A real apology.”

Hjorunn swore under his breath.

“He also said if you quit drinking – “

“Hah!” Hjorunn barked, and clambered to his feet. “Bossy arsehole, always tying to tell me what I can and can’t do. ‘m sure he’s loving this.”

“He seemed pretty unhappy, actually,” Onmund said, with barely-concealed annoyance.

“It would be a good way to show him that you’re serious,” Rhiannon added, unsure what to make of his sudden shift in attitude. He seemed so sorry earlier… Hjorunn waved her off, jaw set tight. He wore a look she’d seen countless times. It was the same look her sister Sabine had right before she jumped off the roof on Zeno’s dare into the garden pond and broke her arm in two places, and the same look she’d seen on Onmund when she’d caught him arguing with Tolfdir about Sarthaal – sheer, stubborn pride.

“If he can’t accept me as I am, then I don’t need him.”

“I’m not sure that’s – “ The door slamming behind him cut off the rest of her words, and she sighed, rubbing her temples.

“Well, that could have gone worse,” Onmund said. “Probably.”

Rhiannon dropped her face into her hands. “I am… not good at this.”

“Hey, it’s not your fault that those two are a lost cause.”

“But Corpulus said this happens all the time,” she protested, even as she wondered why she was protesting. “They could still make up.”

“Just because they can doesn’t mean that they should,” Onmund said, drumming his fingers impatiently against the side of the bench. “I’m going to get lunch. Are you coming?”

She did come eat with him eventually, but her mind was elsewhere, and the food tasted like nothing. Hjorunn was sleeping off his stupor, and would probably be more agreeable once he was completely sober, Corpulus had told them. Onmund ate his venison and tried not to be irritated with her. He was a firm believer in not getting involved in the personal lives of strangers. He admired Rhiannon’s altruistic nature – Enthir would probably still have his family talisman if she hadn’t persuaded him to return it on Onmund’s behalf – but right now, it was grating on him. They had more important things to worry about. “You said you wanted to visit Markarth after this, right?”

“Right,” Rhiannon said absently. She kept stirring her stew without actually eating any of it. “It makes the most sense. And juniper usually starts maturing around this time of year…” She got like this sometimes, where her gaze went right through him to something only she could see. Like he wasn’t there at all. He stabbed at his meat with the dull tavern knife. “If I could just convince Hjorunn to go back down there sober, I’m sure I could get them to talk.”

His vexation, already simmering, boiled over. “Why are you so obsessed with this?” She blinked at him, startled, lips parted in mild alarm.

“I’m not obsessed, it’s just… I said I would help, so…”

“Is this even about helping them? Or is it just about you proving something?” He regretted it as soon as he said it. She flinched like he’d struck her. He set down his silverware. “Look, Rhiannon – “

“You’re right,” she said quietly.

Onmund didn’t know how to respond. He’d been expecting more of a fight.

“I’ve behaved selfishly today. I was…” she trailed off, then smiled shakily at him. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”

“All I meant was that – “

“Like I told Kharag earlier, this isn’t any of my business. I can’t fix things for them.” She stood up, leaving her untouched food on the table. “I think I’m going to go for a walk. Try to clear my head a bit. I’ll meet you back here later, if that’s alright?”

He nodded. What else could he do? A tendril of guilt tickled at him, but he steadfastly ignored it and continued eating as she went upstairs to gather her book and quill. He struggled through a few more bites, then groaned and dropped his fork onto his plate. The food tasted like ash, bitter on his tongue.

----------

The Blue Palace gardens were renowned for their beauty, and with spring’s arrival the flowers were emerging from their slumber, buds new and petals tender. Rhiannon hoped she might get the chance to come back and view it during the summer months, when everything would be in full, glorious bloom and she wasn’t so distracted by other things. She sat on one of the carved stone benches and tried to capture some of its charm – the columns wound with ivy and creeper vine and hanging baskets overflowing with deep red flowers the same color as Solitude’s flag; the little pond in the center with a wooden bridge arcing over it, filled with fat silver fish that tried to nibble at the jewel-colored dragonflies hovering over the water’s surface; the neatly-manicured maze of flowers and herbs that grew around the trees and burst into vibrant color when it all bloomed – but all her drawings came out flat and lifeless and eventually she tore the page out and crumpled it up, ink smearing her hands.

Gods, she was an idiot. And selfish. Part of her felt unfairly judged, but mostly she just felt like a fool. She might not have asked Onmund to help her play matchmaker, or take a leave of absence, but she had asked him to come with her, and he was right that they needed to focus on their next course of action. And here you go, making it all about yourself again. She raked her fingers through her hair and remembered too late that they were covered in ink.

She’d been so sure that it was a sign from Mara. That if she succeeded, two people would be happy again, and maybe that would prove she was cut out to be a priestess after all. Who are you trying to fool? She was about as qualified to give romantic advice as she was to be High Queen of Skyrim. She closed the book on her lap glumly and looked around. There was a lone dragon’s tongue blossom next to the bench, drooping low, petals shedding on the grass. She set the book on the bench and knelt down in front of it, touching one petal with the tip of her finger. One pulse of golden light, one drop from her reservoir, and the flower stood proudly, petals unfurling. She smiled.

 

“We never stop learning,” Colette had told her one afternoon, not long before she’d left. Most tried to avoid her, finding her overbearing at best, but Rhiannon liked her. She was passionate about her craft, and her teaching reflected that fervor. “Even after you complete your Mastery, there’s still so much left to discover.”

“Do you really think I’m ready?” Rhiannon had asked her. “I want to be ready, but what if I’m not?”

“The ritual isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. Only you can know if you’re ready.” Colette patted her hand and smiled. “Take as much time as you need.” Rhiannon had stayed quiet, unsure whether or not to believe her. She wasn’t used to being in charge of her own path. Colette tilted her head and looked at her, gaze shrewd. “Is there something in particular troubling you?”

“Well… I’ve been thinking about what you said in your last lecture, about how a fundament of mastering Restoration is being able to ‘look beyond’, but I don’t quite understand what that means.” She picked up the dried torchbug thorax from next to her alembic, stiff and nearly translucent in the daylight streaming through the window. “How do I look beyond this? It’s an insect. It was alive. Now it’s dead. That’s it.”

“Let me try to explain.” Colette plucked the bug from her fingers and cradled it in her palm. “It is a dead bug, yes. But it’s also more than that. Like all things, it’s made of the basic Aurbic elements. To some creatures, it’s also food. To young lovers, it can be a symbol – catching torchbugs together on the summer solstice is considered good luck. Others believe that all creatures are shards of Aetherius, waiting to return to the aether when we die. And so on and so on.” She smiled down at it. “This insect is many things all at once, just like everything else in this world.”

“So, I just have to be able to see everything as a part of everything else?”

“Mm, yes and no. It’s about seeing the truth.”

Rhiannon thought back to her old tutor in Cyrodiil. “Restoration is about returning things to their original form. Making them whole. At least, that’s how it was always put to me.”

“When it comes to healing, yes. But Restoration has many doors.” Colette closed her hand, and it glowed with a pale light. When she opened it, the torchbug was nothing but ash. Rhiannon stared at it, and then at her. “At its heart, it’s about mastering control over life forces, whatever form that may take,” Colette said. “So when I say to look beyond, I mean you must see things not just as they’re supposed to be, but as they are.”

 

Restoration has many doors. She touched the flower’s leaves, perking them up with another soft pulse of magic. She’d come across odd things in the course of her studies. Accounts of a powerful wizard who kept himself alive for centuries, stories of corrupt healers who found ways to reopen wounds and absorb their life force from others, and mages who’d learned to strengthen the undead for their own purposes; secretive tales, half-text fragments and half-rumor. But she’d never seen it used for anything aside from healing and protection before then. Maybe if she ever understood what exactly Colette meant, some of those doors would open to her. Make her stronger, able to protect herself and others in a crisis. All I see is a flower. Is that not seeing it as it is? She got to her feet, and picked up her book, tucking it under her arm. It’s a reagent too, I suppose, but… what am I missing?

“What happened to your beautiful clothes?” Someone asked from behind her, faintly mocking. “These are rather common.” She whirled around, nerves jangling with alarm. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. Thane Erikur stood there now, a few feet away, smiling his unctuous smile. She backed up instinctively, fingers tightening around the spine of her book, and his smile widened. It didn’t reach his eyes. “No need to be frightened, little mouse. I’m only here to talk.”

“A-about what?” It came out as a squeak, and she bit her lip.

“About what you saw yesterday, at the palace. You seem to have misinterpreted what you witnessed. I thought perhaps we should clear the air.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Rhiannon’s mouth said, before the rest of her could catch up, and fear dripped down her back like frigid rain as his expression darkened.

“I would be very careful about what I say next, if I were you.”

She didn’t say anything, feet rooted to the spot, words caught in her throat. His smirk returned, cold and white. “Forget what you thought you saw. It’d be a shame if I had to speak with you a second time.”

“I know what I saw.” It came out as a whisper, voice quivering. “Please… leave that girl alone.”

Erikur flushed red all the way down his neck. “You accuse me of lying?” She couldn’t move. Her feet wouldn’t move. She cowered as he loomed over her, face bloated with fury. “How dare you address your betters in such a fashion. I knew the second I saw you and your friend that you were nothing more than a pair of commoners, playing at being more important than you are.” Flecks of spittle landed on her cheek. Her tongue felt like it was glued to the roof of her mouth. He could smell the fear on her, she knew it; he could see it in her eyes, and he leered at her. “Nothing to say now?” She bit the inside of her cheek, tasted iron on her tongue. “I thought not.” He grabbed her upper arm in a bruising hold, and she gasped as his fingers dug in. “Don’t worry, you’re not my type,” he said quietly, his face very close to hers now, and her flesh crawled. “But if I ever catch you around here again, I’m going to – “

Rhiannon never did find out what he was going to do, because someone grabbed his wrist and wrenched him away from her, making him yelp. She stumbled backwards and fell, landing hard on her rear, book tumbling to the grass next to her. Her arm still throbbed with the imprint of his fingertips.

And then, she looked up and into the eyes of her savior.

Later, the little details would be present in her memory. Sunlight glinting off of hair a shade lighter than honey. Piercing eyes set deep in a weathered face, a proud nose and strong jaw. The way she held Erikur at bay like it was nothing, her leather armor supple and worn with a Legion crest emblazoned on her armband. At the time, dazed and terrified, Rhiannon’s only thought was, My gods she’s tall.

She was tall, and her voice was harsh with anger. “Explain yourself, Erikur. Now.”

“This doesn’t concern you,” he snarled, but his bravado crumbled when she tightened her grip. “Let me go at once!”

“Or what? You’ll have me arrested for assault?” the woman asked dryly. “Let me remind you, Thane, that while your position affords you certain privileges, I don’t answer to you. Just in case you feel like testing the limits of your influence.” She released him, and he backed away, massaging his wrist and eying them both with unconcealed hatred. The woman stared back, unmoved. “Go. Now.” He stormed off, muttering venomously under his breath, and the woman folded her arms and watched him go. She suddenly seemed more weary than intimidating. There was something strangely familiar about her profile. When she looked down at Rhiannon, sprawled on the ground, her face softened, and she held out her hand. “You alright?”

“I… I think so.” Rhiannon took her hand after a moment’s hesitation. It was big and calloused, warm in her own, and a shiver ran down her arm. She’d never been dainty by any stretch of the imagination, but the stranger pulled her upright like she weighed nothing. She looked down at her feet. Her boots were muddy again. “Thank you.” She hugged her book to her chest. “If you hadn’t come by…”

“To call Erikur a skeever-faced letch would be an insult to skeevers,” the woman said. “But he’s rich and well-connected, so there’s not much I can do, aside from keeping an eye on him.” Her words were bitter, heavy with the weight of old arguments. “Are you one of the new girls? He likes to toy with them.”

“No, I’m… just passing through. He was angry because I stopped him harassing one of the maids yesterday.” Rhiannon shivered. “I came here to take my mind off things. He must have seen me and followed me. And you… you saved me.” She looked up, uncertain, met the woman’s eyes. “Really, I can’t thank you enough… um…”

“Rikke. Don’t mention it.”

“There has to be something I can do to thank you, though.”

Rikke waved her off. “You stood up to him. That’s more than most can do, and the ones who can, usually won’t. Not with his business bolstering the war effort.”

“It’s not – I mean, I’m not brave. Not like you’re thinking. I was terrified.” She laughed a little, self-conscious. Rikke looked at her but didn’t say anything, expression unreadable. Really? “I was terrified”? She must think you’re completely useless now. “I should go. My friend is probably wondering what happened to me.”

Rikke nodded. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sorry we met under such unpleasant circumstances.” Rhiannon thanked her one more time, even though it felt inadequate, and slunk off. She was almost to the entrance when Rikke called after her. She was standing in the same spot when Rhiannon turned around, surrounded by flowers, hand on the pommel of her sword. It was hard to tell from a distance, but it looked like she was smiling. Just a little. Suddenly, Rhiannon realized why she looked so familiar. She was the woman from the temple.

“Don’t let this put you off the gardens,” she called out. “They’re really something in the summer.”

---------

Onmund’s irritation had all but vanished by the time Rhiannon came back to the inn, and when she told him what happened, shock was quickly washed away by fury. He was halfway out the door before she could get him to calm down.

 “Onmund, there’s no point,” she pleaded, holding his sleeve. “I’m fine. Don’t get yourself thrown in jail, it won’t change anything.” She was right, and he hated that she was right, but he took a deep breath and let her pull him back to the table.

“Alright.” If he ever saw the man unguarded, he was going to light him on fire. “Are you sure you’re okay?” She didn’t look fine, but she nodded and took a drink of water, wiping her lips on the back of her hand.

“I am. Really.” Her expression was cloudy. “I’m worried about that girl, though. He was so angry. What if he…” She trailed off, and Onmund closed his eyes and counted backwards from ten in his head before he did something rash.

“What about the woman who helped you? What did you say her name was?”

“Rikke?”

“Yeah. Couldn’t you talk to her about it? If she’s not afraid of a Thane, maybe she could do something.”

“Maybe, but I don’t even know where to find her.” She thought for a moment. “She was wearing Legion armor.”

“Hey,” Onmund called out to Sorex, who was wiping down an empty table nearby. It was still afternoon, and the inn was mostly empty, save a couple Nords at the bar and an Argonian at the table in the alcove. “Do you know where we can find a soldier named Rikke?”

“You mean the Legate Primus? Castle Dour. That’s where all the legionnaires stay.”

“Legate Primus?”

“General Tullius’ right hand,” Corpulus said from behind the bar, and chuckled. “You two really are new to the city, aren’t you?”

Rhiannon’s jaw dropped, and she looked back at Onmund. “I can’t go bother her at Castle Dour!” she whispered furiously. “She’s too important! It’ll probably take days to get a meeting.”

“No harm in asking.”

“I suppose not.” She took a deep breath, and he suddenly found himself relieved all over again that she was there.

“I’m glad you’re alright.”

“I am. Hopefully that’s the last I see of him, though.”

“I’d die before I let him hurt you.”

He hadn’t meant to be quite so obvious; it had slipped out, unbidden, in his relief that she was unharmed. But the way she blushed and smiled at him made it worth it, and his heart beat just that much faster, hopeful.

“I’ll go to the castle tomorrow,” she said.

----------

The next morning came slumping in gray and overcast, rain drizzling down and pattering against the windowpane, and Rhiannon lay in bed, her own words ringing in her ears. I’m not brave. I was terrified. It was tempting to just curl up under the covers and sleep the day away, but when she closed her eyes she saw Rikke looking at her as if to say, “It doesn’t matter that you were scared, it matters that you did it.” And maybe that was the truth. She was scared to leave the College and disappoint her parents yet again, but she’d done it anyway, and she didn’t regret it. Not yet, anyway. She got up and got dressed, then tied her hair back and splashed some water on her face. You’re not helpless. Stop proving them right. She went downstairs and had breakfast while she waited, and eventually Onmund joined her, yawning with his hair all mussed. He looked a bit like her brother Oliver now that his hair was short and his stubble was coming in thicker, and she hid a smile and finished her porridge.

“Are you going to Castle Dour?” he asked, once he’d gotten his own food, and she set her empty bowl aside.

“I think so. And I thought I’d spend some time at the apothecary, too.” Angeline didn’t need an apprentice, but she had offered to let Rhiannon use her equipment to brew potions, provided she could purchase or supply her own ingredients. “What’s your plan for the day?”

“Dunno yet.” He yawned again. “See if there are any odd jobs to be done around here, probably. Take a look at the map and figure out the fastest route to Markarth. That kind of thing.”

“Good luck,” she said. He left not long after, but she hung around the the inn, pretending to read while she kept an eye on the hallway. Hjorunn emerged some time later, squinting and rumpled in the late morning light. He made for the bar, but she got up from her seat and blocked his path, smiling sweetly. “Good morning.”

“Wh – oh, it’s you.” He blinked at her, still half-asleep. His beard was matted and unkempt, and he was wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the previous day. “Did you talk to Kharag again?”

“No. But you’re going to.” She pushed a cup of water into his hands. “Right now, while you’re sober.” He fumbled it a bit, caught off-guard, and she took a deep breath. I can do this. “You asked for my help, but I can’t help you. Not the way you’re asking. This has to come from you, or it won’t mean anything.”

“I changed my mind,” Hjorunn said, jaw clenched up and nostrils flaring. “I don’t need him.”

“You and I both know that’s not true.”

“Look, girly – “

“No, you look. If you really didn’t care, you wouldn’t be drinking yourself to death just to spite him. And if you really do care more about drinking than about him, then fine. I can’t stop you. But you at least owe it to him to tell him that to his face.”

Normally she wouldn’t dream of addressing anyone with such open exasperation, but he qualified as her patient now; he had asked her to help, to heal what was broken, and he was being obtuse and stubborn and she was not having it. Not now. Hjorunn blustered, but no words came out, just sounds of indignation. She channeled her mother and drew herself up to her full height, pointing sternly at the cup. “Drink that and let’s go.”

And so they went down to the mill, despite his initial complaints. He’d nearly balked when they reached the city gates, but she’d assured him that she understood if he didn’t want to – after all, being vulnerable was frightening, and if he couldn’t handle it, well, that was nothing to be ashamed of. He’d stomped ahead of her after that, grumbling loudly about damned feelings and ain’t nothin’ in Skyrim that can scare a real Nord, and she’d had to run to keep up with him. No sooner did they reach the house did Hjorunn charge up to the door and pound on it with both fists, yelling.

“Kharag! Kharag, get your ugly mug out here right now!”

“Oh, no,” Rhiannon said, appalled and out of breath. “That’s not – “

The door opened, and Kharag was there, glaring at Hjorunn. “You’re one to talk. You look like two dogs mated in a potato barrel.”

“Ingrate! I should fire you.”

“But you won’t, because nobody else is gonna run this place while you pickle yourself in ale every other night.”

“Get out of my house!” Hjorunn bellowed.

“Come in here and make me!” Kharag bellowed back.

“You pig-nosed, smug-arsed whoreson!”

“You scum-sucking, lazy, drunken lout!”

“Skeever-brain!”

“Milk-drinker!”

And then, to Rhiannon’s consternation, they fell into each other’s arms.

“I’m sorry,” Hjorunn blubbered, fat tears rolling down his face. “I’ll quit drinkin’ so much. I missed bein’ here with you.” Kharag thumped him on the back, still holding him tight.

“Good,” he said gruffly, but his tone was fond. “I can’t run this place all by myself.”

“I know. I’ll cut back, I swear.”

Kharag shook his head. “Not good enough. No more drinking for at least a month.”

“A month!” Hjorunn looked like he was about to protest, but Kharag cut his eyes at him and he folded. “Aye, alright. I’ll do my best.”

“You better. Otherwise I won’t do that thing you like, with the honey and the –“

“Um, sorry,” Rhiannon said, red-faced, “but is it alright if I go? Since you two are all made up now?”

Hjorunn glanced over his shoulder. “You’re still here?”

“Yeah,” Kharag said. “Thanks for bringing him back sober. There’s a lot to do around here. We’ve got orders backed up from here ‘til Morndas.”

“Hey now! I just got home, apologized and everything, and the first thing you want to do is work me like a dog?”

“That’s not a fair comparison. Dog works harder ‘n you ever have.”

“Now, listen here – “

They went into the house, still bickering with their fingers entwined, and Rhiannon breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t sure if she had done the right thing, but they seemed happy, in their own strange way. “Mara bless you,” she said to the closed door. A bird trilled joyously overhead.

----------

Castle Dour was huge, and she had to ask at least three people to direct her to the quartermaster, who was eating lunch in the barracks between drills. “The Legate’s in a meeting,” he told her, dipping his bread in the stew. “Why, are you looking to join?”

“No, I just need to speak with her. It’s important.”

“Can’t tell you when she’ll be done, unfortunately. Meetings with the general can go all day. D’you want me to have one of the servants give her your message?”

“That’s alright. If you could just tell her that – “ Tell her what, that you stopped by? You didn’t even give her your name. “Never mind. I’ll come by some other time.”

“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug, and she let herself out of the barracks and went back across the yard to the exterior, where she found Onmund chopping wood outside the fletcher’s shop.

“She’s in a meeting,” she told him, and he swung the axe over his head and splintered another chunk off the log on the block. He’d stripped down to his breeches, and his hair and bare chest were damp with sweat. Too bad Brelyna isn’t here. It wasn’t her secret to tell, but she did wonder if he was ever going to notice. Brelyna wasn’t as subtle as she thought she was. He leaned on the axe handle and wiped his forehead.

“That’s too bad. Where have you been, anyway?”

“Nowhere important. Just tying up loose ends.” She perched on the wall across from him, swinging her feet. The rain had lifted, the blue sky emerging from behind the clouds, and the air smelled rich and damp like wet earth. She felt strangely giddy all of a sudden. Maybe - just maybe - she’d done something good.

Chapter Text

Someone called his name from far away, and Ahtar groaned. Next to him, Jala slept like the dead. He rolled over and buried his face in her hair, trying to sink back into his dreams. The call came again, louder this time, and he realized that it was coming from just underneath the bedroom window. Someone pounded on the front door, and Jala stirred, mumbling. Ahtar cursed and sat up, throwing the covers back.

There was a guard at the door when he opened it. “This had better be important,” he growled. The guard was holding a torch, and it threw half of his terrified face into stark relief. It was still dark out, the moon full and waxy overhead.

“Someone’s escaped.”

“Who?” Ahtar demanded, but he already knew.

The remaining prisoners were on the verge of a riot when he arrived. Ahtar banged the hilt of his sword on the bars and bellowed at them all to quiet down, but they yelled and rattled the doors until the guards beat them back and threatened to cut rations. He stood in front of the empty cell for a long time, not saying anything, and they glanced at one another nervously. Any time Ahtar went quiet like that was cause for concern. He didn’t get angry very often, and when he did, it always started like that – quiet, almost soft. It didn’t stay that way.

“Who else knows about this?” he finally asked.

“No one, sir,” the first guard said. “We came and got you as soon as we heard the commotion.”

“Good.” A large chunk of the stone wall inside the cell had been obliterated, bits of crumbling shale and burnt straw everywhere. Just through the hole lay two dead bodies – guards that had been patrolling the ramparts at the time. They looked like they had been mauled by a wild beast. “Tell me everything you know. We need to be prepared when they come for him in the morning.”

---------

Over the next day or two, Rikke’s thoughts kept turning to the girl she’d rescued. Not frequently – she was far too busy for that. But every so often, between managing correspondence from the camps and running strategy with Tullius, she wondered. What was she doing in Solitude? How had she been in the position to stop Erikur in the first place? And then she’d run off before Rikke had thought to ask her name, and now Rikke had no idea if she'd get another chance to find out. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of the girl since.

In the meantime, she went to the Blue Palace each day with flimsy excuses. She wanted to make sure Erikur knew she hadn’t forgotten about him. They were civil to one another, if you ignored the hatred burning like live coals in their eyes. She looked for the maid the girl had mentioned, but nobody was acting unusual, and Erikur remained on his best behavior. Hopefully she was staying out of his way. Rikke suspected he’d worked his way through most of the staff at one time or another, and her hands itched with how badly she wanted to clap him in irons. She stopped into the gardens on both visits, but the girl didn’t make an appearance, and she went away feeling curiously disappointed.

On the third morning, Rikke stepped out into the training yard and caught a flash of wild auburn hair out of the corner of her eye. There she stood, talking to Captain Aldis near the gates. She wore the same robes she’d been wearing the other day, and her hands were on her hips, round freckled face scrunched into a frown. Aldis said something Rikke couldn’t make out over the noise, and the girl became visibly distressed, slumping like all the air had gone out of her. Aldis said something else, and she shook her head and left, dragging her feet. Rikke crossed the yard to Aldis, who was staring after her, expression somber. “Captain.”

“Legate.” He came to attention, saluting. “How can I be of service?”

“That just now.” She nodded toward the gates. “What happened?”

“Ah. That was…” Guilt seeped into his voice. “She came to find out about Angeline Morrard’s daughter.”

Rikke pressed her lips together, not liking the way he avoided her eyes. “Private Morrard was killed weeks ago. Legate Cipius reported that there were no survivors.”

Aldis cleared his throat. He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “I… I’ve been trying to find the time and place to let her know.”

“You did her no favors by concealing it this long.” Aldis was a good man, loyal and tough, but short-sighted at times. “You’ll go down to the shop and apologize to her. Today.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Who was that she sent to talk to you?”

“Some traveling mage.” He smiled ruefully. “Angeline decided to take a more direct approach, I guess. Just as well.”

He hadn’t gotten a name either. Rikke ignored the faint twinge of annoyance and nodded. “Very good. Don’t forget to speak to Angeline.” He saluted once more, and she strode off, more curious than ever about the anonymous girl suddenly at the center of everyone’s business. New people showing up in the city during wartime, ingratiating themselves and getting into the middle of things was always cause for suspicion, but the mage seemed genuine. Her distress upon hearing about Private Morrard certainly looked real. Rikke wondered if she might find time to go down to the shop herself, perhaps with Aldis. But she and Tullius were due to swear in the newest batch of recruits within the hour, and somewhere between that and keeping the General and Falk Fire-Beard from jumping down each other’s throats at their meeting, it slipped her mind entirely.

----------

Onmund found Rhiannon sitting on the bench in front of the apothecary, pretending that she wasn’t eavesdropping. Voices filtered through the open windows – one furious, one contrite. “What’s going on?”

“Legion Captain’s apologizing to Angeline. Her daughter’s dead. He didn’t tell her until today.” She looked exhausted, eyes red-rimmed and hair piled on top of her head in a greasy knot. “I was just up at the castle asking for Legate Rikke, but she’s busy all day again. More meetings.” Onmund sat down next to her. A group of children pelted through the square, laughing as they chased and shoved one another, dog barking at their heels. It was quieter now that the morning rush had subsided, but come dinnertime the market would be packed again. “I think we should leave,” she said. “Soon.”

“Yeah?” Not that he objected, but the look on her face was giving him pause.

“It’s easy not to think about it while you’re at the College, isn’t it?” She smiled at him, pained. “Like there’s not even a war going on at all. But here you can’t escape it.”

“Well, we are in Legion headquarters.”

“I know that.” She propped her chin in her hands. “But it’s like the whole city is just holding its breath all the time, waiting for something terrible to happen.”

“That’s war, I guess.” He cringed as soon as it left his mouth. He didn’t know what else to say, so he changed the subject. “Do you want to walk down to the shore? It’s nice today.” Now that he said it, spending some time back out in nature to clear his head was sounding better by the second. Solitude’s walls seemed narrower every time he looked at them, pressing in around him.

Rhiannon nodded eagerly. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

She went to collect her book and bag from the inn, and then they took the path that went down past the stables and across the narrow bridge over the East Empire Company warehouse. It was a quick jaunt from there to the lighthouse that shone out over the Sea of Ghosts, tall and proud with ivy curling up its sides and plants growing wild on the hillside around its base. Rhiannon found some canis root growing out of a cracked boulder and sat on the ground, cross-legged with her book in her lap. She really did feel better while she sketched, down in the dirt with the rich, earthy smell of soil and the salty tang of the ocean clinging to her skin. Onmund sat on a nearby log and played with basic spellwork, little tongues of flame licking at his fingers as he grew and shrank the fire in his palm. Rhiannon liked his magic. You could feel another mage’s magicka with your own, if you knew how to look for it, and she could reach out and nudge it with her own like they’d been friends their whole lives. His was solidly comfortable. Dependable, like Onmund himself.

He looked at her through the flame, and she glanced away, feeling like she'd been caught doing something untoward. “Did you want to help me practice when you’re done drawing that?”

“Of course. What did you have in mind?”

“My mage armor’s rusty." The flame in his hand withered, and he made a fist to extinguish it. “Not many opportunities to practice lately.” They hadn’t seen combat since before Dawnstar, since they stuck to the main roads and only traveled during the day. Rhiannon nodded and made sure the ink was dry before she shut the book.

“I should practice too.” Once it had become clear that more traditional methods of defending herself weren’t going to take, her parents insisted that she expand the scope of her studies, which lead to long nights studying wards and mage armor. They didn’t come easily, but time and practice had left her adequately skilled at both. The real shock had come once the professors at the College had encouraged her to expand her horizons further still. As it turned out, she was nearly as good at making things as she was terrible at unmaking them, and had subsequently begun studying Conjuration. Her parents would have been horrified, even though she knew perfectly well that her father’s mother was from Wayrest, and a formidable conjurer and sorceress who made it her life’s mission to drive necromancy out of High Rock. Appearances, she supposed.

She and Onmund walked down the gentle slope to the ocean, sand crunching underfoot, and she set her things aside on a flat rock, where they wouldn’t end up accidentally damaged. They faced one another across the shore, and Onmund put up his hands, glowing with seafoam-colored light. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

The light washed over him, making his robes ripple and shimmer like he was underwater. Rhiannon concentrated, feeling around for one of the many cracks in the doors between Mundus and Oblivion. A wolf leapt from her hands, head thrown back in a silent howl, and she bound it to her will, pleased to note that it was becoming more effortless with each passing attempt. Her forearm still bore the scars of her first failed binding – teeth marks, pale against her skin in a half-moon.

Go, she thought, and the beast leapt at Onmund, snapping spectral purple fangs. Twin balls of flame whirled in his hands and he threw them, striking the wolf’s side and chest and sending it staggering with a yelp. It wheeled around and came at him again, dodging one jet of fire and leaping over the second to close its jaws around his arm. He winced, but the slick veneer that enveloped him held, and his robes and skin remained intact. His free hand crackled with lightning, and he grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck. It dissolved into a shower of sparks.

"Nice job," she called, trying not to feel discouraged by how quickly it was all over. "Again?"

"Yeah, let's." He shook out his arm. “I know you don’t like sparring, but you don’t have to take it easy on me.”

Her face went hot. “I wasn’t.”

“Oh.” They stared across the sandbar at one another, and Onmund coughed. “I was joking.”

“Right.” She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Do you want to go again?”

He did. They repeated the exercise a few more times, and Rhiannon tried not to be discouraged. With a little more practice, she’d be able to conjure something more powerful, hopefully; she despised combat, but she needed a back-up plan in case of an emergency. They kept at it until Onmund got too cocky. “I told you not to take it easy on me,” he called out, grinning, and in retaliation she had her familiar tackle him into the shallows. He went sprawling on his back, spluttering as his armor melted away, and she burst into helpless laughter.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I am, really – “

“Oh, are you?” Onmund got to his feet, robes sodden and a gleam in his eye.

“Yes!” She tried to run away, but she was laughing too hard to resist when he grabbed her waist, and they both went tumbling into the water. It was pleasantly cool in contrast to the afternoon sun, and they flailed around and splashed one another like children, laughing more than they had in days. Neither of them noticed that they had company until a shadow fell across the sand.

“You there. Mages.”

It was an Altmer. He was dressed in robes identical to Ancano’s, black with gold trim, and flanked by two swordsmer in gleaming elven armor. Rhiannon and Onmund scrambled to their feet, thigh-deep in water that suddenly felt chilly and unwelcoming beneath his gaze. Her robes clung to her, and she shuddered. The Altmer was standing next to her things.

“Who are you?” All of Onmund’s good humor had evaporated.

“I am Justiciar Lorcalin.” He looked down his sharp nose at them, clearly unimpressed by what he saw. “A prisoner scheduled to be moved to Northwatch Keep last night broke out and escaped before he could be detained. Anyone who has any information is to report to myself or the guard captain at Castle Dour.”

“We haven’t seen anyone,” Onmund said flatly.

“But we’ll be sure to let someone know if we do,” Rhiannon added. Her experience with the Thalmor was limited, but she wasn’t a fool.

Onmund crossed his arms. “What exactly should we be looking for?”

Lorcalin’s mouth twitched, the barest hint of a sneer. His teeth were very white.

“The prisoner in question is a Nord. Tall, with long black hair and a beard. He is most likely armed by now, and should be considered extremely dangerous.”

Don’t wind him up. Rhiannon tried to catch Onmund’s eye. He ignored her. “What did he do?”

“That’s on a need-to-know basis,” Lorcalin replied smoothly.

“You said he’s dangerous. Doesn’t that mean we need to know?”

“Watch your tone,” one of the swordsmer warned, and Lorcalin held up his hand. His eyes were as yellow as the rest of him, and they glittered with a strange light. Rhiannon’s skin, already clammy from the water, prickled.

“He is a murderer,” he said. “And a heretic, like most of your kind.” Onmund dropped his arms to his sides, hands twitching like they wanted to ball into fists. Rhiannon grabbed his arm. Lorcalin smiled nastily. “You seem… agitated. Something you wish to confess, perhaps?”

“I’m not a Talos worshipper. Neither of us are,” Onmund snapped. He was shaking with barely-suppressed rage. “We haven’t seen anything and we’re not doing anything illegal. Are we free to go now?”

“Since you have nothing useful to offer, by all means.” His eyes met Onmund’s. “But do be careful in the future, Nord. That tongue of yours could land you in a bad spot.” He swept away without a backwards glance, guards at his heels. Once they were gone, Onmund and Rhiannon waded to shore and gathered their things. The day was as beautiful as ever, but it felt tainted now. Onmund’s sleeves were rolled up, a dark bruise blooming on his forearm from her familiar’s teeth. She reached out and touched it, a wordless question. He stopped long enough to let her heal him, stone-faced. They walked the rest of the way to the city in silence.

---------

There was an impromptu performance on the Bards' College patio that evening, and Rikke had a few free hours for once, so she went. Sunset streaked the clouds violet and gold, the first stars beginning to appear beneath them, and everyone was out enjoying the weather and the music. She followed the faint strains of a familiar melody down the hill. The patio was lit up with hanging clay lanterns, and the crowd was already beginning to spill out into the street. Lisette and Jorn played a lively reel, and Pantea sang along with them, her voice strong and clear over the lute and drums. Lisette danced while she played, fair hair whipping around her shoulders. Rikke stood at the edge of the crowd and watched them for a minute before her gaze drifted, taking in the rest of the scene. A lone figure sat apart from the rest on a bench, head bent over the book in her lap. Rikke circled around the crush of bodies to get to her, music momentarily forgotten.

“I realized,” she said, and the girl looked up, startled. “I never did get your name.”

“Legate Rikke!” She flustered about for a moment, then stuck out her hand. Rikke clasped it out of reflex. It was soft and dry and there was dirt under her nails. “I’m sorry. I was out of sorts when we met the other day. I’m Rhiannon.”

“No need to apologize. Good to formally make your acquaintance.” She let go of Rhiannon’s hand. “I saw you talking to Captain Aldis earlier.”

“Oh.” Rhiannon’s face clouded over. “Right. I went to check on Angeline a couple of hours ago. She seems like she’s holding up alright, but… well. You know.”

Rikke did know. “Aldis is a good soldier, but he’s soft-hearted at times. Makes him less than ideal for delivering bad news to loved ones.”

“I can’t say I blame him. I’m not any better.” She chewed on the tip of her quill. Rikke looked down at the book on her lap and saw that she was sketching something, instead of reading like she’d originally assumed.

“What are you drawing?”

“What? Nothing!” Rhiannon’s cheeks were very red beneath the copper of her skin, and her fingers curled protectively around the edges of the book. “I mean, it’s not nothing, but… well, you probably wouldn’t be interested.” Which only served to make Rikke more interested.

“Try me.”

Rhiannon bit her lip, but handed the book over. She seemed reluctant to let go, her grip lingering when Rikke took it. “It’s just a project I’m working on.”

Rikke looked down at an illustration of the spiky grass that grew in abundance down by the water. On the opposite page, a neat scrawl listed various facts – where it grew, alchemical properties, correct harvesting techniques and so on. She flipped through a few more pages while Rhiannon watched her, eyes trained anxiously on her face. There were drawings of mountain flowers, snowberries and thistles, spider and pine thrush eggs, bear claws and Nordic barnacles, all with accompanying commentary and all rendered in the same loving detail. Rikke didn’t consider herself well-versed in art, but she knew what she liked when she saw it. There was something charming about their simplicity. “These are nice.”

Rhiannon looked like she might faint. “You… you really think so?”

“I do.” She handed the book back, and was about to ask what it was for when the song ended and the audience – which had only grown in size – let out a cheer that drowned out all further attempt at conversation. As it started to die down and a second song began, a young Nord in mage’s robes shouldered his way over to them.

“Everything alright?” He had to yell over the music. They were playing an opus this time, and it involved quite a lot of drumming.

“Everything’s fine,” Rhiannon yelled back. “Onmund, this is Legate Rikke. Legate, this is my friend Onmund.”

Understanding dawned. “You’re the Legate! Pleasure to meet you.” They shook hands.

“And you. How long are the two of you planning to stay in town?”

They exchanged glances. An entire conversation concluded without either of them speaking a word. “Not for much longer, I’m afraid,” Rhiannon said. Rikke was curious, but she just nodded.

“There’s no work right now,” Onmund explained. “We’ll see if we have better luck in Markarth.”

“Why Markarth?” She wasn’t sure where the question came from. She normally didn’t make a habit of prying into people's personal affairs. Rhiannon’s face lit up.

“I haven’t been there yet. The indigenous plant life is fascinating, though. Did you know there are over fifty different species of juniper, and twenty-seven of them are only found in the immediate area surrounding Markarth?”

“I can’t say that I did, no.” Rikke marveled at the transformation. Rhiannon talking about plants was like speaking to an entirely different person.

“How do you remember this stuff?” Onmund asked. “I went to one of Drevis’ alchemy lectures once. Best two hours of sleep I ever got.”

“It’s interesting, I guess,” Rhiannon said. “To me, anyway.” Just like that, the confidence was gone, spark fading from her eyes. The song changed again, this time into a jig, and Lisette came bounding up, pink-cheeked and out of breath.

“Hello everyone! Enjoying the show?”

“It’s amazing,” Onmund assured her, and she beamed up at him.

“Well, you were the one who gave me the idea to suggest it to Ilse and Viarmo. And this song is my favorite!” She held out her hand. “Come dance with me?”

“Me?” Onmund’s voice cracked a little. “I don’t really dance…” He looked at Rhiannon beseechingly, but she just giggled.

“Don’t stand around on my account. Go, have fun!”

“Great, thanks!” Lisette linked her arm through his and whisked him away, into the whirling, stomping mass of bodies. Rhiannon and Rikke remained at a safe distance.

“He’s such a good friend,” Rhiannon said, and suddenly she looked troubled, brows drawing together. “He’s always worried about me, though. I don’t want him to miss out on things because he feels like he has to look after me.”

Rikke watched the dancers for a minute, squinting until she spotted them. Lisette was laughing, and her eyes never once left Onmund’s face. Onmund did look like he was having fun, now that he’d warmed up, but as they whipped past Rikke saw his gaze slide off to the side, like he was looking for someone else. She looked back at Rhiannon, who was watching the dancing with a kind of wistful delight, oblivious. To be young again. It made her think of her own youth – what little she’d had – with bittersweet amusement. She’d bet a week’s pay that twenty-five years later, Ulfric still didn’t know how Galmar felt about him. But thinking about Ulfric and Galmar brought her nothing but grief these days, so she brushed it aside and caught Rhiannon’s eye. “He’s a grown man. You’re not responsible for what he does with his time.” It had gotten even louder, so she had to lean down and practically yell in Rhiannon’s ear.

“Can I talk to you about something?” Rhiannon yelled back.

She nodded. “Let’s go for a walk.”

They went up by the inn, where it was quieter. “What it is?” Rikke asked once they passed the empty market stalls, and Rhiannon sighed.

“It’s funny, actually. I’ve come by over the past couple of days to try to find you, but they keep saying you’re in meetings.”

“If there’s one thing I learned when I was promoted, it’s that half of war is meetings.”

Rhiannon smiled. It faded quickly. “The maid. I don’t even know her name, but I can’t stop thinking about her. Wondering if I made things worse for her.”

“I’ve been keeping an eye on Erikur,” Rikke reassured her. “He’s on his best behavior right now. Can’t say how long that’ll last, and I wish I could put a permanent stop to it, but it’s what I can do for now.”

“Thank you,” Rhiannon said softly. “You’re a good person.” Her eyes were full of such naked admiration that Rikke had to cough and look away, uncomfortable.

“I did what anyone in my position would have done. That’s all.” Then, because Rhiannon was still looking at her with starry eyes – and really, how were they so wide and luminous in the moonlight, it was distracting – she said the first thing that came to mind, which was, “This book you’re working on. What’s it for?”

“Oh, it’s… a personal project.”

“Are you studying to be an alchemist?”

“A healer. Alchemy is my secondary discipline.” She flipped the book open to the first page and held it out. Nature’s Bounty, Vol. II: A Guide to Skyrim’s Flora and Fauna was written there in the same thin, looping script as before. By Rhiannon Amorell was near the bottom, in even smaller letters. “This first volume is still back home in Cyrodiil.”

“Ah,” Rikke said. “That’s why you’re traveling, then?”

“Yes. Well, not the whole reason, but it’s been nice to work on it again. I wasn’t getting much done at the College. No chance to see everything in its natural environment. And Skyrim is full of such fascinating plant life. Have you ever studied the composition of a snowberry?”

“I haven’t,” said Rikke, who’d never given more than a second’s thought to a snowberry in her life.

“Well, let me tell you. It’s incredible.” And she was off again. Rikke let her talk, fascinated. Her face came alive, practically glowing, and her hands were animated, darting around as she explained how a snowberry was resistant to the three basic elements. She’d never known anyone who was so passionate about herbology. To her surprise, she found it less dull than she anticipated. They moved to the bench in front of the apothecary, and Rikke sat and listened to her until she abruptly cut herself off mid-sentence about the virtues of something that could survive a full deep freeze and said, “Gods, I’m so sorry. You must be bored to death.”

“Not at all,” Rikke said, and realized that she meant it. It was nice to talk about something besides the war. She wondered how many times Rhiannon had been told that she was boring. The thought didn’t sit well with her. “It’s been enlightening.”

“Thanks for indulging me.” Rhiannon smiled, shy again. “And for keeping me company. I’m a terrible dancer.”

“Likewise,” Rikke said. “Thank you for not mentioning military strategy once.”

Rhiannon laughed. “Conversations with me will always be utterly lacking in strategy, I promise.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She could still hear music drifting up from the street. It was late, and she had things to attend to, but she found herself reluctant to leave. “You said you were at the College of Winterhold?”

“Up until a couple of months ago. Onmund and I both needed a break.” Rhiannon tucked her hair behind her ear. “Are you from here?”

“A village southeast of here, called Helgen.”

“It must be something,” Rhiannon said. “To be the general’s right hand.”

It’s something, alright. “It involves quite a bit of paperwork,” she said.

She really did have to go after that, so she wished Rhiannon luck with the book. It sounded trite to her ears, but Rhiannon didn’t seem to mind. “Thank you again, Legate. For everything.”

“It’s no bother. And it’s just Rikke when I’m off-duty.”

“Alright.” She had a dimple in one cheek, but it was hard to see because of the freckles. “Good night, Rikke.”

“Safe travels, Rhiannon.”

----------

“Where have you been?” Onmund asked when he showed up to her room later on and found her lying in bed, sketching.

“I went to ask Rikke about the situation with Erikur, and then we sat and talked for a bit.”

“Oh.” Onmund sounded strange. “She seems… nice.”

“She is.” She looked him over, sweaty and disheveled. “Did you have fun?” He’d looked like he was having a good time when she left, and it was clear Lisette thought him handsome; some flirting and dancing would probably do him some good now and again, even if they weren’t staying in town for much longer. He always seemed so down on himself when it came to romance. “Lisette’s very pretty,” she added, trying to sound casual. He made a face at her.

“I see what you’re doing, and nothing happened. Nothing like what you’re thinking, anyway.” He sat down at the foot of the bed.

“What happened?”

“Sorex got into an argument with a couple of people at the performance. Someone said it was Roggvir’s sister and her husband. Then a few more got in on it, and it turned into a brawl right there in the street.”

“Roggvir… the man who was executed?”

Onmund nodded. She sat up, suddenly a little nauseous. “Is everyone alright?”

“The guards came and broke it up pretty fast, but everyone got a good couple of blows in, from what I saw. The sister was screaming at Sorex the whole time about how he and Roggvir used to be friends.” He was quiet for a minute. “I’m glad we’re leaving.”

“I am too,” Rhiannon said. Then she thought about Rikke, and reluctance nudged at her. She dismissed it. Being in awe of someone wasn’t a good reason to stay somewhere if you really wanted to go. Even if they were an excellent listener with a nice voice (and even nicer arms). “Do you want to practice spellwork with me? I don’t think I can sleep yet.”

“Sure.” He rolled up his sleeves. “What did you want to do first?”

She wished she could find the time to say goodbye before they left. On second thought, that would probably be strange. Rikke was probably just being nice. She wouldn’t have been the first.

“I don’t care,” she said. “You pick.”

Chapter Text

By the time they arrived in Markarth, Onmund was already sick of the Reach. The further away from the sea they got, the hotter it was, and his robes stuck to him, heavy with sweat. At least Rhiannon seemed like she was enjoying herself. She’d probably collected all twenty-seven varieties of juniper, judging by the way her satchel bulged at the seams. She’d been distracted and distant when they left Solitude, but as soon as she’d seen the hills laid out before her and the greenery decorating the cliffs, she’d cheered right up. Now she trotted ahead of him on the road, Markarth’s gargantuan stone walls and bronze-capped spires rising high in the distance. “It’s amazing!” she called out, eyes fixed on the city. “Is it your first time visiting, too?”

“Yes,” he called back. His parents didn’t like living so close to the border between Markarth and Falkreath to begin with, and visiting the city was out of the question. They’d heard the stories of travelers who’d gone to the Reach and never came back, and more than one village near theirs had been raided by the Forsworn. He hadn’t seen a single one over the past few days, but he did get the creeping sensation that they were being watched from the cliffs now and again. He glanced back at the empty road, and quickened his pace.

They’d made sure to stockpile supplies before they left, so they weren’t in danger of going hungry or thirsty, but there were other concerns, like being forced to sleep in abandoned bear dens along the way, half-hidden by scrub brush and rocks. Each night he’d feared waking up to a Forsworn sword at his neck – or worse. There were other things that lived in the hills. But if Rhiannon was scared, she’d put on a brave face and kept it to herself, and he did the same, not wanting her to think him a coward. "We can stay at the inn tonight, but after that, we’re going to need money."

"How soon?"

"Soon. We might end up having to do some bounty-hunting. You up for it?”

“Anything to sleep indoors again."

They rounded the bend and came upon a small wooden house nestled into the side of a cliff. The rickety wooden bridge across from it spanned the width of the gorge on their left, and a river snaked along the bottom. Next to the house was a ramp carved into the rock. It wound up and around to a wooden door with an armed guard on either side. A smelter sat across from the door, rumbling faintly. Rhiannon squinted at the sign over the door. “Kolskeggr?”

“That’s the gold mine I was telling you about.”

“That would explain the guards.” The armored figures watched them pass with cold eyes, hands on the hilts of their swords. “What about that other mine?”

“Left Hand Iron? It should be just a little further up the road.” They passed a campsite full of Khajiit setting up tents and digging a firepit, chatting among themselves in Ta’agra. Two cubs, no bigger than kittens, frolicked around their mother’s ankles as she gutted and cleaned fish, and a pair of horses yoked to a wagon grazed peacefully on the bushes. Rhiannon waved shyly at the cubs. They ignored her.

“I still don’t understand why they aren’t allowed inside city limits,” she said to Onmund, voice low. “J’zargo’s allowed at the College, but not in Winterhold itself. He can’t even go to the Frozen Hearth. What kind of sense does that make?”

“None, really. Oh, look, there’s the mine.” He jogged off before she could ask him any more uncomfortable questions.

Left Hand was enormous, housing its workers and their families in barracks next to the mine, and its overseer had his own house across from them with a chicken coop out front. Small gardens bloomed here and there in the patchy grass, and a dog slept on the porch. It was like its own little village, living quietly in Markarth’s shadow. The overseer was an older Nord named Skaggi with a rugged face and one eye permanently scarred closed. His hair was down to his shoulders, but the crown of his head was bald, and pink from the sun. “Sorry, but we already have too many hands an’ not enough coin,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm. “Just filled our quota for the week.”

“Can you think of anywhere that might be looking to hire?”

“Smelter, but I wouldn’t do it if I was you. Mulush ain’t nearly as nice as me, or as pretty.” He eyed Rhiannon. “What can you do, girly?”

“I’m a healer. I also do alchemy,” she offered, timid beneath his skepticism.

“Hm. Mebbe ask Bothela up at the Hag’s Cure. She’s the only alchemist we got. Her apprentice might want a break from makin’ deliveries.” He shrugged. “Not much else to do this time of year unless yer a mercenary. Or you fancy huntin’ Forsworn.”

They thanked him and headed up the road to the stables, which were beautifully carved from pale stone. Horses dozed in their stalls, and a big, rangy war dog basked in the sunshine. Beyond that was a pair of gleaming bronze doors that rose three stories high. As they approached, one of the guards stepped forward, hand outstretched like she was warding them off.

“State your business.”

“We’re just travelers,” Onmund said. “We’ve come to find work and shelter.”

The guard looked them over for a moment, taking in their dirty robes and road-weary faces, then nodded sharply. “Fine.”

She went back to the doors and rapped on them with the pommel of her sword, three times in quick succession. There was a shuddering groan that shook the earth beneath their feet, and the doors swung inward to reveal a sprawling marketplace. She turned back to face them, and even through her mask, Onmund could feel her gaze burning into them. “Stay out of trouble,” she said.

----------

Rikke took the mail with breakfast, as she often did, and sorted through it while she drank her tea. She’d never liked the stuff before, but taking up residence in Solitude had given her a taste for it. There was the usual – reports from the Riften and Falkreath camps, requests for reinforcements from Markarth, inventory reports and supply routes, meetings for General Tullius and herself to attend, and ledgers of that week’s donations and donars. And then there was the piece of folded parchment caught in one of the ledgers. Her name was printed on it in familiar, spidery handwriting. She unfolded it to find neatly-sketched diagrams of snowberries and their anatomy, next to a list of their uses.

Rikke was a practical woman. She didn’t laugh easily these days, and she couldn’t afford to be sentimental. But she lingered over the drawings for a minute, a smile tugging at her lips. Smoothing the parchment, she propped it up on her nightstand, next to her copy of A Dance in Fire: Vol. 2. Not that she ever had time to read, but she refused to give up on it entirely. Then she finished her tea and went to meet Tullius in the war room.

He was already bent over the map, and barely spared her a glance as she entered the room. “You’re late.”

“Yes sir. My apologies.” She set the pile of missive and ledgers on the edge of the table. “Today’s correspondence.”

“Anything useful?”

“Fasendil sent out a patrol to investigate the area, ran into an opposing Stormcloak patrol. Mild skirmish, no casualties, but they got away. Admand is requesting reinforcements again. Jarl Igmund won’t let him recruit any more of the guards.” She thought of Rhiannon, out in the hills looking at juniper. “Permission to send a small patrol to Markarth, sir. It sounded like the Forsworn are attacking civilians. Travelers.”

Tullius was silent for a moment, doing some calculations in his head. “Fine. Permission granted. Go through the personnel logs, see who we can spare. Ten at most.”

“Yes sir.”

“Anything else?”

“No sir. Nothing of note.”

“Good. Let’s begin.”

----------

Bothela examined the potions sitting on her counter with a critical eye. Picked them all up one by one and swished them around, listening to their contents, then uncorked one and sniffed it. Rhiannon chewed on her lower lip. Bothela nodded and put the cork back in. “Good,” she said, and smiled at Rhiannon with a mouth full of yellowing teeth. Her extensive facial tattoos were intimidating, but her eyes were sharp and bright as a fox’s. “I can give you thirty for the lot.”

“Deal,” Rhiannon said. It was better than nothing.

Bothela unlocked her strongbox and started counting out septims. “Don’t know why you’re looking for an apprenticeship. You already know how to make a decent potion.”

“I need money, and this is all I can really do to make it.” Onmund was off scouring the city for odd jobs. They’d agreed to meet back at the inn later.

Bothela made a knowing sound and handed her a coinpurse. “Well, I’d take you on, but Muiri here takes up most of my time.” The woman at the alembic, presumably Muiri, rolled her eyes. Bothela tucked the potions onto a nearby shelf. “She’s a good girl. Not completely useless. Can’t keep her recipes straight for the life of her though… “

“Bothela!”

“Anyway,” Bothela went on, undeterred, “you’re welcome to use the equipment whenever it’s free, but I’m afraid I don’t have any work for you.”

“I could run errands,” Rhiannon said, recalling Skaggi’s advice. “If… if you have any, I mean.”

“What about Raerek’s order?” Muiri asked, and added something to her mixture that Rhiannon couldn’t see. It bubbled and spat, turning a noxious orange. “Oh… I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”

Bothela looked over her shoulder and clucked, shaking her head. “Silly girl, you added ground slaughterfish scale instead of bonemeal. You’re going to kill someone. But that is a good idea. Wait there.” She went in the back and came out a moment later with a tiny, green glass vial. Rhiannon took it. It was barely the length of her palm. “That’s for Raerek, the Jarl’s steward. He wants his business with us to stay secret, mind you, so don’t go giving it to him in front of the whole keep.”

“I won’t,” Rhiannon promised, and Bothela chuckled. She tapped the vial with one knobbly finger.

“This is my stallion’s brew. Old Reachwoman recipe. I’m sure he’ll be very generous in exchange for your discretion.” She winked.

Rhiannon tucked the vial carefully into her pocket, face hot. “R-right. Do you… when should I, um…?“

“He likes to take walks in the courtyard after lunch,” Muiri said. “It’s around back of the keep. You could probably catch him now, if you hurry.”

Rhiannon thanked them both profusely and left the shop. There was a narrow flight of stairs carved into the cliff face nearby. She hurried up them and under a set of arches to Understone Keep. There was a path between two pillars on the left, and she followed it under a set of triple arches to a small courtyard lined with juniper trees and bronze statuary. Overgrown lavender plants and mountain flower petals were scattered across the cobblestones, and ivy clung to the walls. An elderly man in fine clothes stood in front of a weathered shrine to Arkay, at the edge of a shallow reflecting pool. A thin waterfall trickled from the rock face above.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said softly, not wanting to alarm him. “Are you Raerek?”

“I am.” He looked at her with tired eyes. “What can I do for you, young lady?”

“I have a delivery for you.” She stepped closer and took the vial out of her pocket, clearing her throat. “It’s from Bothela.”

“I… I see.” Two spots of red appeared high on his sallow cheeks, and he took it gingerly, fishing in the pocket of his overcoat with his free hand. He came up with a coinpurse, and poured a handful of septims into her palm. “For your prompt service.”

“Of course!” she blurted, too loud, and there was an awkward pause as they avoided looking at one another. She scuffed at a clump of dirt with the toe of her boot, gathering up her nerve. “Sir, I was wondering… my friend and I are looking for work. Is there anything available? Bounties or the like? We’ve been asking around, but we’re not having much luck.”

Raerek considered her for a moment, then exhaled. “Very well. In exchange for your discretion.” He lowered his voice. “The Jarl has been looking for someone to undertake a personal errand on his behalf, but he can’t entrust it to just anyone. You and your friend are competent, I assume?”

“Yes sir.” She hesitated. “Can I ask what the task is?”

“Forsworn,” Raerek said. “They stole his father’s shield when they killed him, years ago. He’s finally tracked down its location, and he needs someone capable of retrieving it.”

“Oh,” Rhiannon said. Her voice did the thing she hated, where it went high and strange when she got nervous, and she cleared her throat. “Is that all?”

“The Forsworn are vicious, bloodthirsty savages. There’s no shame in deciding to look elsewhere for work.”

His tone was unbearably gentle, and she shook her head, forcing herself to meet his eyes. “We’ll do it.”

“I’ll arrange a meeting for tomorrow morning, then. If you can convince him that you’ll succeed, the job is yours.”

He left her there in the courtyard, and she sank down onto the bench in front of the shrine and sat there for a minute, trying to calm her breathing. You just volunteered to go into the heart of Forsworn territory. What in Oblivion is wrong with you? The worst part was that Onmund would probably be excited. She briefly considered not telling him and just letting the matter drop, but she’d already made a commitment. She couldn’t back down.

“Honorable people don’t make promises they aren’t prepared to keep,” her mother had once told her, when Rhiannon was younger and still small enough to cuddle in her lap. “It’s not always easy, but it’s important to remember that.”

“It’s probably easy if they’re strong like you,” Rhiannon had said, and her mother had laughed.

“Not as easy as you might think. Strong people can still be scared, and make bad choices.”

“I wish I was strong.”

Her mother had kissed the top of her head. “Do you want to know a secret?”

“Yes!”

“Sometimes, being strong means knowing when not to fight.”

Rhiannon had turned this over in her head, solemn. “Do you ever get scared?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine her mother being scared of anything.

“Sometimes, sweetheart.” She’d smiled a sad smile. “Sometimes.”

Conversations like that had become less frequent as she’d grown up and their relationship had become strained, until they stopped happening altogether. But she clung to that memory, so she could say that no matter how often or grotesque her failures, one thing never changed. She always kept her word.

----------

Onmund was not having a good day.

Markarth was overcrowded and underfed, and there was no work to be found, save for the Vigilant hanging about on one of the side streets, asking passersby to help him investigate an abandoned house. Most likely haunted, he said. Onmund knew he could be naïve at times – the business with Enthir was a stinging reminder of that – but he wasn’t stupid. He declined.

There was something about the city that made him uneasy, in some vague, undefinable way that he couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it was the way the walls towered over him, stifling. He wasn’t used to cities being so enclosed. Or maybe it was the guards; it seemed like there was one breathing down his neck every time he turned around. He was hot, rattled and irritable by the time he finally gave up and went to wait at the inn. At least Rhiannon had come back with some good news, and enough coin to buy them dinner and at least one more night in the room. He felt useless, with nothing to show for his efforts but sore feet and a sunburnt nose, but she was more worried about the task that lay ahead.

“I’m just not sure how we’re supposed to convince him two strangers are his best bet to retrieve his father’s shield.” She sipped at her wine absently. “At least we can tell him you’re a battlemage. That should count for something.”

“Maybe. A lot of my kin, though… you know how they get about magic. Probably shouldn’t call attention to it right away.” He was starting to get excited about the prospect despite himself. Nervous, but excited. He didn’t know anyone else back home who could say they’d done a favor for a Jarl.

“Good point.” She speared a chunk of potato and popped it into her mouth, chewing slowly. “Bothela said I could borrow her equipment whenever, so I’ll go back tomorrow if we get the job. See if I can’t whip up something useful.”

“One thing at a time,” he reminded her.

“Right. First things first.” She pushed her chair back. “I’m going to go put my bag in the room.”

Onmund figured he might as well do the same, so he went with her. It was only slightly bigger than a storage room, sparsely furnished, and there was a stone bed against either wall. They looked at each other.

“Well, it’s no worse than the ground,” he said. “But the ground was free.”

Rhiannon laughed. “At least it’s inside.” She set her bag on one of the beds. “Sorry we have to share again. You must be getting sick of me by now.”

Onmund dropped his pack on the floor next to the bed. “You’re right. It’s been terrible.” She laughed again, and he smiled. His chest hurt.

----------

She’d expected Markarth’s Jarl to be as imposing as the city itself, but Igmund seemed more tired than anything. His neat beard was streaked with silver, and his mouth had a dissatisfied slant to it that never fully went away. He was cordial enough when he greeted them, but the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach persisted. “I was told that the two of you might be suited to an important task.” Bejeweled fingers drummed against the arm of his throne. Impress me, they said.

“Yes, my Jarl,” Rhiannon said, and her voice echoed back at her from an empty alcove. Igmund had dismissed everyone but Raerek and his housecarl, who watched them from next to the Mournful Throne with polite disinterest. She normally preferred to let Onmund do the talking, since she liked as few people as possible taking notice of her existence, but she was the one who’d volunteered them for this. It was only fair. She’d spent half the night rehearsing what she was going to say. “My name is Rhiannon. This is my friend Onmund. We’ve spent the last five days camping out in the Reach, and we made it here alive. We can get your father’s shield back.”

Igmund smiled a little at that. “You’re confident. I can use that. But what makes you so sure you’ll succeed?”

“Because,” she said. “My mother is also a great warrior. If all I had left was her shield, I would do anything to get it back.”

“And if we do fail, you’re no worse off than you are now,” Onmund added.

Igmund’s lips twitched, and he sat back in his chair. “That’s certainly one way to look at it.”

Rhiannon held her head high, willed her voice not to shake. “Just tell us where to go.”

Igmund stroked his beard, mulling it over. “I suppose it can’t hurt,” he said. “The shield is being held at a Forsworn encampment called Blind Cliff Cave. Raerek will give you directions.” The steward inclined his head in a small bow. “If you do come back, I’ll see to it that you’re handsomely rewarded.” Some of the exhaustion had lifted from his shoulders, life returning to his sunken eyes. He almost looked hopeful. “Happy hunting, travelers.”

They left Understone Keep with their destination marked on Onmund’s map, path outlined in stark black ink from Raerek’s quill. Onmund tucked it back into the pocket of his robes once it was dry, whistling. “Finally, we get to do something interesting.” He caught her eye. “No offense.”

“None taken,” she mumbled. The sick feeling had only worsened, and she was starting to feel light-headed, palms and armpits sweaty. Onmund put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a comforting squeeze.

“It’s going to be fine. We’ll get through this. Just wait and see.”

“Right.” She plastered on a smile. “It’ll be fine.”

----------

Mara help me, this is not going to be fine.

Rhiannon wrapped her hand around her amulet, skin-warm from being tucked inside her robe, and held onto it in a silent plea. The cave yawned wide in front of them. Sharpened stakes protruded from the ground like teeth in its long black mouth. One had a goat’s head mounted on it, tongue lolling grotesquely. Flies buzzed around its sightless eyes.

“I don’t think they want company,” Onmund said.

“I don’t think so, no.” The edge of the amulet dug into her hand.

“We just have to stick to the plan and we’ll be fine,” Onmund said, more to himself than to her. He was looking a little pale, which made her feel better, in a guilty sort of way. “You have the potions, right?”

“Yes.” She put her hand on her satchel instinctively, taking comfort from its weight against her hip. She’d spent the remainder of the previous day at Bothela’s, mixing potions from her emergency ingredient cache. “We have four each. I didn’t have enough to make a test batch, but these should get the job done if I made them right.”

“Okay,” Onmund said. “Good.” Neither of them moved. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.” Which is not at all. She felt like she was going to be sick. “Sorry, just… can I have a minute?”

“Of course.”

He was kind enough to avert his eyes when she really was sick in the bushes, and handed her the water-skin when she was done. That was another thing she liked about Onmund, his kindness. He never made her feel weak, even when she knew she was. She took it with trembling hands and swished a mouthful around, then spat. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” His expression turned serious, and there was something in his eyes that made her more anxious than ever. “Look, Rhiannon… in case something happens in there – “

“Don’t think that way!” She grabbed his hand, and he looked down at her, startled into silence. “We’re going to be fine.” She had to believe they were going to be fine. “Whatever it is, tell me when we’re back at the inn celebrating, okay?”

“Sure,” he said, and looked away. “Yeah. Okay.”

Still holding hands, they stepped into the cave.

It was cooler inside than she expected, and dank; it reeked like dung and wet fur and left the coppery, acrid aftertaste of old blood in her throat. The narrow gorge forced them to move slowly in the darkness, backs to the stone, and Rhiannon slipped a potion into Onmund’s hand. The tunnel widened further along, opening into a well-lit section of cave. Clay lanterns were strung across the ceiling on ropes, illuminating a single Forsworn. She crouched in front of a tanning rack and scraped away at the leather, humming softly to herself. A pile of fresh pelts lay on a low wooden table next to her. Beyond her lay another tunnel, shallowly flooded and dark where the light died away. Onmund bent his head to Rhiannon’s, voice almost inaudible. “Don’t panic. Move slowly in the water.”

They drank the potions as one. Then, there was nothing. No lights, no aftereffects, just a sudden absence where they had been standing seconds earlier. Onmund was still hanging onto her hand, and he cast Muffle over both of them. The Forsworn scout didn’t notice anything, absorbed in her task. And if she did hear water sloshing a bit, she didn’t think much of it. Caves made odd noises all the time.

Rhiannon had made and tested plenty of invisibility potions, but she couldn’t quite get used to the sensation of looking down and seeing nothing where the rest of her should have been. It always left her with the sensation that she was falling, even though she could see the ground beneath her feet. It helped to know that Onmund was nearby, though she couldn’t see him. They crept through the tunnel, sticking to the shadows. Water dripped from the rocks overhead, each tiny splash echoing eerily off the narrow walls. The tunnel began to slope upwards, and natural light spilled from the lip. They moved cautiously to peer over the edge, and Rhiannon had to stifle a gasp, clapping a hand over her mouth.

They were facing an enormous cavern, with half the ceiling collapsed in on one side. It looked like there had once been towers inside the cave, but those were collapsed and broken too, with multiple small encampments built on top of them and larger ones at the base. A waterfall flowed from the hole in the ceiling, trickling down the rock face. There was a central cooking pit on the lowest level, surrounded by chairs, and a small group of Forsworn sat chatting amongst themselves as they chopped up meat and vegetables for dinner. Other small groups sat in their tents, or practiced archery with straw targets, or tended to the pen of goats they kept on one side of the cavern. Rhiannon’s attention, though, was on the garden.

A garden in a cave… Mountain flowers of all varieties and deep purple clumps of lavender grew wild all along the other side, where the sunlight was strongest, hanging moss dripping down from the rocks, and juniper trees grew out of the crags of the cliff side and once-proud towers. She wished she had time to draw it. But there was no time at all, and they each drank another potion. Onmund cast Muffle, and they made a break for it.

Rhiannon was scarcely aware of what she was doing, consumed as she was by fear; she kept moving, always moving, terrified of what might happen if the potion wore off and they were exposed for all to see in the middle of the cavern. They darted along the walls and around the twisting pathway, chasing shadows until they came to a little stone hut next to the wooden stairs that went up to the next level, and ducked inside to catch their breath. No one had noticed them. Camp life continued on.

“They seem so… normal,” Onmund whispered.

“They’re just people,” she whispered back.

“I just thought they’d be scarier-looking.”

“People are scary.”

Next to the hut was a rickety set of wooden steps that led up and around to the next level, alongside one of the collapsed towers. An archer sat on top of the tower’s side, restringing his bow. More clay lanterns hung above them, illuminating the way. They snuck out of the hut and up the stairs to a long wooden ramp that ran parallel to the crumbling tower, stones slick with moss. It led to another tower with two different openings. They drank their potions. One left. The archer’s legs dangled over the side. He didn’t notice them. The second tower leaned at a steep angle against the wall of the cave, but someone had added a precarious walkway made of wooden beams that could be climbed to the top, where a metal gate awaited. Rhiannon couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity. They’d taken something broken and made it livable – a place to thrive, even. They went sideways from there, up along the tower walkway to the next floor, and then into a smaller tower that still stood proudly upright. Its stairs led to a pair of wooden doors, and they pushed them open together, quiet as they could manage.

There was a window directly opposite them, and daylight seeped into the room, still and dusty. At the top of its stairs, a gate and a lever waited, and they waited too, crouched out of sight until the last few seconds of the potion wore off. Rhiannon put her head down, forehead resting on her knees, and tried not to succumb to the dizziness. The whole place was disorienting. That was probably the point, to confuse intruders like themselves.

“That lever is going to make noise,” she whispered. “Can you muffle it?”

“I can try.”

She handed him the last potion. “We have to make this one count.”

“We can run this next part. Go as fast as we can without stopping. I think we just have to get to the top and then we’ll be at the bridge. Hopefully we’re close to the end from there.”

“Hopefully.” A horrible thought occurred. “You don’t think we missed the shield, do you?”

“A trophy like that? I don’t think they’d leave some weakling to guard it. Besides, the treasure is always at the end of the quest.”

“This isn’t a story, Onmund.”

“But it could be someday.” He nudged her, grinning. “When we’re both rich and famous all across Tamriel.”

She sighed. “Let’s run it.”

Footsteps echoed above them. The gate to their right lifted with a groan, and they both drained their vials not a second too soon. A Forsworn with fierce war paint streaking her face stalked in and looked around, a hair’s breadth from where they huddled against the wall. The edge of one of the wicked axes hanging from her belt was mere inches from Rhiannon’s nose. She turned and looked directly at them for a second. Then she shrugged, scratched her head and continued on, down the stairs they’d come up a minute earlier. Rhiannon could barely get to her feet, she was shaking so much, and her heart pounded as she slipped through the gate, groping for Onmund’s hand. He muffled them once more, and they ran.

Up the wooden ramp, onto the next floor and up the wooden stairs, ignoring the Forsworn across from them on the top of the tower as she knelt in front of an altar, lips moving silently in prayer. Rhiannon would have liked to take a closer look at that too, but there was no time. They pelted down the long, thin stone bridge that connected the two towers, directly at the archer standing in its center. She couldn’t stop. Even though her lungs burned and her legs ached with fear and the bridge was too narrow for both of them, she couldn’t stop. He turned and looked in their direction, and it was like time slowed around them. His eyes widened, his mouth falling open, and she realized he could see her. He could see her and he was raising his bow, reaching for an arrow, and she was going to die.

She was going to die.

Onmund materialized in front of her and bulled into the man, shoulder to sternum. He went over the side without a sound.

They reached the tower. Onmund shut the doors behind them and barred them with a broken plank through the handles, and then the only sound was Rhiannon’s harsh panting as she braced herself against the wall, trying to catch her breath. “Are you alright?” He watched her, concern scrawled all over his face. “Look, I know you don’t like bloodshed, but – “

“It’s okay,” she said. She kept her eyes open, focusing on the wall. If she closed them, she saw the archer’s body falling. “You saved me.” He shrugged and looked away, face reddening, and she straightened up, breathing somewhat back to normal. Then she hugged him, and he froze, tensing up. When he hugged her back, he was shaking a little. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “You okay to go on?”

“I think so. Yes.”

They went on.

More ramps, more stairs at the end of cold, dizzying corridors. Iron braziers lined the walls, wax thick around the edges, candles flickering. They came to an iron door, tall as the ceiling with ancient, ominous symbols carved into its surface, and beyond that was a shorter corridor with an identical door at its end. A faint noise came from behind it, something between a sob and a growl, and all the fine hair on the back of Rhiannon’s neck and arms prickled. Onmund already had a lightning spell in one hand, sizzling in his palm. She readied her summon, dread a thick, murky swamp in the pit of her stomach.

“On my count,” he whispered, hand on the door. She nodded. On three, he pushed the door open.

The room was empty, save for a lot of dust and debris, broken barrels and unused shelves. In the center stood an iron cage, and inside, a hagraven rattled the bars as she gnashed her teeth and cursed. A small whimper escaped Rhiannon’s lips, her throat dry with fear. The hagraven whipped her head toward them, and Onmund bared his teeth, lightning sparking between his fingers. Rhiannon recoiled, her summon forgotten, and the hag threw up her hands, palms out, and cried, “Wait!”

Rhiannon grabbed Onmund’s sleeve, knuckles white.

“Wait, please,” the hag croaked again, and pressed herself against the bars imploringly. “Kind morsels – kind humans – hear my plea. I mean you no harm.”

Onmund raised his hand again, but Rhiannon yanked it down, her hand around his wrist, and he looked at her, incredulous. “What are you doing?”

“Wait,” she whispered. “Just… wait.”

“Please,” the hag said again, and there was desperation in her night-black eyes. “I need your help.”

Chapter Text

The hagraven’s name was Melka, and she wanted revenge. “Evil Petra stole my tower,” she snarled. “Locked me up in here to rot! Help me take it back, and I will make sure the kind morsels have whatever they desire.”

“Petra?”

“My sister.” Her gravelly voice dripped with disdain. “She’s always been jealous of me.”

“We’re looking for a shield,” Rhiannon said. Onmund grabbed her arm and pulled her aside.

“Are you mad? You’re bargaining with a hagraven!”

“She needs our help.” Rhiannon pulled her arm away and gave him a hurt look, then turned back to Melka. “Only one of your Forsworn died, and only because he was going to kill us. We didn’t take anything, either. If we help you, we need a shield, and safe passage to leave this place. Deal?”

“Hmm. So Igmund tracked down his father’s shield,” Melka said, and there was a cruel smile on her lips. “Very well. Your terms are acceptable. I’ll even throw in my prize staff, as a show of my gratitude. Now, let me out.”

“One more thing,” Onmund said. “No more calling us morsels.”

Melka laughed, a rusty thing thick in the back of her throat. “Very well… human.”

There was a chain with a circular grip next to the cage. Rhiannon hesitated as she grasped it. She didn’t know much about hagravens, and Melka’s cold, flat gaze scared her. But she’d also vowed to help all things in need, and she was willing to gamble on safe passage back. She pulled the chain. Onmund’s hands filled with fire, and they both backed away, eyes trained on the cage.

Melka’s claws clicked against the stone as she strutted out, stretching deliberately and preening. “Put that away, Breton,” she said, flashing her sharp yellow teeth. “If I were going to harm you, I would have done it as soon as your friend pulled the chain.”

“I’m not a Breton,” Onmund said, but he lowered his hands.

“Oh? It has been a long time since I was human. You all look the same to me.”

“So, where’s this staff of yours, then?”

“Petra took it. She is many things, my sister, but she is hardly stupid. You may have it once my tower is secure.” Melka dragged her nails through her oily black feathers. “Ah… freedom. How sweet it tastes.” She looked at Rhiannon. “You. You say you left most of my Forsworn alive?”

“We only came here for the shield. I don’t see the point in senseless bloodshed.”

One of Melka’s feathery eyebrows lifted slightly. “I see. Expect bloodshed from here on out.” Rhiannon swallowed, hard, and nodded. Melka cackled. “You have no stomach for this sort of thing. An unusual choice for this task.”

“I’ll kill whoever you want,” Onmund said, jaw set. “Just keep your promises.”

“Oh, this is going to be fun.” Still chuckling, she beckoned them to follow her down a nearby corridor, loping ahead of them. Onmund fell in next to Rhiannon as they trailed behind her.

“This is a very bad idea,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back. “But what else can we do?”

----------

There were advantages to having a vengeful hagraven for an ally, as Onmund was soon forced to admit. She knew every inch of her tower, pointing out and disarming traps they wouldn't have noticed without her, and she was powerful. He’d heard stories about how they made deals with the daedra, but it was another thing entirely to see it for himself. Any Forsworn that didn’t fall to his lightning spells or the distraction of Rhiannon’s familiar was skewered by spikes of ice as long as his arm and twice as thick.

They moved swiftly with her leading the way, only stopping once in a small room at the end of one hallway so he and Rhiannon could stop to catch their breath and let their magica recharge. An alchemy lab sat against one wall, mountain flowers strewn across its surface. An apothecary’s satchel sat open on top of the barrel next to it, vials of spriggan sap and bundled hawk feathers spilling from it. Rhiannon’s eyes lit up, and she looked at Melka, who waved her hand dismissively.

“All of this belongs to that thieving Petra. Take whatever you like.”

Rhiannon picked it up, then looked guilty and set it back down. “I don’t really need it,” she said, but Onmund picked it up and handed it back to her.

“If she says it’s fine, then it’s fine. Just take it.”

“Wise words,” Melka said. She seemed amused by their banter. At least, he thought she did. It was hard to tell, and he was still having trouble looking at her directly. “Take whatever you like, unless I say otherwise. My sister has greater worries than a few ingredients.”

“So, why did she take your tower?” Rhiannon was still trying to make conversation, for some reason Onmund couldn’t fathom.

“There are more of us than there are towers. These things are to be expected. Each of us craves power, and allegiances are ever-shifting.” She shrugged one bony shoulder. “It is how Petra did it that is unforgivable. Instead of challenging me outright, she attacked while all my Forsworn were out hunting, and threw me into that cage to rot. Her cowardice cannot go unanswered.”

“Speaking of which,” Onmund said. “How much longer until we reach her?”

“Not long.” She shuffled over to the iron door next to the lab and pressed her ear against it, listening. Rhiannon and Onmund listened too, at a distance. The faint sound of metal striking rock came from the other side. Without warning, Melka threw the door open.

The Forsworn ranger mining the ore vein jutting out from the wall jumped, tip of the pickaxe screeching against the wall. “Melka! How – “

He died with an ice shard skewering his throat, face twisted in silent shock. Rhiannon looked vaguely green, but held it together.

“She’s expecting me,” Melka said. Her eyes were alight with a gleeful hatred, craggy face contorted into a smile. “Best not keep her waiting.”

The corridor twisted and turned until they were dizzy, ending in a pair of wooden doors. Melka conjured a blizzard that ripped them right off their hinges. “Sister!” Her voice scraped against the walls like a blade. “Come and face me!”

“Melka. What a surprise.” Another hagraven stood on the balcony that wrapped around the upper level of the room, flanked by two archers. She was wearing a bearskin cloak and an antlered headdress, and she looked down at them and sniffed. “You even managed to convince a couple of niblets to let you loose. How proud you must be.”

“That is my cloak!”

“Stop talking about us like we’re food!” Onmund barked, and chain lightning crackled from his hands to the balcony. He was aiming to put all three of them down, but Petra held up her hands, shielding them with a bright ward. His spell bounced off harmlessly and struck the wall.

“Really, Melka,” she said, sounding bored. “This is the best you could do?”

“I will have my tower back,” Melka hissed, and the air around her grew cold.

Petra smiled. “Kill them,” she said. “But leave my sister to me.”

Onmund grabbed Rhiannon’s hand and yanked her away from the wall. Arrows shattered against the rock where they had been standing only seconds earlier, and the hags hurled fire and ice at one another, sending shockwaves through the air.

“Don’t just stand there, do something!” Melka snapped.

“Sorry!” Rhiannon said.

Onmund stepped in front of her and lashed out with lightning like a whip, causing one of the archers to fall back as a chunk of the railing disintegrated. Rhiannon muttered frantically behind him. He couldn’t see what she was doing, but then she threw her hand out from around him, and a willowy, molten creature materialized, hovering in mid-air. It turned toward them, eyeless face searching for the one who’d summoned it, only to be buffeted by a hot gale of air as Petra’s geyser narrowly missed it. Arrows pierced its armor, their shafts burning.

“The archers,” Rhiannon called out, and the atronach whipped around and joined the attack on the balcony, hurling molten balls of flame. One of the archers wasn’t so lucky – the flames enveloped her before she could react, and she crashed over the railing with a scream. The other fell to Onmund’s lightning.

And then it was just Petra, warding off a three-pronged assault. She no longer sounded smug. “Melka!” She screamed. “I should have killed you that night!”

“Yes,” Melka said, and laughed. “You should have.”

But Petra wasn’t done yet. She dodged one of Melka’s ice bolts, just as Onmund’s magica reserves drained to their dregs and Rhiannon’s atronach dissolved into smoke and ash, and the sudden silence was deafening. Her claws crackled with blue light, the air becoming thick and full of static. There wasn’t any time to think about it. Onmund turned around and shoved Rhiannon as hard as he could, backwards so she went sprawling into the mouth of the tunnel and out of reach. White-hot pain lanced through him as the lightning struck him and Melka with a sizzle, and the world fell away.

He was on the ground, maybe, something solid beneath his hands and knees; he could smell something burning, acrid in his nostrils. He heard screaming, but he couldn’t tell if it belonged to him. The air shifted around him, and light blinded him. He closed his eyes. In the distance, he heard a crack. He opened them again and saw brown.

Rhiannon’s battered boots swam in his vision. She stood over him, arms outstretched, and the light coming from above poured down and made her hair look like a wreath of flame. Her ward shimmered around them, shielding them from Petra’s onslaught. Lightning crackled around them, snapping its jaws, but the ward held. Even as Rhiannon shook and strained, even as the effort forced her to her knees, the ward held. Onmund lay collapsed in the dirt, body singing with pain, and hot tears rolled down his cheeks. The ward shrank bit by bit, Rhiannon’s arms trembling. Petra’s magic ran out, and she backed away with a hiss and turned to flee. She didn’t make it very far. A spike of ice pierced her back, all the way through her chest, and she died with a gurgle. The ward spluttered and winked out.

“My tower…”

Onmund let his head loll to the side and saw Melka, bloody and burnt, but still alive. She’d propped herself up against a rock to take the shot, her arm still outstretched, and she was grinning with bloody teeth. A few charred feathers drifted to the ground. “It was never yours… sister.

“Both of you, hold on.” Rhiannon sounded like she was speaking from far away. Onmund closed his eyes again. He heard a bottle being uncorked, and then something cool was placed against his lips. He swallowed obediently, and after a moment the worst of the pain faded, leaving behind a dull ache. His skin itched terribly, too tight, and then relaxed. He looked up into her tear-streaked face. “Thank Mara,” she said. “Don’t try to move yet.”

He didn’t think he was capable of forming words yet, so he just nodded. She went to Melka, and he watched her kneel down and put her hands into the hagraven’s, golden light washing over both of them. Melka cackled weakly and released her, flexing her claws. “You are… kind. Odd. Scared of me, but unwilling to let me die.”

“Yes,” Rhiannon said simply. She tried to stand, but her legs refused to hold her, and she sat down, hard. “Oh.” Her voice wavered. “Sorry, I’m just… so tired, all of a sudden.”

“To be expected,” Melka said. She stood, stretching, and pointed at Onmund. “You. Can you stand?”

“I think so.” He was sore, but whole, and no longer dizzy. He got to his feet, and she made a satisfied noise.

“Good. Help your friend. Come this way.”

He helped Rhiannon to her feet, letting her lean on him, and they followed her up the stairs to the ruined balcony. Melka spat on Petra’s body as she passed. They went down a short tunnel and emerged into a small, circular room. “My nest,” she announced.

There was a chest and a little stone bookshelf where all the books had been ripped apart or burnt, and a pile of interwoven branches and furs sat against the back wall in lieu of a bed, and a shield hung over it, perched on top of a pair of antlers. Onmund tried to picture her nesting in it, head tucked under her elbow, and swallowed a tired laugh. Less amusing were the bloodstained table and the animal heads mounted on the walls. Melka made a noise of disgust. “Typical Petra, destroying my things.” She crossed the room and took down the shield. “This is what you came for, yes?”

“Yes.” Onmund took it. It was heavy, but not unbearably so, and he slid his arms through the straps and settled it on his back.

A staff was mounted on the wall below where the shield had been, decorated with feather and bone, and Melka stroked it as she took it down. “Your reward, as promised.” She held it out to Rhiannon, who shook her head.

“Thank you, but I don’t want to take your staff. We just came for the shield.”

Melka cocked her head and went very still, and Onmund’s blood ran cold. He wasn’t up to fighting another hagraven. But then, to his relief, she laughed, and there was no malice in it.

“Very well, strange girl. But let it not be said that I leave debts unpaid.” There a single book still intact, sitting in the center of the nest, and she picked it up and handed it to Rhiannon. The embossed lettering on the cover read 2920, Rain’s Hand v4. “My sister no longer has use for this, but you might.”

Rhiannon blinked, then took it, hesitant. “Well… thank you.”

“You freed me, saved my life. I owe you a boon, little mage.” The corner of her mouth twisted, sly. “I do not usually grant those to humans. Be mindful of what you ask, when you ask it.”

“O-of course,” Rhiannon said, clutching the book like a shield.

“And we’re still free to go?” Onmund asked, just to make sure. “No one’s going to attack us?”

“No,” Melka said. “No harm will come to you in here.” Her smile widened. “Outside of my domain, though … who can say?”

----------

Terrifying as she was, Melka kept her word, and they were allowed to make their way back to the entrance in peace. An entire settlement worth of Forsworn lined the stairs and plateaus to watch them go, dead silent, hands on their weapons, but no one tried to stop them. Not when Melka was escorting them. She left them at the entrance, and they emerged into a silvery-blue twilight, soft white smudges on the horizon. Rhiannon sat down on the side of the road. She was grimy and exhausted, head buzzing, but wide awake. Onmund sat next to her, and they watched the moons rise. “Thank you,” he said after a moment. “You saved me.”

“You saved me too.”

“I guess we’re even, then.” He seemed like he was going to say something else, but then changed the subject. “You know, I don’t think the Jarl really expects us to succeed.”

“I don’t think so, either.”

“Wait until we bring it back.”

“Wait until we tell him how we did it.”

Onmund chuckled. “You never did tell me how you got us that meeting in the first place.”

“I made a delivery for the alchemist.”

“That’s it?”

“I was in the right place at the right time.”

He looked at her like he knew she wasn’t telling him the whole story, but then he smiled and got to his feet, offering her a hand up. “Come on. This damned thing is heavy.”

Later, the enormity of what they had done would hit her – she was still in shock that they’d done it at all. But they were alive, and together they limped back to town.

----------

Rikke rarely went to the shops, simply because she didn’t need to. All food and basic amenities were provided by the Legion. But she had to find a gift for her next visit to Dragon Bridge, so she stopped into Bits and Pieces that evening to look for something suitable.

“Oh, hello, Legate,” Sayma said brightly as she stepped inside. “Can I help you find something?”

“Just looking.” She got the distinct impression that she made Sayma nervous. She made a lot of people nervous. Not on purpose.

“Alright. Feel free to holler if you need anything.” She disappeared into the back, and Rikke browsed the shelves and display cases along the wall, sifting through the junk until she found a hideous broach in the shape of a skull. It was solid gold, with jewels for the eyes and teeth in clashing shades of red, purple and green. One of the teeth was missing, and the skull was lopsided. It was perfect. Celia loved things like that – the more tasteless, the better. She was about to take it to the counter when a book on a nearby shelf caught her eye. An Herbalist’s Guide to Skyrim. She picked it up and leafed through the pages. The illustrations were pretty, but it only covered a handful of ingredients in the country’s northernmost reaches. There wasn’t even any juniper. On a whim, she brought it up with the broach, and rang the bell.

Sayma came hurrying back. “Did you find everything alright?”

“I did. Would you mind wrapping these? They’re gifts.”

“Of course.” She got out the wrapping parchment and twine while Rikke counted out her coin. Her eyebrows twitched when she picked up the broach, and she looked at Rikke with concern.

“It’s for a friend who collects those,” Rikke said.

“Broaches?”

“Ugly jewelry.”

“Thank the gods,” Sayma said. “I was starting to think I’d never get rid of it.”

Rikke chuckled. “My friend will be delighted to take it off your hands.”

Sayma tied up both parcels neatly and handed them back. She had an odd look on her face. Rikke didn’t take it personally. She wasn’t someone most people pictured as having friends, let alone a life outside the Legion. Not that they were entirely wrong on that count. “Is the book for your friend as well?”

“No, it’s for…” She wasn’t sure how to explain it. “Someone else.”

“Ah,” Sayma said, and a knowing gleam entered her eye. “Well, I hope they enjoy it.”

Rikke didn’t bother correcting her. She gathered up her purchases and bid Sayma goodnight, then took the long way back to Castle Dour, basking in the warm night air. When she got back to her quarters, she stripped off her armor and took a bath, wanting to be clean before bed. The book sat on the nightstand, innocuous in its brown paper wrapping. She still wasn’t sure why she’d bought it. It had been an impulse – not one she fully understood, but she didn’t regret it. She wrung out her hair and wondered if Rhiannon was still in the Reach.

----------

“So, what do we toast to?”

“Ourselves, obviously.”

“And the Jarl. He did pay us quite a lot.”

“As he should.”

“And Melka?”

“Now, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Their flagons clinked together, and both of them drank deeply, flushed with success and the heat of the inn. Igmund had been surprised to see them, but he’d also been grateful, if the obscene amount of gold lining their pockets was anything to go by. Onmund had barely started drinking, but he already felt drunk. Not the awful, morose stage of drunk right before you got sick all over yourself and J’zargo made fun of you for a week, either. The golden stage right before that, where everything was blurry and beautiful and you felt invincible.

Rhiannon set her cup down, both hands wrapped around it. “I still can’t believe we actually did that,” she said. “I know we did, but it doesn’t feel real.”

“Trust me, it was real,” he assured her. “I was there.”

She laughed. “I know. I’ve just never done anything like that before.”

He feigned shock. “Oh, now you tell me!”

She giggled, covering her mouth, and he tried not to look too pleased with himself. He’d never been funny before. He liked that he could make her laugh. “I’m serious! Sneaking through a dangerous cave to retrieve something for a Jarl… that’s something my mother would have done, back in her day.”

“Maybe you’re more like her than you realize.”

“Maybe,” Rhiannon said, but her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Do you think you’d do it again?”

“Gods, no,” she said emphatically, and he laughed and got up to get them another round of drinks.

This was why he liked spending time with her, he thought as he waited by the bar, trying to get Kleppr’s attention. It was easy with Rhiannon in a way it wasn’t with other people. She liked him even when he wasn’t trying to impress her, or be something he wasn’t. And then, today, she’d saved him. She’d try to save just about anyone, he knew; that was just her nature. But he was still flying high on success, and hope crept in and took cautious root.

He knew she’d never kissed anyone – the night when they'd all gotten knackered off moon sugar mead had led to some uncomfortable honesty from some of the students – but he had no idea if she even wanted to. She sometimes joked that she preferred plants to people, but she still wore an Amulet of Mara under her robes, even after he’d had to explain to her that it had a different meaning in Skyrim than it did in Cyrodiil. Maybe she was waiting for the right person, and that was why she kept it hidden. But she didn’t seem to mind that he knew, either. Kleppr came back with their food and drinks, and Onmund carried them back to the table, thoughts scattering every which way.

They ate and talked and drank, reveling in being alive, and the more he drank the more confident he felt. Maybe this was all a sign. Maybe tonight was the night he finally told her. He could feel the words on the tip of his tongue, crowding against his teeth, but he didn’t want to just blurt them out. He wanted them to be right.

“We make a good team, don’t you think?”

Okay. Not a great start, but go with it.

“We do,” Rhiannon said, beaming at him. She was wearing her hair loose for once, and it tumbled over her shoulders; the fire crackled in the hearth, shadow playing across her face so she was all coppery curls and big dark eyes in the firelight. You’re beautiful, he almost said, his heart beating hard in his throat. “I’m glad you came with me. It’s been fun.”

“Yeah?”

“Absolutely.” She propped her chin in her hand, expression thoughtful. “Do you ever regret being away from the College for this long?”

“Sometimes,” he said, drink making him truthful. “Not because I’m having a bad time. I just didn’t think I’d be away this long.”

“I’m sorry,” Rhiannon said, voice soft. “You don’t have to keep traveling with me, you know.”

“It’s not that! I like being with you.” He scratched the back of his neck. He was starting to sweat. “I think about what my family would say sometimes, if they knew. They said when I left that I’d fail or get myself killed, playing with magic.”

“But you haven’t failed! You proved that today.” She leaned in, eyes shining. “You should tell them about it. There’s no way they couldn’t be proud of you.”

“You’d be surprised.” This wasn’t how he’d wanted the conversation to go, and he tried to shift it back in its original direction. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“If I were to go back to the College after this, would you come with me?”

“Oh.” She shifted in her seat, avoiding his eyes. “I… I don’t know if I’m ready, yet.”

“Why not? You’re so close to being done.”

“I like being here. I like being on my own, making my own decisions for a change.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “If I finish my studies, I’ll have to go back to Cyrodiil, and I haven’t decided if I want that yet.”

“They’d really make you leave?”

“Why not? There’d be nothing keeping me here.”

“You could come up with a reason to stay.”

She smiled sadly. “You don’t know my parents. I don’t think there’s anything that would convince them I’m not better off back home.”

“What about marriage?”

He hadn’t meant to say it, but his tongue was loose with drink and the thought of never seeing her again had sent him into a momentary panic. Rhiannon gaped at him, one hand going to her throat. “What?”

“If you got married, then they’d have to let you stay, right? Even they can’t be that unreasonable.”

“Onmund,” Rhiannon said, still looking baffled. “I’m not getting married.”

“Are you sure?” He pointed at her neck, where the glint of the chain peeked from her robes. “You know what that means here, but you still wear it.”

“I wear it because it’s a symbol of my devotion.” She laughed, but it sounded forced, and her eyes darted around like she was looking for an escape. The mead sat sour in the pit of his stomach. “Besides, who would I marry?”

Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t –

“You could marry me.”

Rhiannon burst out laughing, shoulders shaking as she relaxed. “Come on, be serious! You can’t want me to stay in Skyrim that badly.” He didn’t respond, and her laughter faded, replaced by concern. “Onmund? Are you alright? You look sick.”

“I’m… I’m fine.” He had to get out of there. It echoed in his head. Get out get out get out. “Think I just need some air.”

She was already rising from her seat. “Here, I’ll come with you - ”

“No!” He said it louder than he meant to, and she shrank back. “Sorry, I just meant… that’s not necessary. I’m fine.”

“Alright,” she said, still looking concerned. She was so beautiful to him still, and so oblivious. So worried about him that it made him feel ill. He escaped. It wasn’t much cooler outside than it was indoors, but at least out here he could breathe. He slid down against the wall of the inn, head between his knees. His mouth was dry. His eyes were wet.

So that was what your heart shattering sounded like - your best friend’s laughter. He never would have guessed.

But then again, maybe he’d always known.

Chapter Text

Neither of them could face each other the next morning. Once she’d checked that Onmund was still breathing, Rhiannon got up and went for a walk along the path just outside the city, until she got to the little house just outside Kolskeggr Mine. Nobody was outside, so she sat on the porch and sketched her immediate surroundings, trying to capture the bridge strung across the gorge and the mountains dwarfing the mine. Anything to keep her mind off the previous night.

It had taken her an embarrassingly long time to put two and two together. As per usual. She’d thought maybe Onmund was sick at first, the way he’d rushed outside, but he’d come back in a few minutes later and ordered another round. He insisted that nothing was wrong, but she wasn’t sure she believed him. He had hers when she didn’t want it, and then the group of miners at the table next to theirs started setting up for a drinking game they called King’s Cup. They were all Reachmen, and rowdy, laughing and ribbing one another while they poured the drinks. Onmund asked if he could join them. They invited Rhiannon too, but she declined.

King’s Cup appeared to have one rule, which was “drink as much and as fast as possible”. By the time she’d finally worked up the nerve to suggest that he slow down, it was too late. She’d had to help him back to the room, where he was sick in the slop bucket.

“I’m sorry,” he groaned as he crawled into his bed, sweaty and pale. “Didn’t mean to get so drunk.”

“It’s okay.” She wasn’t sure that it was okay, but she touched his shoulder, trying to offer comfort. He shrugged her off. Stung, she dropped her hand to her side. “I… I’ll get you some water. Just try to sleep now.”

She put the bucket next to his bed and a cup of water on the nightstand, and then gone to sit in front of the fire and wonder what in Oblivion had happened. He’d seemed fine, up until he’d run off.

Until he made the joke about marrying her.

Which might not have been a joke at all.

Oh, gods.

It wasn’t possible. Her heart dropped. That isn’t… he doesn’t… does he?

Selfishly, she hadn’t wanted to believe it at first. Didn’t want to think she could have been that oblivious, or hurt him that badly. But then she’d remembered the look in his eyes, the way he’d flinched from her touch, and she knew. She’d been up half the night, and ended up sleeping out in the chair next to the fire, afraid of going back to the room.

She groaned and put her head in her hands. Coward.

“Hey!” She jumped and looked up, craning her head back. One of the guards that stood outside Kolskeggr was leaning over the edge of the walkway. “No loitering. Move along.”

“Sorry!” She jumped up, scrambling to stop up her inkwell, and shoved everything back in her satchel. “I didn’t mean to… I’ll go. Sorry.”

She left quickly, glancing over her shoulder. The guards watched her go. She stopped once she reached the stables, and stared at the city gates, a sick sort of apprehension brewing in the pit of her stomach. It was cowardly, yes, but she didn’t want to face him. She didn’t want to see the hurt in his eyes staring back at her, knowing she was the reason for it. She tilted her head back, looked up at the sky. It was cloudless and blue, and a soft breeze blew across her face. A beautiful day to break your friend’s heart all over again.

She went back to the inn, figuring she owed it to him to at least be present and honest, if nothing else. She bought herself some breakfast and sat at one of the tables in the back corner, and Onmund came out not long after, looking like he hadn’t slept in days. He avoided her gaze as he sat down, moving like a man twice his age. There were enormous violet circles beneath his eyes. “That’s the last time I play King’s Cup,” he joked, rubbing a hand across his face. “My head feels about three sizes too small.”

“I can cure it,” Rhiannon said. “But you won’t like it.”

“Is it the same thing you gave us after we drank Phinis’ secret stash?”

“Yes.”

“Pass.” They smiled awkwardly at one another across the table. The silence stretched to almost unbearable lengths. Rhiannon poked at her eggs. Onmund sipped at his water. Rhiannon began shredding her tomato slices with her fork. Onmund sighed and put down his cup. “Hey.” She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry about last night.”

“I’m sorry, too.” She scraped up the tomato and dumped it on her eggs.

Onmund cleared his throat, and looked away. “I did some thinking this morning, while you were out.” She looked at him, forkful of egg halfway to her mouth. “About last night, when you asked me if I regretted being away from the College this long.”

“Oh.” The forkful wavered. “Are you…?”

“I think it’s time.” He scratched the back of her neck. He still wouldn’t look her in the eye. “I’ve been neglecting my studies.”

“Then you should go.” It was a strange thing, to feel relieved and sad at the same time. She put the fork down. “Brelyna will be happy to see you again. J’zargo too, even though he’d never admit it.”

“You sure?” He finally looked at her. “You gonna be alright on your own?”

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry.” She tried not to feel insulted. It wasn’t like he didn’t have cause to ask. “I’ll probably hang around here for a bit longer, decide what to do next.”

“Right.” He cleared his throat again, coughed lightly. “Do you think you’ll ever come back?”

“At some point.” She caught his eye. “I think me taking some space is a good idea right now.”

“Yeah,” he said, and another silence fell, heavier than the last. Onmund shifted in his seat. It was Rhiannon’s turn to look away. When he spoke again, his voice was soft she almost didn’t hear him. “I’m going to miss you, you know.”

Relief washed over her in an unexpected wave. “You don’t hate me?”

“What?” He looked like she’d slapped him, mouth half-open in astonishment. “Rhiannon, I… I could never hate you.” His ears turned red, and he bit his lip, like he’d said more than he meant to.

Rhiannon smiled tremulously. “Onmund – “

“Don’t cry,” he warned her.

“You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I couldn’t stand it if you hated me.” She blinked away the threat of tears. “Don’t think for a second I’m not going to miss you, too.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, but he was smiling. Just a little.

----------

She saw him off that afternoon, when the carriage came through town. Secretly, they were both relieved. He let her give him a quick hug after he finished slinging his bags up onto the seat. “Can I write?” she asked as he boarded.

“You’d better.”

The carriage driver picked up the reins, signaling to the horses that it was time. “Where to?”

“Winterhold.”

The wheels creaked as the carriage lurched forward, rumbling onto the stone road. Onmund gave her one last wave, and she watched him go until they rounded the bend and vanished from sight. Her hand crept in her pocket. Onmund had left her the map, and she needed to reassure herself that it was still there. For the first time in her life, she was well and truly alone, and the initial thrill quickly gave way to worry. She wanted to leave in the morning, but she didn’t know when another carriage would come through, and one lone travelers was easy prey for bandits. Irresistible, even. She retreated to the safety of the walls.

The rest of the day was spent preparing to leave. A good chunk of her gold went to Bothela, purchasing as many potions and ingredients as she could comfortably carry, and to the general store. Just as well she wasn’t planning on staying more than one last night; at this rate, she’d be broke again within the week. She even guiltily purchased a couple of scrolls, now that Onmund wasn’t here. Better to be a paper mage than dead. Then she hunkered down at the inn and poured over the various routes outlined on the map while she had dinner. She couldn’t read it very well, but it was a good distraction from the anxiety tearing at her insides. That was what she got for letting Onmund handle all the map-reading. For relying on him too much.

It can’t be that complicated, can it? She squinted at the parchment, tracing the inky path from Markarth to Whiterun with her fingernail. All she had to do was making it from here to there without being killed. People did it all the time. Simple.

She was dead meat.

She gripped handfuls of her robe and took deep breaths, trying to ground herself and think of other things. It was just a peculiarity in her temperament, she had been told. Prone to overreaction, high strung nerves, and a tendency to let worry cloud her thoughts and make her sick. None of which captured how it felt to be a prisoner in her own body during those moments, held in the grips of hypothetical terror. Calm down. You are not going to die. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth until she no longer felt like she was going to pass out, and some of the fear receded. She smoothed her hair back with shaky hands and tried to focus.

Right. Fastest way to Whiterun. She supposed she could always buy a horse, but she’d never been much for riding, and it might give thieves more incentive to harass her. There was also the option of hiring someone, but mercenaries were expensive and didn’t appeal to her. Then, she remembered the Khajiit.

It was nearing sunset when she left Markarth, sky drenched in rosy amber hues. A flock of birds soared overhead, little black silhouettes against the clouds, and she hurried down the path towards the mines, hoping she wasn’t too late. Luckily, they were still there, breaking down their camp and stowing it in the back of the covered wagon. The cubs hid behind one of the wheels as she approached, watching her with wide, silvery eyes. She found their leader – a gray-furred Khajiit with long, dignified whiskers and finely-stitched clothing – and stopped a respectful distance away. “Warm sands and pleasant journeys. May I speak with you?”

His bushy eyebrows twitched, and for a second she was afraid she’d been presumptuous. But then he nodded cautiously, and beckoned her closer. “What can Ri’saad do for you, stranger?”

“I apologize in advance if what I ask is too much.” She withdrew the coinpurse she’d filled for the occasion and watched his eyes light up. “I need an escort to get me out of the Reach. I was wondering if I could travel with your caravan for a while.”

“Hm. Perhaps.” He took the coinpurse, weighing it in his palm. “Where are you looking to travel?”

“Whiterun.”

Ri’saad rapped out something in Ta’agra. Two Khajiit, one armored with a sword strapped to her hip and the other in blue robes, came over. Ri’saad conferred with them, and the three of them looked her over, expressionless. She smiled nervously, shifting her weight. Then Ri’saad flashed her a toothy grin and pocketed the coin. “Our destination is Whiterun. You may ride with us.”

She nearly collapsed, weak with gratitude. “Mara bless you. Thank you.”

“Come,” Ri’saad said, and beckoned her to follow him. “We were not expecting a guest, but we will make room.”

‘Making room’ meant that she ended up crammed in the back of the wagon, among the cargo. It wasn’t the most comfortable she’d ever been, but she didn't care. Night was blooming darkly by the time they departed, the moons soft little slivers on the horizon and the breeze perfumed with juniper. She sat on a stack of furs and watched Markarth’s hulking silhouette fade into the distance. She wished she’d brought something to read by candlelight, but it wasn’t long before the swaying of the cart and the clop of the horses’ hooves lulled her into a dreamlike trance, and she stretched out as much as she could, head facing the open back of the wagon. She fell asleep looking at stars.

----------

The cubs got over their fear of her on the second day. They were a variety of Khajiit called Alfiq, she learned, and their names were Ma’rafi and Krisrin. Prolonged interactions with humans were rare, and they therefore found her fascinating. By the third day, they thought nothing of climbing on her shoulders or pouncing on the hem of her robes. They especially liked her hair, and sitting in the back of the wagon to bat at her curls whenever they were bored. Rhiannon started leaving her hair unbound for them, on the condition that they kept their claws to themselves. Their mother was Khayla, the caravan’s main guard, and she sat in the back with them, one eye on the road and one eye on Rhiannon and the cubs.

“Can I ask you something?” Rhiannon asked that afternoon. The wagon was hugging the side of the mountain as they trundled along, and she needed something to take her mind off the wickedly narrow path. The cubs were snoozing in Khayla’s lap. She flicked one ear, a sign for Rhiannon to continue. “I’m sorry if this is offensive. I don’t know much about Khajiit physiology…”

Khayla blinked at her. Slow, lazy, the tips of her fangs showing. "You wish to know why they are not like me.”

“Yes. If that’s alright.”

So Khayla did her best to explain how the phases of the moon shaped her people. Rhiannon only understood about half of what she was saying, but found it interesting all the same. Khayla had a pleasantly raspy voice, rolling her r’s, and Rhiannon sat back and closed her eyes, letting the words wash over her. The sun was warm, the sky sweetly blue, and locusts droned from the trees that grew cliffside as they rattled by. “And now this one will ask you something,” Khayla said. Ma’rafi rolled onto his back, yawning. “You are not from here, yes?”

“Yes. I mean, no. I’m from Cyrodiil.”

“You are familiar with Khajiit greetings.”

“My father is a merchant. He does business with the caravans, on the rare occasion they come through City Isle.”

“Is that why you chose us to travel with us?” She sounded amused, but then again, Khajiit often did. “Most of your kin here would not lower themselves to do so.”

“They’re not my kin.” Rhiannon shrugged. “And I don’t know. Hiring mercenaries is expensive. I just thought traveling with you all would be… nicer.”

“Why not travel by yourself and save your coin?”

“I’m scared.” She looked away. “I’ve never been on my own before.”

“Scared?” Khayla cocked her head. “Are you not a good mage?”

Rhiannon had to laugh. “I’m a decent healer, but no. Not a very good mage.”

Khayla made a noise in her throat, a purr and a snicker all at once. “Then it is good that you are with us.”

Krisrin snuffled, back foot twitching. Rhiannon blew a stray bit of hair out of her eyes. “So… what’s Elsewyr like?”

She dozed off listening to Khayla talk about her homeland, and woke some time later, as the wagon rolled to a stop. It was getting dark, and the Khajiit were already building a firepit. The silhouette of the hills rose and fell around them like black waves, cliffs jutting tall in the distance. They’d made good time.

She found herself next to Ri’saad during dinner. Everyone sprawled out where they pleased and ate what they liked – some sort of custardy stew that smelled like sweet bread and melted cheese, dried fruit crystallized with sugar, and strips of meat browned over the fire. “How much longer until we reach Whiterun, do you think?”

“Less than a week, if fortune favors.” Ri’saad handed her a cup of wine. It was extraordinarily sweet. “What takes you there?”

“Nothing in particular.” She sipped at it. “I just haven’t been there yet.”

“You are a nomad, then. Like us.”

She hadn’t thought of it like that before, but the idea appealed. “I suppose I am. For now, anyway.” She ate a chunk of fruit. She didn’t recognize it, but it was tangy against the crunch of the sugar, and she helped herself to a few more pieces.

Ri’saad watched her, head cocked. One ear twitched. “Khajiit is surprised to see you enjoying those so readily.”

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t… I thought – “

“No, you are welcome. It is just that most humans find our food to be more potent than they are expecting.” She didn’t understand what he meant at first, so he clarified. “This one does not know how raw moon sugar affects humans.“

She nearly spat out the fruit, but all the sugar had already dissolved on her tongue. “This is raw moon sugar?”

“Ah… yes,” Ri’saad said, barely-disguised laughter in his voice. “This one apologizes. It is customary for us. I do not believe any harm will come to you, but perhaps you should lay down.”

“Why would I,” Rhiannon started, and then stopped as the rest of the sentence fell out of her mouth. A swell of euphoria rose and broke over her skin, and she could feel her pupils expand, the stars above her mirrored in her eyes. She slithered down into the grass, wine spilling into the dirt. Above her, Ri’saad laughed. She laughed, too, though she had no idea why. Stars shot across the sky like pebbles being skipped across a lake, then rained down on her. She opened her mouth to let them land on her tongue. She thought they might be sweet, but they tasted like hot iron. They tasted like blood.

----------

The courier caught up with her the next day, thundering up alongside the caravan on horseback. Ri’saad slowed so she could balance on the edge and retrieve her package. She thanked them, embarrassed that she’d held them up, and sat back on the furs to unwrap it. It was good timing. She was still recovering from the previous night, and kept catching glimpses of strange things around the edges of her vision. A distraction came in the form of An Herbalist’s Guide to Skyrim. There was a note tucked between the cover and the title page, with her name printed on it in plain script. She slipped it free and unfolded it.

I found this and thought you might be interested. Frankly, I was unimpressed. I suspect yours will be much more comprehensive once it’s finished.

Best wishes – Rikke

Rhiannon read it three times, heart fluttering. She was confused, but not unpleasantly so. Rikke had found this and thought of her. Paid for it, wrote her a note, and sent it all the way to the outskirts of the Reach – for her. The snowberry diagrams had been a last-minute impulse. She’d wanted to draw something as more tangible evidence of her gratitude, but there hadn’t been time, so she’d just torn the page out of her compendium. She could always redraw it later. She’d then spent the entire trek to Markarth convinced that it had been a stupid idea and Rikke found her idiotic. She’d never been so happy to be wrong.

She read the book slowly over the next couple of days as the caravan rattled and bumped its way out of the hills and into the plains, savoring each page. As Rikke had noted, it was far from a complete account of Skyrim’s resources, but the illustrations were lovely. She took note of the page on hagraven feathers. Maybe that’s what I’ll ask for, if I ever see Melka again. Unless it was somehow a grave insult, she suspected the hag wouldn’t mind parting with a handful of discarded feathers and claw trimmings.

The Khajiit had found her unexpected encounter with the moon sugar hilarious, and seemed to like her, more or less. She pitched in when needed and stayed out of their way the rest of the time, and even the ones who’d seemed baffled as to why a human was traveling with them were used to it within a matter of days. The cubs took to napping on her whenever Khayla was busy. She was going to miss them once they parted ways.

They followed the river now, and it was on the sixth day that Rhiannon, hanging over the back so she could see her surroundings, first spotted the village. “Excuse me?” She waved at Ma’randru-jo, who was bringing up the rear on horseback. “That village over there, what’s it called?”

“Riverwood.” He rode closer, his horse keeping pace with the wagon. “One of Whiterun’s settlements.”

Impulsively, she asked, “How would I get over there?”

“There is a bridge just ahead.”

“Could you ask Ri’saad to stop for a moment, please?”

He nodded and rode ahead, and a couple of minutes later the wagon rolled to a halt. She swung her pack over her shoulders and climbed down after giving the cubs one last nuzzle. Ri’saad blinked at her when she came up front. “This one has agreed to take you as far as Whiterun.”

“I think this is my stop,” she said, and he ran his claws through his whiskers, ears twitching.

“It is as you say. Thank you for your patronage. Khajiit is sure we will meet again.”

“I’m sure we will.”

She stood off to the side so they could carry on, and waved at Khayla as she rode by. The bridge was just up ahead, and Riverwood lay on the other side, nestled like a quaint jewel amid the lush greenery. Wooded hills rose thick on either side of them, and the village was built around a little inlet in the river, with a sawmill in its center. As she got closer, she saw cows grazing behind a low fence, and chickens wandering the dusty street. Trees surrounded her in an emerald ocean, and the air was sharp and crisp with the scent of pine. She stood at the foot of the bridge and breathed it all in.

There were people busy at work at the mill, and she didn’t want to disturb them, so she approached an elf chopping wood once he paused to take a break. He was a Bosmer, barely her height, dressed in homespun clothes.

“What?” he asked, peevish.

“Sorry to bother you. I just arrived, and I was wondering, does this place have an apothecary?”

To her delight, he shook his head. “Elona and Orgnar keep some equipment at the inn for travelers, but the closest alchemist is in Whiterun.”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

He gave her an odd look, but picked up the axe again and split off another chunk of wood. She left him to his work, humming to herself as she strolled toward the inn. With each passing day since she left Markarth, her heart grew lighter. Mara provides.

A woman was sweeping the porch. From afar, she looked a bit like Rikke, lean and blonde. Rhiannon’s heart jolted, even though she knew it wasn’t. She had to take a second to compose herself anyway. Rikke’s note hadn’t left her pocket since she received it. She was starting to think of it as a good luck charm.

“Excuse me,” she said from the bottom of the steps. “I’m looking for Elona?”

“You found her,” the woman said brusquely. “What do you want?”

“I heard you have alchemy equipment on hand. I was wondering if I could use it.”

“Some,” Elona said. “Have Orgnar dust it off for you. Doesn’t see much use these days.” She gave Rhiannon a quick once-over. “Traveling alchemist?”

“Yes,” Rhiannon said, the gears in her brain turning. “And I’d like to make a deal with you.”

---------

That night, Aldis asked her to the Winking Skeever for a drink, and Rikke went. It would have been one thing if he’d meant anything by it, but it wasn’t an overture. Aldis was single, and as far as she knew he preferred it that way. They posted up at one of the corner tables, sipping Cyrillic brandy while they played cards, and before long, she was pleasantly drunk, firelight blurring at the edges of her vision. Aldis got up to relieve himself and order another round, and Rikke leaned back in her chair, staring at nothing. She enjoyed precisely thirty-two seconds of uninterrupted bliss before the crying girl slumped into the inn.

Her face was blotchy and wet, hair shielding her, but Rikke recognized her as one of the palace maids. Nobody else paid her mind, absorbed in their own pursuits. She got to her feet, putting her hand on the table to steady herself, and went over. “Erdi?”

“Legate!” The girl jumped, and attempted a half-hearted curtsy through her tears.

“None of that.” Rikke beckoned her back to the table, pulling up an extra chair. Erdi sank into it gratefully, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “What’s going on?”

Fresh tears welled up. “T-they f-fired me,” she sniffled. Rikke sat down with a thump. She no longer felt pleasantly anything.

“What happened?” she asked. Erdi hesitated. “You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable, but anything you tell me stays between us.”

Erdi blew her nose and glanced around. Nobody was paying them any mind, so she leaned in. “I tried to stay out of his way,” she said, low and pleading. “Honestly, I did, but he…” Her lips started trembling again. It took Rikke every ounce of self-control she had to tamp her rage down before it boiled over and got the best of her.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” If the answer was anything other than ‘no’, she was going to drag Erikur out of bed and beat him senseless. All the gold in the world wouldn't save him.

Erdi shook her head. “No, but… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” She twisted her handkerchief with nervous hands. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Everything alright?” Aldis had come back with two more brandies, broad face flushed beneath his beard. He looked between them, confused, as he handed Rikke her drink.

“Captain! Please forgive me, I had no idea I was interrupting anything.” Erdi made to get up, but Rikke shook her head and gestured for her to sit down. She handed her the brandy.

“You’re not. Captain, this is Erdi. She used to work at the palace.”

“Used to?”

“Yes,” Rikke said. An idea formed. “Now she works for us.”

“She does?” Aldis asked.

“I do?” Erdi echoed.

“Gods know we’re understaffed.” She looked at Erdi. “Can you cook?”

“Ah… a bit,” Erdi stammered.

“Good. Come by tomorrow. Gianna is a good chef, but she can’t handle the entire contingent on her own.” And if they said no, she’d take Erdi on as her chambermaid. Tullius wouldn’t begrudge her that. Especially if she was paying the girl’s wages out of her own pocket.

“T-thank you!” Erdi sounded like she might faint – or worse, start crying again. “How can I ever repay you?”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Rikke said. "We'll see what happens."

Erdi took a giant gulp of the brandy, and promptly spit it out all over Aldis. She apologized about twenty times and insisted on buying another with her meagre savings. They were still talking by the time Rikke bid them goodnight.

She was too agitated to sleep, so she went to the temple. The priestesses knew her, and knew better than to say anything when she stood in front of the empty alcove where Talos’ shrine had once resided. Erikur. She breathed his name like a curse, one hand on the cool stone.

One way or another, she would finish this. No matter how long it took.

Chapter Text

Dear Rikke,

Thank you for the book. That was extraordinarily thoughtful of you. You were right that it’s not very comprehensive, but the art is beautiful. I envy the author’s skill.

I hope everything is well in Solitude, and with you. I’ve found myself in a little town called Riverwood for the time being. Maybe you know it? It’s wonderful here. There was nothing like this where I grew up. Enclosed is a drawing of the mill. I like how it works in harmony with the river. I also made you some tea, in case you were wondering what’s in the sachet. It’s a family recipe, to help with stress and headaches. I hope you like lavender.

Sincerely,

Rhiannon

----------

 

Daughter,

This is the last time I will write. Your mother has begged me to talk some sense into you, since you’ve been ignoring her letters. I confess that I have little to say. Your recent behavior has left me at a loss. What is it about that wretched land that has you so entranced? Are you aware that there’s a war going on? This is no time to bury your nose in silly projects. Your mother and I are worried sick about you. You’ve always been a good daughter, dutiful and loving. I know you often wish you were more like your mother, but the truth is that I was always relieved to have one child whom I could depend on to stay out of harm’s way. This isn’t like you, Rhiannon.

I’ll ask you once more to return to the College of your own volition, where it’s safe. Otherwise you leave me no choice but to send an envoy to escort you home. I think we would both prefer I refrain from such drastic measures. I expect a prompt reply.

Rufinus Amorell

----------

 

Rhiannon’s reply was prompt, as requested, but Rufinus had trouble deciphering it. The ink was smeared and blotchy in places, like water had dripped on it while she was writing.

Dear Father,

Everyone else got to go off on some great adventure, and you and Mother didn’t bat an eye. I think I’d like a turn at it as well.

Faithfully,

Rhiannon

Chapter Text

She’d been in Riverwood for less than a week when the letter came. She’d burned it in a fit of pique, but every time she thought about it, it stung like a freshly-salted wound.

Her father had always been supportive, even when things were strained between her and her mother in the past, which was what made it hurt all the more. Was she really so pathetic that she needed to be preserved, like a butterfly in someone’s collection? She tried to work on her book, but she kept seeing the words silly projects whenever she picked up her quill. The whole thing suddenly seemed of little consequence, frivolous and self-indulgent. It wasn’t as if anyone was going to publish her. So she put it aside, and didn’t touch it for some time.

There was plenty to keep her busy regardless. Once word spread that there was an alchemist staying at the inn, the orders started coming in at a steady pace. It was faster than putting in an order to Arcadia in Whiterun and waiting for a delivery, and Elona let her stay in exchange for a cut of the profits. Gerdur, who ran the mill with her husband Hod, was her most frequent customer.

“People come in drunk on the job, and the war means I can’t afford to turn away able bodies, so I need to be able to treat injuries at a moment’s notice,” she’d said the first time she’d come in. “Might be a different story if Whiterun didn’t get most of their lumber from us. I’ll take whatever you’d got.”

Rhiannon was glad of the work. It kept her hands busy and her thoughts from running wild. Too long without a distraction, and she started fending off stray thoughts like Rikke probably hates tea and Onmund’s never going to speak to you again, or small things she hadn’t thought about in years that made her want to die of embarrassment when she remembered them. Then, one beautifully ordinary day, a distraction of a different sort presented itself.

The grassy knoll in front of the inn sloped down to the river, and when she wasn’t brewing potions, Rhiannon would sit on the bank, dangling her feet in the water while she read or daydreamed. She was laying on her back, splashing idly, when a shadow fell across her and blocked her view of the clouds. “Rhiannon, right?”

She squinted up, shading her eyes. “Yes?” Features came into focus as she sat up, and she recognized the speaker as the bard from the inn. Sjorvar, Skald, Stig… she couldn’t remember his name. Something that started with ‘S’.

“You’re the alchemist, right? I need your help.”

“Oh! Sit down, please.” She patted the grass next to her, and he sat. He had an arrogant sort of handsomeness about him, with chiseled features and long blond hair. She still couldn’t remember his name. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s… complicated.”

In Rhiannon’s experience, that usually meant one of three things – love, money, or blood. She looked him over and took a guess. “A girl?”

He looked at her, astonished. “How did you know?”

“It almost always is.” She smiled. “What’s her name?”

“Camilla.” His face softened for a moment, dreamy, and she squashed a pang of envy. Nobody would ever look like that when they thought about her. Nobody she didn’t think of more as a sibling than a potential lover, anyway. “Do you know her? Her brother runs the general store.”

“We’re acquainted, yes.” She’d been in the Riverwood Trader a few times. Lucan was gruff, and oddly over-protective of his little sister, but Camilla was pretty enough to leave her tongue-tied at their first meeting, and sweet besides. “Well, I can try to offer some advice, but if you’re here for more than that, I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re going to ask me about love potions, right? You wouldn’t be the first, I promise.”

He floundered, caught. “But I – I heard a rumor that Arcadia – “

“I’m not Arcadia.” She tossed a pebble into the water, watched it ripple outward. “And what those potions do isn’t love.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his face turn red.

“Sorry to bother you,” he said tightly, and slumped off. He looked so embarrassed that she almost felt sorry for him. Sven, she suddenly recalled. His name was Sven. She hoped that was the end of it, but he cornered her later while she was eating dinner.

“I’m sorry,” she said without looking up, trying to sound firm, “but I can’t help you.”

“Wait, wait. Look. I’m sorry about earlier.” He sat down on the bench next to her. “It was a stupid thing to ask.”

She watched him out of the corner of her eye while she chewed. He did look chastened. “Why ask at all, then?”

“Camilla is incredible. I’ve never felt this way about a girl before, but she keeps me at arm’s length. I’m desperate.” She believed him there, at least. He sounded desperate.

“Does she know how you feel about her?”

“I think so. I’ve made it very clear, but she’s sly. One minute she’s in here flirting with me, the next she’s batting her eyes at Faendal.” His hands curled into fists, braced against his thighs.

“Faendal?” Rhiannon scooted back, alarmed by the anger in his words. “The Bosmer who works at the mill?”

“I’ve seen him skulking around the Trader when he thinks I’m not looking.” Sven’s scowl deepened. “He thinks he’s so clever, with his archery and his smart mouth.” Then he looked at her, and the frown became a plea. “I heard you the other morning, praying to Mara. And I saw your amulet. You can help me, can’t you?”

She sighed and put her fork down. “Maybe. What exactly are you asking me to do?”

Sven thought for a moment. “Could you talk to her? Try to find out what’s going on. She knows how I feel about her, and yet, she holds back. I don’t understand.”

Maybe she just doesn’t like you, Rhiannon almost said. She bit her tongue until she regained her composure. “Okay. I’m not promising anything, mind you, but I’ll talk to her.”

“Thank you, my friend,” Sven said, brightening up. He left her in peace after that, but she no longer had an appetite, and went back to her room. She didn’t particularly want to help him, she thought, kicking off her boots. He was pompous, and entitled. But for all she knew, this was Mara offering her guidance – or a test. As a healer, she would never dream of letting her personal feelings get in the way of treating a patient, and she supposed it was the same for priestesses. They were a conduit for those seeking help from the gods. If she was going to be one, this was good practice.

She planned to go to the Riverwood Trader directly after lunch the following day, but Faendal waylaid her almost as soon as she set foot outside.

“I saw you talking to Sven yesterday,” he said. “I’d stay away from him, if I were you.” His expression was grave, but then again, she couldn’t remember seeing him smile. Maybe Camilla liked the broody type.

“He was trying to enlist my services. That’s all.”

“Did he ask you for a love potion?” She blinked, caught off-guard, and his lip curled. “Figures. That’s the only way Camilla would ever choose him.”

Rhiannon wanted to scream. Instead, she gave him a polite smile. “I don’t make love potions. Excuse me.”

“Wait.” Something in his voice gave her pause. “Did he ask you about Camilla?”

“I really don’t – “

“If you are going to talk to her, could you tell me if she says anything about me? Or… or if she sounds like she’s made up her mind?”

“I… alright,” Rhiannon said, unnerved by his sudden vulnerability. He let her go, and she hurried down the road to the Trader, where Camilla stood sweeping the porch. She waved when she saw Rhiannon, pretty face lighting up.

“Is everything alright? You look worried about something.”

“Oh, I’m alright. Your admirers, on the other hand – “

Camilla shook her head. “They aren’t bothering you, are they? I saw you talking to Faendal just now.”

“Do they do this sort of thing a lot? Tell travelers about how they’re madly in love with you?”

“Oh, gods, I’m sorry!” Camilla’s cheeks turned a dusky pink, and she huffed a little. “They’re both so melodramatic, honestly.” She looked pleased despite her words, and Rhiannon tried to set aside her irritation. Liking attention wasn’t a crime.

“They’d be a lot less melodramatic if you quit toying with them,” Lucan called through the open door from where he was leaning on the counter. Camilla stopped sweeping long enough to glare at him.

“I’m not toying with them.”

“Call it what you like, but you can’t string them along forever.”

“Oh, shut up and go make eyes at Sigrid some more,” Camilla snapped, and slammed the door on his spluttering denial. Then she looked at Rhiannon and sighed. “Welcome to Riverwood, where everyone knows everything about everyone else.”

“That sounds… stifling,” Rhiannon said. “Do you want to come and gather ingredients with me? We can talk about something that isn’t men.” It was an impulsive invitation, and to her surprise, Camilla laughed.

“Actually, that sounds perfect.”

“Well… great. Let me grab my satchel.”

And that was how Rhiannon ended up spending a very enjoyable afternoon in the woods, showing her new friend how to harvest alchemical reagents safely and chatting about nothing in particular. Camilla was a few years older and also came from City Isle, and they ended up talking about what they missed most – the weather, the architecture, the food – which somehow lead to Rhiannon telling her about her trip with the Khajiit and accidentally eating the moon sugar. Camilla told her about how she’d come to Skyrim a year ago, to help her brother open his shop.

“It’s funny,” she said, in the way people said it when it wasn’t funny at all. “I came to Skyrim to get away from the Thalmor, and what do I get? More Thalmor, and more war.” She plucked a thistle, mindful of its nettled leaves. “At least they don’t bother Riverwood much. Yet.”

“How long has it been going on for? The war, I mean.”

“More than half a year.” Camilla sighed. “Too long.”

They went up the road to a half-circle of three stone pillars, called the Guardian stones. Camilla explained that it was tradition when you first came to Riverwood to ask one of the three Guardians for their blessing. “The Mage, the Warrior, and the Thief,” she said, pointing to each of the carvings. “To guide your path.”

“And I just touch it?”

Camilla nodded, so Rhiannon laid her hand on the Mage stone. It was warm beneath her palm. She thought maybe she felt a tingle down her arm, but it was probably just her imagination.

“There!” Camilla said, linking their arms companionably. “Now you’ve been properly welcomed to Riverwood.”

They stayed out until sunset, and came back dirty and pleasantly tired. “Lucan’s going to be upset that I was gone all day, but I don’t care. He’s so overbearing sometimes.” They came to a stop in front of the Trader. “Thanks for inviting me out today. I had fun.”

“Me too,” Rhiannon said, feeling both awkward and unaccountably pleased. Maybe she wasn’t hopeless at making friends after all.

“You should come over for lunch tomorrow! Orgnar’s a good cook, but I’m better.” Camilla winked. “I’ll make cottage pie.”

“That would be amazing. I haven’t had cottage pie in months.”

“Great! See you then.” They parted ways there, and Rhiannon snuck back into the inn, avoiding Sven and Faendal, who were eating dinner on opposite sides of the room and too busy glaring at one another to notice her. There was a letter waiting for her where someone had slipped it under her door.

 

Rhiannon –

Thank you for the drawing, and the tea. Did I tell you that I have frequent headaches, or did you just guess? Regardless, it helped. I may have to ask you for more of it.

Riverwood is just down the road from Helgen. I spent plenty of summers there before I enlisted. Glad to hear it hasn’t lost its charms.

In other news, I’ve found myself with a new chambermaid. Her name is Erdi, and she told me about how you saved her from Erikur’s attentions. Don’t worry, she’s fine now that she’s in my employ. I just thought you might want to know. Erdi insisted I tell you to come back to Solitude sometime so she can thank you personally. In the meantime, feel free to keep me appraised of your travels. I’ve been enjoying hearing about them. Speaking of which, did something happen in Markarth? You moved on quickly. Not that I blame you. It’s not the most welcoming city to outsiders.

Take care.

Rikke

 

Rhiannon was glad there was no one there to see her read it, as she was finding it difficult to stop smiling. She folded it carefully and put it inside the Herbalist’s Guide, along with the other one. Then she got out a fresh piece of parchment and some ink. She had a couple of orders to finish, but they could wait until morning. The desk chair creaked as she sat down.

 

Dear Rikke,

I’m so relieved to hear that Erdi is well and under your protection, and please tell her she doesn’t need to thank me. That she’s away from Erikur is thanks enough.

Markarth was… interesting. Terrifying, but interesting. I’m still in shock, if I’m being honest. Mostly that I’m still alive. It all started when I ran an errand for the local alchemist…

----------

She had lunch with Camilla and Lucan two days in a row. Camilla’s cooking tasted like home, and even Lucan was proving to be good company once he loosened up. Sven and Faendal lurked around jealously when they weren’t on shift at the mill, sniping at one another. Sometimes it got so heated that they seemed to forget they were trying to win Camilla’s affections at all. Rhiannon had told them both the same thing when they asked, which amounted to “she doesn’t seem interested in choosing either of you, now quit acting like children”, only in kinder words. Not that it made much of a difference, but at least they stopped pestering her.

In her most recent letter, she’d told Rikke what happened in Markarth, and then she’d kept writing until her fingers cramped and she ran out of ink. With no one else to talk to, it had all spilled out –  the awkwardness with Onmund, her father’s coldness, feeling like there was something wrong with her, all of it. True to form, she was regretting it. Rikke was a high-ranking officer in the Legion. She didn’t need to be troubled with the inane ramblings of some silly girl she barely knew. Although, Rhiannon couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Rikke would open up to her in kind someday. She didn’t think she’d mind. Maybe she’d find out, if Rikke still wanted to talk to her.

Spending time with Camilla was a good distraction from the creeping dread that she’d somehow ruined everything. That afternoon, they were chopping vegetables for a stew and talking about a book series they’d both read as children when Sven and Faendal came bursting through the door, tripping and shoving at each other as they tried to be the first one inside.

“Camilla!” Sven freed himself by kicking Faendal in the ankle, and lurched over to the table, brandishing a piece of paper. “This pointy-eared bastard is trying to pull the wool over your eyes!”

“Like you’re one to talk!”

“If you’re going to fight, do it outside,” Lucan said. “There are a lot of valuable things in here I don’t need you breaking.”

“Camilla, I – “

“He – “

“Enough!” Camilla slammed the knife down on the table, making them all jump. “What’s going on? One at a time, please.”

“Faendal was going to send you this and claim it was from me!” Sven handed her the letter. “As if I would ever write something so chauvinist – “

“Don’t act like you weren’t going to do the same thing!” Faendal shoved past him and handed her another letter. Camilla opened them both and skimmed them. The one from Faendal made her pale; the one from Sven, her eyes narrowed. She crumpled them both in her fist.

“I can’t believe the two of you.” She was shaking. “Of all the sneaky, manipulative, scheming…”

“Camilla, wait,” Sven said, trying his most charming smile. “Just listen for a moment – “

“I’m not finished!” Camilla threw the crumpled parchment at them. One bounced off his chest. “Both of you are such idiots!” She pointed at the door. “Get out. I never want to see either of you again.”

“Camilla,” Faendal tried, but she shook her head and pointed at the door a second time.

“You heard her,” Lucan said. “Go on.” Left with no choice, both men slunk away with one last, forlorn look over their shoulders, and he shut the door behind them. Camilla went back to chopping vegetables, knife banging viciously against the cutting board. Rhiannon and Lucan exchanged glances.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Rhiannon ventured timidly.

“No,” Camilla said. A piece of carrot shot off the table as she hacked at it and landed in Lucan’s lap.

He flicked it away. “Camilla – “

“Leave it!” She dropped the knife on the table and stormed upstairs, footsteps heavy overhead. A faint sob came through the floorboards. Rhiannon finished cutting up the vegetables and put them in the pot, and Lucan tried very hard to look engrossed in slicing up the meat. Neither of them spoke. Rhiannon put down her knife and climbed the stairs. When she poked her head into the room, Camilla was curled up on her bed, face buried in the pillow.

“You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to,” Rhiannon said. “But if you do, you know where to find me.” Camilla didn’t reply, and after a moment, Rhiannon let her be and went back downstairs, where Lucan was adding broth to the pot.

“She’s not coming down, I take it?”

“I don’t think so, no. Not right now.”

“You should stay. You helped make it.”

So Rhiannon stayed, and eventually Camilla did come down, eyes puffy and nose red. Lucan handed her a bowl of stew, and no more was said on the subject for the rest of the day.

----------

Sven and Faendal both attempted to seek forgiveness over the next couple of days, and upon being rebuffed, turned to venting their frustrations with their fists. More than once, they had to be pulled off each other by whoever was nearby, bruised and cursing one another to the heavens. Elona kicked Sven out of the inn and told him to come back when he could play something besides “all that damn lovesick caterwauling”. Faendal did nothing but brood when he wasn’t on the job, staring wistfully at the Riverwood Trader. Gerdur started giving them opposite shifts at the mill. And Rhiannon, watching it all unfold, sat and wondered. There was something strange going on, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. It all seemed so theatrical – the grief, the fighting, the drama of it all. She thought perhaps she was being cynical, until the following afternoon.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the air was crisp, perfect for sitting by the river and reading. Rhiannon sprawled out with the book Melka had given her, figuring now was as good a time as any to peruse it. She was absorbed in the adventures of Sotha Sil when two voices rose from the other bank.

“You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” She looked up, startled, just in time to see Sven shove Faendal.

I couldn’t?” Faendal caught his footing and shoved back. “You only started going after her because you found out I liked her!”

“Liar! I was interested in her before you ever were.”

Faendal laughed. It wasn’t a nice sound. “Sure you were. And I’m a failed bard who thinks he’s the gods’ gift to Tamriel.”

“Shut up!” Sven tackled him, and they hit the water with a resounding splash. Rhiannon dropped her book and scrambled to her feet. They surfaced seconds later, kicking and splashing as they grappled with one another in the waist-deep river. There was a strange and brutal intimacy to their movements, like old dance partners coming together in a familiar routine. Water whipped into a frenzy around them, and aside from the occasional grunt as fist met flesh, they were silent, their eyes locked.

Faendal got his arms around Sven’s middle, and with a strength that belied his wiry frame, threw him back up onto the grass. He climbed out of the river, drenched, and stood over Sven, feet on either side of his waist. The air was dead still, disturbed only by the sound of their panting. Rhiannon looked away. She felt like she was intruding on something. When she looked back, Faendal was already walking away, shoulders slumped. Sven lay flat on his back and stared up at the sky, unmoving. Rhiannon sat back down on the bank with a thump. She wondered how she hadn’t seen it before.

“Mara, I don’t want to question your wisdom,” she said under her breath, eyeing Sven’s prone form, “but how am I supposed to help them when they don’t even realize their own feelings?”

No answer. Not that she expected one. She drummed her fingers against her knee, turning the situation around in her head. Camilla obviously had feelings for both of them; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have been so devastated by both letters. If she could find some way to get them to realize that it was mutual on all sides, maybe they could work the rest out on their own. Or maybe not. Those two are as thick as old porridge.

She had a few orders left to fill, so she spent the rest of the afternoon finishing up her potions and bottling them for delivery – tonics for Sven’s mother’s cough, stamina brews to help Alvor keep up with the sudden influx of orders he’d received from the Legion, and a batch of miscellaneous brews for Lucan to sell to any wandering adventurers who might come through town. When she got there, the door to the Trader was propped open, and the siblings’ voices spilled through the gap.

“Well, one of us has to do something.”

“We are done talking about this, Camilla.”

“What are you going to do, then? Let’s hear it.”

Rhiannon scooted the door open a couple more inches, just in time to see Lucan throw up his hands in exasperation. “I said no! No adventures, no theatrics, no thief-chasing! Just stay put!” He caught sight of her and lowered them hastily, flustered. “Oh, Rhiannon. I didn't... did you need something?”

“I have that order you put in. What happened here?”

“Some thieves broke in last night and stole my claw!" He gestured to the empty spot on the counter where the heavy gold carving usually sat. “They didn’t take anything else.”

“And he just wants to sit here and grumble instead of doing anything about it.”

“Camilla!”

“Well, it’s true!” Camilla crossed her arms, turning to Rhiannon. “There’s a gang of thieves that camps out at Bleak Falls Barrow, just up the mountain. They already tried breaking in here once, but the guards scared them off.”

“Bleak Falls Barrow?”

“A Nordic burial ruin. No one wants to go near it, since it’s supposedly haunted.” She made a face. “I’d go, but someone is determined not to let me.”

“It’s for your own good! You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“I’ll go,” Rhiannon said quickly, before the yelling could start again. Both of them looked at her, stunned into temporary silence. “It’s no trouble. I’ll get your claw back for you.”

“You will?” Lucan’s skepticism was plain. “But… you’re – “

“She’s what?” Camilla asked coolly. “A girl?”

“No! Well, I mean, yes, but – “

“Come on, Rhiannon.” Camilla got up from the table. “I’ll show you how to get there.”

“Please,” Rhiannon said, and followed her out the door.

“Only to the edge of town!” Lucan shouted after them. “I mean it!”

“Men,” Camilla scoffed. “He’s such a child. Come on, I’ll take you to the bridge.” Her expression shifted, worry shining through. “Are you sure about this? I know I was goading Lucan about being a coward, but…”

“Don’t worry,” Rhiannon said. “I suspect I’ll have a bit of help.”

---------

“Are you planning on telling me what was so important that you had to interrupt my song-writing?” Sven complained as he followed Rhiannon around back of the Sleeping Giant. It was evening, the sky dipped in blush and gold, and a bird cooed from a nearby treetop. “I’m composing a ballad to win Camilla back. It’s important work, you know.”

“I’ll tell you if you hold on for a minute.” Rhiannon was trying to tie her hair back, but the breeze kept tugging it out of her hands, tendrils springing free. She gave up with a huff and shoved the ribbon back into her pocket.

Faendal rounded the corner, and she waved at him, beckoning him over. He saw Sven and froze. “What is he doing here?”

Sven took a step forward. “I could ask you the same question.”

“Oh, stop it already,” Rhiannon said. “This kind of behavior is why Camilla isn’t speaking to either of you.” Sven went pale, and Faendal glowered at her, but they both stopped posturing, which was a start. “I called you both here because I have a proposition for you.”

“Which is?”

“Someone stole something from the Trader. We need to go to Bleak Falls Barrow to get it back.” She tried to sound confident, tamping down the fear nagging at the corner of her mind. Whatever was hiding there couldn’t be as bad as an angry hagraven and an entire colony of Forsworn.

Faendal made an incredulous noise, eyebrows shooting up to his hairline. Sven laughed outright. “Are you mad?”

“For once, I agree with him.” Faendal shook his head. “Those thieves camp out there because no one in their right mind will go near it.”

“You’re right. My mistake,” Rhiannon said. “And here I was, thinking about how impressed Camilla would be if you defeated all those bandits and brought the claw back.”

Sven and Faendal looked at each other, then back at her.

“I’m listening.”

“Me too.”

Rhiannon clapped her hands together. “Good! Okay. We go to the barrow, we get the claw, you two take it back to the store and apologize. Simple.” And work out… whatever this is between the two of you in the process.

Sven squinted at her. “All that’s very well and good, but what’s in it for you?”

“Camilla is my friend. She deserves to be treated like a person, not a prize to be fought over.” Sven coughed, shame leeching into his expression, and Faendal looked away. Rhiannon hiked her pack up and checked the skies. They were fading rapidly to royal blue, a smattering of stars appearing overhead. A good, clear night for travel. “What do you say?”

“I’ll do it,” Faendal said.

“Me too,” Sven said, not to be outdone. “It’ll make for a fine ballad.”

“Ah, yes,” Faendal said. “The ballad of Sven, the prick who got shot in the neck.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That if you start singing at any point, I’m going to shoot you in the neck.”

Rhiannon followed them to the road, their bickering drowning out the birdsong. She already missed Onmund.

Chapter Text

The journey up to Bleak Falls was surprisingly uneventful, apart from a crumbling watchtower where a gang of bandits were holed up, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travelers. Faendal’s arrows and Sven’s sword took care of the bolder ones while Rhiannon’s familiar chased off the rest, and they trudged onward after checking the watchtower for valuables (of which there were none, save a handful of gold coins in a chest at the top). Even in the spring, the mountains were covered in snow, and Rhiannon’s teeth chattered the rest of the way up, slush soaking into her boots. She wished she’d brought her cloak, but it was too late to turn back now.

There was one thing to be said for traveling with Sven and Faendal – between the constant arguing and their thinly-veiled attempts to impress one another, she was too annoyed to be scared.

“I’ve killed three bandits to your one,” Faendal said as they passed beneath a rocky parapet, snow flurrying around them. “Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be opportunities to catch up once we get there.”

A muscle in Sven’s jaw twitched. “Anyone can hide behind some rocks and shoot arrows until they hit something.”

“Really? Then why don’t you try it?”

“Because I’m not a coward.”

“Funny, but I seem to recall a certain incident last year, when Gerdur’s bull got loose from his pen – “

“One more word, Faendal. One. More. Word.”

Rhiannon pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. Mara, grant me the patience not to just knock their heads together and be done with it. “We’re here, you two.” The barrow loomed just ahead, arches barely visible in the misty dark. The three of them stood for a minute in tense silence, wind whistling past.

Faendal broke it by nudging Sven forward. “Go on, then. Since you’re the brave one.”

“Fine,” Sven said, but he didn’t move.

“Hmph. So much for the courage of men,” a familiar voice said from behind them. Rhiannon jumped, and her companions whipped around, hands on their weapons. Camilla materialized out of the darkness, hood of her cloak thrown back. Snowflakes glistened in her hair. “Are we going in or not?”

“Camilla!” Rhiannon chirped, relieved.

“What are you doing here?” Sven asked, dumbfounded.

“What do you think?” She shot him a look, hands on her hips. “I’m here to get the claw back.”

“I thought you didn’t want to see us again,” Faendal said, gaze flickering between Sven and Camilla uncertainly.

“Oh, I’m still mad at you. But there’s no way I’m letting you have all the fun.” She turned to Rhiannon. There was a hunting bow and a quiver of arrows slung across her back. “Shall we?”

“S-sure.”

They forged ahead, leaving Faendal and Sven to trail along in their wake. “Bet you don’t have anything to say about archery now,” Faendal muttered.

----------

Bleak Falls was a fitting moniker for their current location. A somber aura hung around its crumbling, snow-covered pillars and carved stone steps. A couple of thieves were keeping watch by the door and out on the walkway. They fell to Camilla and Faendal’s arrows without a sound.

The iron door loomed over them, black and cold. Sven pushed at it cautiously, and it swung open, hinges groaning. They all froze, waiting, but no one came to investigate. Just inside, skeever corpses littered the stone floor, hacked or burnt to death. A bandit lay face-down on the steps just below them, covered in horrific bites. One fingerless hand stretched out in a silent plea. Rhiannon shuddered and averted her eyes. Camilla looked shocked, then queasy. Sven drew his sword. Faendal nocked his bow.

“So, what?” A voice bounced off the walls, echoing in the cavernous space. “We’re just supposed to sit here while Arvel runs off to do gods know what with that claw?”

A second voice made a skeptical noise. “Fool elf wants to go on ahead, let him. Better than risking my neck.”

A fire burned on the other side of the room, half-obscured by collapsed pillars. Eerie shadows twisted and writhed on the high stone ceiling. Two figures crouched next to it, warming their hands. “What if he doesn’t come back?” The first one asked, petulant. “I want my share from whatever he finds.”

“Shut it,” the other one grunted. “Just keep an eye out for trouble and wait. He’ll be back.”

“How do you know?”

“Because if he tries to cheat us, I’ll hunt him down myself. Now shut up!”

The bandits fell silent after that, and Rhiannon huddled next to Camilla on the steps, Faendal and Sven crouched beside them. “What should we do?” she whispered.

“Only good bandit’s a dead one,” Sven whispered back. “Remember the summer the tomato blight took half the crops and made us all sick? Bandits came in from the mountains and raided us while we were weak. Hod and Gerdur almost died defending the mill. That’s why she’s missing those fingers.”

“I hate to say it, but Sven’s right,” Faendal said, keeping his voice low. “We should just get it over with.”

“Maybe we could try to sneak past?” she offered weakly, but Sven was already shaking his head.

“They’re blocking the only exit. There’s no way.”

“Maybe a distraction,” Camilla said, even quieter than Faendal. “If we could get them to leave somehow – “

“And how do you propose we do that?”

They might have kept arguing for some time, if it hadn’t been for one simple fact: ancient tombs are dusty.

Rhiannon sneezed.

It wasn’t a very loud sneeze, but in the cavernous entrance chamber, it might as well have been a thunderclap. There was a clatter in response as the bandits sprang to their feet, grabbing for their weapons.

“Who’s there?” the woman demanded, looking around wildly. Rhiannon buried her face in her hands, partly out of embarrassment and partly so she didn’t have to see the murderous glare Sven was shooting her way. An arrow whistled past Camilla, grazing her cheek, and she ducked down with a muffled hiss of pain.

“Found ‘em!” the male bandit called in response, from the top of the platform. He sent another arrow into their midst, and they scattered, leaves on the wind. Faendal and Camilla’s return volley nearly pinned him to the wall, but he ducked behind the pillars just in time, arrowheads shattering. Sven and the female bandit charged to meet each other in a clash of swords, and Rhiannon ducked down behind an overturned coffin slab, hands glowing violet. The incantation was clumsy; she practically spat it out in her hurry. “Bound by salt and flesh and fire, may we share the same desire.”

A chunk of stone floor crumbled, and both Faendal and the bandit archer were forced to back away as a smoking portal emerged in its place. Smoke curled from the edges, and her atronach emerged from the depths, radiating a ghostly white light. Someone swore an oath, but Rhiannon couldn’t tell who from where she was hiding. “Go,” she whispered.

It was over fairly quickly after that. The archer fell with an arrow through the eye, and the bandit Sven had been fighting was little more than ash by the time Rhiannon’s atronach faded away. When she crawled out to rejoin them, all three of them were staring at her. She got up and brushed her robes off, self-conscious, and sneezed again. “What?”

“That was… unexpected,” Faendal said.

“No offense intended,” Sven said, “but you’re about the last person I would have figured for a conjurer.”

“I’m not a conjurer.” She wiped her sweaty palms on her robes. “It’s for self-defense.”

“Right,” Faendal said, unconvinced. “And while we’re on the subject of hidden talents, when did you learn archery, Camilla? I’ve never seen you use a bow before.”

“Ages ago,” Camilla said. “What, you think we don’t have bandits in Cyrodiil?” She strode past them. “Come on, let’s go find this Arvel fellow they mentioned.”

The next chamber was well-lit in contrast to the first. Torches bolted to the walls burned, spilling pools of light on the floor. The bodies of two thieves lay sprawled next to an iron lever mounted in the center of the room. The door to the next room was blocked by a metal gate, and three iron pillars stood in an alcove along the left wall, animal shapes carved into them.

Sven frowned when he realized they were all looking at him. “What?”

“This is a Nordic burial tomb,” Faendal said. “You’re the only Nord here.”

“Oh. Right.” Sven ran his hand through his hair. “Well, if this is what I think it is, we have to set those pillars in a certain order before we pull that lever.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Then something nasty is going to happen.”

“Excellent,” Faendal said dourly. “And how are we supposed to know the correct order?”

“There has to be something around here that will tell us,” Camilla said. “Start looking, everyone.”

Faendal was the one to notice them first. “I found something.” He climbed the stairs against the opposite wall, and poked his head over the side of the balcony a minute later. “There are two tablets up here. One has a snake. The other is a whale,” he informed them, sounding pleased with himself. Sven made a face.

“There are three pillars,” Camilla said. “Where’s the third carving?”

Faendal pointed down. “It must have fallen. I think it’s broken.”

Rhiannon was closest. She crouched next to the chunks of stone and flipped them over, reassembling them. “It looks like a snake.”

“I hope you’re both right,” Sven grumbled, fiddling with the switch by the first pillar. Metallic scraping filled the room as it turned. “Otherwise we’re all dead.” The last pillar clicked into place with a screech that set Rhiannon’s teeth on edge. Sven dusted off his hands. “There. Time to do the honors, I suppose.”

Faendal came bounding down the stairs. “I’ll do it.”

“No, I’ve got it – “

Their hands touched as they both grabbed for the lever. For a split second, their eyes met. The chamber was dead silent. Rhiannon snuck a glance at Camilla, who appeared fascinated by the toes of her boots all of a sudden. Faendal coughed, and Sven snatched his hand away, cheeks ruddy. “Fine, if you really want to do it that badly.”

“I… oh, fine,” Faendal said, not quite looking at Sven, but not looking away either. “Stand back, just in case.” The three of them backed up hurriedly. Faendal pulled the lever, then sprang away. The gate creaked as it rose, and everyone exhaled simultaneously.

“I knew it was going to work,” Sven said, back to being smug now that they were no longer in immediate danger. Camilla rolled her eyes. Faendal made a disgusted noise, and Rhiannon tried not to be annoyed with him and failed spectacularly.

“Come on, let’s keep moving.”

“Gladly,” Faendal said, and he and Camilla hurried after her.

“Hey, wait!” Sven ran after them.

Their path took them down a long wooden staircase that spiraled into the belly of the barrow and was infested with skeevers. Sven handled them easily enough with the aid of Rhiannon's familiar, but a straggler leapt at him when he got to the bottom with a shriek, pointed teeth latching onto his forearm. He bellowed with pain and smashed his arm against the wall until it let go, then took its head off with a wild swing.

“Sven!” Camilla cried from the top of the stairs. “Are you alright?”

Sven didn’t answer. He cradled his injured arm to his chest, blood streaming from the wound and dripping onto the stone. His teeth dug into his lip, face pale and eyes screwed shut.

“Hang on, hang on…” Rhiannon guided him into a sitting position on the bottom step, unbuckling her satchel one-handed. “Elevate your arm above your heart. There you go, that’ll slow the bleeding.” She found the vial she was looking for and uncorked it. “Skeevers are disease-carriers. Better safe than sorry.” Sven drained it while Camilla and Faendal looked on from above, worry etched onto their faces. Rhiannon peeled back his blood-soaked sleeve. He hissed in pain. “I know it hurts, but I had to move it. Just hold on a minute longer.”

She took his arm in both hands, framing the wound with her fingers. Sven sucked in a ragged breath as light swirled around his arm, blood clotting and flesh knitting itself back together. When she was done, the skin was new, shiny and pink beneath the rapidly-drying blood. Sven lowered his arm and touched it, staring at her with something approaching reverence.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s my job.”

Camilla raced down the steps, Faendal hot on her heels. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Better than alright,” Sven said, and flexed his arm with a wink. Camilla giggled.

Faendal looked like he’d bitten into something sour. He shoved past them, unslinging his bow from his shoulder. “If everyone’s done showing off, let’s go. I think I hear something in the next room.”

Camilla’s smile dropped off her face, and Sven got up with a scowl. Rhiannon wondered if it was too late to back out and leave them to deal with their mess. Probably.

The four of them peered out of the stairwell into a dank room encrusted with dust and cobwebs. A faint noise could be heard from the other side – it was muffled by the heavy layers of webbing, but as they listened, it became clear that it was a voice, calling out to anyone within earshot.

“Is someone coming? Is that you, Harknir?”

“I’m betting that’s our man,” Camilla whispered. “Er… mer.”

“Bjorn? Soling?” The voice was becoming more frantic, high-pitched with fear. “Please, before it comes back!”

“It?” Rhiannon whispered.

Faendal gestured around them. “Whatever made all this, I assume.”

“I have an idea.” Sven tapped Rhiannon’s shoulder. “Summon your atronach again and send it in there. See if we can lure… whatever it is out.”

“Right.” She nodded, taking a deep breath. “I can do that.”

“That’s actually not a bad plan,” Faendal conceded, grudging.

Sven looked surprised, but recovered quickly. “Of course it’s not.”

Faendal said something under his breath that none of them caught. Sven glared at him anyway. Rhiannon summoned her atronach, stomach roiling with dread. It materialized, glowing brightly in the shrouded darkness, and she pointed across the room, where the webs were so thick across the archway that they nearly hid it from view altogether. “Burn those off so we can get through, please.” It turned and raised one clawed, molten hand.

Fire subsumed the webbing, feasting on it, and Arvel’s screams came through loud and clear on the other side. “It’s coming back! Help me!”

The four of them spilled into the room, Sven and Faendal jostling for the lead. On the other side of the archway, a shadow descended, and the floor shook heavy beneath their feet. Rhiannon caught a glimpse of too many eyes, and the dry rustle of legs made her stomach turn. Camilla halted short next to her, groping for an arrow with trembling hands. “Is that – “

“The biggest damn spider I’ve ever seen,” Sven said, from a safe distance away. It hissed at them shrilly, too big to fit through the pillars, and spat. They all dodged, acid shooting through the archway and splattering against wood and stone, sizzling inches from their skin. It ate away half one of the ruined bookshelves. Rhiannon’s atronach charged to meet it head-on, flames crackling at a fever pitch. Camilla and Faendal recovered, arrows strung and bows pulled tight, but both hesitated, unable to get a clear shot. Spider and atronach clashed in a tangle of teeth and too many eyes, too many legs, and fire.

Arvel’s wails were drowned out by the spider’s unearthly shrieking as flames crawled up its legs. It reared up and sprang forward, drenching the atronach with venom and slashing at it with sword-like fangs. The atronach dissolved in a rush that lit the spider’s front like a bonfire. Faendal and Camilla’s arrows caught it in the eye and thorax seconds later. It thrashed wildly, then went still. A horrible charred stench filled the air as the flames died away.

“Hello?” Arvel called. “Whoever’s there, please, don’t just leave me here!”

“Calm down, will you?” Camilla poked her head into the room. No immediate danger was present, now that the spider was dead; no horrible thing lurked nearby, waiting to spring at them. She edged around the carcass. Sven and Faendal followed suit. Rhiannon slunk in after them, a cold sweat on her brow. Camilla stood in front of the thief. He was trussed in the thick, pale webbing between two pillars, unable to move from the neck down. “So, you’re the one who – “

Rhiannon let out a little scream. They all looked at her, and she blushed, flattening herself against the nearest pillar. “Sorry… I thought I saw it move.” She wiped her forehead on her sleeve. “I, uh. Don’t like spiders.”

Sven rolled his eyes, which only made her blush harder. Camilla turned back to Arvel. “As I was saying. You’re the one who stole my brother’s claw. Why?”

“Cut me down and I’ll tell you,” he said, sly.

Camilla shook her head. “Not a chance. Tell me or we’ll leave you here.”

“Then I guess you’ll be leaving without the claw after all,” Arvel sneered, “seeing as how it’s wrapped up in here with me, tight as a drum.”

“Shame,” Sven said, and drew his sword.

“Wait! Wait. Please.” Sweat shone on Arvel’s upper lip. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just get me out of here afterwards. Have a heart, miss!”

“We’ll consider it,” Camilla said. “Now, what’s so special about the claw?”

“Your brother is a fool. This claw isn’t meant to sit around like some kind of decoration.” Arvel lowered his voice. “It’s a key.”

“A key to what?”

“What do you think? The secret treasure of Bleak Falls Barrow.” A manic gleam shone in his deep red eyes. “I know how it works. The claw, the door in the Hall of Stories… I know how they fit together. Help me, and I’ll split it with you.”

Sven perked up. “There’s really secret treasure here?” 

Camilla remained skeptical. “Why should we trust anything you say?”

“We shouldn’t,” Faendal said. “He’ll probably try to run the second we turn him loose.” Arvel shot him a nasty look.

“Well, what do we do, then?” Camilla threw her hands up, exasperated. “We can’t leave here without the claw.”

“We could just kill him,” Sven said. “Problem solved.”

“Call off your dog,” Arvel pleaded, trying to catch Camilla’s eye. “I promise I won’t try to run. I’ll do anything, just please don’t kill me.”

“Don’t kill him.” Rhiannon had calmed down somewhat in the interval, and she joined them now. “If he agrees to give it back and not cause any more trouble, then we should let him go.”

“Don’t be so naïve,” Faendal said. Sven looked like he was about to agree, but Camilla put up her hand.

“She has a point. I’d like to avoid further violence, if possible.” She stepped forward and stuck her finger in Arvel’s face warningly. “Listen and listen good, you. We’ll give you one chance to hand over the claw and leave peacefully. Try to run, and he’ll shoot.” Faendal waggled an arrow at him. “Got it?”

“Thank you,” Arvel said, sounding close to tears. “Thank you both, you’re so kind – “

“Stuff it,” Sven said, and started cutting him down.

It took some careful maneuvering of the sword’s point and a couple of close calls, but eventually Arvel tumbled free of his cocoon. He picked himself up, dusting cobwebs from his clothing. “Thank Azura. I was starting to chafe.”

“Lovely,” Camilla said. “The claw?”

“Bossy little thing, aren’t you?” He smiled, the picture of sheepish innocence. “I may have stretched the truth a bit… I do have the claw, but it isn’t on me.”

“What?”

“I stashed it, just in case. You never can be too careful.”

“Well, where is it?”

He pointed to the corner of the room, where some abandoned urns huddled sadly. “It’s right over there!” In an unexpected burst of strength, he shoved Sven into Faendal and Camilla, sending all three of them to the floor in a surprised tangle. He was down the tunnel like a shot, laughter echoing behind him.

“That little bastard!” Sven roared.

“Don’t just stand there, do something!” Faendal yelled at Rhiannon as they struggled to right themselves.

“S-sorry!” She ran after Arvel. He was faster than her, and she could hear his footsteps fading in the distance, even as she gave chase. The narrow corridor twisted and snaked through a couple of smaller, enclosed chambers with coffins and burial urns lining the walls. It got colder the further down she went, and her breath streamed behind her in thin white clouds.

Up ahead, Arvel’s laughter turned to screams, and she stumbled, fear seizing her. She came skidding to a halt where the floor sloped down to the catacombs, boots sliding on the stone, just in time to see him go down with an axe in his chest. The creatures standing over him had once been human, but now they were shriveled, embalmed skin stretched tight over bone and eyes lit up an eerie blue. Both pairs of eyes locked onto her, and she froze. The one reached down and pulled its axe from Arvel’s chest with a wet sucking sound. She should do something, she knew – summon her atronach, call for help, run, something – but her body refused to cooperate, and she stood rooted to the spot as the dead loped towards her, weapons dangling from their hands.

“Duck!”

She threw herself to the floor, hands over her head. An arrow whizzed over her, burying itself in the nearest one’s eye. It fell back with a snarl, and then Camilla was hauling her upright and out of the way. Sven made short work of them, beheading one and stabbing the other through the gut. Once they were crumpled, unmoving, on the ground, Camilla squeezed her arm. “Are you alright?”

“What are those things?” she asked hoarsely.

“Draugr,” Sven said. “Undead warriors. They guard places like this from… well, us. Or people like us.”

“You couldn’t have warned us about them beforehand?” Faendal asked as he yanked his arrows from the nearest corpse.

“It slipped my mind, alright?”

“Anything else slip your mind?”

“Stop it,” Camilla said wearily. The four of them gathered around Arvel’s body in the center of the chamber. Rhiannon felt a stab of pity. He had tried to swindle them, but it was still a horrible way to die. She knelt down and closed his sightless eyes. Camilla crouched next to her and rolled him gingerly onto his side so she could get at the pouch strapped to his hip.

“It feels wrong to just leave him here,” Rhiannon said.

“Well, you’re welcome to carry him, but I’m not touching him,” Sven said.

“Got it!” Camilla held the claw aloft, triumphant. She stood, brushing off her skirts with her free hand. “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

“Keep moving where?” Faendal asked. “We have the claw. We can leave.”

“Didn’t you hear Arvel earlier? There’s some kind of secret treasure hidden in here. I want to find out what it is.”

“He did say that, didn’t he?” Sven sounded much cheerier than he had a second ago. “I’m game.”

“He was probably lying,” Faendal said, crossing his arms. “Why risk it?”

“Because if there wasn’t anything worthwhile here, he would have just sold the claw instead of bringing it back here,” Camilla said, mimicking his stance. His expression remained stubborn, and she sighed. “Come on, we’ve already made it this far. Aren’t you at all curious?”

“I… fine,” he said, and dropped his arms to his sides. “Might as well.” Camilla beamed at him, and switched her attention to Rhiannon.

“What do you say? Are you in?”

“I am. I just need a second.” She rolled Arvel’s body over so he was flat on his back, and crossed his arms over his ruined chest. The catacombs were so quiet, she realized suddenly. Aside from the occasional drip of water overhead, there was no noise, aside from their breathing. She murmured a brief prayer for his spirit to find rest.

“Dunno why you’re bothering with all that,” Sven said. “It’s not like he’d do the same for any of us.”

“He was still a person.” She got to her feet. “And it’s part of my duties regardless.”

“Alright, alright. Let’s go.” Sven stooped down and picked up a chunk of stone that had come loose from its surroundings. “Oh, and everyone?”

“What?”

He gave it a little toss, aiming for a raised patch of stone in front of the archway they were about to pass through. It was easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. The gate swept forward and smashed against the far wall, then retreated, creaking. Only now did she see it was spiked, metal rusted and flaking red. “Watch the door.”

----------

Bear. Moth. Owl.

It didn’t seem right that after everything, it could be so simple as three symbols, carved into stone. That after fighting off seemingly endless waves of draugr as they slogged further and further into the barrow’s depths, after tangling with the frost troll who lived in the bottom of the cave, after undead archers and coffins that burst open with no warning and swinging bladed pendulums, it all came down to a gentle click as the three prongs of the claw fit neatly into the center of the door.

With a sonorous grinding, it opened. They stood in silent awe at the mouth of the cavern. It was still shaped by human hands, with a low stone bridge crossing from one side of the stream to the other, but plants grew in abundance around the pillars and out of the rocky walls. A waterfall poured down from one corner. A raised dais sat in the center of the room. A sarcophagus made of wrought iron lay atop it, with a wooden chest at its head. Sven stepped in first, and had to duck as a swarm of bats flew past them and down the tunnel, the way they'd come in. Faendal and Camilla followed him, bows at the ready.

As soon as Rhiannon’s boots touched the dirt, a peculiar noise started up – a low hum that she felt rather than heard, reverberating in her chest. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Camilla asked.

She shook her head and followed them across the little bridge, stream rushing beneath their feet. “Nevermind.”

The closer they got to the platform, the stronger the feeling became, until the noise drowned out the blood rushing in her ears. It sounded almost like chanting, but the words weren’t in a language she understood. She snuck a look back at the others, who had circled the chest and were discussing how best to open it. Could they really not hear it? She pawed at her ear like she could dislodge it, but it persisted, a constant hum.

“So, this is it, then?” Sven prodded the chest with his foot. “Huh.”

“Seems like a lot of fuss to go through for one measly chest,” Faendal said.

“Oh, stop complaining.” Camilla fiddled with the lock on the front. “Help me get this open so we can see what’s inside before you decide it wasn’t worth it.”

“Fine, fine. Sorry.” Faendal crouched next to her and pulled a lockpick out of his pocket. “Let me see what I can do.”

“If that doesn’t work, maybe our resident mage can melt it off or something.” Sven glanced over his shoulder. “What do you say? Rhiannon?”

Rhiannon couldn’t hear him. There was a wall in the shape of a half-moon along the back of the dais, and the chanting drew her towards it, loud enough now to rattle her bones and make her eyes water. She thought it was covered in hundreds of tiny scratches at first, but the closer she got, she realized she was looking at words. She couldn’t read them, but they seemed familiar somehow. The strange, jagged letters began to glow, and she reached out without thinking. Her fingertips brushed them, and the chanting rose to a fever pitch, then collapsed into silence. Fus, something whispered.

The sarcophagus cracked in half.

Camilla screaming her name drew her back to the present. She whirled around to see them scatter and regroup as the draugr clambered out of its coffin, armor creaking. It wore a horned helmet and clutched a battleaxe in its bony fingers, and its dead blue eyes locked onto her. She backed up until she collided with the wall, fear rancid in her throat. An arrow punched through its armor to pierce its shoulder, and it turned, only to be met with the point of Sven’s sword. He slashed at its face, then darted out of range of the axe, drawing it away from her. Camilla and Faendal peppered it with arrows from either side of the platform.

Rhiannon summoned her atronach. “Go!” She yelled over the draugr’s howls. It swung its axe, sparks flying where the blade slammed against stone. Her atronach hurled chunks of fiery debris. It dodged the first, surprisingly agile, but the second scorched its shoulder and sent it off-balance. The third hit it square in the chest, sending it tumbling backwards into the stream with its armor ablaze. Rhiannon’s elation was short-lived. It rose from the water, steaming. Her atronach shot towards it like a flaming arrow, clawed hands outstretched. The draugr sliced upwards with its axe in one perfect motion. The atronach fell into the stream with a sizzle, water bubbling and frothing. It didn’t rise again.

“This thing’s tough,” Faendal grunted as he loosed another arrow. The draugr deflected it with its axe as it waded back to higher ground. “I’m running out of arrows.”

“So am I,” Camilla said, voice strained. They both backed away as the draugr came for them, axe raised high. Sven stepped in front of them, brandishing his sword. The draugr opened its mouth, hissing as it sucked air into its withered maw, and bellowed in a foreign tongue. The sword was ripped from Sven’s hands, clattering away. Faendal and Camilla’s bowstrings snapped, and all four of them were flung backwards. Rhiannon hit the wall, pain flaring in her back and breath knocked from her lungs. She lay there, stunned, watching as the axe slammed against the ground where Sven had been laying seconds ago.

“Sven!” Camilla screamed. The draugr’s head swiveled towards her, and Sven lunged to his feet and grabbed the axe handle. They grappled, each trying to wrest control until the draugr lashed out and kicked him square in the stomach. He let go with a grunt, and they both fell backwards.

Rhiannon fumbled at the clasp on her satchel with panicked hands and pulled out one of the scrolls she bought in Markarth. It clambered to its feet, and Sven rolled onto his stomach and made to go for his sword, laying a few feet away. The draugr kicked him in the ribs, sending him sprawling on his side with a surprised yelp of pain. It raised its axe high for the killing blow. Camilla and Rhiannon both struggled upright, but they were too late. Faendal darted across the platform without warning and landed on top of Sven, shielding him. The axe caught him square in the back in a spray of blood.

No!” Sven and Camilla cried as one. The moment hung frozen in time – Sven’s pale face, flecks of blood spattered across it, his hands on Faendal’s shoulders; the broken bow clutched uselessly in Camilla’s fingers; Faendal’s shocked expression, his arms cradling Sven’s face like a lover.

Rhiannon broke the seal on the scroll, and the paper dissolved into a flurry of ash, lightning crackling in her hands. The draugr wrenched its axe free, and Faendal’s scream shattered the air.

The bolt of light left Rhiannon with such force that it knocked her backwards, and snapped its crackling jaws around the draugr, consuming it whole. It went flying. When it hit the water, the whole stream lit up, electrified. The draugr died with a blood-curdling screech, and clouds of white steam filled the cavern, rising high.

Rhiannon scrambled over to where Faendal lay on top of Sven, both of them drenched with blood. Camilla was already kneeling next to him, clutching Faendal’s limp hand as she wept. Sven remained as he was, paralyzed, mouth twitching like he didn’t know what to do with his face. The only sounds now were Faendal’s ragged breathing and Camilla’s quiet sobs. Rhiannon winced as she assessed the damage. The back of his cuirass was utterly ruined, his skin shredded, his spine severed. But by some miracle, he was still alive, and she put her hands on his back. He groaned, teeth bared and veins popping in his neck, then went still.

“I swear,” Sven said, voice raw and breaking, “if you die on me now, I’ll kill you myself.”

“N-not h-helping,” Camilla said through her tears.

Rhiannon ignored them. Healing magic flowed through her hands, surrounding him in golden light, and she poured herself into him, doing her best to coax his body back from the brink of death. His face was slack, blood staining his lips. Sven was holding his other hand now. Repair his bones, clot his blood, knit his flesh. Let him live, Mara. My lady, please, let him live. Over and over again, breathing her garbled prayer. Her magica ran out, and she grabbed her last potion with blood-slicked hands and drained it in one go, tossing the empty vial aside. Let him live, Mara, please…

The blood flow slowed to a trickle, then stopped. His bones whole, his flesh knitted back together. And at last, shaky and ashen, Faendal opened his eyes.

“Stupid arse.” His voice was a mere croak, but there was unmistakable relief warming it. “Like I’d ever let myself die before you.”

“Oh, thank gods!” Camilla flung her arms around his neck, still weeping openly, and he winced.

“Camilla…”

“Sorry!” She sat back, and together they helped him ease off Sven and onto the ground. Camilla stroked his sweat-damp hair, his head in her lap. Sven sat next to them. He barely seemed to notice that he was covered in blood. “I thought I’d lost you.” She gave Rhiannon a brilliant, trembly smile, eyes over-bright and red-rimmed. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“I’m just glad you’re alright,” Rhiannon said to Faendal, who reached out and clasped her hand briefly.

“Thank you. If there’s anything I can ever do to repay you…”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s my job, remember?”

Camilla leaned down and pressed her lips to his forehead. Some of the color came back to his face. “Never scare me like that again.”

“I won’t.” He coughed a little, then grimaced weakly. “Couldn’t pay me to set foot in another barrow.”

“Good.”

“Well,” Sven said, too loud in the silence that followed. He looked like he would have rather been anywhere else in the world, pointedly refusing to make eye contact with either of them now that Faendal was no longer in danger of bleeding out. “We should get going. How long until you can walk, do you think?”

“I can’t believe you!” Camilla snapped, making them all jump. “He almost died, Sven! If that’s not enough for you to get over yourself, then what is?”

Sven turned away, shame-faced, but Camilla reached over and caught his sleeve. “Look at us. Please.” After a moment, he looked. Faendal gazed at him, expression unreadable. Camilla took his hand, and put it over Faendal’s, holding it there with her own. Sven stared down at their intertwined hands. “You’re both important to me,” she said, quieter this time. Shy. Hopeful. “Please, let’s put all the silliness and games aside and just be honest with one another. There’s nothing to be afraid of, so… please. Before it’s too late.”

“It almost was too late,” Faendal whispered, more to himself than anyone. Sven looked at him, and his face softened, just like it did the first time Rhiannon heard him talk about Camilla.

“Thank you.” He sounded more genuine than she’d ever heard him. “You saved my life. Gods only know why.”

“I wasn’t going to let you die.” Faendal cleared his throat. His hand tightened around both of theirs. Camilla looked between them, eyes shining. Sven leaned in, slow and careful, like he might scare Faendal off if he moved too fast. Faendal tilted his head up, accepted the barely-there brush of his lips.

Rhiannon looked away, smiling to herself, and went to go wash her hands off in the stream and give them a bit of privacy.

They got the chest open before they left, once Faendal could walk again without falling. Inside was a leather purse filled with gold and modest gems, a few scrolls, a finely-wrought steel dagger, and a silver necklace with a ruby mounted in its center. Hardly worth all the trouble they’d gone to, as Sven pointed out, but better than nothing. Rhiannon was more interested in the tablet she found in the bottom of the broken sarcophagus. It was made of stone and covered in strange carvings, and something compelled her to examine it more closely. It was lighter than she expected. She rubbed her thumb across one of the little figures in the corner. It looked like a winged serpent. Fus, whispered the voice that wasn’t her own.

In the end, she decided against telling them about what happened with the wall. The more she thought about it, the easier it was to convince herself it hadn’t happened. She did, however, take the stone tablet. Nobody else wanted it.

----------

It was almost afternoon the following day by the time they returned, and they parted ways outside the Riverwood Trader. Camilla wanted her to come in so Lucan could thank her, but Rhiannon begged off. She was grimy and exhausted, and felt like she could sleep for at least the next Era. Camilla let her go, but not before making her promise that she’d come by later. “You’re entitled to your share of the treasure we brought back, you know.”

“Sure. Right.” She smiled. At least, she hoped she was smiling. She couldn’t feel her face anymore. Camilla gave her one last hug, Sven and Faendal shook her hand, and then the three of them went inside, leaning on each other. The door shut, leaving her alone on the road at last.

You should be happy, she told herself, but happiness wouldn’t come. There was dirt in her hair and dried blood caked into her nail beds, and a disquieting envy that had wormed her way into her heart without her realizing. Stop it. She pressed her palms against her eyes until she saw white. It wasn’t Camilla’s fault. Who wouldn’t love Camilla? She was beautiful and funny and bold, like the heroine of some swashbuckling romance novel, and Rhiannon was…

Well, Rhiannon was…

Hot tears prickled in the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away and trudged back to the inn. Everybody was out working or enjoying the sunshine, and Orgnar nodded at her from behind the counter but didn’t attempt conversation, for which she was grateful. Her room was as she left it, blessedly dark even in the daytime with the curtains drawn over the little window. She locked the door and collapsed on the bed, fully-dressed with her boots still on. She slept, and her dreams were filled with the shadow of wings.

Chapter Text

“I know what I saw!”

“Mother, please. Calm down. Dragons aren’t real.”

Sven put his hand over hers, trying to soothe her, but Hilde wouldn’t be soothed. She snatched her hand away and gave him a dirty look. “You’ll see! It’ll kill us all and then you’ll believe me!”

“Mother – “

“Wait,” Camilla said suddenly, leaning over the porch railing. “Do you see that?”

“See what?”

“Smoke,” Faendal said from his spot next to her. His mouth flattened into a grim line. “Not far from here.”

“I told you!” Hilde stood, eyes wild. “It’s coming for us next!”

Sven ignored her and joined them at the railing. A column of smoke rose skyward in the distance. “What is that?”

“Is that Helgen?” Alvor stood in the street, Sigrid at his side. More people were starting to gather near them, drawn by the unusual sight. His face creased with worry. “Looks like it’s coming from that direction.” A few murmured in agreement.

“Haven’t you heard?” Gerdur’s voice cut through the crowd, silencing them. She stood in the back, Hod’s arm around her shoulders. She was a stoic woman, not given to displays of emotion, but right then she was shaking, her eyes red. “Damn Imperials captured Ulfric Stormcloak and some of his men at Darkwater Crossing. Helgen’s set to be their grave.”

“You don’t know that Ralof is with him,” Hod said. She shrugged his arm off, jaw set.

Dorthe tugged at Alvor’s hand. “Papa, is Hadvar okay?”

“Of course he is,” Alvor said, but fear had seeped into his face by then, casting a shadow over his words. Hadvar had been stationed near Darkwater Crossing last he’d heard. “He’ll be by to visit again before you know it.”

There was a pit in Sven’s stomach now. He’d grown up with Ralof and Hadvar. Spent summers fishing and swimming in the river with them, avoiding chores to go hunting and coming back empty-handed nearly every time. He hadn’t seen either of them since the war began. Gerdur and Alvor refused to speak to one another – could barely be around one another most of the time – but right now they stood side-by-side in the road, joined in worry for the brother and nephew they loved. Camilla slipped her hand into Sven’s and squeezed. Faendal leaned into him, a subtle warmth at his side. A hush fell over the people of Riverwood, briefly united as they watched thick, greasy smoke spiral higher into the morning sky.

“It’s a bad omen,” Hilde muttered from the doorway. “You’ll see.”

----------

There were no windows in The Sleeping Giant, no light streaming through to wake her in the early hours, and Rhiannon slept until a sharp knock roused her. A letter slid beneath her door, and footsteps retreated. She lay there for a while longer, disoriented and yawning, until she could find the strength to drag herself out of bed and retrieve it. She feared it was her father again, but no, she’d only responded to him a week or so ago. To her relief, it was from Rikke. She sat back on the bed and eagerly tore it open.

 

Rhiannon

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I can say with certainty that it wasn’t that. I can also say, with absolute certainty, that you are the only person I know to emerge from an encounter with a hagraven, let alone unscathed. I’m impressed. Well done.

As for your parents, give them time. They have a right to be worried. Skyrim isn’t a forgiving land, especially considering the current conditions. But she’s also beautiful, and you deserve to see more of her than just the College. You’re plenty old enough to make decisions for yourself about what you want to do with your life, whether that’s stay here or go back to Cyrodiil. Even if they don’t come around, you’re not obligated to make yourself miserable on their behalf. I wouldn’t give up on them just yet, though.

Your friend Onmund is far from the first man, or the last, to pin his hopes on a pretty girl who can’t return them, believe me. He’ll get over it. Reminds me of my younger Legion days, running with Ulfric and Galmar (yes, that Ulfric and Galmar). Ulfric tried his hand at courting me once or twice, Galmar tried courting him – badly, I might add – and I had my eye on someone else altogether, who couldn’t be bothered to give me the time of day. We were all such young fools, I can’t help but laugh when I think back on it. Anyway. My point is, he’ll find someone who can appreciate him, and so will you, if that’s what you want.

Rikke

P.S. Erdi has asked me to ask you for that tea recipe, and says she will trade you her crostata recipe if necessary. I’d take that deal. It’s very good crostata.

 

Pin his hopes on a pretty girl…

She read it again, sure she’d misunderstood, but the words stayed the same. Her heartbeat tripped over itself, speeding up.

She was probably just saying that to make you feel better. No one had ever told her she was pretty before, except her parents, which didn’t count. When she was younger, she’d longed to be half as pretty as Sabine, who possessed an effortless sort of beauty that being constantly covered in grime and blood couldn’t hide, or even the twins – Zeno and Jak were willowy and darkly ethereal, pretty as any girl.

“It’s alright,” Zeno had said once, the time he caught her crying in front of the mirror. His voice had gone all soft and sweet, the way it always did when he was about to mock her. “You’ll probably grow out of it someday.” Jak had punched him in the shoulder, but it was too late. She never could figure out why Zeno despised her like he did.

Pretty girl.

She hugged the letter to her chest, a smile creeping on her face. It doesn’t mean anything, the voice in her head insisted. She’s just being kind.

But still.

She called me pretty.

----------

The general atmosphere in town that day was subdued, anxious. Everyone was waiting, though for what exactly, they weren’t sure. Rhiannon went for a walk to escape it. She was finally feeling up to working on her book again, and spent a blissful hour on her own, sketching fly amanita and mora tapinella, and even an abandoned beehive she found in the forked branch of a tree. It still had some honeycomb in it, and she carefully stowed the sticky golden chunks in her handkerchief and put them away for later use. It was perfect weather, overcast without raining, and the air was rich with the late spring chill and the scent of damp earth. She went further up the road, wanting another look at the guardian stones. When she arrived, she wasn’t alone.

A man sat slumped against the Warrior stone, clutching his side. Blood stained his ripped and battered Legion armor, and his face was pale beneath soot and grime, twisted with pain. Rhiannon gasped and ran to him. He looked at her blearily, dark eyes unfocused. “Who… who’re you?”

“I’m here to help.” He didn’t resist when she moved his hands, head lolling back against the stone. The gash in his side was deep, blood drenching the cloth until it was almost black. More concerning were the burns on his hands and forearms, flesh raw and blistered. “What’s your name?” It always helped to keep them talking, if they could. Keep them occupied, her old tutor said in her ear. Distract them.

“Hadvar…”

“Hadvar? I’m Rhiannon. Stay with me, okay?” Light emanated from her palms. “Where did you come from?”

“Helgen.” It came out as a groan, and some of the tension drained out of him as the gash stopped bleeding and began to close up. “I was… I saw everything.”

Helgen was Rikke’s hometown, Rhiannon remembered. A pang of dread made her magic sputter, and she refocused, moving from his side to his arms. “What did you see?”

He blinked at her. “Who are you?”

“No one. Just a healer. I’ve been staying in Riverwood. Hold on, I’m almost done.” He sat still obediently, and she sat back on her heels after a minute, inspecting her handiwork. “Better?”

Hadvar raised his hands and looked at the new skin there, fresh and pink. Some of the color returned to his face, and he flexed his fingers experimentally, looking at her with something like awe. “Rhiannon, right?” She nodded. “Thank you. If you hadn’t come by…”

“Someone would have passed by eventually.” She hoped. “What happened in Helgen?”

“General Tullius and his century captured Ulfric Stormcloak and some of his men. I was with the General when it happened. At first, I thought the plan was to send Ulfric back to Cyrodiil to face justice, but things change, I guess. General Tullius wanted him brought to justice. We almost did, too, but…” Hadvar shuddered. “A dragon came.”

Rhiannon was sure she’d misheard him at first. “A dragon?”

“I know what it sounds like, but I swear on my life, it was a dragon. Big as a house and black as night. It destroyed the village. Burnt it to ash.” He stared down at his hands. “Ulfric and his men escaped. I tried to help as many of the villagers as I could, but… there was so much fire. So much blood. Eventually I had to get out.” He touched his side, where a faintly-puckered scar was all that remained of the wound. “Courtesy of a Stormcloak straggler. Caught me right as I was trying to exit the tunnel beneath the keep.”

“Mara protect us,” Rhiannon breathed. She thought of Rikke, and sorrow settled over her heart.

Hadvar got to his feet. He stumbled a little and caught himself on the stone, face determined. “I have to go. Someone has to warn Jarl Balgruuf that Riverwood could be next.”

“Wait!” She scrambled upright, and he looked back at her. “Let me come with you.”

His expression shifted from impatient to confused. “You want to come with me? Why?”

“I have… friends. In Whiterun. They deserve a warning, too.” Ri’saad’s caravan was probably long-gone by now, but on the off-chance they weren’t, she wanted to tell them to watch the skies. Dragons were fairytale nightmares, not flesh-and-blood beasts, but there was something about Hadvar that made her want to believe him. He had the look of a man who’d come face-to-face with death recently.

“Well, sure. Can’t hurt.” He beckoned her to follow him down the road, the way she’d come. “I need to see my uncle first, though. See about getting this armor replaced.”

“You’re Alvor’s nephew?”

“Aye. You know him?”

“A bit. I’ve been in Riverwood for about a week and a half. Something like that.” She followed him, noting that he was favoring his left side. “I meant to go to Whiterun originally, but I got sidetracked. Is your ankle alright?”

“It’s fine.” He clearly didn’t want her to press the issue, so she let the matter drop. The sky was starting to darken, clouds fattening as they crossed beneath the bridge at Riverwood’s entrance. Hadvar was faster than her, even with a slight limp.

Dorthe was feeding the chickens out front of the blacksmith’s, tossing feed from her apron pockets for them to chase. When she saw them, she dumped the rest of it into the dirt and ran to meet them. “Hadvar!” She jumped up and threw her arms around his neck, and he caught her in a hug, bits of seed and oats at their feet. “You’re back! Mama and Papa were worried because we saw the smoke coming from Helgen.”

“Aye, I’m back, but just for today. I have to go to Whiterun.”

“Aww, why?”

“I have to run an important errand for General Tullius.” He set her down and ruffled her short hair, mussing it. She giggled. “Why don’t you run back and tell them I’m here? I need to talk to Uncle Alvor.”

“Okay!” Dorthe sprinted back towards the house, sending the chickens scattering in all directions and clucking indignantly. “Papa! Papa, Hadvar’s back!”

Hadvar smiled, then turned back to Rhiannon. “I’m planning on leaving at dawn tomorrow. The sooner I speak with Jarl Balgruuf, the better. Still want to come with?”

“I do, if that’s alright. I know it was abrupt, I just… prefer not to travel by myself, if I can help it.”

“Well, we’re going to the same place, so.” He shrugged. “Might as well. I’ll meet you out front of the inn at sunrise.”

“Sounds good.” They parted ways, and Rhiannon went to take stock of her supplies and pack. She didn’t have much left – just her coin and books, a few emergency rations, and the odd stone tablet she’d found in Bleak Falls. She didn’t recognize the language, but it seemed familiar at the same time, somehow. Whiterun was a big city. There had to be someone capable of translating it, or at least letting her know what it was. She wrapped it in her spare robes for safekeeping and stowed it in her pack. Then she went out to the counter to pay Orgnar for one last night.

“You headin’ out?” He swept the coins into the strongbox.

“Leaving for Whiterun in the morning. Thank you to you and Elona for your hospitality. I appreciate it.”

“I’m just the cook, miss,” Orgnar said, but he bid her a safe journey all the same.

Fat raindrops speckled the road and chilled her skin as she walked down to the Trader. Camilla was leaning on the windowsill when she pushed the door open, staring dreamily at nothing. “I love this weather, don’t you?”

“No,” Lucan said under his breath.

She barely spared him a glance. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Lucan’s mouth tightened like he’d bitten into something sour, and he went upstairs. A door slammed. Rhiannon looked at Camilla, who rolled her eyes. “He’s upset about me, Sven and Faendal. Doesn’t think it’s ‘natural’, whatever that means.” Some stomping came through the floorboards, and she raised her voice. “But I think he’s just a jealous bore!” More stomping and banging of cupboards. Camilla made a face. “Anyway, what’s going on? You look serious.”

“I met a soldier today. His name’s Hadvar. He says he was at Helgen.”

Camilla’s eyes widened. “The smoke this morning… was it…?”

“He said it was destroyed. Burnt to the ground. He’s going to Whiterun to warn Jarl Balgruuf, and I’m going with him. Someone has to warn Ri’saad, if they’re still in the hold.”

“Warn Jarl Balgruuf? Of what?”

Rhiannon took a deep breath. “Hadvar says… well, he says it was a draon that burned Helgen down.” Camilla put a hand to her mouth. “I know what it sounds like, but – “

“Sven’s mother was going on and on about seeing a dragon this morning,” Camilla said through her fingers. “He thought she might be losing it.” She sat down heavily in the chair next to the window. “Gods.” Rhiannon had no idea what to say, so she came over and gave Camilla a tentative hug. Camilla returned it. A tremor ran through her. “You’re really leaving, then?”

“I’m sorry. I have to.” She pulled back, and Camilla squeezed her hands.

“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done.”

“Me? I hardly did anything. Just gave those two a nudge in the right direction.” They looked out the window, where Sven and Faendal were chopping wood for the firepit. Sven said something, and Faendal threw his head back and laughed. Neither of them seemed to notice that it was drizzling.

Camilla smiled fondly. “I’ll tell them you said goodbye, if you don’t get around to it.” She gave Rhiannon’s hands one last, gentle squeeze. “We’re going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too. And I promise I’ll come back to visit. If that’s okay?”

“Of course it’s okay.” Camilla nudged her. “Write ahead and let me know when you’re coming. I’ll make cottage pie.”

----------

Dawn came too soon, and with it, Rhiannon rose and bid Riverwood farewell. She passed Elona in the common room on the way out, who raised her mug and nodded. Rhiannon waved, then let herself out into the cool grey morning. Rain pattered down at a steady pace, still soft enough to ignore for the time being. Hadvar stood beneath the awning that hung over the forge, exchanging goodbyes with Alvor. They clasped hands, and then he jogged to meet her. His new armor gleamed, freshly stitched and oiled, and he looked much better now that he’d rested. “Ready to head out?”

She stepped off the porch. “Thanks for letting me tag along.”

“Don’t mention it. Least I could do, considering you saved my life back there.”

“What else was I going to do, stand there and watch you bleed out?” She laughed and shook her head. “That violates every oath I’ve ever taken.”

“Lucky you found me then, instead of someone else.” Rhiannon’s smile fell away. She rarely considered that there were people whose first instinct wasn’t to help, even though she was aware they existed. Hadvar glanced at her, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry. It’s just that Skyrim isn’t the kind of place you can assume everyone has good intentions. Especially durin’ a war.”

“No need to apologize. You’re right.” I guess I’ve just been lucky so far. It was a depressing thought. They crossed the cobblestone bridge, river churning beneath their feet. She noticed he was still favoring his left, but not as heavily. He seemed used to it. Old war wound, perhaps. “Do… do you believe in the fundaments of human nature?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think that people are inherently good or evil?”

“Can’t say I’ve thought about it much.” He considered it as they walked, Rhiannon lagging behind him. “Before the war, I don’t think I would have said either. People are more complicated than that. But now, with some of the things I’ve seen…” He shook his head. “Why, which do you think it is?”

“Everyone I know thinks what they’re doing is the right thing to do. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.” She trotted around the bend after him, where the woods began to converge on the road. “Even though I’m probably wrong, I’d like to believe that when push comes to shove, most people will do the right thing.”

“Well, in this case, you can trust Jarl Balgruuf to handle it,” Hadvar said. “His people are his first priority. He’ll make sure Riverwood has what it needs in case there’s another attack.”

“Good! I’m glad. Where will you go after Whiterun?”

“Wherever I’m assigned. I’ll be sending a field report back to Solitude once I get there. After that, it’s just waiting for further instructions.”

He didn’t have anything to say after that, and neither did she. They lapsed into silence, sticking close to the trees to avoid the worst of the rain. It was coming down steadily now, turning the road to mud. Rhiannon’s boots made a sucking noise with every step. Her pack was already starting to weigh her down. She tried to ignore it. They walked through a dark little copse of pine trees and emerged at the top of the hill overlooking Whiterun, grass rippling in the wind. Rhiannon stopped to catch her breath, hands braced against her thighs. The city itself sat on a plateau, high stone walls formidable even at a distance. Stormclouds were rolling in thickly overhead, black against the green and gold patchwork of the plains.

“If we hurry, we can make it before that storm hits,” Hadvar said. “You alright?”

“I’m fine.” She straightened up, rolling her aching shoulders. Pine needles crunched underfoot as they hurried down the slope, sliding on the mud and knee-high grass. There were a couple of guards patrolling the crossroads, but for the most part, the immediate area was deserted. Even the farmers were nowhere to be found, presumably having shut themselves indoors to wait out the impending squall.

“Never seen it this quiet before,” Hadvar called over his shoulder. He sounded worried. “Hopefully it’s just the weather.”

“Or maybe news of Helgen already reached them,” Rhiannon called back, trying not to sound winded. “Word travels fast around here.”

“That it does.” The sky rumbled ominously, and the rain came down faster still, wind picking up and yanking at their hair and clothes. Hadvar moved at a soldier’s pace, and Rhiannon slogged after him, wishing she knew some sort of waterproofing spell. Her teeth were chattering by the time they reached the stables, robes soaked and clinging. Just a little bit more, and then you can rest. Hopefully the inn has a fire going.

As she suspected, Ri’saad and the caravan were nowhere to be found. Only the remains of a firepit just across the way hinted that they’d been there at all. Mara guide you, she mouthed, shaking fingers twined in a quick prayer. Hadvar’s hair was plastered flat to his head, water streaming down his face in rivulets, but he didn’t seem bothered. He wasn’t even breathing hard. The guards standing on either side of the city gates flagged them down as they approached.

“City’s closed until further notice,” the one on the right said. The one on the left looked them over disdainfully. “State your business.”

“It’s an emergency,” Hadvar said crisply. “I need to speak with the Jarl. I bring news of Helgen.”

The guards exchanged a look. The first one nodded at Rhiannon. “What about her?”

“She’s with me. Traveling healer.”

They relented. “Alright. Go on through. But watch yourselves.”

“Understood,” Hadvar said. The gates swung open.

----------

“You’re in charge,” Tullius had said before he’d ridden for Darkwater Crossing. Not as a reminder, but as a warning. Hold it together. Rikke didn’t need it, but she accepted it. Ulfric and Galmar had broken their oaths to the Legion, along with scores of others, but hers held fast, and would until the day she died.

Then word had come from the scouts. Ulfric had been captured in an ambush. Walked right into it, from the sound of things, with only a handful of men and Galmar Stone-Fist nowhere to be found, like they’d been expecting it all along. Tullius didn’t want to risk Ulfric slipping through his fingers by attempting to transport him back to Cyrodiil. The execution would be held at Helgen. Without their leader, the rebels would falter and burn out, flame extinguished. The war would end the second Ulfric’s head rolled from the block. The soldiers at Castle Dour rejoiced as the news spread. Rikke didn’t join in, but she didn’t deny them their relief, either. She stayed in the war room, running strategy in her head until her vision was blurry and her muscles cramped with tension. It was only late that night, after Erdi was dismissed and everyone else was abed, that she went back to her quarters and bolted the door. Then, for the first time since the war began, she broke down and wept.

Ulfric, my old friend… how could you have let it come to this?

She was so angry – with him, with Galmar, with their self-aggrandizing politics and ceaseless ambition, even as the land they all loved so much bore the heavy cost. But more than that, she missed them, and her shoulders shook with noiseless sobs. She missed them, and she missed the days of their youth, so simple compared to the way things were now. The three of them had been inseparable. They’d fought together, bled together, laughed and cried and hurt together; friends to the bitter end, Ulfric said solemnly one night, and Galmar clapped him on the shoulder and said last one to Sovengarde owes the other two a drink. And now Ulfric was dead, and Galmar would surely be next. Their heads would be decorating pikes somewhere in the Imperial City a handful of weeks from now, rotting in the sun. Her birthplace was Ulfric’s grave now, tainted by his blood. It made her sick to think of it.

“It didn’t have to be this way.” Her voice was thick with sorrow. “You stubborn old fool.”

And I’m a stubborn old fool, too, for thinking there was still hope for you.

In the morning, she would become the Legate again, faithful and dutiful above all else. But tonight, she was just Rikke, and she cried for her friends and for what could have been. And when her tears ran out, she wiped her face and placed her hand over her heart, where her Legion tattoo branded her skin. Talos be with you. Her lips moving silently in prayer.

Last one to Sovengarde owes the other two a drink, Galmar said wryly, somewhere in the back of her mind. She smiled. It was bitter on her lips.

May he be with all of us in the days to come.

Chapter Text

Field Report

14 Rain’s Hand, 4E 201

General Tullius,

I made it safely to Whiterun. As per your instruction, I obtained an audience with Jarl Balgruuf and relayed the events leading to Ulfric Stormcloak’s escape. Balgruuf is sending a contingent to patrol Riverwood and the surrounding area. He’s also asked me to assist him with an endeavor that may be related to the destruction of Helgen. I will report back with my findings and await further orders.

Qaestor Hadvar

----------

 

Dear Rikke,

I’m sure you’ll have heard the news by the time this reaches you. Saying sorry seems trite, but I am so incredibly sorry to hear about Helgen. I know there’s nothing I can do at this distance, but my prayers are with you, and those who died...

Gods, I’m sorry. That sounds foolish. It’s awful what happened, and no amount of prayer or well-wishing can change that.

I met one of your soldiers the day it happened. A man named Hadvar. He was in bad shape, so I patched him up, and in return he was kind enough to let me accompany him to Whiterun. We only just arrived. I’m drying out at the inn. Hadvar left to go inform Jarl Balgruuf of what happened. He says a dragon attacked Helgen.

A dragon… I feel a bit mad just writing that, but I suppose you’ll have heard that too by the time you read it. I do believe him, despite myself. Maybe it was the look in his eyes. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. So here I am, waiting to see what happens next. The waiting is always the worst part, isn’t it? I hope this storm passes soon, and this letter finds you in less dire circumstances than the present ones. Please know that I’m thinking of you.

Yours,

Rhiannon

----------

 

Rikke –

Wolfskull Cave was a fucking nightmare. You’re lucky I owed you a favor, or there’d be a resurrected Queen Potema running around Haafingar. Oh, that’s right, did I mention that I just fought a coven of necromancers? Because I just fought a coven of necromancers. Right pack of idiots, too. The Wolf Queen, for fuck’s sake! Tell that git Falk Fire-Breath that he can send my pay to Dragon Bridge, because I’m not coming up there to get it. I’m never leaving my house again. I'm serious this time.

C

P.S. You had better be bringing me something nice to make up for this next time you come visit.

Chapter Text

Rhiannon desperately wanted to explore Whiterun, but the weather kept her indoors. She sat by the fire instead, listening to the rain beat down on the roof and thinking about Rikke. Hometown destroyed, former friends on opposing sides of the war… it made her ache for the other woman. The letter she’d written hardly seemed adequate, but she hadn’t wanted to come on too strong. Physical wounds, she knew how to heal, but an injured heart wasn’t nearly so simple.

She scooted closer to the fire, warming her bare toes. Her boots were drying out next to the chair. Damp hair clung to her cheeks, and she scraped it off the back of her neck, restless all of a sudden. Hadvar had left some time ago to speak with the Jarl. He didn’t owe her anything, but she was hoping he’d come back all the same. She didn’t know anyone else in the city. Until he did, she had nothing to do but wait out the storm.

Some time passed. Rain rattled the windowpanes, drowning out the quiet chatter of the other patrons. Rhiannon nursed a cup of mulled wine and listened to Mikael, who looked like Sven but blonder and smugger, pluck out tunes on his lute until Hadvar blew back into the inn, water streaming from his cloak. Relief warmed her, and she waved him over. “How’d it go?”

“Well enough.” Hadvar hung his cloak on a peg near the door to dry. Hulda gave the water dripping on her floor a disparaging look. “Jarl Balgruuf is sending reinforcements to Riverwood and the surrounding areas.” He pulled up the chair next to hers and sat, lowering his voice. “No more dragon sightings have been reported, but you can never be too careful.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way.”

“I’ll drink to that.” He raised his hand and signaled Saadia. She materialized a moment later, tray tucked under her arm.

“What can I get you, soldier?” she purred.

“Mead, please, and leave the bottle.” She took his coin with a wink and sauntered away. Hadvar’s gaze lingered appreciatively, but when he turned back to Rhiannon, he was all business. “I’m going back to Dragonsreach tomorrow. Jarl Balgruuf’s mage is working on some project, and he seems to think I can help.”

“He didn’t tell you what it was?”

“Just that it might shed some light on what happened to Helgen.” Saadia came back with an empty goblet and a bottle of warm mead, smelling like spice and honey. Hadvar thanked her and poured himself a generous cupful. He offered Rhiannon some, but she declined. “Suit yourself. What’s your plan now that you’re here?”

“Explore the city, if this storm ever lets up.” Thunder boomed overhead, a hollow clap that made the building creak at the seams. “Hopefully it’ll break by morning.”

“Here’s hoping. It’s miserable out there.” He regarded her over the rim of his cup. “You know, I never did ask what you were doing in my neck of the woods.”

“What do you mean?”

He nodded at her robes, which bore the colors of an Expert practitioner of Restoration, complete with the carved clasp at the neck. “Riverwood’s a long way from the College.”

His voice was absent of the particular wariness Nords seemed to have about the College, as if it were some newly-discovered plane of Oblivion. She cautiously relaxed. “Nothing in particular… it just seemed like the sort of place I’d want to spend some time in. It’s beautiful there.”

“It is,” Hadvar agreed, with a flush of pride. “Most beautiful place in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Growing up there must have been something.” Her wine was cold now, but still good. She finished it. “Hopefully I’ll find my way back before I leave.”

“Leave? Where are you going?”

“Home.” It sounded uncertain, even to her ears. Hadvar looked at her curiously, but didn’t press the subject. She changed it before he could. “So, is Whiterun allied with the Legion, then?”

“Not exactly. Jarl Balgruuf has refrained from pledging his support to either side so far.” Hadvar’s expression made clear what he thought of this, but then he shrugged and tossed back the rest of his mead. “He’s always been committed to his hold first. Hard to fault a man for that.”

“He sounds like a good man.” She already felt safer on neutral ground.

“He is. He’s fair, but he won’t hesitate to fight if his people are in danger. Shame he’s holding out. We could use more like him.” He gave Rhiannon a once-over. “What about you? Good healers are worth their weight in gold on the front lines.”

(Smoke. Metal ringing against metal, the scents of oil and leather and blood in her nose. Blood caked into her nailbeds, in her hair. Screaming.)

“I’ll think about it,” she lied.

----------

Whiterun was a successful marriage of progress and tradition – the exterior was new, but the foundations were old and solid, weathered against time. Beneath the modern trappings, a fierce Nordic heart beat at its core. Tiled roofs and glass-paned windows hinted at influences from Cyrodiil and High Rock, no doubt thanks to the immigrant population, but the structures themselves were wood and stone, carved in long, sloping lines with proud arches like war ships. Peeling, painted signs hung over every door, proclaiming the inhabitants’ services, and tall posts directed travelers down various winding cobblestone streets, names carved into them that spoke of the old tongue. There were three sprawling districts, and several flights of steps that only got steeper and narrower the higher you climbed. Dragonsreach sat perched at the top, grand and precarious. Its shadow fell comfortingly over the Wind District. At the very bottom, in the Plains District, was the market. Rhiannon loved the market. No matter where she went, it was the one place that felt most like home.

The storm had broken early that morning, leaving the sky bruised and the air crisp and damp, smelling like new. It seemed like the entire city had poured into the market, and it was loud and dizzying and lovely, as marketplaces always were. Rhiannon wandered around the fringes, where the crowd had thinned out some and she felt like she could still breathe, taking it all in at her own pace. She bought lunch from two girls crouched next to a stall – a greasy packet filled with chunks of butter-roasted potato, sprinkled with shredded leeks and cheese – and licked her fingers clean while she watched a textile merchant haggle with a farmer over bolts of colorful fabric. A wave of sudden homesickness washed over her.

So many of her days growing up had been spent in her father’s shop. She used to hide behind the counter or under one of the tables and listen to him bargain with customers. He had a rich voice and a warm smile, and it seemed to her that he could sell anything to anyone; nobody ever left empty-handed. The market had that particular scent she remembered so well, like wool and spice and old wood, familiar enough to make her heart ache. How was it, that she could miss something so much, yet dread returning to it? She crumpled up the packet and moved on, not wanting to dwell on it any longer.

The sign hanging over the heavy wooden door read “Arcadia’s Cauldron” in carefully-painted letters. A distant bell tinkled when she pushed it open. Fragrance assaulted her nostrils; floral and spicy, the tell-tale scent of an apothecary. She breathed it in happily. The shop was cozy, tucked away in the back of the square, and sunlight filtered through the windows, making the polished wood gleam. Ingredients and potions lined the shelves and countertop, and bundles of dried herbs hung from the rafters. Everything was beautifully organized, and according to the little handwritten signs next to them, terribly expensive. She was examining bowls of elemental salts in a display case near the door when a woman – Arcadia, presumably – came bustling out of the back room, plastering on a harried smile. “Sorry about that!” she trilled. “You weren’t waiting too long, were you?”

“No, no. Only a couple of minutes,” Rhiannon assured her. “I was just looking around.”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

“Not really, just admiring. You have an impressive selection.”

Arcadia preened. “Thank you, dear. Let me know if you need help.”

Thankfully, she didn’t hover for very long, and left Rhiannon in peace to continue perusing. She’d been planning to buy some reagents that weren’t so easily harvested, but prices were steep and she was running out of gold. In the end, she gave in and splurged on a few things she hadn’t seen in the wild yet – giant lichen, a powder made from ground ice wraith teeth, Namira’s rot mushrooms, and a delicate glass vial of wisp wrappings that glowed like eerie blue lace.

“Where did you find these?” she asked when Arcadia came back up the counter. “I’ve only heard of them. Even the College didn’t have any samples.” Unless you were willing to go through Enthir, or so the rumor went. Arcadia wrapped up her purchases in butcher paper and twine, movements efficient and practiced.

“Make no mistake, Wisp Mothers are hard to find. And quite frankly, if you do, you should run the other way. Fast.” She smiled secretively. “But twenty years in Skyrim has netted me more than a few contacts who are willing to go where I can’t, or won’t.”

Twenty years… “Could I ask you something?”

“Ask away.”

“Do you ever miss Cyrodiil?” She was sure it was a stupid question as soon as it left her mouth. Just because Arcadia was an Imperial didn’t mean she hailed from Cyrodiil.

But Arcadia just shook her head as she handed over the bundles. “At first. But after this long? No, I can’t say I do. Whiterun is my home.” She gave Rhiannon a quick once-over. “What did you say your name was?”

I didn’t. “It’s Rhiannon.” She counted out her coin.

“Are you staying, or just visiting?”

“Visiting, I guess.” The gold clinked as it fell into Arcadia’s coinpurse. “A long visit.”

“Visiting indefinitely?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, feel free to drop by if you ever want to put in an order or chat,” Arcadia said, and smiled. “We alchemists have to stick together.”

Rhiannon thanked her and left the shop significantly poorer than she’d come in, balancing her purchases carefully. There was something about Arcadia’s cheeriness that seemed odd to her; almost rehearsed. She wondered if the rumor about her making love potions was true.

The crowd was thicker now, and noisier, people laughing and yelling and haggling at the top of their lungs over merchants barking their wares. She was trying to maneuver around the fringes without getting jostled or dropping anything when she spotted a flash of Legion colors. The people shifted again, someone shoving past her, and she caught a glimpse of a glum, familiar face. “Hadvar!” He didn’t hear her, and she had to chase after him before she lost sight of him again. She caught up with him just outside the inn, breathing hard. “Hadvar, hi.”

“Hi.” He sounded glum, too, but then he took stock of her situation and his tone lightened. “Need a hand?”

“I’ve got it,” she started to say, but he was already taking the bundles from her.

“Enjoying the market?”

“I am. Did you find out what the Jarl wanted your help with?”

His expression fell all over again. “Aye. The wizard, Farengar, he needs me to go find something for him called the Dragonstone. Says it might explain what happened in Helgen.”

“Did he say where it is?”

“Supposedly it’s in Bleak Falls Barrow, not far from here. It’s the ruin that looks out over Riverwood,” Hadvar said, in the tone of a man trying much too hard to sound casual. “When I was a boy, that place used to give me nightmares. Not that it still does, mind you.”

“Hadvar?”

“Draugr creeping down the mountain in the dead of night, climbing in through my window… that sort of thing. Still don’t much like the look of it, if I’m being honest, but – “

“Hadvar,” Rhiannon said, louder this time, and he stopped and looked at her, confused. “I have something you need to see.”

He still looked confused, but her expression must have convinced him that it was important, because he followed her willingly enough into the inn and upstairs to her room. He set her packages on the bed while she rummaged through her pack, tossing clothes and books onto the floor haphazardly. For a fleeting moment, she was afraid that something had happened and it had vanished, but the tablet was still there, swaddled in her spare robes. She beckoned him over. “I found this in Bleak Falls Barrow. I think it might be what you’re supposed to bring back.”

“By the Eight…” Hadvar approached, slowly, like he was afraid it might crumble if he made any sudden moves. “You went into Bleak Falls? But… why?”

“It’s a long story.”

“What’s the short version?”

“Bandits took something that didn’t belong to them. I helped get it back.” They both stared down at the tablet, old and worn. “I only took this because I was curious. I didn’t think – “

The rest of her words devolved into a squeak as Hadvar swept her up in a bear hug, jubilant. “That’s incredible. You’re incredible!” He spun in a circle, then released her. She wobbled away from him. “I knew our paths crossed for a reason.”

“Besides me healing you?”

“Right, right. Come on, we need to get this back to Dragonsreach.” He picked up the stone, still cradled in her robes. “You can tell the wizard how you came by it.”

“Me?” Anxiety bubbled sick in the pit of her stomach. “You don’t need me. Do you?”

“Of course I do. I can’t just show up with this an hour after he asked me to get it and claim a healer gave it to me. They’ll think I’ve gone mad.”

“Right, of course. What was I thinking?” She mustered up a smile. “Lead the way.”

----------

Contrary to what one might expect, Rhiannon didn’t especially enjoy the company of other mages. Too many of them were more concerned with feeling superior than encouraging collaboration, in her experience. Everyone thought Colette was paranoid, and shrill, but Rhiannon knew where her defensiveness stemmed from. She’d been on the receiving end of it herself more than once – the lift of the eyebrow, the polite smile, the equally polite Restoration? That must be… rewarding as the interest died in their eyes. There were also the myriad memories of Zeno “accidentally” setting her robes on fire – one of his favorite pastimes when they were both studying in the garden. At least Onmund and Brelyna weren’t like that, which was a comfort.

Farengar, on the other hand, reminded her of J’zargo, and not in a good way. J’zargo was snide and charming and thought himself better than everyone else, whereas Farengar gave off the impression that he thought himself better than you, specifically. He was clearly unimpressed when Hadvar had first dragged her into his laboratory, but he lost some of the composed condescension when presented with the tablet. “The Dragonstone? But, how did you…”

Hadvar nudged Rhiannon forward. She cleared her throat, face warm, and haltingly explained how she’d come to possess it. She left out the bits about her matchmaking adventures. “And then I met Hadvar, and he was kind enough to let me come the rest of the way with him,” she finished, scratching a bug bite on her elbow. “That’s about it.”

“A fortuitous turn of events,” Farengar said, only half paying attention now as he cleared off space on his overflowing desk. “Lay it here, let me see… perfect. My contact will be delighted to know that their information was correct after all.”

“So… what does all that mean?” Hadvar asked, peering over Farengar’s shoulder.

“It’s a map. It’ll take some time to decipher, of course, but this should reveal the location of all the dragon burial mounds in Skyrim.”

“It’s really true, then? Dragons are coming back?”

“You are standing very close to me,” Farengar said. Hadvar retreated. “Thank you. Yes, dragons do appear to be coming back. As for why, it’s going to take a great deal more research, but this will help immensely.” He waved a hand at them. “Go speak to the Jarl for your reward, if you wish.”

“What reward?” Rhiannon whispered to Hadvar. “I didn’t do anything.”

The front doors of Dragonsreach boomed hollow as they were thrown open, and someone yelled for the Jarl, shrill and panicked. Hadvar was out of the laboratory almost instantly, Rhiannon hot on his heels. Balgruuf’s housecarl stood in front of him, one hand on the hilt of her sword. Balgruuf and his steward were on their feet. A young man, guard uniform soaked with sweat, came staggering up the walkway and collapsed to his knees.

“My Jarl,” he gasped. “The western watchtower, there… there was a dragon sighted, circling overhead… got here as fast as I could…”

“Is it attacking?” the housecarl barked.

“Not yet. Just saw it and ran here as fast as I could,” the guard panted, chest heaving. “Thought it’d come after me for sure.”

“Good work, son,” Balgruuf said, tone surprisingly gentle. “We’ll take it from here. Head down to the barracks and get some rest.” The guard staggered to his feet and bowed before tottering off. Balgruuf’s face hardened, and he looked at his housecarl. “Irileth, gather some of the guard and head down there. Now. Don’t fail me.” She nodded tightly. Balgruuf’s gaze swept the room and landed on Hadvar and Rhiannon, hovering at the top of the stairs. “Hadvar.”

He stepped forward. “Yes, my Jarl.”

“There’s no time to stand on ceremony. You survived Helgen, so you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here. I need you to go with Irileth and fight, if it comes to it. Will you do this?” Balgruuf’s eyes blazed, voice rolling out over the hall like thunder. In that moment, Rhiannon thought it might have been impossible to refuse him anything. Hadvar’s throat bobbed as he swallowed, but he set his jaw and saluted.

“Aye, my Jarl. I’ll go.”

“I’ll come along as well,” Farengar said, making them both start. He’d snuck up behind them, quiet as a cat. “I would very much like to see this dragon.”

“No.” Balgruuf shook his head. “I can’t afford to risk all three of you. I need you here, working out ways to defend the city.”

“As you command,” Farengar sighed. Then, to Rhiannon’s horror, he clapped his hand to her shoulder. “Why don’t you send this one, then? She brought back the Dragonstone from Bleak Falls Barrow.”

Irileth eyed her, skeptical. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have a healer on hand.”

Balgruuf fixed her with that same unblinking stare. “What’s your name, mage?”

“Rhiannon,” she stuttered. “My lord.” The flap of leathery wings echoed in her ears. Balgruuf looked her over.

“You retrieved the Dragonstone?”

“Y-yes, but – “

“And you’re a healer?”

“…yes, my lord.”

“If you get the chance to bring back some teeth or scales, please do,” Farengar said in her ear, cheerful now. “Since you’re going anyway.”

----------

To the west, the watchtower burned, and no storm rose up to put it out. Irileth’s lips thinned. “Search for survivors.”

Rhiannon stuck close to Hadvar as the contingent fanned out. The tower was already starting to crumble, stones scorched black. Flakes of ash drifted through the air around them. Some of the guards had been burnt to unrecognizable corpses, while others had been crushed by falling rubble when the top half of the tower had collapsed. She’d seen worse things, but not by much, and she had to turn away from the tableau of smashed limbs and blood-soaked grass, lunch threatening to come back up. Hadvar trudged silently next to her, a sheen of sweat on his pallid face.

“Anyone there?” Irileth called from the tower’s mouth.

“Get back!” A man, crawling out of the wreckage, face and hands soot-black, whites of his eyes stark against it. One leg dragged limply behind him. “It might still be around here!”

“Mage,” Irileth barked, and Rhiannon came running.

“No warning,” the guard rasped, clutching at her robes as she knelt down next to him. “Someone saw it circling overhead, said he’d go tell the Jarl, and then…”

“Here, let me look at your leg…”

“There, to the south!” someone screamed. “Over the mountains!”

Rhiannon’s hands shook as she set the man’s mangled leg. He wept openly. She’d barely finished before Irileth was hauling him upright. “Time to move, soldier!”

The three of them stumbled from the tower, and above them, a roar echoed over the plains. It was nothing like the growl of a bear, or the shriek of a sabrecat. It was a guttural, unearthly wail that shook the very earth beneath their feet, and a winged shadow slithered overhead. “Get out of the way!” Irileth bellowed, and Rhiannon scuttled aside, chastised. “Archers, here it comes! Make every arrow count!”

The dragon landed on top of the tower.

It was not a gentle landing. Chunks of mortar came loose and crumbled to the ground, and its wings sent gusts of air rippling across the field. Those closest were bowled over by the sheer force, while the rest braced themselves, hair and clothes flapping wildly. Rhiannon flattened herself against a boulder, coughing. There was dust everywhere – her face, her throat, her ears, clogging the air around her. She pawed the grit away, eyes streaming, and the dragon loomed impossibly large overhead, backlit by the sun.

Its claws were like scimitars, and they dug into the cracks of the tower, wintry scales gleaming like pearl in the afternoon light. She heard Irileth yelling orders, the scrape and twang of sword and bow readying themselves, but it all melted into meaningless babble, buzzing in her head. The dragon’s tail, thick as a tree trunk and wickedly spiked at the end, draped across the watchtower bridge. The tip twitched, like an angry cat. It turned one clever, copper eye onto Rhiannon and pinned her there, an insect in a shadow box, small and weak and helpless. Its mouth opened, full of jagged teeth.

DOVAHKIIN

“Fire!” Irileth screamed.

Dragonborn, something hissed in Rhiannon’s ear.

The dragon took to the air, arrows battering and breaking against its leathery hide. It circled and dipped low, and the air grew cold.

“Get clear!” someone yelled. The dragon’s mouth opened again, and it breathed forth a hurricane of bitter frost, carving pathways of ice all around the watchtower. Those caught in the worst of it died instantly, faces contorted into frozen screams. The rest were in chaos, sliding around on the slick grass as they scrambled for higher ground.

“Regroup! With me!” Irileth had taken cover, and she emerged now, pulling her bowstring taut. The dragon wheeled lazily over the scene like a carrion bird. A few of the arrows found their mark deep in its soft underbelly, but the rest were swept away with a flick of its tail. It snarled and spat. Icicles like spears embedded themselves in the quaking earth. It skimmed the ground, only so its great talons and fangs could snatch up soldiers and fling them wide like ragdolls before taking off again. There was no one to heal. When it attacked, they died. Archers shot valiantly from the hills, and one clean shot caught it in the eye, black blood pouring from the wound. The dragon shrieked and unleashed another gale of misery upon them.

Cowering behind her boulder, Rhiannon summoned her atronach, hands trembling so badly it took her three tries to conjure it. “Help them,” she croaked, and her atronach leapt forth to join the fray, a whirling dervish of smoke and flame.

People dove out of the way as it hurled fireballs indiscriminately into the sky, ash filling the air, grass burning beneath its feet. Soldiers swarmed, and arrows flew. Fire scorched the dragon’s pale flank, and it swerved higher. In the chaos, someone seized Rhiannon’s arm. She screamed, but it was only Hadvar, jaw set grimly.

“Come on!” He hauled her back, over the crest of the hill and into a little dip of a valley, where there was more cover. Her boots skidded on the frost-slick grass, and she stumbled and fell. Hadvar pulled her upright with a bruising grip on her arm. The dragon roared.

“Get behind me!” She barely had the presence of mind to throw up a ward, and the storm poured down upon them. Sleet rushed over and around them like crashing waves, and she struggled to maintain it, her magica being sapped by the second. She had never been so cold. Hadvar’s hands were on her shoulders like he could help her maintain it, but she was shaking so badly she could barely feel him. Petra’s power had been one thing, but this was another entirely. This was ancient, and relentless, and her body shook and burned with the strain. Then, abruptly, it stopped, and the dragon’s scream of rage echoed across the hills.

With its final seconds of life, her atronach had done what she ordered, and helped them. It dissolved in a fiery rush, and flaming arrows streaked across the sky like falling stars. Fire ate away at the membrane of the dragon’s wing, raged across its belly and blackened its scales, and it came crashing down, beating its wing against the ground and snapping its jaws. Everyone took cover.

The dragon’s head snaked about, muzzle in the air like it was scenting prey. Its one good eye locked onto hers. In its gaze, there was nothing but a cold, flat hunger, and the only thing that kept her from going to her knees was Hadvar supporting her. Its mouth opened, teeth stained red. HI LOS DOVAHKIIN? FEN FOLAAS. The words – for they were unmistakably words – scraped against the inside of her skull, and she clapped her hands over her ears, a sob welling up. LIR. HI FEN OBLAAN.

Hadvar tackled her to the ground, shielding her with his body, and the tears on her cheeks froze as the maelstrom swept over them. Chunks of ice battered his back, his sides, cut his cheeks and he cried out in pain, but he wouldn’t move. Stop it, she tried to yell. I’m not worth it. But the howling wind of the dragon’s shout swept her words away. Blood from a cut on his cheek dripped onto her face. She reached up, tried to heal it, but the spell wouldn’t come, her magica still exhausted. So weak…

A bright flame cut through the heart of the blizzard like an arrow. Irileth, bleeding from a dozen places and alight with the fire of her ancestors, sprang forward from the hilltop. For a second, her silhouette blacked out the sun. Ice melted, sizzling, and the grass was scorched. The noise the dragon made as it got a snoutful of flames was one that would haunt Rhiannon to the end of her days. The storm ceased.

It reeled back, and Irileth lunged. Her sword burst through the fleshy section of its lower jaw and skewered its tongue. It wailed and thrashed, hot blood spattering the dirt. Irileth rolled, still clutching her sword. Rhiannon and Hadvar watched in horror as she dodged to her feet, avoiding snapping teeth and stabbing claws in a deadly dance. A glancing blow, a precise strike, and the dragon’s other eye was gone. Her next thrust went through the side of the dragon’s neck, just behind the plated scales covering its head. She threw her weight on the hilt, and her blade bit deep. Blood ran down her arms, dark against her blue-gray skin, red eyes glowing with triumph. The dragon gurgled weakly, blood dripping from its jaws. When it hit the ground, the plains shook, and then there was nothing. No wind rustled the grass, no birds sang. Just the silent shock of the survivors scattered across the clearing, and the harsh sound of Irileth’s breathing as she sank to her knees. Hadvar helped a shivering Rhiannon to her feet.

The dragon’s carcass began to glow.

For a moment, Rhiannon thought maybe it had finally happened; she’d snapped due to stress and was hallucinating. But gasps rippled through the remaining soldiers as light swirled around the dragon, pearly gold, stripping it down to the bone, skin disintegrating into embers. Irileth scrambled away. “Everyone get back! Be on your guard!”

The column of light rose skyward, then whistled down and streaked across the field. It struck Rhiannon like a lightning bolt. Everything went white, no more ground beneath her feet, and an agonizing surge of power flooded her veins, threatening to rip her apart. Hurts… oh gods, it hurts… Like her skin would split, ribcage cracking like an eggshell. Mara help me! She tried to shout out a prayer, but a single word burned in her throat, branded itself on her tongue, carved out space in her skull, and her feet touched the ruined grass and she coughed blood, screamed to the sky.

FUS

It burst forth and echoed across the sky, heralding thunder. The grass poked at Rhiannon’s back, tickled her cheek. She opened her eyes. Faces swam in and out of focus. Words, unintelligible, flowed over her like water. Her throat burned, raw and stinging, and she coughed again, blood flecking her lips and chin. Snatches of conversation faded in and out.

“Dovahkiin… I thought… just a myth…”

“…can’t be her, can it?”

“The dragon…”

Sleep now, something whispered. Rhiannon closed her eyes gratefully. No more carnage, no more helpless fear pulsing through her bloodstream. Just sweet, welcoming darkness.

It began to rain.

Chapter Text

Dear Rikke,

I hope it doesn’t trouble you that I write as often as I do. If it does, I apologize. I know you’re busy, but… well. I don’t know many people in Skyrim, and I enjoy hearing from you. I hope that’s alright.

The city has been a flurry of activity over the last few days. I suppose you’ll hear about the dragon at the watchtower when your man Hadvar returns to Solitude, so there’s no point in recounting it here. Luckily, Whiterun itself is safe for the time being. Jarl Balgruuf’s wizard, Farengar, keeps complaining that no one brought back any teeth or scales for him to study. I’ve never met someone so disappointed about not facing a dragon. He’s a strange man.

There’s been little else of note. I was outside the walls the other day when I saw a pair of Thalmor agents escorting a man down the road. His hands were bound, so I can only assume he was a prisoner. He tripped and fell and tried to roll away, and they… oh, Rikke, it was horrible! And the guards did nothing to intervene. I thought about trying to say something, or heal him, but I suspect it would have only made things worse. How can they treat people so badly? Back in Solitude, Onmund and I had a run-in with a Justiciar who was looking for information about an escaped prisoner. I’m lucky that my interactions with them have been limited, all things considered. I know what they think of humans, and…

I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t be talking to you about these things. Burn this letter if you need to. I don’t want you to face any sort of trouble on my account.

Yours,

Rhiannon

---------

 

Rhiannon,

Are you ever coming back? I thought you would have returned with Onmund. Something happened, didn’t it? He acts strange whenever anyone mentions you, and you still haven’t written. You promised you would. You’d better be somewhere safe, or I’m going to be upset with you.

Things have been a bit… odd, around here. Tolfdir discovered something in Saarthal, but he won’t say what. He and Mirabelle keep locking themselves in the Arch-Mage’s quarters to discuss it at all hours of the night. They’ve got Ancano furious. He keeps skulking around trying to look like he’s not spying, and doing a terrible job of it. I even saw him slipping down to the Midden the other day. Whatever he’s up to, I have a bad feeling about it. I’ll try to keep you updated if I find out anything else. Write back soon, okay? We miss you.

Brelyna

P.S. J’zargo has informed me that he would like you to come back as well. No one else will test out any of his scrolls.

 

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Rhiannon –

I told myself I’d at least wait until you wrote to me first, but I want to say this now, while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I had a lot of time to think on the way back to the College. Too much time, maybe. At first, I was angry. I’ll admit it. I wanted you to hurt like I was hurting. It’s not right, or fair, but it’s how I felt. And that’s why I had to get away, before I did something else I’d regret. You mean a lot to me and I don’t want to lose you, or do something cruel and drive you away. I’m no good at this kind of thing… words, I mean. But I thought you should know that. And that I miss you. Be careful out there.

Your friend,

Onmund

----------

 

Rhiannon,

My dear, you must forgive my abruptness, but I felt simply compelled to write to you this morning. I had a dream, and… well, not to alarm you, but I do put some stock in their meanings, and I haven’t heard from you in quite some time. Your friend Onmund tells me that he recently left you alive and well in Markarth, however, which is heartening! Anyway, I don’t intend to trouble you, but as your professor and mentor, I feel a sense of responsibility towards you. You are planning on completing your studies, aren’t you? My colleagues and I obviously encourage everyone to move at the pace that suits them, but you have a real gift for healing, and I would hate to see it go to waste. Do write back soon, won’t you? This dream… it’s given me a bad feeling I can’t quite shake, so please. Indulge me, if you would be so kind. I would sincerely love to hear about your travels.

Fondly,

Colette Marence

----------

 

Mralki

I’m at the end of my rope. If it’s not those damned elves at the Drunken Huntsman accusing me of undercutting prices or Saadia being asleep on her feet, it’s the patrons. Seems like I’m replacing my furniture on a weekly basis these days, and now I have to fix up an entire room. This place is becoming more trouble than it’s worth, let me tell you.

Don’t know how much you heard about the attack on the watchtower, but two of the people involved were staying here. A Legionnaire and a healer. I didn’t get the full story, but the soldier brought the healer back to the Mare afterwards. Said she collapsed and no one could wake her. Can’t say I was surprised. She seemed a bit delicate. You know how those mage types are. So I left them be. Woke up in the middle of the night to a ruckus. I’m telling you, that girl went mad! Smashed up the room, ripped the bedclothes, broke my dishes, and hollered bloody murder the entire time. Never seen anything quite like it, to tell you the truth. This girl could barely carry her pack the day before, and now she’s scratching up my floorboards and breaking my chairs. Her friend could barely restrain her. And then she collapsed again! She finally came to, and when she realized what happened she cried and offered to replace everything, but she didn’t have nearly enough gold, so what was the point? The soldier took her up to the keep after that, which was just as well.

I keep thinking about those eyes, Mralki. While she was like that… wasn’t nothing human about those eyes. Gives me the shudders even now. And I still have that mess waiting for me upstairs.

Anyway, the whole reason I’m writing is to tell you that you’re finally getting your wish. I hope you were serious all those times you pestered me about selling the inn and moving to Rorikstead, because I’m finally ready to retire. Ysolda wants to run this place so badly? She can have it, and may Zenithar grant her luck. She’s going to need it.

Hulda

Chapter Text

The call came early that morning, and the mountains trembled in its wake. It was misty and grey outside, still drizzling, and a single word reverberated like thunder – a plea, a command, a call to action. All of Skyrim felt the echo of what seemed like a thousand voices, joined in one unifying chorus.

DOVAHKIIN!”

It roused some from their slumber, while others stopped and stared at the sky, murmuring in disbelief. The Greybeards had remained silent atop High Hrothgar for centuries, observing the events of the world below without interference. Not everyone understood the word that rang out across the land, but those who did, it was a day of reckoning, upon which the wheel of time began to turn with a great creaking and groaning. The Dragonborn had awakened. And back in Dragonsreach, in her borrowed bed, Rhiannon buried her head beneath her pillow and sobbed.

----------

Her hands were fine.

It didn’t seem right that they should be fine. Not when they’d been shredded and bloody, fingernails torn clean off, splinters embedded in the soft flesh of her palms. Not when the room around her had been trashed, furniture broken and bloody handprints smeared on the walls. She stared down at them – whole and undamaged now – while Balgruuf spoke. His words flowed over her without registering. How was it possible that she had no scars? It was like it had never happened. She had no recollection of the event itself, which was bad enough. Only the blood and the sudden, searing pain. She turned her hands over, examining them, but they looked exactly the same as they had before the watchtower.

“…assign you Lydia as your personal housecarl…”

Her head snapped up. “What?” Silence settled thickly over the hall, and she became aware of how loud her own voice sounded in the interim. Balgruuf’s steward peered down at her from the dais, perturbed. Balgruuf cleared his throat.

“Thane is more of an honorary title, but it does come with a few perks.” He gestured to the dark-haired woman standing a few steps beneath him. Rhiannon hadn’t noticed her approach. “Lydia is now your housecarl.” The woman inclined her head in a small bow. “I’ve also instructed Avenicci that you are permitted to purchase property in the city, if you so wish.”

I don’t understand, she wanted to say, but the words tangled in her tender throat and she couldn’t get them out. Why were they giving her these things, when she’d done nothing to earn them? And what was a Dragonborn? She wished she could ask Hadvar, but he was gone, departed for Solitude early that morning.

She could have gone with him. He’d asked. The thought of seeing Rikke again – the prospect of a friendly face – had been sorely tempting, and she’d almost agreed. But she also knew the real motivation behind his request, and it wasn’t her war. She’d said as much. And now he was gone, and she was alone, and everyone was looking at her. All those eyes, boring into her, judging her as weak, unworthy, disappointing; it had to be a mistake. She was a mistake. But she couldn’t appear ungrateful. “Yes, my lord,” she murmured. “Thank you. It’s… it’s an honor.”

Balgruuf smiled at her. It was a kind smile. Why were they all so kind, when she deserved none of it? “We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn. Speak to Lydia or Avenicci if you require any assistance.”

She nodded, and bowed. There was nothing else to do. And then she was dismissed, and the woman, Lydia, caught up with her near the front doors before she could escape. She was tall, a few years older than Rhiannon, and her cool grey eyes swept over her new Thane appraisingly. Her burnished steel armor gleamed in the sunlight flooding the Great Hall.

“As the Jarl said, my name is Lydia. It’s an honor to serve you, my Thane.”

Honor. Why did they all keep saying that? “I’m not – “ She shook her head. “Never mind. Just call me Rhiannon.”

A slight furrow appeared between Lydia’s brows. “As you wish.” An awkward silence followed as they stared at one another. Lydia coughed politely. “Is there anything you require assistance with at the moment?”

“I’m sorry. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this.” She rubbed her temples. “So… you’re sworn to my service? Just like that?”

“It’s what I’ve been trained for.” Lydia’s voice went from neutral to cold. “I’m bound to fulfill my Jarl’s wishes. When he said I was to become housecarl to the Dragonborn, I thought – “ She stopped abruptly, pressing her lips together.

A horrible feeling slithered into the pit of Rhiannon’s stomach and lodged there. “Oh,” she whispered.

“I apologize, my Thane. I spoke out of turn.”

“No, please. Don’t apologize.” She sighed. “So, the Dragonborn. Not traditionally a healer, I take it?”

“No. In our legends, the Dragonborn is a great warrior. A mortal with the blood and soul of a dragon.” Lydia’s tone was even, but she couldn’t quite seem to meet Rhiannon’s eyes. “But it’s no matter. You are my Thane, and as such, my sword and shield are yours.”

Rhiannon stared down at her hands. They were fine. “Thank you,” she said. “For your honesty.”

----------

Ortha and Mirri were Rikke’s two best scouts. On the surface, they had little in common; Ortha was tall and rangy for an Orc, built like a brawler, while Mirri was small and dark and sturdy, of intermingled Breton and Nordic heritage. Ortha preferred bows, but carried a well-worn axe on her belt just in case, while Mirri specialized in close-quarters combat with her hunting knives. But they worked well together, operating as a single entity in the field, and Rikke often sent them on joint assignments if the work was important enough. They’d returned scarcely an hour ago, dirty and out of breath.

“Korvanjund,” she said, looking between them. “You’re sure.”

Ortha nodded. “We’re sure.”

“We heard Galmar’s scouts say they were heading back to Windhelm,” Mirri added, brushing lank brown hair out of her eyes. “They were definitely planning on meeting with him and Ulfric.”

“You weren’t spotted?”

“No ma’am. We covered our tracks,” Ortha said.

“Good work,” Rikke said. “You’re dismissed. Go back to the barracks and get some rest.” Both of them saluted smartly and left the war room. She glanced at Tullius, who had remained silent during the debrief. “Sir.”

He stared down at the map laid out before them, expression unreadable. The skin around his eyes was like paper, the lines around his mouth carved deep. He wasn’t much older than she was, all things considered, but Helgen had aged him. He looked haggard.

“Remind me again,” he said, “why I should waste bodies and resources chasing a fairytale.”

“With all due respect, sir, if Ulfric gets his hands on it, the Jagged Crown won’t be a fairytale. It’ll be a problem.”

Ulfric was alive. Outwardly, she’d shown no emotion when he’d given her the news. But there was a part of her that was shamefully, selfishly glad he lived yet. She pushed it aside.

Tullius squinted at her. “How is it a problem if the Moot chooses the new ruler?”

“Not everyone has agreed to the Moot. You know that.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Don’t you people put any stock in your own traditions?”

“We do,” she said, tamping down her irritation. “But we also follow our hearts. That crown won’t make Ulfric High King, but it will rally more to his cause.” His scowl remained, but she could tell he was listening now, and pressed her advantage. “But, if we were to get it first, and give it to Elisif…”

“In the absence of the Moot, it would further legitimize her claim,” Tullius finished. He looked thoughtful now, less put-upon, and she gave him the final nudge.

“Balgruuf is a man of tradition at heart. The crown could be the sign he needs to throw his lot in with us.”

“Fine,” Tullius grunted. “I see your point. But what makes you so sure it’s there?”

She paused. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Granted.”

“You may not like being reminded of it, but I once called Ulfric and Galmar friends. I know them. Stone-Fist isn’t a man given to flights of fancy. If he’s sending scouts out, then he’s most likely found it.” She folded her hands behind her back. “He won’t waste any time, and neither should we.”

He was silent again for a long moment. “How long do you need to prepare?”

“Two days should be sufficient. Windhelm is closer to the tomb than we are, but by my calculations, it’s going to take Galmar’s scouts at least another day to reach them.”

“How do you know that?”

“I had Ortha and Mirri repurpose their horses. They’re returning on foot.”

A smile flickered at the corners of Tullius’ mouth. “Write to Hadvar, have him change course and wait for you there. Might as well have him debrief with you, kill two birds with one stone.” He saluted curtly, and she returned it. “Dismissed.”

“Yes sir.”

He called to her when she was halfway out the door. “Legate.” She looked back at him. “This had better not be a waste of time.”

“It won’t be,” she said, and shut the door behind her.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. There was a lot to coordinate and not much time to do it in, and she dashed off a quick note to Hadvar and sent it out by courier at once. Hopefully it would reach him before he got to Solitude. Tullius allowed her to handpick her squad – a score of those she felt best-suited for the task that lay ahead – and when that was done she gave Ortha and Mirri their orders: leave the following morning and scout ahead. “I don’t want any surprises,” she warned them. “Don’t interfere, and don’t get caught. We won’t be far behind you.” 

When dinner came, she ate in her quarters, as she often did, and regretfully burned Rhiannon’s newest letter after reading it twice. Better that than any potential trouble it might bring. Erdi made her tea and set to mending tunics in her little workspace in the corner, humming a familiar tune. It took Rikke a minute to place it. “Is that Tale of the Tongues?”

“Oh! Yes,” Erdi said sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Legate. Am I bothering you?”

“No, I don’t mind. Just haven’t heard that one in a while.”

“I thought it was fitting.”

“Why’s that?”

Erdi’s eyes widened. “You mean you didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?” Rikke asked, impatient now.

Erdi’s hands fluttered over her needle and thread like nervous sparrows. “The other day… the Greybeards’ call. The Dragonborn?”

“Ah.” She was loath to admit she’d nearly forgotten, preoccupied as she’d been with other matters.

Erdi picked up her scissors and snipped the excess thread away. “It’s like something out a storybook,” she said dreamily. “The Dragonborn, come to protect us from evil and strife. I wonder what they’re like…”

Rikke sipped at her tea. “And you’re sure,” she said once she’d finished, “that the Dragonborn is really so good and noble?”

“They have to be!” Erdi looked at her, face shining and earnest. “All the legends talk about the heroes who defeated the dragons. How could they not be on our side?”

“You know quite a bit about the legends, it sounds like.”

Erdi blushed. “It was one of my favorites, growing up. I always did like all the old tales. They make everything seem so exciting. Gallant heroes wandering the land, seeking their fortunes and saving the world…” She trailed off. “I’m sorry. You must think me terribly silly.”

“Not at all,” Rikke said, even though she did think it was a little silly.

Erdi tucked her hair behind her ear. “Can I ask what you think?”

“About the Dragonborn?” Rikke asked. Erdi nodded. “The Greybeards don’t make mistakes. If they’ve spoken, then there’s a new Dragonborn in Skyrim. I’m sure it has something to do with Helgen.” She leaned back in her chair. “But I’m reserving judgment until I have more information.”

“Of course, Legate,” Erdi said, bowing her head. “It was a stupid question. Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Rikke slid her empty cup across the desk. “When you’re done with those, you can put a fresh kettle on. Rhiannon sent along that recipe you asked for.”

“Oh, good!” Erdi’s face lit up. “How is she? Do you think she’ll come back to Solitude soon?”

Rikke looked down at the recipe, printed in that now-familiar scrawl. The tone in Rhiannon’s latest letter had troubled her, thought she was hard-pressed to say why. It felt like she was missing something, and she found herself wishing – not for the first time – that they had more opportunities to speak face-to-face. “I hope so,” she said.

----------

Dovahkiin. The word rang in Rhiannon’s ears until it ceased to have meaning. Not that it held any for her in the first place. More than one person had addressed her as such, but it explained little that had happened to her since the watchtower, and not knowing was only making her more agitated. In the end, she plucked up the courage to ask Proventus Avenicci if she might be permitted to browse the keep’s library.

The room he directed her to was small and windowless, with cluttered shelves that clearly didn’t see much use, but she didn’t care as long as there was some sort of answer to be found. He waited by the door while she browsed the bookcases. There were a few books about the dragons themselves, and the cults that had once served them, but nothing to give her the answers she sought. A moment came where she thought she'd found something in the biographies of the Septim line, once known as the Dragonborn emperors, but there was nothing beyond the mention of a covenant with Akatosh. She combed through the shelves a second time, trying not to let her frustration show.

Proventus watched her, bemused. “Having trouble?”

“A bit,” she admitted. “You don’t happen to know anything about this Dragonborn business, do you?”

“I’m afraid not.” He brushed some imaginary lint from his sleeve. “Just that it’s apparently to do with old Nordic legends. They’re a superstitious lot, Nords. I’m sure one of them could tell you more.”

In our legends, the Dragonborn is a great warrior. She wasn’t eager to face Lydia again, but the woman had been adamant about being sworn to her service. Presumably that included answering any questions she might have. She thanked Proventus and allowed herself to be led back to the Great Hall. Lydia was eating lunch at one of the long wooden tables that sat before the throne, sawing into a venison chop with methodical precision. When she saw Rhiannon, she dropped her silverware and stood. “My Thane.”

“No, please, sit,” Rhiannon said, mortified. People were looking at them. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Lydia sat, and Rhiannon slid onto the bench across from her. “I just had some questions, and you seem like you know a lot, so…” She smiled awkwardly.

Lydia remained impassive. “What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know what any of this means.” She fiddled with the chain of her amulet. “Being Dragonborn, or… any of that, really.”

“In the old tales, the Dragonborn is blessed with the blood of a dragon by Akatosh himself,” Lydia said. “You’re supposed to be able to speak their language, and steal their power. The Dragonborn is the only one who can permanently slay a dragon. At least, that’s how the stories go.” She shrugged. “There’s never been one during this Era, as far as anyone knows. No need without dragons around, I guess.”

The image of smashed furniture and blood floated up from the back of her mind, accompanied by the screams of the dragon from the watchtower. It had spoken to her, but she only remembered snatches of the past two days, muddled together – splintered nails, shocked faces, hunger and rage. Fus felt like it was etched into her tongue. “Steal their power? How?”

“I don’t know, my Thane,” Lydia said. “My apologies.”

“It’s fine.” Rhiannon slumped in her seat, feeling vaguely ill. Her scattered memories felt wrong. Like they belonged to someone else. “I’m just… not sure what to do next.”

“May I offer a suggestion?”

“Please.”

“The ones who summoned you. The Greybeards. Their call isn’t to be taken lightly. You should go to High Hrothgar.” Lydia regarded her from across the table, solemn. “They’ll have the answers you seek.”

“High Hrothgar,” Rhiannon repeated. “How do I get there?”

“You’ll need to go to a town called Ivarstead, not far from here. That’s the entrance to the Seven Thousand Steps. High Hrothgar is at the top.” If Rhiannon’s cluelessness irritated her, she hid it well. “Do you have a map? I can mark it for you.”

“I do, but…” She hesitated. “Will you come with me?”

“Yes, my Thane,” Lydia said. “If that is your wish.”

“You don’t need to be so formal.” Lydia looked at her blankly, and she sighed. “Just call me Rhiannon, okay?”

“Yes, Thane Rhiannon.”

“… we’ll work on it.”

----------

The ride to Dragon Bridge wasn’t long, maybe an hour south or so, and Rikke arrived shortly before midnight. She tied her horse’s reins to the hitching post and gave him an apple, then walked down the dirt path to the river, where a ramshackle cabin sat on the bank, listing to one side. She rapped on the door – three successive knocks, a pause, then two more. A moment passed, and then it opened just a sliver. A jaundiced blue eye glared out at her. “Took you long enough.”

“Nice to see you too.” Rikke dangled the little package she’d brought in front of the door. “Going to let me in?”

A hand darted through the crack and snatched it. Paper crinkled, followed by a low chuckle. “I guess so.” The door swung open. The woman standing there was a head shorter than Rikke, and clad in a stained apron over her tunic and breeches. Her dark hair was tied back into a messy knot, and flour dusted her tan cheeks and forearms. They clasped hands.

“Celia.”

“Rikke.” Celia grinned, lopsided. “I was starting to think you’d forgotten about me.”

“No such luck, I’m afraid.” Rikke ducked inside, waterlogged floorboards groaning beneath her feet. The table next to the fireplace was covered with dirty bowls, spoons and cups, and a half-filled pie tin sat in the center. An odd smell lingered in the air. She raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Are you baking?”

“Attempting. Fuck off.” Celia went back over to the table and shoved her hands back into the dough sitting on the cutting board, sulky. “I have to keep busy somehow. This place has me crawling out of my skin with boredom.”

“Have you considered moving back to Solitude?”

“Opposite problem. Too many people.” She kneaded at the dough, brow furrowed. “And no offense, but I don’t want company constantly. That’s why I left Riften.”

“Right.” Rikke gave the support beam next to her a light nudge. It shuddered, and the roof creaked ominously. “Just thought you might want to live somewhere that’s not falling apart.” Celia gave her a look, and she chuckled. “Fine. But I don’t need my best informant out of commission because her house collapsed around her ears.”

“Your concern is touching. Really.” She dumped a handful of berries into the pie. “I’m fine here, alright? Just experimenting with a new hobby. Better bored than dead.”

“Speaking of which. How was Wolfskull Cave?”

“Piss off.” Celia scowled at her. “I’m putting my foot down this time. No more necromancers.”

“You know our deal,” Rikke reminded her, hiding a smile.

“I’m not reneging on the fucking deal, alright? Gods. It’s been fifteen years. If I was going to, I would have already.” She jabbed a finger at Rikke, red from the berry juice. “Did you actually have a reason for dropping in, or are you just here to annoy me?”

“Finish your pie and I’ll tell you.”

Celia grumbled, but the pie was covered and shoved in the squat, cast-iron stove to bake. She wiped her hands clean, then dug up a couple bottles of ale, and they sat at the messy table and cracked them open. “What is it, then?”

“I need your opinion on something,” Rikke said. “I’m assuming you heard the call.”

“Who didn’t?” Celia took a sip. “So. You think it’s true, then?”

“What?”

“That the dragons are really back, that the Dragonborn has awakened, that the world is about to end…” She shrugged. “Pick one.”

“Maybe. I’ll believe it when I see it for myself,” Rikke said. “But it’s the Dragonborn that concerns me.”

“How so?”

“It could be anyone. A child, an elderly beggar, a thief, a murderer… a Stormcloak soldier, even. We know what the legends say, but these are different times. There are no guarantees.” She looked down at the bottle in her hands. “My new chambermaid was waxing rhapsodic earlier about the great hero that she’s sure the Dragonborn will be, but I’m not convinced. Not yet.”

“You want my opinion? Your chambermaid isn’t the only one who thinks that. Most of us who were born here were raised on the old stories, and you know who else heard that call? Ulfric Stormcloak.” Celia took a long drink. “If he has a living legend in his camp, winning this war is going to become a whole lot harder.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” Rikke ran a hand through her hair. “I may need you to do some reconnaissance, depending.”

“Depending on what?”

“I have a Qaestor who was at Helgen, and then Whiterun. What he knows, if anything, will determine our next move.”

“Fair enough.”

“Any progress on that other matter I asked you to investigate?”

“No news yet. I’ll write as soon as I hear anything.” Celia pulled the broach Rikke had bought her out of her pocket and pinned it to the collar of her tunic. “It’s hideous,” she said admiringly. “I love it.”

“Thought you might.” Rikke clinked their bottles together. “Happy Nameday.”

“Cheers.” Celia drained the rest of her drink and set the empty bottle aside. “Do you want to stay for pie?”

“That depends. Is it supposed to smell like that?” The odd smell had gradually become more overwhelming – almost briny. Celia sniffed the air, then jumped to her feet.

“Shit!” When she opened the stove door, the smell worsened. Rikke covered her mouth and nose, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter as Celia kicked the door open and hurled the stinking pastry into the river. “Shitfuck,” she swore, slamming the door and tossing the potholders aside. “What was that?”

“How should I know? You’re the one who made it.” Rikke shuffled through the little glass vials in the center of the table. “Although, I have a working theory…”

“Give me those.” Celia snatched them up, skimming the labels, and her face fell. “Oh no.”

“What?”

“I was trying to add rosewater, for flavor, but I think I mixed it up with this one.” She glared down at the offending vial. “Fish oil.”

Rikke burst into laughter.

“It’s not my fault! I grew up by the docks! Everything smells like fish there.”

“Only you, my friend,” Rikke said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “Only you.”

“I hate you,” Celia said, dumping all the dirty dishes into a bucket. “I hope you get eaten by a dragon.”

Chapter Text

“’Watch out for wolves,’ he says,” Rhiannon panted, sinking to her knees. “’They’re a real problem,’ he says. That.” She pointed at the frost troll laying a few feet away, its guts steaming in the frigid air. “That is not a wolf.”

“No, my Thane,” Lydia said from where she was crouched, cleaning the viscera from her blade in the snow. “Neither was the bear. Or the ice wraith. Or the second bear.”

“I should give Klimmek a piece of my mind,” Rhiannon said, even though they both knew she would do nothing of the sort. She struggled to her feet, teeth chattering. Lydia sheathed her sword. Blood was smeared across her forehead from a shallow cut where the troll’s claws had snagged her.

“Do you want me to fix that?” Rhiannon gestured shyly, her hands glowing. “Your forehead, I mean.”

“I’m fine.” Lydia looked up, and Rhiannon followed her gaze to the stone walls of High Hrothgar, near the peak of the Throat of the World. The rooftops were obscured by a thick layer of fog. They’d been climbing for the better part of a day, but it didn’t seem like they were any closer than they had been hours ago. “Shall we move on?”

Rhiannon nodded, pulling her woolen scarf up to cover her mouth and nose, and their trek resumed. Lydia’s steel-clad figure cut a path in front of her, dark hair whipped about by the winds that sliced through the mountainside, and Rhiannon tried to keep pace. She couldn’t say she was ungrateful for Lydia’s assistance; the woman was a formidable fighter, wielding her greatsword like a paintbrush against the canvas of her foes. But she also made no secret of the fact that she was deeply unimpressed by Rhiannon herself. Any attempt at conversation on the way to Ivarstead had been rebuffed, and after a few tries, Rhiannon had given up on trying to get a response. Nothing she did seemed to matter, unless it was to make things worse.

She slogged along now in Lydia’s wake, snuffling into her scarf. The higher they climbed, the colder it became. Lydia remained unbothered, but Rhiannon’s nose was running by then, cheeks wind-burnt and eyes stinging. Her legs felt like they were made of stone, muscles screaming, and her lungs burned with every heaving breath. She fell further and further behind, and eventually Lydia doubled back and led her off the path to a rocky overhang that blocked out the worst of the wind.

“Sorry,” she gasped, huddling miserably into the crevice. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Lydia hunkered down across from her, unbuckling her pack. “May as well break for supper.” They ate in silence, only broken by the wind as it howled and clawed at the mountain.

Rhiannon blew her nose in her handkerchief. “How much further do we have to go, do you think?”

“As long as it takes you to get there,” Lydia said around a mouthful of dried rabbit meat. Rhiannon flinched and shoved her handkerchief back into her pocket. An apology lingered on her tongue, reflexive. She swallowed it. It would probably just irritate Lydia more, and suddenly she was more exhausted than she had been before they stopped. It wasn’t like she’d asked for this. Any of it.

But you did ask her to come with you. If you weren’t so weak, you could have done this on your own.

She got to her feet, swaying a little. They were numb from her soaking boots. “We should keep going. It’ll be dark soon.”

Lydia’s eyebrows went up, but she shoved the rest of her meal into her mouth and stood, cracking her knuckles. They forged ahead. It was slow going, but Rhiannon forced herself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You could have gone back home and avoided all this, she told herself, cloak dragging through the snow behind her. But she hadn’t, so there was no point in complaining about it, and she refocused her efforts on cresting the hill. The sunset was muted by the snow and fog, a dying red sliver in a dull grey sky. At the top of the incline, the steps sloped out and down, half-hidden by snowdrifts. On the other side of the valley, they had a straight shot to High Hrothgar.

The sky deepened to indigo as they walked, speckled by faint milky stars. The moons remained hidden, cloaked by thick dark clouds. High Hrothgar was even more intimidating close-up. It radiated an ancient, venerable stateliness from every stone, weathered from the conditions but still standing. Rhiannon did her best to remain upright as they climbed the final set of stairs – the last thing she needed was to show up crawling on her hands and knees. Lydia insisted on opening the door for her, which was bad enough.

The interior was drafty, but insulated from the worst of the outdoors, with torches lining the walls and vaulted ceilings that arched high above them. It was as sparse as the exterior, but purposeful; there was no room for waste or extravagance here. A man stood at the top of the stairs, and he came forward now, slippered feet shushing against the stone.

“You have come,” he said, a faint smile creasing his face. He was old, though not as old as she was expecting, with pale eyes and a short, knotted beard. His robes were various shades of grey, with a shimmering trim along the edges that reminded her of scales.

“Yes,” Rhiannon said, and held out the sack of supplies she’d gotten from Klimmek. “We brought these for you as well.” As an afterthought, she bowed. She wasn’t sure what the proper protocol was in this situation.

“There’s no need for that,” he assured her, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “I am Master Arngeir of the Greybeards. It is an honor to have you with us, Dovahkiin.”

“Rhiannon. This is Lydia. It’s nice to meet you.” She shifted her weight, toes aching as they began to thaw. “I’m not sure how this is supposed to go, but I have some questions, and I thought you might be able to answer them…?”

“I’m sure you have many questions, and I will do my best. But first, I must see it for myself.” He spread his arms wide. She took a step back. “Let me feel your Thu’um.”

“My… my what?”

“Your Thu’um. Your Voice. Do not be afraid of hurting me.” She hesitated still, and he beckoned her forward. “I merely wish to confirm that you are Dovahkiin.”

Why not? This week can’t get any more bizarre. Maybe he would tell her it was all a mistake. The thought cheered her somewhat. The only other time she’d shouted, it had been involuntary, and she thought it might be harder this time, but the word leapt eagerly to her lips.

FUS

Arngeir’s clothes and hair fluttered, his hood blown off his head and dust stirring around him. But the man himself remained unmoved, and to her dismay, he nodded.

“It is as we thought.” Three more men, also clad in soft grey robes with beards brushing their chests, emerged from a nearby room and padded over to join him. The four of them bowed as one. “Masters Borri, Wulfgar, and Einarth,” Arngeir said, motioning to each of them in turn. Rhiannon mustered up a faint smile and a wave. “We are here to help guide you along the Path of the Voice.”

“Right.” She glanced at Lydia, who remained silent, expression blank. Whatever her thoughts, she had no intention of sharing them. “Um… Lydia and I have come a long way over the past two days. Would we be able to stay here tonight? We won’t be any trouble, I swear.”

Arngeir must have glimpsed her exhaustion, for his expression shifted to one of sympathy. “Come, dine with us. You may rest after, and we will begin in the morning.”

Lydia inclined her head respectfully. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Thank you,” Rhiannon echoed, voice cracking. “Thank you so much.” Arngeir stepped aside, and one of the others – Borri, maybe – came forward and took Klimmek’s provisions from her with a nod.

“This way,” Arngeir said, and they followed him up the stairs and down a long hallway to a small room with a round stone table and low wooden chairs. Dinner was a simple, silent affair of dried meat, fruit and thin broth, but Rhiannon ate like it was the most sumptuous meal of her life. A thousand questions tumbled about in her mind, but she was too overwhelmed to ask a single one at present. All her life, she’d been ordinary at best, and now she was sitting at a table with an ancient order who insisted on hailing her as a living legend. It was too much. Luckily, no one seemed to expect anything more of her at the moment, and after dinner, Arngeir took her and Lydia to another room with two straw pallets and a washbasin.

“Your quarters for the night,” he said. “Wait here.” He returned shortly with a book and a candle, which he held out to Rhiannon. The book was black, bound with aged leather and embossed with a dragon on the front cover. A shiver ran through her as she took it. “The Book of the Dragonborn. You may find that it answers some of your questions.”

“Thank you,” she said, and he folded his hands back into his sleeves.

“Rest now. We will speak tomorrow.”

Lydia closed the door behind him, then began the long process of stripping out of her armor. Rhiannon hung up her cloak and robes to dry, then wrapped herself in the thin quilt they’d provided. She settled down on the pallet closest to her, and Lydia sprawled on the other one when she was finished, hands behind her head. “Will it bother you if I read?”

“No, my Thane. Do as you wish.”

“Okay. Well… good night,” she ventured. Lydia mumbled something that sounded like an affirmative, closing her eyes. She was asleep within minutes. Rhiannon lit the candle and opened the book. The words wavered in front of her vision, eyelids heavy, but she fought against sleep, skimming the pages for anything useful.

Most scholars agree that the term was first used in connection with the covenant of Akatosh… Very few realize that being Dragonborn is not a simple matter of heredity – being the blessing of Akatosh Himself, it is beyond our understanding exactly how and why it is bestowed… The Nords tell tales of Dragonborn heroes who were great dragonslayers…

When she reached the final page, her heart quickened, and she read it twice as the invisible noose around her neck tightened, making it hard to breathe.

When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world

When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped

When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles

When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls

When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding

The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn.

The book hit the floor with a soft thump, and she blew the candle out, pulse pounding. The Last Dragonborn? She was a merchant’s daughter, not a hero or a dragonslayer or whatever it was they wanted her to be. It had to be a mistake. She curled her hand around her amulet and held fast, the edges digging into her palm. Mara, my lady, I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up with my devotionals. I’ll make it up to you, I swear. Tears welled in her eyes. If this is some kind of punishment, please… just tell me what I did wrong and I’ll make it right. I will. Please tell me…

But no answer was forthcoming, and the room remained silent, save for Lydia’s faint snoring. Rhiannon laid in the dark, staring at nothing with sightless, burning eyes until sleep finally came to claim her.

----------

In the morning, as promised, they began.

To Arngeir’s credit, he was extraordinarily patient. Rhiannon peppered him with questions for the better part of an hour over morning tea, and he answered them all, save what the prophecy meant.

“One could extrapolate that you are the Last because there will be no more need for a Dragonborn once these events have come to pass, but prophecies and omens are not always literal. All we know is that it was predicted that you would wake, and here you are.”

“I see.” She didn’t. “Who’s the World-Eater?”

“Alduin.” A faraway look entered Arngeir’s eyes. “First-born of Akatosh. As you have awakened, so has he.”

“So, he’s the reason the dragons are coming back, and if I don’t stop him, the world ends. Do I have that right?”

“I’m afraid so,” Arngeir said, and the other Greybeards nodded. “But fear not. We are here to help you.”

A hysterical giggle bubbled up in Rhiannon’s throat. “Perfect." 

We’re all doomed.

After tea and meditation came the next part of her initiation. Learning the words by tapping into the Greybeards’ understanding of them was more pleasant than she anticipated, like a gentle mist compared to the storm of the dragon soul that had overtaken her. She even enjoyed the exhilaration of Whirlwind Sprint propelling her across the courtyard at impossible speeds, cold air crisp in her lungs. Less fun was using Unrelenting Force (as Arngeir named it) to Shout apart the ethereal targets they conjured for her, but she did it, ignoring the strange thrill she got from watching them dissipate.

Lydia watched the proceedings from a distance. Rhiannon tried to divine what she might be thinking more than once, hoping for even a glimmer of approval or warmth, and came up empty each time. It was unnerving, but more unnerving still was the Greybeards’ final task – to travel to Ustengrav, the tomb of their founder, and retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.

“Return with the horn, and the first of your trials will be complete,” Arngeir told her on the steps outside High Hrothgar. “Godspeed, Dovahkiin.”

“I’ll do my best. Thank you again for all your help.”

The weather was less contentious than the previous day, winds gentler and sky clearer, and Rhiannon fell into step with Lydia as they began the trek down the mountain, snow crunching underfoot. “So…” She tucked her hands under her arms, for warmth, and resolved to get some thicker gloves. “What do you think?”

“About what?”

“All of this. Any of it?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, yes,” Rhiannon said, confused. “Why wouldn’t it?”

Something like surprise passed over Lydia’s face. “I think… we should head directly to Ustengrav,” she said, looking away. “If I remember correctly, we can take the carriage from Ivarstead to Morthal, then ride the rest of the way. It’ll be faster than traveling by foot.”

“You’re coming with me?”

“I assumed I would be needed. Should I not have?”

“Well… no.” Rhiannon wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or insulted. She settled on a bit of both. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m sworn to carry your burdens,” Lydia said. “Physical or otherwise.”

“Great,” Rhiannon said through her teeth. “Thanks.”

They came to the first of the valleys where the steps dipped down, dotted with snowberry bushes and bright thistle blooms. A pair of wolves trotted along the ridge, coats greyish-brown and mangy. Lydia stopped and put her arm out, indicating that Rhiannon should halt. The wolves turned to regard them, and the bigger of the pair bared its teeth, hackles rising.

“At least it’s just a couple of wolves,” Rhiannon said under her breath. Two more wolves materialized at the top of the hill next to them, big and mean with mottled white fur. Not for the first time, she wondered if the Greybeards knew a Shout that could convince the ground to swallow her whole. Lydia sighed and drew her sword.

----------

It was her own fault, for getting her hopes up.

Well, not entirely her fault. She’d grown up with tales of powerful Nordic heroes: formidable warriors, kings and dragonslayers, each more awe-inspiring than the last. What was she supposed to think when Jarl Balgruuf had told her that she was to become housecarl to the Dragonborn? She’d gone into it thinking she was being honored, and now… well. Someone up there was having a bit of fun at her expense, and it was in this vein that Lydia stewed all the way to Ustengrav.

She was aware that Rhiannon hadn’t done anything to her directly, but she was also the chief source of Lydia’s discontent at the moment, and Lydia was feeling far from charitable. It was better than sitting around Dragonsreach with her thumb up her ass, but she’d been picturing a fellow warrior. Someone bold and fearless, someone she could be proud to serve. Not this soft, timid mage who was effectively using her as a human shield. She kept looking at Lydia too, with wide, pathetic eyes, like she was waiting on scraps of approval. It put Lydia in mind of an underfed pup, and all it did was irritate her further. Was this really her lot in life now?

No matter. She’d taken an oath, and she intended to keep it. But that didn’t mean she had to enjoy it.

Their destination lay deep in the swamplands to the north of Morthal, with its sparse foliage and thick, sulfurous mist that clouded the air no matter the season. Ustengrav’s entrance was sunk into the hillside, surrounded by dead trees with thick gray bark and twisting branches. Murky water gurgled at their backs, and the sound of fighting drew them to a halt. Lydia crept forward, Rhiannon at her heels. Near the stairs that led down to the entrance, three bandits fought a mage. A necromancer, judging by the resurrected corpse trying to murder its former compatriots. It was a welcome distraction from her current woes, if nothing else; Lydia was better at solving problems with steel and fists than words. She waited until the necromancer’s thrall took out one of the remaining bandits, and the biggest dodged its sword and slit the necromancer’s throat. Then, she drew her sword.

“Wait here. I’ll be back.”

“Alright,” Rhiannon agreed, looking queasy.

It was a disappointing fight. The bandits were mean, but they were also injured, and neither one was a match for a trained fighter. She wiped the blood from her sword on the nearest one’s fur armor. Rhiannon came to join her from behind the tree, complexion ashen and sweaty. She gave the bodies a wide berth. A bit of exploration revealed two camps on opposites sides of the clearing, as well as another dead bandit and mage apiece.

“Looks like we walked into the middle of a territory dispute,” Lydia said. “On the bright side, they might just kill each other for us.”

“That’s the bright side?”

“Well, not for them.” She climbed the spiraling wooden staircase down to the circular patio, where Ustengrav’s entrance awaited. When she looked back, Rhiannon was hovering on the middle steps, looking at the door with trepidation. “Are you coming, my Thane?”

Rhiannon came slumping down the stairs, chewing on her thumbnail. Lydia resisted the urge to slap her hand out of her mouth. “I told you, just call me Rhiannon. Please.”

Lydia nodded, even though she had no intention of addressing the girl by her first name anytime soon. She believed in maintaining professional distance, and at any rate, they weren’t friends. She wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

Lydia opened the door.

It turned out that the warlocks and bandits weren’t the only ones fighting over their claim to the ruins. The draugr who inhabited the tomb weren’t pleased about the sudden influx of visitors, and judging by the trail of dead bodies the further Lydia and Rhiannon trekked into the ruin, they weren’t polite about asking them to leave, either. They ran into a snag in the first chamber, when the bandit and the two necromancers he was fighting put their battle on hold to gang up on Lydia, but Rhiannon summoned her atronach, which promptly set the bandit on fire and turned the tide.

“You’re a conjurer,” Lydia said when she got her breath back. Three corpses stared up at the ceiling, sightless. The atronach fizzled out of existence. Her skin crawled. Magic was useful, to an extent, but messing with creatures pulled straight from Oblivion itself wasn’t right. This girl might be a bigger fool than she’d originally thought.

Rhiannon squinted at her, mouth in a tight line. “I’m a healer,” she stressed. “And yes, sometimes I’m a summoner, but I don’t do anything like them.” She pointed to the necromancers. “If that’s what you’re getting at.”

“With all due respect, my Thane, why didn’t do you do that back on the mountain?”

“Because I was afraid you were going to react like this,” Rhiannon said. She crossed her arms, shivering. There were lit braziers placed around the chamber, but they didn’t provide much in the way of heat. “But since not everyone is capable of swinging a great big whacking sword around at a moment’s notice, this is how I try to stay alive. Okay?”

Lydia found herself oddly pleased at this show of defensiveness. It was the first time Rhiannon had even attempted to stand up for herself in their short acquaintanceship.

“Okay. My apologies.”

Rhiannon blinked.

Further on, at the end of a long, twisting hallway that ran through several smaller rooms, they came to a crowded chamber with sarcophagi lining the alcoves and stone walkways crisscrossing high above them. Half of them cracked open in tandem, draugr lurching towards them in a chorus of growls and wordless curses. Lydia took care of the nearest one, lopping its head off with a single stroke, while Rhiannon called on her atronach again. Lydia still didn’t like it, but she had to admit, it made things easier; the draugr didn’t try as hard to kill her when they were on fire. A spiraling wooden staircase led them up to the second floor, where they crossed the main walkway to find a black iron door.

“Where do you think it leads?” Rhiannon asked, peering over Lydia’s shoulder.

“Down.” Lydia touched the circular door handle, running her thumb across the letters carved into the metal there. “This leads to the Depths.”

“The Depths? That sounds cheerful.”

Despite herself, Lydia cracked a smile. A cold wind whistled through when she opened the door.

She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it was nothing like what they discovered when they emerged from the entryway.

“By the Eight,” she breathed, awestruck, and Rhiannon’s mouth hung open in silent wonder beside her. They were standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a vast cave, lit up silvery blue from the luminescent lake at the bottom. Rocky platforms rose up from the water, covered in moss and joined by long, thin bridges. It seemed to go down for miles.

“It’s incredible,” Rhiannon whispered. Lydia nodded. A draugr came running at them from a side path covered in vines to ruin the moment, roaring and waving an axe. Lydia didn’t bother with her sword this time. She yanked Rhiannon out of the way and lashed out, kicking it in the hip. It went sailing over the side of the cliff. Its yell echoed all the way down, followed by a faint splash. “That was pretty incredible too,” Rhiannon said, marveling at her, and Lydia shrugged it off. It did feel nice to be appreciated, though.

It took them some time to hike down into the main section of the cave. The corridors were dimly-lit and snaked all over the place, intersecting with one another seemingly at random, and sleeping draugr were likely to wake at every turn. But they finally emerged from one of the treasury chambers onto one of the pathways curving along the side of the cliff. Now that they were closer, Lydia could see that there were trees, too, growing along the walkways, and the air smelled like pine and damp rocks after the rain. Skeletons patrolled the main platform below, and two draugr archers guarded the walkway on the other side.

“I’m going to try to get up there,” Lydia said, under her breath. “Wait here.”

She hated skeletons, but there was something satisfying about watching them fly apart with one sweep of her blade, bones clattering on the floor. Arrows pinged off the pillar next to the stairs, and Rhiannon screamed and ducked, hands over her head. Lydia raced for the stairs on the other side of the platform, drawing their fire. She was so intent on reaching them that she didn’t realize she’d run straight into a trap until the pressure plate clicked, and searing pain shot up her side and along her face.

“Lydia!” Rhiannon yelled, as Lydia threw herself off of the flame spout traps and rolled to the side, into the alcove in front of it. Her armor had protected her from the worst of the damage, but her right arm and the side of her face had been blistered and scorched. Over the bright sound of the pain ringing in her head, she heard hesitant footsteps, then a scuffling leap, and cool hands touched her forehead and cheek. Magic poured out, a balm against her burns. “Lydia, gods, hold on…”

“Draugr,” Lydia grunted. Rhiannon whirled around. They advanced on her from the hallway, bows drawn. Lydia tried to sit up, groping around for her sword.

FUS RO

The draugr went flying back into the wall, staggered. One’s bowstring snapped as Rhiannon’s Shout bowled them over, dust clouding the air. She turned back and continued healing Lydia, sweating, eyes determined. The pain receded to nothing more than a dull ache, and Lydia sprang to her feet. She was still dizzy from the healing, but she snatched up her sword from where it lay on the ground, and bounded forward to meet the draugr as they came down the hall once more. Two quick swings, and they were no more.

“Are you alright?” Rhiannon asked in the ensuing silence.

Lydia leaned on her sword, panting. “I will be. I just need a minute.” She sank to the ground, knees to her chest, and breathed deep. Rhiannon offered her the waterskin strapped to her belt, and Lydia took a few sips, then ate some of the dried meat she brought along. They huddled in the alcove together, silent, listening to the noises of the cavern. “Thank you,” she said, and Rhiannon glanced at her, surprised. “For healing me.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Rhiannon said. “You’ve been protecting me this whole time. Even though – “ She stopped.

“Even though what?”

Rhiannon chewed on her lower lip for a second. “Even though you don’t like me,” she said. Lydia stayed quiet. She wasn’t sure what to say to that. Rhiannon smiled at her. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to get stuck with me, either. But after we get the horn, you can go back to Whiterun, I promise. I won’t ask you for anything else.”

I should feel relieved, Lydia thought. She flexed her hand, skin still pink and shiny-new. She wished Rhiannon wouldn’t look at her like that, sad and hopeful all at once.

There was a chest in the alcove that held a few things – a coinpurse, some potions that Rhiannon sniffed and declared healing brews, a quiver of steel arrows and a handful of cracked gems. They then doubled back, climbing down carefully to avoid the flame spouts, and made their way past the remains of the skeletons to a rocky causeway that sloped down to the lake. A stone wall sat next to a waterfall, surrounded by pine trees.

“That looks like the same thing I saw in Bleak Falls Barrow,” Rhiannon said, peering down at it. Lydia trailed behind her as she approached it, watching on high alert. She thought maybe she saw one of the characters glow when Rhiannon laid her hand on it, but it could have been a trick of the light. Neither of them moved for a long moment. The fine hair on the back of Lydia’s neck prickled.

“My Thane?”

Feim,” Rhiannon said softly. She turned back to Lydia. Her eyes were dark, unfocused pools in the faint blue light that permeated the cavern. “Fade.”

They ran into trouble with the next set of gates, until they figured out that they only opened if Rhiannon ran through the middle of the three stone posts in front of them. Whenever she passed one, the dragon carved into the center would glow, and each would emit a low hum. Lydia supposed it made sense that if this was a trial, she would need what she’d learned at High Hrothgar to complete it. It took a couple of tries, but Rhiannon managed to get the timing right on her Whirlwind Sprint shout, and then they were through. Not that the next chamber was an improvement; it was filled with flame traps and frostbite spiders, and the smell alone would haunt Lydia for the rest of her days. Rhiannon summoned her atronach to burn down the thick webbing that blocked the exit, and uncovered a wooden door. On the other side, a gate awaited. Lydia pulled the chain.

This chamber was eerily silent, save for the occasional drip of water. A stone walkway cut through the center of a deep square pool, and at its end, an elaborate marbled tomb awaited. As soon as Rhiannon’s foot touched the ground at the end of the stairs, it began to quake. Both of them scrambled back onto the steps as two iron heads, shaped like great birds of prey, rose up out of the pools on either side, water crashing down around them.

“Mara preserve me,” Rhiannon said, more to herself than Lydia. “I think we finally made it.”

“Looks like.”

They crossed the walkway to Jurgen Windcaller’s final resting place.

A beautiful stone monument sat on the dais, surrounded by candles that would never go out and golden burial urns. The water gurgling peacefully in the background made it feel somber, almost meditative. Stone dragons guarded the coffin on either side, and a hand rose from its center, palm up. It was empty. Lydia looked around, but she didn’t see a horn of any kind. Rhiannon appeared equally confused. “It has to be here. Doesn’t it?”

“It should be. Unless…” She looked again, and Rhiannon followed her gaze. There were two sarcophagi, one on either side of the monument, and both were already open. Dead draugr lay in front of them. “Someone was already here.”

“But who?”

Lydia went to have a closer look at the tomb, and found a piece of tightly folded paper in the palm of the stone hand. It was easy to miss at first glance. She picked it up and unfolded it. Then, she held it out to Rhiannon.

“It’s for you.”

Dragonborn,

I need to speak to you. Urgently. Rent the attic room at the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood, and I’ll meet you there.

A Friend

“The Sleeping Giant?” Rhiannon looked up from the note. “I’ve been there. There’s no attic room, as far as I know.”

“You’re sure?”

“Pretty sure.” She folded it back up. “And it’s addressed to the Dragonborn, not to me. So I think whoever took the horn must have known that the Greybeards would send the Dragonborn here, somehow.”

“I don’t like this,” Lydia said. “Something’s off.”

“I know, but… I have to get the horn.” Rhiannon twisted a lock of hair around her finger, then untwisted it. A nervous habit. “I can’t go back there without it.”

“What do you want to do, then?”

“I suppose I’m going to Riverwood.” She looked at Lydia. “Will you come? You can leave straight from there once I get it, if you want. We’ll be right by Whiterun.”

It’s okay, she’d said, with that same look in her eyes. Trying to be brave. I wouldn’t want to get stuck with me, either.

“Yes, my Thane,” Lydia said. “I’ll go.”

 ----------

Just outside Riverwood, the sun shone, and bees droned lazily in the bushes. The White River gurgled, soft and shimmery, and fish searched along the bottom for food while deer grazed at its banks. It was a perfect day. But overhead, crows circled high on the updraft like scraps of black cloth, waiting. Soon, they would be joined by other carrion birds. The stench of death could draw them in from miles away if it was allowed to linger.

“My Thane.” Lydia’s voice was dull in her ears, like she was speaking from underwater. A hand touched her shoulder. “You don’t have to keep looking.”

“I’m the reason she’s dead,” Rhiannon said. A fly landed on Elona’s sightless eye, wings buzzing. “Right?”

“Not unless yours is the hand that slew her.”

“Why?” She scrubbed at her stinging eyes with her sleeve. “Why would someone do this?”

Elona’s face was untouched, pale and slack. If her eyes were closed, she might have appeared to be sleeping. She was no longer dressed as a simple innkeeper, but a fighter in hooded leather armor. It hadn’t saved her. Her assailant had gutted her deep, belly to breast like they were slaughtering cattle. Blood soaked black into the dirt where it had pooled around her. The Horn of Jurgen Windcaller lay in her limp hand, brass gleaming in the afternoon light.

“Riverwood,” Lydia said, looking around. “Why would she want you to come here?”

“She’s the innkeeper. Was the innkeeper.” Tears dripped from her nose and chin to spatter in the dirt. “She was kind to me when I stayed here. She didn’t deserve this.”

“Whoever she really was, she was more than just an innkeeper. I can tell you that much.” Lydia crouched down and touched the dirt. Her fingers came away a muddy reddish-brown. “She hasn’t been dead long. Maybe a few hours.”

Rhiannon glanced around. The bridge, the brush, the woods… they looked the same as ever, but the late spring sweetness in the air had been warped into something sinister, and she imagined people lurking still, watching them. Waiting. “Do… do you think whoever killed her could still be here?”

“Possibly.” Lydia looked up at her, and her expression softened, regretful around the edges. “We should let someone know.”

“Right. Yes. We should tell someone.” Rhiannon took a deep, shuddery breath. Her mind didn’t seem to be working properly – all her thoughts were foggy and slow-moving, and she couldn’t stop shaking. “We should go to the Giant and tell Orgnar, at least.”

“By the Eight!”

The exclamation came from behind them. Lydia was on her feet in an instant, the tip of her greatsword resting on the courier’s collarbone, and his hands went up, palms out to show her he was unarmed.

“Wait!” The whites of his eyes showed all around like a spooked horse. “Wait, please. No need to get violent."

“State your business,” Lydia said. The sword didn’t waver.

The courier’s eyes darted from her to Elona’s corpse and back again. “Got a letter here, addressed to a Rhiannon. That’s all.” He licked his cracked lips. “I swear, I ain’t seen nothin’, just please. Don’t kill me.”

“We didn’t kill her!” Rhiannon blurted, and Lydia lowered her sword. “She’s the innkeeper from Riverwood. We only found her like this a few minutes ago.”

He considered her for a second, still poised to flee. “You Rhiannon?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Here.” He held out a folded piece of parchment, sealed with wax. The symbol in the center looked familiar, and she took it. “Urgent summons from Whiterun.”

“What’s going on?” Lydia asked.

“Dunno, miss. I’m just the messenger.” He started to bolt, but Rhiannon called him back, fumbling with her coinpurse.

“Please.” She pressed a few septims into his hand. “Could you go to the inn just across the bridge and tell the man there to come here? His name is Orgnar. He’ll be able to take care of her.”

“Well… sure.” He curled his hand around them, shoved them deep into his pocket. “Sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she said numbly, watching him go. A nudge from Lydia brought her back to the present.

“What does the letter say?”

She cracked the seal and read it. “It’s from Jarl Balgruuf. He wants me to come back to Dragonsreach as soon as I receive this.”

“I don’t mean to be abrupt,” Lydia said, “but if the Jarl needs to see you, we should head for Whiterun at once. He’s not a man you want to keep waiting.”

“But, Elona – “

“Her loved ones will see to her.”

“I... I suppose.” She had no idea if Elona even had loved ones, or anyone besides Orgnar, and the thought brought a fresh wave of tears. She did her best to stave them off, and when she was reasonably composed, she stooped down to take the Horn.

Her fingertips were scant centimeters from its surface when Lydia grabbed her arm. “I don’t think you should touch it. It could be a trap.”

“What kind of trap?”

“I don’t know. But what I do know is that someone killed her, and they didn’t rob her. Instead, they left her like this, holding the Horn for you to find.” Lydia shook her head. “That’s not a coincidence.”

“I know.” Rhiannon tugged her arm free. “But I promised I’d bring it back.”

“So you’re just going to take it anyway?”

“I need their help.”

Lydia’s expression made it clear that she thought this was faulty logic on Rhiannon’s part, but she stood back all the same. Rhiannon reached for the Horn. For a second, she was afraid, but then it passed and all that remained was sun-warm metal against her skin. She took it gently from Elona’s hand and tucked it into her satchel. It was lighter than she’d expected. “To Whiterun, then?”

“To Whiterun,” Lydia said.

From the ruined top of an old oak, on the other side of the bridge, a pair of keen eyes watched the scene. They missed nothing – Rhiannon’s tears, the letter, Lydia’s wariness, the Horn disappearing into the satchel. A wide, sharp mouth smiled a satisfied smile. No move was made to interfere, or draw attention. That would have spoiled everything. For now, the mouth smiled, and the eyes watched Rhiannon and Lydia walk down the long dirt road that ran alongside the river, their feet kicking up dust until they were out of sight.

Chapter Text

Rhiannon,

Don’t apologize. I enjoy hearing from you.

Another dragon? I’ll wait to hear the details from Hadvar, but that sounds like Farengar. I’ve had the dubious honor of meeting him once or twice. As for the other subject you mentioned, we’ll leave that discussion for another time. In person, if the opportunity arises. If you don’t have a destination in mind when you’re ready to leave Whiterun, consider coming back to Solitude for a few days. Something tells me your stay this time around will be more pleasant.

I have to cut this short. Too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Will try to write again soon.

Rikke

----------

 

A courier delivered a single, crumpled letter to the College of Winterhold, care of Colette Marence. She opened it to find a few hastily-scrawled lines.

Colette,

I’m fine. Please tell Onmund, Brelyna and J’zargo that I hope they’re well, and I’m sorry for not writing. I can’t say when I’ll be back, but I’ll explain once I am. Please don’t worry about me.

Rhiannon

----------

 

R

News wrt the investigation: nothing solid. One source had eyes on man matching escapee’s description in the Reach, but lost his tail. May have been heading for Markarth. Hasn’t resurfaced. Will keep looking. Why so high priority?

C

----------

 

C

Need to find him before Thalmor do. No further questions.

R

Chapter Text

He received Rikke’s note when he was over halfway to Solitude. It offered no explanation – not that he was entitled to one – but Hadvar had to wonder what was suddenly so important at Korvanjund. He adjusted his course and headed back the way he came.

The ruin was northeast of Whiterun, in the foothills, where the mountains had snow on them even in late spring and the air was thin and crisp. He had no sooner arrived than a familiar whistle split the air, and Mirri appeared out of nowhere, bundled in a deerskin cloak. She put a finger to her lips and beckoned him to follow, then melted into a copse of frost-covered pine trees. Hadvar dismounted and lead his horse through the thicket, where he found her and Ortha camped out in a little clearing. Ortha nodded at him. She was restringing her bow. “Good timing. Everyone else should be here soon.”

“Why are we here?”

“The Jagged Crown,” Mirri said. “We’re on Stormcloak watch. No sign yet, though.”

“They’ll be here,” Ortha said, testing the string. “Ulfric wants that crown. Probably makes his prick hard whenever he thinks about wearing it.”

Mirri gagged. “I’ll give you ten septims to never say that again.” Ortha grinned, showing crooked teeth, and mimed a rude gesture at her crotch. Mirri chucked a pinecone at her.

Hadvar coughed to hide a smile. “When do you think reinforcements will get here?”

“Soon, hopefully.” Ortha slung her bow back over her shoulder. “Until then, we watch, and we wait.”

They waited. Ortha kept lookout at the edge of the clearing. Mirri crouched next to him, sharpening her knives. "Haven’t seen you in a while,” he said.

She shrugged. “The Legate had me ‘n Ortha out at the Eastmarch camp for the last month or so.” Her gaze flickered towards him, curious. “You were at Helgen, yeah?”

Hadvar grimaced. “You heard.”

“Whole village burns down, word gets around. Did you really see a dragon?”

Ortha spared him from having to answer. She motioned for them to be quiet, and they joined her at her post, peering out from between the trees. A group of Stormcloaks crested the hill. Galmar Stone-Fist was at its head, astride his grey stallion. Mirri swore under her breath.

Luckily, Rikke and the rest arrived only scant moments after the last of the Stormcloak soldiers had disappeared into the ruin, leaving a pair to guard the door. They met her at a run on the other side of the hill, and she swung down from her mount, motioning for her men to toe the line before turning to them. “What’s our status?”

“Stormcloaks are here,” Ortha said. “Just went in a few minutes ago.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Rikke rounded back on the rest of the squad. She put Hadvar in mind of an agitated sabrecat. “No time for speeches. Stormcloaks are already here, and they’re after the same thing we are. Are we going to let them have it?”

“No!” A score of swords flashed in the fading light, thrust towards the sky as one.

“That’s what I thought,” Rikke said, and her eyes flashed too, sharp as any blade. “Let’s go get ourselves a crown.”

----------

Pick a man and put him down.

Arrows flying true, biting into armor and flesh like teeth. Blood wet on the stone, wet on his sword, iron-bitter when he tasted it on his lips.

One at a time. Pick a man –

An aborted cry as his blade found its mark.

And put him down.

There was no time to think about anything in the midst of battle. Only surviving, one second to the next. Hadvar preferred it that way. It was in the quiet moments that everything caught up to him. They left a trail of the dead on the steps in the first chamber, and two to watch their backs.

The Stormcloaks figured out quickly that they weren’t alone, and the battle became a fierce and bloody race through Korvanjund’s ancient passageways, until it came to a messy head in the Hall of Stories. The Stone-Fist and his party reached it first, Rikke, Hadvar and the rest hot on their heels, and Stormcloaks blocked their path while Galmar ran for the iron door at the other end of the room. Hadvar bashed the hilt of his sword into the helmet of the one nearest to him, raising his shield to deflect a shot from an archer posted up in the corner, and shoved forward. The man went down, and he bulled a path through the rest, aiming for Galmar. The door scraped, iron on rock as it lowered, and the Stone-Fist scrambled over it, surprisingly agile for a man of his bulk. Hadvar slung his shield back over his shoulder and gave chase.

Galmar moved like a man half his age, and his footsteps ricocheted off the walls ahead of Hadvar as they tore down the hall to the main chamber, the sounds of battle fading behind them. He rammed the door open to reveal a throne room lined with coffins, and a corpse sitting in the center of it all, the Jagged Crown perched on its rotted brow. Galmar got to it before Hadvar did, but as soon as his hands closed around the spines to lift it free, the dead king’s eyes snapped open, glowing blue. It Shouted, and Galmar went head-over-arse down to the steps to sprawl on the floor.

The corpse stood, unsheathing a rusted longsword with a serrated edge, and the rest of the coffins cracked open in one horrifying chorus. Galmar rolled, the sword smashing against the stone where his head had been seconds before, and Hadvar drew his sword and shield and waded into the fray. Without a word, he and the Stone-Fist drew together, back to back in an unspoken truce as the draugr closed in around them.

Hadvar didn’t do well with draugr. Never had. Ralof used to tease him about his nightmares when they were boys, and as he parried one’s blade aside and stabbed it through the neck, he wondered if his old friend had ever faced a draugr, and whether or not he thought about Hadvar when he did. And then Galmar swung his battleaxe, blade colliding with the undead king’s, and the noise drove all other thoughts from Hadvar’s head.

He was more methodical in his approach to battle, whereas Galmar was all raw strength and passion, but with an edge of cunning honed by his years serving the Legion. He kept the king busy while Hadvar finished off the other draugr, until it Shouted again, ripping the battleaxe from his hands. Hadvar charged forward, battering it with his shield while Galmar went after his weapon. Its sword slammed against his shield, and he barely dodged the second blow. Galmar knocked him aside, shoulder to shoulder, and buried his axe in its chest. It crumpled when the blade pulled free, and then it was just the two of them, breathing heavy in the silent chamber.

The Jagged Crown shone dully, still seated on the draugr’s head.

The blade of Galmar’s axe screeched against stone, sparks flying, as Hadvar’s shield deflected the blow against the wall. He dove for the crown, but Galmar tossed his axe aside and tackled him. They rolled down the steps and the breath was crushed from Hadvar’s lungs when he hit the floor, the Stone-Fist bearing down on top of him. A blow from one of those enormous fists sent him reeling, pain exploding starry behind his eyelids. Footsteps approaching rapidly, and then Galmar’s weight was gone, rolling off of Hadvar as the tip of Rikke’s sword sliced a line across his bicep. She was on him – a grunt of pain from Galmar as her boot found his ribs – and her sword pierced his forearm as he threw it up to defend himself from her downward blow. He snarled like a wounded bear, blood streaming down his arm and dripping on the stone. Hadvar scrambled to his feet, casting about for his weapon. Rikke’s blade jerked free in a spray of blood, and she raised it high.

Later, Hadvar would give his official report on Korvanjund, in which he would say that they recovered the crown, but Galmar Stone-Fist escaped before he could be apprehended. Only the three of them knew the truth, which was simply this: she hesitated.

Galmar did not. He fled up to the walkway, where he glanced at Rikke once before disappearing into the stairwell. He left a trail of bloody droplets behind him, glittering like rubies in the torchlight. Rikke stooped to pick up the crown, and when she straightened up, she met Hadvar’s eyes. She looked tired more than anything, some of her old friend’s blood spattered across her cheek, and he recalled childhood nightmares and thought that maybe in that moment, he knew how she felt. He saluted, and she returned it with her free hand, chin held high. There would be time for uncertainty and regret later, when all was said and done. But not yet.

Not yet.

----------

All things considered, Rhiannon thought they made good time from Riverwood. They arrived not even two hours later and were escorted to the Great Hall at once to speak with Balgruuf. He and Irileth were deep in hushed conversation, but he straightened up when he saw them and ordered everyone else out of the room, leaving the four of them alone.

“Dragonborn. You came more quickly than I’d hoped.” He sounded pleased, which would have reassured her a little under other circumstances. At the moment, all she could think about were Elona’s dead eyes staring at the sky, open but no longer capable of sight.

She forced herself to focus. “We were nearby when I got your letter. You said it was urgent?”

“It is.” He nodded at Lydia, and she bowed her head in acknowledgement. “There was an attack this morning. A dragon destroyed Autumndale Farm, just north of the city. Some of the workers survived, but it burned the crops and killed most of the livestock. The guards drove it off, but there’s no guarantee it won’t come back. I need you to take care of it.”

He might as well have tasked her with discovering what happened to the Dwemer, so impossible was his request. “My lord,” Rhiannon stammered, “I’m not exactly… equipped to do such a thing…”

“I know what I’m asking of you, but it’s something only the Dragonborn can do.” Balgruuf’s hands tightened around the arms of his throne. “Something only you can do. Do you understand?”

“Yes, but with all due respect, I haven’t suddenly been granted the power to slay a dragon on my own – “

“Any fool can slay a dragon!” Balgruuf snapped. She flinched. “The Dragonborn is the one who makes sure they stay dead, and I will not have you sit idly by while my people are in danger!”

He might have kept going, but Irileth stepped in. “No point in berating the girl, Balgruuf. We were both at the watchtower. Decent healer, can’t fight worth a damn. She’s right to be cautious.” She glanced at Rhiannon, who stared at the floor, cheeks hot with humiliation. “I can accompany her, if you like.”

“Damnit, woman, I keep telling you that I need you here! You and Farengar are going to be the death of me.” Despite his words, some of his ire seemed to have faded, and he took a deep breath. “Dragonborn. You are Thane of this city, and these people are counting on you and I to protect them. So take Lydia, take some of the guards… hire all of Jorrvaskr if you need to. I don’t care how, just get it done. Are we clear?”

“Yes, my Jarl,” she said, shrinking into herself, “yes, we’re clear…”

“Good.” He sat back. Irileth didn’t looked enthused, but whatever her thoughts, she kept them to herself. “Report back to Dragonsreach when you’re done. May the gods watch over your battles.”

Lydia caught up with her by the old tree in the center of the Cloud District. It was a cool day, and aside from a few beggars and a pack of giggling children running through the street, the square was deserted. The weathered statue of Talos looked out over the city, unblinking, while Heimskr howled his daily protestations at its feet. Neither of them paid any attention to the women on the wooden benches. Rhiannon huddled beneath the tree, knees drawn up to her chest, and Lydia sat next to her.

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “there are very few warriors who could take on a dragon single-handedly and live.”

“It doesn’t,” Rhiannon said glumly. “But thanks for trying.”

“What if I told you that the Jarl already presented you with the solution to your problem?”

“I can’t ask you to fight a dragon for me.”

“Not me. Them.” Lydia pointed across the way.

Rhiannon hadn’t paid much attention to the structure that sat just below Dragonsreach before now; her brief stints in Whiterun had seen her preoccupied with other matters. It was one of the few buildings she’d seen that had clearly resisted any attempts at modernization, a sturdy wooden longhouse that was pure Nord. Two carved hooded figures watched over the slatted roof, which was made of lengthwise strips instead of tiled like the other buildings, and supported by pillars that reminded her of oars. It’s a ship, she realized with a start. An upside-down ship that had long since been repurposed. Smoke billowed from the narrow chimney at the top.

“What is that place?”

“Jorrvaskr.” Lydia stood, and beckoned Rhiannon to do the same. “Come on. It’s time you met the Companions.”

 

The Companions carried on the proud tradition of Ysgramor and his Five Hundred, and had since Jeek of the River discovered the Skyforge and established Jorrvaskr sometime during the First Era. Because they remained neutral in political matters, refusing to take sides in any war, they were widely respected throughout the province as impartial and true judges of honor. Lydia seemed to hold them (or at least, their leader) in high esteem, and consequently Rhiannon had been expecting something akin to High Hrothgar, or a temple. Not a mead hall full of hooting warriors swapping bets while a Nord and a Dunmer beat the piss out of one another. Then again, maybe that was the sort of person she needed – someone who drank ale like it was water and thought dragon-hunting sounded like a lark. She couldn’t exactly afford to be choosy.

She hovered behind Lydia in the entranceway until a woman broke away from the pack to approach them. There was something wild about her, with her tangled copper hair and green warpaint slashed across her face, but her eyes were cool and measured. “Can we help you?”

Lydia nudged Rhiannon forward. She tried for a smile. “I was wondering… that is, I wanted to see about hiring you for a job.”

“Skjor!” The woman yelled over her shoulder.

An older Nord, one eye milky-white with a jagged scar running through the lid, came padding over. He moved too quietly for someone wearing full steel plate armor, Rhiannon thought. Almost graceful, despite his bulk.

“What is it?”

“This girl wants to hire someone for a job.”

“A couple of you, actually,” Rhiannon amended. “It’s not an easy task.”

The man, Skjor, looked at her, and a spark of interest lit up his good eye. “Go on.”

A defeated cry rose up, followed by a round of cheers and groans. The Nord woman had managed to pin the Dunmer in a painful headlock until he was forced to submit, and there was a great shuffling as coin and drink changed hands. Rhiannon waited until the noise died down and people began to disperse, moving on to other things.

“I need help hunting a dragon.”

The two Companions exchanged glances. “Aela,” Skjor said, “am I losing my hearing, or did she say she wants to go dragon-hunting?”

Aela’s eyes practically glowed. “She looks serious.”

“Aye. But what does a healer want with a dragon?”

“You haven’t heard? This is the Dragonborn,” Lydia said. “Say hello to Balgruuf’s newest Thane.” At least she only sounded a little sarcastic this time, Rhiannon thought. It was an improvement. Aela and Skjor looked at her, then each other again.

“Huh,” Skjor said.

“We’re going to need more muscle.” Aela turned around. “Farkas!”

A huge man rose up from his seat at the banquet table and plodded over to join them. His biceps were the size of Rhiannon’s head, but his pale eyes were guileless, framed by smoky black warpaint. “You called me?”

“Yeah, I called you, icebrain,” Aela said. Her tone wasn’t as harsh as the nickname might have suggested. “How do you fancy a little hunting trip?”

----------

Negotiations took less time than Lydia had anticipated. Rhiannon didn’t have much in the way of gold at present, but the Companions agreed after she promised they could have whatever treasure was to be found in the dragon’s roost as payment, plus a small fee upfront. As Aela pointed out, it wasn’t every day they got to do something like this. They made hasty preparations while Rhiannon and Lydia ran back to the keep to talk to Farengar. He was still deciphering the Dragonstone, but he had enough done to tell them that the nearest lair was called Shearpoint, up in the mountains where Whiterun kissed the border of The Pale. Aela and Farkas were fairly chomping at the bit to leave by the time they got back, Skjor more reserved, and Lydia stood on the steps outside Jorrvaskr and watched the four of them go. Rhiannon waved at her. After a second, Lydia waved back.

Well. That was that.

She looked over at Dragonsreach. It was about time for supper, and if she hurried, she could still join them. Or maybe she’d stop in at The Bannered Mare for dinner and a pint a little later. Ysolda didn’t water down her drinks like Hulda used to do.

On the other hand…

Rhiannon had hired the Companions to slay a dragon, not protect her, and what sort of housecarl would she be if her Thane died when she wasn’t there to save them? Good job, Lydia, the savior of Nirn got eaten by a dragon because you couldn’t be bothered to hike up yet another mountain. Might as well hand Alduin the world on a silver platter. There was no way Balgruuf would give her another assignment after something like that. Not that it would matter, with the end of days and all. She groaned. In the background, Heimskr ranted about the boots of the elves pressing down on their collective neck.

Well, if they were all fucked anyway, maybe it was better to go out in a blaze of glory before things got really bad. She caught up with them just outside the city.

Rhiannon looked surprised to see her, then delighted. “I thought you weren’t coming!”

Lydia jerked her thumb at the Companions. “Decided I didn’t want them hogging all the glory.”

“We’re happy to share in this case,” Aela said, amused. “A dragon is no easy prey.”

“More the merrier,” Farkas rumbled.

Rhiannon’s face indicated that she found the occasion less than merry, but when she turned to Lydia, her smile was genuine. “Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here.”

Lydia grunted. I am a glorified babysitter. She fell back, watching the road.

 

Evening came, draped in purple and shimmering indigo, and the five of them trudged through the fields in silence. Their path took them through the farmlands, and Lydia got a whiff of smoke on the breeze from time to time. Must be near the farm that burned down. Soon after, the grass gave way to scrub brush and rocky terrain, and they rejoined the road. When it got too dark to continue, they stopped in a narrow pass between two of the massive formations that made up the foothills. It was only going to get colder the higher they went into the mountains, but for the moment, it was warm enough to forgo a fire. They all hunkered down in a circle, sharing dried meat and fruit while they set up their makeshift camp.

None of the Companions were much for idle chatter, Lydia was relieved to find. Rhiannon, though; Rhiannon was restless in the silence, fidgeting on her bedroll until Lydia asked, “Something the matter?”

“No.” Pause. “It’s stupid.”

“What is?”

“It’s just… there’s something I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s silly, but I haven’t had any time for it since all of this started happening. I miss it.” Lydia’s eyes had adjusted to the dark somewhat, and she watched the dim shape that was Rhiannon raise its hand, fingertips skyward. A torchbug bobbled over to investigate, light winking. “Like I said. It’s stupid.”

“What are you working on?” Lydia asked, after a moment had passed.

“It’s… sort of an alchemist’s guide to Skyrim, I guess.”

More practical than Lydia had been expecting. She approved of practical. “Sounds useful. You should finish it.”

Rhiannon smiled. The torchbug flew off. “That’s the plan.” She glanced over. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Not making fun of me.”

Lydia shrugged. “Nothing to make fun of.”

 

Farkas volunteered for first watch, then Aela, then Skjor. None of them seemed like they needed much in the way of rest, and Lydia was more than happy to let them handle it. She and Rhiannon slept until just before sunrise, when a hand touched her shoulder. She snapped awake. Skjor was crouched over them. His dead eye gleamed like pearl in the pre-dawn light. “Listen.”

At first, she didn’t hear anything. Just the wind and her Thane’s heavy breathing. Then she picked it out, faint but unmistakable – wings. She woke Rhiannon, and the five of them huddled close to the cliff, waiting, until the dragon passed overhead. It didn’t appear to be in any great hurry. Leathery joints creaked as it circled around the pass, great horned head snaking back and forth. Lydia had no idea if it could smell them, or see them, but she held her breath and prayed all the same. Another pass, and then it flew off, heading towards the mountains.

Aela made a satisfied noise. “Must be heading back to its lair. I’ll keep its trail.”

She jogged ahead, and disappeared behind one of the boulders at the mouth of the pass. She didn’t reappear. A neat trick, Lydia thought. She was going to have to learn how to do that.

“Thank Mara,” Rhiannon said, still watching the winged behemoth as it grew steadily smaller in the distance. “I thought for sure it was going to spot us.”

“Wouldn’t be so sure it didn’t,” Skjor said.

Rhiannon paled. “But, if it saw us, why didn’t it attack?”

“Probably full from hunting,” Farkas said. “Or maybe it wanted us to follow it back to its nest. Won’t know until we get there.”

Rhiannon looked more terrified than ever, but she kept her mouth shut and followed the men up the pass. Lydia kept watch at the rear. She was confident that the Companions knew what they were doing, but worry lingered with the early morning chill all the same. They followed the path up to the base of the mountains, where a layer of snow still dusted the ground, and Rhiannon dug her cloak out of her pack. Skjor whistled, a sharp spike of a note. After a moment, Aela materialized from behind a dead tree and came trotting over to join them.

She motioned behind her, where the slope took a treacherous upward curve. The mountains went on as far as the eye could see, peaks disappearing into a sea of white mist. “We’re definitely headed for Shearpoint.”

“All the way up there?” Rhiannon asked, tilting her head back like she could see through the fog to the top.

Aela grinned. “Hope you’re ready for some mountain climbing.”

----------

They made it as far as the Legion camp outside Rorikstead before Rikke called a halt for the night. With the Jagged Crown in their possession and an injured Galmar on the loose, they needed the shelter and extra protection until they were ready to ride for Solitude. Hadvar worried that they’d pushed the wounded too hard, but there was no way around it. The camp healers tended to them while the rest scrounged for food and argued over spare cots, and after he’d sorted them out, Hadvar headed for the commander’s tent. Rikke was filling Legate Cipius in on the results of their mission, the crown on the table between them at the edge of the map. Hadvar waited respectfully by the entrance.

“We’ll be out of your hair tomorrow morning,” Rikke said. “You have your instructions, yes?”

“Yes ma’am,” Cipius confirmed. His gaze flickered to Hadvar. “You’ll be wanting to commandeer the tent, I assume.”

“Observant as always,” Rikke said, clapping him on the shoulder. He left, Hadvar saluting as he passed, and then it was just the two of them. “Tie that closed.”

He obeyed. Even after all this time, part of him was still that boy he’d been when he first enlisted, dreaming of glory and perpetually in awe of the Legate Primus. He’d joined up in part because of her too, the first Skyrim-born Nord to achieve the rank of Legate. He suspected he wasn’t the only one. Using her as a sort of cultural liaison was one of the smartest things Tullius had ever done. The general understood war, but he didn’t understand Skyrim or her people. That much had become painfully clear.

Rikke sat, and indicated that he should do the same. “I need to know everything that’s happened so far.” She’d never been one for small talk. “Everything. Right up to this moment.”

He knew he’d have to give his report on Helgen eventually. He’d just hoped it wouldn’t be now. Helgen was – had been – notable for two things: mead brewed with juniper berries, and producing the Legate Primus. “Yes ma’am.” He ran a hand across his tired face, tried to think of where he should start. “I was stationed at Darkwater Crossing – “

She held up a hand, and he stopped, feeling foolish. She already knew. She was the one who’d stationed him there. He started to apologize, but she leaned in, and the words shriveled on his tongue.

“Hadvar,” she said quietly. “Do you know who the Dragonborn is?”

“I was at the watchtower.” And the aftermath. He’d tried to put that night out of his head. Rikke cocked her head, clearly impatient, and he hurried on. “I know. It’s an Imperial mage named Rhiannon. I don’t know her surname, but she’s a healer, not from here – “

“Stop,” Rikke said. Her face had drained of color, and he stopped, confused. “A mage named Rhiannon. You’re sure?”

“Saw it for myself.” Which was the only reason he believed it. “We spent some time together in Whiterun. Nice girl. Saved my life.” Rikke didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Legate?”

She picked up the bottle of wine Cipius had left sitting on the corner of the table and poured herself a cup, then drank most of it in one go. Some of the color had returned to her face when she set the goblet down.

“Start with Helgen,” she said.

He told her everything, starting with the dragon. While he was speaking, Rikke poured the rest of the wine into a second cup, which she handed across the table to him. He accepted it gratefully, and when he was done, a heavy silence fell between them.

Rikke steepled her fingers under her chin. “Of all the people it could have been,” she said dryly. “And they say the gods have no sense of humor.”

“I take it you’ve met her.”

“Yes.” She didn’t elaborate, and he didn’t press the matter. “Do you know if she’s still in Whiterun?”

“Could be, unless she went to High Hrothgar. She didn’t tell me what her plans were.”

Rikke didn’t respond right away, but he recognized the look in her eyes. He had a sinking feeling he knew what it was before she even opened her mouth.

“Fine. For now, we need to operate under the assumption that Ulfric knows. Vignar Grey-Mane is his kinsman on his father’s side. I’d bet anything he’s already sent word to Windhelm.” She sat back in her chair. “Imperial mage or not, Dovahkiin is still a title that carries weight. We’ll have to intervene.”

“With all due respect, Legate, I tried that once already. She turned me down. Said it’s not her war.” He ran a nervous hand through his hair. It was getting long again. He’d need to pay the barber a visit when he got back to Castle Dour. “Convincing her to enlist is… well, it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Something flickered in Rikke’s eyes that he couldn’t name, but then it was gone. “Consider convincing her your new assignment.”

“Ma’am?”

“I’ll let Tullius know. This takes precedence over your other duties, effective immediately.” She tapped her finger against the map spread out between them. Every hold was populated with either blue or red flags, save Whiterun, which alone stood unmarked. “Balgruuf has managed to remain neutral so far, but a day will come in which he’s forced to take a stand. The Dragonborn will have to choose as well, but far sooner. Ulfric is charismatic. He’s also dangerous when he doesn’t get what he wants.”

“The Dragonborn’s a nice consolation prize for losing out on the crown,” he agreed. “But if he’s expecting the second coming of Ysgramor, he’s in for a shock.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rikke said. “It’s about what the Dragonborn represents.”

“Hope.”

“Hope.” She sat back in her chair. “A future for Skyrim. And I have no doubt that Ulfric will try to convince her that his is the vision to shape that future.”

“So, what do I offer her?”

“Friendship. Safety.” The corner of her mouth twisted, wry. “The possibility of a quiet life when this is all over.”

He shifted in his seat. “And if she still refuses?”

That unknown flicker again. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Hadvar knew a dismissal when he heard one. He stood and saluted. “Take the rest of the night to rest. T – Divines know you’ve earned it. Then head back to Whiterun in the morning.”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt strange, and wasn’t sure why. He let himself out of the tent, a cool breeze rushing across his face. At least he was less than a day’s ride from the city. If Rhiannon wasn’t there, someone would most likely know where she’d gone. He stifled a yawn and wondered if he could find time for a shave and a haircut. And behind him, sequestered in the commander’s tent, Rikke put her head in her hands.

This changes everything, a part of her whispered.

This changes nothing, the rest retorted.

She wondered if it would be bad form to ask Cipius if he had any more wine.

Chapter Text

Shearpoint rose sharp and treacherous before them, their path razor-thin and black rocks slick with frost. They hiked single-file, snow and gravel crunching underfoot. Rhiannon kept her eyes trained on Farkas’ broad back, determined not to look down. Even the absence of solid ground in her peripheral was enough to make her dizzy, if she dwelled on it too long. She’d never done well with heights.

“Still no sign of the dragon,” Lydia said from behind her, voice low. It was the most anyone had said since they began their ascent. Hopefully it stays that way, she thought, but kept it to herself. How were none of them terrified? They were focused, but there was no fear in their eyes. Only purpose. Nords are mad, the whole lot of them. That’s the only explanation.

Then again, maybe she was the mad one. She’d seen what a dragon could do, but here she was chasing one up a mountain instead of doing the sensible thing and running the other way, back to Cyrodiil. Maybe it was something in the water.

Snow fluttered down from a steel-grey sky as the day wore on, blanketing their surroundings with a fresh coat of white. The air thinned, and the higher they climbed, the harder it became to ignore the terror seeping in along with the cold. She didn’t want to absorb another dragon soul. The first time had been bad enough; she didn’t fancy finding out what the second might do. But Master Arngeir and Jarl Balgruuf had both said the same thing - that she alone could ensure that the beasts stayed dead. If she didn’t, it would only lead to more destruction.

She suddenly wished her mother was there. Even long-retired and entering her fifth decade, Lalatia had retained the same keen wit and knack for strategy that had made her a champion in her younger days. She would have known what to do, and for the first time, Rhiannon wanted nothing more than to leave it all behind. Her studies, her ambitions, whatever misguided sense of adventure that had led her to Skyrim in the first place – it could all rot while she fled into the arms of someone who would never dream of asking her to hunt a dragon. She rubbed a hand across her chapped nose and snuffled, glad she was too cold to cry. She was so tired of crying.

Even the Companions, strong as they were, had to stop and rest a time or two, and it was late afternoon by the time they reached their destination. This close to the peak, it was still winter, and thick snowdrifts rose around Rhiannon’s knees and sucked at her feet whenever she took a step. Pine trees dotted the ridge in brackish clumps, so thick with ice that the green of their leaves was nearly black.

“Dead ahead,” Aela said, tying her hair back. Despite her bare legs and back, she didn’t appear to feel the cold. The plateau sloped away and down, and at its edge, the dragon perched atop a half-moon wall like some great bird, stretching its wings. “Did you bring it?”

Their packs were in a pile behind a rocky outcropping, where they’d been put for safekeeping. Rhiannon dug through hers and found the little clay jar she’d wrapped up in a kerchief and buried at the bottom, carefully sealed with wax. “You all might want to hold your breath for a moment.”

“Why’s that?” Farkas asked.

Rhiannon cracked the seal. The smell was immediate – sickly-sweet and sour, like fruit on the edge of rotting. All four of them recoiled as it filled the air, and she tried not to cough. She hated brewing poisons in any form, but like any decent healer or alchemist, she knew how. It was impossible to come up with an antidote or treat symptoms if you didn’t know what you were looking at. The salve was thick and purplish-brown, and it glistened, sludge-like, in the sun. “I’ll do it. I’m the only one wearing gloves.”

Skjor, Farkas and Lydia drew their greatswords, and she slid poison down the length of their blades, eyes watering. The rest, she used to coat Aela’s arrows. “Careful. This is probably the strongest recipe I have, so make sure you don’t get any on your skin.”

“Can you even poison a dragon?” Farkas asked, examining the viscous sheen on his sword.

“Don’t see why not,” Skjor said.

“We’ll find out.” Aela unhooked her bow from across her shoulders. “Either way, be ready. On my signal.”

Not ready! a panicked voice cried in the back of Rhiannon’s mind. Before she could dwell on it, Aela was gone.

No one moved or spoke. They were all watching the dragon. It looked like it was asleep, head tucked beneath its wing, but Rhiannon had no idea if dragons actually slept. Maybe it was simply biding its time. Maybe it could hear her heart slamming against her chest, giving them away with each frantic beat.

A terrible, ear-splitting screech shredded the tranquil afternoon, and the dragon’s wings unfurled with a snap. Aela’s arrow had found its mark. It took off into the pale blue, but already there was something wrong; it dipped, listing heavily to one side, and screeched again. A second arrow soared from the ridge and pierced the inside of the dragon’s flank, where the scales gave way to a smooth expanse of belly. It strained and rolled in mid-air, tail thrashing, and shades of its Voice echoed in Rhiannon’s head.

PainpainPAIN

The poison had clearly begun to take effect, coursing through its veins, and try as it might to stay aloft, after a few more wingbeats, it careened into a downward spiral. The mountain shuddered when it landed, driving a deep furrow in the earth amid waves of dirt and slush.

“Now!” Skjor barked.

Lydia and the Companions rushed forth. The dragon scrabbled to right itself, and a geyser of flame erupted from its jaws, melting the snow to scorch the stone below. The immense heat of it shriveled the needles from the nearby trees and curled the ends of Rhiannon’s hair as she threw herself out of the its path, rolling down a shallow incline. The ground quaked with each heavy, thudding footstep as the dragon stalked forward to meet them with snapping jaws. She scrambled back up the incline to see Aela’s third arrow crushed between its razor teeth. When it reared up on its hind legs and screamed again, the wind from its beating wings buffeted the warriors and sent them tumbling back, into the snow. Fire lashed the air like a whip, forced them to dance to its tune while they bobbed and weaved just out of reach, searching for an opening.

At first, it seemed they wouldn’t be able to get close enough to do any damage. But the poison, carefully crafted from nirnroot pulp and the glands of the river betty that swam plentiful in Skyrim’s waters, was doing its work, and the dragon stumbled. First onto all fours, then onto its side, tail slamming against the ground in agonized throes. Black bile dripped from between its teeth. Farkas charged in while Skjor and Lydia circled to flank it, and Rhiannon turned away, stomach churning. It was necessary, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed the task; its final cry pierced her heart as cleanly as one of Aela’s arrows.

“That’s some poison you brewed,” Skjor called. She turned around to see the three of them cleaning their blades in the snow, and Aela was trotting down from the ridge to join them. The great carcass lay still, foul liquid seeping from its wounds. One dead, golden eye stared at Rhiannon accusingly. “Never seen something so big go down so fast.”

“It was almost too easy,” Lydia said, looking around like she expected a second dragon to swoop out of the sky and snatch them up.

“I was expecting a little more,” Aela admitted. “But better that it dies quickly, in this case.”

“Don’t matter how it got dead, long as it stays that way.” Farkas straightened up, only to fall back seconds later. “Watch out!”

The body began to burn.

It hurt worse than the first time. The impact slammed her into a snowbank, hard enough that she swore she heard her spine crack, and everything went white. Bitter rage poured into her, along with the dragon’s soul, hot and cold all at once and thick enough to choke on. She convulsed, clawing at her throat, gasping for air that wouldn’t come. Hands seized her, and she fought them, twisting in their grasp. Everything was on fire as the soul forced its way into her, filling her with anger that was hers now but not, until her body went rigid and her screaming filled the blue, blue sky. And then it was over and she was laying on her back in the snow, drenched in sweat. Lydia was crouched over her, holding her wrists to keep her from scratching herself, and Skjor knelt by her feet, pinning her ankles.

“I was starting to think your housecarl was joking about you being Dragonborn,” he said.

“Unfortunately not,” she rasped. Her throat ached like a new bruise.

Skjor let go of her feet, and Lydia helped her up, steadying her when she wobbled. “You alright? That looked painful.”

“I’m alright. Thank you.” Rhiannon coughed and winced. The dragon’s skeleton – Agbahlok, his name is Agbahlok – lay on its belly, bones yellow-grey against the white of the snow. “Would one of you mind helping me harvest a tooth or something? I think Farengar might have kittens if I don’t bring him something to study this time.”

“I’ll do it,” Farkas said cheerfully. Nothing seemed to faze him, from what Rhiannon could tell. She envied him for it. While he busied himself with chiseling a tooth out of Agbahlok’s jaw, she, Lydia and the other two Companions approached the wall. Word Walls, Master Arngeir had called them. Carved stone pillars rose on either side of it, worn smooth by time and the elements. A sarcophagus stood upright between them, and piled all around were the dragon’s treasures: battered weapons and dented shields, fistfuls of gold and jewels spilling from broken burial urns, quivers with half the arrows missing and various pieces of mismatched armor sprouting from the snow like crocuses.

“Quite the trophy collection,” Aela said.

Skjor nodded. “That’ll do.”

“Watch the coffin.” Lydia had put herself between Rhiannon and the wall. “Nothing good ever comes from those.”

“One draugr shouldn’t be too much trouble for all of us,” Aela said. “But, just in case…”

She drew an arrow from her quiver. Skjor circled the sarcophagus, hand on the hilt of his greatsword, and Lydia drew hers, beckoning Rhiannon forward. “Go ahead, my Thane.”

Rhiannon was hyper-aware of the three of them at her back as she approached the wall, and of the absolute stillness all around them. With each step she took, her entire body ached. She thought she heard faint chanting, but it could have been the wind.

An unearthly light shone from the words on the wall, drawing her in like the moth to its flame, and she was caught in the current, swept forward until her palms hit stone. It should have been cold, but it was warm, and growing warmer by the second. The wind picked up around her, hair and robes lashing every which way, and the chanting – there was definitely chanting now – picked up right along with it. A chorus of voices howled through her, singing in a language she didn’t remember learning, and the wall scorched her palms. She fell back, swallowed a cry.

ZUL MEY GUT

There they were, the words, scrawled across her mind and then absorbed, like ink into parchment. Her hands stopped burning. She expected to hear the tell-tale crack of stone splitting in two, but there was only the wind, soft now in the pines. When she turned around, Skjor and Lydia were hovering on either side of the sarcophagus, poised to strike. Aela crouched behind a boulder several paces away, unmoving. Nothing happened. It was so quiet, Rhiannon thought. Why was it so quiet? Even the breeze had stopped blowing, little by little.

“I don’t like this,” Lydia said, shifting her stance. Her knuckles bulged white beneath her skin.

“What’s the hold up?” Aela called.

“Not sure.” Skjor glanced around. “Unless – “

The sarcophagus shattered.

There was no other way to describe it. One minute, it was intact; the next, the blast sent Rhiannon and Lydia head over heels into the snow. Shards of rock and debris sliced into her exposed face and through her gloves, and she threw her arms in front of her face, blood trickling down her cheeks. A blast of fire lifted Skjor clean off his feet, metal and flesh alike sizzling as it engulfed him. When he landed, steam gushed from the snow, and a terrible sound escaped him as he thrashed, spectral flames clinging to his limbs.

“No!” Aela screamed, face contorted in horror. Her arrow loosed, bowstring twanging sharply – and then it was gone, crushed by the teeth of the flames. She was forced to scramble out of the way as another ball of fire crashed against the boulder, embers pinwheeling through the air.

“At last…”

The voice that echoed forth was unlike anything Rhiannon had ever heard. It had once belonged to a person, but there was nothing human about it now, punctuated by Skjor’s grisly howls. Its owner hovered where the tomb had been only minutes earlier, toes skimming the ground. No ordinary draugr, she realized, but a lich; its flesh grey and rotting, wrapped in moth-eaten robes and face hidden by a carved bronze mask. “Alduin has awakened.”  The eyes glowed gold, and so did the staff clutched in its bony hand. “And so, a new era dawns…”

Lydia was already back on her feet, teeth bared. Shallow cuts lined her bare arms. “What the hell is that thing?!”

“Krosis,” it purred, raising its staff. Another shimmering ball of magefire left a crater between them, and Rhiannon rolled and stumbled, half-crawling away as fast as she could from the flames snapping at her heels. Lydia dodged forward, narrowly avoiding another fireball, and her sword slashed a furrow in the snow as the lich winked out of existence, then back in, out of her reach. Farkas came charging in with a battlecry that made every inch of Rhiannon recoil in fear, and Aela’s arrow flew straight and true, and everything was light and noise and chaos.

Rhiannon felt rather than heard herself cast the invocation, hands moving to form the summon, and her atronach leapt into the fray to fight fire with fire. Ash thickened the air. A wall of flame flared up to her right, and she whirled around to see Krosis lunge at her through it. She screamed and lost her footing, and a voice that was hers but not exploded in a thunderous wail from her lungs.

FUS RO

It was the lich's turn to fall back, her Thu’um slamming it against one of the pillars with a sickening crack. Lydia and Farkas fell on it, only to be sent flying with a sweep of its staff. Snow and rocks churned beneath their feet, blades whirling in the sunlight. Aela’s final arrow pierced its side, but it hardly seemed to make a difference; the next fireball it cast nearly set her aflame. She threw her bow and empty quiver aside and ran.

Skjor lay in the snow where he’d landed, unmoving even as the battle raged alongside him. Smoke drifted up from his ruined armor and blackened flesh. Aela ran for him, and Rhiannon tried to follow, only to have another wall of fire spring up in front of her, blazing like the sun. She lost her footing and landed hard on her backside, a cry wrenching itself from her throat.

“Now, now, little mage.” Krosis’ voice crawled up her spine, made her seize up in fear. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Get away from her!” Lydia, charging in from the side.

Krosis spread its arms wide. An icy aura swirled around him like a cloak, the air crackling with magicka thick enough to choke on. When it Shouted, the frost crystallized into opaque blossoms, then exploded. One of the shards sliced into Farkas’ side as he rolled out of the way, leaving spatters of red on the dirty snow. Lydia tackled Rhiannon around the middle, knocking her flat, and they rolled, spikes thudding into the dirt all around them. One of them pierced Lydia’s thigh, punching through the metal of her greaves to puncture skin and muscle. Her mouth opened, face screwed up in pain, but no sound came out.

“Lydia!” Rhiannon scrambled out from under her, trying to tug her to lay flat. “Hold on!” She could hear Aela trying to wake Skjor in the distance, voice strained with sorrow and rage. She tried to straighten Lydia’s leg, blood spurting onto the snow from the ice jutting out of her thigh, and Lydia screamed, writhing out of her grip.

Above them all, Krosis laughed. “I forgot how fun mortals can be.”

Rhiannon had scarcely a second’s warning before fire licked up her side. First the impact, then the pain; she was sent flying, and her world was nothing but agony. Fire ate away at her robes, crisped her hair, and she thrashed against the ground, grasping at nothing with blistering hands. In her short life, there had never been pain like this, blinding and absolute. She wept, and her tears turned to steam from the heat. Some animal instinct deep inside took over, magicka surging through her veins, and her body began to heal itself, even as she fought to put out the flames. Dimly, she was aware of laughter. Then, the howling.

----------

Lydia couldn’t look at her leg. If she looked, it’d only make the pain worse, and she was barely holding on as it was. She breathed out through her nose, teeth clenched. This is why you never made commander. Can’t even get this right . Rhiannon lay a few yards away, robes smoldering. She wasn’t moving, but wheat-gold light shimmered around her hands, which was a good sign; her body was already healing, blackened flesh peeling away to reveal the tender new skin beneath. The lich hovered above them, staff glowing so hot it was nearly white. She reached out, tried dragging herself towards Rhiannon while it cackled overhead, biting her tongue so she didn’t cry out with each excruciating bump and jolt to her injured limb. One job, Lydia. You had one job...

A howl split the air, interrupting her pain-addled thoughts. It was joined by a second, and then a third, and all her hair stood on end at once, skin prickling. It was a song in a language she didn’t understand, but she knew what it meant all the same.

Blood.

She might have thought she was dreaming, if not for the hurt and the cold. Krosis was forced to dodge backwards as an enormous clawed hand raked the air, and three beasts emerged from the smoke to surround it. They could have been wolves, but no wolf had ever been so big, or walked upright like a man, front paws dragging on the ground. The biggest one was black, silvery scars cutting through its fur, and one eye gleamed milky-white.

“…Skjor?” she croaked.

It raised its head and bared its teeth at Krosis, breath hanging in thick white clouds between them. The second one, mottled grey, snapped teeth like daggers with a snarl. And the last, lean and sleek with russet fur, bounded forward to meet Krosis in mid-air. It swept the beast aside with its staff, but the creature landed on all fours and leapt again, snarling. The other two charged in on either side, and Lydia lay dazed in the snow, watching it unfold.

Everyone knew about werewolves, though they were rarely seen. Legends of the Wild God’s moon-children still persisted despite being hunted to the brink of extinction by the Silver Hand over the last Era, reduced to little more than faerie tales to scare children into minding their elders. But these beasts were as real as she was, and they fought with the strength of three times their number; earth and rocks churned like a stormy sea beneath their feet as they came together with the lich in a clash of fire and blood.

Lydia’s leg had gone numb, and she clung to consciousness, vision fading in and out. The battlefield spun around her, cacophony echoing in her ears, and she was laying still but falling all the same, into the Void that waited eagerly to snap her up with cold dark jaws. Why did she have to die now, she wondered muzzily, time slowing to a crawl around her. It wasn’t a good time. They said the World-Eater devoured souls in Sovengarde.

And then, a spark.

Warmth spread through her, a shallow tide that made the cold recede inch by inch. Lydia gasped, and then she was awake. Her leg throbbed fiercely and every inch of her body ached, but she could feel again. There was a slight pressure against her cold hand. She looked down to see Rhiannon’s bare fingertips touching her palm, a weak golden current flowing between them. She’d taken advantage of the confusion to drag herself over, eyes closed and brow furrowed in concentration, one arm extended so she could take Lydia’s hand in her own. Talos, Lydia thought, with something dangerously close to affection. This girl is harder to kill than a bad habit.

An inhuman screech split the air. “Mangy cur!” Krosis roared. It and the black wolf were near the wall, grappling hand over jaw for the staff. The grey wolf seized the ragged tail of the robes in its teeth and pulled, hard, in the opposite direction from its fellow; with an almost comical rip, the lich went sailing through the air, and the black wolf was left holding the staff. Conjured ice spikes shot from Krosis' hands, but the grey and reddish wolves dodged them easily. “You’ll regret this!”

The last of Rhiannon’s magicka flickered out, a candle spent, and she lapsed back into unconsciousness. But she’d kept Lydia from bleeding out, and Lydia sat up in time to see the black wolf shake its head like it was savaging an elk, slamming the staff against the pillar until it broke in half. Krosis’ frost cloak spell swirled around it like a miniature blizzard, but frost is nothing to Nords or wolves, and the three of them fell upon him like starving men to a feast. There was no blood, which should have made it better, but it was worse somehow. Worse still was the shrieking, terrible laughter as they ripped the lich limb from limb, until it finally faded into the wind. Then, there was nothing.

The black wolf spat out a mangled arm covered in rotting flesh; it dissolved into dust and was swept away. Without warning, he snapped his teeth at the reddish wolf with a growl. Lydia’s vision went blurry for a moment, and then it was Aela and Skjor again, naked as the day they were born.

“What the fuck were you two thinking?” Skjor bellowed.

Lydia politely averted her eyes. She could hear Aela fuming. “Winning the battle!”

“There was no reason for the two of you to shift with me!”

There was a peculiar noise, like joints popping back into place, and then Farkas’ deep drawl joined the conversation. “We were getting our asses kicked, Skjor. We had to do something.”

“Nobody outside the Circle is supposed to know. It’s bad enough that I did it, but now they know about you, too.”

“You had to,” Aela said firmly. “You would have died otherwise.”

“Excuse me,” Lydia said, still facing the opposite direction. She took the sudden quiet to mean she had their attention. “I’ll have to ask my Thane, but I think she and I can agree that we don’t care how you killed that thing, as long as it stays dead. Anything beyond that is your business.”

Silence.

“Huh,” Skjor said.

“So,” Aela said, after a moment. “We’re in agreement, then?”

Skjor chuckled. It turned into a cough. “I can live with that.”

Farkas whispered something to Aela, who made a disgusted noise. “She’s saying they won’t tell anyone we’re werewolves, idiot.”

“Oh. Okay.”

While the Companions collected their scattered armor and redressed, Lydia tried to wake Rhiannon. Eventually, they got her conscious and standing, and wrapped her up in her cloak. Most of her own clothing had been burnt away. She didn’t seem entirely present, leaning on Farkas’ arm with dead eyes, but it would have to do until they made it back to Whiterun. The dragon’s treasure was picked through and distributed, each of them taking what they could carry; as for Krosis, nothing remained, save a broken staff and the bronze mask in a pile of ash where his body had been.

“I’m not touching that thing,” Lydia said.

“Neither am I,” Skjor said, nostrils flaring like he smelled something foul. “Something isn’t right with it.”

Wordlessly, Rhiannon knelt down next to it and opened her pack.

“My Thane – “

“We can’t just leave it,” she said, not looking at Lydia. “It’s unlikely that anyone will stumble across it up here, but if it’s dangerous…”

No one really had anything to say to that, and a bundle of spare cloth was used to wrap up the mask. Rhiannon stuffed it deep inside her bag and tied it closed, then slung it back across her shoulders. A shudder ran through her, and she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head.

“It’s cold,” she said. “We should go.”

----------

She didn’t want it.

All the way back to Whiterun, the mask weighed on Rhiannon’s shoulders. Even through layers of fabric and leather, she could feel it reaching out, like it was trying to leech into her own magicka and taint it with something unwanted. The sensation she’d gotten while holding it in the cloth was akin to standing at the edge of an impossible cliff, peering into the depths of something no mortal eye was meant to behold; the thought of it touching her bare skin was nauseating. The rest of them were right not to want anything to do with it. She herself would have happily left it buried at the top of the mountain, had it not been for the niggling sensation that to do so would only lead to more trouble later on.

Enchanted clothing and armor was nothing new, but this mask… it was unlike anything else she’d ever come across. Krosis’ laughter flashed across her mind, making her shiver. She wondered if the Greybeards would know more about him.

In truth, what she wanted more than anything was to fall into bed and sleep off the horrors of the last few weeks. She’d never been so exhausted. But it wasn’t to be. When they reached the city, the time came to part ways, and Rhiannon and Lydia said goodbye to the Companions out front of Jorrvaskr.

“I’ll make sure to get that dragon tooth to Farengar,” Farkas told her, hefting his pack. “Thanks for the loot.”

“You fight as well as ever.” Aela clasped Lydia’s hand. “I always did wonder why you never tried to become a Shield-Sister. We could use you.”

Lydia smiled wryly, squeezed her hand in response. “Politics.”

“Come find us if you need any more dragons slain,” Skjor said on his way inside. “We’re usually in want of a good hunt.”

Rhiannon wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, but he was gone before she could ask. She and Lydia stood on Jorrvaskr’s steps for a moment, looking up at Dragonsreach. She’d been to both High Hrothgar and Shearpoint, but in that moment, no distance had ever seemed so insurmountable. Everything hurt. Balgruuf would be wanting her report, she knew, but she couldn’t help wondering if it would really be so bad to rent a room for the night and go to the keep in the morning. A few more hours of waiting wouldn’t kill him.

At her elbow, Lydia inhaled. “Shit.”

Two men approached from opposite directions, heading straight for them. One, Rhiannon didn’t recognize; he was clearly someone important, judging from his fine clothes, aged but sharp and well-groomed. The other was –

“Hadvar?”

“Rhiannon.” He halted a few steps below her, smiling. “Good to see you again.” The smile faded as he took in her disheveled state and soot-smudged cheeks and hands. “By the Eight... are you alright?”

“I’m fine. I thought you’d be back in Solitude by now.”

“I was, but something came up.”

“Dragonborn,” a different voice interjected. Keen eyes in a tanned and weathered face raked her over as the unfamiliar man joined them. “I am lookin’ at the Dragonborn, aren’t I?” There hardly seemed to be a point in lying, so she nodded. He extended a hand for her to shake, and the silver ring on his finger nearly blinded her when it caught the sunlight, boasting heavy filigree and an emerald the size of a robin’s egg. “Vignar Grey-Mane. Good to meet’cha.”

Despite his appearance, he was plain-spoken, a thick Nordic burr rounding out his words. Old blood, then. She shook his hand. “Rhiannon Amorell. Likewise.”

Lydia's eyes narrowed. Vignar stared her down coolly. “Lydia.”

“Vignar.”

The four of them stood facing each other, their silence broken only by the marketplace noise drifting up from the district below. Hadvar scratched the back of his neck. Neither he nor Vignar looked at one another, but the tension between the two of them was sharp enough to set Rhiannon’s hair on end.

Hair crackling, fire, flesh blistering –

“Forgive me for being so blunt, but we’ve had a long day, and I assume the two of you want something from my Thane,” Lydia said, mercifully cutting into her thoughts. “What is it?”

Hadvar at least had the decency to look sheepish. “I was hoping we could talk. Over lunch, if you like.”

“Aye, I confess, I was hopin’ the same,” Vignar said. “Won’t take more than a few minutes of your time.”

Lydia crossed her arms. “Talk, then.”

“Not here,” Vignar amended. “This is the kind o’ thing best discussed in private.”

“It’d be better if we spoke in private as well,” Hadvar said, ignoring both of them and looking straight at Rhiannon. “Are you hungry?”

Politics weren’t Rhiannon’s strong suit; she lacked both the necessary ambition and appetite for intrigue. But she remembered her last conversation with Hadvar, and she could see that neither man was willing to concede ground to the other. If they’d both been waiting to pounce as soon as she got back into town, there was little question as to what they wanted to discuss.

“Is it urgent?” she asked, forcing herself to sound light-hearted. “I’m afraid I just got back, and as you can see, I haven’t had any time to make myself presentable.” Her hair was a few inches shorter than it used to be, her robes in charred tatters and her gloves burnt away entirely; the only thing preserving her modesty was the thick fur mantle wrapped around her from neck to toe.

Hadvar looked at her more closely this time, and his eyebrows shot up. “What happened to your hair?”

“Dragon,” Lydia supplied shortly. Vignar let out a low whistle. “So, if the two of you don’t mind, my Thane would like to get cleaned up before you go bothering her about politics. Is that acceptable? Or are you going to force her to listen to your recruitment speeches half-naked?”

It was the most she’d ever said without prompting. Rhiannon gaped at her. Hadvar’s ears went red, and he backed down a step, clearing his throat. “Right. No, you’re right, that was uncouth of me. We can talk later.”

Vignar remained where he was, glaring at Lydia with a jaundiced eye, but after a moment, he nodded gruffly and stood aside to let them pass. “My apologies.”

Rhiannon barely had time to excuse herself before she was left to hobble after Lydia, who stalked down the steps and off across the square, towards Dragonsreach. “Thank you,” she panted once she caught up, cloak tangling around her feet. “I owe you one.”

“No need to thank me,” Lydia said. “You didn’t want to speak with them. I intervened, as duty dictates.”

“Still.” Rhiannon reached out and caught at her wrist guard, a silent plea to stop. Lydia stopped. She was tense, tenser than Rhiannon had ever seen her; there was a slight tremor to her fingers, shoulders hunched up around her ears. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She tugged her arm out of reach. Rhiannon’s hand fell by her side. “It’s nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

Rhiannon didn’t believe her, but there was nothing she could say to make Lydia open up to her if she wasn't ready. They continued on.

The steps to Dragonsreach stretched up and ever onward, each seemingly steeper than the one before it. Rhiannon had to stop more than once. Her legs kept threatening to give out, aching badly enough to make her choke back tears. After the third time she stumbled, Lydia turned and wordlessly extended her hand.

“You don’t have to do that,” Rhiannon protested.

“You keep falling.”

“Really, I can – “

“My Thane, with all due respect: shut up and take my hand.”

Rhiannon laughed. She couldn’t help herself. “Lydia, I’m not due any respect from you and you know it.”

A startled laugh escaped Lydia’s mouth, like she was surprised by her own reaction. She clamped her lips shut, but the façade had already begun to crack, and a tiny smile tugged at them when Rhiannon took her hand. She let Lydia haul her upright, and together they limped across the bridge to the keep, her arm over Lydia’s shoulders and an unexpected lightness in her heart.

----------

“Well, both of you are here, and in one piece. Is good news too much to hope for?”

In the daylight streaming through the windows, the lines of Balgruuf’s face and the grey threading his hair crept into stark relief. Given their respective states, Rhiannon and Lydia had been permitted to clean up when they first arrived. Once they were done, Proventus had escorted them to Balgruuf’s study. She nodded now, and watched him exhale.

“The dragon is dead. It won’t bother the hold anymore.”

“Seems the Divines have been listening to my prayers after all.” It astounded her, to see the change that came over his face at her words, like watching the sun break through the clouds after a storm. “Thank you. You’ve become a true friend to Whiterun.”

“It was all Lydia and the Companions. They’re the ones you should thank.”

Balgruuf’s gaze shifted to Lydia, and she met his smile with a bow. “Lydia has been dedicated to defending Whiterun since she was old enough to lift a sword. She was a fine guard captain, and now, an even better housecarl.” She said nothing in response, but a faint flush came over her, the kind of glow only pride could lend. “Your uncle will be glad to hear it.”

“Yes, my Jarl. Thank you.”

“And as for you, Dragonborn… I believe I owe you an apology.” Rhiannon opened her mouth to stop him, but he shook his head. “I let my temper get the best of me, and for that, I’m sorry. You were right to be cautious in your approach.”

A Jarl, apologizing to her! She floundered, finally managed to spit out a halfway coherent response. “Your people, they rely on you… you want to protect them. I understand.”

Balgruuf nodded, satisfied, and opened the topmost drawer of his desk. “I also owe you a reward.” The coinpurse he pulled out bulged at the seams, stuffed to spilling; it clanked when he set it down. “The bounty on the dragon’s head, for the both of you.” Next to it, he placed a ring. It was slim and plain, but finely-crafted, and the silver rippled purple-blue where it caught the light, humming with magic. Rhiannon found she couldn’t speak, the sudden lump in her throat blocking whatever meagre thanks she might have mustered.

“This is normally where I would present you with an axe,” Balgruuf said. He looked almost amused. “It’s tradition for my Thanes to receive one, to symbolize your willingness to take up arms for your people. But, considering the circumstances, I thought this might be more fitting.” He slid it across the mahogany expanse between them. “Compliments of Farengar.”

Your people, he’d said. Like she belonged here. Hesitantly, she took the ring, and a tingle swept along her arm when she slipped it on, cool and refreshing as splashing in the river on a hot summer day. “Thank you. This is… thank you. Really.”

“You’ve earned it.” Balgruuf steepled his fingers beneath his chin. “Lydia, stay behind for a minute. I’d like a word. Dragonborn, you’re welcome to dine with the court tonight. My other Thanes will be joining us as well.”

“The other Thanes?”

“Vignar Grey-Mane and Olfrid Battle-Born, heads of two of Whiterun’s oldest clans. I doubt you’ve met them yet.”

Rhiannon smiled – a polite, polished shield, just as she’d been raised to do. “That’s very kind of you to offer.”

Not a chance in Oblivion.

----------

Going down the stairs was easier than going up, if nothing else. Rhiannon hauled her things down to the Drunken Huntsman, huffing and puffing and cursing herself all the way there. She was still haunted by her vague memories of her last night in the Bannered Mare. She also figured Hadvar would be staying there again, and that was more than enough motivation to take her the extra distance.

The clientele at the Huntsman was a mix of hunters, farmers, and mercenaries, and largely elven; a few of them looked at her askance when she first came in, but her coin was as gold as anyone else’s, and the Bosmer behind the counter took her to a small room near the back. She didn’t know his name, but she recognized him from the market. He and his brother sold fresh game at their stall most weeks.

“Chamberpot’s under the bed, basin’s in the corner. Room comes with a free ale or wine, but hot water’s extra,” he told her cheerfully as he handed over the key. “Holler if you need something.”

She took the free wine with her meal. If there were ever a time she needed it, it was now, and Lydia found her there a short while later, slumped at a table in the corner with a half-empty plate and a mostly-empty cup. The scraping of the chair next to hers against the floorboards made her jump.

“Oh, thank Mara, it’s just you.” She scrubbed at her tired eyes with her palms. “For a second I thought it might be Hadvar again. Or Vignar.”

“I thought you liked Hadvar.”

“I do. But he wants to talk to me about joining the Legion again, I can feel it.” She stared at the wine dregs in her cup, so dark red they were almost black. “And he and Vignar wouldn’t even look at one another, so I can only assume the Grey-Manes are Stormcloak supporters.”

“Vignar is Ulfric’s kinsman,” Lydia said. “The man bleeds blue.”

“Of course.” Rhiannon raked her hair out of her face. It kept falling into her eyes, and her last hair ribbon had been burnt to nothing. She was going to have to get someone to fix the uneven patches. “What about the other Thane Balgruuf mentioned? Olfrid Battle-Born.”

“The Battle-Borns support the Empire. Balgruuf made the two of them Thanes as a gesture of peace, to try to quell tensions, but it doesn’t stop them from hating each other.” Lydia shook her head. “We were all close once. But the province is ripping itself apart over this war, and nobody’s immune to that. Not even old friends.”

“We?”

For a second Rhiannon thought Lydia might refuse to elaborate, but then she sighed and looked away. “Olfrid Battle-Born is my uncle.”

“Ah.” That explained her reaction earlier. “I’m sorry. That can’t be easy.”

“Nothing to be done about it now.”

Lydia kept her gaze trained on the wall, looking more uncomfortable by the second, and Rhiannon dropped the subject and drank the last of her wine. It was bitter, but it helped. “How did this all start?” she asked after a moment. “I mean, really start.”

“You don’t know?”

“Bits and pieces. Nobody at the College really talked about it.” It really had been like its own sphere of existence there, isolated from the rest of Skyrim as it was, and she’d liked that about it. Guilty as it made her feel now, she’d liked having a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

“Depends on who you ask,” Lydia said. “The Stormcloaks will tell you that it started with the White-Gold Concordat, and the outlaw of Talos worship. The Legion will tell you that it started because Ulfric slaughtered an unarmed boy-king in cold blood, in front of his wife and his court. And the poor folk will tell you that it doesn’t matter how it started, because they’re the ones who suffer the most either way.”

Rhiannon studied her for a moment, taking in the grim line of her mouth and eyes that had surely seen more than she ever cared to. “What do you think?”

“Won’t be much left to fight over if the world ends.”

“If only everyone saw it that way.”

“Speaking of which,” Lydia said, voice dropping to a whisper.

If Rhiannon had thought she looked out of place in the Huntsman, Hadvar was even more conspicuous with his Legionnaire kit and hulking build. More than one pair of eyes followed him as he made his way to her table. Internally, she groaned.

“Hello, Hadvar. I thought you were staying at the Mare?”

“I am. Been looking for you.” He motioned to the chair next to hers. “Can I sit?”

She wished she could outright refuse him. “Feel free. I was just finishing up lunch.”

Hadvar sat, and the look on his face knotted her stomach, tight as a noose.

“You know why I need to talk to you,” he said.

“Hadvar – “

“Please.” He raised his hand. “You don’t need to decide anything right this second. Just hear me out. That’s all I’m asking.”

“Not to ruin the moment,” Lydia said before Rhiannon could reply, “but it looks like your other suitor has arrived.”

“Lydia – “

“You’re a hard woman to keep track of, Dragonborn,” Vignar said from behind her. “Thought we could chat now that you’ve gone and made yourself ‘presentable’.”

Rhiannon wasn’t proud of what she did next, though perhaps she can be forgiven for doing it. She was numb and exhausted, desperate to escape to her room as soon as possible, and it was that desperation that pushed her to call on the power of her kinsmen – a power that lay dormant, but never far out of reach. Emperors, grand orators, cunning statesmen; silver-tongued thieves who could sell a fur coat to a Khajiit and bards who could weave entire worlds from thin air; artists and scoundrels, merchants and minstrels; she drew on all these and more, on the blood of countless ancestors pulsing hot through her veins, and when she spoke her voice lilted like a song, weaving a different kind of magic.

“Gentlemen. As much as I would love to sit here and listen to your verbal pissing contest – “ Lydia’s eyes widened, almost imperceptibly “ – I’m afraid I have something else I need to attend to. It’s very important, so I can’t speak with either of you right now. If you could come back later, I’d appreciate it.”

It wasn’t Illusion magic, but it was a kind of verbal illusion, a smokescreen of confidence and wit provided by the spirits speaking through her. They guided her hand into her pocket now, where she found a few spare septims, and slid them across the table to Hadvar. “Why don’t the two of you go have a drink at The Bannered Mare? It’s on me.”

“A drink,” Hadvar said, pocketing the coins in a daze. “Right. We’ll go have a drink at The Mare.”

“’Course we can.” Vignar smiled at her vacantly, eyes just a touch out of focus. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Rhiannon smiled. It was her ordinary smile, but she knew how it looked to them in that moment – all sweetness and light, the kind of smile that could turn a grown man inside out. “Thank you for being so understanding.”

The entire inn felt more relaxed as soon as they left, like the room had let out a collective breath. Rhiannon looked back at Lydia, who was staring at her like she was seeing her for the first time, and just like that, the feeling eased and she was alone in her skin again. She smiled awkwardly, and Lydia leaned in close, like she was afraid someone might hear them all of a sudden. “What the hell did you just do to them?”

“Ancestor's magic. You Nords can make any opponent fear you, Dunmer can cloak themselves in fire, and I… can make mortal enemies go for a drink together.” She twisted her hands together beneath the table. “It’ll wear off soon. They won’t remember how they got there, or why they’re sitting at the same table, sharing a drink, but they’ll leave me alone for a bit, and that’s all I want.”

She was never sure what to expect when Lydia looked at her with those steel-grey eyes, like she was seeing Rhiannon down to the bone. Judgment, maybe. But then she nodded and stood up, pushing her chair back. “I’m going to get a drink. Want anything?”

“Um… no. Thank you,” Rhiannon said, caught off-guard. “I think I’m going to get some sleep, actually. Deal with it tomorrow.”

That same appraising look, followed by a second nod. “Get some rest. You look like you need it.”

“I will. You’ll do the same, won’t you?”

“Yes, my Thane.”

The bed wasn’t much as far as beds go, but to Rhiannon, it was the most luxurious thing she’d encountered in weeks. She kicked off her boots, stripped off her robes, and crawled beneath the thin quilt that still smelled faintly of lye from its last wash. She thought she could stay there forever in that moment, and maybe she would, if that was what it took to get a moment’s peace.

The shutters weren’t enough to stop the sun from leaking into the room and into her eyes, so she pulled the quilt over her head, and breathed deep, one, two, three times. Sleep came to close her eyes with a deft hand, so swift she barely noticed it, and then she was gone, sucked into a darkness as deep and rich as the earth after the rain.

----------

At first, she didn’t know where she was. The room was dark, but moonbeams filtered through the window slits, painting silver stripes on the wall. One fell across a pair of pale eyes, making them glow, and she gasped, throat raw and dry as bone.

“It’s only me.” Lydia’s dark outline loomed over her.

She relaxed, but only just. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Something metal was placed in her hand – a cup, she realized as her fingers curled around it. “Drink this first.”

The water was lukewarm, but she drank like it was the freshest spring water to ever pass her lips. When it was gone, she cleared her throat, took stock of her situation as the previous day came back to her in bits and pieces: every inch of her body stiff and gnarled as an old tree, chapped lips, tangled hair and an aching back. “What time is it?”

“Near midnight.”

“Are you sure everything’s alright?”

“It is.” Lydia took the cup back, set it on the nightstand. “I have some information you might find interesting.”

“What kind of information?”

“Given the hour, Vignar is likely snoring in bed as we speak. As for your friend the Qaestor… well, I just came from the Bannered Mare, and judging from the looks he and Saadia were giving one another, I’d be surprised if he hadn’t found himself a bed for the night as well.”

She looked at Rhiannon expectantly, who blinked at her, still half-asleep. When no response was forthcoming, she sighed.

“I have two horses waiting at the stables. If you want to leave without being bothered, now’s the time to do it. We can be in Ivarstead before breakfast.”

“Oh!” Pause. “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

“I thought you’d pick up on what I was – never mind. Do you want to go or not?”

Rhiannon threw the covers back. Suddenly, she no longer ached. “Give me five minutes. I’ll meet you outside.”

Not long after, two figures and their horses galloped away from the stables, heading east. It was a beautiful night to ride, and the open sky yawned before them, the hills like black teeth in a star-studded maw. It swallowed them whole, and they were gone.

Chapter Text

Rhiannon --

Why didn't you tell me?

-- Rikke

 

Chapter Text

The Temple of Mara shone with the flame of a thousand candles, their combined light pouring through the stained-glass windows to pierce the oncoming darkness like a jeweled beacon. Riften was made of crumbling stone and rotting wood, a shanty town in greys and browns and somber blues, but the temple floated adrift in a sea of color. Even the cemetery was robed in purple and gold, ever since spring came bursting through the gloom to chase away the last remnants of winter.

“Welcome to the one beautiful place in Riften,” Lydia said. They stood at the bottom of the steps, the temple in front and the market at their backs. There was no one in the square at this time of night, save a pair of patrolling guards and the huddled silhouettes of beggars looking for a dry corner to sleep. Even most of the surrounding shops and homes were shuttered, no lantern burning outside their doors. Only the inn and the dock workers’ bunkhouse remained alive, doors and windows flung wide so that voices and laughter spilled all the way down to the waterfront. Someone was playing the lute, and birds chirped sleepily from the trees on the other side of the wall, settling in for the night.

“It reminds me of Bravil,” Rhiannon said absently, taking it all in. “That’s where the Great Chapel of Mara is in Cyrodiil.”

“Isn’t Bravil also a dockside shithole?”

“It is, more or less, but…” She shrugged. “Who needs Mara’s compassion more, a dockside hovel or the richest city in the province?”

“Fair point,” Lydia said. “Do you want me to come with you?”

“That’s alright. Here.” Rhiannon rummaged through her pockets until she found her coinpurse, and handed it over. “See if you can get us a room, please? And get yourself supper if you want. I might be a while.”

Lydia tucked the coinpurse away. “Yes, my Thane.”

“I told you, you don’t have to…” Rhiannon sighed. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Every temple was unique, shaped by the materials at hand and the vision of its architect, and Rhiannon found the differences fascinating. Most of the ones she’d seen were made of stone, but when she opened the door, she was greeted by the gleam of bright, polished wood. Everything from the support beams to the pews to the altar itself had been lovingly sanded and carved, then oiled until it shone like the sun. Candles flickered on the walls and surrounded the altar, wax dripping from the holders, and flowers bloomed on every surface. Their scent mingled thickly with the smoke from the braziers and the incense, leaving her dizzy.

She was the only one in the room, so she didn’t bother with the pews. She collapsed to her knees in front of the altar. Behind it, against the wall was the only bit of metal present – Mara’s statue, tall and serene, wearing a crown of wildflowers. It seemed to peer down at her now, bronze face sweetly blank. Waiting.

“Some aspiring priestess I am.” Her voice sounded reedy in the silence, almost hollow; too timid to even echo. She didn’t feel the immediate sense of peace she usually got from the temple, but that was to be expected. She’d had very little time for devotionals as of late. So little, in fact, that it felt odd to be in a proper temple again. Almost as odd as the first time she set foot in one all those years ago. “Not that it’s an excuse,” she added aloud. “I’m sorry I haven’t been praying every day. It’s just that, with everything going on… well, you already know. Obviously.” Her fingers twisted anxiously in her sleeves, a child anticipating a scolding. “I brought offerings.”

Mara was hardly the most difficult of the Divines to appease, but she also wasn’t the sort of goddess to accept a lazy handful of septims in the collection plate. Like most mothers, she possessed endless love and patience, accepting all of her children exactly as they were. But a mother’s love is not all sweetness and light, and Mara was no exception. She demanded meaning to offerings and sacrifices alike, and no material good or empty gesture would ever sate her. Rhiannon had brought a few things she liked – dried lilacs, pretty spiral shells from Solitude’s beach that looked like unicorn horns, a raven feather black as velvet and twice as soft – and she laid them on the altar now, chewing on her lip.

“Mara, I seek Your guidance, and Your wisdom,” she whispered. “Allow me to read from the book of Your love, so that I might gaze upon the coming dawn with new eyes.”

Please don’t be angry with me.

She waited for a while, but there was nothing forthcoming and the incense was making her eyes water, so she retreated to the pews, hands clasped and head bowed. The gods didn’t answer prayers on demand, if they answered at all, she reminded herself. She was there to serve Mara, not the other way around; if anything, she deserved a test of faith in exchange for her carelessness. She would be good, and patient and kind, and eventually forgiveness would be granted. She was but one of many unruly children, after all. It’ll be fine. She curled up in the pew. It’ll all be fine.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t had the chance to resume her daily ritual. They’d made good time to Ivarstead, but Rhiannon refused to hike back up to High Hrothgar without a full day’s rest on either side of the journey (you could have been doing your devotionals then, the voice in the back of her head hissed), and Lydia hadn’t been complaining about the break. They’d spent the next day or two recuperating at the inn, and when she was ready, they made the climb to High Hrothgar once more, to return the Horn. In return, they had formally proclaimed her Dragonborn.

Lingrah krosis saran strundu’ul,” they’d chanted over her as one in the main hall, once she’d learned the final word of Unrelenting Force. It was cold, it was always cold at High Hrothgar, but she was sweating, even as goosebumps rippled across her skin. “Voth nid balaan klov praan nau.”

One by one she’d tasted of their Voices, and Arngeir’s deep cadence rose above it all, until the rafters shook off their dust and the stone walls sang in response.

“You are Ysmir now, Dragon of the North. Hearken to it!”

An unseen weight settled on her brow, gone so swiftly she still wasn’t sure she’d imagined it, and just like that, she was the Dovahkiin. She had been before, she supposed, but it no longer felt like a dream.

“Skyrim’s affairs are her own to govern,” Arngeir had told her after the ceremony. “But we have recognized you as Dragonborn, and will do what we can to aid you in your quest.”

“Thank you.” She’d never seen eyes like his before, so pale as to be colorless. Like two flecks of ice. “I imagine I’ll need it.”

He gazed at her keenly, hands tucked into his sleeves. “Is something troubling you?”

She’d almost told him about the mask. It had been on the tip of her tongue, but something held her back. Mine, it had whispered in her ear, coiling around her shoulders. Ours. She had earned it, had she not? It wasn’t anyone’s to take, and they would try to take it from her, if it was as dangerous as she suspected. Even as the more rational part of her pointed out that she didn’t really want it to begin with, her lips were already shaping a different question.

“What does Krosis mean?”

“Sorrow,” Arngeir said. “It means sorrow.”

 

She didn’t want to keep Lydia waiting too long, but as soon as she left the temple, Rhiannon was confronted with two problems. The first was that she didn’t remember where the inn was. The second was her absent sense of direction. Still, Riften wasn’t very big, especially compared to home or a city like Solitude, and after taking a moment to orient herself, she padded down the steps and out into the night.

Even with lanterns lining the streets, all the buildings looked the same. Shadows splashed on the walls and dripped down pillars and sidings to pool in the cracks between the cobblestones, distorting the natural shape of things and obscuring the signposts on the corners. Wood creaked beneath her feet, unsteady, and further below still was the hollow sloshing of the canal, water lapping at the docks. She turned the corner, then stopped, looking to the dwellings on either side of her. Was the inn across the bridge, or had she gone too far? Or was there more than one bridge? She couldn’t remember, just that it was on the other side of the city from the temple. Think. Don’t panic. She was pretty sure she’d crossed more than one bridge. And if worst came to worst, she’d just find her way to the city gates and ask the guards for directions. Nothing to be concerned about.

“Are you really still scared of the dark?” Jak had asked once when she was ten, in disbelief upon discovering she still slept with the lantern burning.

“You know she’s scared of everything,” Zeno said, sounding bored. Out of all the things she hated, that was the one she hated most, how he talked about her like she wasn’t even there. “Come on, we’re late.”

“Late for what?” She looked between them, standing in the doorway with identical secretive smiles, a pair of sleek, smug cats up to no good. “Where are you going?”

“None of your business,” Jak said. The twins were fifteen, and thought themselves very grown-up.

“It’s not for kids,” Zeno added.

Rhiannon had clutched the bedclothes tight in her fists, jealousy and fear warring in her stomach until it hurt. “Is it dangerous?” She hated it when they did this, too; the two of them had their own private world that only occasionally intersected with Nirn, and she wasn’t allowed to cross the border. Still, the thought of them disappearing into the night and being lost forever was unbearable. “Did Mum say you could go?”

“Told you,” Jak muttered.

Zeno pointed at her warningly. “Stay there, and you better not say shit to Mum.”

Uncharacteristically bold, no doubt spurred on by childish wrath, Rhiannon had thrown the covers aside. “Or what?”

Rhiannon had hazel eyes, like her father. The rest of them had blue eyes like their mother, and Zeno the bluest of all; the more hateful he was, the more beautiful they became. They sparkled like Lake Rumare in the summer as he waved his hand, and the lantern shattered, plunging her bedroom into nothingness.

(She’d screamed bloody murder and woken half the household, which led to a whipping for the twins and a long lecture for her about how ten was far too old for such nonsense. In retaliation, Zeno had destroyed her little plot in the corner garden and blamed it on the stray dogs that roamed the city. She’d never told anyone.)

As she’d gotten older, Rhiannon had come to appreciate the charms darkness could hold. Nighttime in the summer was a particular favorite, full of birdsong and melancholy beauty. But in unfamiliar settings, that primal terror she once held came flooding back, and she was ten years old all over again, imagined horrors crowding around her unseen as they waited to pounce. There was nothing there, she told herself, even as her heartbeat pounded in her ears and she moved that much faster. No monsters lurked in the shadows. It was just her and the water rushing below and the soft tread of another set of footsteps behind her –

She froze.

Of course, as soon as she stopped walking, there was nothing. Unlit silhouettes loomed on either side of her, empty windows yawning wide. Had she imagined it? She’d been sure a second ago, but it could have been the wind, or tree branches tapping against glass panes. She glanced over her shoulder down a long, empty street, and took a few cautious steps forward. Still nothing. She allowed herself to relax slightly.

She was halfway down the alley when she picked up on the barely-there steps again, an echo of her own, but closer this time. Cold sweat prickled sharp across her skin, but she forced herself to keep her stride even, hands balled into fists at her sides. Don’t turn around gods don’t turn around whatever you do if you turn around you’ll actually see it and then it’ll be real –

The footsteps stopped. She broke into a run.

As it turned out, the time she’d spent trekking around Skyrim’s wilderness had been useful for something after all; Rhiannon didn’t think she’d ever moved so fast in her life. Puddles of what she hoped were water splashed underfoot as she pelted mindlessly down the street, soaking the hem of her robes. No direction, no destination, just pure terror driving her as far and as fast as she could go. She turned one corner, sprinted down the length of one alley and skidded, panting, around another, only to run smack-bang into something warm and solid. Hands seized her, and she screamed so loud she scared herself, limbs flailing wildly against her captor’s grip.

“Easy, lass! Easy now, I’m not going to hurt you.”

The edge of the light from the streetlamp caught the speaker, bisecting him into neat halves. Taller than her, though not so tall as some Nords, with long red hair washed out by the muted flame and his hands grasping her shoulders – keeping her at arm’s length, she realized now, and had probably kept them both from falling over when she plowed into him. He let go and took a step back, hands palm-out so she could see that they were empty. “You alright? Seemed like you were in quite a hurry.” A thick, rolling brogue colored his words.

“I am so sorry.” She ran her hands through her hair, willed herself to stop shaking. Her heart was still thumping like a frightened rabbit’s, urging her to flee. “I got lost trying to find the inn, and then I thought…”

But of course, there was nothing there. Just the two of them on the little side street she’d bolted down in her panic.

The man smiled and nodded, like this was a perfectly normal occurrence. “It’s alright. New to the city?”

“Just visiting for a bit. I’m supposed to be meeting my… my friend, but it all looks the same in the dark.”

“Aye, that it does. You get used to it after a while.” He extended his elbow, a courtly gesture that belied his shabby clothing. “I was actually on the way to the Bee and Barb myself. Care to accompany me?”

Rhiannon did hesitate at first, though not for long. He might have been a stranger, but he was nothing short of salvation at that moment, so little did she want to be alone. “Please. Mara bless you. I’ll never make it if I’m left to my own devices.” She took his arm, or tried; somehow she lost her balance and stumbled into him, and then he was righting her again, his hand at her waist so briefly she only felt it after the fact.

“Careful now. Come on, we’re not far.”

It wasn’t far at all, though it seemed longer thanks to the nerves still jangling in the back of her skull. She kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure the streets remained empty. If her nameless benefactor thought anything of it, he kept it to himself, and instead entertained her with charming, idle chatter. Little by little, she relaxed, and they were both laughing by the time they walked into the tavern. Half the city was there, or so it seemed, packed at the bar like the first catch of the day while their voices crowded against the ceiling. The Bee & Barb was made of the same polished wood as the temple, if not as well-maintained, with a clay fireplace for when it got cold in the winter and bundles of sweet herbs hanging from the rafters. The tables were jam-packed too, not a vacant seat in sight, and she looked for Lydia, but it was hard to focus on anything with the constant noise and movement.

“Sure your friend’s here, lass?” the man asked.

“She said she’d be here.” Rhiannon looked around again, just in time for a man in brocade and velvet to shove past, blocking her view. “At least, I thought she did – “

“Rhiannon!”

Lydia’s voice had never been more welcome. She was crammed into a seat at one of the corner tables, one hand extended to in a wave, and across from her was the biggest, blondest woman Rhiannon had ever seen, even more so than Rikke. She wore her hair braided in two plaits, blue warpaint streaked across one eye, and she was glaring in Rhiannon’s direction with alarming ferocity. At Rhiannon’s elbow, the man withdrew.

“That would be my cue, then.”

“Oh! Well… thank you again. That was very kind of you.”

“My pleasure.” He looked past her, and winked cheekily at the blonde woman. Her answering stare could have frozen several planes of Oblivion twice over. “Take care now.”

“Who was that?” Lydia asked when she squeezed through the crowd to join them, climbing into the rickety wooden chair they’d apparently saved for her. Rhiannon would have answered, but the stranger beat her to it.

“Brynjolf.” She had a thick, lowland accent, made thicker by disgust. Ice-blue eyes bored into Rhiannon, assessing. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“What? No! I got lost on my way here from the temple and he walked the rest of the way with me.” The bewilderment on her face must have been plain, because Lydia took the momentary silence to step in.

“My Thane, this is Mjoll, the Lioness of Riften. She was gracious enough to let me dine with her, since all the other tables are full.”

“Just call me Mjoll, please. No one’s called me the Lioness since I retired.” She stuck out her hand. After a second’s hesitation, Rhiannon took it. Mjoll’s palm was callused and warm, twice the size of her own. “My apologies for alarming you.”

“It’s alright.” Rhiannon glanced around the room. No sign of her escort. “What’s wrong with Brynjolf?”

Mjoll’s expression hardened, and she let go of Rhiannon’s hand. “He’s as crooked as the rest of this city. A scoundrel at best and a thief at worst. You’d do well to steer clear of him.”

“Oh.” Rhiannon had no idea how to respond. He hadn’t seemed like he was any of those things, but then again, she didn’t actually know him. Nor was she always the best judge of character. Wanting to see the best in everyone could have that effect. “I had no idea. He was a perfect gentleman.”

“Easier to get close that way,” Mjoll said darkly. “I’d make sure my coinpurse was still intact, if I were you.”

Rhiannon’s hand went to her waist automatically, but Lydia shook her head. “You gave it to me earlier, remember? It’s safe upstairs in the room.”

“Small mercies.” Mjoll raised her cup. “Welcome to Riften.”

----------

The woods that populated the Rift were preparing to explode into their full summer glory, and Celia inhaled deeply as she rode through the trees. The scents of pollen and fresh earth were familiar ones; they made her head swim with false nostalgia. That was the real danger of the woods, moreso than the hunters or beasts that roamed them. They made it far too easy to romanticize the past.

She nudged her horse left at the dead white oak, splintered in two by lightning years ago, and took the trail through the pines to the grove west of the city. It was a quiet spot, secluded, with mossy oaks and silvery birches surrounding a shallow pond, and there her contact waited, dipping his feet in the water.

“What’s the good word?” she asked, sliding off her mount.

Lidriel made a non-committal noise, face upturned to catch the sun. A curious abacean nibbled at his toes, then darted away. “Always business, business, business with you. Do you ever slow down?”

“Don’t be daft.” She joined him at the water’s edge. One of his long coppery ears twitched, catlike. He had no facial tattoos or tail, and he’d long abandoned the tell-tale speech patterns of his kin, but his ears still gave him away. Most wouldn’t notice, but Celia believed in examining the details. That was where people hid their secrets, whether they knew it or not. 

He glanced sideways at her. “No rest for the wicked?”

“You seem pretty well-rested to me.”

Lidriel laughed, eyeteeth flashing. His braids shifted and fell over his shoulder, decorated with mountain flowers and plump orange dragon’s tongue. A hawk feather on a fishhook dangled from one earlobe. “I suppose I do have one piece of information for you.”

“Just the one?”

“By my estimation, that is one more than you have.”

“Fuck off.” She knocked his elbow with hers, trying not to smile.

Lidriel made a show of examining his nails, sculpted and polished to a gleam. Celia had met a lot of vain creatures in her day, but he was in a class all his own. “One of my sources tells me that a man matching the description you gave was spotted in Windhelm last week.” He had a pleasant voice, raspy and lilting, lighter than the brush of a moth’s wing. Most took him for female upon first meeting, but not Celia. She knew better. “No doubt he has since moved on, but a Nord in Windhelm draws eyes when he chooses the Cornerclub over Candlehearth.”

Tits.” She looked skyward. Rikke wasn’t going to be happy. But aside from that, her own curiosity had grown to a fever pitch, inflamed anew by each sighting. Who was this mysterious escapee? And more importantly, what did he know? “Well, thanks anyway. I’ll pass it along.” She’d take a jaunt up to the Grey Quarter and ask around before she sent word back to Solitude. There had to be something she was missing.

Lidriel blinked at her, pupils thin slits in the sunlight. “What is so important about this man?”

“Wish I knew.” She drew a scrap of parchment from her boot and pressed it into his waiting hand. “A friend in Falkreath is looking for a good fence to move some product. Here’s the details.”

“Many thanks.” He tucked it away, and flicked one of his braids over his shoulder with a flourish. “I will keep an ear out, in case I hear more about your errant Nord.”

“Appreciate it.” She got to her feet, clapped him on the shoulder. “Take care.”

“Shadows guide you.”

She bit back the retort hovering on her tongue. It wasn’t his fault the shadows hadn’t done shit for her.

Afternoon found the sky a pale, cloudless blue filled with birds winging their way over the city, and Celia rode by Lake Honrich for a while, her horse’s hooves squelching in the muck. She was bone-deep restless, the surefire sign of summer settling in. Dragon Bridge had her bored to tears, but she had no desire to move back to the city, either. Each new place was like ill-fitting trousers, or a dress that was just a little too tight, and she inevitably ended up stripping it off and moving on. Not that this was anything new. There’d only ever been one place she felt like she truly belonged, and that had crumbled around her ears after Gallus died.

Was murdered, you mean.

She shook her head. This was, at its heart, why she’d left Riften – too many ghosts. She couldn’t turn the corner without tripping over one.

But there were still things worth coming back for now and again, and she left her horse to drink by the lake and veered off the path, heading east. Riften’s abandoned gatehouse sat locked and overgrown on the side of the wall, watchpost at the top looking out over the woods. It had been phased out in favor of the staggered watchtowers that had been erected over the past decade. Even though she wasn’t up to anything untoward, Celia never entered a city through the main gates. Old habits died hard. Some harder than others.

It was a simple matter of clearing the ivy and picking the lock, and then she was through, climbing the stone steps that led to the top of the city wall. They’d made a game of it when they were younger, her and the rest – see who could scale the walls the fastest and make it to the gatehouse before Grelod or one of the guards caught them.

Ah, Grelod the Kind. She flexed her hands as she strolled along the top of the wall, towards the ornately tiled roof of Black Briar Manor. If she died twenty years ago it still wouldn’t have been soon enough. No doubt the old bat was terrorizing a new crop of children to this very day.

The manor made for the perfect intermediary between the wall and the ground, just as she remembered. She dug her fingers into the cracks between the stones, counted to three in her head, and swung herself down to land on the roof. She didn’t worry about making noise; nobody was ever there during the day. From there, it was child’s play to shimmy down the trellis and let herself out of the yard. Unnecessary, maybe, but she never passed up a chance to thumb her nose at the Black Briars.

No one had noticed her descent, thankfully, and she whistled as she joined the crowd milling about the square, hands stuffed in her pockets to resist temptation. She wasn’t here to rob anyone, no matter what her itchy fingers thought. She hadn’t been a proper thief since Rikke found her rotting in a Dawnstar prison cell fifteen years ago. But, try as she might, the urge never really went away. Let her guard down even for a second, and her hands start dipping into pockets and fiddling with locks of their own accord. Better not to risk it.

The forge was lit and burning merrily beneath the awning of The Scorched Hammer, but neither Balimund nor Asbjorn were anywhere to be seen. Lunchtime, then. When she cracked open the front door of the shop, the scent of something rich and savory tickled her nose, and her stomach grumbled hopefully. “Anyone home?”

“Celia.” Balimund rose from his spot next to the hearth, a smile wreathing his broad, bearded face. The cooking pot bubbled over a low fire. “I didn’t know you were in town.”

“I’m not, really. Just passing through and thought I’d say hello.” She let him pull her into a hug. She tolerated physical contact from very few people, but she trusted Balimund; he’d had plenty of chances to hurt her, and never taken a single one. He was also the only person who made her feel delicate just by virtue of standing next to her, which was a novelty that had yet to lose its luster. “Where’s Asbjorn?”

“Out at Shor’s Stone for the week. Filnjar’s needed an extra pair of hands since production out there doubled, and he could use the experience.” He gave her waist a squeeze before stepping away. “You want lunch? I’m no good at cooking for one anymore.”

“Absolutely.” Celia flopped into the nearest chair. “Have you ever known me to pass up a free meal?”

“Suppose not.” He settled back in his seat. “How’s life treating you?”

“Like a right cunt.”

Balimund had a deep, booming laugh, and lines at the corners of his eyes from using it often. “That good, eh?”

“The best. How are things on your end?”

“Can’t complain, even if the locals do.” He took the ladle off its hook. “War’s good for business. Bad for everything else.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said lightly, and he looked at her. “You can always complain. Gods know I do.”

He shook his head, smiling, and passed her a bowl of stew. It bubbled and spat, still hot from the fire. “As long as you don’t complain about my cooking.”

“Oh, come on. You can’t think I’m that stupid.”

His smile lingered, and so did his hand, cupping hers. A familiar flutter stirred in the pit of her stomach. “Well, since you’re here, why don’t you stay for dinner too? It’s been too long.”

“I shouldn’t,” she said, but made no move to pull away.

“Dinner and dessert?” he offered teasingly.

“Well… I suppose it has been a while.” She let her fingers brush his palm before pulling away. “If you’re sure.”

“I told you.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’m no good at cooking for one.”

----------

The day was beautiful, it was true, but Rhiannon was in no mood to appreciate it. She wandered the market looking for nothing in particular, and the crumpled letter in her pocket weighed on her so heavily that it might as well have been engraved in steel.

She’d woken up early to go to the temple and perform her devotionals, careful not to disturb Lydia as she crept out of the room. She’d done them twice and prayed until her knees ached – prayed so long and hard she’d missed breakfast – but nothing came of it. Mara’s aspect remained unaffected, devoid of the comforting presence she’d grown used to, and she’d finally given up and returned to the Bee & Barb, only to find Rikke’s letter waiting on the bed. She kept reaching into her pocket and running her thumb along the seam, like a child poking its tongue into the socket of a missing tooth.

Why didn’t you tell me?

The question hovered insistently as she browsed Madesi’s wares without really seeing them. The truth was that she almost had, more than once, only to back down at the last second. She liked her exchanges with Rikke the way they were – the easy give-and-take, the warm feeling she got whenever she received a new letter, the slow process of learning each other piece by piece. Was it really so bad that she didn’t want things to change? She looked forward to Rikke’s responses every time, the other woman never far from her thoughts. She’d even considered returning to Solitude for a few days, against her better judgement. Rikke was the most fascinating person she’d ever met. And now it was ruined. Her hand tightened around the ring she was holding, the edges digging into her palm. She forced herself to set it down and move on.

It wasn’t hard to figure out how Rikke had discovered that she was the Dragonborn, and her lingering resentment towards Hadvar solidified. Maybe it wasn’t fair to be upset with him, since she hadn’t explicitly asked him not to say anything. No doubt he was just following orders. It didn’t make her less upset. It also didn’t help her figure out what she was going to say to Rikke. She was still stewing on it when she got back to the Bee & Barb, only to find Lydia fully armored.

“Is something going on?”

“No, just heading out for a while. Mjoll invited me to go hunting.” She was tying her hair back, but when she caught Rhiannon’s eye in the looking glass, her hands stilled. “Everything alright?”

There was no need to drag Lydia down with her. Rhiannon perched on the edge of the bed, folding her knees to her chest. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You seemed upset this morning when you came back from the temple.”

She would pick now to start caring about my emotional well-being. “I’m sure.” She watched Lydia test the edge of her blade, and tried to steer the conversation to calmer waters. “So, you and Mjoll really hit it off.”

“She’s good company. Plenty of stories from her adventuring days.” Lydia sheathed her sword. “I’ll be back before dark.”

Rhiannon found herself wishing Lydia wouldn’t go. She didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts right then. “Do you like her?”

It was, of course, the wrong thing to say. Lydia’s shoulders went up around her ears. “What do you mean, do I like her?”

“Nothing,” Rhiannon said hastily, taken aback. “Nothing, I was just – “

“If you don’t need anything from me,” Lydia said, voice icy, “then I’m going to head out. I’m running late.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it – ”

But Lydia was already out the door. It shut behind her with a hollow bang. Rhiannon sighed and fell back against the mattress, head cradled on the pillow and arms spread wide.

“I was just making conversation,” she said to the ceiling.

 

Sunlight and shadow came through the window as the day grew long, and Rhiannon stayed where she was, watching stripes of lemon and dapple-grey frolic across her skin. Her thoughts were a mess, sloshing over the sides like water from an overfull bucket; she was uncomfortably aware of her own existence, and her surroundings, yet they seemed utterly alien at the same time. How had she ended up here? And when had it all gone so wrong?

A memory bobbled to the surface – Rikke on that last night in Solitude, listening to her with genuine interest, blonde hair frosted silver in the moonlight. She closed her eyes, chest aching in a way that was both pleasant and not. That was where it had really started, when she thought about it. She’d never felt that way about another person before, the way others seemed to without a second thought. But something had happened in Solitude. A seed had taken root, and was now blooming into something entirely new, her head filled with confusing feelings she’d had no time to examine further. She’d only meant to thank the woman who saved her, not realize how brilliant someone could look with Masser and Secunda full and glorious overhead. How beautiful someone could be when the light hit them just right.

She groaned and rolled over, burying her face in the pillow. Her stomach was crammed with butterflies, wings brushing her innards as they fluttered helplessly. Even just thinking about seeing Rikke in person again filled her with peculiar, contradictory things – fearful anticipation, sweet dread. And awful as it was, she couldn’t help but wonder if Rikke had ever lain in bed thinking of her, which made the butterflies riot all over again.

Too bad she probably hates you now.

If you just explain, I’m sure she’ll understand, the more rational part of her soothed, but the thought persisted, hanging gloomily over her head. Like her own personal thundercloud, growing bigger by the hour until it took up the whole room, threatening to drown her with the impending rain.

----------

It never failed.

(If Rhiannon’s mood was a thunderhead, Lydia’s was a drizzle, grey and annoyed and constant.)

This was why she didn’t like getting close to people. Why couldn’t friendship ever be enough? She would have given anything to enjoy the company of others without the assumptions and expectations that followed, inevitable as the changing of the seasons or the phases of the moons. Nobody knew how to mind their own business.

Guilt prodded at her. She shouldn’t have snapped at her Thane, she knew – it wasn’t Rhiannon’s fault that she’d reached her breaking point long ago. But there was nothing to be done about it now. A stray pine branch tickled her cheek, and she snapped it off and tossed it away. A few paces to her left, Mjoll cocked her head.

“Everything alright?”

“I’m fine.” Lydia brushed an errant strand of hair from her forehead. “Let’s keep moving. Those elk tracks lead right over the hill.”

Mjoll grinned. “Lead the way.”

----------

Long after night had fallen, after Lydia had gone to sleep and the last of the drunks had stumbled out of the tavern in search of a warm body and a soft bed, Rhiannon sat at the desk, candle burning, and tried to write Rikke a letter. But the words refused to come out right, no matter how many times she blotted and crossed out and rewrote her sentences; they were flimsy and clunky, and there was no way Rikke wouldn’t see through them. Soon the floor around her chair was littered with crumpled balls of parchment. With each discarded attempt, the buzzing in her head grew from a whisper to a dull roar, until she couldn’t hear anything but blank white noise.

Why can’t you do anything right?

She picked up another sheet of parchment and tried to smooth it out, but her hands shook and the corner tore clean off, edges jagged. She crumpled it up, clenching her jaw until it ached. Her fingers left smears of ink on the page.

Why are you so useless?

The last thing she wanted to do was wake Lydia by crying, or something else despicably weak and predictable. But it had been her last sheet of blank paper, with no opportunity to get more until the market opened the following morning, and the best she’d been able to come up with was 'because I was afraid it would change the way you talk to me'.

Selfish, gods, you’re so selfish, no wonder Mara doesn’t want anything to do with you –

A muffled sob caught in the back of her throat. Lydia didn’t stir, her breathing even. Rhiannon’s head pounded, fingers cramping so badly she could no longer hold her quill. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish.

She stood, fast enough to make the chair screech against the floorboards. There was no more air in the room; each struggling breath was a knife to her lungs. She heard Lydia mumble sleepily, bed creaking as she rolled over, but the door slamming shut drowned out anything she might have said.

The temple was the easiest place to find in Riften, lit up and twinkling incandescent with its front doors open, like welcoming arms thrown wide. The tears welled up, but they didn’t fall until Rhiannon collapsed at the feet of the statue. Then they all came at once.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped, teardrops splattering Mara’s feet. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry – “ And then her voice was lost to the flood and she cried harder still. It felt like every ounce of fluid in her body was trying to escape while it still could. She wept so loudly that she didn’t hear the approaching footfalls until they were nearly on top of her.

“Oh my goodness!” a soft voice exclaimed, and Rhiannon caught a watery glimpse of burnt orange robes hemmed in gold. “Are you alright?”

In Rhiannon’s estimation, the only thing worse than crying was someone catching you at it, with all your shortcomings on display. But despite her best efforts, she couldn’t seem to stop. You deserve this. You’re already falling apart. Her sleeves were soaked. The priestess knelt down next to her, though not without some difficulty. She was heavily pregnant, belly swollen too big for her slender frame, and her gray hand was warm where it touched Rhiannon’s cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t feel her!” It came out garbled, edging towards frantic. “I can always feel her, but lately I can’t!” Rhiannon tried to catch her breath, and failed. “W-why – “ She took a deep, shuddering breath, tried again. “Why can’t I f-feel her?”

“Dear girl,” the priestess said, and the compassion in her voice was such that it dried up some of the tears on its own. “Mara loves you, just as she loves all of us. She wants to love you, but it’s hard to feel through everything you’re carrying.” She offered Rhiannon a handkerchief to blot her face. “You have to let her back in.”

“But how?” Rhiannon scrubbed at her eyes. “I’ve been trying, and nothing works.”

The priestess had a kind smile. It lit up her narrow face and made her red eyes glow. “Learning to forgive yourself would be a start.”

Rhiannon stared at her, mouth agape, but before she could elaborate, a voice called out from the hall, thick with interrupted sleep. “Dinya? Is everything alright?”

“Out here, love,” Dinya called back, a comforting hand on Rhiannon’s arm. The man that shuffled into view was bare-chested and barefoot, with an identical set of robes loosely belted around his waist. His skin and proudly arched nose spoke of the deserts of Hammerfell, his dark hair flyaway with sleep. He was mid-yawn, but as soon as he saw Rhiannon, he froze. She looked away, knowing what he must have seen – a disheveled, damp mess, red-nosed and swollen. Dinya looked between them, a concerned wrinkle appearing between her brows. “Maramal?”

He took a few uncertain steps forward, until he was standing next to Dinya, and without warning, fell to his knees. The impact made both women jump. He looked to the statue, then back to Rhiannon, dark eyes alight with fervor.

“Thank the Mother Mild,” he whispered, clasping Dinya’s hand in his own. “We’re saved.”

Chapter Text

“Sure you won’t marry me?” Balimund groaned, hands fisted tight in the sheets. Strands of blond hair clung to his forehead and cheeks, dark with sweat. Celia stopped what she was doing long enough to give him an exasperated glare.

“For the last time, you cannot ask me things like that while your cock is in my mouth.”

He didn’t look sorry at all, the bastard. Just scratched the thick tangle of hair on his chest and smiled like he wasn’t naked and hard inches from her face. “I wouldn’t, but it’s the only time you quit talking long enough for me to ask.”

She resisted the urge to punch him. “Two things.”

“Two things,” he agreed.

“One, fuck you.”

“Duly noted.”

“And two, that thing I do with my tongue is not a good enough reason to marry someone.”

His smile faded around the edges, and she sat back on her heels, nails digging into her palms. They’d been having a good time, everything had been fine a minute ago, and now she wanted to wring his neck for ruining a perfectly good morning fuck. He touched her thigh. “You know that’s not the reason.”

“Balimund…” Bloody hell, he was going soft. This wasn’t how she pictured this going when she’d woken up to his hand between her thighs not even an hour earlier. “Look, you know that if I was going to marry anyone, it’d be you, right?” They’d had variations on this conversation before – some during sex, other times fully clothed but no less inconvenient – and while he’d accepted that she wasn’t planning on settling down with anyone, it didn’t stop him from asking her jokingly during the worst times. She didn’t like it, but at least he expected her to say no by now.

He perked up a bit. At least, part of him did. The rest remained skeptical. “You don’t need to say that just to make me feel better.”

“I’m not,” she assured him. “Who else would put up with me?”

He laughed, but she could tell he wasn’t fully convinced. “Look, I know I like bringing it up every now and again to mess with you, but I’ll stop for good this time, if you want.” She tried to look away, but he cupped her cheek and brought her face back to his. “I can live with this the way it is. I can. But don’t make light of what I feel for you. That’s all I ask.”

“Fine, just… it’s not about you, alright?” Gods knew she’d thought about it. She wanted to want that with him, or had at one point. Getting married, adopting a couple of kids and settling down into domestic bliss… it could have been nice, if the very idea didn’t give her hives. She even liked Asbjorn - he was around the age their child might have been, if they’d been able and willing to have children of their own. But that wasn’t a road she wanted to travel down right then, and Balimund was relenting. “Alright?”

“Alright.”

“We okay?”

He nudged her affectionally with his bare knee. “Always.”

“Good.” She tilted her head, letting her hair trail across his thighs the way she knew he liked, and ran a teasing finger along the underside of his cock. Cheating, maybe, but she’d never been in the business of playing fair. “Sure you don’t still need help with that?”

He was, in fact, still in need of assistance, which resulted in quite a lot of noise and him being nearly an hour late to open shop. It was a good thing Asbjorn hadn’t been there after all, Celia pointed out while he was yanking on his pants. She helped herself to a cold breakfast of smoked fish and bread while he warmed the forge, watching the market district slowly come to life through the window. It was a cool, clear day, good for travel. By the time he came back inside, she was dressed and pulling on her boots at the table, hair pinned back and knife strapped to her thigh.

“Leaving already?”

“I should have left yesterday. I need to get to Windhelm.” He didn’t press her for details, and she was grateful for it. He’d learned long ago that it was better not to ask what she was up to unless he was prepared for the answer. She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. He already smelled smoky, a faint metallic tang clinging to his beard. “Thanks.”

“Celia,” he said, and the way he was looking at her made her stomach turn, but then he exhaled and smiled wryly, tucking his hands in his apron pockets. “We could’ve been really good together, huh?”

“In another life, yeah.” She patted his arm. “We could have.”

“Can’t blame a man for trying.” He kissed the top of her head. “Safe travels. Don’t be a stranger.”

There it was again – that uneven sensation of wanting to want, and feeling off-kilter at its absence. But then she hugged him tightly, and it went away. She’d made her choices. This was enough.

----------

Saadia had the most beautiful skin, a deep reddish-brown with undertones of gold where sunlight kissed the curve of her bare hip, and Hadvar wondered yet again how he’d been lucky enough to end up in her bed (let alone more than once). He’d never been what anyone would call handsome, especially when compared to someone like Ralof or Sven. He did alright despite it, but a man that looked like him didn’t wind up in bed with a woman who looked like Saadia without thanking his lucky stars. His lips brushed her cheek, and she made a throaty, half-awake noise, eyes fluttering to meet his.

“Fancy seeing you here.”

He shifted closer, draping his arm over her waist. “Fancy that.”

“What time is it?”

“Just after sunrise.”

She yawned into her fist. “I should probably get up before Ysolda comes looking for me.”

But she didn’t seem to be in a hurry, and neither was he; to leave the safe haven of her bed would be to face the problems that waited patiently for them in the cold light of day, and neither of them were looking forward to the occasion. He buried his face in the spot where her neck met her shoulder. “I thought she was better than Hulda?”

“Oh, she is. Still a bossy little thing, though.”

"Mm."

He nuzzled the soft skin there, and she tolerated it for a few moments longer before pushing his hands away. He rolled over even though he didn’t want to let her go. The hours he spent with other human beings were pure bliss on the rare occasion he found them, grounding himself through skin and touch and tangled limbs. He just wished it was enough. It never felt like enough. He wanted more than just the occasional night with Saadia, but when the day came, she held him at arm’s length. Not that he begrudged her for it. They all had their reasons, and their secrets. He propped himself up on the pillows and watched her dress, her movements smooth and efficient. In some ways, he liked this better than the sex – the little glimpses of people at their most mundane, their private rituals and habits laid bare. It made him feel less empty, if only for a moment.

Saadia tied her apron around her waist with a neat flourish, and smoothed her hair away from her face. “I’ll distract her while you see yourself out. Not that I mind anyone knowing,” she added as an afterthought, “but Ysolda complains if we sleep with the patrons. Says she’s running an inn, not a brothel.”

“I should probably be going anyway.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, sheets rumpling, and she stood in the sunbeams streaming through the window and favored him with a quick, dazzling smile.

“Come back soon.”

 

He had nowhere to go, so after a visit to the barber at the bathhouse and picking up his newly-repaired kit from Warmaiden’s, Hadvar wandered up to the temple to sit beneath the Gildergreen. It had grown quickly in the two years since its renewal, tall enough now that soft pink petals rained down on his head with each passing breeze.

Rhiannon had screwed his plans to Oblivion, and as much as it irritated him, he couldn’t help being a little impressed that she’d had the guts to do it. Whatever the Legate saw in her – and she did see something besides the Dragonborn, he was sure of it – he’d gotten a glimpse of it that night for himself. He would have been more impressed if she hadn’t immediately fucked off to gods knew where and left him to contemplate what the Legate might do to him if he came back to Solitude without her.

The only lead he had was the stable-hand, who’d been woken up in the middle of the night to tack two horses for a woman matching Lydia’s description. She’d come back not long after with Rhiannon (“Imperial, plump, lots of freckles,” the boy had said, so Hadvar was certain it was her). They’d ridden east, and that was the last anyone had seen of them. If Rikke knew he’d been dawdling around in Whiterun for the last week instead of actively searching for the Dragonborn, she’d have his balls on a platter, but there were several places Rhiannon could have gone, and he didn’t fancy venturing into Stormcloak territory just so she could bewitch him a second time and give him the slip.

Not that he had much of a choice.

He dragged a hand down his face and exhaled. Orders were orders, and he’d put it off long enough. His gaze drifted up over the Wind District to the steep, foreboding steps of Dragonsreach. A moment’s deliberation, and he stood, petals scattering around his feet. He’d go. But he wasn’t going unprepared.

----------

It was well into the morning before Rhiannon returned to the inn, red-eyed and drooping with exhaustion. Lydia was pacing the length of the room, floorboards creaking, but as soon as the door opened and she caught sight of Rhiannon, she came to a halt. "You're back." The look on her face was one of pure relief, which was unexpected, but welcome. "I was starting to think something had happened.”

“Oh, it did. But not to me.” Rhiannon sank into the chair next to the desk with a wince. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t really want to talk about it.” The prospect of having to explain the whole thing right then was more than her exhausted mind could handle. “Maybe later, if that’s alright.”

Lydia nodded, but still she hesitated, like she was debating whether or not she should say anything. Rhiannon closed her eyes and waited. She heard Lydia clear her throat.

“I... I wanted to apologize.”

That was enough to snap her eyes right back open. “You do?”

“For yesterday. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”

“It’s alright,” Rhiannon hastened to assure her. “I shouldn’t assume.”

“It’s not that. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with liking women, it’s just that I don’t. Not like that.”

“Oh. So, you like m – “

No.” Lydia took a deep breath like she was preparing to deliver some horrible news, eyes fixed on the wall somewhere behind Rhiannon’s shoulder. “I don’t like anyone that way. Ever.”

“Oh!” Rhiannon nearly laughed, but thought better of it at the last second. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” Lydia opened her mouth, then closed it, a strange look on her face. Rhiannon frowned. “Are you alright?”

“I just… wasn’t expecting that.” She gestured vaguely in Rhiannon’s direction. “What with you worshipping Mara and all.”

“Mara is the goddess of love, not romance. And it’s none of my business what you do. Or don’t do, I suppose.” She yawned and tried to smother it, unsuccessfully, with her sleeve. “I think I’m going to lay down for a while.”

“Okay,” Lydia said, still looking dazed.

 

Sleep came more easily than expected, given how the previous night’s events had played out, and Rhiannon dozed until late afternoon, when the sun had traveled through the sky and poured in through the window like melted better. She was groggy, but no longer felt like a walking corpse. Lydia was gone, and probably had been for some time. A cup of water sat on the dresser next to a plate of sliced apple, bread, and cheese, and she ate, touched by the unexpected consideration. Maybe they were finally beginning to understand one another after all. The thought made her smile. Several hours earlier, though, the state of her relationship with Lydia had been the last thing on her mind.

 

“Don’t you see?” Maramal’s expression had frightened her, so intense were his eyes. Like he was looking at a hero, not a sniveling wreck of a girl. “This is a sign!”

“Oh, Maramal,” Dinya sighed. “Not this again.”

“This isn’t nothing, Dinya. Mara granted me a vision that the Dragonborn would visit the temple in three days’ time, and here she is.”

“Wait, please.” Rhiannon looked between them, hands palm out and placating. “I’m not – I mean, I am the Dragonborn, yes, but I’m here as one of Her faithful, to make amends. That’s all.”

“Oh, child, there’s no need for that. You’re already doing Her work.”

This gave her pause for an entirely different reason. “I am?”

Maramal nodded. “The return of the dragons is no mere coincidence. Mara is displeased with the corruption that leeches Skyrim of her spirit, and nowhere moreso than Riften. And now it turns out that the Dragonborn is one of Hers? It’s more than I could have hoped for.”

“You think Mara is behind the return of the dragons?” Normally she wouldn’t have dreamed of contradicting a priest, but his theory seemed a far cry from what the Greybeards had said. “But… the dragons aren’t just out there attacking sinners. The innocent are dying, too.”

“Few are innocent in times like these,” Maramal said, and beneath the scorn, there was genuine sorrow in his voice. Dinya cleared her throat diplomatically, hands folded over her belly.

“It’s possible that there’s some connection. In many of the old texts, Mara is the wife of Akatosh. But – “ and here she glanced at Maramal " – the machinations of the Divine aren’t ours to know. All we can do is keep the faith and spread Her warmth to those willing to accept it.”

To his credit, Maramal appeared chastened at the gentle rebuke, some of the fervor in his eyes fading as he placed one of his hands over her own. The twin rings on their fingers glittered in the candlelight. “You’re right, of course. You’re always right. I just can’t stand idly by while this city suffers and rots from the inside out.” He looked at Rhiannon. “You can sense it, can’t you? How Riften cries out for Mara’s love?”

In truth, Rhiannon had been too preoccupied with getting back into Mara’s good graces to notice much of anything. A hot prickle of shame suffused her. That was exactly what she should have been paying attention to, instead of turning inward. She was halfway through stammering out some excuse when the front doors of the temple flew open, and a Dunmer and a Nord came stumbling inside, dragging an unconscious Argonian between them.

Maramal was up in a flash, helping Dinya to her feet. “Tythis? Svana? What’s going on?”

“Wujeeta,” Svana panted, flushed with exertion; she staggered as the Argonian slumped against her side. “She said she was just tired, but something wasn’t right – “

“She’s a skooma addict,” Tythis said flatly. Wujeeta’s head lolled on her chest, tunic soaked with bile and inner lids turning her eyes milky white. Her scales had a sallow tint to them. “She overdosed. Could be on purpose, could be an accident. Doesn’t make much of a difference either way.”

Dinya’s hand flew to her mouth. “There’s a spare cot in the back. I’ll wake Briehl.”

“I can help,” Rhiannon offered. She didn’t want to get in the way if she wasn’t needed, but as soon as Maramal took in the carved clasp and pattern of her robes, he beckoned her to follow. Between the four of them, they wrestled Wujeeta’s limp form onto the cot, and Dinya came waddling back a couple of minutes later, a yawning acolyte in tow. She and Rhiannon pulled up stools on either side of the cot, Maramal and Briehl crowding in next to them. Svana and Tythis hovered nearby, making the tiny room feel even more cramped.

“What if she dies?” Svana asked, verging on shrill. “What if it’s too late?” Tythis tried to put an arm around her, but she elbowed him in the ribs, and he withdrew, wincing.

“It’s not too late,” Dinya said. “Not as long as she’s still breathing.” She motioned for Briehl to hand her the mortar and pestle from the shelf, and looked back at Rhiannon. “Have you treated a skooma overdose before?”

Rhiannon nodded, rolling up her sleeves. “No shortage of those in the Imperial City.”

“Good. This will go faster. Maramal, love, pass me that bucket – yes, thank you, and now the other one. The one by your foot too, Briehl.”

“How many buckets are you going to need?” Tythis asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Several.” Dinya slid one beneath the cot, where Wujeeta’s snout hung over the edge. “Now please, stand back. This could get nasty.”

It could, and it had; both Tythis and Svana had left in a hurry once Dinya reassured them that Wujeeta was in good hands. Thankfully, Wujeeta was made of sterner stuff than many of the human addicts Rhiannon had seen, and the treatment took (though not without a few close calls).

When the worst of the storm had blown over, she’d volunteered to keep an eye on their patient so Dinya could get some rest, and there she’d stayed until morning, alternately changing the wet cloth on Wujeeta’s scales and praying. When Wujeeta had finally awoken, delirious and sore but alive, some of the fog around Rhiannon’s heart had begun to lift. Dinya had insisted that Wujeeta stay at the temple for at least another day or two while she recovered, and sent Rhiannon away to get some sleep. Which brought her to now. She squashed the remaining apple slices and cheese between the last two pieces of bread and devoured it, ignoring the crumbs that scattered across the quilt. She’d shake it out later. Prolonged healing always left her ravenous.

She’d tried gently to offer counsel, before she left, but Wujeeta had wanted nothing to do with it, waves of shame so thick they were almost tangible rolling off of her. Skooma addict, Tythis had called her, like it was business as usual. Rhiannon was willing to be that she wasn’t the only one, either. Not in a place like Riften.

----------

The head of Mjoll’s arrow buried itself deep in the trunk of a nearby oak, shaft quivering, and a flock of thrush burst from its branches. Lydia’s answering shot plucked the nearest bird from the sky, and the rest scattered in all directions, trilling in alarm. It toppled to the ground a few yards away, wings flopping uselessly, and at her side, Mjoll clapped her on the shoulder.

“Say what you like, but I’m glad your Thane dragged you here.”

“It’s growing on me.”

“It’s a shithole.” Mjoll yanked her arrow free from the bark. “But it’s good to have someone to hunt with again. Aerin’s leg won’t be fully mended for another week at least. Probably longer, but trying to get him to stay put is damn near impossible.”

Lydia followed her through the brush, curiosity itching at her. She wasn’t normally the sort to pry, but the more she learned, the more Mjoll intrigued her. “If it’s such a shithole, then why do you stay?”

Mjoll didn’t answer right away. She found the thrush and removed the arrow deftly, handing it back to Lydia. “I’ve been adventuring for a long time. Gone everywhere from High Rock to Morrowind and back again."

“And you chose Riften?”

Mjoll made a noise that could have been a laugh. “Riften chose me. When I lost my blade and Aerin found me, I took it as a sign that I was meant for something else.”

“How long ago was that?”

Lydia realized how it sounded the second it left her mouth, but it was too late to take it back. Mjoll didn’t appear to take offense, but her shoulders slumped, almost imperceptibly. “Six years.” She clipped the thrush to her belt by its feet. “I admit, I was naïve when I first came here. Overly ambitious, really. I wasn’t prepared for how deep the corruption truly runs.”

Lydia nodded. “Never spent any real time here, but I’ve heard plenty of rumors.” Who hadn’t? Maven Black-Briar was more reputation than human at this point. There was no proof that she was behind the demise of Honningbrew Meadery – there was never any proof – but no one had been surprised when the Mare and the Huntsman had started serving Black-Briar mead exclusively a month later. “Seems like a lot to take on by yourself.”

Mjoll’s chuckle was a weary one. “You sound like Aerin. But if not me, then who?”

You sound like Rhiannon, Lydia caught herself thinking. She shook it off. “Must’ve been some blade you lost, if it caused you to stop adventuring.”

“It was.” Mjoll’s gaze grew wistful. “Grimsever, I called it. A greatsword made of the finest malachite anyone can buy. Nearly lost my life right along with it, diving into that old Dwemer ruin.” She touched the soft white bark of a nearby birch, avoiding Lydia’s eyes. “It sounds strange, I know, but I feel as defenseless as a babe without it. I patrol the streets, I scare off thieves, I petition the court to address the skooma epidemic, but nothing seems to change, and part of me can’t help but think that if I still had it, then… I might still be the woman I once was. But I fear I lost her in those ruins, too.”

“Bullshit,” Lydia said. She dropped her bow, wood clattering against the roots rising from the dirt at their feet, and began to unbuckle her sheath.

“What – “

“Your sword isn’t you. I don’t care if it was the finest blade in the world, it’s nothing without the person wielding it. Here.” She shrugged her sword off and thrust it into Mjoll’s shocked, yielding hands. “Take it.”

“Lydia, no. I can’t take this.”

“Why not? It’s served me well. Even helped slay a dragon once. But it’s only a tool.” She picked up her bow and hooked it over her shoulders. “Go back to adventuring, or stay in Riften and fight. The choice is yours. But whatever you do, make sure it’s because you want to, not because you think you need some long-gone sword to do it.”

Had she pushed too hard? She couldn’t tell. Mjoll’s face was blank as she stared at the sword in her hands, battered and worn but still ready for another fight. But little by little, her expression eased, giving way to a rueful smile, and suddenly Lydia found herself in a crushing embrace, the sword jammed awkwardly between them. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the gods brought you here to talk some sense into me.” Then she was released, Mjoll punching her arm softly as she pulled away. “Thank you. My head feels clear again for the first time in years.”

“After some of the things I’ve seen recently? Who knows.” Lydia gave her a nudge in return. “So, what are you going to do with that newfound clarity of yours?”

“Finally do some real good for this city.” A slow grin was already forming on Mjoll’s face. “Think your Thane would mind if I borrowed you to help me root out some skooma dealers?”

“Only one way to find out.”

----------

Celia almost made it out of the city without being recognized, but everyone’s luck ran out eventually, and she’d pushed hers quite a bit. Delvin was waiting for her in the old gatehouse, feet up on the table while he crunched into a fat yellow apple. He winked at her. “Guess it’s true what they say, innit? About old dogs and new tricks.”

“You’re one to talk, you ancient fuck.”

“Saucy as ever, I see.” He took one last bite, then tossed the core out the window. “Don’t look at me like that. I just came to extend an invitation.”

“An invitation to what?”

“Come have a drink at the Flagon for old time’s sakes. Just one. We can catch up, toast a bit, that sort of thing.” A gold tooth flashed at the corner of his mouth. “How ‘bout it?”

“What’s the catch?”

“What do you mean, the catch? It’s just a few old friends having a pint.”

“I’m in a hurry.” She brushed past him, and to her relief, he let her go. She’d just stepped outside when he called after her.

“Celia.”

She stopped, glanced back at him where he lingered in the doorway. “What?”

One side of his mouth lifted mockingly. “Don’t be a stranger.”

She ran.

----------

Dear Rikke,

I’ve considered your most recent letter, and in truth, I don’t know what to say. I’ve lost count of the number of replies I’ve discarded trying to write you back, and there’s only so much parchment in the city, so this one will have to do.

Why didn’t I tell you? I don’t know. Perhaps I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. I can scarcely believe it myself. Everything is changing, and I suppose that, selfishly, I wanted one thing to stay the same. I like this, Rikke. I like being able to share my thoughts with you, and waiting for yours in return. I like that you don’t make me feel stupid or small, even when I feel that I am. But now you can see the truth of the matter – that at my core, I’m a coward, and a sentimental fool. I understand if you think less of me for it.

Here’s where I make another confession: though I’ve often wished to speak with you in person again, I’m relieved that this isn’t that time, or else I don’t think I could get through it. It’s a bit like magic, isn’t it? The way the written word is able to subvert the failures of the tongue.

So here it is, by my own hand. The Greybeards have named me Dovahkiin, gods help us all. I never meant to make you think I don’t trust you. If anything, I was hoping to wake up one morning and discover that it was all a terrible dream, and that someone more suitable had been chosen for the task. But I haven’t, and they haven’t, so here we are. And while I’m already disappointing you, I may as well come out and say it – I’m not joining the Legion, nor the Stormcloaks. I’m not a soldier, Rikke, and my vows compel me to help the sick and wounded no matter whose colors they wear. I’d be of no use to you. I’m truly sorry. And even if you want nothing to do with me after reading all this, I just want to thank you for your kindness, and your friendship. It means more than you know.

Fondly and faithfully,

Rhiannon

Chapter Text

There was something odd about Laila Law-Giver, though Lydia was hard-pressed to say what. Mistveil Keep was an impressive building, weathered and stately with its bannered stone walls and mounted trophy heads, and Laila herself sat easy on her throne, chin raised high. She certainly looked the part of the competent Jarl, dressed in fine furs with her hair braided in the traditional style and her eyes kind and clear. But there was something about the way she glanced at her wood elf steward before each proclamation that rubbed Lydia wrong, a brief deference that was unbecoming of a woman in her position. Like a child seeking praise for the right answer.

But she kept her thoughts to herself for the time being. She was just there to lend credence to their plea. This was Mjoll’s show to run, and the Lioness of Riften looked every inch the part as she strode before the throne, armor polished and fresh warpaint decorating her cheek. A steel greatsword lay across her shoulders, its glittering pommel stone the color of newly-spilt blood.

“My lady.” She bowed. “I hope this day finds you well.”

“Mjoll,” Laila said, voice warm. “What brings you before us today?”

“Skooma,” Mjoll said, and a ripple of unease spread through the room. She wasn’t the type to mince words. “The city is in the midst of an epidemic. It’s long past time something was done about it.”

“That’s a bit strong,” the steward said primly, hands folded. “A few dockworkers and beggars does not an epidemic make.”

“It probably looks like a few dockworkers and beggars if you never leave the Keep,” Mjoll agreed. The steward opened her mouth, affronted, but Mjoll beat her to it, turning her attention back to Laila. “My lady, this isn’t just a few addicts making poor choices. This is the work of vultures, preying on the most vulnerable of your people. I can stop them, but I need your help to do it.”

“Jarl Laila is far too busy with – “

“Anuriel,” Laila said, and the steward stopped mid-sentence. “I can speak for myself, thank you.”

“Of course, my lady. I was merely trying to explain that you have more important things to attend to than – “

Laila put up a hand to halt further protest. “I’m never too busy for my people.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“We’ll discuss this later.”

The tips of Anuriel’s ears were pink, but she nodded stiffly and sat back in her chair, lips clamped shut. Laila seemed satisfied. At least she cares about saving face. Lydia shifted her weight, hands clasped behind her back. Whatever it takes.

Laila turned her attention back to Mjoll. “We’ve been aware of skooma dealers operating in the city for quite some time now, but so far they’ve eluded every one of our attempts to capture them. But I confess, I’ve been preoccupied with the war effort as of late.” She brushed an errant lock of hair from her forehead, expression pained. “If you have a solution, I’m willing to aid you however I can.”

“I do, my lady,” Mjoll said. “But I would request that we speak in private.” Anuriel looked like she’d bitten into something sour, Lydia noted, but Laila raised her eyebrows and gestured for Mjoll to continue. “You yourself just said that they’ve thwarted your every attempt. This leads me to believe that there’s a rat among your ranks.”

Again the sounds of discontent washed over the court, louder this time. “That’s a serious accusation,” Laila said. Her expression remained neutral, but there was a downward turn to the corners of her mouth that hadn’t been there previously. Mjoll remained firm.

“Aye, and if I’m wrong, then I’ll face whatever consequences you see fit.”

“This is highly irregular,” Anuriel said, but Laila ignored her, gaze shifting between Lydia and Mjoll thoughtfully. Then, she stood.

“Court is adjourned,” she announced, smoothing her skirts. “Anuriel, please show them to my chambers.”

Everyone dispersed, though not all at once and not without a great deal of chatter, and Anuriel led Lydia and Mjoll down the long stone hallway and up a short flight of stairs to the Jarl’s quarters once the appropriate amount of time had passed for Laila to freshen up and settle in. She was perfectly polite now, if a bit formal, but Lydia still didn’t trust her. Something wasn’t adding up. She made a note to discuss it with Mjoll later. Anuriel halted in front of the heavy oaken doors and rapped them with her knuckles, three quick taps.

“My lady?”

“Come in,” Laila called, and Anuriel ushered them in with a bow that was entirely too servile to be genuine.

“We thank you for your concern. Riften appreciates it.”

Lydia smiled at her on the way in, all teeth. “No, thank you. Really.” Anuriel sniffed and shut the door in her face.

“Don’t mind her,” Laila said. “Anuriel can be a bit overprotective at times, but she means well.” Her quarters were spacious and tastefully decorated, with woven tapestries covering the walls and vases of fresh lavender and mountain flower sprouting up from all four corners, and an antechamber stuffed with bookshelves and a heavy, carved table in its center. It was here that Laila sat, and she beckoned them to join her while she poured herself a goblet of wine. “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”

Mjoll sat, and Lydia sat too, at her right hand. Both of them declined refreshment. “I’m afraid there isn’t much time,” Mjoll explained. “We need to be at the docks in an hour.”

Laila’s brow wrinkled. “The docks?”

“Our source “ – she motioned to Lydia and herself – “set up a false flag operation. We’re attempting to catch their dealer in the act and force him to reveal his sources, but in order to do that, we’re going to need the key to the warehouse.”

“That isn’t possible.”

“What do you mean?”

“The warehouse.” The goblet sat forgotten for the moment, encircled by Laila’s slack fingers. “Only the dockmaster and I have access to it.”

“Are you sure?” Lydia asked. Mjoll shot her a look, and she amended her tone. “Your dockmaster, my lady. You trust him?”

“Well… yes. Sarthis has never given me any reason to doubt his loyalties,” Laila said, but her words had an edge of uncertainty now. “He’s been in charge of Riften’s imports and exports for nearly a decade.”

“At the risk of raising alarm,” Mjoll said, “I think you may need to start searching for a new candidate.” She tapped the table with a gauntleted finger, thinking. “Who’s the one person in your court you trust without question? The one who you’d task to guard your own life, if it came to it?”

“Umid Snow-Shod,” Laila said at once. “He’s served me faithfully ever since I took the throne. You can trust him.”

“Good. We’ll need him as well as the key.” This was how Mjoll had earned her nickname, Lydia was sure of it – her presence, her resolve, the light shining from her eyes as she spoke. “I understand we’re asking for a lot. But what I’m really asking of you, right now, is to put your faith in us, if only for a moment. If you don’t, Riften will surely remain in the clutches of those who would see her carcass picked clean, where she has already sat for far too long.” She leaned in, and Laila leaned in too, entranced. “You can still save her, my lady. All we need is this one chance.”

Laila probably would have handed over her firstborn at the end of Mjoll’s little speech, judging by her expression – not that Lydia could fault her, she was a bit starry-eyed herself – and it was with pride that she gave them the key. “Gods watch over you, Lioness. If this works, I’ll see to it that you’re richly rewarded.”

“My reward is the deed itself,” Mjoll demurred, but she looked pleased despite her words. They left Mistveil Keep not long after, and Lydia didn’t miss the way Anuriel watched them go, eyes burning into her back like a brand. She held her tongue until they reached the claystone dwelling Mjoll shared with her friend Aerin, where she could be certain no one was eavesdropping.

“Something’s up with that steward of hers. Did you see how hard she fought to keep us from meeting with Laila?”

“One task at a time,” Mjoll said, laying her sword on the rack by the door. The house was shabby, but clean and well-loved, everything in its place, exactly as Lydia had thought it might be. It suited her friend well. “Speaking of which. Is everything ready on your end?”

“Should be, as long as Wujeeta doesn’t turn tail on us. Rhi – my Thane said it was hard enough to get her to reveal her source, let alone arrange a meeting.”

“Let’s hope she can keep that from happening. There’s too much riding on this.” Mjoll was already halfway up the stairs. “I’m going to check on Aerin. Make yourself at home, I won’t be long.”

Lydia nodded and sank into the chair by the hearth, mind racing even as her body came to rest. Too many factors, and almost all of them out of her control. She didn’t like those odds. But it was what they had, and without really meaning to, she offered up a quick prayer to Mara, lips moving silently. She wasn’t an overtly religious woman. She wore no symbols, sang no praises, performed no sacrifices in anyone’s name; her devotion to Talos had long been tucked away, deep in her heart where no one could use it against her. But with the Mother-Goddess’s chapel smack-dab in the center of the city, it seemed appropriate. That, and Rhiannon should have been dead a dozen times over by now, so maybe it was worth a shot.

Whatever it takes.

----------

“It’s going to be fine,” Rhiannon had told a petrified Wujeeta what felt like a thousand times. “You just have to play one last part, and then we’ll take care of the rest. It’ll be alright.” But now, crouching behind a pallet of boxes with dust in her nose and her stomach in a knot, she had to wonder if she hadn’t been a touch hasty in her promises.

Riften’s warehouse was locked up tight as a drum unless there was a shipment scheduled to go in or out, but Mjoll had used the Jarl’s key to sneak them in. There they waited, hidden behind a mountain of waterlogged wooden boxes reeking of salt and dried fish, and Rhiannon’s nails were already chewed down to the quick. Wujeeta was due to meet with her source any minute now, or so she’d thought. But the minutes ticked away, orange light blazing through the narrow windows as the sun began to set, and still they didn’t come. Rhiannon dug her ragged nails into her palms, counted backwards in her head; all the little tricks she’d learned to keep her nerves at bay. Lydia crouched beside her, coiled tight as a steel trap. On her other side, Mjoll waited, unnaturally still. Rhiannon tucked her hands into her armpits to keep her nails out of her mouth, shivering.

“Come on, you bastard,” Mjoll muttered. “C’mon, c’mon…”

The click of the lock echoed throughout the warehouse, followed by a man’s voice cutting through the silence as the door opened.

“You already went through what I sold you last time?” The question was accompanied by two sets of heavy footsteps. From between the gaps in the boxes, Rhiannon caught a glimpse of leather and fur, and the peevish face of a Dunmer, followed by Wujeeta’s anxious shuffle. “For fuck’s sake. You aren’t my only client, you know.”

“I’m sorry, Sarthis, it’s just that – “

“I don’t want to hear it,” he cut in, impatient. “Just be more careful this time. Orini, go get the last of the old batch.” Someone grunted, and footsteps descended, fading past their hiding place. Lydia’s hand tightened on the hilt of her sword. Rhiannon’s legs were starting to cramp, but she didn’t dare move. The silence stretched to interminable lengths, save for Sarthis’ annoyed breathing, but finally Orini returned, and there was the rattle and clink of gold changing hands. “There. Now clear out. We have work to do.”

Wujeeta was only too happy to do as requested, fleeing the scene like her tail was on fire, and Sarthis made a disgusted noise as the door slammed behind her. “Thought I heard she overdosed, the stupid lizard.”

“No such luck,” Orini said, and they both chuckled. Rhiannon’s fear receded, pushed back by the hot tide of anger rolling in. She caught Lydia’s eye, then Mjoll’s. Orini cleared his throat. “Oi, Sarthis. What do we have left to do, anyway? I thought the new shipment was all ready to go.”

But Sarthis never did get a chance to answer him, because Mjoll bulled her steel-clad shoulder into the pallet of boxes, and they all came crashing down every which way, wood splintering. Lydia bounded over the nearest one and socked the Dunmer Orini in the jaw with a mailed fist, dropping him like a sack of cabbages. Sarthis was faster and tried to flee, but Mjoll’s sword arced past his head and buried itself deep in the wood of the doors, cutting off his escape. He backed away, drawing his sword and dagger, only to be confronted with Lydia blocking the stairs to the lower level. Mjoll wrenched her sword free, sawdust raining on the floorboards. Her smile was terrifying.

“Sarthis, right? I’m Mjoll. I thought we might have a little chat…”

Umid Snow-Shod and his hand-picked guards burst into the warehouse not ten minutes later to find Lydia tying up an unconscious Orini, a massive purple bruise discoloring one side of his face. Mjoll had a snarling, cursing Sarthis pinned, blood running from a gash in his forehead. She nodded cordially at Umid. “Good timing.”

“Let me go, you harridan!” Sarthis howled, squirming beneath her knee in his back. “Wench! N’wah!” He was soundly ignored.

“You have the proof?” Umid asked.

“Aye, we all saw him sell it. Here, get him up.” Two of the guards broke formation to take custody of Sarthis from Mjoll, and she beckoned Rhiannon over in turn, who held out a folded scrap of parchment. Umid took it like it might bite him.

“What’s this?”

“I took a look downstairs while Lydia and Mjoll were cleaning up,” Rhiannon explained. “Most everything’s locked up tight, but I did find this in his desk. Along with this.” She offered a little leather pouch for him to take as well. “Raw moon sugar.”

“You little bitch,” Sarthis hissed, face darkening with rage. One of the guards cuffed the back of his head, and he quieted, but his expression remained murderous.

Umid unfolded the paper and skimmed it, eyes narrowing. “Cragslane Cavern, huh?” He looked at Sarthis. “Anything you want to share?” Sarthis spat on the floorboards in response. Umid snorted. “That so? Well, we’ll see if you feel more like talking after a few days in the dungeons.”

“I’m not going to the dungeons,” Sarthis said.

“Oh no?”

Sarthis grinned. “No,” he said, and his arms flared up like a bonfire. Both the guards holding him fell back, beating at the cloth of their armor with hot metal gauntlets, and quick as a wink, Sarthis snatched the dagger from the nearest one’s belt and slit his own throat. It had happened too fast for anyone to stop him. There was a truly impressive spray of blood, and he crumpled to the ground in the sudden quiet.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Rhiannon said, and dropped to her knees next to him.

Umid got the idea pretty quickly and barked at the nearest guards to help her. “And for fuck’s sake, man, use the silencers this time! Bloody useless, the lot of you.”

And so, Sarthis was forcibly healed, even though he fought her every step of the way, and no longer quite so cocky when they dragged him to his feet, wrists shackled with enchanted manacles to prevent his magicka from manifesting. “You can’t do this!” he yelped, squirming in their grasp like a freshly-caught fish. “You don’t know what they’ll do to me!”

Umid grunted. “Get him out of here. We’ll deal with his nonsense later.”

“There are things worse than death!” Sarthis sang, but his cry fell on uncaring ears, and his pleas and curses faded as they dragged him from the warehouse.

Umid turned back to Rhiannon, Lydia and Mjoll, raking his fingers through the strip of hair adorning his scalp. He wasn’t old – far from it – but he looked tired to the bone in that moment, weary as a man twice his age. “Good work. Jarl Laila… well, she won’t be happy about Sarthis, but she needs to know. I’ll tell her.”

“And Cragslane Cavern?” Mjoll asked.

One side of Umid’s mouth lifted. “Better you than me, I’d reckon.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” She glanced at Lydia and Rhiannon. “We’ll head out right away. Can’t risk them hearing what happened and packing up shop.”

“Woman after my own heart,” Umid said. “Need any reinforcements?”

“With all due respect,” Mjoll said, “they’d only get in my way.”

----------

“You don’t have to come,” Lydia told Rhiannon back at the inn, while they were packing supplies. Cragslane Cavern was only a short jaunt from the city, but it was best to be prepared for anything, Mjoll had said, given that they were going in on such short notice.

Rhiannon paused, hand hovering over the nearest vial. An image persisted in her mind’s eye, clear as day – Wujeeta, claws clasped, pleading with her in a hollow echo of Sarthis’ words.

Please, you don’t know what they’ll do to me if they find out!

“Yes, I do,” she said.

----------

Wolves surrounded the rocky path to the caverns. There were more of them than Rhiannon had ever seen in one place, ragged grey and brown silhouettes pacing in their cages, huge even from a distance. A bandit leaned against the cliff beside the entrance, half-hidden by scrubby pines and whistling idly, crossbow in hand. Night was falling, the land spread before them cast in lilac shadow and gold. Willow trees lined the road on either side, long green fronds dipping to kiss the dirt. If you didn’t venture too far down, and only saw the trees, it appeared deceptively idyllic – just another beautiful detour in the Rift.

“I’ve heard of this place,” Mjoll said. She was crouched on the knotted roots of a nearby pine, eyes trained on the cluster of cages. Gone was her upright bearing, her polished steel and warpaint; now her face was smeared with dirt, blonde hair tangled loose around her shoulders and armor a mismatched collection of leather, steel and fur. “I remember now. They’re rumored to run a pit-fighting ring out of these caves. Good place to come if you don’t care how bloody your gold is.”

“Pit-fighting?” Rhiannon asked, horrified. “They make those wolves kill each other?”

“Not just wolves. Whatever they can capture.” Mjoll glanced at her. “Or whoever.”

“Which is why I don’t like this plan,” Lydia said, arms crossed tight over her chest. “What if they catch on?”

“They won’t.” Mjoll stood. “You know what you need to do?”

“’Get in, destroy the supply, get out’,” Lydia recited. “What about you, though? How are you getting out?”

(Rhiannon wondered here, briefly, if it was wrong to be envious that Lydia apparently could feel concern for others without obligation.)

“Don’t worry about me. Just do your part and get back to the city. I’ll catch up with you later.” She clasped Lydia’s hand, then Rhiannon’s. “Stay safe.”

“You too,” Lydia said, worry etched across her forehead.

“You too,” Rhiannon echoed.

 ----------

Mjoll left them behind, and there they waited, crouched in the cradle of old roots and dead leaves while she walked the dimming path, bathed in the first light of the evening star. She was like some fabled warrior, Rhiannon decided, the kind from the old stories where good and evil were clearly defined and heroes always triumphed. It was a shame she wasn’t the Dragonborn; she would have been very good at it.

They watched Mjoll hail the guard, hands out and empty to show that she wished him no harm. He swung his crossbow up to face her, but didn’t fire. They spoke for what seemed like ages, though it was probably only a few minutes, voices lost to distance and the wind rustling through the trees. Lydia was so tense at Rhiannon’s side that she was practically levitating. But then Mjoll said something that made him laugh, throwing his head back, and the crossbow lowered. Both Rhiannon and Lydia exhaled. Gold changed hands, and they vanished inside, leaving the entrance unguarded. Lydia sprang to her feet.

“Quickly now.”

They darted down the road, keeping to the moon-dappled shadows where they wouldn’t be seen. The wolves watched from their cages. A few growled, snapping yellowed fangs, but the rest were apathetic. Humans came and went all the time. What were two more?

There was no door at the cavern’s mouth. Just a ratty red curtain nibbled away by moths that did nothing to stifle the noise or the stale air emanating from deep within, with two sunset-colored pennants hanging on either side of it. Rhiannon didn’t recognize the markings. Not that it mattered. She dug two vials out of her satchel, and an earthy smell wafted from them when she pulled the stoppers out, making the hair on the back of her neck prickle. For a split second, she was facing Blind Cliff Cave again, Onmund at her side, and she missed him so much it made her chest hurt. She shoved one at Lydia, trying to focus. “This is the strongest one I could make.”

“How long do we have?”

“Ten minutes, maybe. Probably less.” She touched her bag. “There are two more, for when we’re done. That was all I could manage.”

“It’ll do.” Lydia set her jaw. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.” Rhiannon held out her hand. Lydia stared at it as though Rhiannon was holding a live serpent, and she resisted the urge to sigh. Loudly. “So we don’t get separated while we can’t see each other.”

Lydia hesitated for a second, then nodded. Her palm was clammy against Rhiannon’s own. “Let’s go.”

The tunnel was brighter than Rhiannon had expected, strung with softly glowing lanterns to guide the way. On closer inspection, they were filled with torchbugs, and she longed to free them but there was no time. The longer they walked, the louder the noise became; when they reached the main chamber, it was like colliding with a solid wall. The bandits had turned the cavern into a miniature arena, a pit crudely hewn in its center and surrounded by wooden barriers. The sounds of combat echoing from its depths were drowned out by the crush of bodies surrounding the pit, hollering and laughing. Not all of them were bandits, she suspected, but it was impossible to sort them out in the midst of it all. Across the room, gold and drinks flowed freely at the bar, overseen by two heavily armed men. Beyond them, she caught a glimpse of another tunnel, curving down and south. Lydia must have seen it too, because the grip on Rhiannon’s hand tightened like a vise, and they changed course, cutting through the crowd. Here, at least, it was busy enough that bumping into people was no cause for alarm, and they made it through to the relative safety of the tunnels. These were longer and darker, lanterns absent, and the roar of the crowd faded as they left it behind.

The potions wore off, but the shadows kept them hidden, path twisting this way and that until they came upon a second, smaller chamber, guarded by a closed door. Oddly, there didn’t appear to be any locks, and Lydia let go of Rhiannon’s hand to step forward, examining the handle. “It doesn’t look booby-trapped,” she murmured, hand on her sword. “Stand to the side. I’ll open it on three.”

Rhiannon flattened herself into a nearby crevice, rock digging into her back. Lydia gave it three beats, then turned the handle and immediately jumped back. The door creaked open slowly, hinges grumbling, but nothing happened. No alarms sounded, no bandits charged forth to skewer them; there was only torchlight, seeping from the interior. Lydia motioned to Rhiannon to stay, and poked her head through the doorway, looking around. Nothing. She let out a low whistle. “I think we found it.”

One side of the room was stacked with crates, nailed shut and ready to be shipped out. The other side was lined with shelves full of bottled skooma and bowls of sweet-smelling, unprocessed moon sugar. An alchemy lab sat between them on the far wall, bigger and more elaborate than any Rhiannon had seen, even at the College. “There’s so much of it,” she whispered. “How are we supposed to get rid of all of it?”

Lydia was already at one of the shelves, unstopping bottles. She pulled a face at the smell. “We’ll have to manage.”

They’d come underprepared, but they’d had little choice if they wanted to act before news of Sarthis’ capture spread. Rhiannon’s hands shook as she wrestled the stopper from bottle after bottle, upending them onto the dirt while Lydia did the same with the bowls of moon sugar, grinding it into unusable powder beneath her heel. She hoped Mjoll was faring alright. In her haste, she knocked a couple bottles off the shelf with her elbow. They bounced and rolled, but didn’t break. Lydia stopped long enough to give her a look, and she mouthed an apology as she stooped to pick them up.

“Fuck, but there’s a lot of these.” Lydia went to examine the crates, and Rhiannon tugged the cork from another bottle, pouring it out. It soaked into the ground at her feet, bubbling. “How’s it coming?”

“Almost – mmph!”

Almost done, she’d meant to say, before a rough hand clamped over her mouth. An arm wrapped around her waist and heaved. She let out a muffled shriek, legs kicking wildly as her feet left the ground. Lydia whirled around, sword half-drawn, just in time to take a blackjack to the face from a second bandit. She went down, and Rhiannon screamed again, a shrill thing caught in her teeth. The man holding her laughed in her ear as she kicked and scratched, writhing futilely in his grasp. It was like trying to topple a mountain with her bare hands.

“Looks like our magic door works after all. Thanks for testing it out.” She tried kicking him again, and he gave her a shake that made her bones rattle. “What, you really thought the boss would leave all this unguarded?”

Lydia was still conscious, but only just. The two men accompanying Rhiannon’s captor hauled her to her feet, arms pinned behind her back, and she fought them until a second blow from the blackjack put her on her knees. She didn’t cry out, but a thin noise whistled between her teeth like steam escaping a vent, blood dripping from her nose and mouth to splatter on the ground. Rhiannon wondered if she could Shout them away long enough for her and Lydia to escape – if only she could get her mouth free! – but she’d barely thought about biting him before her captor said, “Try anything and I’ll break every bone in your body, little girl.” She froze, fear a hot knife in her ribs.

I’m sorry, Lydia.

“What should we do with ‘em?” the bandit with the blackjack asked. He was an Imperial, maybe, but it was hard to tell under all the grime. The other bandit was a Khajiit, big and burly with old scar tissue lacing his brindled fur. He shrugged.

“This one says take them to Kilnyr. Let him deal with them.”

Kilnyr was the name on the note addressed to Sarthis, Rhiannon remembered belatedly, and her heart pounded so hard her vision began to blur. She couldn’t see the man pinning her, but she felt him smile.

“Nah, no need to bother the boss for these two.” His breath was sour in her nose, gusting hot against her cheek. She shuddered. “They go to the pit.”

Chapter Text

Lydia’s nose was most likely broken, but Rhiannon wasn’t allowed to heal her. The bandits had hustled them out of the room and down a hidden side passage, which led to the stone chamber beneath the pit. It was hot and cramped in the bowels of the cavern, lit by a single set of torches and stinking of blood and shit from the bodies that had yet to be removed. She and Lydia were forced to huddle near the trapdoor in silence, waiting for the current fight to conclude while the bandit who’d caught her kept a watchful eye on them. A literal eye, in this sense – the other one was permanently scarred closed. He was a big Nord, taller even than Mjoll, with filthy blond hair cascading down his back and well-used steel armor. Rhiannon was scared of him, but she was more scared of the unseen Kilnyr. What kind of monster was he, for this mountain of a man to bow to him so easily?

The dull roar from above made the ceiling shake, dust raining down on them. The fight had reached its conclusion. She glanced at Lydia, who stared straight ahead with her battered face blank as a stone, and the guilt made her sicker than the smell. She had to find a way to fix this. But how, when she was so hopelessly outclassed?

“Move,” their guard ordered, cuffing her out of the way as the trapdoor swung open. It hurt, but she was glad for it when the tattered bodies of both man and wolf came tumbling unceremoniously down to add to the mess. She’d been too preoccupied to pay much attention earlier, but up close, the pit wolf was bigger than any she’d seen before, near the size of a grown man. The bandit caught her looked, and grinned with a mouthful of blackened teeth. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, girly.”

A rope ladder unfurled, swaying, and the two bandits who’d captured Lydia herded them towards it, swords pointed at their backs. “Move!” the maybe-Imperial barked. Left with no choice, Rhiannon took another gulp of fetid air and climbed up and out, into the pit.

The sudden light after the darkness below was an assault on her senses, and she stumbled forward with her eyes closed while the crowd’s jeering and hollering broke over her like waves in an ocean storm. Lydia came next, moving stiffly, and the big bandit was last, trapdoor slamming shut behind him. He opened his arms, inviting the people to witness the spectacle. “Give a warm Cragslane Cavern welcome to our surprise challengers!” The roar grew to a fever pitch, and Rhiannon squinted from side to side, frantically searching for Mjoll. But there was no one she recognized. Just a sea of faces, mouths like open wounds and hands pounding the barrier as they screamed for blood.

Lydia’s sword had been taken, replaced with a wooden shield and an iron blade that was half-rust. She took a step forward, but the bandit put his hand on his mace and shook his head. She bared bloodstained teeth, even as she halted. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Raise the door, boys!”

A scraping sound dragged out from behind them, a rusty whine that set Rhiannon’s teeth on edge, and she and Lydia turned to see a second door cut into the rock disappear, leaving only an archway to nowhere. Then, eyes, glowing gold against pitch-black. Rhiannon took a step back, closer to Lydia, and the dust stirred around their boots with each heavy footfall. Neither of them noticed when the bandit disappeared back into the trapdoor, slamming it shut behind him.

First the eyes, then the collar, thick metal flaking dried blood and rust, and last the muscles, rolling beneath a scarred pelt. The rabble surged at the barrier and howled gleefully as the sabrecat circled them, muzzle wrinkling to expose long yellow teeth. Even on all fours, it was almost as tall as Rhiannon, and its stub of a tail lashed from side to side, agitated. Rhiannon looked up, past the walls and the barrier, into the faces of the people who wanted nothing more than to see her die, and there she was – Mjoll, still as a statue while the crowd raged around her. Their eyes locked.

Help, Rhiannon thought, like Mjoll could hear her if she tried hard enough. Help us, please. Hurry!

Mjoll dove back into the crush of bodies and vanished.

A snarl jolted her back to the ring. Lydia had put herself between Rhiannon and the cat, turning slowly to keep it in her sights as it padded around them, sizing her up. Its hackles were already bristling. “I can Shout at it,” Rhiannon offered, turning with her. “Try to keep it away long enough – “

“No!” Lydia hissed, never taking her eyes off her foe. “These people cannot find out who you are.”

“But – “

“Move!” Lydia grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way just as the sabrecat leapt; its claws missed Rhiannon by inches, shredding the hem of her robes, and the jeers echoed throughout the cavern. It skidded to a stop and came at them again, claws leaving deep grooves in the dirt. Lydia battered at its head with her shield, trying to drive it back while she jabbed at it with her sword, keeping its attention on her. “Stay back!” she yelled over her shoulder, and the shield splintered in half with a particularly savage blow. The cat screamed, blood welling up from the scratches across its muzzle and eyes. Its teeth closed around Lydia’s flimsy sword and woman and beast grappled each other to the ground, the blade’s edge biting into the corners of its mouth. But it was stronger, and angrier; even as blood dripped from the corners of its mouth, it ripped the sword from her hands.

Time seemed to slow, pulling thick and sticky like taffy as Rhiannon watched the sabrecat bore Lydia to the ground, distorted cheering in her ears, and there came the anger again, a physical weight she could feel burning in her chest like it had back at the warehouse. Lydia’s mailed gauntlets held the cat’s jaws open inches from her face, arms trembling and face pale, fighting to keep it at bay. It wrestled with her, trying to shake her hold; when she slipped, those long yellow teeth closed around her arm, and the noise from the crowd almost drowned out her screaming. Blood ran down her arm from beneath her bracer, the cat tearing at her flesh, and Rhiannon’s anger crystallized, deadly cold.

Her magicka ran deeper than ever with the ring Farengar had made her, a cool well waiting for her to drink of its waters, and she dipped into it now, hands glowing violet. She’d never tried this particular spell – she knew it was dangerous to summon when emotions were running high – but she didn’t care. Her world had narrowed to one singular, desperate focus. Save Lydia. Light exploded from her palms, washing the entire cavern in a flash of dazzling purple, and the noise died, only to come howling back a moment later in shrieks and gasps. A huge figure rose in the center of the arena, glistening milky blue like a glacier come to life, and Rhiannon threw her arms wide, hands still crackling with purple light.

“I have bound you, and you are mine!” she cried out, over the riot surrounding them. “Now help her!”

The frost atronach’s joints creaked, ground shaking beneath its feet and spines of ice blossoming in its wake. One club-like arm swung wide, and the sabrecat was sent flying across the arena with a yowl, hitting the dirt and rolling. It scrambled back to its feet and lunged. Catch it, Rhiannon urged silently, an image forming in her mind. When it leapt, the atronach moved with it, snatching it out of the air in a crushing embrace. Now, let it go.

The atronach hoisted its arms high. In one smooth motion, the snarling, disoriented beast was flung out of the pit, over the barrier and into the crowd.

It was as if an Oblivion gate had ripped open, with the hell that had been unleashed overhead. Benches, tables and chairs went flying in all directions, wood crashing into rock as everyone scattered, screaming in fear (and agony, for those unlucky few that were caught in the sabrecat’s path). But then came the howls, dozens of paws thundering through the tunnels, and a wave of freed pit wolves spilled out in the cavern to greet the people as they tried to escape. Rhiannon couldn’t see most of what was going on, and she was glad of it – the crunch of wood and bone overlaid with anguished screeching and sobbing rose and fell, a macabre aria for the dead and dying. Her atronach tried to climb out of the pit to join the fray, but it couldn’t find purchase, and chunks of ice kept breaking off as it scrabbled fruitlessly at the wall. She ignored it in favor of healing Lydia, who’d gone white as a winter morning. It was tricky – she hated reversing the blood flow, it always gave her a headache – but it was worth it to see the color return to Lydia’s cheeks, the tremor in her limbs fading away as her wounds sealed and vanished. She looked blearily at the atronach behind them, then back to Rhiannon.

“Since when can you summon one of those?”

“Since… now, I guess.”

The trapdoor popped open with a hollow bang, and Lydia instinctively began to reach for her broken sword, but it was only Mjoll, beckoning them with a frantic hand.

“Hurry!” she yelled over the song of carnage. Rhiannon helped Lydia to her feet, and they ran for it, climbing back down to the safety of the tunnels below. Mjoll shut it behind them, bolting it tight. She was breathing hard and splattered with blood, but otherwise unharmed. The bandits who’d brought them to the pit were sprawled on the ground where she’d dispatched them, cooling viscera thickening the dirt. “Thank the gods. I was worried I might be too late.”

“Was that you who let the wolves loose?” Rhiannon asked.

“Seemed as good a diversion as any.” Mjoll stooped down to remove Lydia’s greatsword from the big bandit’s hand and passed it back to her, followed by its sheath. “No doubt Kilnyr’s already on his way out of here, but these tunnels lead everywhere. We might be able to catch him if we move fast.”

Lydia shouldered her blade. She looked haggard, covered in dirt and dried blood, but a fierce light burned in her eyes. “What are we waiting for?”

 

Mjoll hadn’t been kidding about the tunnels. There was an entire network of them snaking beneath the caverns in great dark coils of rock and earth, twisting this way and that, and they all looked the same to Rhiannon, leaving her to trail after Lydia and hope that Mjoll knew what she was doing. It was pitch black, save for Rhiannon’s magelight, which bobbled about overhead, shedding weak blue rays whenever she took a step. They turned and turned, occasionally cutting from one tunnel to another, until the mouth of one widened and deposited them in an empty cave, perfectly round and made of solid rock on all sides.

“Dead end,” Lydia said, but Mjoll shook her head. She put her hands on the wall and felt her way around, moving slowly, until she reached a particular spot. When she pressed in, her hands sunk into the rockface and disappeared. She pulled back, shaking her hands off.

“Illusion spell. Who wants to go first?”

“Let’s all just go at once,” Rhiannon suggested, since Lydia looked uneasy, even in the dim light. There were no objections. She and Lydia took a deep breath, their hands finding one another in the darkness, and they all stepped through the wall together.

A little clearing lay just on the other side, surrounded by trees and washed colorless by the stark white light of the moons. It was a cleverly disguised exit, Rhiannon saw now, and she couldn’t help but be a little impressed. Someone there was clearly well-versed in magical theory. But then the shadows shifted near a clump of pines, and she realized that Mjoll’s instincts had been spot on.

“So, you’re the ones who ruined my operation.” The Dunmer who stepped forward was heavily armored, moonlight reflecting off the hard planes of his ebony cuirass and the twin curves of his matching axes. Everything was black, save the lines of thick white clay daubed beneath his bright red eyes. In the dark, the effect was unmistakable – a solid, featureless figure outlined by trees and stars, with glowing eyes that tracked their every movement. “Took you long enough.”

“Why didn’t you run?” Lydia asked, clutching the hilt of her sword. “You had plenty of time. You could have been far away by now.”

“With the trouble you three have caused me?” Kilnyr’s lip lifted, teeth a white slash in his narrow face. “Someone has to pay.”

“Funny you should say that.” Mjoll drew her sword. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Kilnyr. You may not know me, but oh, do I know you.” Lydia went to draw hers as well, but Mjoll shook her head. “This is mine to make right.”

“Brave,” Kilnyr said, spinning one of his axes loosely in his hand. “Stupid, but brave.”

“There’s nothing left here for you,” Mjoll told him. “Wild animals are feasting on what’s left of your associates, and half your supply is gone. When we’re done, I’ll destroy the rest. But first, you’ll answer for what you’ve done.”

“Yes, yes, this is very dramatic, but I don’t have all night. What is it that I’ve done to you?” He scratched his chin with the butt of his axe handle. “I don’t remember you, but I’m not ruling anything out.”

“Urik Red-Brand and Maren Light-Foot. You tortured and murdered them in front of their son.” Mjoll leveled her sword at him. “Do you remember them?”

Kilnyr looked at her for a moment, impassive. Then, his eyes scrunched up, brighter than ever, and he laughed – a real laugh, genuine and joyful. It trickled down Rhiannon’s spine like a slimy caress. “Oh, this is good.”

“Do you remember them?” Mjoll barked, and he laughed all the louder.

“Of course I do. How could I forget my old friend Urik? And Maren, my best thief for a time.” His tongue swiped across his lips, sickeningly pink. “She screamed so beautifully that night…”

Mjoll’s sword sliced through the air, and he danced away, bringing his axes up to block.

“You die here, tonight,” she shouted at him, over the sparks that showered them both and the sound of metal scraping against metal. “No more of this!”

Kilnyr grinned. “Not going to arrest me? Try to bring me to justice? I thought you do-gooder types went in for all that nonsense.”

“This is justice,” Mjoll said, and lunged.

In the time since the watchtower, which seemed like eons ago rather than weeks, Rhiannon had witnessed all manner of fearful things. She’d fought hagravens and seen lichs fall to werewolves, watched dragons die and held their souls within her own; she’d brushed hands with death a hundred times while living a life meant for someone much stronger and braver than herself. But no battle had ever seemed so raw as two warriors coming together in an empty clearing late at night, a tableau cast in silver and black and red.

The only sound came from their blades clashing and the wind dying slowly in the pines as they fought from one end to the other, each landing cut after cut but no significant blows. Kilnyr was better-armored, his axes of better quality, and he fought with the wild strength of a cornered animal. Mjoll, by contrast, was perfectly composed, eyes cold in the moonlight. It seemed that he’d forced her onto the defensive, raining down a fury of blows while she deflected what she could with her sword, but Lydia caught Rhiannon’s eye and nodded slightly. Keep the faith, her expression seemed to say, though it could have just been wishful thinking.

For all his strength and skill, it seemed that Kilnyr might never falter; his onslaught continued, unceasing, as he battered at Mjoll with his axes. But then it came, there – a flicker of a faltering, near-imperceptible, a blow aimed to land a second too late – and Mjoll’s sword flashed, its edge freshly honed just that morning. The axe went flying. Kilnyr’s hand was still attached. Blood ran down Mjoll’s blade, thick and dark where it spurted from Kilnyr’s wrist. He roared and ducked when she swung at him again, countering with his own blow aimed at her hands. She deflected it and disarmed him with a neat twist of her sword, hooking one of her feet around the back of his ankle at the same time. It was all one movement, so fast that it barely registered until he went crashing to the ground. Mjoll’s boot pinned him solidly by his chest.

“Aerin Red-Brand said to tell you hello,” she said, and raised her sword high.

Kilynr’s head rolled away, mouth contorted as the light died in its eyes, and the spell was broken. Mjoll slumped almost immediately, stumbling away to fall to her hands and knees in the grass, panting harshly and bleeding from a dozen wounds. She didn’t resist when Rhiannon healed her, or when Lydia helped ease her into a sitting position, her chest heaving.

“Thank you,” she said, staring down at her hands. “For not interfering.”

“Your friend Aerin,” Lydia said. “Is that how you knew this place?”

“Aye.” Mjoll sighed. “Aerin’s parents were reformed bandits. They used to run with Kilnyr’s operation back in the day, before they went on the straight and narrow. He came back and murdered them when Aerin was fifteen.”

“That’s horrible,” Rhiannon said softly. She had no idea what else there was to say.

“I’ve been looking for Kilnyr for some time, waiting for something to lead me to him. After Aerin saved me, it was the least I could do to repay him.” Mjoll glanced at them. “I couldn’t let this chance slip away. I apologize for not telling you earlier.”

“You’re forgiven,” Lydia said, and Rhiannon nodded in agreement. “Think the animals have cleared out by now?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Mjoll wiped her sword on the grass, blade smeared with soil and blood. “We still have a shipment’s worth of skooma to destroy.”

“Guess we’d better get started.”

 

Afterwards, when they’d escorted Mjoll back home and all but forced her to agree to rest instead of going directly to Mistveil Keep, Lydia turned to Rhiannon and said, “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Today.” They were back in their room. Lydia had stripped out of her armor, and she looked oddly young and vulnerable, sitting there in an oversize tunic and trousers with her face freshly scrubbed. It was easy to forget that she was only a couple years older than Rhiannon herself at times. She rubbed at her forearm, where puckered scar tissue had already formed. “You didn’t have to come along, but you did.”

“What, and let you and Mjoll have all the fun?”

Lydia chuckled, but it was weak and faded quickly, her expression growing serious once more. “I mean it. I…” She stopped, staring down at her lap. The movement of her fingers grew more agitated. “I was rude to you, when we first met. I never stopped to think about what all this must be like, for someone who’s not used to combat. I’m sorry for that. And for underestimating you.”

Rhiannon was touched, enough so that she had to forgo speech momentarily. She squeezed Lydia’s shoulder instead, and they sat in silence for a long moment, worn out from the day’s events. Lydia finally cleared her throat. “So. What do you want to do next?”

There were still plenty of places in Skyrim Rhiannon hadn’t visited, and they were all laid out in front of her, waiting to be explored. But in that moment, there was only one thing at the forefront of her mind.

“Let’s take a day off,” she said.

----------

Between joining the guard and now housecarl duties, Lydia hadn’t taken a day off in years. She couldn’t say she hated it, even if Rhiannon’s idea of a fun afternoon was trawling the shores of Lake Honrich for uncommon flora. It was still a damn sight better than fighting dragons or breaking up skooma trafficking rings. She sat on a log nearby, basking in the sun while Rhiannon alternated working on a new entry in her book and harvesting nirnroot to dry later. She kept announcing it excitedly to Lydia whenever she found some, which was equal parts sweet and irritating. When she’d gathered enough, they walked along the shoreline until they found some wild gourds, which Rhiannon insisted on sketching before they picked them, and a clutch of slaughterfish eggs hidden in the muddy shallows. The eggs were a delicacy, Lydia explained as she waded in to liberate a few. Rhiannon looked unconvinced, but agreed to try them, provided she didn’t have to do so raw.

“They’re good raw, though. Sure you don’t want to give it a try?”

“I can never tell if you’re joking or not,” Rhiannon complained. Lydia managed to keep a straight face, but only just.

“I never joke, my Thane. Here, I can show you right now."

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Rhiannon said, “but I’d rather go another round in the pit.”

Summer was nearly upon them, the days gone fat and golden, and the warm air was a nice contrast to the cool water. Lydia found herself enjoying their excursion, and not just because it kept her distracted while she waited to hear how Mjoll’s audience with Laila had gone. It felt good to do nothing for once, replacing blood and steel with sunshine and easy company while birds whistled overhead. There was even a small herd of deer grazing peacefully on a grassy hillock nearby. But like all good things, the tranquility had to come to an end, and theirs died while Rhiannon was drawing some scaly philiota mushrooms sprouting from a fallen tree in the shallows.

Hoofbeats sounded from the road near the shore, growing closer by the second. She was so engrossed that she didn’t seem to hear them, but Lydia did, and she looked over to see Hadvar dismount from a dun-colored mare, both of them drenched in sweat. He’d chosen – wisely, in Lydia’s opinion – to wear plain steel instead of his Legion colors. She nodded at him, then turned back to her Thane.

“Rhiannon.”

“Hm,” Rhiannon said absently, brow furrowed as she began shading.

“Rhiannon,” Hadvar said, halting near the shore.

“Hadvar?”

In their short acquaintanceship, Lydia hadn’t seen Rhiannon angry very often. Exhausted, terrified, exasperated, yes, but almost never like this, with her cheeks red and her mouth pinched tight. “You followed me here?”

“Paid Farengar to track you down,” Hadvar said, unruffled in the face of her growing outrage. “Paid a fair amount, too. Clairvoyant services aren’t cheap.”

“I can’t believe you!”

“You only have yourself to blame. If you’d talked to me back in Whiterun, this wouldn’t be happening right now.”

“Fine then,” Rhiannon snapped. “I’ll tell you what I already told Rikke, which is that I’m not getting involved with either side of this war. Ask me all you want, but my mind’s made up.”

It was a shock to hear her speak so harshly, but Lydia was more caught off-guard by the name she’d dropped. Rikke… as in the Legate Primus? There was an unexpected development. She was going to have to ask Rhiannon about that later. Hadvar folded his arms.

“As long as you remain unaligned, everyone will be scrambling to get a piece of you. If it’s not the Legion, it’ll be Ulfric, and he won’t be nearly as nice about it as I am.” She didn’t say anything, and he sighed and dropped his arms back to his sides. “I understand where you’re coming from. I do. But you’re part of Skyrim’s legacy now, and that includes every part of her. Not just the College, not just the dragons. All of her.”

“So that’s it, then? I don’t get any say in this?” Rhiannon rose, book clutched in her trembling hands. “Just, ‘congratulations, here’s a bunch of responsibilities you didn’t ask for, now shut up and accept it’?”

“The gods chose you, Rhiannon. Why? I don’t know. But they did, and that’s not something you can ignore.”

“I’m not ignoring the gods! I’m ignoring you.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Hadvar argued. “You’d be a healer, same as you are now, and you’d be free to do whatever you want once the war is over. All you have to do is publicly cast your lot with the Legion, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

Lydia wasn’t sure she believed him. Rhiannon clearly didn’t. “I’m not some…” she groped for the right words, even as she stuffed her book and quill back in her satchel. “Some tool for you to use as you please!”

Hadvar strode to meet her in the shallows, her frustration mirrored on his face. “This isn’t just about you!” Rhiannon flinched away from him, and Lydia got to her feet, eyes narrowed in warning. He glanced at her, then lowered his voice, placating. “I’m sorry, but the Dragonborn is too valuable a player to be allowed to remain neutral. That’s just how it is. And this is the Legate Primus asking you through me now, before someone takes that choice away from you.”

Rhiannon’s lip wobbled, but it might have been a trick of the light. “That’s not fair,” she said, and her voice was soft and hurt and very, very small.

“This is about the fate of this province. Not fairness.” She tried to push past him, but he grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to stop in her tracks. “People are dying, Rhiannon! If you just come back to Solitude with me, we can stop it. Isn’t that what you want?”

The mention of Solitude seemed to galvanize something in her, because she started squirming in his grip like a freshly-caught eel. “Let go of me!”

“I will when you stop being a selfish brat!”

“Hadvar!” Lydia had seen enough. Her hand went to her sword just as he let go of Rhiannon, and just as she wrenched away from him in turn; Lydia went to call out in alarm, but it was too late. Rhiannon’s momentum was too strong, and both she and the contents of her unfastened satchel pitched backwards into the lake as she lost her footing, murky water splashing everywhere.

She immediately floundered to right herself, grasping at her wet belongings with her face all scrunched up and panicked, but it was too late. Her book had fallen into the water along with her, and it was a muddy, ruined thing, ink running and pages clumped together. She knelt in the shallows, frozen in place with her work falling apart in her hands, and Lydia and Hadvar were frozen too. For a moment, no one moved. There was only the chirping of nearby birds, and water sloshing through the reeds.

“I’m sorry,” Hadvar said, and guilt had rushed in to replace anger. It was in the way he didn’t know what to do with his hands all of a sudden – they flopped uselessly by his sides. “I didn’t – “

Rhiannon looked up. There was mud caked in her hair and robes, tears streaming from her eyes, and the raw fury on her face was such that Lydia took a step back without meaning to. “Get away from me,” she hissed, cradling the book’s remains.

“Now, hold on – “

Get away from me,” she said again, not in her voice but in her Voice, and air and water alike rippled around her. Hadvar backed away in a hurry, and she struggled upright, boots squelching unpleasantly in the muck. “You can just go right back to Solitude and tell Rikke or whoever else that you failed, because I’m leaving.” A sob escaped her, sharp and wet. “You can all go right to Oblivion!”

“My Thane,” Lydia called desperately. “Rhiannon, wait!”

But Rhiannon was already running towards the city, slipping in her wet shoes with her empty satchel flapping behind her, and Lydia couldn’t think of anything to say that might bring her back.

----------

With as little as Rhiannon had brought to Riften, packing took no time at all. Cleaning the mud off took considerably longer, and she was wringing her hair out in the basin when Lydia came into the room, treading with the same kind of caution that one might exercise in approaching a wild animal. Like she was no different than the wolves that had taken over Cragslane Cavern.

“Hadvar’s gone,” she said. “Headed back to Solitude, I think.”

“Great,” Rhiannon said bitterly.

“He is sorry,” Lydia added, when no more was forthcoming.

“What good does that do?” The book was tucked in the bottom of her pack, wrapped in a spare cloth to prevent further damage. She couldn’t bear to look at it. “Months of work, Lydia. Months. And now it’s gone.”

“Can’t you re-do it?”

“I shouldn’t have to!” It wasn’t fair to yell at Lydia, she knew, but it felt good, in a shameful way. It felt good to take action, to be angry for once, instead of some useless, blubbering mess. She slicked her hair out of her face with wet fingers and picked up her pack, slinging it over her shoulders. Lydia’s eyes went to it, like she was just now noticing that all of Rhiannon’s belongings were absent.

“What are you doing?”

“I told you, I’m leaving.” Her robes and boots were still wet and patchy in places with dried mud, but it didn’t matter. She just needed to get out of there before she lost what was left of her composure. “I’m going back to the College. Alone.”

“My Thane,” Lydia said, eyebrows crawling towards her hairline. “I’m not sure that’s wise. Maybe you should sleep on it, and see how you feel in the morning.”

“No.” Gods, but it felt good to say no. She made for the door, but Lydia stepped in front of it, blocking her exit. “Please move.”

“Rhiannon.” Lydia’s voice was unusually quiet, her expression somewhere between pity and ill-concealed distress. “Please. I understand that you’re angry, and upset, but running away isn’t going to solve anything.”

“Move,” Rhiannon said again, chin jutting out stubbornly. “Please.” For a minute, she thought Lydia might refuse, but then her housecarl’s lips thinned and she moved aside. “Thank you.” She opened the door. She didn’t look at Lydia. She didn’t want to see what was looking back. “I am going. Whether anyone likes it or not.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” Lydia said.

“No. And don’t follow me!”

But Lydia did follow, doggedly trailing her out of the inn and across the bridge as she headed for the city gates. Everyone was out and enjoying the weather, the streets packed with fellow travelers and merchants hawking their wares from stalls and colorfully painted wooden carts. It was the perfect opportunity to lose someone in a crowd, but try as she might, Rhiannon couldn’t seem to shake her. She was stronger and faster, locked onto Rhiannon’s scent like a bloodhound, and ended up following her right out of the city to the stables, where the carriage awaited its next passenger.

“Rhiannon,” she started again, and Rhiannon had finally had enough. She whirled around, jabbing a finger in Lydia’s direction.

“Go away! I told you, I’m going by myself, so just go!”

A couple of the horses in the stable whickered, and the gelding hitched to the carriage chuffed uneasily at her outburst, tail swishing. Both carriage driver and stable master eyed them from a distance.

“I can’t in good conscience – “

“Go home, Lydia,” Rhiannon said. “That’s an order.”

Later, she’d feel the guilt set in, keen as a knife between the ribs when she recalled the hurt in Lydia’s eyes. Later, she would regret this moment, well and often. But right then, she was too devastated to feel anything else, and the wounded surprise on Lydia’s face frosted over in seconds. She bowed once, low and stilted. “Yes, my Thane.”

Rhiannon didn’t wait to watch her go. She heaved herself and her bags up the step, and they all tumbled into the carriage together, clearly having seen better days. She rummaged through her pack until she came up with a handful of septims, which she pressed into the driver’s waiting palm. “Winterhold, please. If you can get me there in three days, I’ll double what I paid you.”

The driver had seen all sorts come and go, and knew better than to ask. He tipped his hat as he picked up the reins, signaling to his horse that it was time to move out. “No guarantees, miss, but I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you,” she said, and burst into tears.

Chapter Text

Rhiannon

Don’t take my curiosity for anger. You chose not to tell me, and I wondered why, that’s all. Did you really think I wouldn’t call you my friend after reading your last letter? I’d hoped you thought better of me than that.

I don’t pity you, if that’s what you’re worried about. Nor is my correspondence with you born of mere tolerance. I like our exchanges. They’ve been something of an escape, if I’m honest (and given our last couple of letters, I feel that much is owed). It’s rare that I have the opportunity to converse freely, without the fetters of politics and war. But, as you’ve probably guessed, your role in all this has… complicated things, whether we like it or not. I understand your reasons for not wanting to enlist, but Skyrim has need of you, as does the Legion. I’ll confess that my motivations aren’t entirely selfless here – I’m worried about the lengths Ulfric might go to, in order to secure your loyalty. He’s unaccustomed to not getting what he wants, and I can promise you, he wants the Dragonborn by his side. It’s only a matter of time before he makes a move.

When you get this, all I ask is that you don’t reply right away. Think on it, and if you can, come back to Solitude. I’d like for us to discuss this face-to-face, without so much opportunity for misunderstanding.

Fondly as always,

Rikke

----------

Rhiannon

Hadvar’s just returned from Riften. I’m formally requesting that you come to Castle Dour to meet with myself and General Tullius, as soon as possible. We need to talk.

Rikke

----------

Rhiannon

My last two letters haven’t been returned, so I can only assume you’ve received them and have chosen to ignore me. You’re upset, I imagine, and rightfully so. But this is more important than you, or me, or any one person, and I need you to understand that. I need to know you understand that. Please respond as soon as you receive this.

Rikke

----------

Do you think this is pleasant for me? Have I somehow given you the impression that I’m enjoying this? If so, I can assure you, it isn’t, and I’m not. I’m also rapidly running out of patience. This isn’t a game, and the stakes are too high for either of us to treat it as one.

I can’t force you to enlist. Part of me even hoped that you might choose the Legion of your own volition, though I can see now how foolish that was. But this… this isn’t the right way to handle this. We’re both bound by duty, you and I. It isn’t just something you can run from, or put down and pick up as it suits you, and I know you know that, deep down. Even if you don’t want to acknowledge it yet.

When Hadvar first told me about you, I was afraid for you, Rhiannon. I still am. Not because I think you’re incapable, but because this is far too heavy a burden for one person to bear alone. I ask that I might help you, if you let me. You don’t have to do this alone.

---------

Please respond so I know you’re still alive.

-----------

Rhiannon

I just received a letter from Mirabelle Ervine, asking me to stop harassing her students with my “incessant correspondence”.

This is childish.

Rikke

----------

Melaran

You lazy, milk-drinking, knife-eared oaf, this is the last time I put you in charge of the Black-Briar shipments! An entire skiff’s worth of cargo is missing, and until you find out what happened to it, I’m holding you personally responsible. You’re lucky I’m attending to other business, or I’d have already skinned you myself. Get in touch with Kilnyr and find out what happened. I don’t care how you do it, but if you don’t have an explanation by the time I return, I’m going to lend you to Sybille Stentor, to make sure the lesson sticks. She’s been asking about you again.

Erikur

Postscript – The next shipment from Black Marsh is due in three days. If anything happens to it, it’s your head.

 

----------

Rhiannon  - 

Report to Castle Dour as soon as you receive this letter. This is an emergency. I’m no longer asking as a friend.

Rikke Fair-Dawn

Legate Primus of the Imperial Legion

Chapter Text

Rikke’s final letter arrived at the height of summer, much later than the others.

“Conscription is illegal,” Onmund said, peering over Rhiannon’s shoulder while she skimmed the page. “What does she want from you, anyway?”

There were droplets of ink spattered along the edges, and Rikke’s handwriting was messy and crabbed together, like she’d been writing it in a hurry. Rhiannon shrugged and burned it along with the rest. The first one, though – the kind one, fondly as always – she’d kept with the earlier letters Rikke had sent, as a memento of better times. She’d thought it would hurt, but she was already numb. What was one more sliver of heartbreak?

“The height of summer” in Winterhold meant only slightly less in the way of blizzards, but it made no difference; she hadn’t set foot outside the College grounds since she’d returned. It was safe there, a lonely archipelago connected to the mainland by a thread. It made for the perfect barrier between her and everything she couldn’t stand to think about.

Onmund, J’zargo and Brelyna had wanted to hear all about her adventures as soon as she’d returned, but she held them off for as long as she could. That was the last thing she wanted to talk about. After much coaxing, she’d finally broken down and given them the abridged version. When she admitted that it was her the Greybeards had called in the spring, not long after she’d left Markarth, Onmund had nearly lost his mind.

“You’re the Dragonborn,” he must have said about twenty times, until Brelyna thumped him and told him to knock it off. J’zargo, bless him, had merely slung his arm around Rhiannon’s shoulders, whiskers tickling her cheek.

“This one would gladly take your burden if he could.”

“I bet you would,” Brelyna said.

“The only thing more prestigious than becoming Arch-Mage would be to hold the title of Dragonborn as well.” He sighed theatrically. “J’zargo supposes he will simply have to content himself with being Arch-Mage.”

Brelyna rolled her eyes, and Rhiannon threw her arms around him, a surprised purr rumbling in his chest. “It’s beyond good to be back,” she said into his robes, voice muffled. “I missed you all so much.”

“J’zargo has never had the pleasure of missing himself, but he is sure it must be devastating.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Onmund grumbled.

“So,” Brelyna cut in, eyes bright with curiosity. “What can a Dragonborn do, exactly?”

Rhiannon had tried to explain Shouting, even though she wasn’t completely sure how it worked, along with everything else she’d learned during her time at High Hrothgar. But J’zargo and Brelyna quickly grew bored with the metaphysical, and it wasn’t long before Rhiannon found herself sneaking out to the courtyard in the middle of the night to provide a demonstration. They’d been drinking – she’d been drinking, to cope with reliving the last several weeks – and it seemed only right to line up the empty bottles on a low wall and Shout them off, instead of using something important. Unfortunately, neither Mirabelle nor Tolfdir seemed to agree, and an entirely different type of shouting took place when the bellowed FUS RO DAH and resulting impact woke half the campus. The four of them had fled back to the Hall of Countenance after their dressing down to collapse on the floor of Rhiannon’s room, smothering their laughter, and it was so nice to be back that even her punishment – a week of helping Drevis cleanse and balance the College’s various conduits – couldn’t ruin her mood. It was just one more thing to focus on, so she didn’t have to think about Rikke or Lydia or the end of the world.

It hadn’t been long, though, before she realized that things had changed in her absence. Not entirely, and not all at once, but enough. When they weren’t attending to other business or hosting lectures, Tolfdir and Urag spent their time sequestered in the Arch-Mage’s quarters, arguing with Savos and Mirabelle in hushed tones. It had something to do with whatever Tolfdir had discovered in Sarthaal, Brelyna was sure, but nobody knew what. She’d also overheard them whispering about the Augur of Dunlaine, but that could have been unrelated, and everyone knew to stay out of the Midden regardless. All the other apprentices had divided themselves into tightly-knit groups that didn’t include her, and even though Onmund, Brelyna and J’zargo were as welcoming as ever, Rhiannon often looked at the three of them together and felt like an intruder. She wondered how long it would take them to notice.

Soon she was forced to confront the heart of the matter: it wasn’t just things around campus that had changed, it was her. There was no more hope of blending in, being an ordinary student with an ordinary life. She was still the Dragonborn, and every minute spent hiding behind the College's walls was only working to delay the inevitable. She did her best to ignore it, but the whispers followed her, eyes lingering a second too long wherever she went, and after a while she quit leaving her room unless she absolutely had to.

There was also the matter of Ancano. Once news of her being Dragonborn had spread, he’d taken an interest in her, which was an alarming change of pace from how thoroughly he’d ignored her the first time she was there. She dodged his attempts to converse with her whenever she could; the last thing she needed was a Thalmor paying her any real attention, even if he was supposedly a diplomat. Onmund had seen him sneaking down to the tunnels beneath the College once, late at night, but he didn’t know why, and Rhiannon didn’t want to know. She had enough on her plate as it was. But mostly, there was the mask.

She’d been attempting to research it for the last few weeks, when she could find a spare moment to herself, but it was difficult when she didn’t really know what she was looking for. There were a few books on dragons, and some about masks, but nothing about Shearpoint or the lich residing there, and she couldn’t ask Urag for help directly without raising suspicion. She wanted to figure it out on her own, anyway; she should have been able to do that much, but the information she sought remained out of reach for the time being. Still, it was something to do now that she’d passed the Master Restoration trial.

No one knew she’d done it, save Colette. Rhiannon had begged her to keep it a secret, and it had been completed with little fanfare one late night in the Midden. A strange way to think of something that had tried to kill her, maybe, but so had a lot of things over the last few months.

“You are worthy,” the Augur had told her, and she felt rather than heard the words, light pulsing brilliantly throughout the room until it hurt to look at him. “The knowledge you seek is yours.”

“Thank you,” Rhiannon said, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. She’d never felt less worthy in her life.

Colette didn’t understand why she didn’t want to celebrate, but she agreed not to speak of it once she saw how distressed Rhiannon became at the idea, and they set the matter to rest. That didn’t stop her from swanning about the College grounds with a smug smile for the next week or so and being generally insufferable, but Rhiannon let her have it; she suspected Colette had never had an apprentice under her tutelage Master anything. And now, nearly a month later, she was still at the College, pretending she was studying while she read over her old letters from Rikke time and time again, until they became soft and creased at the edges like feathers.

Coward.

She hadn’t meant to stay. When she’d fled Riften, she’d only had one thing on her mind – finish her schooling, then get out of Skyrim. No more dragons, no more war, and no more complicated feelings about certain tall blonde Nords, she swore on the carriage ride up the coast. As soon as she was done, she was catching the next transport back to Cyrodiil. Maybe she’d even travel with one of the Khajiit caravans again, if she got lucky and one was passing through. It would have been nice to see Ri’saad and Khayla again.

But then she’d come back to her friends and her alchemy and her books, sinking into academia’s familiar embrace, and now every time she put quill to parchment, something stopped her. An attempted letter to her parents sat on her desk with only the greeting composed; a half-written letter to Rikke sat crumpled beneath her bed.

Gods, Rikke. What a mess.

She was the one dogging me to enlist, Rhiannon had reminded herself sternly on more than one occasion, when her thoughts began to wander. They all think I’m just a trophy to bolster the cause. But the anger wouldn’t come, not anymore. Only sadness, tinged with regret for something that never was.

Someone rapped on her doorframe, drawing her back to the present. She looked up to see Onmund poking his head around the corner.

“Hey, are you coming to dinner? I think there’s still some left.”

“Oh. Right.” She hadn’t realized it was so late. “Yes, I’m coming. Hold on.”

“We should take the long way down,” he said, voice low while she pulled on her boots. “I think Ancano’s looking for you again.”

“The long way sounds perfect.”

Impulsively, she hooked her arm through his, and was gratified to see him smile. She’d been worried at first that things would be awkward between them, but the time they’d spent apart seemed to have been enough for him to work through the worst of it. It made her glad, in a selfish way. She’d missed him most of all.

Dinner was fine, and the night mild, soft silver clouds broken up across a dark sky like ice floes. Rhiannon laid on her bed and pored over her notes from Phinis’s Conjuration lecture until she fell asleep, only to bolt awake scant hours later with a scream tearing at her throat, phantoms dissolving at the edges of her vision. Brelyna’s face swam in front of her, mouth moving, and eventually sound filtered in, like light through the cracks.

“—non? Rhiannon. Look at me. Can you hear me?”

She nodded, and then the dam broke and she gasped for air as the weight on her chest eased, limbs in a shivery panic. Brelyna’s hands hovered above her, unsure.

“Calm down, it’s alright. Just breathe…”

Eventually, the shaking eased, and her breathing slowed, leaving her drenched in sweat with her throat dry and scraping. She curled up on her side, lecture notes crinkling beneath her elbow. Brelyna sat down at the foot of the bed. She was wearing her unbelted robes over her sleeping clothes, her hair sticking up on one side. Winterhold was too cold for her, even at the best of times.

“Same nightmare?”

Rhiannon nodded. Its visits were unpredictable. Sometimes she could go weeks without dreaming at all. Sometimes it lured her into a false sense of security by masquerading as a dream, the sensation of wind rushing beneath her wings as she spiraled high into the air. But it always ended the same – her hands scaly and clawed, a city bathed in fire, the taste of crackling fat and blood on her tongue.

“I’m sorry for waking you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I was still up.” Brelyna gave her a wan smile. “Tolfdir’s got me working on transmogrification. I have a flagon back in my room with eyes and eight handles.”

“That’s an improvement from last week,” Rhiannon pointed out, easing herself onto her back with a wince. “Please don’t show me.”

Brelyna laughed, but the worry was still there, lingering at the corners of her mouth. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m fine,” Rhiannon lied. “You should get some rest. Thank you for waking me up.”

Brelyna still looked skeptical, but she got up and wished Rhiannon a good night before retreating next door, back to her studies. Rhiannon curled up under her quilt and stared out her narrow window, across the Sea of Ghosts to where its end disappeared into the mists. Maybe if she walked across the ice and into the mists, she’d disappear too. This time, when sleep took her, she tumbled into dreamland and was met with soft hands, which wrapped her up like she was little more than a babe and carried her through a meadow of wildflowers. A whisper clung to her ears when she woke, sweet as honey.

Regardless of the creaking, The Wheel still turns.

----------

Celia hadn’t set foot on holy ground for upwards of twenty years, and if it had been up to her, she wouldn’t have bothered to start now. The gods hadn’t done her any favors. The statuary glared accusingly as she slunk into the Temple of the Divines, her wet cloak leaving puddles on the runner. Solitude had been hit by an unexpected summer storm, and heat lightning split the sky outside, carving through thick grey thunderheads tinged with green. Candles burned next to each altar, wax running down the iron stands. A figure rose from the pews to greet her, and she stopped short, frowning.

“You’re not Rikke.”

“Obviously,” Falk Fire-Beard said. Celia still didn’t believe that was his real family name. “This couldn’t wait.”

“Why would it have to wait? Rikke – “

“Left two days ago.” He crossed his arms. “I’ll keep this brief. Potema’s spirit lives on.”

“Wait, what?” Her stomach dropped, and her heart sunk right along with it. “I stopped the ritual!”

“When you stopped it, you left her soul trapped between life and death, and now she’s fled to the catacombs beneath the city.” Falk’s expression was grim. “Styr from the Hall of the Dead thinks she may be trying to regain her physical form.”

“Oh no. No, no, no.” Celia was already backing away, shaking her head. “I told Rikke I was done with all this. Find someone else.”

“Do you think I enjoy being indebted to a thief? If I could have, I would.”

Former thief.” More or less. “And what do you mean, ‘if you could have’?”

“You interrupted the ritual. The two of you are connected now, or so Styr believes. He insists that you’re the only one who can lay her to rest.”

The oath Celia uttered would have made Dibella Herself blush, and Falk motioned at her to keep it down, ears as red as his beard.

“Are you shitting me?” she hissed. “Because this sounds like a load of horseshit. Anyone with a bit of silver and a prayer can banish the undead.”

“Potema is no ordinary spirit,” he said, unmoved. Celia swore again, under her breath. The puddle around her boots grew ever wider. A clap of thunder echoed across the city, followed by a gust of snarling wind. The candles flickered, twisting the shadows of the altars across the wall. They seemed too big now, almost misshapen, and a thorn of fear snagged at her heart.

“Fine. Double my fee.” She jutted her chin out, daring him to object.

“Done. Don’t leave the city.” He picked up his own cloak and fastened it around his neck, clearly eager to be done with her. “Styr wants you to meet him in the Hall of the Dead tomorrow, just before midnight. He’ll tell you what to do.”

“Great.” She plunked down on the nearest pew. “Can’t fucking wait.”

“Solitude thanks you for your service,” Falk said, pulling his hood up. “Willing or otherwise.” He was halfway to the door before he seemed to realize that she was still seated. “Staying here?”

“Yeah. Think I’ll stick around for a while.”

“I didn’t take you for a religious woman.”

“I’m not,” she said, and settled in to wait out the storm.

----------

Up in Winterhold, the mild weather continued, air crisp and seabirds pinwheeling across a sky the color of mountain flowers. Rhiannon had spent the morning combing through anything she could find on dragons, which was a fair bit of reading thanks to Urag’s extensive collection. He must have been paying attention to her reading habits, because at one point he’d gone in the back without a word and found her a copy of something called Dragon Cults of the North. It looked promising, but she’d barely cracked it open before Onmund and Brelyna dragged her outside to enjoy the weather.

“You need some fresh air,” Onmund told her. “You never leave your room anymore.”

“Right,” she said, only half-listening. They were sitting on wrought iron benches in the corner of the courtyard, watching apprentices and professors stroll the walkways and duck in and out of various doors as they went about their day. Most everyone stopped to enjoy the sunshine at one point or another. Even Savos was out, talking softly with Tolfdir near the Hall of Elements. Rhiannon just wanted to get back to reading, but she knew she couldn’t leave without garnering suspicion.

The mask had begun to occupy most of her waking thoughts. Even when she was focused on other things, it sat patiently in the back of her mind, waiting for her attention to return. She still didn’t dare touch it with bare hands, but she’d taken to examining it when no one else was awake, running her gloved fingers across the runes etched into its surface like she could divine their meaning through touch alone. If she closed her eyes, she could almost feel its weight in her hands, humming against her palms as its blank eyes bore into her own. She was getting close to discovering its secrets, she knew it; she just need to keep digging. She was so close she could almost taste them –

“Rhiannon?”

She opened her eyes. Onmund was looking at her strangely, brow creased. “You alright?”

“Sorry. Long night.” The yawn wasn’t fake, at least. “I was up late studying Phinis’s lecture on Conjuration theory.”

“This one approves,” J’zargo said. He’d managed to squeeze between Onmund and Brelyna on the opposite bench (specifically to annoy Brelyna, Rhiannon assumed, since there was plenty of room next to her). Brelyna looked very cross indeed, but she couldn’t say anything without giving herself away. “It is good to see you studying something useful.”

Brelyna kicked him in the ankle. “Don’t be rude.”

“J’zargo is merely saying what others think,” he argued, and Onmund shook his head, nudging their shoulders together.

“Behave.”

“It’s fine,” Rhiannon said, and smiled at them. In a way, she appreciated J’zargo’s careless honesty. He could be trusted not to lie. “Someone has to be the healer.”

“When this one is Arch-Mage, he will give you Colette’s job,” he promised. “Brelyna can have Tolfdir’s position if she stops trying to kick J’zargo.”

“Who said I wanted it?” Brelyna retorted, but she looked pleased all the same.

Onmund looked between them. “What about me?”

“You said the other week that you do not think they would make a Khajiit Arch-Mage,” J’zargo informed him tartly. “There is no room on J’zargo’s staff for jealous Nords.”

“I didn’t mean I thought that,” Onmund protested over the sound of Rhiannon giggling. “I just meant – “

“Don’t look now,” Brelyna interrupted, motioning to the side with a quick jerk of her head, “but Mirabelle’s headed this way.”

The Master Wizard was indeed headed in their direction, and the pace at which she was bearing down on them suggested that nothing good lay in store. Several students gave her a visible berth as she blew past, robes fluttering. Onmund looked like he was going to apologize out of sheer reflex, but Mirabelle ignored the three of them and beckoned to Rhiannon, a strange, pinched look on her face.

“Come with me. Now, please.”

Rhiannon looked at Onmund, J’zargo and Brelyna, all of whom looked back at her with varying degrees of bafflement. She steeled herself and got to her feet. Mirabelle set off for the front gates at once, stomping through the thin layer of snow covering the courtyard, and Rhiannon had to do an awkward half-jog to keep up.

“What’s going on?”

Mirabelle glanced over her shoulder, still with that same odd expression. “You have a visitor.”

Something about the way she said it sent anxiety spiking through Rhiannon’s chest, heart beating erratically, but there was nowhere to go. Not with Mirabelle marching her towards the bridge. It was a long walk, made longer by the uncomfortable silence, and as they approached the end, Rhiannon could see Faralda, arguing indistinctly with someone in a hooded cloak. The words solidified as they drew closer.

“Only staff and students are allowed beyond this point. I won’t tell you again – Mirabelle!” Faralda looked less than amused, fingers twitching like she was barely holding back a spell. “Finally.”

Mirabelle said something, but her words might as well have been water, poured in one ear only to run out the other. Rhiannon stood rooted to the spot, mouth open and a thousand half-formed thoughts buzzing in her head as their visitor drew back the hood of her cloak. Their eyes locked.

“What are you doing here?” she finally managed.

“I told you it was an emergency,” Rikke said.

----------

Winterhold was a carcass picked clean, nothing but empty spaces and bones stripped bare and white; it was an echo of its former glory, a shanty town held together by its Jarl’s sheer stubbornness and bound at the seams by nostalgia. Only the Frozen Hearth offered any semblance of life, but like everything else in Winterhold, it had been worn down by the ravages of time and circumstance. Rikke was the only one staying there, apart from Nelacar, their permanent tenant. Rhiannon supposed it was a change of pace for Dagur and Haran, who depended almost entirely on bored College apprentices and traveling Stormcloak patrols for their livelihood.

She’d let Rikke lead her to the inn, but when Rikke opened the door and gestured for her to follow, she shook her head. Rikke stared at her, and she stared back, planted stubbornly on the topmost step. Neither of them spoke until Rikke let the door fall shut, half-frozen hinges creaking.

“You can’t really want to talk out here.”

“Did you come to conscript me?”

She hadn’t realized how angry she still was until the words clawed their way out of her mouth, looking for someone to hurt. Rikke opened her mouth, then closed it and sighed. She looked more haggard than the last time Rhiannon had seen her, deep lines carved around her mouth and bags beneath her eyes like bruises. She wore plainclothes, a quilted blue tunic and brown breeches, and her blonde hair hung in a limp braid over her shoulder.

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t.”

“Really? Because that last letter you sent certainly made it seem that way!” It came out too loud, and Rhiannon lowered her voice to a furious whisper, even though there was no one on the streets to hear them. “Do you have any idea – he destroyed my book, Rikke.” Rikke didn’t flinch, exactly, but her expression wavered. “It might not have been very good, but it was still mine, and now it’s gone.”

Rikke didn’t say anything. Just watched her, dark eyes unreadable, and Rhiannon took a deep, stuttering breath, trying to gather her thoughts.

“I thought you wanted to be my friend, and then you did that.”

How stupid she’d been, to hope. To think – she shook it off before it could go any further.

“This is why I didn’t want to tell you I was Dragonborn,” she said, and Rikke did flinch that time – barely noticeable, but there all the same. Good. “So pardon me for thinking you’re here to drag me back to Solitude, because – “

“Ulfric’s laying siege to Whiterun,” Rikke said.

“What?”

She had to have misheard. That was her first thought, even as a sick flush spread through her. The second thought was small, and not entirely conscious – Lydia.

“He finally forced Balgruuf’s hand. Didn’t like the answer he got.” Rikke rubbed at her eyes as she spoke, the words stiff, like she’d rehearsed them. She looked exhausted.  “The day I heard he was preparing to move out, I wrote you that letter. I was in a hurry, and I didn’t think – I didn’t know how else to get you to respond to me.”

“Well, I can assure you that’s not it!”

Rikke made a strangled noise of frustration and turned away from Rhiannon, composing herself. When she turned back, her face was calmer, but her voice was still strained. “I’m sorry, Rhiannon.”

“Are you?”

Yes. You have every right to be upset, but I’m not your enemy. I only came here to talk.”

“Why?” Rhiannon crossed her arms, shivering. Even though the day was mild, it was still cold, and the chill was starting to bite. “It didn’t have to be like this.”

Rikke opened the door again, and a tendril of warmth crept out before being swept away on the breeze. “Come inside,” she said. “Please.”

She was only going inside because it was cold, Rhiannon told herself as she stepped through the door, and her exposed skin tingled as it began to soak in the heat from the fire. Not because she actually wanted to hear what Rikke had to say. She settled at the table in the corner while Rikke spoke to Dagur at the counter, and came back a minute later with a bottle of spiced wine and two goblets. She poured them each one, and took a long drink of hers, fingers drumming the edge of the table. Rhiannon left the other one untouched.

“I did my job too well,” Rikke said eventually. “Convinced Tullius we needed you, and that having you would only bolster Ulfric’s bid for the throne. It wasn’t my intention for things to go this way.”

Of course she'd spoken with Tullius. Rhiannon looked down at her hands. “I thought you liked me." She knew she sounded petulant, but she couldn’t help it.

“Of course I – “ Rikke stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, expression pained. “It was never about that.”

“But – “

“This is war, Rhiannon.” Rikke’s eyes met hers again, and held them, solemn. “My loyalty is to Skyrim and the Legion, first and foremost. I’ve never pretended otherwise.”

Rhiannon slumped in her seat, staring at the table. It was in desperate need of a replacement. She knew that Rikke’s allegiance was to the Legion; if she wore a title, it would be either ‘Legate Primus’ or ‘traitor’, no in-betweens. It still stung to hear it voiced aloud.

“Why come here, then? Why tell me about Ulfric?”

“Because I do like you. And because I know that Whiterun has been a friend to you.” She held up a hand to forestall any protest. “I already said I’m not here to recruit you. I just thought you should know.”

“And now that I do?”

Rikke finished her wine before she spoke again. “I’m a soldier, not a politician, in case that wasn’t obvious by now.” She smiled wryly. “People come to me to join the Legion, not the other way around. I don’t have any grand speeches lined up for you. You’ve already proven that you’re going to do what you feel is right, and I’m not in the business of wasting my breath.”

“Just parchment,” Rhiannon said.

The look Rikke leveled at her was devastating. “I was afraid you were dead.”

Six words, and each one weighed more than the last. A chilly silence descended. Rhiannon chewed at her fingernail, avoiding Rikke’s eyes. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might not be the only one in pain. Rikke started in on the second goblet of wine.

“If you were me,” Rhiannon heard herself ask, “what would you do?”

“Fight,” Rikke said. “Not for the Legion, but alongside them, for the people I cared about.”

“I’m no fighter. You know that.”

“There’s always need for a healer, times like these.” Rikke finished her drink and stood, chair scraping across the floorboards. “Either way, I leave at dawn.”

“Wait,” Rhiannon said, standing, and Rikke stopped. She didn’t know why she said it. Despite everything, seeing Rikke again only to lose her to the mists stirred something fearful inside her, and she twisted her sleeves between her thumb and forefinger, resisting the urge to reach out. “If I don’t go with you… what then?”

“You stay here. Finish whatever it is you came to finish. I can’t guarantee the Stormcloaks won’t come calling, depending on what happens in Whiterun, but ultimately the choice is yours.” She took a step forward and bent at the waist, hand braced on the table. Her braid slipped over her shoulder to brush Rhiannon’s cheek. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about your book. What I saw of it was lovely.” Rhiannon stared up at her, throat tight, and Rikke stepped away. “If you do decide to come, meet me here by sunrise.”

The wind had picked up by the time Rhiannon let herself out of the inn, and it gripped at her with icy fingers. She tugged her hood low over her face and stepped off the porch, shivering. That hadn’t been how she’d wanted any of it to go. Judging by what she’d said, Rikke agreed. But it had, and there was nothing either of them could do about it now.

----------

She held out for most of the day, but in the end, she didn’t have a choice. Not really. If Rikke was trying to manipulate her, it had worked.

Or maybe she just thought you should know that almost every friend you’ve made in Skyrim could be dead before dawn. She stuffed the last of her books into her pack, visions of horrible events flashing before her eyes – Whiterun reduced to rubble, Riverwood in flames, Lydia’s broken body on the steps of Dragonsreach. Knowing was bad, but not knowing would have been infinitely worse, and Rikke had taken a risk, riding into Stormcloak territory just to bring her the message. Even with as bad as things had gotten between them, she’d still come, to give Rhiannon the choice. Not much of one, but a choice all the same.

She shook it off. Anyway, it’s not for her, or the Legion. It’s for them.

Something stirred in the back of her mind, like the unfurling of wings, and she felt rather than heard the voice, like scales rasping against her skin.

Yes, go. Show them what happens to those who would threaten a dovah’s roost.

“Stop that,” she said under her breath, digging through the wardrobe for her spare robes and boots. “Whiterun isn’t – I don’t even have a roost.”

They gave you a title, power, the thing that was her but not insisted, its voice like fire curling around the edges of parchment. It is yours. And now they aim to take it.

“I don’t care about any of that.” She stuffed her clothes and shoes into the bottom of her pack, then began to gather her books. “People I care about need help, so I’m going to help. That’s all.”

The dragon – or maybe dragons, plural, she couldn’t tell – didn’t respond, but she got the sense it didn’t think much of her answer. It had begun talking to her more frequently since Shearpoint; first in her dreams, and now in the waking hours. She assumed it had something to do with the souls she’d absorbed. It had frightened her at first, but now she found it more tolerable than the nightmares, which came and went as they pleased and left her wrung out and shaking like a leaf the following morning. She glanced at her nightstand, only to find it vacant, and frowned. I could have sworn I left that book on dragon cults right here…

“Oh!” A soft exclamation came from behind her, and she turned to find Colette, hovering wide-eyed in her doorway. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No, no. Is everything alright?”

“Oh, yes, it’s just…” Her gaze landed on the bulging pack, then slid back to Rhiannon. “You’re leaving again?”

“Ah, well… yes. Something urgent’s come up, so…”

“I suppose it was inevitable,” Colette sighed, more to herself than Rhiannon. “It’s not as if I have anything left to teach you.”

“Oh, Colette, no, it’s not that – “

“To be honest, I was hoping you might stay a bit longer. Maybe encourage the new crop of apprentices to try a school with a bit more refinement, instead of going straight for Destruction like they always do.”

Rhiannon bit her lip to keep from laughing. It was actually sort of sweet that Colette thought she had that much influence over anything. “I’m sorry. I really did want to stay longer, but, you know. Urgent business.”

Thankfully, Colette didn’t press her for details. “In that case, I have something for you. I’ll be right back.” Off she scurried, after exhorting Rhiannon not to move. When she returned a few minutes later, hands full of shimmering periwinkle fabric bordered with lilac and gold, Rhiannon’s hands flew to her mouth.

“Here,” Colette beamed, holding out the robes. “For a proper start to your journey this time.”

“I…” She had no idea what to say. “I can’t possibly accept these.”

“You can and you will,” Colette said, laying them gently across the bed. “Gods know you’ve earned the right to wear them.”

The fabric kissed Rhiannon’s fingers, soft as a spring morning; the gold clasp at the neck would mark her as a Master of the craft when she put them on, as would the insignia sewn onto the back. The enchantments woven into its fibers made her skin sing. The sudden lump in her throat stole whatever thanks she might have mustered, and she flung her arms around Colette, who returned the hug after a brief, startled beat. She might have been snobbish and dramatic, but she was still the best teacher Rhiannon had ever had, and that counted for something.

“I’m going to make you proud,” she promised, stepping back. “I will.”

“Oh, my dear,” Colette said, dabbing delicately at her eyes with her handkerchief. “You already have.”

----------

She couldn’t stomach another set of goodbyes, so she left notes for Onmund and Brelyna and snuck out shortly before dawn, lugging her pack and satchel behind her. Morning was creeping ever closer, stars still twinkling in a dove-grey sky, and she nearly made it to the front gates before a voice came from her right and made her jump. “No letter for me? J’zargo is hurt.”

“You scared me!” She smacked his shoulder lightly as he stepped in front of her, and he grinned, tail swishing.

“Well?”

“Well, I… didn’t think you’d care much that I was leaving, honestly.”

“Do you not consider this one a friend?”

“I thought you said you didn’t have friends. Just potential rivals.”

He waved a paw dismissively. “J’zargo could master Restoration if he wanted to, but luckily for you, he has no interest. We are not rivals.”

She laughed. “Then I’m going to miss you, my friend.”

“At least tell J’zargo where you are going,” he wheedled, eyes bright. “Dragonborn business?”

“Not exactly.” She dodged around him, heading for the bridge. “If I survive, I’ll tell you all about it, promise.”

“Do not die!” he called after her. “Or J’zargo will be very disappointed in you.”

 

Winterhold stood motionless, its streets deserted and snow-swept, save the lone figure on horseback in front of the inn. “Wait!” Rhiannon yelled, shuffling as fast as she dared on the slick, frozen dirt. Both horse and rider hesitated, but then came trotting to meet her, hooves churning through the slush.

“I didn’t think you were coming,” Rikke said, peering down at her. She was wearing a heavy woolen cloak and cowl that hid most of her face, but what Rhiannon could see of it looked almost relieved.

(I was afraid you were dead.)

“I’m not doing this for the Legion,” Rhiannon reminded her, hiking her pack up around her shoulders. Or you, went the unspoken refrain.

“I know,” Rikke said. The sky was beginning to lighten, the first fingers of sunlight clinging to the horizon. “This is a non-stop ride to Hjaalmarch. I intend to be there in less than three days. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” She lifted her chin. If she couldn’t escape her destiny, she could at least face it with her head held high for once in her life. “I’m ready.”

This time, it was Rikke who looked away first. “Good,” she said. “Let’s find you a horse.”

Chapter Text

Even in the depths of winter, no matter how thickly the snow fell, or how hard the wind howled, there was nothing in Skyrim quite so cold as a crypt where the dead had risen. Celia’s teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, and she clenched her jaw as she stole down the hallway, hands tucked into her armpits to keep her fingers warm. Water dripped on stone in the background, a steady plip-plip-plip echoing faintly from another chamber. There was almost no light to speak of, but she kept moving forward, praying that Potema’s minions couldn’t sense her coming.

The floor dropped away without warning, and only her reflexes, honed by a life of close calls and narrow escapes, kept her from tumbling headfirst to the bottom of the stairs. She crouched there for a moment, one hand braced against the wall, staring into the gloom and straining to catch any sound that might give away what waited below.

“Yes, come to me,” the Wolf Queen crooned in her ear, her presence stronger than ever. Celia fought the urge to gag as it pressed in on her, air grown putrid and heavy. “I have so much to thank you for.”

“Stuff it,” Celia muttered, and began to edge down the stairs, sword in hand.

“Your manners need work,” Potema continued, undeterred. “But you stopped those fools from binding me, and now, you will take your place by my side as my champion.”

“I said stuff it!”

Thankfully, no more of the Wolf Queen’s faithful waited for her at the bottom. Just an empty chamber without a door. She felt along the walls with gloved fingers until she found a thin, unbroken crack that ran from floor to ceiling, and the faintest hint of a breeze blowing through. There was no handle or lever to be found, and after some fruitless fumbling, Celia gave up and cast Magelight. Not that she was much of a mage, but she knew a few basic cantrips, in case of emergency. Light cupped in her palm, she turned around.

“Hello, darling,” Brynjolf said, flashing his most charming grin, and nearly got himself stabbed for his trouble.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Celia demanded as soon as she got her breath back. Brynjolf flexed his arm, where the edge of her blade had sliced into the leather to leave a shallow cut, and grimaced.

“Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch. You always did know how to make a man feel welcome.”

“You have five seconds to quit being a bastard before I stab you again.”

“There’s that delightful hospitality of yours. I missed it so.” Brynjolf patted the rusty lever on the wall next to him, which she’d completely missed when she’d stumbled by in the darkness. Maybe she really was losing her touch. “Taking on the Wolf Queen all by yourself seems like a tall order. Thought I might lend a hand.”

“Oh, for – how long have you been following me?”

He shrugged. “You didn’t come by to say hello.”

“What, was leaving the Guild twenty years ago not enough of a hint for you lot?”

“CHAMPION,” Potema’s voice thundered in her head, and Celia clapped her hands over her ears on instinct. “I GROW TIRED OF THIS. COME FACE ME AT ONCE.” Each word was a club to the inside of her skull, forcing her to her knees with gritted teeth, and then it was over and she was shaking, hunched over on all fours. Brynjolf knelt next to her, hand on her shoulder.

“Potema?”

She nodded, sucked in a harsh breath. Her head was still pounding. “We have some kind of weird link… priest said that’s why I had to be the one to do it. Only reason I’m here.”

“Did he say you couldn’t have help?”

She had to laugh. “Always looking for loopholes. Still your best quality.”

“Really? Delvin always says it’s my hair.” He straightened up and reached for the lever. The wall trembled when he pulled it, dust falling from the ceiling as stone scraped against stone, and the door began to turn. Behind it, Celia caught a glimpse of a rusted iron gate, rising and falling as the wall spun. Brynjolf threw the lever again, and brought both to a screeching halt. It was a tight fit, but there was enough of a gap for them to squeeze through. Beyond it lay the next chamber, cast in a ghoulish purple light. A massive iron brazier burned in its center, violet flames writhing over the coals. Brynjolf waggled his eyebrows at her. “And my timing.”

Celia gestured rudely in his direction and got up before Potema could scream at her again. Brynjolf wasn’t there out of the goodness of his heart; she knew him too well for that. But help from an old friend was better than going alone, with gods knew what waiting for her at the other end of the secret passage, and she picked up her sword.

“When we get out of this shithole, I want you to tell me why you’re really here, and I’m not promising anything. Got it?”

“Of course,” Brynjolf said, and his tone only made her more suspicious than ever. “Lead the way.”

-----------

She’d been warned that the journey would be brutal, but Rhiannon was unprepared for what that meant once they actually got going. She hadn’t ridden a horse in ages, and even though her mount was steady, her thighs and rear ached, teeth rattling as she was jolted down the road at a breakneck pace. It was all she could do to hold on, and in a way, a relief when everything below the waist started to go numb, even though she’d be paying for it later. At least there was no room for conversation.

Rikke rode ahead, braid streaming banner-like behind her. The plan was to cut past Dawnstar, towards the mountains, and then ride through the swamps until they arrived at the Hjaalmarch Legion camp. Rhiannon didn’t much like the sound of the swamps, but they had to be better than snow, and either way, she’d volunteered for this. The sooner they all joined forces to march for Whiterun, the better.

The Pale never melted, even in the summer, and Rikke drove their horses through copses of pine trees and snowbanks like a woman possessed, wind slicing at their exposed skin and branches snagging Rhiannon’s hair. Afternoon dragged on into evening in one mindless, blurry expanse, and Rhiannon stopped thinking about anything but holding onto the reins and breathing. Her lungs ached from the frigid air; muscles she didn’t know she had burned. Her mount lathered beneath her, sides heaving, and she was beginning to wonder if Rikke really did intend on a non-stop push for Morthal when the silhouette in front of her slowed and wheeled around to halt her, hand outstretched.

“We’ll break soon,” Rikke said, like they’d been out for a leisurely stroll instead of a day-long wilderness trek. “Give the horses a rest. There’s a spot not far from here that’ll do.”

The spot turned out to be a little shack in the woods, long-abandoned but well-hidden in a little copse where it could blend seamlessly into the trees. Pale orange light filtered through the surrounding branches, dulled by the snow and mist coming off the sea. Rhiannon dismounted and immediately stumbled, stiff legs refusing to support her weight. Rikke was kind enough to pretend she hadn’t noticed, and Rhiannon staggered into the shack, face burning in the cold. Inside, there was a firepit and two chairs, along with a threadbare cot squeezed into the corner by a stack of kindling. Not much in the way of amenities, but the door bolted and the walls kept out the worst of the elements. All in all, they could have done worse.

“I’d try to sleep soon, if I were you,” Rikke said, latching the door behind her. She was carrying both of their packs effortlessly, which did something odd to Rhiannon’s insides. She chalked it up to envy. “We need to be back on the road before dawn.”

“I will. What is this place?”

Rikke set their packs in the corner, next to the cot. “Legion drop-point,” she said. “Assets and couriers use it to deliver sensitive information when it’s too risky to relay directly.”

“Oh.”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so Rhiannon gathered the driest bits of kindling and built a fire while Rikke split their rations. There was dried meat and bread, plus some hard cheese and candied fruit Rhiannon had snagged from the College mess hall, but little else. Rikke sat so she could see the door and ate, but it was all Rhiannon could do to choke down a few bites. Wind whistled through a gap in the slats.

“When we get to Morthal.” She picked at her meal. “What happens?”

“We meet up with the reinforcements from Solitude, then ride for Whiterun from there.”

This was all wrong – the terrible, stilted conversation, the way Rikke kept avoiding her eyes. She worried at her dried venison, shredding it into tiny strips with her fingernails. “And when we get to Whiterun?”

“We join up with the battalion that was stationed there prior, Divines willing, and keep Ulfric from taking it. Balgruuf’s not happy he was forced into asking for our help, but he did it for his people. And his lands.” Rikke stared at the door. “He can be greedy, Balgruuf, but he has a good heart beneath it.”

“He cares about his hold."

“He does. And now you know where I’ll be. You, I suppose, have options.”

“That’s refreshing. Now I just have to figure out which one won’t end in utter disaster.”

Rikke might have smiled. Rhiannon couldn’t tell. “Go wherever you feel you’ll do the most good.”

“The most good," Rhiannon echoed. “I wish I knew what that was.”

“You chose to come,” Rikke said, and the slight edge to her voice put Rhiannon’s back up. “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”

“I wasn’t asking you for an answer,” she said, peevish, and neither of them spoke for a while. The fire and the wind whispered to one another in the background. Rikke picked up a stick and prodded the kindling.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” 

Rhiannon had to think about it for a minute, and was privately horrified that she had to think about it at all.

“Not directly. Not… not a person, anyway.”

“I have.”

Rhiannon had known that, somewhere in the back of her mind – Rikke was a soldier, and a survivor of the Great War. Of course she had. But hearing it stated so bluntly was like a slap to the face, and she shuddered, burrowing deeper into her cloak. Rikke wasn’t done.

“I’ve killed so many that I’ve lost count. Killed people I once called friends, even, and sent more of my former brothers and sisters in arms to Sovngarde than I care to remember.” She looked more resigned than anything as she spoke, staring into the fire with heavy eyes. “Come Whiterun, it’ll be more.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to understand what you’ll be walking into once we arrive.” Rikke tossed her stick into the fire. “There’s nothing that prepares you for the front lines if you’ve never been. Up there, none of us are innocent.”

“The people of Whiterun are.”

“And you may not be able to save them, not all of them. You may end up watching them die.” Rikke caught Rhiannon’s eye. “Are you prepared for that?”

“How on Nirn are you supposed to prepare for something like that?”

“You’ll have to figure that out before we get there,” Rikke said. “Take the cot. I’ll keep watch.”

There wasn’t any point in arguing, and every inch of her was screaming to lay down, so Rhiannon curled up on the cot, using her cloak as a makeshift blanket. Rikke stayed where she was, hunched in her chair. Rhiannon watched her through half-closed lids, lashes blurring her vision.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “For not responding to you.”

Rikke didn’t say anything at first, but then she nodded curtly and straightened up.

“Congratulations.” Upon seeing Rhiannon’s blank expression, she added, “Your robes. You’re a Master now, aren’t you? Or am I reading that wrong?”

“Oh. No, you’re right. Thank you.” Rhiannon yawned. “It’s strange, but I studied for this half my life, and now that I have it… well, with everything else going on, it hardly seems to matter.”

“It matters,” Rikke said.

Sleep didn’t come easily, but Rhiannon took what she could, tossing fitfully while the cot squeaked beneath her. At one point, she woke in darkness, warmth surrounding her, and through the haze, she reached out and felt a second layer of wool draped over the first. Rikke dozed in her spot across from the door, sword flat across her knee. She wasn’t wearing her cloak.

----------

The last of Potema’s inner council fell, and the Wolf Queen herself rose from her throne, air sulfurous and lightning-sharp all around her.

“Come, mortal,” she said, and beckoned with ghostly fingers. “Let us end this.”

Celia’s arm burned from a gash across her bicep, blood warm where it trickled down past her elbow – a parting gift from the vampire whose brains currently adorned the adjacent wall. At least it wasn’t her sword arm. Lightning slammed into the floor next to her, stone cracking, and she rolled away and lunged, blade-first. Brynjolf crouched in the doorway behind her, arrow nocked on the string of a stolen bow.

(“I’m not much of an archer.”

“I know. But in case she tries to raise me – “

“I know.”)

Potema was powerful, and she was no longer bound by the limitations of her mortal body, but she wasn’t invincible. She could bleed, and she could fall. Their feet drummed stone while they fought, whirling around the chamber, pots shattering and sarcophagi cracking in half from bolts of rogue electricity. Potema’s sword sliced her side, a shallow cut along her ribs where she dodged the thrust aimed at her heart. She lashed out with her own and opened the meat of Potema’s thigh, ghostly blue blood staining her blade and the floor. They clashed once more, then sprang apart, circling one another and licking their wounds.

“When you fall, I’m going to enthrall both you and your friend,” Potema said, flicking Celia’s blood from her sword. Her smile was ghastly. “And then you will truly know what it is to wish for death.”

“Oh, you can just fuck right off,” Celia panted, and threw herself out of range of another lightning bolt.

She wasn’t as young as she used to be, and her stamina was dwindling rapidly, her body protesting the strain of prolonged combat. Her next chance to end it would be her last. One of Potema’s swings went wide, her blade deflecting off of Celia’s; when she raised her arm again for a second blow, Celia summoned one last, desperate burst of energy and channeled it to her off-hand, filling it with flame. She knocked Potema’s sword away and smashed the fireball directly into her face.

Potema’s anguished shrieking shook the chamber, dust raining from the ceiling as she staggered and thrashed, clawing at her smoldering eyes. When Celia stabbed her through the heart, her wailing amplified, echoing off the walls as her spectral form dissolved into so much ash. The last specks drifted to the floor with a hiss, and then there was nothing left of the Wolf Queen, save the naked, grinning skull on its throne.

“You alright?” Brynjolf asked, lowering his bow. Celia staggered forward and grabbed the skull, turning it over in her hands. Its empty eye sockets stared up at her, vacant, its jaw hanging loose. She turned it away so it couldn’t look at her anymore. “Celia?”

“Why are you here, Bryn? Really.”

He was so quiet at first that she thought he might have left, but when she turned around, there he was, expression serious in a way she’d only seen once before. Her stomach knotted in on itself out of instinct.

“It’s about Mercer,” he said.

For a second, she thought she might throw up. “What about him?”

“Take that back to your priest first.” Brynjolf nodded at the skull in her hands. “Then, we go to the Skeever.”

“For fuck’s sake, will you just spit it out already? What’s going on?”

“Trust me.” He slung the bow over his shoulder. “You’re going to want to be drunk for this.”

----------

Of all the ways she’d imagined they’d meet again (and she had imagined, maybe more than she wanted to admit), this particular scenario hadn’t made it onto Rikke’s list. Then again, Rhiannon had a habit of defying expectation without even realizing it.

“You said last night that you’ve sent more people to Sovngarde than you want to think about,” she said now, perched cross-legged on top of her cloak. They were camped on the border between The Pale and Hjaalmarch, where snow-capped mountains stood locked in an eternal stalemate with humid swamplands. The transition had been gradual at first, but now it was muggy and sticky and left Rikke wishing for the cold again. It was the first thing either of them had said all day. “Do all Nords go there when they die?”

“The ones who die valiant deaths.”

“That explains a lot.” The moonlight washed Rhiannon silver, her hair the color of old blood. She looked different, somehow, even though everything seemed more or less the same. Her hair was shorter now, the planes of her face harder, like some of her softness had been chiseled away by an unseen hand. Even her smile was tired. Unfair, really, to still be that pretty when she looked that tired. “I’ve never seen so many people so eager to court their own demise.”

Her words rankled, even though there was truth to them. Rikke pushed it down. “A true Nord doesn’t fear death,” she said. “It’s the how and why of it that needs considering.”

“So, dying doesn’t frighten you,” Rhiannon pressed, leaning in. They hadn’t built a fire – with the heat, there was no need to risk unwanted attention – and the shadows slid across her face, leaving only one side of it visible. “Not even a little?”

“No.” How could it, when it had surrounded her since birth? She’d known Rhiannon was of minor nobility and wealth, raised in comfort, but never had she seemed so sheltered as she did right then. “If I were afraid of death, do you think I would have become a soldier?”

“Yes,” Rhiannon said quietly. “I think you care so much for Skyrim that even if you had never enlisted, this war would have driven you to it eventually.”

Well, Rikke thought, she wasn’t wrong.

“Many have already died for Skyrim. If it comes to it, I can think of no greater honor than counting myself among them.”

“Not to offend, but… don’t you think you’d be of more use to her alive than dead?”

“I serve as I’ve sworn to do, however I’m able. If I end up sacrificing myself in the process, then so be it, but there’s no point in dwelling on it. If I did, I never would have made it through my first battle.”

“Maybe so, but it seems strange to call dying in this war an honor.”

“Dying for what I believe is an honor,” Rikke said sharply, her patience beginning to wear thin. “The greatest I could ever ask for. Or do you think I’d be better off dying a coward’s death, weak and alone without dignity?”

Rhiannon flushed. “I wasn’t – I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Feel free to tell me what you meant, then.”

“I…” Rhiannon took a deep breath. “I only meant that a senseless death doesn’t seem like much of an honor. Not if it could have been prevented. And I may not know much, but from everything I’ve been told, it seems like this whole war could have been prevented. Am I wrong to think that?”

“It could have been, maybe. Once.” And it was senseless. On that much, they could agree. “Ulfric’s intentions were noble, in the beginning. Now, he simply wants to be king.”

“Would he make a good king?”

A question Rikke would have refused to entertain if it had come from anyone else. “Nobody who wants the throne as much as Ulfric does should be allowed to have it.”

“Would he ever have?”

“He’s lost sight of the truth,” Rikke said. Young Ulfric, her friend Ulfric, was a subject she didn’t want to touch. Not right then. “And Skyrim suffers for it. At this point, the only way the war ends is with someone’s head. So no, I can't say he would have.”

“All this talk about dying,” Rhiannon said, and sighed. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Dying for Skyrim, dying for the Legion, dying with honor.” She looked at Rikke steadily, expression unreadable in the dark. “What about living?”

“Skyrim – “

“Please,” she said, voice soft and a little shy again, and Rikke fell silent. “Put Skyrim aside, just for a minute. What do you love? What do you want out of this life? You. Not the Legate, just Rikke.” The clouds drew back from the moon, and the light turned her silver again, with her thick dark hair and big dark eyes veiled by her lashes. “What are you living for?”

For the first time in a long time, Rikke found herself at a loss. Nobody had ever asked her that. Nobody had the right to ask her that, to question everything she’d built her life around, and as quickly as it had come, bewilderment shifted into anger.

“I don’t have the luxury of those being separate people, Rhiannon. And I don’t know what you want from me here, so if you have something to say, just say it.”

“Oh, you are just impossible!” Rhiannon snapped, and got to her feet, twigs cracking beneath her boots. The shift in her mood was jarring, as was the scowl. “Fine, spit on the gifts Kynareth and Mara have given you, as if life is just some… some stepping stone to Sovngarde!” 

“Me?!” It took every ounce of willpower Rikke possessed to remain seated, gripping her waterskin so tightly she was liable to puncture it. “You could save lives if you joined the Legion. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them! And you have the nerve to talk to me about squandering gifts from the gods?”

“I knew it! I knew you were still upset about that!”

“Of course I’m upset! You ignored me for weeks, I had no idea what happened to you or where you went after Riften, and I was afraid you might be dead! Or worse!”

The words hit Rhiannon, and she folded in half like all the air had gone out of her, arms wrapped around her middle. Angry one minute, and now morose the next, eyes huge and hurt.

“I just wanted it to be like it was,” she said. “But as soon as you found out, you started treating me like just another piece on the board.”

“That’s all any of us are,” Rikke said. “Whether you like it or not.”

Rhiannon said something under her breath that Rikke didn’t catch and slunk away to sit on a tree stump several paces from their campsite, arms still crossed. All Rikke could see of her was her back, which trembled now and again, like she was trying not to cry. Guilt cut through some of the less charitable feelings. “Rhiannon – “

“I don’t want to talk anymore,” came the reply, brittle as dead leaves.

And she called me impossible. “Fine.”

She desperately wanted a drink, but there was none to be found, and she needed her wits about her regardless. They were still half a day’s ride from Morthal, and there were worse things than awkward conversation lurking in the swamp. She stole another glance at Rhiannon’s back, which remained resolutely turned. Something cried in the distance, low and mournful, its voice rising and falling in one endless, unceasing howl. Rikke stretched out on her bedroll, one hand on her sword, and waited for the noise to die down. That night, she slept with one eye open.

----------

The sun rose sluggish the following morning, and by the time it crept into the sky, Rikke had been up for at least an hour, running through the Nine Blocks and Blows of Ysagramor. Simple combinations she’d learned in her earliest days, meant to keep her reflexes sharp and her mind clear. She did them when she needed that clarity, which was now more than ever with her thoughts as soupy as they were. Her blade flashed in the weak light, insects droning from the gnarled, leafless trees surrounding her; when she buried it point-first into the nearest one, its trunk crumpled inward, rotten to its core.

She yanked her sword from the bark, breathing hard. Sweat stung her eyes, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand, squinting across the muddy, shrouded expanse of the swamp. Solitude lay just on the other side, lost to the fog.

 

“With all due respect,” she’d said not long ago, as she and Tullius faced each other in Castle Dour’s war room, “conscription is a dangerous thing to push when tensions are this high. The Jarls are already complaining about us allocating half their Hold guards as it is.”

“I’m aware.” The muscles in Tullius’s forearms stood out when he braced his hands on the table’s edge, frown lines scored deep across his brow. “I’ve held off on issuing the conscription articles to avoid driving Balgruuf into Ulfric’s arms. That’s the last thing we need. But with a second neutral entity in play, it may be time to force someone’s hand.” A prospect neither of them relished, but she would set it in motion if he deemed it necessary – he hadn’t earned his reputation by sitting back and waiting for things to change on their own.

“Sir,” Rikke said, inclining her head, and he looked at her from across the map, lips thinning.

“Do you have a better idea?” She’d stayed silent, and he’d nodded, apparently satisfied. “The Dragonborn. Tell me what we’re dealing with…”

 

“Rikke?”

Rhiannon’s voice drew her back to the present, and when Rikke turned, there she was, hovering uncertainly between Rikke’s position and the camp with her hair all mussed from sleep. Rikke sheathed her sword.

“Have you been awake long?”

“Not very.” Rhiannon twisted a lock of hair around her finger, studiously avoiding Rikke’s eyes. “About our conversation last night…”

Right. That. Rikke unhooked her waterskin from her belt and drank, stalling while she gathered her thoughts. She was surprised when Rhiannon spoke first.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you like I did, or lost my temper. I just… I miss how easy it was for us to talk while we were apart, and now that we’re in the same place…” She gestured at the open space between them. “It doesn’t feel the same, and I can’t help missing it. I’m sorry for that too.”

Rikke let the words sit for a minute while she capped her waterskin and hung it from her belt. Then, she stepped forward and put a tentative hand on Rhiannon’s shoulder, gratified to notice that she didn’t flinch away. “I have something for you.”

Her pack sat next to her bedroll, and she rifled through it until she found what she was looking for. Rhiannon waited close behind, and curiosity wrestled with apprehension across her face when Rikke handed over a square of parchment no bigger than her palm. “What is it?”

“Open it.”

Rhiannon unfolded it, and her hand flew to her mouth.

“When I heard what happened, I thought you might want that back,” Rikke said. The page of snowberry facts and diagrams fluttered in Rhiannon’s grasp, carefully preserved. “I really am sorry. For everything.”

Rhiannon looked from her to the parchment, then back again. “You really kept it?”

“Of course,” Rikke said, confused. “Why wouldn’t I?” This was evidently the wrong thing to say, because Rhiannon’s eyes started to fill with tears, and Rikke’s stomach dropped. “Oh, no, don’t – “

But it was too late. Rhiannon threw her arms around Rikke with an aborted sob, and Rikke froze, her own arms dangling by her sides.

Rhiannon’s grip was surprisingly sturdy, her body soft where she’d molded herself to Rikke’s front. Little tremors ran through her every so often. They stayed like that for a long moment, Rhiannon holding on tight, Rikke rooted to the spot while the bog gurgled softly beside them. She wasn’t sure she remembered the last time someone had hugged her. She placed a hesitant hand on Rhiannon’s back, robes silky against her palm, and Rhiannon lifted her head. She was still on the verge of tears, cheeks flushed, but her smile was real. A stray beam of sunlight caught her hair and turned it the burnished red-gold of autumn leaves.

“Thank you,” she said, and laughed a little, even as she sniffled. “You have no idea what this means to me.”

“You don’t need to thank me.” The responsible thing to do would be to pull back instead of standing there like a fool, wondering if Rhiannon’s hair was as soft as her robes. They should have been on the road by then. It still took a considerable amount of self-control to drop her hand back to her side. Rhiannon suddenly seemed to realize what she’d been doing, because she let go of Rikke and backed up hastily, fussing with her clothes. Rikke ignored the twinge of disappointment it brought. She’d had plenty of practice at ignoring twinges. “We should keep moving. It’s not much farther now.”

“Right,” Rhiannon said, back to avoiding eye contact, and she thrust the parchment in Rikke’s direction. “You should keep this.”

“I brought it back for you.”

“It was a gift.” Rhiannon’s flush deepened. “Keep it. Please.”

If that was what she wanted, Rikke wasn’t going to argue. “I will, then. Thank you.” She took it and folded it up once more, tucking it away next to her heart for safekeeping. Rhiannon pushed an errant curl behind her ear, looking relieved.

“So… what’s life in the camps like? I assume I’ll be staying with you overnight, if you have the room.”

Back on safe, familiar ground, then. Rikke stooped down and picked up her pack. “We’ve managed tighter squeezes before,” she said. “Get your horse tacked up, and I’ll tell you all about it on the way.”

-----------

“So you’re not even the slightest bit concerned about the fact that you’re twenty-eight years old and have had only a single marriage proposal?”

“Gods willing, it’ll be another twenty-eight years before someone else is foolish enough to try.”

“Sabine!”

“Relax, Mum,” Sabine had said, hidden by the long, flowering curtains of morning glory hanging from the balcony. Rhiannon could practically hear her tossing her hair. It was the morning of one of her sister’s infrequent visits, almost two years to the day before she’d departed for Skyrim, and Sabine and their mother were taking a stroll in the garden. They hadn’t realized Rhiannon was there, and she’d told herself that it didn’t count as eavesdropping as long as she was tending to the plants while she listened. “You have five other children. Go pester one of them.”

“That’s just it.” Lalatia sounded exasperated at the mere mention of her offspring – not an uncommon occurrence. “Marcus and Talia have been married for three years, and still nothing. Oliver is more interested in the guard captaincy than women, Zeno is finishing up his apprenticeship, and Jak is still going through that… phase of his. The last thing I need is two childless spinsters on top of everything else.”

“Rhiannon’s barely twenty-one,” Sabine pointed out, sounding more amused than anything. “Already given up on her, have you?”

“She gets along better with plants than people.” Lalatia sighed. “She rarely leaves the garden these days. I have to wonder if it’s healthy, the amount of time she spends here."

“Oh, I’m sure there are priests and merchants out there looking for a nice, boring little wife to tend their gardens. Go find her one of those, and you’ve solved everyone’s problem.”

You, Miss Sabine, need to worry less about your sister and more about answering my letters. You know I don’t like going months at a time without hearing from you while you’re away.”

“Yes, Mother,” Sabine had said, remorseless. Rhiannon dug her fingers into the cool earth, ripping a weed up by the roots, and stopped listening entirely.

----------

In truth, she had no idea whether or not she wanted to get married. It was the assumption that bothered her. She’d had more important things on her mind back then, like becoming a healer and finishing her compendium. Just because she hadn’t met anyone that made her feel… however it was that she was supposed to feel didn’t meant that she couldn’t. It just hadn’t happened yet.

Until that morning.

They were within an hour’s ride of the camp, according to Rikke’s calculations. Rhiannon knew she should have been focusing on preparations for when they arrived – Rikke had said they should be able to put her in the healer’s quarters for the night – but her thoughts kept drifting back to the clearing, sunlight caressing her face and Rikke’s body solid and unyielding against her own.

It was only the second time they’d touched, she realized. The first time, when Rikke helped her to her feet months ago, had barely registered, but this was different. She was different. If she’d thought about it first, she probably wouldn’t have done it; Rikke wasn’t the sort of person one casually embraced. But she hadn’t pushed Rhiannon away, either. Rhiannon could still feel the weight of her hand if she focused hard enough, the warmth of her palm, fingers splayed across the small of her back. Her horse shifted beneath her, and she shifted with him, gripping the reins tight in both hands.

Too late, she realized what she was doing, and loosened her hold guiltily. She’d promised herself no more complicated, conflicting feelings where Rikke was concerned. That was the last thing either of them needed, especially with the battle at Whiterun looming so close at hand. Two days later, and a simple touch was enough to drive her to distraction. What was wrong with her?

“We’re close,” Rikke said, and glanced over her shoulder. “Everything alright?”

“Yes!” She hadn’t realized she was lagging so far behind. She nudged her horse into a trot and fell in line with Rikke once more. “Everything’s fine.”

“Good. Stick near me.” Rikke’s bare arm flexed when she swept her braid off the back of her neck, muscle bunching beneath her skin. “The marshes around here are teeming with gods know what. Better safe than sorry.”

“Right,” Rhiannon said weakly, and sent up a silent prayer to Dibella asking if this was really necessary. For a second, it sounded like the birdcalls overhead turned to laughter.

The first of the tents came into view not long after, muddy canvas bordered with scarlet, and then they rounded the bend and the rest emerged, spilling out behind them. Rhiannon had tried to picture it while Rikke was talking, but she’d grossly underestimated the size. It was more like a small village than the collection of tents around a fire she’d been picturing. The closer they got, the more clearly she could pick out individual threads of noise from the tapestry of sound that made up camp life – wagon wheels creaking through mud, hooves beating against the ground, the crackle of fire and the tang of woodsmoke, feet running and voices rising and falling on all sides. There were people wherever she looked, running past, ducking in and out of tents, sitting around the fire, cleaning their equipment, singing… after the relative sanctuary of the College, it was immediately overwhelming, and she stuck close to Rikke as they came to a halt at the hitching post, just outside the main campground.

“Legate!” The nearest of the guards noticed them first, and he and his compatriot saluted hastily, running over to take her horse’s reins in hand while she dismounted.

“At ease,” Rikke said, tone crisp, and Rhiannon marveled at how seamless it was, her transformation from Rikke to the Legate Primus. “Have the reinforcements arrived from Solitude?”

“Yes ma’am,” the other legionnaire said, moving to take the reins off Rhiannon’s hands so she could dismount as well. “Legate Duilis is in his tent. He asked to see you as soon as you got in.”

“Very good.” Rikke held out her hand, silently offering assistance, and Rhiannon took it to dismount, trying to ignore both the curious glances of the guards and the feel of Rikke’s hand in hers. Easier said than done. “Where’s the quartermaster?”

The first guard motioned behind them, into the heart of the chaos. “Think he was outfitting some of the newer recruits with better weapons.”

“Thank you, soldier. Carry on.”

Rhiannon had to jog to keep up when Rikke set off, her long-legged stride opening a path as everyone hurried to get out of the way. “I’m sorry to dump you on Nels and run, but I’m behind schedule,” she said over her shoulder. “Rest assured, he’s an excellent quartermaster. He’ll see to whatever you need.”

The quartermaster’s tent was joined with the equipment tent under one big canopy, and Rikke ducked inside, holding the flap open for Rhiannon. “Look sharp, Oaken-Shield. We have a guest.”

“Legate,” The Nord in the corner rumbled, his voice a pleasant baritone. He was big, even sitting down, with close-cropped brown hair and short braids in his beard; in his hands, the bow he was stringing looked like a child’s toy. When he stood, Rhiannon had to tilt her head back to look up at him properly. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “Who’s this?”

“This is Rhiannon. She’s one of Balgruuf’s Thanes.” Nels’s eyebrows went up slightly, but he remained silent. “She’s going to be traveling with us to assist in quashing Ulfric’s siege. I need you to show her to the healer’s tent so she can get settled.”

“Of course,” Nels said. Rikke nodded at them both, eyes lingering on Rhiannon for a split second, and then she was gone and it was just the two of them, standing in the middle of cramped tent surrounded by weaponry. Rhiannon had to wonder how a man as big as he was managed. He didn’t seem unduly concerned. “Rhiannon, was it?”

“Y-yes. Rhiannon Amorell. Nice to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise. Come on, I’ll take you to your quarters for the night. We only have two other healers right now, so there should be plenty of room.” He led her out of the tent and across the camp, keeping his pace slow enough for her to stay close behind. She suspected he’d had a fair amount of practice, given that he was at least a full head above the rest of the crowd. “You enlisting?”

“Not… exactly. It’s, ah… it’s complicated.”

Nels didn’t press it, but he did turn his head to look at her for a second, gaze assessing. “So, one of Balgruuf’s Thanes?”

“Yes.”

“Pretty unusual, for a Jarl to elevate an outsider to a member of the court.” He scratched the back of his neck. “No offense intended.”

“None taken. It’s a long story.”

“Sounds like it,” he said, and dropped the subject. Rhiannon found herself liking him already.

The two Legion healers, a Nord named Inga and a Redguard named Azzan, welcomed her readily enough once Nels made introductions, and she was given one of the spare cots and a blanket – “Don’t know why you’d want it in this heat, but it’s yours,” Inga said. She’d thought Nels might leave once he’d seen her to her destination, but he hung around for a bit, chatting with Azzan while Rhiannon fussed with her pack and tried to look busy. If she waited long enough, they might all go to supper and leave her be. The faint scent of stew was already drifting past the tent, flanked by the fat-crackled scent of roasting meet. Instead, two scouts came by, along with the camp’s Qaestor, and Rhiannon found herself obliged to exchange greetings with them as well.

“Ortha, Mirri, and Sorin,” Nels said, gesturing to each one in turn.

“Rhiannon,” said Rhiannon, who’d already half-forgotten their names.

“New healer, huh? Where’d the Legate pick you up?” Sorin was short for a Nord, stocky, with bright red hair and sleepy blue eyes. He didn’t seem suspicious, just curious, and she was privately relieved that Hadvar wasn’t the camp Qaestor. She wasn’t sure she felt like speaking to him again just yet.

“Winterhold.”

Sorin nodded, apparently satisfied, and left it at that. The dinner bell sounded seconds later, and everyone but Rhiannon trooped out in a flurry of noise and laughter, leaving her to collapse on her cot in blessed silence. She was terribly out of place, but it didn’t matter. Not when it was only for a night, and not when Whiterun waited, crying out for help.

She dozed off, still exhausted from the day’s ride, and woke a short while later to the smell of something salty and vegetal. Her stomach growled. The Orcish scout from earlier had returned, a bowl of soup in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other. It wasn’t quite nighttime.

“Here.” She pushed both into Rhiannon’s hands. “Eat. It may be your last chance for a while once we start the march.”

Rhiannon took them, too baffled to do anything else. “Thank you, um…”

“Ortha.”

“Right, sorry. Thank you, but… why?”

Ortha’s expression didn’t change, but Rhiannon got the sense that she found the question strange. “We only have three healers. Maybe five or six once we reach Whiterun. Can’t do your job if you don’t eat.” Rhiannon didn’t know what to say, so she just sat there, clutching her meal and feeling vaguely ashamed. Ortha stepped back. “Eat, then sleep. We march at three bells.”

“Three bells,” Rhiannon said, and dipped her bread in the soup. “Okay.”

Ortha nodded. “Okay.”

----------

It was nearing midnight, and the light inside the commander’s tent was still burning. Rikke barely looked up when Rhiannon poked her head through the flap, eyes flickering over her with all the recognition of a stranger. The candle in the lantern was nearly gone. “You should be asleep.”

“So should you,” Rhiannon pointed out.

“Can’t. Still too much to do.” Rikke’s quill scratched across the parchment in front of her, scribbling something Rhiannon couldn’t see. The lines on Rikke’s face were scored deep in the uneven lighting, her shoulders hunched and drawn inward. Tension bled from every inch of her. “We were prepared for the eventuality, of course, but for Ulfric to have chosen now, and to follow the threat with the attack so closely, it’s as if…”

She took a deep breath, and the hand holding the quill shook, fingers cramped tight around its nib. Slowly, Rhiannon inched towards her, until she was standing next to the desk, close enough to reach out and touch. Her hands remained firmly clasped behind her back.

“One of your scouts – who I just met, by the way – made me eat dinner tonight, because I can’t do the one thing I’m good for if I don’t.” She hesitated, then added, “You’re their leader. If you don’t rest, you’re not doing them any favors.”

“I know that,” Rikke said, but made no move to rise from her chair.

“I know you do,” Rhiannon said, and mustered up the courage to put her hand on Rikke’s arm. Muscle tensed beneath her fingers, then relaxed, bit by bit, and Rikke finally set the quill aside, to languish next to the inkwell. When she glanced up at Rhiannon, it was with something close to a smile.

“Which scout?”

“Ortha.”

“Mm. She generally knows what she’s talking about. I suppose now is no exception.” Rikke paused. “You’ve gotten more comfortable with speaking your mind.”

“I’m not exactly comfortable, but… it has gotten easier. Sometimes.” She realized her hand was still on Rikke’s arm and yanked it back, lacing her fingers together. “And, I wanted to say, about the other night – “

But Rikke shook her head and stood, close enough now that Rhiannon had to take another step back. “No more apologies. Leave it in the past.”

“Right.” Eye contact could be difficult even at the best of times, but right now it was unbearable, wondering if her face was betraying her. “Focus on tomorrow.”

Rikke looked like she might say something else, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come, so quickly Rhiannon wondered if she’d imagined it, and she stepped away. A curious sense of disappointment followed. “Tomorrow. Get some rest.”

“I will. You too.”

There was no point in standing around awkwardly, not after such a clear dismissal, but Rhiannon did linger at the entrance for a moment, wondering if she should say something else. Something profound, maybe, in case the worst happened in Whiterun and there were no more chances for profundity, but she couldn’t think of anything. Rikke smiled at her – a small smile, but genuine.

“Good night, Rhiannon.”

“Good night,” Rhiannon mumbled, heart in her throat, palms as swampy as the weather, and escaped.

----------

War dawned with a red sun in a hazy sky; war brought ill winds and carrion birds, circling overhead. They would follow the march to Whiterun, preparing to feast. Veterans and green recruits alike armored up, checking their weapons and praying to whatever gods they worshipped for victory and justice, or at least a swift and merciful end to the battle. Silence overlaid the camp like fog on the marsh, seething with nervous energy.

Rikke had been fully armored and ready since before the first bell, impatience rolling off of her in waves, and she finally gave in and headed to the healer’s tent, only to be greeted by Inga and Azzan. Rhiannon was nowhere to be seen.

“The Imperial who arrived yesterday. Where is she?”

The healers exchanged a look. “Our apologies, Legate,” Azzan said. “Neither of us has seen her. She wasn’t here when we woke up.”

It was too early to worry, Rikke told herself. She gave them both a brusque parting nod and moved on. There was no sign of Rhiannon near the horses or the mess, so she tried the quartermaster’s tent.

“Nels.”

“Legate,” Nels said. He was fully-armored as well, and the grindstone screeched beneath his hands as he put a fresh edge to his shield. “How can I be of service?”

“I’m looking for Rhiannon. Have you seen her?”

“The healer you brought with you yesterday? Not since dinner.”

“I have,” Ortha said from the other end of the tent, where she was stocking her quiver. Rikke hadn’t even realized she was there. “She was talking to someone by the edge of camp earlier. Didn’t see who.”

“Good. Thank you,” Rikke said, relieved, and left them to it while she made a beeline for the edge of the campgrounds. Picking out a single conversation would have been impossible on any other day, but as she drew closer to the treeline, a flash of auburn through the spindly grey branches caught her eye, and she changed course. Rhiannon’s voice grew clearer, unhappiness plain even before Rikke caught the words.

“I told you already, I’m not leaving.”

“You can’t seriously want to stay here, of all places,” a second voice insisted, its owner hidden. An uneasy prickle raced down Rikke’s spine, and she shoved her way through the bramble-brush into a little clearing, where two figures stood beneath a barren birch.

“What’s going on?”

“Rikke!”

Rhiannon looked happy to see her, if somewhat surprised, her hands akimbo and feet planted stubbornly in the loam. Rikke didn’t recognize her companion. At first glance, she thought they might be male, but on the second, she wasn’t so sure; they were fine-featured and lithe, with long dark hair pulled back in a half-braid and clear blue eyes. A beautifully-crafted glass bow sat strapped to their back, glittering green in the weak light. “It’s nothing,” Rhiannon insisted, glaring at them. “Just a disagreement.”

“A disagreement,” the stranger said disdainfully. Their accent, like Rhiannon’s, was unmistakably Nibenese, low and lilting. “You’re the one who’s being stubborn.”

“Who is this?” Rikke asked Rhiannon. Rhiannon sighed, but the stranger beat her to the punch before she could even open her mouth.

“Jak Amorell, at your service. As for why I’m here, well.” They looked at Rhiannon, who had begun closely examining the toes of her boots. “Do you want to tell her, or should I?”

“Tell me what?”

Rhiannon remained silent, and Jak rolled their eyes. “Fine, have it your way.” She flinched when they draped an arm over her shoulders. “Thank you for keeping an eye on my little sister, ah…”

“Rikke,” said Rikke, who was liking where this was headed less and less by the second.

“Yes, right. Thank you, Rikke, but that won’t be necessary any longer.” They gave Rhiannon’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’ve come to take her home.”

Chapter Text

Of all the places Rhiannon could have picked to stage her little rebellion, Jak was almost offended that it was Skyrim. She could have gone to study somewhere cultured, like High Rock or Hammerfell, or started a practice in Valenwood or Elsewyr where it was warm, but no. She’d chosen the frigid, war-torn hellscape to the north, and now everyone else had to suffer for it. Most of all Jak. A land full of drunkards and barbarians, and not a single one could produce a decent bottle of wine. Gods knew they’d looked.

----------

“I told you, I’m not going.”

“Zeno, please.” Lalatia Amorell was the sort of woman most would call striking, rather than beautiful, and now handsome in her later years – lean as a whip, with hard blue eyes and streaks of grey threading her thick black hair. That morning, sitting across the table in her dressing gown, Jak thought she simply looked tired. “She’s your sister.”

“She’s also Jak’s sister,” Zeno argued, scraping a hunk of butter across his toast. Everything in the dining room had been selected by their father’s hand – cream walls, gauzy blue drapes and solid oak furniture, polished to a shine – and he stood out like a new bruise with his red robes and tangled black hair, dark circles under his eyes. “And Marcus’s sister, and Oliver’s sister, and Sabine’s sister. Or did you forget?”

“Sabine is off on another one of her hunting trips and I have no way to reach her until she returns, Marcus’s leg makes travel difficult at best, Oliver can’t leave his post, and Jak’s expedition leaves next week. We’ve been over this.” Their mother’s lips thinned, fine lines at their corners deepening. “Or did you forget?”

“I have studies! Delicate experiments that need constant monitoring. But I suppose none of that matters.” The butter was spread, but Zeno kept dragging the knife against the bread, setting Jak’s teeth on edge. “After all, Rhiannon needs rescuing. Otherwise she might slip and fall on some ice.”

The breakfast nook went dead silent, save for the chirruping of the birds outside. Jak looked between them – Zeno digging his knife into his toast, vein throbbing in his forehead, and Lalatia at the other with her white-knuckled grip on her spoon – and cursed internally. At this rate, they were going to have a repeat of last year’s Saturnalia, and someone was going to be picking broken glass out of the carpet for the rest of the day. Probably Jak, since Rufinius had fired the maid last Turdas.

“Skyrim is dangerous, Zeno. It’s no place for her.”

“Well, maybe she should have thought of that before she left the College. Besides, she clearly doesn’t want to come home.”

“Zeno.”

Rufinius lowered the ledger he’d been poring over since he sat down to breakfast. He’d remained silent for most of the conversation, but now his attention was focused squarely on all present, and Jak suppressed a shiver. Rufinius’s round face and thick chestnut hair gave him the appearance of a man half his age, dozy and pleasant, but they knew better. Behind that guileless mask lay one of the most cunning and ruthless merchants in all of Cyrodiil, and the only person to whom their mother had ever lost an argument. It was like the man inside belonged to a completely different body, and right then, his deep voice was heavy with displeasure.

“I’m aware you and your sister have had your differences, but she’s still your kin, and with the war going on, it’s not safe for her to remain there much longer. All your mother and I are asking is for someone we trust to see her home safely. Is that really so much to ask?”

“I’m just saying,” Zeno muttered. “She’s plenty old enough to make her own decisions. You don’t need to coddle her.”

“And you, my boy, are twenty-eight years old, and as of a year ago, the only child still residing under this roof.” Rufinius picked up his teacup. “If you’d like to discuss which of her offspring your mother coddles unnecessarily, we certainly can.”

“Dear,” Lalatia said, and laid her hand on his arm. Her tone was sweet, but there was steel beneath it. “Now isn’t the time.”

“It’s a perfect time!” Zeno shoved his chair back. He’d gone puce, and his fingertips glowed sickly green, all the dishes on the table starting to rattle and rise in the air. “Come on. Let’s have a discussion, then. You start.”

“Oh, for Stendarr’s sake,” Lalatia said as Rufinius looked at him, unmoved. “Zeno, stop it. These are my good dishes.”

The flatware began to rattle ominously. “I don’t,” Zeno said, eyes still locked onto Rufinius’s placid face, “give a fuck about your – “

“I’ll go!” Jak sprang to their feet.

The silence stretched parchment-thin, strung across the alcove. Even the birdsong outside the window had ceased.

“No need to fight about it,” they added, voice oddly high-pitched in the quiet. “Alright? I’ll go.”

Zeno’s fingers twitched, and the tableware fell back into its original position, butter sliding off its dish and milk slopping out of its pitcher onto the tablecloth. He grabbed his shredded toast from the plate and stormed off without a word. Rufinius shook his head, and the sharp look Lalatia threw his way meant that their conversation was far from over. Then, she glanced at Jak, and her expression softened.

“What about your expedition?”

“It’s no big deal,” they lied. It had taken months of preparation and greasing palms, but they’d finally managed to get hired on as a scout for a caravan bound towards Elsewyr. A daring excavation, the man running it had boasted. He’d discovered untouched ruins deep in the eastern desert on his last trip there. Finding a replacement wouldn’t be hard, they had a few friends who would be happy to cover their spot on short notice, but to miss out on something they’d worked so hard for… “I can always make the next one.”

A smile creased Rufinius’s soft features. “Good man. When’s the soonest you can leave?”

Don’t fight him. It’s not worth it. “As soon as I can get everything in order. Crossing the border is going to be messy.”

“Leave that to me,” Lalatia said. Rufinius’s eyeglasses slid down his nose. He pushed them back up and glanced at his ledger, then nodded.

“I’ll see that you have whatever funds you need. Is three days enough time?”

“Should be.” Jak picked up their untouched plate, where the egg yolks were beginning to congeal to the bread. “I’m going to talk to Zeno. Excuse me.”

“It’s nice to see that one of your sons hasn’t turned into a complete prat,” they heard Rufinius mutter as they stole away to the kitchen, where the secret passageway through the larder would take them to the gardens. Their mother scoffed.

“Your daughter is the one causing all the trouble.”

“Funny how she’s only my daughter when you’re upset with her.”

Jak shut the door on their bickering and leaned against the cool stone of the interior walls, breathing deep.

Screw you, Rhiannon.

 

They found Zeno out amongst the flowers, moodily plucking an unfortunate redwort clean. The gardens had gone feral since Rhiannon stopped tending them, vines and weeds choking the trellises and pollen staining the air. Jak perched on the low stone wall nearby, and Zeno glanced up, ripping another blossom from its stem.

“You don’t have to go,” he said. A sweet aroma drifted up from the crushed petals in his fist.

“You know we’ll never hear the end of it until one of us does.” They’d almost thought he would have been happy their mother had come to him first, that she wasn’t treating him like an invalid for once, but they knew better than to say so. Not while he was like this. Zeno didn’t have a lot of room for nuance where Rhiannon was concerned.

You owe me.

They wanted to say it, but like every other time, the words wouldn’t come. They swallowed it and smiled instead. “Besides, she’s been on her own for, what? A few months now? By the time I get there, she’ll probably be begging to come home.”

“If she’s still alive.”

Jak laughed uneasily, too loud. One of the stray cats that roamed the district hissed at them from the tiled roof, green-gold eyes wild before they winked out of sight.

“You don’t really mean that.”

Zeno opened his hand, and petals fell to the grass, leaving his palm as red as his robes. “No,” he said, and smiled. “Of course not.”

----------

Two months, three skirmishes with the border patrol, and several near-misses later, Jak had confirmed that Rhiannon was still very much alive. Alive, and possibly mad.

“I’m sorry, you think you’re what?”

“I don’t ‘think’ I’m anything,” Rhiannon said, shrugging their arm off. At first glance, she looked more or less the same, but up close, the cracks were beginning to show; her hair was shorter and rough in places, like someone had hacked off chunks of it with a butcher’s knife, and there was a strange light in her eyes. “I didn’t ask for this, trust me.”

“No, of course not. That would be really crazy.”

“There’s no time for this,” the Legate growled (the Legate Primus, no less – Mum was going to have a field day when she found out the company Rhiannon had apparently been keeping). A bell sounded twice, ringing out over the camp. “We move out at three bells, with or without you.”

“I’m coming!” Rhiannon called, borderline frantic as the Legate stalked off. As soon as the other woman was gone, she leveled a glare at Jak that made her look exactly like Rufinius. All the fine hairs on the back of their neck stood on end. “What in Oblivion is wrong with you?”

“Funny. I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

“You can’t just show up here and demand that I drop everything and leave!”

“I’m not demanding anything, thank you very much. I’m here because your father insisted, and nobody else could come. Or would. You’re welcome, by the way.” Rhiannon scoffed and made to turn her back, but Jak grabbed her shoulder and swiveled her around so they were nose-to-nose. “Listen, Freckles, I gave up my spot on an expedition I’d been planning for months to come find you, just so Mum wouldn’t have an apoplexy. Months. And now you… what, you’re part-dragon and the world is ending? That’s really the best you could come up with?”

“I’m not lying!” She smacked their hand away, face red and scowl deeper than ever. “And don’t call me that.”

“Well, I – “

“I don’t care, Jak! I didn’t ask Father to send anyone to fetch me, and I certainly didn’t ask you to volunteer for it.” She was starting to run out of steam, anger giving way to weariness, and her voice cracked on the last two syllables. “Go home.”

She would pick now to grow a spine. “I’m not going back without you.”

“Then find something to do in the meantime, because you’re going to be waiting for a while.”

She flounced off, and Jak watched her go, a headache crawling up their temples. For a second, they were tempted to call off the whole operation. If this was how Rhiannon was going to be, she could face their parents on her own. Let her bail herself out for once.

Oh, hello Mum, yes, I’m back, no big deal… no, I left my little sister in the middle of a raging civil war. Last I saw, she was calling herself ‘the Dragonborn’ and riding off with the Legion to break up a siege, seemed like she had it under control. Why do you ask?

Jak sighed and loped up the hill after her.

----------

When the brassy chime of the third bell sounded, Legion forces surged down the road like a river burst loose from its dam, and Rhiannon let herself be swept along by the undertow. She and the other healers were middle of the pack, flanked by warriors on all sides with the twin scents of horse musk and rank fear sweat crowding their nostrils. Hoofbeats battered the road so loudly that she couldn’t hear herself think, and she was glad for the distraction. Rikke was up front, too far away, and even though she couldn’t see them, she knew Jak was following along somewhere nearby.

In some ways, it hurt more that Jak was the one who had come. Marcus and Oliver were relative strangers for all the time she’d spent with them, and she’d never really gotten along with Sabine or Zeno, but Jak had been kinder than not; they usually stopped Zeno from picking on her when things went too far, and they knew how to make her laugh. Before she’d left home, things had been better than ever between them. With Zeno spending most of his time locked up in the attic tower or out with his fellow adepts, Jak had turned to her for company, and they’d whiled away many an afternoon in the garden together, chatting and tending to the plants. It was in the garden that they had shared their secret with her – that they were neither man nor woman, but without a sense of gender altogether – and it was in the garden that they had given her the blank, leather-bound book to start the second volume of her compendium.

And now? Now that gift was ruined, and they were in Skyrim, acting like none of that had happened. Acting like she was just making up things for attention, without the slightest clue what she’d been through or how many times she’d nearly given up. Wouldn’t even given her a chance to explain, and now Rikke probably thought she was running away again. She’d wanted to apologize, tell her that it wasn’t what it sounded like, but there was no time. There was never any time.

There had been hope that the weather might improve once they left Morthal behind, but the midday sun beat down like a hammer against the plains, and the soldiers around them only picked up the pace once the ground leveled out. Grass shimmered gold on either side of the road, seemingly endless in the haze. At first, Rhiannon thought it might be a mirage. It grew thicker, and she realized it was smoke.

They drew level with a farm that had been burnt down, fields stripped bare and ruined. Here the air was thick and oily, a grey film lingering beneath the blue. Next to her, Inga shook her head, and Azzan pulled his cowl over his nose, sorrow in his eyes. There was nothing they could do. The company moved on.

Ulfric’s forces had wrecked calculated havoc in their bid to take the hold, and the closer they got, the more they saw of the aftermath – bodies left to rot in the heat, farmsteads and homes scorched into raw wounds on the earth. The carrion birds circled overhead, drawn by the stench of death. Just like they had with poor Elona. Rhiannon pressed her handkerchief to her nose to block out the worst of the smell. Inga followed suit.

“Look at all this,” she said, voice muffled. “Barbarians.”

Rhiannon didn’t say anything. She wondered what Rikke was feeling right then.

Leaving so many bodies unconsecrated was nothing short of blasphemy, but there was no time for burial rites, so the three of them prayed as they rode – to Mara for compassion, to Stendarr for mercy, to Tall Papa to guide their spirits to the Far Shores – and hoped it was enough. It wasn’t, but it was better than nothing. The soldiers surrounding them kept quiet, faces motionless. She supposed they’d seen worse.

Getting much closer to the city would have meant risking an encounter with Stormcloak scouts, and Rikke veered off and led them away from the path, into the woodland hills. The crows followed them, flashes of black on blue through the trees, and with each glimpse of their wings, the dread feeling in Rhiannon’s heart grew. Everything was so quiet with all the animals gone. Her horse could sense it too. He pranced to the side, snorting nervously, and Azzan turned to look back at her.

“What’s wrong?”

Up ahead, at the mouth of the tunnel, the chorus of hooves on ground began to quiet, and the bannermen dropped their standards to half-mast.

“Halt!” Sorin could be heard bellowing at the head of the pack, hoarse and furious. “I said fucking halt!” The scent of blood was on the breeze. It curled past, and both Inga and Azzan’s mounts whinnied and shied away in alarm as Rhiannon’s horse bolted forward.

“Wait!” one of the soldiers barked, but she was past them before they could stop her, galloping towards the front. At the head of the company, Rikke sat astride her gelding, unmoving.

The Legion camp in Whiterun had been secluded, but not well enough. By the looks of it, most of its residents had died before they even knew they needed to defend themselves. The campground was trampled, dirt and grass churned into muddy soup where the tents had been overturned and ripped apart. Not a soldier had been spared. More bodies, everywhere Rhiannon looked, mangled and broken, skewered and bled like so much meat on a spit. The gorge rose in her throat. Today was nothing but bodies; who knew what horrors the dawn would bring?

“Mara have mercy,” she whispered, clutching her amulet.

“It’s too late for that,” Rikke said, grim as Rhiannon had ever heard her. The soldier nearest to them wasn’t even fully armored, curled on his side in the muck with one arm outstretched. He’d been stabbed in the back, blood staining his tunic wine-red.

There was movement behind them. “Legate,” Sorin said, urgent. “What now?”

“Nothing’s changed. We head to the rendezvous point.” Rikke took in the gruesome scene one last time, then looked down at Rhiannon. “Is your brother still following us?”

“I assume so.” She hesitated, then added, “Jak isn’t my brother. Or my sister. They’re just… Jak.”

Whatever Rikke thought of that, she kept to herself for the time being. “Can they use that bow they were carrying, or is it just for show?”

“They can use it.”

“Good. Go get them.” Rikke nudged her mount with her heels, wheeling him around. Rhiannon followed suit, and Sorin looked between them, brow furrowed.

“Ma’am, with all due respect… are you sure? Neither of them are Legion.”

“At this point?” Rikke motioned them both onward with a quick jerk of her head. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”

 

Their destination overlooked Whiterun’s fields, now home to an army of Stormcloaks. The fighting had come to a halt for the night, both sides retreating when the sun began to set, and fires cropped up between the tents here and there as darkness brought relief from the heat. Snatches of conversation drifted up to the hills, along with the gamey smell of stew and woodsmoke. Rhiannon’s stomach growled. Behind her, tucked into a hillock where the woods started to take over, the rest of the company worked at setting up camp for the night. Selfish, she knew, but she hoped that there would be an opportunity to rest and eat soon – she hadn’t had the chance since Ortha brought her dinner the previous night, and her body was feeling the strain.

“I don’t like this,” Nels said, bringing her back to the conversation at hand. He was frowning, trunk-like arms folded over his broad chest. “It’s not honorable.”

“Neither are those catapults,” Mirri said, nodding at the fields. Four massive wooden contraptions lined the Stormcloak side of the battleground, chunks of stone and debris stacked next to each one in a haphazard pile. “That’s not stopping them.”

“They also slaughtered an entire camp of our people back there,” Sorin added, eying Nels. “Honor ain’t got nothin’ to do with this. It’s payback.”

“I’m aware.” Nels cut his eyes at them both before turning to Rikke. “Your orders, Legate?”

“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have the numbers to be honorable.” There were seven of them at the emergency war council – Rikke, the quartermaster and Quaestor, Rhiannon and Jak, and the scouts Mirri and Ortha – huddled at the edge of the overlook while they weighed their options. Rikke drew lines in the fresh dirt with her forefinger, then smoothed them away. “They wiped out nearly a third of our reinforcements. Our best chance is to strike hard, tonight, then move out before they can regroup.”

Rhiannon wanted to ask about rejoining those still stationed in the city, but she was out of her depth, and so remained silent. From what Rikke had told her, it sounded like Whiterun would remain locked and barred until one side triumphed.

Hold on, Lydia. Hold on, everyone. She twisted the ring on her finger, spinning it round and round. Just a little bit longer.

“You.” Rikke pointed at Jak, who had also stayed quiet, assessing each one of them as they spoke. “How’s your aim?”

“Impeccable.”

“Is that confidence, or bravado? Because confidence, I can use. Bravado just gets good soldiers killed.” She motioned to Ortha, who was counting the arrows in her quiver. “This one here is one of the best archers in the Legion. If you can’t keep up with her, I have no use for you.”

“I can keep up,” Jak said coolly, expression unchanged. “Just tell me what to do.”

Ortha grinned.

“Not to question your judgment, Legate,” Sorin cut in, “but why should any of us trust them? I don’t mean any disrespect, but considering the circumstances, it’s best to be cautious.”

“Fair enough.” Rikke gestured in their direction. “Rhiannon, Jak, why should we trust you?”

Rhiannon waited, curious despite herself to hear what Jak might say. They tucked a loose strand of hair behind their ear and glanced at her, then looked back at Sorin.

“Because we’re up here, instead of down there.”

“Glad we cleared that up,” Rikke said. “Now, if the Quaestor is satisfied…”

Sorin shrugged. “Works for me.”

“Good. You, Nels, and Mirri are with me. Dragonborn, you and the other healers prepare the infirmary. Get ready to heal on the run, if necessary. Jak, Ortha, go stock your quivers. I’ll meet you at the armory. Go.”

The council broke, and Rhiannon caught Jak before they could slip away, tugging them off to the side near a little outcropping by the camp.

“You could have told them we have Legion ties,” she said. “That should be reason enough to trust us.”

“Should I have?” Jak’s eyebrows rose slightly. They really did look more and more like their mother every time she saw them, Rhiannon noted with a touch of wistfulness. “You didn’t.”

“Well, they didn’t question me until you showed up.”

“We’re loyal Imperial citizens. They have no reason to question us. Can I go now?”

They made to free their arm, but Rhiannon clung to their wrist still, holding fast.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“Very funny. You know what I mean.” She dug her heels in. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because you made it very clear that you weren’t leaving until this siege is over, and I can’t go home without you, so I thought I’d expediate the process,” Jak said, impatience dripping from every syllable. “What else?”

Rhiannon’s mouth fell open. “You are unbelievable!”

“Maybe so.” Their arm slipped from her grasp as they brushed past her. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a battle to win.”

Chapter Text

Night fell, and the fires went out, one by one. Only scattered light from the guard patrol’s torches remained, moving between the tents as second watch took up its shift. Rikke shivered, flat on her belly in the long grass. Not from cold or fear, but with anticipation. Sorin and Nels were in position, the healers had been left to prep the infirmary, and up on the hillside, Ortha and Jak crouched, waiting for her signal. There was plenty that could go wrong. There always was. But Whiterun rose in the distance, burnt and battered but unbowed, and Rikke closed her eyes and held a quick prayer in her heart to Talos for victory. He was still hers, even now; He didn’t belong solely to Ulfric, no matter what her old friend might have thought.

Movement up ahead, quiet and merciless – Mirri and Burdick, slitting the guard’s throats and divesting them of their torches in one fell swoop. At the other end of the camp, Kya and Tormund were doing the same. Even though she couldn’t see them, Rikke knew. No weak links in her chain, not when she’d handpicked each and every one of them. For a second, everything looked the same, torchlight flickering in the absolute stillness. The Stormcloak camp slept on. Then, she whistled, mimicking the long, looping trill of the mockingbirds that inhabited the trees on the hill, and all four torches were plunged to the ground. Extinguished, without a sound.

The bodies at her back tensed and jostled, hungry. She motioned at them to settle. Their combined energy hummed at her back, barely-contained.

There was no way she could have heard the twang of bowstrings or the hiss of kerosene igniting, but Rikke swore she heard it all the same, seconds before the arrows streaked overhead with their bright tails like comets. They struck the first two catapults, metal biting into wood, and the fire began to climb.

Two more followed, striking the remaining contraptions. Right on target, Rikke was pleased to note. It looked like her faith in Jak had been well-placed after all. Smoke billowed and embers popped, ash-grey against the velvet blue-black of the sky. The third volley of arrows lit up the tents closest to the foothills. Still Rikke held her soldiers fast – it was all in the waiting, picking the exact moment to strike, and they chomped at the bit but still she held them back.

Just a little longer…

The last of the flaming arrows came, piercing the canvas of the commander’s tent, and the first shouts split the air, bodies stumbling from their tents and away from the fire. The camp was coming back to life, stoked by confusion and terror, and Rikke raised her sword high, blade gleaming. It hung in the air for a beat, catching the light. She let it fall.

Now.

They all charged in at once, her squad from the rear, Sorin’s from the right and Nels’ from the left. Half the numbers the Stormcloaks had, but victory wasn’t the goal, not that night. It was about sowing chaos. Hit hard and fast, enough to disorient them and thin their ranks, then retreat before too many losses were taken. The fire gnashed its teeth, leaping from tent to tent and crawling along the neck of the catapults, and in the midst of it, her people exacted revenge for their fallen comrades. Rikke caught a glimpse of Sorin off to the side, red hair gleaming and sword dripping with blood; he disappeared as quickly as he’d come into view. Nearby, Mirri’s knives flashed as she put down one half-armed Stormcloak and sent another crashing back into his burning tent, and in the center of the camp, Nels towered. He was unarmed, save for his spike-knuckled steel gauntlets and his ancient stahlrim shield, its ice-blue edges honed to a fine razor. He left a swath of headless bodies and shredded flesh in his wake.

They were quick to regroup, Ulfric’s people. She’d give them that. More and more soldiers in blue joined the fray while others formed a brigade to the river, working frantically to put out the fires. Figures clashed in the smoke, and Rikke hoped both Whiterun and Legion were awake to hear them and know their reinforcements had arrived.

A soldier lunged from around one of the tents, axe in hand. Rikke gutted her and ran on. More surrounded her, and she cut down the nearest one with a backhand swing and dodged away, racing through yet-unburnt grass downriver.

A familiar voice rang out, sharp and pained. Rikke veered left to see Mirri go down, knives falling from her hands as someone’s sword pierced her thigh from the side. Her attacker tore his blade free and made to deliver the killing blow, but Rikke dove it to take the brunt of it, skidding on one knee; his sword bounced off the cross-guard of hers, blowback reverberating down her arm, but she hung on, gritting her teeth against the pain. He staggered, and she lashed out, scoring a return cut across his tunic and slicing the flesh beneath. Not deep enough to kill, but a warning. When he fled, she let him go.

Mirri gasped in pain when Rikke helped her to her feet, narrow face pale and dark hair matted with sweat and dirt. “I’m fine, Legate, I can take it from here – “

“Don’t. I need you alive.” Their height difference was too great for Mirri to lean on her without slowing them both down. Rikke sheathed her sword and heaved Mirri into her arms, grunting out an apology. Blood seeped from the gash in Mirri’s leathers.

“Legate – “

“Shut up and hold on. That’s an order.”

The fires were losing ground to the water brigade, smoke thick and black all around them. Rikke took advantage of the cover to head back the way she’d come, both of them coughing when it clung to their eyes and stifled their breath.

“War horn,” she managed to get out between bouts of wheezing. “Belt.”

Mirri unhooked it after some fumbling and brought it to her lips. One long, tremulous note emerged. Retreat, it sang out over the camp. Time to go.

An arrow grazed Rikke’s cheek, white-hot, and warmth trickled down towards her jaw. The archers had involved themselves now, and they were taking aim at anything wearing red through the smoke. Jak and Ortha had stopped firing some minutes ago, unable to see and unwilling to risk friendly fire. They would be of little help here. She barely dodged another volley, stumbling through the grass while Mirri hung on for dear life and the screech of loose fletching echoed in her ears. Seconds before the screaming began, she sensed movement at her back, and Nels’s booming battlecry cut through the fray. Archers went down, trampled in all directions while others fled or were bowled aside, and then he was shielding them, gore dripping from his spiked knuckles.

“Good timing,” Rikke panted. An arrow ricocheted off his shield, and the three of them turned and ran for higher ground.

----------

The tent was chaos.

Rhiannon had seen plenty of chaos as a healer, both during her time in Skyrim and her practicum in the Imperial City, but not to this scale. She’d just finished laying out bowls of mountain flower paste and ground wheat grain when her ears picked up faint voices and the rumble of boots on the ground. Her first thought was for Rikke, and she shushed it at once, rolling up her sleeves. Rikke would be fine. She had to be. Across the tent, Azzan laid out swathes of linen bandages while Inga boiled water in whatever pots she’d been able to find, flames writhing at her fingertips. None of them spoke. The tense glances they shared were enough.

The tent flap ripped open, and Rikke herself rushed in, an unconscious Mirri in her arms. Nels was right behind her, blood running down his face from a gash in his forehead, half-carrying a legionnaire who’d lost most of his left arm to a Stormcloak blade.

“More coming,” he rapped out as Rhiannon helped Rikke lay Mirri’s prone form on the nearest cot, Inga and Azzan dashing over to help the nameless soldier. “No headcount on wounded or casualty yet.”

Mirri’s breathing was shallow, her lips tinted blue, and Rhiannon peeled torn leather from the wound to get a better look. The blade had gone straight through her leg, a sliver of bone visible, and Rhiannon set her jaw and began closing it. More soldiers began to stagger in, dragging their battered and bleeding comrades with them.

“Cots are for those at death’s door,” Inga barked, applying a poultice to the bloody stump of her patient’s arm. “There’s only so much room in here – yes, go ahead, lay him down there – so everyone else, hold tight outside. There’s healing potions aplenty!”

Rikke had come and gone a second time, bearing another grievously injured soldier, and the damage to Mirri’s leg was healing with each careful, calculated pulse of Rhiannon’s magicka. Weaving the muscle back together was the hardest part; if she made even one wrong move, Mirri might never run again. But eventually it was done, and Rhiannon checked her pulse and breathing, which remained steady but faint. She’d lost a lot of blood. She coaxed a few swallows of healing tonic down Mirri’s throat, to aid her body’s natural recovery, then snatched up her satchel and the nearest roll of bandages.

“I’m going out there. If you need me, just yell.”

How many casualties there had been, no one knew yet, but the camp was teeming with the wounded. They’d taken a beating from the Stormcloaks, and what seemed like scores of legionnaires huddled on their pallets and bedrolls while those who’d managed to avoid the worst of it passed out vials of healing brew. It was cheap and inelegant, made over a campfire by Rhiannon and the others to prepare for the aftermath of the ambush, but it was better than nothing.

No fires were allowed in case there were any search parties out looking for them, and Rhiannon picked her way across the camp bit by bit, a silvery ball of magelight glowing above her head. Nowhere near as strong as a lantern, but easier to extinguish, should the need arise. Her help was offered silently and accepted gratefully – bandages and poultices for those who only needed a quick fix, Restoration for those whose wounds ran deeper. See? I don’t need to enlist to help them. A selfish, uncharitable thought, but a thought nonetheless.

It had been a long time since she’d had to heal so many people in one go, and despite the meal she’d eaten earlier and preserving her magicka as well as she could, Rhiannon could feel herself flagging as she healed another soldier’s sprained ankle. What was his name? Marius? Mallus? He’d told her, but she’d already forgotten. She murmured a blessing as she stood, head spinning, and a familiar hand steadied her elbow.

“Careful now.”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” Jak said. “You’re barely on your feet.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted again, pulling away. “I have to go back. The healer’s tent, they might need me – “

“Inga and Azzan are fine.” Rikke materialized out of the darkness, shadows clinging to her back. The cut on her cheek had scabbed over into a thin red line. “They’re finishing up with the last of the wounded now.”

“How many did we lose?”

“Less than a score. Still too many, but not as many as I’d feared.” Rikke nodded at Jak. “You shoot well. Are you willing to lend your bow again tomorrow?”

Jak inclined their head. “Thank you, Legate. It’d be my pleasure.”

You’re so full of it. Rhiannon shot them a dirty look, which was subsequently ignored. Rikke touched her shoulder, drawing her gaze.

“You’ve done enough. Eat, then sleep if you can. The real fight begins in the morning.”

There wasn’t much in the way of food, just hardtack and dried meat, but Rhiannon nibbled at it anyway, cross-legged on her pallet outside the infirmary. Exhaustion had set in, and with it, a yearning for space. She glared at Jak when they came to sit next to her, waterskin in hand. “What do you want now?”

“Here.” They tossed her an extra biscuit. “You always get snippy after mass healings. Eat that.”

Rhiannon was tempted to refuse, but she abhorred wasting food, and she really was hungry, her magicka clamoring for sustenance with which to replenish itself. She ate, though not happily, while Jak combed out their hair with their fingers.

“Why does this matter so much to you, anyway?” they asked, pinning the redone braid in a neat coil at the back of their head. “You’ve never cared for politicking.”

“It’s not about politics. The people of Whiterun have done nothing wrong. They don’t deserve this.” She thought again of Lydia, and the hurt surprise on her face at Rhiannon’s last words to her. Go home, Lydia. That’s an order. What if she never got the chance to apologize? She’d been hasty, lashing out in her pain, and now she might not get to make it right. “Besides, Jarl Balgruuf named me one of his Thanes. I had to come.”

Jak stuck their finger in their ear and wiggled it. “I’m sorry, I must be losing my hearing. It sounded like you just said one of Skyrim’s petty kings made you a member of his court.”

“Well, I couldn’t exactly turn him down, now could I?”

It felt good to see Jak at a loss for words for once. Childish, maybe, but good. She ate some more hardtack and watched them flounder.

“But… why?” they finally sputtered, and even though she’d been expecting it, the incredulity in their voice still stung. She crossed her arms and looked away.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Rhiannon – “

“You laughed at me when I told you about being Dragonborn. Laughed.” She refused to look at them. She didn’t need to look at them to picture their expression, anyway, rife with disbelief. “Why would I lie to you about something like that? You’ve heard Ri – the Legate call me by that title more than once now. You have to know I’m not making it up.” They stayed silent, and she took a moment to wrestle her temper back under control. “You have no idea what I’ve been through out here.” Her nails dug into her palms. “Why can’t you just believe me?”

“I’m sorry,” Jak said quietly. “But it’s a little hard to believe, you have to admit.”

“Trust me, I know. I’ve been trying to get used to it for months.”

“You know,” they offered after a stilted pause, “I’d be a lot more inclined to believe you if you just showed me.”

Rhiannon shook her head. “I can’t. Not now. It’ll draw too much attention.”

“Right,” Jak said, and sighed. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

----------

The Stormcloak camp had been damaged and disoriented by their midnight attack, but ultimately recovered, its tents and catapults scorched but still standing. When the sun rose, both factions rose with it, and blood rained upon Whiterun’s soil once more.

The city remained barricaded and sealed, but life still carried on inside its walls; archers lined the ramparts to pick off whatever enemies came within range of their arrows, and the water brigade fought to put out both the flaming arrows that thudded into the drawbridge and the chunks of mortar that battered the city gates and walls. The Imperial forces defending the city had rapidly been losing ground as their numbers dwindled, and it was with great relief that Legate Cipius welcomed Rikke and her reinforcements when they showed up to join the fray. But the Stormcloaks would not be placated, nor pushed back, and the lines of clashing steel moved ever closer to Whiterun’s gates. They had sheer numbers on their side, and if the city didn’t fall to the sword, it would be forced to bend the knee when its reserves ran dry. No siege could last forever.

Rhiannon tried to remain calm in the healer’s circle, but she couldn’t see Rikke or Jak, let alone keep track of anyone amongst the carnage. They needed a healer more than they needed the Dragonborn right then, Rikke had told her. She wasn’t sure if she believed that, or what she would do if that changed. What use would she be in a fight like this? She had her atronachs and her Voice, but neither one would do any good if she got her head bashed in seconds after setting foot on the battlefield.

They’d joined up with the healers already stationed at the camp, both dour-faced Nordic midwives sent by the temple. The air was heavy with the mingled scents of blood and shit and sour fear-sweat as they mashed and boiled poultices, and all the while soldiers stumbled in for potions or were dragged in screaming by their fellows to be healed and sent out again with no time to rest, and all around them the battle raged on, stone cracking stone, scraping metal and oil and smoke and the endless cries of countryman slaughtering countryman. Rhiannon threw up more than once. Nobody commented on it, just shoved a flask of clean water into her hands when she came up for air and moved on. They’d seen it all before.

“Hey Freckles.” Jak, staggering into the healer’s circle with an arrow protruding from the meat of their shoulder and a pained grimace on their face. A cry slipped from Rhiannon’s lips before she could stop it. “Some bastard got me from up on the hill, I think… you mind?”

The arrowheads on traditionally-crafted Nordic arrows were blunt, barbed things, designed to stay in their target’s flesh. Rhiannon dug it out of Jak’s shoulder with a whispered apology and patched the wound after disinfecting it; they held perfectly still the entire time, pale as winter frost but refusing to cry out. When they stood, she grabbed their arm, heedless of the blood still dampening her hands.

“Jak – “

They leaned down, pressed the ghost of a kiss to the top of her head. “I’ll be careful.”

“More careful,” she insisted.

“More careful,” they agreed. Their arm slipped from her grasp, and then they were gone. More soldiers came, stinking of battle. She washed her hands. Outside the healer’s circle, the fight carried on. She closed her ears to the screams and focused on the task at hand, sinking into the familiar rhythm of healer’s work. Her heart ached so hard she thought it might stop beating altogether.

 

Nighttime came, though not soon enough, and both sides fell back on high alert. Fires lined the hilltops, blazing bright, while the Imperial watch prowled both camp and city walls, each waiting for the first sign of foul play.

“Yesterday’s trick won’t work again,” Sorin put in from his seat by their own fire, a bowl of thin stew and a crust of bread cupped in his freckled hands. “Shame.” Murmurs of agreement followed.

Rhiannon stared at the empty bowl in her lap from where she sat at the edge of the group, long grass squashed beneath her. Her stomach let out a fruitless growl – there was no chance at seconds when rations were running this low. Loneliness gnawed her right along with the hunger. Inga and Azzan had sequestered themselves with the other healers, while Rikke and the other legate were off in the commander’s tent, no doubt discussing the day’s events and what the morning might bring; Jak, meanwhile, had done what they did best and charmed their way right into the thick of things, laughing with the soldiers around the fire and comparing archery techniques with Ortha.

How easy it was for them to be present and funny and bold; to be liked. Jak cracked up at something Sorin said, and the Quaestor clapped them on the back, grinning. Rhiannon bit her lip and looked away.

Once the laughter and general chatter had faded a bit, Jak's attention wandered, as it so often did. “What’s your story, then?”

This was directed at Nels, who was seated on a small boulder next to Ortha, rewrapping the bandages around his knuckles. He’d refused to let anyone heal the cut over his eye. Within a few days, it would scar. He glanced up.

“Me?”

“You.” Jak nodded at his battered hands, where splotches of blood bloomed across the bandages like fly amanita clusters, and the shield strapped to his back. “I’ve been a fair few places and seen a fair few things, but I’ve never met anyone who uses a shield like you do.”

“It’s a family tradition, called shield-singing.” Nels tied off the bandages, surprisingly deft for only having one free hand. “My father taught me everything he knew before he passed on.”

“Don’t let his modesty fool you. The quartermaster is Blood-Kin to my stronghold, for both his help in the past and his formidable strength,” Ortha countered, dark eyes full of pride. “Any of our warriors would be glad to join him in battle.”

The part of Nels’s face that was visible above his beard flushed bright red. Rhiannon could see it even from a distance. Jak turned to face him head-on, eyes bright and curious. “What’s this shield-singing, then?”

“It’s called that because of the noise it makes as the sharpened edge cuts the air.” Nels smoothed his beard, some of the red beginning to fade. “My clan has always favored shields. We trace our honor-name back to Brigida Oaken-Shield, who was one of Ysgramor’s Five Hundred Companions. It was she who founded the Seacliff Settlement in Winterhold, which was a prosperous part of its capital and trade until the Great Collapse, and legend has it that she once held off a band of pirates who tried to sack them with nothing but her fists and her shield until reinforcements arrived.” He shrugged. “Who knows if it’s true. Either way, my family has honored that legacy for centuries. We hone our shields so we have both strength and protection, and our fists, so that we never become too reliant on any weapon but ourselves.”

“It’s a beautiful bit of work, that shield,” Sorin chimed in, admiring. “You don’t see traditional Stahlrim pieces nowadays. Not like that.”

“Aye, it is. It’s been passed down from eldest child to eldest child for the last five generations. My father gave it to me when he retired from the Legion, though sometimes I wish he hadn’t.” Nels slouched forward as he spoke, like the weight of it was suddenly too much. “It’s caused nothing but grief over the past couple of years.”

“This whole war’s caused nothing but grief,” Mirri said darkly from where she sat on the other side of the fire, cleaning her knives. She’d been up and fighting with everyone else that day, but she kept her recently-healed leg stretched out in front of her whenever she sat, as per Rhiannon’s suggestion to ward off post-healing cramps and stiffness. The group quieted a bit, some of the side conversations dying down, and Nels sighed.

“Too many families torn apart in the conflict, mine included. We’re all proud Nords who keep the old ways, but when it comes to Ulfric Stormcloak, none of us can seem to agree on anything.”

“Speaking of which,” Jak cut in. “Does anyone fancy giving me a quick history lesson? I’ve been hearing ‘Ulfric this’ and ‘Stormcloak that’ since I got here, but I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. You know.” They gestured around the camp. “How all this came about.”

There was a moment of silence where everyone looked at each other, and then back at Jak, whose face remained blankly expectant. Rhiannon bit her lip again, this time to keep from laughing.

“Ye gods, man,” Sorin finally said. “Have you been living under a rock?”

Jak’s cheerful demeanor remained, but Rhiannon was the only one who knew them well enough to notice it waver. “I’ve never been much for politics.”

The legionnaires gathered around the fire were only too happy to tell them who Ulfric was, and the responses came flying back in full force, jostling against one another to be heard.

“He’s the Jarl of Windhelm, one of the Old Holds – “

“Well, I knew that, I meant – “

“He trained with the Greybeards until the Great War, uses his voice like a weapon. Never seen it myself, but we’ve all heard the stories.”

“Was one of the first to denounce the Empire when they signed the White-Gold Concordat, too.”

“And then he murdered High King Torygg an’ ran like a coward!”

“He claims to be the voice of Skyrim’s true Nords,” Nels added, raising his voice over the din. “But he doesn’t speak for all of us.”

“And don’t forget about Markarth.” Mirri spat on the ground, face twisted with loathing. The rest quieted again, a few of the soldiers nearest to her wearing similar expressions of disgust. “Half my clan on my da’s side, dead or imprisoned, and for what? Wanting the same thing he does. Bastard.”

Jak looked to her, taken aback. “What happened in Markarth?”

“It was ours first. The native Reach clans, I mean. During the Great War, we took it back – our homeland – and what do the lowlanders do? Bring Ulfric Stormcloak and his army to bring us to heel. All so’s he could worship Talos while they outlawed the Old Gods.” Mirri bared her teeth, firelight falling across her face. “I ain’t Forsworn, but I’ll be damned if I don’t hope they put his head on a pike if he so much as breathes in Markarth’s direction. We got no love for the Stormcloaks there.”

The conversation carried on, arguments breaking out across the fringes about the state of the Reach and the Forsworn. Unnoticed by the edge of the fire, Rhiannon set down her empty bowl and slipped away, heading back towards the healer’s tent.

----------

Rikke’s face remained stony. “I can’t, Rhiannon.”

“But I can end this! At least, I think I can, if you don’t end it first.” Rhiannon’s hand crept up to her neck to rest on her amulet, ever-hidden beneath her robes. The metal was warm against her skin. “But I have to go now, and I need the fastest horse that can be spared. Please.”

“How do you plan to get past the Stormcloaks? They’re blocking the entire ridge. The second one of their scouts sees you, it’s over.”

“Not if I go the long way and double back behind the city, towards Dawnstar.” Rhiannon patted her satchel. “I have my map. It’ll take a little longer, but they won’t notice me.”

But still Rikke shook her head, skepticism plain on her face. “If you can’t even tell me what’s going on, you can’t expect me to – “

“There’s no time! I promise I’ll explain later, but right now, I need you to trust me. I’m not running away this time.” She raised her right hand and placed it over her heart, holding Rikke’s gaze. “I swear it on the Mother Mild.”

The seconds dragged on, each more excruciating than the last, and she thought Rikke might refuse her a third time; but then that weathered face softened, reluctant, followed by a terse nod.

“Alright.”

One word, and yet it carried so much weight that Rhiannon could have wept from relief. She permitted herself a smile instead. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

“Take my gelding, then. He’s the fastest mount we have, and the sturdiest. He’ll last you.” Rikke stood, tone grave. “I’m placing a lot of faith in you with this. Don’t make me regret it. That’s all I ask.”

“I won’t. I promise I won’t.”

She made to leave, but Rikke called her back. For a moment, they stood face-to-face, neither one speaking, and Rikke’s hand rose like she might close the distance between them. A split second more, and it fell back by her side, something like regret in her eyes.

“Stay safe out there,” she said.

 

Jak finally caught up a few minutes outside the camp, in the shadow of Whiterun’s great walls. “I don’t understand you sometimes,” they said, pulling level with her aside a borrowed destrier. “First you refuse to leave, specifically so you could come here to help them free this city, and now you run off after one day? It makes no sense.”

“I’m not running away!” The surge of anger that coursed through her was so hot and volatile that it felt like magic. Her teeth itched with the horrifying urge to lunge at them from atop her horse, to lock her hands around their throat, to bite

The shock of it faded as quickly as it had come, leaving behind a faint nausea, and she clamped down on it, breathing deep until she could speak again. They stared at her, puzzled, and Rikke’s gelding shifted beneath her. “I’m not.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“Trying to help. I’m surprised you managed to tear yourself away long enough to notice I was gone.”

“Oh, don’t be like that.” They urged their mount into a trot after her. “Although, how leaving is supposed to help, I don’t really see…”

“Fine. You want to know how this is going to help?”

Yes. Obviously.”

“Then shut up and follow me.” She nudged Rikke’s horse towards the ridge behind the city, its trees jagged shadows against the skyline. “We have a long way to go.”

Chapter Text

“Everybody, get down!”

A boulder the size of Balgruuf’s throne smashed into the parapet, and Lydia threw herself flat on her stomach as the stone foundations trembled and groaned beneath her. For a beat, it hung there, suspended in the moment, then crashed back down towards the front gate to collide with the earth. She and the other archers were back on their feet before the dust cleared, firing at anyone in blue who strayed too close to the barricade. Nothing more, nothing less – every arrow had to count when supplies dwindled.

It was down to herself, the remainder of the city guard and the few Imperial soldiers who could be spared from the water brigade for the final line of defense, and they held the wall, even as that same wall grew less sturdy by the day. Whiterun was built to hold a dragon and withstand a siege, but even it would inevitably fall if things kept on the way they had been. Her bowstring twanged. Down below, a Stormcloak fell, feathered shaft sprouting from his chest. She shook out her aching arm and reached for another. Her quiver was nearly empty. She was going to have to run back to the Keep herself if they didn’t send down fresh supplies soon. In the distance came the whistle of stone cutting air, and Hadvar’s hoarse voice rang out from the other end.

“Incoming!”

Two more boulders struck the wall, pillars shaking and dust cascading from the cracks. The third flew overhead to land somewhere inside the city, and Lydia could only thank whichever Divines might be listening that all civilians had been evacuated up to the Cloud District long ago. They would be safe, for now. She drew her last arrow and hoped with everything in her that it would count.

When night finally came tripping in, darkness falling in fits and starts like Brenuin after one too many drinks, everyone who was still alive and in one piece retreated to the Bannered Mare to nurse wounds and flagons alike. No bravado, no laughter, just somber conversation that weighed down the atmosphere like steel plate. Ysolda’s stores were dwindling, too, and the night’s rations consisted of old potatoes mashed thin and sour ale. Lydia choked both down. It was better than nothing.

She hadn’t seen her uncle Olfrid in days. He was up at Dragonsreach, along with most of her clan. Only her cousin Jon had come down to fight, and they nodded at one another from their respective tables. She’d always liked Jon best. The Grey-Manes had been called to Dragonsreach as well, ostensibly for their own protection, though everyone knew it was so Balgruuf could keep an eye on them while making sure that neither family put each other to the sword. He was still the Jarl, and as such, Vignar and the others had no choice but to obey. For now.

Lydia wasn’t a fool. She knew a Stormcloak victory meant her time in Whiterun would come to an end, whether it be by exile or execution. But they hadn’t won yet, and either way, she had no intention of going quietly. She finished the dregs of her ale with a grimace and shoveled the remainder of the potatoes into her mouth. Was Rhiannon still at the College, eating well every night? Or had she gone back home after all, to a peaceful existence yet untouched by war and strife?

Her spoon clattered in the wooden bowl as she pushed it away and stood, heading for the door. She needed some air.

Despite her best efforts, she’d thought about Rhiannon a lot since their fight and subsequent parting of ways. At first she’d been angry, but over time, that anger had cooled into hurt, and it was hurt that ailed her now, still fresh as that day in Riften. She leaned against the wall of the Mare and inhaled, breathing deep. Smoke and blood from both camps were on the wind, carried towards the bruise-black sky. It was almost comforting, in its own way. Familiar.

Go home, Lydia. That’s an order.

Did Rhiannon know what was happening in Whiterun? Did she care?

The worst part was, if their falling out had happened even a month earlier, Lydia wouldn’t have bothered. She could have happily gone home and never given her timid little Thane a second thought. Her Thane, who treated her like a friend, not a subordinate. Her Thane, who was scared of everything and still threw herself in headfirst, who was strange and funny and kind, who was becoming someone Lydia was proud to serve. And then, just like that, she was gone. Lydia hadn’t realized how much she missed that sense of camaraderie until it was on a carriage halfway to Winterhold.

She’d thought about writing, but she had no idea what to say. Still didn’t. And it wasn’t like Rhiannon had written to her either, which hurt more than she wanted to admit. The wind shifted, became cooler and sharper as it picked up, and she stayed where she was for a few moments more, breathing. Kynareth hadn’t abandoned them yet. Even now, the air was heavy with impending rain.

Go home, Lydia.

She stayed until the first fat droplets of water spattered across the cobblestone, and a low roll of thunder clapped in the distance. On her way inside, she passed Hadvar and Saadia, huddled in an alcove half-illuminated by torchlight. Saadia’s face was buried in his shoulder, her slender frame quaking in his arms. Hadvar’s eyes were closed, his face lined and weary, his lips moving against her hair. It looked like he was praying.

----------

The last of the late summer storms arrived with thunderous fanfare, lightning rending the sky over the mountains, and an unspoken truce to the fighting was called on account of the weather. No one could see with sheets of water pouring from the heavens, and coordinated movement was near-impossible with the mud and the river flooding its banks to drown the fields. The Stormcloaks were forced to head for higher ground, or else risk their camp being swept away, and all their ruined supplies along with it. Rikke had used worse conditions to her advantage before, and she hated to let the opportunity slip away, but her people desperately needed relief from the onslaught. Tullius was preoccupied with driving Ulfric’s men out of a garrison in Falkreath, so there were no reinforcements to be spared, and more of her soldiers were falling every day. Cipius’ drinking wasn’t helping, either. She longed to reprimand him, but dissent among the command only sowed chaos among the ranks, so she held her tongue for the time being. She did, however, take to ‘misplacing’ the rest of the wine.

It rained for three days. On the first, she was relieved; on the second; restless; the third, on edge. The more time she had to think, the more convinced she became that she’d made a mistake. What had possessed her to trust a girl with no formal training or military experience? She’d already run away once, and now, Rikke had gone and given her a horse. Brilliant.

Still, there was a part of her that fought back, that wanted to trust Rhiannon despite her misgivings. It had been a deliberate action on her part, and there was no point in wasting her breath on ‘what ifs’ and regrets. She’d have to live with her actions either way. All she could do was hope she’d made the right decision, and in the meantime, turn her attention to a more tangible problem. The catapults were wreaking havoc on Whiterun’s external structures, and nobody could get close enough to do anything about it, even in the rain.

“Fire’s out,” Nels said, water dripping from his beard. “That wood won’t catch, even if these storms do let up.”

“I’m aware.” Even the torrential downpour wasn’t enough to move them. The Stormcloaks had taken their camp up into the hills, but the catapults remained where they were, looming giants in the misty grey. Rikke and Nels watched them from the shelter of the commander’s tent, rain pummeling the canvas. It showed no signs of ceasing, but who knew what the morning would bring. “What’s the status on rations?”

“Starting to run low.”

“Supplies? Arrows? Weaponry?”

“The same. By my calculations, we have enough to last another fortnight, if we institute half-rations starting now.”

It was what she’d expected, if not what she wanted to hear. “Do it. I don’t plan for this to last that long.”

“Yes ma’am.” Nels’s salute lingered. “Can I ask what the plan is?”

“It’s being finalized.” She gave him a terse nod. “Rest now. The battle will resume soon enough.”

He left after one final, crisp salute, and she turned her attention back to the hills across the field, where fires spluttered beneath makeshift lean-tos, fighting against the storm.

I hope you know what you’re doing, Rhiannon.

----------

When the storms finally ceased, the fighting resumed, both armies wading through sludge and muck to clash sloppily on the ruined field. It became less about victory than survival, and more about trying to carry as many of her people as she could from one day to the next. The healers were beyond exhausted, and the camp atmosphere grim; with each patient they lost, it only soured further. Rhiannon still hadn’t returned, presumably impeded by the heavy rains. They couldn’t afford to wait on her forever, and yet, Rikke turned her eyes to the horizon each morning, even as it inevitably remained empty.

Hope is the tool of the powerless, her mother had told her once, when Rikke was still young enough to have trouble lifting her sword. Only action brings about change. She’d listened, but the words refused to take root – even now it was a weakness she hadn’t quite been able to shake. First Ulfric and Galmar, now Rhiannon. Perhaps that was her burden to bear, to believe in people who could only let her down in the end. But she was still her mother’s daughter, and even as she hoped, she plotted. If Rhiannon hadn’t returned by the seventh day, she would end things another way, with or without her.

The sun rose. They fought, they bled, they fell until it went down with them, and still Rhiannon was nowhere to be found. The days dragged on, and when the seventh sun rose yet again on an empty skyline, Rikke put on her helm and thought of the last time she’d seen her mother – a glorious silhouette in the doorway of their home, backlit and gleaming with her shield in hand.

“Do you remember what I told you?”

“Hope is the tool of the powerless,” Rikke had repeated dutifully, even as her young eyes stung with unshed tears. “Only action brings about change.”

“Good girl.” Her mother smiled. “To our homeland, to our people, we are hope. Never forget that.”

We are hope. Sun beating down, salt-sweat stinging her eyes while arrows soared overhead.

We are hope. Human screams drowned out by steel-song, her own voice raw from barking out orders over the chaos. Cipius backing her up with his barrel-chested bellow. The whistle of the catapults wiping out his words.

We are hope, over and over again in her head, on her lips in prayer, a city at her back and a sea of her countrymen before her, bleeding and fighting and dying until the words were ash on her tongue.

We are hope. What fool would believe that now?

And still, she picked up her sword.

 

“Legate!” Mirri at her elbow, hair matted with sweat and dried blood, shoving the spyglass into her hands. “Dust over the hills, on your right! Something big is coming, looks like – “

Rikke snatched it up and put it to her eye, searching. A cloud of dust was indeed rising, faint but definitely there, and a cautious ember of something she’d thought extinguished stirred inside her.

“Legate,” Mirri said again, voice tight with urgency. “What is it? What do we do?”

“Nothing yet. Just wait.” The cloud was growing by the second, billowing over the ridge, and the grooves of the spyglass dug into her palm when she tightened her grip. “Be ready to fall back if I give the order. Cipius!” He was at her side in an instant, face ruddy and damp with sweat. She passed it to him and motioned towards the ridge. “What do you make of that?”

“Horses,” he said after a brief pause, one eye squinted shut. “Multiple riders headed this way, and fast. Could mean trouble, but I can’t say for certain.” The eye opened, flicked to her uncertainly. “Your orders, ma’am?”

“Get ready.”

Cipius returned the spyglass and fell back, taking Mirri with him, and his voice was lost to the commotion surrounding them. Rikke kept it pressed to her eye, watching the ridge, and was rewarded with a clear view as the first of the riders crested the hill. Two lone figures astride familiar horses, one with long black hair and the other in lilac robes with auburn curls. They paused there, stark against the cool blue sky, and those carefully banked embers in Rikke’s heart burst into full flame. The smaller of the figures spurred its mount forward, and they leapt, the hills quaking with the force of its cry.

FUS RO DAH!

Rhiannon’s Voice carved open a path in the earth, tents and bodies alike sent flying as it smashed into the Stormcloak campsite like a cudgel. An answering cry went up, whoops and snarling howls echoing across the ridge, and Rikke’s blood ran cold as a river of Forsworn poured from the hills. They were in full battle dress, beaded pelts decorated with feather and bone, each one astride a mountain horse, and at their head – Rikke had to blink the grit out of her eyes and look twice to be sure – at their head was a Briarheart and a hagraven, her clawed hands full of fire.

“Fall back!” Rikke screamed, and flames streamed forth, twisting banners in the wind as their salvation arrived.

The Stormcloak forces were well-trained and numerous, but they were unprepared for the sudden onslaught, and their traditional methods no match for the ferocity of the Reach. Not with their unholy matriarch at the helm. They tore into the nearest column, and the troops not trampled beneath their horses’ hooves went up in a fiery blaze.

Rhiannon’s Voice rang out again, slamming into the nearest catapult. Forsworn and Stormcloak alike were forced to scramble to safety as it toppled into its neighbor, sending both to the ground with an earth-shaking collapse. She cut through the path that opened in its wake with Jak hot on her heels, mud and grass churning beneath the horses’ hooves, and everyone backed away as the two of them came skidding to a stop in front of Rikke. Rhiannon sat tall in the saddle, and in the sunshine, her hair was fire and her eyes looked almost gold. But when she spoke, she sounded the same as she ever had, voice sweet and weary over the carnage, and Rikke was relieved for reasons she couldn’t name.

“They won’t harm you,” she said. “Just don’t get in their way.”

The archers on the wall had picked up on what was happening, and they had no such compunctions – any Stormcloak within range who tried to escape from the onslaught was skewered by their longbows swiftly and without mercy, while the Forsworn took care of the rest. The few survivors who managed to make it into the hills broke and fled over the ridge, leaving their comrades and destroyed camp behind. No one pursued them. Instead, the Forsworn army grouped itself in the middle of the field, surrounded by the bodies of friend and foe alike as they faced down what remained of Whiterun’s defenders. Rikke was struck, as she always was, by the quiet that came on the heels of battle, the deafening absence of sound where there had been chaos only moments earlier. Wind hissed in the grass.

There was movement, and the Forsworn parted to reveal the hagraven as she hobbled to the front, craning her head to take them all in with bright, beady eyes. The Briarheart was with her, expressionless beneath his antlered helm. The revulsion from Rikke’s people was palpable, many of them shifting uneasily as the hag came forward, but Rhiannon was still between them, and she swung her leg over the saddle and dismounted now, ground squelching beneath her boots. Rikke made to step forward, but Jak put a hand out and shook their head.

“She’ll be fine,” they said, voice low. “Watch.”

They met in the torn expanse between the two factions, Dragonborn and Matriarch, and Rhiannon dipped her head in a bow.

“Thank you, Melka.”

“It was our pleasure, mageling.” The hagraven’s smile was a ghastly thing. “Your boon has been granted, and our business concluded. But you freed me, and Melka remembers her allies. No harm will come to you from my people, should you find yourself in the Reach again.”

“I appreciate it. Your help won’t be forgotten.”

“Can the rest of your fellows say the same?” Melka let out a rusty laugh, head cocked. “They aim to skewer us along with their enemies.”

Rhiannon turned and looked up, to where the archers still crowded along the wall, arrows resting on bowstrings. Squinting, she cupped her hands around her mouth. “Please, put down your weapons! They won’t hurt you, and I promised them safe passage. Let them go in peace.”

“Do as she says,” Rikke barked. “Now!”

Up on the ramparts, the bows lowered, a few at a time. Melka nodded. One spidery hand curled around Rhiannon’s shoulder, talons hooking the fabric of her robes, and pulled her close; whatever the hag whispered to her made her pale. Cackling, Melka released her and shuffled back to her Forsworn, their ranks closing around her once more. The Briarheart raised his sword as he swung astride his stallion and let out a piercing cry. Their answering chorus chilled Rikke to the bone. They streamed from the field and back over the hills, leaving only their dead behind, and no sooner did their hoofbeats begin to fade then did Rhiannon sink to her knees in the muck, trembling. The spell was broken. The siege was over.

There was noise – relief sweeping through the survivors, Cipius calling up to his command to alert Balgruuf of their victory – but it all faded away into a dull roar as Rikke went to her, crouching down at her side. Jak wasn’t far behind, and together they helped Rhiannon to her feet. She swayed between them, unresisting.

“I’m sorry.”

Her voice was hollow, save for the faint tremor that ran through it, and not for the first time, Rikke ached to fold Rhiannon into her arms and take her somewhere else, away from everything else. She settled for a gentle touch on the back instead.

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“You’re the reason they won,” Jak said. “Remember?”

Rhiannon looked out across the field of the dead, and her eyes were hollow too, red-rimmed from lack of sleep and guilt. “I know,” she said. A crow cawed somewhere nearby. “But it doesn’t feel like winning.”

“It rarely ever does,” Rikke said.

----------

It was done. She could barely remember the last time she’d eaten or slept for more than an hour at a time, her throat raw from Shouting and her body weak, but it was done. Bodies littered the ground like so much debris. They would be consecrated and buried, as last rites dictated, and word sent to their families. It would take days. Rhiannon squeezed her eyes shut, but the bodies remained, scorched into the backs of her eyelids by an unforgiving sun. At least Rikke was there, her presence solid and reassuring as she gave Rhiannon her arm to lean on and steered her away, back towards the city.

“Come on,” she said, voice soft. “Balgruuf will want to speak with you.”

Balgruuf. Right. Her work wasn’t done, not yet. She allowed herself to be led to the gates, Rikke on her right and Jak fluttering anxiously to her left. They’d been treating her like that since she’d first dismounted at the entrance to Blind Cliff Cave and asked to be taken to Melka – with a kind of quiet awe, like they were just now seeing her for the first time. She hated it. Strange, considering the countless times she’d wished her family would stop thinking of her as someone who needed looking after, but now that everything around her was changing so rapidly, she found herself longing for familiar ground. She was even starting to wish they’d call her Freckles again. Something.

Whiterun, meanwhile, was in chaos. The all-clear signal had been given, the horns sounding joyously from the wall, and the gates unbarred and dragged open as its citizens streamed down from the keep. Guards, legionnaires and civilians collided just inside, cries of relief and loss ringing out as friends, families and lovers alike were reunited at last. It was a bittersweet reunion – too many lives had been lost for it not to be – but the sight was a balm to Rhiannon’s bruised heart all the same. She pressed closer to Rikke’s side as they neared the throng.

“Rhiannon!”

Her head whipped up, and Rikke and Jak looked too, the latter moving to shield her. She scarcely dared to hope, but the call came again, and Lydia shoved her way through the crowd, bedraggled and underfed but alive. Rhiannon let go of Rikke’s arm and pushed past Jak, breaking out into a run.

“My Thane,” Lydia started, but she never got to finish. The rest of her sentence dissolved as Rhiannon seized her in a crushing hug, hot tears of relief spilling down her cheeks.

“Oh, thank Mara – Lydia, I’m so sorry!” she sobbed, face buried against Lydia’s shoulder. “I was so afraid I was never going to see you again, before I got to apologize about R-Riften, and I was so worried – “

“Rhiannon.”

Lydia’s voice cut through her tears, tremulous, and before Rhiannon knew what was happening, strong arms swept her up in a fierce hug of their own and held on tight, Lydia’s cheek pressed against the top of her head. They clung to one another amidst a sea of bodies, noise breaking over them in waves, and when Lydia finally withdrew, she kept her hands on Rhiannon’s shoulders, her eyes over-bright.

“You came back,” she said.

Rhiannon laughed a little and nodded, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I came back.”

“I was… worried.” Lydia suddenly seemed to realize what she was doing, because she dropped her hands and cleared her throat, looking away. “That you might not.”

“When Rikke – when the Legate told me what happened, I couldn’t just… I had to.” Rhiannon sniffled. “I’m sorry I’m forever crying. I missed you, and I was so afraid – “

“Rhiannon!”

And there was Hadvar, wading through the crowd to get to them. Like Lydia, he looked haggard, lack of food and sleep sharpening his features, but he was grinning, the light restored to his eyes. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard you Shout. Thought I’d finally gone mad, but it really was you.” She stared at him, and his smile faltered, the light dimming. “About what happened in Riften – “

“Oh, come here,” Rhiannon said, and hugged him too. He still looked surprised when she let him go.

“I thought you’d still be upset with me.”

“I am, a little.” She patted his arm. “But mostly I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Well, now I feel left out.” Jak popped up next to her, looking between Lydia and Hadvar curiously. “Introduce me to your friends, won’t you?”

“Fine, fine. Jak, this is Quaestor Hadvar of the Imperial Legion, and this is Lydia.”

“Her housecarl,” Lydia supplied.

“My friend,” Rhiannon said firmly. “Lydia, Hadvar, this is my… sibling, Jak. Please don’t listen to anything they say about me.”

“Oh, you’re no fun.” Jak shook hands with them both and winked at Lydia, who remained singularly unimpressed. “Charmed.”

“As much as I hate to interrupt, I need the Dragonborn to come with me.” Rikke had come to join them, people parting in a sea around her, and she put a hand on Rhiannon’s shoulder now. “Jarl Balgruuf is going to give a speech any moment now, and he’ll want to see her when he’s done.”

“I’d like to accompany my Thane,” Lydia said, with a sidelong glance at Rhiannon. “If I’m permitted.”

“Of course you can.” Dragonsreach shone in the distance, the sun high overhead. For now, there was nothing she need fear. Rhiannon took a deep breath. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

 

The rest of the day fairly flew by, leaving her feeling like she’d been sucked in and spat out by a maelstrom. After Balgruuf’s victory address and conference with Rikke, Cipius and Hadvar about clean-up crews and damage assessment, he called Rhiannon into his chambers to announce that in recognition of her continued service to Whiterun, he was gifting her property, as befitting her status.

“Don’t be foolish, girl,” he said over her stunned attempts at protest. “Breezehome’s been empty for years, and I won’t have it said that I don’t reward my Thanes justly. The place is yours. Speak to Avenicci about furnishings if you like on the way out. No doubt it all needs replacing.”

She left the keep a homeowner, Proventus agreeing to send someone out for an inspection once things settled, and between Lydia promising to look after the place for her as a good housecarl should and Jak pestering her about what she’d done to earn such a gift, there was no room to worry about what it all meant for her future. Not when there was still so much to be done. Crews of legionnaires and citizen volunteers were sent out to account for Whiterun’s losses, while the temple and the Legion healers joined forces to attend to those who still lived, and others began gathering the bodies for the funeral rites. The hold was broken, but would ultimately recover once their trade routes were reopened and farms rebuilt; the rest would come with time. There was still the question of what to do in the meantime, until an answer presented itself in the form of a caravan rumbling down the hill.

Ri’saad and his associates, as it turned out, had been camped out near Riverwood for the last couple of weeks, trading with its tense citizens while they waited to see if the town would fall to Ulfric’s forces. It hadn’t, of course – destroying Whiterun’s central lumber mill and most resource-rich settlement would have only hurt him once he’d taken over the city, had he succeeded – and there had been a collective sigh of relief when Khayla had returned with the news that the siege was over. And now here they were with food and drink and wares, all things sorely lacking in Whiterun’s current condition; only the slightest persuasion was needed for Balgruuf to relent and welcome them on a temporary basis, and Ysolda happily threw open the doors of The Bannered Mare. The celebration, such as it was, spilled out of the tavern and into the streets, all the way to the Legion camp by the front gates as the Khajiit plied their custom to a grateful city. Rhiannon had to fight through the crush of bodies to find her old friends, losing the rest of them in the process.

“Khayla!” she panted, waving to get her attention, and the caravan guard smiled at her, whiskers twitching.

“Warm sands, friend. It is good to see you again.”

Ma’rafi and Krisrin were with her, both cubs near-grown now, and they twined around her ankles and nuzzled her in greeting while she and Khayla caught up. She would have liked to say hello to Ri’saad too, but he was in his element, directing the rest of his caravan as they hauled bushels of product inside, and she was loath to interrupt.

“In Riverwood, the traders there. Are they well?”

“Camilla and Lucan, yes? We did much business with them.” Khayla gave her a little nod. “They are well.”

“Thank Mara.” Rhiannon sighed, relieved. “I’m so glad you’re all alright.”

But that was as much as she had time for, as Ortha and Mirri surged up from the crowd and pounced on her, entreating her to share a drink in victory. Khayla gave her an amused wave as she was escorted into the thick of it. Bodies pressed in on her everywhere she turned, crowding the tavern from stem to stern, hands patting her on the back and shaking hers in turn. The noise was almost unbearable. She flinched when Mirri thrust a cup into her hands.

“What is it?”

She had to yell to be heard over the din, and Mirri grinned at her and clacked their flagons together, dark eyes shining.

“That’s Black-Briar Reserve the cats brought in, and drink up! I don’t know how you did what you did, but there’s more where that came from for you.”

The first faint strums of Mikael’s lute came from near the fire, only to be drowned out by a surge of cheers. Rhiannon screwed her eyes shut, plugged her nose, and drank.

 

How she finally escaped, she didn’t know; news of her part in the battle had spread, and no matter where she went, there was someone waiting to thump her on the back or buy her a drink, even though all she wanted to do was forget. Rikke had disappeared, presumably to discuss the Legion’s plans with Balgruuf now that Whiterun was in their pocket, while Hadvar and Jak had roped into Lydia into drinking with them back at the camp, pounding ale with the rest of the company. Rhiannon considered joining them, but decided against it. Drinking herself into a stupor wouldn’t help, and more than anything, she wanted to be alone.

She ended up finding a spot along the wall, away from the commotion, where she could sit and watch the stars emerge in relative peace, half-empty goblet of wine in hand. Brittle grass crunched beneath her when she crossed her legs, cool stone at her back. Exhaustion drenched her down to the bone, but she didn’t dare sleep, for fear of the dreams that would undoubtedly come when her guard was down. At least the dragons were silent. Sated by the battle, she assumed, and revulsion squirmed in her gut at the memory. Her next sip of wine tasted like iron on the back of her tongue. She poured the rest of it into the dirt.

“Bad batch?”

She started. Rikke stood a short distance away, hands clasped behind her back. Even at a distance, dark circles were visible beneath her eyes. They did nothing to diminish the nobility of her bearing, and Rhiannon both admired and envied her for it.

“I’m just not much for drinking,” she admitted, and Rikke nodded.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

“Please.”

Too late, she wondered if she sounded overeager, but Rikke didn’t seem to notice. She lowered herself onto the grass next to Rhiannon and leaned back against the wall. The moons were so full and bright that there was no need for a torch, and Rhiannon saw her wince, lips pressed together.

“My knee,” she said, as if she’d sensed the unspoken inquiry. “A memento from the Great War. Likes to act up now and again.”

“I can take a look at it, if you want.”

“No need. It’s old, and easily ignored. Besides.” The corner of her mouth quirked up. “I like knowing when it’s going to rain.”

Rhiannon had to smile at that. Neither of them spoke for a while, listening to the mingled noises from the city and the plains while the river rushed softly in the distance. When she shifted again, their arms brushed. Even through her sleeve, Rikke’s skin was hot, the way all Nords seemed to run. Too hot to be comfortable in the current weather, but Rhiannon couldn’t find it in herself to move away.

“Jarl Balgruuf gave me a house,” she said.

“It figures.” Rikke made a noise that could have been a laugh. “Clever as he is greedy, that one.”

“What do you mean?”

“We need Whiterun as much as it needs us, and he knows it. Wouldn’t sign anything unless we agreed to cover half the cost of repairs, plus clean-up crews and damage assessment. He can easily afford to give you an empty property that nobody’s claimed in years.”

“I’m not sure I want it,” Rhiannon said after a minute. “I don’t even know what it looks like.” She wasn’t sure she even wanted to stay in Skyrim, but it seemed prudent to keep that to herself for the moment. Rikke glanced towards the gates.

“You could go look now, if you feel like braving the revelry.”

“That’s true.” Still she hesitated, and Rikke spoke again, softer now. Questioning.

“I could go with you, if you like.”

Their arms brushed again. Rhiannon’s stomach fluttered.

“Yes, that would be… I’d like that.”

----------

Breezehome was a dilapidated cottage a stone’s throw from Warmaiden’s, its windows caked in grime and the shutters hanging at an awkward angle. Balgruuf’s steward had given Rhiannon the key, and she fluttered around the room now, lighting a fire in the grate and the wall sconces. Rikke shut the door behind them and took in the scene. It’d be passable once it was refurbished and somebody cleaned out all the cobwebs, she decided. The foundations were strong, the floorboards and frames still intact. On the whole, better than she’d been expecting.

“I wonder who lived here before,” Rhiannon said, running a hand along one of the moth-eaten curtains. Dust shimmered through the air, and she sneezed. Rikke had to turn away to hide her smile.

“Another of Balgruuf’s Thanes, most likely. Your housecarl might know.”

“Oh, good point. I’ll have to ask her.” Rhiannon’s footsteps moved away, and Rikke turned to see her duck into the kitchen. Muffled thumps and creaking hinges echoed, followed by a delighted gasp. “There’s an alchemy nook in here!”

So much for not being sure if she wants it. Rikke shook her head, still smiling. It made sense, really. The place suited her. She pictured it clean and sunny, the shelves crammed with books, the alembic bubbling merrily in the kitchen and flowers bursting into bloom on the windowsill. Maybe Rhiannon could run a little shop, selling potions out her front door with even more flowers braided into her hair. She was so busy picturing it, in fact, that she missed the first three times Rhiannon said her name.

“Are you alright? You looked far away for a moment there.”

“I’m fine. Just thinking.” Rikke leaned against the kitchen doorway, arms folded, and cast about for a change of subject. “The hagraven, earlier. She said your boon had been granted?”

“She did,” Rhiannon said, examining the runes carved into the alchemy table.

“I’m curious how a hagraven came to owe you a favor.”

A distraction, but not a lie – she was curious, now that she’d had time to assure herself that Rhiannon was whole and well and no immediate danger awaited them. Rhiannon’s brows drew together, her lower lip tucked between her teeth. Rikke waited.

“Do you remember the letter I sent you after leaving Markarth?”

“I do.” How could she forget, when she’d kept almost all of them? Rhiannon wouldn’t look at her directly. Her gaze kept sliding elsewhere, bouncing around the room.

“I saved her life. Melka, I mean. The hagraven. She tried to give me her staff, but I wouldn’t take it, so she gave me a boon instead. I thought now might be the time to call on it.” She glanced at Rikke. “That’s why it took me so long. We had to go all the way to the Reach and back again.”

She was nervous, and visibly so, her words halting and measured. Rikke digested this in silence for a moment, and Rhiannon must have taken it as judgment, because her shoulders slumped.

“I know it looks foolish to trust her, on the surface. But she had the chance to kill me before, and she didn’t, and I thought that maybe – because it was a chance to take revenge, and it worked but I shouldn’t have exploited that and I – “ She cut herself off, took a shuddery breath. “I feel so guilty.”

Days ago, Rikke had told herself that she needed to put a stop to the nameless thing between them. No more near-misses, no more longing glances or unspoken words in her throat. Now was hardly the time to entertain those sorts of possibilities, and even if it were, she had little to offer a woman half her age – a mind and body scarred by a lifetime of war, a soldier’s pension, and a heart that belonged to her homeland before anything or anyone else. That was foolishness. Foolish indeed, a voice in the back of her mind murmured as she stepped forward, and Rhiannon froze when Rikke’s hand came to rest on her shoulder.

“That’s what war is, Rhiannon. That’s what it does. You carry it with you.” Some of Rhiannon’s hair had escaped its tie, curling around her cheek, and without thinking Rikke tucked it back behind her ear. Rhiannon’s lips parted, soundless. “But you made your choice, and you saw it through. You saved lives. There’s no shame in that.”

“I wasn’t ready,” Rhiannon whispered. “I know you said to be prepared before, but I don’t think I can. Not like you. I’m not a soldier.”

“Maybe not, but you have to stop selling yourself short.” She tilted Rhiannon’s chin up, held her gaze. “Looking back will kill you, if you let it. Eyes forward.”

“Eyes forward.” Rhiannon let out a little breath and straightened up, squaring her shoulders. “Okay.”

The smart thing to do, the right thing to do, would have been to back off and leave well enough alone. But Rhiannon was still looking at her with those big dark eyes, flecked gold from the firelight, and when Rikke brushed her thumb across Rhiannon’s cheekbone, the skin beneath bloomed pink.

“The hagraven said something else to you, before she left. What was it?”

“It was… strange.” Rhiannon sounded a little strange herself just then, her eyes glazing over. “She said, ‘A word of warning, little dragon. The road before you is long and forged in fire. Take nothing you are not prepared to lose.’”

“Foul creatures, hagravens, but the Old Magicks aren’t to be trifled with. I’d heed her.”

“Then… perhaps, after this, we should go our separate ways.”

There was a peculiar jolt in Rikke’s stomach, like the ground beneath her had fallen away. “Why?”

“Because,” Rhiannon said. She was blushing harder now, but her eyes stayed soft, searching Rikke’s face for an answer. “She said to take nothing I’m not prepared to lose.”

Rikke almost kissed her. Wanted to kiss her so badly that it ached, so badly that she caught herself leaning in before she’d even had time to think about it, and Rhiannon went up on her toes, hand braced on Rikke’s bicep. Their lips would have touched, had Rikke not pulled back at the same time. “Wait.”

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s something I need to tell you.” Rhiannon stared up at her, uncomprehending, and she cleared her throat. There was no point in dragging it out. “General Tullius knows what you are. I was instructed to keep an eye on you during the siege, keep you safe, and bring you back to Solitude when it was over. He wants to speak with you in person.”

She’d wondered what Rhiannon’s reaction might be, once she did finally broach the subject. If she’d be furious, or merely sad; whether or not it would widen the gulf between them once more. She wasn’t prepared for Rhiannon to pause, then sigh, resigned.

“Okay.”

Rikke blinked down at her, caught off-guard. “You’re not angry?”

“There’s no point in putting it off any longer.” Rhiannon looked at the toes of her boots, but not before Rikke saw a flash of sadness. “I just… I thought you were going to…”

Oh. “It didn’t seem right. I felt like I was lying to you.”

“Honestly, I suspected as much when you first showed up at the College.” Still Rikke waited for an admonishment, but it didn’t appear to be forthcoming. “And, now that I know?”

“What do you mean?”

Rhiannon’s face flushed, and she bit her lip again. Her hand was still on Rikke’s bicep, fingers cool against her skin. Her mouth was very red.

A sudden pounding on the front door cut through the silence. “Rhiannon!” someone warbled, voice muffled by the thick wood. “Are you in there? Open up!”

“Oh, for – “ Rhiannon stomped over and flung the door open, leaving Rikke with the acute sensation of being exposed somehow, like a layer of skin had been stripped away. “What do you want?”

“We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Jak complained, drink slurring their words. Lydia loomed behind them. “I want to see your new house. ‘s a bit small though, innit?”

“I like small,” Rhiannon said huffily as Jak dodged under her arm. “Lydia, can you please do something about them? Honestly.”

“I apologize, my Thane. They were… insistent.” Lydia sounded less than sober herself, words unsteady as she leaned against the doorframe. Rhiannon rolled her eyes.

“There, you’ve seen the house. Satisfied?”

“Rarely.” Jak spun around, taking everything in. As soon as they spotted Rikke, they came to a halt, eyes lighting up. “Legate! Didn’t see you there. Am I interrupting something?”

Rhiannon blanched, and Rikke decided enough was enough. “You’re not interrupting anything. Your sister asked me to escort her here, and now that she’s seen the property, it’s time to go. Help her with the lights.”

“But we only just got here,” Jak protested. Rikke fixed them with a look, and they sulked off to help put out the torches while Lydia doused the fire. Just before the final flame was extinguished, Rhiannon sidled over and slipped her hand into Rikke’s, giving her fingers a squeeze.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Rikke squeezed back.

 

Lydia seemed like a good sort, for her part. Quiet, but Rikke could appreciate that. She wasn’t one for idle chatter. They kept pace on the way back to camp while Rhiannon and Jak lagged behind, conversing rapid-fire in hushed voices. Late though it was, the drink was still flowing, and Rikke didn’t begrudge her people that either, not after what’d they endured. Tomorrow there was work to be done; tomorrow they would send off the dead and begin to rebuild. Tonight, though. Tonight was for the living.

She bid the three of them a good night and returned to her tent, where she could hear herself think without the noise and revelry. But no sooner had she sat down on her cot did the tent flap swing open, and Rhiannon poked her head inside.

“Can I come in?” she asked. “Just for a moment, I promise.”

“Of course.”

Rhiannon ducked under the flap and padded forward, then stopped. She was twisting the ring on her thumb, spinning it back and forth so the amethyst glittered in the lantern light. Rikke frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I was just wondering when we’ll be leaving for Solitude.”

“The day after tomorrow. I have a few loose ends to tie up, but once that’s done, we’re expected to return to Castle Dour. Hadvar and Legate Cipius will be staying on to oversee things here.” Not for the first time that night, Rikke wished she had a drink. At least it would have been something to do with her hands. “The General isn’t a patient man. It wouldn’t be wise to keep him waiting.”

“No, I suppose not. Can I bring Lydia?”

“I don’t see why not. And your… and Jak?”

Rhiannon pulled a face. “Jak will come whether I want them to or not.”

Rikke couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. Either way, she didn’t feel like laughing. Not in this too-small tent with too much space between them, wanting something she had no business wanting in the first place. Her knee throbbed again, protesting. There was dried blood under her nails. She curled her fingers into her palms, where she couldn’t see them.

“We should both get some rest,” she said. “There’s work to be done before we go.”

Rhiannon nodded, but didn’t move. She looked conflicted about something, still fiddling with her ring. Then, without warning, she darted across the tent. A barely-there brush of lips against her cheek, and Rhiannon was backing away before Rikke had time to react, looking startled by her own sudden boldness.

“Good night!” she blurted, and fled.

Rikke stayed where she was for some time, staring at the blank canvas opposite her. Eventually, she got up and opened the tent flap, staring out across the camp. The bonfires still burned, huddled figures clumped around them passing bottles from hand to outstretched hand, and the faint sounds of continued revelry could be heard from within the city walls. The moons were huge and orange, twin fires in an inky black sky. Rikke let the flap fall shut. She stripped out of her armor and lay back down on her cot, which had never seemed as lonely as it did right then, propping her leg up to ease the ache in her knee. Sleep came, but not easily, and not all at once. Every time she closed her eyes, she felt the phantom brush of lips, hot against her skin.

----------

Solitude looked different than Rhiannon remembered, more foreboding in the long shadows of late summer. The days were growing shorter, the air cooler, and soon autumn would be upon them in full, glorious color. She wished she were in the right state of mind to appreciate the prospect. The journey had been a tense one, traveling in a cramped carriage without a single opportunity to speak to Rikke alone, and Lydia and Jak’s joint curiosity wasn’t helping matters. At least Lydia had the good sense not to say anything.

“She’s awfully handsome, isn’t she?”

Rhiannon adjusted her satchel, refusing to look up. She could feel Jak’s eyes boring into her. Rikke was back by the stables, counting out the carriage driver’s fare. “Who?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’? The Legate.” Jak nudged her. “A little old for me, mind you, but still. Don’t you think so?” Rhiannon didn’t answer, face burning, and Lydia cleared her throat pointedly. Jak relented, slinging an arm around her shoulder. “Sorry, sorry. I’m just taking the piss.” Their voice softened. “I know I already said this, but I really do feel bad about not believing you before. This Dragonborn business is just a bit mad, is all.”

“Trust me, I know.” It did make her feel a little better to hear it again, though, and she leaned into the embrace. Just for a moment.

“Come on, you three.” Rikke came striding up the path. Rhiannon wondered if she actually was avoiding eye contact, or if it was only her imagination. “The general is waiting.”

Lydia hoisted their bags and followed her, leaving Rhiannon and Jak to trail after them. Jak gave her a sympathetic look.

“There’s really nothing going on between you, then?”

A pair of hawks flew low over the city, coasting on an updraft. Rhiannon watched them circle the spires of one of its many mansions. “No,” she said, and the very word made her chest hurt. “There’s not.”

They were escorted through the gates and up to Castle Dour in short order, curious glances and whispers lingering after them in the streets. Rhiannon had only been as far as the courtyard, and wondered if it was less grim inside than out. It was not. Rikke led them up two flights of stairs and down a long stone hallway with vaulted ceilings, its walls adorned with red banners bearing the Legion crest. At the very end was a massive chamber decorated with all the trappings of war, and Rikke saluted before she entered.

“Sir. You have visitors.”

Tullius looked up from the maps on his desk, hands clasped in front of him. He didn’t bother to rise from his chair. Rhiannon halted in the doorway, Lydia and Jak crowding in on either side of her, and there was an uncomfortable silence as they regarded one another from across the room.

“So, the Dragonborn finally decides to show her face. I was starting to think Rikke made the whole thing up.” His tone was curt. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Rhiannon sighed. “Hello, Uncle.”

Chapter Text

Z –

Tell Mum and Rufinius it’s going to be a bit longer for me, will you? Everything’s fine, it’s all just a bit complicated at the moment. It’s easier to explain in person. Not to worry, we’re with Uncle Reman in Solitude (figured I’d best include that part so Mum doesn’t have a conniption). Will try to return as soon as I can. Castle Dour is nice enough, but it’s not home.

Jak

P.S. Met the future High Queen of Skyrim and her court today. Her man Erikur might be a bigger twat than you are.

P.P.S. I miss you.

P.P.P.S. Shithead.

----------

Rhiannon,

A note? You’d better have a good reason for not saying goodbye in the flesh, and I expect to hear all about it when you come back. You are coming back, aren’t you? We miss you. Most of the new apprentices went back home to help with the harvest, so things are quiet around here. Tolfdir has me Altering furniture now, which has been going well aside from a few mishaps. There’s a chair that runs around and barks now, and Onmund has grown fond of it. He won’t let me change it back.

See? That’s the sort of excitement you’re missing out on.

Actually, now that I think about it, there was a bit of actual intrigue shortly after you left. Ancano’s gone. Vanished without a trace. We were all relieved, as you can imagine, so nobody questioned it, but then the next day there was some kind of uproar in the Arch-Mage’s chambers. Of course, none of the senior staff will talk about it, but if I had to guess I’d say it has something to do with whatever Tolfdir found in Saarthal. Maybe Ancano stole it, that would certainly explain a few things. Anyway, things settled down after that, but then a few days ago – weeks after he disappeared – another Justiciar came to retrieve his things. I overheard him talking to Mirabelle. Odd, right? Although it is nice not to have the Thalmor breathing down our necks.

That’s really all that’s been of note here. Onmund says hello and J’zargo wants me to tell you that his latest experiments with Telekinesis have been going splendidly (although I doubt Mirabelle would agree, given the current state of her office). Write back soon.

Brelyna

---------

Reman –

You’re the Military Governor of Skyrim. Don’t you dare pretend there’s ‘only so much’ you can do.

Lalatia

Chapter Text

Rhiannon was the Dragonborn. Jak still couldn’t quite believe it.

Lydia and Hadvar had waxed rhapsodic about the old legends when they’d been drinking together the night the siege ended, and of course they’d all witnessed some of that power during the battle itself, but the disconnect was staggering. Who was this person diving into haunted ruins and doing favors for hagravens? She was a far cry from the sister Jak remembered, who hid in her garden and flinched if you so much as looked at her sideways. They were sort of impressed, when they thought about it. Baffled, yes, but impressed. Had Skyrim really changed her so much, or had this side of her been there all along?

“It figures,” they could already hear Zeno saying, words dripping with disdain. “Everyone’s always treated her like she’s so special. Why should this be any different?” A complaint he’d voiced more than once over the years, and it had always made Jak uncomfortable. Yes, Rufinius’s blatant favoritism was grating, but they still remembered how hard the pregnancy had been on their mother. How she’d been all but bedridden towards the end, and how giving birth had nearly killed them both. How sickly Rhiannon had been, and what a miracle it was that she’d survived at all. But she’d grown into a healthy child, and Zeno hadn’t, and maybe that was the crux of the matter. He’d hated her from the first – hated that she took all their mother’s time and energy, hated that everyone fussed over her, hated how easily she cried – but in recent years Jak had started to wish they’d spent more time with her. She was gentle in a way the rest of them never had been. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to talk to her about it. Whenever they tried, something sarcastic came out instead. Some habits died harder than others, they’d learned.

“So,” Tullius said, drawing their attention back to the present. He remained seated, hands folded in front of him and face inscrutable. He’d always been a peripheral figure throughout their childhood – their mother’s beloved brother, the celebrated general – and Jak was surprised to find that he was smaller than they remembered. In their hazy recollections he was always a towering presence, silent and dressed in gold. “Your mother tells me you’re supposed to be at the College.”

“I left,” Rhiannon said. It was just the three of them. He’d ordered Rikke and Lydia out despite her protests, and she still looked unhappy about it, mouth pressed into a stubborn line. “And then I went back and finished my studies, which is where I was when the Legate came to fetch me to Whiterun. As you know.”

Tullius’s expression didn’t change. One blunt finger tapped the parchment in front of him. “It also says here that you were supposed to return to Cyrodiil upon the completion of your studies.”

“I opted not to,” Rhiannon said after a very pregnant pause.

“I can see that.” His gaze shifted to Jak. “Which is why you’re here, I take it.”

“And what, exactly, was I supposed to do? Truss her up and drag her back home like a hunting trophy?” They were aiming for levity, but the look on Tullius’s face suggested that they should have, in fact, done exactly that. They switched tactics. “Look, I get that Mum and Rufinius are concerned because of the war, but she is old enough to make her own decisions. Even stupid decisions.”

“Oh, thank you so much. That’s very helpful.”

“Plus this Dragonborn business,” Jak went on, shooting her a meaningful glance. “You have to admit that complicates things.”

At the word ‘Dragonborn’, Tullius finally cracked, lips pursing like he’d bitten into something sour. Rhiannon must have picked up on what they were trying to do, because she changed her tune almost instantly, eyes wide and earnest. “I’ve been to see the Greybeards, you know. Jak’s right. If I leave now, that could put everyone in danger.”

“Assuming you even can leave,” Jak said.

“What?” Rhiannon said. Tullius’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, but he remained silent, waiting for Jak to continue.

“I know it sounds like nonsense. I thought it was too, at first. But now, with some of the things I’ve seen…” They shook their head. “I have to believe it, even if it still feels like I’m dreaming. And if that’s the case, and the Dragonborn is destined to fight the World-Eater, then leaving isn’t really an option, is it? I mean, who’s to say Alduin wouldn’t pop up at the border when you tried to cross? Or worse, follow you back to Cyrodiil.”

Rhiannon had gone still as they spoke, face drained of color. The grooves on either side of Tullius’s mouth deepened, and he sat back, one hand coming up to rub at his temple.

“As much as it pains me to admit,” he said (and it did sound like each word was being dragged out of his mouth by great force), “there may be something to all this.”

Rhiannon stared. So did Jak, momentarily unbalanced. “Really?”

“Rikke is the most sensible Nord this side of Bruma County. If she thinks the Dragonborn is more than just myth, then it’s worth investigating.” His tone was that of a man who could scarcely believe his own words. “She tells me you fought one. A dragon.”

“Two,” Rhiannon said. “And I didn’t really fight them so much as help other people fight them. It was…” She trailed off, trying to find the words, then shrugged helplessly. “Not something I would wish on anyone.”

“There have been reports coming from the east of dragon sightings. One or two I could dismiss, but five or six requires attention. Right now, though, you two need to go bathe and make yourselves presentable. We’ll continue this discussion later.”

“Presentable for what?” Jak asked. Tullius grimaced.

“When Jarl Elisif heard the Dragonborn and her brother were coming to Solitude, she personally requested that you both dine with her. Tonight. You don’t have long, so I’d suggest you hurry.”

“Dinner at the palace?” Jak’s stomach grumbled. There was sure to be good food at a Jarl’s table. Good drink too, if they were lucky – liquor dulled the sting of being seen as a man. Rhiannon, meanwhile, looked like she’d just been ordered to attend her last rites. Tullius motioned them towards the door, which swung open to reveal a young woman in a maid’s uniform, a Legion crest sewn into the collar.

“Rikke’s girl will show you to your quarters and help you get ready. An escort will come for you when it’s time.” A dismissal, and one that brooked no room for argument. His eyes lingered on Rhiannon. “Don’t think this conversation is over. You and I will be speaking later, alone.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Rhiannon said mulishly.

The maid was unremarkable, if pretty enough, but her face shone with barely-contained excitement, and they only made it a few paces down the corridor before she turned around and dipped a low curtsy, dark hair falling over her face.

“Begging your pardon, miss, since I don’t expect you to remember me, but when the Legate told me you were coming back to Solitude, I asked if I could be the one to attend you.” She rose, smile tremulous. “I never did get a chance to thank you properly.”

Rhiannon started like she’d touched something hot. “You’re the woman from the palace!”

“Erdi. At your service, miss.” She bobbed another quick curtsy. “The Legate took me on a while back. Best job I’ve ever had, no offense meant to her Ladyship.”

“That’s right, Ri – the Legate did mention that in one of her letters. What happened?” Rhiannon lowered her voice. “Did he get you fired?”

Erdi shook her head. “No need to worry about that. It’s in the past now. Come on, I’d best show you where you’re staying. Don’t want you to be late for dinner on my account.”

She set off at a brisk pace, leaving them to fall in step behind her. Jak leaned over to Rhiannon. “What was all that about?”

She shook her head. “I’ll tell you later.”

----------

A few years back, before turning her attention to more fruitful pursuits, Rhiannon’s mother had attempted to procure her a suitor. This involved a great deal of being primped and polished and seated next to various men at various dinners, all of whom were interminably dull and seemed to find her the same. Not a single one knew anything about herbology, nor had any desire to learn. She’d tried, since it was expected of her, but inevitably it was just one more area in which she was a disappointment. This reminded her a bit of that, except this time she was being trotted out for a much more important purpose, and Elisif was a great deal prettier than any of her potential husbands. The evening was cool, but she sweated all the way to the Blue Palace. The aide who’d been sent to fetch them was a nervous Breton whose name she’d forgotten as soon as he’d introduced himself, and he kept glancing over his shoulder like he was afraid she might make a run for it.

“Jarl Elisif wanted this to be a more private affair,” he explained now, “so you’ll be dining in the Eastern Tower instead of the banquet hall. I’ll announce you when we arrive.”

“Well, doesn’t that make us feel special,” Jak said. They’d surprised both her and Erdi by announcing that they’d brought their own formalwear, which turned out to be a deep blue dress Rhiannon suspected they’d filched from Sabine’s wardrobe, and they’d talked Erdi into helping plait their hair and line their eyes with kohl. The aide blushed whenever they spoke to him, which they appeared to be enjoying immensely. “Do you know what we’re having?”

“Uh, no,” the aide stammered. “I don’t. Sorry s – mi – sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” Jak purred, and gave him a toothy smile. He flushed to the tips of his pointed ears and scurried a few steps ahead, shoulders hunched. Rhiannon swatted their arm.

“Leave the poor man alone. Honestly.” She was already irritated to begin with, since it was in no way fair that they looked better in a dress than she did, but she wasn’t going to admit it. They were vain enough as it stood. “Does Sabine know you’ve been stealing her clothes?”

Borrowing, sister dear. Borrowing. Besides, it was just rotting away in her armoire.” Jak sniffed, smoothing the fabric over their hips. “She has no appreciation for the finer things in life.”

“It’s too bad none of mine would fit you, or else I’d let you have them. I didn’t know you liked dresses.”

“Sometimes,” Jak said, quieter now. “Can’t wear them at home, though.”

“Oh.” Rhiannon hadn’t given it much thought until then, and was ashamed of herself for being uncharitable. She slipped her arm through theirs. “You look really nice.”

Jak glanced down at their interlocked elbows, then at her, and smiled. It was small, but free from affect or mockery, and more genuine than she was used to seeing from them. “Thanks. So do you.”

The Blue Palace was as spectacular as she remembered, its foliage already tinted with the first blush of autumn, and Jak whistled in wordless awe as they crested the hill. The aide led them through its gilded doors and up the sweeping staircase, past the throne room and down a long, narrow corridor to what she presumed was the eastern tower. He rapped his knuckles against the door, three short, precise knocks, then opened it and entered the room with a bow.

“My Jarl, your guests have arrived. Please allow me to the present the Dragonborn and her companion, Rhiannon and Jak Amorell.”

“Thank you, Grigori,” came the reply, and so that’s his name was Rhiannon’s only thought before she was ushered into the room. It looked like the rest of the palace, with its blue tapestries trimmed in gold and elegantly carved wooden furniture, and there was a potted snowberry languishing in the corner that she desperately wished she could examine. Embers glowed in the hearth, and at the head of the table sat Elisif the Fair, clad in a fine fur-trimmed dress and smiling. Rhiannon vaguely recognized most of the people in attendance, but before she could recall anyone’s name, Elisif let out a soft exclamation, her mouth rounding in a little ‘o’ of surprise. “Dragonborn?”

“Yes, your Grace.” They were all staring at her now. She cleared her throat. “Thank you for the invitation. It’s an honor to dine with you.”

“We’ve met before,” Elisif said, and her eyes lit up. “You and your friend came looking for work in the spring, didn’t you? You had those beautiful clothes from Radiant Raiment.”

“Um. Yes,” Rhiannon said, surprised. “That was me.”

“How funny! Please, sit.” Elisif gestured to the empty chairs on either side of her, then to the rest of the table. “Allow me to introduce you to everyone.” Her mouth continued to move, but Rhiannon didn’t hear a word she said, blood rushing in her ears. Her gaze locked onto a familiar face, and her legs suddenly felt too weak to hold her up. She sat. Elisif’s voice filtered back in, hollow and far away. “ – and of course, Thane Erikur Swift-Tongue, master of Solitude’s imports and exports.”

“Charmed,” the man across the table said, smile unctuous. It didn’t reach his eyes, which bored into her like a branding iron against her flesh. I remember you, they promised, pale and flat. She groped for her goblet, and Grigori was at her side in an instant with a pitcher, pouring her wine.

“Lovely to meet you all. It’s a pleasure.” At least all those dinners had been good for something. Mara, please grant me the strength to get through this. She plastered on a smile and took a sip. Behind her, a bell rang, and servers began filing through the doorway, platters of fish and vegetables balanced on silver trays. Elisif turned to Rhiannon, eyes inquisitive. They were even bluer up close.

“So, Dragonborn – ”

“Please, you can just call me Rhiannon. If you want,” she added hastily. To her relief, Elisif smiled.

“Rhiannon, then. Wonderful. Tell me everything.”

 

As it turned out, entertaining Elisif was the easiest part of the evening; she was clearly desperate for conversation about something other than the war or petty local politics, and hung on to Rhiannon’s every word as she related her travels. Her housecarl, a hulking man with shaggy brown hair and a war-axe as long as she was tall, sat two chairs down, keeping an eye on her as he wolfed down his food. He didn’t appear to have much to say, but at one point Rhiannon overhead him whisper to Falk that he thought Tullius had a nephew as well as nieces. Jak must have heard too, because they shot Rhiannon a cheeky wink when no one else was looking. They’d done what they did best and charmed their way into the thick of things – they were alternately having a conversation with Falk Fire-Beard and Bryling about the finer points of Nibenese versus Colovian architecture and flirting shamelessly with Grigori, who’d gone near as red as Falk’s hair in the process. For her part, Rhiannon kept glancing across the table, but Erikur seemed determined to ignore her in favor of lecturing his Altmer steward about increased shipping costs. She could only hope it stayed that way.

“I’d heard accounts of Helgen and the dragon that attacked Whiterun, but nothing firsthand.” Elisif patted daintily at her lips with her napkin. “That must have been terrifying, facing something like that.”

Frost and fang cut through Rhiannon’s memories, messy and ragged, the scent of blood thick in her nostrils. She set her goblet down. “I try not to dwell now that it’s over, your Grace.”

“Smart thinking,” Bolgeir said. She hadn’t realized that he was paying attention.

“Your uncle also tells me you were instrumental in breaking the siege on Whiterun,” Elisif said. Rhiannon almost choked on her next bite of food. “Is that true?”

Rhiannon swallowed and allowed herself a moment of unkind thoughts directed at Tullius’s personage. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”

“I would,” Jak said. The surrounding chatter faded, and they punctured the air with their fork for emphasis, ignoring the panicked glare she shot in their direction. “Who knows how much longer it would have dragged on if we hadn’t gone to get all those reinforcements.”

Elisif looked between them. “Reinforcements?” Rhiannon tried to signal to Jak as discreetly as she could to stop talking, but it was too late.

“The Forsworn owed her a boon. If what I’ve been led to believe is true, that’s quite the feat.” Jak gave her an encouraging nod. “Isn’t that right?”

Silence filled the room, so complete and absolute that the only sound left was the crackling of the fire. Several pairs of eyes latched onto her, and Rhiannon could feel her tongue shriveling, sweat prickling down her back. She twisted her napkin between clammy fingers.

“Forsworn,” Falk said. Was his voice truly that accusatory, or was she just imagining it? “Is this true?”

It must have sounded accusatory, because Jak sat up straighter in their chair, indignant. “Now wait just a second – “

“It’s alright,” Rhiannon said, before they could make things worse. “When I was in Markarth, my friend and I, we did a job for the Jarl. There was a hagraven – “ A tangible ripple of unease went around the table, and Rhiannon balled her hands in her lap, napkin crushed in her fist. “I – she asked for help. We made a deal. I didn’t plan on seeing her again after all was said and done, but then the siege happened, and we were running out of supplies and people were dying, and I just thought – “

“Recruiting savages from the hills to do the dirty work,” came Erikur’s voice, amused. She didn’t dare look at him. “Sounds more mercenary than heroic.”

“Now, now, Thane Erikur. Stones and glass houses.” The court mage had been silent thus far, observing while she nibbled at the fishbones on her plate, but when she spoke a hush fell over the room. “If the Dragonborn is guilty of using the advantages fate has granted her, then surely we all are.”

“You misunderstand me, Sybille,” Erikur said, smooth as silk. “I was merely suggesting that General Tullius’s account of the situation could be construed as… misleading. No doubt in an attempt to spare his dear niece from scrutiny.”

“Considering everyone’s faces when I said ‘Forsworn’, I’d say he made the right call,” Jak replied lightly. Bolgeir made a noise that could have been a laugh.

“Mm.” Sybille looked at Rhiannon. She was a small woman with sharp, leonine features, made all the more severe by her tightly-coiffed hair and the shadows from the fire. Her eyes were an unusual shade of hazel, closer to copper, or gold. “A hagraven who willingly granted a human a boon. Fascinating. I’d like to pick your brain regarding the encounter sometime.”

“Erikur, Sybille, leave our guest be,” Elisif scolded, coming to the rescue. “We can’t always choose our allies, and I think we’d all rather that than losing Whiterun to the rebellion.”

“Of course, my Jarl,” Erikur said. “No disrespect intended.” His steward lowered his head, and Rhiannon caught the barest glimpse of an eye roll. Sybille smiled, close-lipped.

“My apologies, Dragonborn.”

“It’s fine,” Rhiannon said. She’d had the distinct sensation that she was being considered when Sybille was speaking, the way a predator considered its prey, and the smile wasn’t helping dispel that impression. She missed Rikke.

After dinner, there were little lavender cakes served with snowberry cream and brandy, and Elisif’s expression melted into something blissful when she took a bite, eyes closing. “I asked the cook to make these,” she told Rhiannon in low tones, as if confessing a secret. “They always remind me of home.”

“Oh, are you not from Haafingar?” Rhiannon hadn’t given it much thought until then, but she’d assumed Elisif had grown up in Solitude. She fit in there, fine-boned and beautiful like the city itself.

“Cyrodiil. My father was the count of Bruma.” Elisif sipped at her brandy, and her voice was wistful. “It was actually Falk who first found a way to introduce me to my late husband. He’s my cousin, you know – Falk, not Torygg.”

“Oh,” Rhiannon said. “No, I didn’t know.” Then, because it didn’t seem right to leave it at that: “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure he was a good man.”

“He was,” Elisif said. She reminded Rhiannon of the tales her father told her as a girl at bedtime, full of beautiful maidens with sad eyes and brave smiles. “I was fortunate to have loved him, even if it wasn’t for long.”

“’A place in someone’s heart is to be cherished, whether for a season or a lifetime’,” Rhiannon recited, unthinking. Elisif looked surprised, then thoughtful.

“That’s a lovely sentiment. What is it from?”

“The Twelve Benevolences of Mara. They were the first thing my old tutor made me memorize.” She plucked at the hem of her borrowed dress, made of scratchy maroon wool, and wished she was still wearing her robes. “I’ve always found them comforting.”

Elisif looked her over for a moment, taking in the mountain flowers braided into her hair and the amulet of Mara around her neck. “Are you a priestess?”

“I thought I might be, once. Now…” She broke off a piece of cake, fragrant and crumbly. “It seems selfish to worry about it when so many people are relying on me to do something else. I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought lately.”

For a moment she was afraid she’d overshared, or said something foolish, but Elisif was looking at her thoughtfully again, eyes bright. “Everyone,” she said. “Your attention, please.” All conversation ceased, and Elisif set down her fork. “Thank you for coming. I would speak with the Dragonborn alone now. Excuse us.”

This was a possibility Rhiannon hadn’t prepared for, even though it seemed obvious in hindsight, and she sat paralyzed as the rest of the guests bid their goodbyes and made their exits. Even Erikur’s departure didn’t settle her; his final, cold gaze lingered long after he’d gone. Bolgeir pushed his chair out and stood, bowing to Elisif. “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

“Thank you, Bolgeir,” Elisif said. The door shut behind him, leaving the three of them alone, and Jak folded their hands politely in their lap.

“If it’s alright with your Grace, I’d feel more comfortable if I remained here with my sister.”

“You can trust Jak,” Rhiannon added, trying not to sound too relieved. Elisif considered them for a moment, then nodded.

“Very well. This is a delicate matter, so please, don’t repeat this to anyone.” She pushed her plate away. “How much do you know about the political situation in Dawnstar?”

“Not much,” Rhiannon admitted.

“Absolutely nothing,” Jak said cheerfully.

“The Jarl there, Skald, is a fervent supporter of Ulfric. He’s also mistrustful of outsiders, and his hold is suffering for it. He sends more troops and supplies to the rebellion that it can spare, and now, there are reports of dragons terrorizing the coast.” Elisif tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Brina Merilis has reached out to me discreetly to ask for aid. She’s a good woman. Served in the Legion during the Great War, and from what I understand, most of Dawnstar would prefer her on the throne than Skald. As you can imagine, tensions are running high.”

“Why you?” Jak asked.

“She’s already requested aid from Winterhold, but Korir has nothing to spare. Solitude does, but she can’t request our help openly, nor can I give it. Not without incurring Skald’s wrath.”

“Well.” Jak looked at Rhiannon. “That explains the dinner invitation.”

Elisif’s smile was almost sheepish. “I’m sorry to spring this on you so suddenly, but I wanted to meet you first, to see if I could trust you.” Abruptly, she reached out and took Rhiannon’s hands in her own, fingers soft and eyes serious. “Will you go to Dawnstar and offer them your services as Dragonborn, on my behalf?”

Rhiannon wasn’t sure she could refuse, but it was nice to be treated like she had a choice in the matter. She nodded. “I will, your Grace.”

“Thank you.” Elisif released her, face aglow. “I won’t forget this.”

“Uncle Reman isn’t going to like this,” Jak said. There was a rustle of fabric as they crossed one leg over the other. “You should probably talk to him before you go gallivanting off again.”

“Oh, there’s no need to mention this to the general,” Elisif said, and Rhiannon decided she liked the Jarl of Solitude quite a lot after all. “Just think of it as you doing me a personal favor.”

“Some favor,” Jak said.

----------

The ashes in the hearth were cold. Melaran set about building a fire with fresh kindling while Erikur hung his cloak on the peg by the door and stamped the dirt off his boots, fuming.

“Forget it,” he barked. “It’s barely Hearthfire, for Zenithar’s sake. If you’re so desperate to make yourself useful you can fetch me a drink.”

“Yes sir,” Melaran said, brushing soot from his robes.

“Black-Briar Reserve. And be quick about it!”

Melaran gave a little half-bow and retreated to the cellar, leaving Erikur to climb the winding, polished stone staircase to the upper floor, his dinner sitting sour in his gut. The door directly adjacent to the landing was shut, and upon finding it locked, he hammered it with his fist. “Gisli!”

When that didn’t get a response, he banged on the wood again, and his sister finally opened the door, mouth knotted into a scowl and her dressing gown wrapped around her. “What.”

“Did you finish those invoices from the latest shipment?”

“If you’d bothered to check your desk before trying to break my door down, you’d know the answer to that question, now wouldn’t you?”

“Good. Then you have enough time to revise the expense reports.” He patted the doorframe for emphasis. “Falk raised the shipping tariffs again. Tomorrow morning, first thing, and if they aren’t done properly this time, I’m going to be very unhappy with you. Do I make myself clear?”

Blatant fury was scrawled all over Gisli’s face, but she gave him a stiff nod, clutching her gown closed at the neck. “Perfectly, brother dearest.”

Normally, this would have satisfied him, even if only for a moment. Not so now. He stalked down the hallway to his chambers, only for a set of footsteps to echo him. He whirled around. “What? What do you want?”

Melaran gave him an odd look as he held out the bottle. “Your Black-Briar Reserve, sir.”

Erikur snatched it out of his hand.

He prided himself on being a reasonable man, Erikur. Cool-headed and intelligent, ready to seize any opportunity that came his way – that was how he’d gotten where he was today. But just then, barricaded behind closed doors with only the mead and his own irate thoughts for company, all he could do was seethe.

Of course it would be that useless, cringing bitch who put a thorn in his side. He didn’t care much about the dragons one way or another, so long as they weren’t interfering with his profit margin, but the title of Dragonborn had given her a place at the table that she had no right to claim. Oh, she’d been polite enough, but she clearly remembered him, which made any further interaction with Elisif a concern. Nobody cared about some nameless Imperial, but learning he’d had an altercation with the Dragonborn, General Tullius’s niece… that, that might turn some heads. He downed the rest of the bottle, fingers clenched around the neck of the bottle in a stranglehold.

There was no need to be hasty. If he’d learned anything from his father before the old man’s passing, it was the art of choosing one’s moment. For now, he’d wait and watch until he could determine whether the girl was truly a threat, and only then would he act. He’d have to see if he could find out what Elisif had wanted to talk to her about, first and foremost. Leverage was important in situations like these. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs. No, there was no need to be hasty, not at all. The situation was aggravating, to be sure, but the last person who’d thought they could threaten his position was Captain Volf, and now he was rotting somewhere in Solitude’s dungeons, captain of nothing but rats and piss. He allowed himself a satisfied smile.

“Melaran! Another mead!”

Downstairs, Melaran had just finished stoking a fire in the now-clean hearth, and he caught the echo of Erikur’s voice as it bounced down the hallway. He straightened with a grimace and turned to see Gisli descending the steps, her arms full of parchment and ledgers. She met his gaze with narrowed eyes.

“Did you know about the expense reports?”

“Not as such, no.”

“An entire day’s work, wasted. I’d slit his throat if he weren’t my brother.”

“Melaran!” came the impatient snarl.

“He’s coming!” Gisli bellowed, muscling her way past Melaran towards the dining room table. Scrolls and leather-bound books tumbled indiscriminately onto its glossy surface when she emptied her arms, and she glanced over her shoulder at him. “While you’re down there, get wine. The Daggerfall vintage, not the cheap local swill. I’ll split it with you if you help me revise these before morning.”

The corner of Melaran’s mouth quirked. It was almost a smile. “How could I possibly refuse?”

----------

Lydia sat in the chair by the bed in their borrowed quarters, thumbing through a copy of The Wolf Queen. She’d clearly been there for some time, and she rose to her feet as soon as Rhiannon opened the door, tossing the book aside.

“My Thane. Welcome back.”

“Oh, stop it. Sit down.” Rhiannon waved a hand at her as she sunk onto the bed, slipping off her shoes. “You know I hate it when you call me that.”

Lydia sat, though not without a certain amount of reluctance. “How was dinner?”

“I’ve been to worse. The food was good, at least.” After weeks of travel rations, even something as simple as fresh vegetables seemed like a luxury. “I wish you could have come.”

“Nothing to be done about it now. Where’s Jak?”

“They said they wanted to get a drink at the inn.” Rhiannon’s robes had been cleaned and pressed in her absence, and someone – presumably Erdi –  had folded them and left them at the foot of the bed. She scooped them up and ducked behind the privacy screen to change. “You, um… you haven’t seen Rikke recently, have you?”

“I haven’t,” Lydia said, casual as anything, “but Erdi delivered a note along with your robes. I assume it’s from her.”

“She did?” Rhiannon poked her head out from behind the screen, only to catch sight of the grin on Lydia’s face as she pointed to the folded piece of parchment on the nightstand.

“She did.”

“It’s not funny,” Rhiannon muttered, blushing, and snatched the note, retreating back behind the screen to read it in peace. She unfolded the parchment to find Rikke’s familiar script.

Have been assigned to oversee operations in The Pale. I leave tomorrow. Will write if I don’t see you before then. Take care of yourself.

She read it twice, then folded it once more and finished dressing. On the other side of the screen, the chair creaked as Lydia settled, followed by the turning of a page.

“Good news?”

Rhiannon belted her robes and slipped the note into her pocket, where it nestled against her hip, a talisman for luck. She hoped.

“Something like that,” she said.

 

Despite the late hour, the candles in Tullius’s chamber still burned, the door left slightly ajar. Rhiannon knocked anyway, for decorum’s sake, and was rewarded with a gruff, “Come in.”

“Uncle Reman?” She held herself as tall as she could when she entered, shoulders back and spine straight – her mother had always told her that her uncle despised poor posture. “I was hoping we could speak, if you’re not busy.”

“This isn’t what I meant by ‘later’,” Tullius said, but he motioned her forward anyway. “Shut the door.” He was seated at his desk, a goblet by his left hand and a quill in his right. Parchment was piled on either side of him like snowdrifts. Out of his armor, dressed in a drab tunic with weary circles under his eyes, he looked much less intimidating than he had earlier in the day. He studied her as she approached, and there were traces of her mother in his face: the square jaw and heavy brows, set in a high forehead over a proud, aquiline nose. “How old are you now?”

“Twenty-three.” Twenty-four next month, she was tempted to add, but refrained for fear of sounding childish. Tullis looked at her for a moment longer, then set the quill aside, massaging ink-stained fingers.

“Last time I saw you, you were little more than a child. You were scared of me, as I recall.” He smiled, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. “Now, seeing you here as a young woman… I assume you can understand my reservations about all this.”

“You’re assuming I don’t have reservations of my own,” she pointed out. He didn’t quite smile this time, but the lines of his face softened.

“You came here with something to say. What is it?”

Rhiannon tucked her hand into her pocket, her knuckles brushing the paper hiding there, and took a deep breath. “I’m requesting permission to join Legate Rikke’s operation in The Pale as camp healer.”

Tullius wasn’t a man who was surprised by much, she knew, but his eyebrows rose slightly as she spoke, forehead creasing. “Camp healer.”

“Yes. I imagine they could use one.”

“Last I heard, you weren’t interested in enlisting. Vehemently so.”

“I’m not. But after Whiterun, there’s no way the Stormcloaks don’t consider the Dragonborn their enemy, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?” He was silent, and she dared to press further. “I can’t go home. After everything that’s happened, everything I’ve seen and done… why me, I don’t know, but the prophecy is real. That much I know for certain.” Look him in the eye. Don’t show weakness now. “So, I thought maybe we could compromise.”

“You sound like your father,” Tullius said dryly, and picked up his goblet. “So, instead of returning home, you stay here, under the watchful eye of my best general. Is that it?”

“Well, you trust her, don’t you? And that way you wouldn’t be lying when you tell Mum that I’m safe here.”

“And if I said no?”

“I’d go anyway,” she admitted. “Or at least try. I’m getting better at giving your people the slip.”

“So I’ve been told.” He drank deep, the muscle in his jaw flexing. She remained silent, hands clasped behind her back so she didn’t fidget, and after a moment he set the cup down and shook his head. “Lalatia isn’t going to be happy about this.”

At first Rhiannon was sure she’d misunderstood, but when nothing else was forthcoming her heart lightened, and a swell of unexpected relief washed over her. “Really?”

“The last healer stationed out there had to be reassigned due to complications with her pregnancy, and her apprentice is as useful as boiled cabbage. Having someone competent on hand would spare me the headache of replacing him.” His fingers drummed on the wooden desk, deliberate. “There’s also the matter of those dragon sightings I mentioned earlier.”

“I’ll investigate them. And I’ll have Lydia with me, so nobody needs to worry. She’ll protect me.”

“Investigate and report back to me, but don’t do anything foolish. I’m not going to explain to your mother that you died on my watch.” His eyes were like flint, mouth set in a grim line. “But make no mistake. This is a job, not a favor, and Rikke isn’t there to coddle you. Don’t get underfoot or expect special treatment. Have I made myself clear?"

“Yes sir.” She had to fold her lips inward to keep from smiling, biting the inside of her cheek. “Thank you.”

“I wouldn’t thank me yet.” He waved her away, picking up his quill once more. “Go, sleep. The company moves out at three bells. You’ll need to notify Rikke that you’re accompanying her before then.”

“Yes sir. I will.”

With that, she was free to go, and as soon as the door shut behind her, she slumped against the wall, heart pounding. Rikke’s note crinkled when she took it out of her pocket, ink smeared but still legible. She read it once more, and a tendril of worry cut through her excitement. What if Rikke didn’t want her there? What if she only got in the way?

It didn’t matter, she reminded herself. She’d told Elisif she’d aid Dawnstar, and that was what she intended to do, one way or another. Everything else would have to wait.

----------

The sky was black as pitch and dappled with stars by the time Jak slunk back to their temporary quarters, and the only light came from the flickering lanterns that hung from doorways or the occasional post at a street corner, burning on while the city slumbered. A wolf cried out from somewhere on the moors beyond the harbor.

True to their word, they’d gone to the inn for a drink, and then immediately doubled back, where Grigori had let them in through the servant’s entrance and snuck them into one of the old, unused storage rooms in the west wing. Fresh as it was, the memory still made Jak smile – he’d been timid and sweet and turned a delightful shade of pink when he came in their hand, his own clapped over his mouth to muffle any noise. He didn’t try to touch them, and they didn’t ask. He was a pleasant distraction, nothing more and nothing less.

“Are… are you staying long?” he’d ventured afterwards, sprawled on the unused mattress in the corner as Jak scrubbed their hands clean with a spare cloth he’d found in a cupboard. He’d propped himself up on his elbows, his breeches still unlaced. His hair was mussed and there was a smear of lip paint at the corner of his mouth. “In the city, not here. Unless you wanted to! I didn’t mean – “

“Unlikely,” Jak had said, taking pity on him. “But then again, who knows?”

Castle Dour was still aside from the stone-faced guards who let them inside, its halls dark and solemn as the catacombs that snaked beneath the city. It took Jak several tries to find the right one, and by the time they did, they were ready to collapse into a real bed and sleep well into the following morning. Maybe even the afternoon, if they were lucky. It seemed like years since they’d had a decent night’s sleep. But courtesy dictated that they tell Rhiannon they were back so she didn’t worry, and when they opened the door, they were greeted with the sight of their sister and her housecarl packing their bags, the candle on the nightstand burnt down to a pale nub and the wall sconces still alight.

“There you are,” Rhiannon said. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, organizing her alchemy supplies. Her satchel sat open next to her, linen-wrapped bundles and empty vials spilling out onto the quilt. “I was starting to think we’d have to come find you.”

“I was preoccupied.” Jak stepped inside and shut the door. “What’s going on?”

“We’re leaving tomorrow for The Pale. Well, we are.” Rhiannon motioned to herself and Lydia. “You don’t have to come.”

“You’re leaving already?”

“You heard Elisif. Dawnstar needs help with the dragons, and the Legate is leaving tomorrow with her company for the camp there. It’s perfect timing.” She sniffed at one of the bundles, pulled a face, then stuffed it back in the satchel. “If you don’t want to go, you can always stay here. I’m sure Uncle Reman could arrange for you to cross the border back to Cyrodiil.”

“Nice try, but you’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Not that they wanted to go to Dawnstar, but Rhiannon and Zeno weren’t the only ones who’d inherited their mother’s legendary stubbornness. “What time do we leave?”

She gave them an exasperated look. “Are you ever going to quit following me around?”

“Please. You know Rufinius will have my head if I come back without you.” Jak crossed their arms over their chest. “Like it or not, you’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.”

“Fine. If you’re coming, you should probably pack now. We’re supposed to leave at three bells.”

“Fine.” They looked over to see Lydia staring at them, and a sudden bout of self-consciousness pricked at them. They crossed their arms a little tighter. “What?”

It came out sharp, but she didn’t seem bothered. Just shrugged and kept folding her spare clothes, her pack open next to her. “Nice dress.” Jak eyed her, but there was no follow-up barb, nothing sardonic in her tone, and they relaxed their arms a little.

“Thank you.”

“It’s late, and we still have a lot to do,” Rhiannon said, giving the door a pointed glance. “You should get some sleep. I’ll come get you in the morning if you’re not awake by the second bell.”

“Right.” Jak went to the door, but hesitated for a moment with their hand on the knob. Despite being on opposite sides of the room and barely speaking, there was a comfort to the way Rhiannon and Lydia occupied the same space, an ease to her movements they’d only seen when she was tending the plants in the garden, and suddenly they missed Zeno like a physical ache, deep in their bones. This wasn’t how they’d wanted things to go when they saw her again. “Rhiannon?”

She looked up, hands full of dried moss and bundled flowers.

“You never did tell me what happened with that maid, you know.”

Lydia looked up. “What maid?”

“Goodnight, Jak.”

Chapter Text

So.

Karliah was alive. Celia couldn’t say she was surprised.

She’d been fourteen or so when she first joined the Guild, a scrawny, snotty brat with a temper and a mouth to match, sleeping on the docks next to the fishery and begging alongside every other vagrant skooma addict in Riften’s filthy streets. Her time at Honorhall had hardened her, back still bearing the marks left by Grelod’s loving hand; whatever it took to get by, she’d done, as long as it kept her alive until morning. Two years she’d lived in Beggar’s Row, surviving on scraps and spite, until that one fated morning when, out of desperation, she’d tried to pick the pocket of a passing Imperial.

(“Don’t worry, child, I’m not going to turn you in.” His smile was gentle – he’d always been so gentle, Gallus, seemingly more a gentleman or a scholar than a thief – as he’d looked her over, hunched and baring her teeth like a cornered cat. “You can keep the purse, but you’ll have to give me something in return.”

She’d spat in the dirt, eyeing him warily. “Whassat?”

“Your name.”)

She hadn’t been worth a copper back then, but Gallus had seen something in her, even when she tried to tell him that she was no good. Fear had sent her running into the night, away from Honorhall, and guilt kept her from going back. What use would he have for a coward? But he’d taken her in all the same and given her a new home, a real home, with a family who didn’t beat you with a switch or twist your ears for talking after curfew or hold your hands in the fire for trying to take more than a ladleful of porridge. There, she’d found her purpose. There, she’d found her gifts. Nobody looked at her twice when she wandered the streets, a big-eared waif with stick-thin limbs and shaggy hair falling in her face; she might as well have been a stray dog, or a fencepost. It was all too easy to stumble into someone, faint from pretend hunger (and what a luxury it was, to pretend), and relieve them of their belongings in the process. It came to her naturally, easy as breathing. She’d always been good at getting by.

It was hardly a surprise that she adored Gallus, who’d fed and clothed her, who taught her letters and numbers and the delicate art of forgery, but there were others who managed to slip through her defenses: cocky Delvin Mallory, who flirted shamelessly with anything in a skirt and showed her how to filch even the slipperiest keys and gems from a noble’s pockets; Gallus’s protégé Brynjolf, with his fiery hair and cool, sly smile; temperamental Stays-in-Shadows, a former skooma addict who’d turned her life around with the help of the Guild and had devoted herself to Nocturnal in thanks; Helseth the Dunmer and Medora the Altmer, outcasts from their respective clans who’d been shunned for their choice to marry; the young Khajiit Fasrin, who liked to brag and show off her latest haul but secretly gave away her profits to Riften’s beggars and orphans; and even Mercer Frey, Gallus’s second, who swaggered about like a grown man despite only being a few years her senior and irritated her the way an elder brother might. But above all, it was Karliah she’d idolized – Karliah, who was a brilliant thief and beloved by all, who was graceful and soft-spoken and feminine in ways she’d thought out of reach, who taught Celia how to use a bow and melt into the shadows so no return arrow could reach her. Karliah, who’d murdered her lover and disappeared without warning, tearing the very foundations of the Guild apart.

For a few short years, everything had been like living in a dream. Gallus’s death was a brutal awakening, and in the aftermath, it had all come crumbling down around her. Mercer, Delvin and Brynjolf tried to hold things together, but within a year, the Guild was less than half its previous size. Helseth and Medora were the first to go, striking out for greener pastures in Cyrodiil; Fasrin escaped Whiterun’s jail after a bedlam job gone wrong and never came back; Stays-in-Shadows picked the wrong pocket and bled out on the streets. Within five, only a handful of their original members remained. Celia had hung on as long as she could, desperate to keep what little was left, but then things started going wrong. Small things at first, like jobs drying up and inexperienced apprentices whose timing was off by a fraction of a second, but then Delvin had gone to rob a minor noble in Whiterun and found him beating his son near-unconscious, three sheets to the wind. He never did explain what it was that made him snap and slit the man’s throat, but Celia thought she knew. The resulting scandal had cost them a truly extravagant amount of coin and the support of their last wealthy patron, and Delvin was sent to lay low with the Brotherhood ‘until the storm blew over’, as Brynjolf put it. The only problem was that the storm kept blowing. The day Mercer announced he was meeting with Maven Black-Briar to discuss a potential partnership, Celia had packed up and walked out. After all, it was Mercer who’d taught her to cut her losses. In a strange way, she thought she might have made him proud.

The years following that time were a blur. She drifted from one town to the next, numb, while her ghosts followed close behind, the weight of them pressing down on her shoulders. You always run when things get tough, Trystin’s shade said accusingly. She hadn’t dreamed about him in years, but he’d come back with a vengeance then, him and the rest, Lolly and Bjorn and Jakir, clawing their way up from where she’d buried them in her head. Trystin looked the same as she remembered him, down to the curly brown hair and lazy eye, except for where the side of his head had been caved in. Blood ran down the side of his face, thick and black, soaking into the neck of his tunic. You ran and you left everyone there, because it didn’t matter what happened to us, as long as you got out of there –

“I did what I had to do!” she’d cried, thrashing beneath the thin comforter the innkeeper had given her. “You would have done the same.”

You’ll never know, Trystin said, the dream fading away. Will you?

If she’d stayed that night, it wouldn’t have changed anything, she told herself after that, curled up in the corner of her room with a bottle of wine half-drunk in her trembling hands. She’d been telling herself that for years. It was the only way to keep moving forward, and so she went on, bounty hunting and scrounging up odd jobs until she seized upon what was supposed to be a golden opportunity. A simple forgery, low-risk and high-reward, but her greed and desperation left her vulnerable to mistakes. And what a mistake it was, working with that particular client – a mistake that cost her three years of her life, locked up in Falkreath’s dungeons like an animal until Rikke had appeared one day, a beacon of hope shining out from the dark, and offered her a deal. No more thieving, and as long as she worked for Rikke she’d have her freedom. Half-mad from the lack of sunlight, what could she say, besides yes?

It helped that she’d come to like the Legate well enough over the years. She was strong, and she understood what it was to move forward without the privilege of regret. Celia respected that, even if she couldn’t quite figure Rikke out. A Talos-worshipping Legionnaire, devoted to the same land as the rebels but firmly opposed to men she’d once called friends, an honorable pragmatist – she’d never known one woman to hold so many selves. And despite her insistence that Celia refrain from a life of crime, nearly all of her informants seemed to have some sort of checkered past. Risky, but a solid choice for when you needed dirty work done right. Like now, for instance.

“You know something.”

“I might,” Brynjolf said. They stood at the edge of the market, watching the people mingle and merchants clamor to attract them. Everyone always said Riften reeked of fish, but growing up by the docks had rendered Celia all but immune to the stench. Even now, she’d stopped noticing five minutes after she’d walked through the front gates. It was the other smells she picked up now: woodsy smoke from the forge, mud and rotting vegetation with the murky undercurrent of the canal running beneath their feet, roasting meat from Marise’s stall. A curious nostalgia washed over her. Children scampered by with their dog in hot pursuit, splashing through a nearby puddle, and Brynjolf stepped aside to avoid getting filthy water on his boots. “Of course,” he added, “if I did know something, it’s not information I’d go around giving out lightly.”

“Shocking.” Out of habit, she looked for Balimund, but the forge was deserted. Inside having lunch, then. “What do you want for it?”

He shook his head. Not here. “Walk with me.”

The hidden entrance to the cistern was just as she remembered, a hollow tomb in an overgrown graveyard. A few clumps of dragon’s tongue and mountain flower had valiantly tried to stake their claim there, only to be choked out by the parasitic nightshade that bloomed rampant year-round. Glossy purple flowers sprung up wherever she looked, the air clogged with their sickly-sweet perfume. She sneezed, and Brynjolf sat on the edge of the tomb, hands braced against his thighs.

“I’m concerned,” he said.

“About Karliah? I don’t think she’s enough of a fool to attack this place directly.”

“That’s not her style,” he agreed. “But no, it’s not that. It’s Mercer.”

Celia frowned. Mercer Frey wasn’t the sort of person who invited concern, unless it was for what he might do to you if provoked. “Why?”

“Ever since it came out that Karliah’s the one who’s been sabotaging us, he’s been… different. He’s not sleeping, his temper is worse than usual, and he’s keeping secrets. I know him well enough to see that much.” No smiles, no jokes – this wasn’t a Brynjolf she saw often, his expression shadowed and muscles tense. “I’m worried he’s going to do something rash.”

“What, like go after her himself?”

Brynjolf shrugged. “She’s already interfered with our last few jobs and infuriated Maven to the point of threatening to pull out of our arrangement if this isn’t handled. I wouldn’t put it past him.” She didn’t respond, and he stood with a grunt, his knees creaking. Another reminder that none of them were as young as they used to be. “I need you to talk to him.”

“Talk to – Bryn, I haven’t seen the man in almost fifteen years. What could I possibly have to say?”

“You were there,” he said, and she fell silent again. “There’s not many of us left, and he won’t hear me or Delvin, but you… he might hear you.”

“I doubt that.”

“It’s worth a try.” He smirked. “At least, it is if you want to know what I know.”

Damnit. He had her over a barrel there and he knew it, the smug bastard. As little as she wanted to talk to Mercer, even less desirable was the prospect of poking around in court politics, especially in Riften. The whole place was a hornet’s nest. One good whack, and they’d swarm her. “Fine. I’ll talk to him, but I don’t know that it’ll do much good. And if I find out you lied to me about knowing who’s a plant – “

Lied to you? I thought you knew me better than that. I’m hurt.” Brynjolf draped his arm across her shoulders, all smiles now that he’d gotten his way. “I’m just asking you to come down and have a chat with a friend, for old times’ sake. You do that, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“I want to know why you’re such a prick,” Celia muttered. Brynjolf chuckled and released, giving the tomb a nudge with his boot. The runes at the base lit up, glowing green, and the top slid open soundlessly to reveal the entrance to the cistern.

“After you.”

“Wait, you want me to do it now?”

“Why not?”

The open tomb leered up at her, rickety ladder descending into darkness. She’d never minded it when she was younger, but her time in prison had left her with a lingering fear of underground spaces she couldn’t seem to shake, even years later. She took a step back, shaking her head.

“I… I need time to think. I still don’t know what I’m even going to say.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Brynjolf swung his leg over the edge. “Meet me here at sunrise.”

“Will do.”

She watched him slide down the ladder, and within seconds, the tomb had swallowed him whole, lid sliding back into place. The runes flared once more, then faded. She left the graveyard and went down to the docks, trying to clear her head, but it didn’t help. She could still smell the nightshade.

----------

The camp was less than a day’s ride from Solitude, and for that, Rikke was grateful. They’d made good time, and two score legionnaires had arrived alongside her before sundown, with Rhiannon, Jak and Lydia bringing up the rear. The camp in the Pale was their least-populous, boasting just shy of two hundred, and her soldiers had come to round them out, bringing fresh news and much-needed supplies. She sat in the commander’s tent now, listening to the noise on the other side of the canvas – wood crackling and embers popping, gear clanking, hoofbeats and snow-muffled footsteps lost to the crying wind and endless drone of voices all melting into one.

She understood why Tullius preferred her in Solitude, she did, but she never felt more at home than on a battlefield or at one of the camps, out in the thick of it. She refused to become what Ulfric had, sending his people to bleed from his throne; would never order anyone under her command to do something she herself wasn’t willing to do. That, her father had told her, was the tactic of someone who cared more about power than justice. Her waterskin hung from her belt still, and she unhooked it and took a sip, thoughts buzzing.

It wasn’t that she minded the extra bodies. Jak was a skilled archer, and Lydia an honorable warrior steeped in the old ways, both welcome additions to the ranks. As for Rhiannon, well… it didn’t make a difference if they needed a camp healer at present or not, because Tullius had given her leave to accompany them, and Rikke couldn’t say she had reason to mind. If anything, that was the problem. She minded too little.

Well, now what?

It was the same question she’d been asking herself since Whiterun. They were at a crucial point in the conflict, with no room for distractions, but equally distracting were her attempts to ignore whatever lay between them. She wasn’t a fool, and neither was Rhiannon – they’d nearly kissed that night after the siege, and now she had no idea how to proceed. Even if it were the time to go about courting someone, it didn’t seem right. Rhiannon deserved someone younger, someone not yet battered and scarred by the mundane cruelties of life. Someone who wasn’t afraid to touch her, for fear of shattering her with one wrong move. Didn’t she deserve that, at least? A real chance at happiness?

Yes, part of her said, unwavering.

Yes, but, the rest whispered, deep in the selfish heart of her.

She deserves more than I can give her, the first part insisted.

And yet you want her anyway, the second retorted. She closed her eyes.

“Rikke?”

Of course. Rikke straightened up and beckoned, trying not to look pained, and Rhiannon ducked inside, closing the flap behind her.

“Dragonborn. How are you settling in?”

“Well enough, thank you. The, um, the former healer’s apprentice? Dorian? He seems relieved to have another pair of hands on duty.” Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes remained anxious. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry if we’re in the way. I tried to tell Jak not to come, but – “

“You’re not. Trust me. I need as many boots on the ground as I can muster.” Rhiannon nodded, still looking unsettled, and Rikke realized what was different – she was alone. Neither Lydia nor Jak had voluntarily left her side since Whiterun. To find them both absent so suddenly was jarring. “Speaking of which. Where’s your escort?”

“Drinking and talking about Jak’s last journey to Valenwood,” Rhiannon said. The irritation in her voice took Rikke aback. “On the way here they compared archery techniques for an hour.”

“That bothers you,” Rikke ventured, after an uncomfortable pause. Rhiannon sighed.

“Everyone likes the twins.” At Rikke’s blank look, she clarified. “Jak has one. Our brother Zeno.”

“Ah.”

“We… well, we’ve never really gotten along, but even I can see that they’re both clever and talented and have interesting things to say… you know, the sort of people other people like.” There was a matter-of-fact quality to the words, like she was repeating a story she’d heard a thousand times before, but her expression was gloomy. “It’s always been… harder, for me to make friends. I, um, didn’t really have any until I came here, and it took so long for Lydia to start liking me, and now – “ Her mouth snapped shut, like she’d been about to reveal something best left unsaid, and she looked away. “I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to bother you with this. I know it’s silly.”

“Come here,” Rikke said. Rhiannon approached with wary steps, skirting around the map spread open on the table with all its coordinates and pins, and Rikke reached out and folded her into an embrace. Rhiannon sagged against her, some of the tension melting away, and Rikke held on for as long as she dared before releasing her, her hands still braced on Rhiannon’s shoulders. “Look at me,” she said, gentle, and Rhiannon looked. “I’m glad you’re here.”

She’d never been good at comforting people, but judging by the relieved smile on Rhiannon’s face, she’d done alright this time. “Thank you,” she said quietly. Rikke nodded.

“Go get some rest. It’s been a long day for all of us.”

“I will. You should too.” Rhiannon tucked her hair behind her ear. Her expression was lighter, less drawn, and Rikke’s bare skin tingled when Rhiannon touched her forearm. “The general wants me to start looking into the dragon sightings around here, so I’ll probably be gone most of tomorrow, but I’ll have Lydia stay behind. Send her to find me if you need me.” Her hand fell back by her side. “Not that you will, but… you know. Just in case.”

“Don’t go to Dawnstar,” Rikke warned. “Skald hates anyone who’s not a Nord, and he especially hates the Legion. General Tullius’s niece would make a fine hostage for him to use as leverage.”

“Right,” Rhiannon said, and Rikke caught a glimpse of raw nerves before she steeled herself again. Silence settled between them again, thick and damp as the snow outside. What else was there to say, Rikke wondered, without saying too much? Without saying everything?

“Be careful,” she said, and let her go.

----------

Celia had been fucking Balimund on and off since she was nineteen, since the first night they’d met at the Bee & Barb. Sometimes she felt guilty when she thought about it, like she’d somehow robbed him of his chance for a wife and a real family, but he’d had that chance, hadn’t he? She’d thought for sure she’d come back after her stint in prison to find him wed, bouncing enormous blond Nordlings on his knee, but he’d stayed the same as he’d ever been, aside from adopting Asbjorn. He never asked what she was in prison for, or pressed her for details she wasn’t willing to give; if anything, he treated her like a wild animal he was trying to befriend, never forcing her to stay but always leaving the window open for her to return. She wanted to hate him for it, but never quite could. He knew her too well.

“Going out on business,” she murmured now, sliding out of bed. He stirred, hand grasping at the empty space between them. “Be back later.”

“What time is it?”

“Early. Don’t get up.”

He grumbled something that sounded like an affirmation, burying his face back in his pillow, and the snoring resumed. She dressed as quickly as she could and padded down the hall, past Asbjorn’s room and into the pre-dawn light. True to his word, Brynjolf was waiting for her in the cemetery. Most wouldn’t have noticed him leaning next to the tomb, not unless he wanted them to, but Celia had practice seeing through the shadows. She waved to get his attention, and his hooded figure peeled away from the dark of the alcove, one hand raised lazily in greeting.

“Glad to see you didn’t change your mind.”

“As if I had a choice.” She strode past him and kicked the side of the dais. The lid opened without so much as a tremor, the mouth of the tomb yawning wide. “Is he even going to be here at this hour?”

“Given how little he sleeps lately,” Brynjolf said, “I’d be more surprised if he wasn’t.”

Fifteen years gone by, and the Flagon still looked more or less how she remembered it, dank and sparse with its rickety furnishings and the moldering banner strung across the walls. Not even Vekel was awake before sunrise, and Brynjolf led her past the deserted bar and through the secret entrance in the pantry that led to the cistern. A mélange of familiar scents assailed her as soon as he opened the door – murky water, damp stone, sawdust and leather – and with it, a second wave of nostalgia, bitter this time. Her throat tightened.

“He’s in the armory,” Brynjolf said, misreading her expression. “That’s where he spends most of his time. Taking his anger out on the dummies, I’d wager.”

“Now, that’s not a nice thing to call the new recruits.”

Brynjolf’s mouth quirked like he was trying not to laugh. “As if we’ve had a recruit in years.”

“Fair enough.” She looked across the bridge of the cistern, to where a light burned in the far-left corridor. “Does Delvin still think you lot are cursed?”

“Aye, more so as the years have gone on. Drives Vex batty.”

“Of course he does,” Celia said. Some things never changed.

The walk to the training rooms couldn’t have taken her more than few minutes, but it felt like an eternity, even though she’d walked these same steps a thousand times. But when she came to the end of the corridor, it was to find the chamber deserted, its sconces still lit. It had everything she remembered – the row of training dummies and straw targets, the chests for lockpick practice, spare weapons and gear on the racks against the far wall – but no Mercer. She took a couple steps forward, boots scuffing across loose straw. That was the one thing she’d always hated about the cistern. Down there, even the slightest breath echoed. Somewhere, water dripped, and to her right, the shadows shifted. All the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she put her hands up, slowly. When she turned, it was to find a sword point at her throat.

“Mercer,” she said, and smiled. “It’s been a while.”

“Celia Lex,” Mercer drawled. “What a pleasant surprise.” His tone was almost casual, but his sword didn’t waver. The tip grazed her skin when she swallowed. “Who let you back in here?”

“Brynjolf.” She knew better than to move her hands, but she spread her fingers, waggling them so he could see she was unarmed. “Showed up the other day to give me some news.” His eyes flickered, once, checking her stance. He’d always had unusual eyes, Mercer, hard and grey as flint, and there were dark circles under them now like he hadn’t slept in days. “News about our mutual friend.”

One, two, three beats, and then Mercer’s lip curled, his shoulders relaxing a hair or two. He sheathed his sword. “Heard about our rat problem, did you?”

“I did.” She watched him turn away, pacing into the light, and without a blade to her neck, the contrast between the Mercer who lived in her memory and the man in front of her were stark. His skin was sallow and waxy, hair greasy and eyes sunken, and there was a strange glint in them; the way he moved put her in mind of Falkreath and the way the other prisoners had paced their cells, like caged animals. A thread of unease began to unspool in her gut. “How long have you known she was still alive?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“Like hell it isn’t! I didn’t let Brynjolf drag me all the way down here so we could bullshit each other, Mercer. Tell me the truth.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered.” The look he shot her was one of pure disgust. “This hasn’t been your concern for damn near fifteen years, and I’m not sure who’s the bigger fool. Brynjolf for bringing you here, or you for letting him.”

“Excuse you,” Celia snapped, stung, “But I made it pretty fucking clear that I was out the second you started tonguing Maven Black-Briar’s filthy rich cunt, so you can hop right off your high horse and suck me.”

In another life that would have amused him, in some grim way, but all it did now was make his nostrils flare as he turned away from her again. “Get out.”

“Mercer – “

“What part of ‘get out’ was unclear to you?”

“She murdered Gallus!”

Murdered, her voice echoed, bouncing down the hallway. Murdered, murdered. She bit her tongue, and Mercer stayed where he was, unmoving. His hand twitched around the hilt of his sword.

“She murdered Gallus, Mercer,” Celia said again, softer this time. “I know he was your friend, but he was mine, too. You weren’t the only one who lost something that day.” No answer. She persisted. “Guild rules. Everyone gets a cut, remember?”

This time, he made a noise that could have almost been a laugh. “You always were too stubborn for your own good.”

“I just want to talk. That’s all.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “One conversation, for old times’ sake, and then I’ll fuck off. Fair?”

Mercer considered. “Fine,” he said, after a moment’s passing. “Come to Riftweald Manor tonight, after sunset. Too many ears here.”

“Is that a dinner invitation?”

“Get out before I change my mind,” he said, still not looking at her, and Celia decided she’d pushed her luck as far as it would go. He let her leave, but his eyes burned a hole in her back all the way to the exit.

Brynjolf was leaning against the wall just outside, doing his best to look like he hadn’t been eavesdropping. It wasn’t particularly convincing. He fell into step with her as she stalked past. “How’d it go?”

“We’re having dinner.”

“Dinner,” Brynjolf said.

“I let the man hold a sword to my throat,” Celia said. “Give me the gods-damned name.”

He gave her the name.

----------

Mistveil Keep was embarrassingly easy to break into, even in the middle of the day. Once she found what she was looking for, Celia settled into the squashy armchair next to the fireplace, a bottle of Black-Briar Reserve on hand. Both Laila and her steward needed to step up security measures, but she wasn’t going to be the one to tell them. Her quarry was nowhere to be found, but Celia didn’t mind waiting. She’d staked out potential marks for far longer than a few hours back in the day. She was still in the chair when Anuriel finally stepped into the room and shut the door, lock clicking behind her. Her eyes were closed, and she slumped against the wood, slender frame sagging like all the air had gone out of her. Celia gave her a moment to compose herself, then decided she’d waited long enough.

“Nice room.”

Anuriel let out a little shriek, eyes flying open as she flattened herself against the door. “Who are you?” She was trying for imperious, but alarm made it fall flat. “What do you think you’re doing in here?”

“Me? Oh, no one important.” There was an open letter on Celia’s lap. She picked it up now and held it so Anuriel could see, letting her get a good look. “Just doing a bit of light reading.” Anuriel’s face, already pale, drained of color completely, and Celia scented blood on the water. She feigned boredom. “Interesting stuff. Maybe not the best place to keep it, though.”

Anuriel hissed something in Bosmeris that was no doubt unflattering, smoothing her hair from her brow with a trembling hand. “Fine,” she said. “What do you want?”

Straight to the point, then. Celia could work with that. She folded up the letter and tucked it into the breast pocket of her tunic, over her heart. “Nothing that requires you to get your hands dirty, don’t worry. I’m not here to jeopardize your position.” As long as you cooperate lingered between them, unspoken.

“Please,” Anuriel said, and there was enough venom in her voice that it actually took Celia aback. “What I wouldn’t give not to spend another second licking Laila’s boots. She thinks she’s so progressive, having a Bosmer steward.” A sneer curled her lips, eyes red and hard as rubies. “The tolerant Stormcloak. Spare me.”

“Why not leave, then?”

Anuriel gave her a flat, ‘are-you-stupid’ sort of look. “Because it benefits Maven to have me here, and it benefits me to continue breathing.”

“Good point,” Celia conceded, and stood, wiggling her gloves back on. “Anyway. All I need you to do is confirm some intelligence for me, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Fine,” Anuriel said again, sharper this time. “What?”

“Ulfric Stormcloak supposedly has a wealthy anonymous benefactor stationed somewhere outside Skyrim. Hammerfell, most likely, or High Rock. If the information we received is correct, there’s a caravan with tribute and arms due to arrive in Windhelm next month. Enough to bolster his efforts for another season, at least.” She gave Anuriel an encouraging smile, a two-friends-having-a-chat sort of smile. “Which direction is that caravan coming from?”

There was a long silence. Celia cleared her throat and patted her pocket, where the letter sat nestled against her breast. Anuriel’s hands tightened into fists at her sides.

“There are three caravans,” she said, eyes full of helpless loathing. “The ones approaching from the east and south are decoys. The real one is coming from the west.”

“West.” Celia nodded, satisfied. She doubted Anuriel was lying – people who no longer served Maven’s interests usually found themselves at the bottom of Lake Honrich before the month was out. “See? That wasn’t so difficult.”

“It’s heavily guarded, you know,” Anuriel said as Celia moved to the window. She sounded slightly calmer now that the immediate danger had passed. “And they’ll be on high alert. There’s no way you’ll ever get near it.”

“Not my problem. I’m just the messenger.” The hinges on the window creaked when Celia popped it open, and she hopped up and swung her leg over the sill. “Thanks again for your cooperation. Sorry I can’t stick around.” She winked, trying not to laugh. “Prior engagement.”

“You have your information,” Anuriel snapped, scarlet to the tips of her ears. “So if it’s all the same to you, I’d like that letter back.”

“Not a chance,” Celia said, and disappeared from view.

----------

It wasn’t that she wanted to lie to Rikke, Rhiannon had told herself that morning. Gods knew she didn’t. But Elisif had asked her not to tell anyone, and if it somehow got out that Brina had gone around her Jarl’s back to request aid from Solitude… well. It didn’t bear thinking about. So, really, it wasn’t that she was lying. She just couldn’t tell the truth. A flimsy justification, but it was all she had, and the further away from the camp they got the more it worried at her.

“What’s wrong with you? You’ve been sighing all day.”

“It’s nothing.” She adjusted her bag where the straps dug into her shoulders, watching the snowy cobblestones pass beneath her feet. Jak gave her a suspicious look, but let it drop. They were getting close to Dawnstar now, its thatched roofs bright and tidy ‘round the half-moon bay that glittered cold in the distance. For the first time since she left Winterhold, the thing that was both her and not stirred, a warmth burning in her chest like embers. They were like tinderboxes, those houses, it told her. One gush of fire from a dragon’s maw and the whole town would go up in smoke. She shuddered and tugged at her woolen cloak. Both she and Jak wore rough, homespun clothing in shades of green and brown, and Jak had swapped out their glass bow for a hunter’s gear. There was no reason to suspect a traveling healer and her companion, no reason to pay them notice. She kept her hood pulled low over her face anyway. “I’m just… concerned.”

“About which part?”

“I have no idea where to find Brina, for starters. I don’t even know what she looks like, and it’s going to give people a reason to pay attention to us if we go around asking for her.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Jak said soothingly.

As it turned out, finding Brina was the least of their worries – they’d barely set foot in Dawnstar’s borders before stumbling across two people arguing in front of a wooden longhouse, ragged grey banners fluttering on either side of the door. The elderly man on its steps was probably Skald, Rhiannon decided. His fine clothes and the circlet on his brow were visible even at a distance. He was also in high bad temper, judging from the shouting, but the woman standing at the foot of the stairs didn’t appear intimidated. She said something that made Skald throw up his hands in disgust and stomp back inside, leaving her to shake her head as he slammed the door behind him. Jak and Rhiannon exchanged glances.

“Don’t quote me on this,” Jak said, “but I think we found her.”

“Excuse me,” Rhiannon called as they drew closer, and the woman turned to look at them. She was older, but not ancient, with a broad, deeply-lined face and thick silver hair falling to her shoulders, and something about the way she carried herself reminded Rhiannon of her mother. This one was a warrior through and through, no matter how kind her smile.

“Welcome to Dawnstar, travelers.” Her voice was pleasantly deep. “What can I do for you?”

“Are you Brina Merilis, by chance?”

“I am,” Brina said, and her dark eyes roved over them again, more closely this time. “What’s this about?”

Rhiannon glanced around. There was no one in the immediate vicinity, but she lowered her voice anyway. “My name is Rhiannon. This is Jak. We’re here on behalf of Jarl Elisif. Is there somewhere we can speak freely?”

Relief washed over Brina’s face, and after a quick sweep of the area, she beckoned them. “Follow me.”

For an older woman, she moved with remarkable purpose, and Rhiannon and Jak were left to slog up the hill after her, snow crunching under their boots. Their destination was a squat stone dwelling with a thatched roof, overlooking the bay with smoke curling from its chimney, and when the door opened, a rush of warmth caressed Rhiannon’s cheeks.

“Horik!” Brina called. “Company.”

“Welcome back, Legate.” A man rose from a chair by the hearth, and the cooking pot he’d been tending swayed over the open flame, its contents bubbling merrily. He was around the same age as Brina, bald except for the ring of gray hair around his head and dressed in a full set of worn Legion armor. There was open suspicion in his eyes. “Who are they?”

“Elisif sent them,” Brina said, hanging their cloaks on the peg by the door while they stomped the slush off their shoes. Horik relaxed. “They’re here about the dragons. Rhiannon, Jak, this is Horik Halfhand, the best damn lieutenant I ever served with. You can trust them.” Apparently satisfied that they weren’t a threat, Horik nodded at them and sat back down, picking up his ladle once more. He was missing everything but his thumb and forefinger on that hand, the flesh mangled and long-since healed where the rest of his fingers ought to have been. Rhiannon averted her eyes before he caught her staring.

The house Brina and Horik shared was definitely that of former soldiers, sparsely furnished and utilitarian without any unnecessary trinkets or clutter. The four of them gathered around the table while Birna sliced up a loaf of coarse grain bread and Horik ladled the soup into earthenware bowls. “Not much, but you might as well eat up,” he said, passing them out. “Rations are tight these days.” The soup was good, if a little thin. Rhiannon dipped her crusts in it to soften them up while Brina related Dawnstar’s most recent plight.

“At first, it was just sightings, or rumors of sightings. Easy enough to dismiss, since everyone was on edge after news of Helgen spread.” Brina’s nails drummed against the tankard nestled between her palms, restless. “Over the last few months, though… they’ve been getting bolder. Picking off travelers, eating our livestock, flying over the bay in broad daylight, that kind of thing. The fisherfolk clans don’t dare go on the water, not after what happened to Burrick Seal-Skinner and his boys, Divines rest their souls. Between that, those girls who went missing the other month and Skald bleeding us dry to pad out Ulfric’s forces, the hold’s in a bad way. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t do something to put a stop to it.”

“Skald,” Jak said. “Is that the bald fellow you were arguing with when we got here?”

“It is.” Brina sighed. “We have our disagreements. Sorry you had to witness one of them.”

“He seems pleasant,” Jak said. Horik snorted into his soup.

“He’s set in his ways.” Brina leaned back in her chair, sharp eyes assessing them both in turn. “But before we proceed, I have my own questions.”

“Go ahead,” Rhiannon said, trying to sound confident.

“I took an immense risk in reaching out to Solitude for aid – a risk, I hope, that wasn’t lost on Elisif. In return, she sends me a hunter and a healer.” Brina crossed her arms. “She’s inexperienced, but she’s no fool. Who are you really?”

“I’m the Dragonborn.” Please don’t laugh.

“I’m just the muscle,” Jak said. Horik snorted again, louder this time.

“Huh.” Brina scratched the back of her neck. “I’d heard rumors the Dragonborn was a healer. Didn’t know if there was any truth to them.”

“There is,” Rhiannon said. She was gratified to see Brina shrug.

“Well, no matter. If Elisif sent you, there’s no doubt a good reason for it. I’m willing to try anything at this point.”

“And what do we get?” Jak asked. “For ‘trying anything’.”

“Jak!” Rhiannon hissed, mortified, but Brina waved it off, unbothered.

“I can’t offer you any official aid, not without Skald getting suspicious. But Horik and I will draw you a map of where the attacks and sightings have occurred, and once this has been dealt with, I’ll see that you’re compensated, even if it’s out of my own pocket. Fair?”

“More than fair,” Rhiannon said, and cut her eyes at Jak, daring them to say something. They pulled a face at her, but kept quiet. “Jarl Elisif told us what you were risking to ask for her help. That’s why we’re here.”

We can sense them, the voices in the back of her head slithered, a dry rasp like scales on bone. This place is good hunting. Open ground, much prey. More of us will come. She choked back a shudder and realized Brina was talking again.

“ – and there are plenty of us who take issue with Skald’s methods. I’ll ask around and see what I can do. If you need a place to stay in the meantime, the inn should have an empty room.”

“We have a place to stay,” Rhiannon assured her. “When should we meet with you again?”

“Come find me on the outskirts of town tomorrow afternoon. That should give me enough time.” Brina pushed her chair back and stood, cracking her knuckles. “Horik, go grab me some parchment and the inkwell. Let’s get the Dragonborn her map.”

----------

The sun was just setting when Celia arrived at the back gate, the horizon blushed orange and gold, and above it the first stars were beginning to bloom. Riftweald Manor was on the west side of the city, in the mercantile district, and she’d come early, not wanting to agitate Mercer further. She’d heard he kept one of Maven’s men to look after the place for him and wondered if it was going to cause her any grief, but the man in question – a roughneck who didn’t bother to introduce himself – demanded her name, and when she gave it he motioned her through with a jerk of his head. Huh. Maybe Mercer really did intend to hear her out. Cautious optimism spurred her up the ramp the roughneck lowered for her and across the precariously-built catwalk to the door on the second level. She didn’t even get a chance to knock before Mercer flung the door open.

“Nice house,” she said, and got a flat glare in response. “You always did like to make things needlessly complicated.”

“It’s called security. Get inside before someone sees you.”

The interior of the manor was as impressive as its exterior, but there was something odd about it that Celia couldn’t put her finger on. It wasn’t until she was seated in the dining room that it hit her. Everything was neat, clean lines and dark-paneled wood with matching furniture, the walls lined with display cases and shelves of books whose spines lacked so much as a single crease. It was beautiful and empty and utterly impersonal, without a trace of Mercer’s influence in her surroundings. Wherever he made his home these days, it wasn’t up here.

She hadn’t been serious about dinner, but Mercer came back from the kitchen a short time later with a haunch of carved venison on a platter, which he slapped onto the table between them, along with a decanter of wine and two cups. Celia’s discomfort returned full-force. Mercer, out of all of them, had never been afraid to get his hands dirty, but he lacked the precision and finesse now that she’d always associated with him, wine sloshing when he dropped into his chair and pulled the stopper out of the decanter, tossing it aside. More dribbled down the side when he shoved it at her. Her skin prickled, and for a second, she wondered if he’d poisoned it. He met her eyes with a wordless stare, and she poured herself a cupful and drank deep. It was good wine. Better than what she could usually afford.

“She resurfaced about six months ago,” Mercer said, stabbing a piece of venison with his fork. Blood welled up around the tines. “Clever girl, Karliah. Too clever to attack us directly. She spent that time trying to weaken our ties with our associates, and it’s starting to work.” This was more information than Celia had expected, so she kept quiet. Mercer tore a strip of meat free and shoved it in his mouth, chewing viciously. “Maven’s been crawling up my arse to fix this since the Goldenglow debacle.”

“Can you?” Celia asked. “Fix it.”

Mercer bared his teeth in a lopsided grin. The odd light was back in his eyes. “She roped our old friend Gulum-Ei into her latest venture. After a little extra persuasion, he was more than happy to tell me what he knew.”

“That old lizard’s still around and kicking?”

“He is, and slimier than ever. Not that Karliah gave him much to work with, but she did let one thing slip.” He hacked off another chunk of venison, still dripping. “Something about how we’d meet ‘where the end began’.”

“Well,” Celia said. “Isn’t that nice and cryptic.”

“She means Snow Veil Sanctum,” Mercer said, face hard-edged in the firelight. “Where she murdered Gallus.”

“Right,” Celia said after a moment. The sudden lump in her throat was making it hard to breathe. “Of course.” Mercer spat out a piece of gristle.

“Satisfied?”

“You really do mean to go after her alone.” It wasn’t a question. “Are you mad? It’s clearly a trap.”

“Of course it’s a trap,” Mercer said, impatient now. “It’s also my first chance in twenty-five years to make her pay. Are you suggesting I let her slip through my fingers again?”

“No, you dolt, I’m suggesting you take back-up,” Celia growled. Mercer glared. She glared back. “She murdered her lover, Mercer. Murdered, in cold blood. Going in there by yourself is suicide.”

Mercer laughed. It was an ugly sound. “You think I can trust any of them with this? They’re useless, the whole lot. Brynjolf thinks I don’t see his skulking and nosing, but I do. He’s always whispering about something these days – to Delvin, to Tonilia, to Vex. Looking at me with all their damn whispering.” The muscle in his jaw jumped. “Held this damn guild together for a quarter of a century, and now they think I’m going out of my mind. Ungrateful, conniving – “

“Let me go with you, then,” Celia said. It was worth it to see him stumble for the first time since she’d been back.

“You,” he repeated, like he wasn’t sure he’d heard her right.

“I knew her once. Maybe not as well as you, but I know her tricks. I know how she thinks.” She poured herself more wine, holding his gaze. “I may have left the Guild, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Gallus’s killer burn. After everything, I’m entitled to that much.”

“And you think you can handle it,” Mercer said, leaning in. His breath stunk of iron and meat. “Seeing her in the flesh again.”

“I’m not a child anymore, Mercer.” She leaned in to meet him, braced on her forearms until she was close enough to see the bloodshot whites of his eyes. “I won’t freeze.”

“You always were a persistent little shit.”

“Still am,” she agreed. “Do we have a deal or not?”

He didn’t move. She started to extend her hand, and quick as a flash, his own shot out and seized her wrist, dragging her half onto the table so her goblet tipped and spilled over the edge, plates and flatware clattering. Their foreheads pressed together, his mouth close enough to kiss her – or bite. She hissed in pain when he dug his fingers into the space between her tendons.

“If she puts me down, can I trust you to finish it?” The words burned, hot on her cheek. “No questions, no explanations. If it comes down to it, can you do what needs to be done?”

She could have laughed in his face for asking such a thing; almost did, trapped as she was by the vice of his iron grip. Downright insulting was what it was, like she hadn’t spent every second of her forty-odd years intent on living no matter the cost. A long-submerged memory detached itself and floated to the surface: Karliah’s hand on her shoulder, violet eyes warm on Celia’s tear-streaked face.

“Come with me. I think I know someone who can help.”

That was always the way, wasn’t it? One foot anchored by fear in the past, the other already out the door. But hard choices got a lot easier when they weren’t really choices at all, and just like the night Grelod caught her and the others trying to run and threw Trystin down the stairs, cracking his skull like an egg, just like the night she followed Karliah into the Ratway to meet the Flesh Sculptor and left her old body behind, there was only one direction left to go.

“When do we leave?”

Chapter Text

Rhiannon’s twenty-fourth birthday slipped by without fanfare, and it wasn’t until she was doing weekly inventory a few days later that it hit her. Twenty-four. Had she really been in Skyrim for a year? It seemed like she’d lived there forever despite feeling like she'd only just arrived, and she had to sit on one of the potato barrels for a moment to gather her thoughts, checklist in hand. With so little to do in the way of healer’s work, she’d turned to other tasks to keep busy – dishes, mending clothes, checking inventory and so on. There were more than a few soldiers who didn’t know their letters, and the ones who did were happy to escape Rikke’s meticulous overview of their work, so she’d made it part of her routine. It gave her time to think, away from the constant press of bodies and the noise.

Twenty-four, she thought again. Silly to forget, but with everything else going on, there hadn’t been time to devote to something as trivial as birthdays. Brina had gathered a few of the other village elders, the ones who were more concerned with not being burnt alive than petty politics, and together they’d all hashed out an emergency evacuation plan for Dawnstar’s civilians and a meeting place if a dragon attack appeared imminent. She felt better knowing she wouldn’t have to face it alone, but not for the first time, she wished she didn’t need the helping hand. What good was a Dragonborn who was the protected, not the protector?

“I don’t mean to constantly question You,” she said under her breath, peering down at her amulet, “but I can’t help but think You ought to reconsider.” No answer – not that she was expecting one. She slid off the barrel and went back to counting rations.

“Dragonborn,” someone called when she emerged from the tent a short while later, breath hanging around her head in thick silver clouds, and she looked to see Sorin trudging her way. His nose was as red as his hair, both bright like berries against the snow. There was a bundle of firewood strapped to his back and another in his hand, lashed together with rawhide, and when he came to a halt, she saw he had the beginnings of a patchy beard growing in.

“Quaestor,” she said politely. She didn’t know much about Sorin, but she liked him well enough, and he was a familiar face in an unfamiliar landscape. Rikke trusted him, which was the important part. “How does the day find you?”

“Alright.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Done with inventory?”

“Just finished. I was about to go take this to the Legate.” An awkward beat of silence passed. “Did… did you need something?”

“Nah. Was just wondering if you wanted to join the hunting party this afternoon. We’re leaving soon.”

“Oh. Thank you, but no. I have some other business to attend to. Healer’s work,” she added, somewhat limply. Sorin shrugged.

“Suit yourself. Thought you might be coming, since your housecarl is.”

“Lydia?”

“Yeah. Her and Jak both said they’d join.” He hefted his bundle, gave her a nod. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

“I will,” Rhiannon said, trying not to let her sudden irritation show, and they parted ways, Sorin carrying on towards the main body of the camp while she slogged up the hill to the commander’s tent, a great deal colder and grumpier than she had been a few minutes ago. Of course Lydia and Jak were going out hunting together. They hadn’t even asked if she wanted to come with them. Sorin invited her, and he barely knew her, for gods’ sakes. Honestly.

Rikke wasn’t in her tent, which was just as well – she could read Rhiannon like a book, and Rhiannon wasn’t in the mood to be read. She left the inventory paperwork on the desk and shuffled back down the slope, pulling her scarf up over her mouth and nose. The camp in the Pale was less crowded than the one in Morthal had been, which was a relief. Easier to find a quiet space to herself, for one. She’d been nervous about sharing a tent with Dorian, the previous healer’s apprentice, but he spent as little time there as possible. She wanted to ask what had brought him there if he didn’t actually want to be a healer, but it wasn’t her business, and it wasn’t as if they had patients, anyway. She couldn’t say she minded having their quarters to herself. Her cot squeaked when she flopped down on it, protesting her carelessness. She ignored it and leaned over the side to dig through her pack until she found what she was looking for, nestled between her books and her spare robes.

The mask was warm as ever in her hands, an eerie green cast to its carved bronze features. She’d wondered if its allure would fade with time, but now that she found herself largely unoccupied, her curiosity had only grown. There was something both sinister and inviting about it, the way it shimmered even in the darkness, like it was warmed by its own internal light. She’d hoped the book she’d borrowed about dragon cults might provide an answer, but then it had gone missing before she’d even had a chance to read it. She ran her fingers over the runes carved into its brow, and a little shiver ran through her, a spark dancing up her hand. After a moment’s deliberation, she stripped off her gloves.

The change was immediate. Raw power surged through her palms, licking its way up her arms like fire while tears sprang to her eyes, and she actually gasped aloud at the sheer force behind it, enough to drive the breath from her lungs. She’d never felt anything like it – not in Cyrodiil, not at the College, not even at the Word Walls she’d found. It was the kind of power she’d only ever dreamt of, the kind she hadn’t even wanted until she held it in her hands. She brought it level with her face, and even without eyes, she felt like it was looking back, somehow. Waiting. Her fingers tightened around its edges.

That would be the simplest way, wouldn’t it? She’d already wasted so much time trying to divine its secrets and had nothing to show for it, when all she had to do was put it on and see for herself. Dangerous, maybe, but what wasn’t about her current predicament? And if the mask did grant her some sort of power, even temporarily, then maybe she’d finally be strong enough to be a real Dragonborn, like the ones who’d come before her. With that kind of strength, she could protect everyone. Everyone.

“Oi,” Jak’s disembodied voice said, filtering through the tent flap. Rhiannon barely had time to cram the mask under the furs before they came ambling inside, quiver and bow slung over their shoulder. “Where have you been all morning?”

“Inventory.” Could they tell she was sweating? She hoped not. “I just finished.”

“Ugh, boring. Come hunting with me and Lydia.”

“I already told Sorin I’d rather not,” she said, just to be peevish, and Jak pulled a face at her.

“Oh, come off it.” They poked at the supplies scattered across the table, picking up a roll of linens and setting it down again. “You don’t have to kill anything. Collect berries or whatever it is that grows around here.” When she didn’t respond, they stopped messing with her mortar and pestle and turned around. “Really, you should join us. It’s got to be better than spending all day cooped up in here with nothing to do.”

It used to be me and Lydia, Rhiannon wanted to say, insides clenched tight with unhappiness. But then again, why was she surprised? Lydia had only come to like her because obligation had forced them together. Everyone liked Jak. The mask pulsed again, hidden, and a strange sort of cold resolve settled over her heart. Lydia was her friend. She didn’t have to take this lying down.

“Okay,” she said, and Jak looked surprised.

“You will?”

“I just said yes, didn’t I?”

“Alright, alright, easy,” they said, already smiling again. “Get your stuff together. We’re meeting at the edge of camp in ten.”

“Fine. I’ll be there shortly.”

If Jak noticed her mood, they chose not to comment. Instead, they leaned over and gave her a playful nudge, and the mask grew hot in her hands.

“You’ll have a good time, I promise.”

“I’m sure I will,” she said.

----------

The narrow pass between Windhelm and Winterhold was nothing but snow, held fast by the bleak black teeth of the Velothi mountains. No matter how tightly Celia bundled her cloak around her shoulders, no matter how thick her socks or resistant her gloves, the cold insisted on seeping into her bones. The wind snapped and snarled around them, stinging her cheeks and trying to freeze her watery eyes shut. Up ahead, Mercer was little more than a dark smudge against a blank white backdrop. They’d been riding for four days. She’d had to fight to convince him that they needed to stop and let the horses rest, unless he planned on hiking the rest of the way up the mountain on foot. He’d listened, but only just, and they’d spent an uneasy night at Candlehearth Hall, curled up on opposite sides of the bed so they didn’t touch.

She’d seen him exhibit this sort of frightening intensity once before, when he’d first stepped into the role of Guildmaster after Gallus’s death. He’d been obsessed with hunting Karliah down, using both Guild members and his own personal book of contacts to scour the province like a man possessed. He’d even offered a reward for her capture – dead or alive. But she’d seemingly vanished into thin air, and after a time, he’d cooled and turned his attention to other matters. Celia had wondered more than once if that obsessive fury was still there, simmering just below the surface until the time was right. Now she knew.

The one benefit to Mercer’s breakneck pace – they reached their destination long before nightfall, and Celia shuddered when the rough-hewn dome of the burial mound came into view, rising above a thick blanket of white. She wasn’t a Nord, didn’t have the same qualms about disturbing the dead as others she’d known, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed trawling around with corpses in the dark. They dismounted when they were close enough, hitching their horses to a barren pine, and her breath caught when a crow cackled overhead, heartbeat rattling her ribcage. She forced herself to relax as she took stock of their surroundings. There was no camp, no firepit, no horses or footprints aside from their own. No sign of life but them and the crow, watching them from the tree.

“You’re sure this is the right place?”

“Trust me,” Mercer said. He wasn’t looking at her. He was looking towards the sunken pit at the bottom of the stairs, where an iron door awaited them, tarnished and cold. “She’s here.”

They descended the steps together, stone slick with frost beneath their feet. Brittle moss hung from the walls in skeins of mottled green and brown, the only color in an otherwise colorless tableau. Even through Celia’s fur-lined gloves, the door handle was cold enough to burn; she rattled it, but it refused to budge.

“Move.” Mercer muscled past her, impatient, and she rolled her eyes and got out of the way. “These locks aren’t that difficult, as long as you know what you’re doing.”

“Oh, did you finally learn how to pick a lock on the first go?”

He shot her a glare over his shoulder. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” Celia said. Mercer had always been ambitious, competitive to the point of being underhanded, constantly striving to complete the most jobs or bring in the biggest haul, and he’d often succeeded. There was a reason he was Gallus’s second. But for all his skill, his sharp eyes and uncannily light feet, lockpicking was the one talent that eluded him. Delvin used to joke about that being the real reason Mercer liked to rob his targets in broad daylight – not for the challenge, but because that way he never had to break in. Never when Mercer was within earshot, of course. “Must’ve been the wind.”

“Very funny.” He turned his attention back to the door. Celia’s pulse pounded in her wrists, her throat, her ears, sweat prickling down her back despite the chill. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but after another minute or two of tense silence, a rusty creaking sound snapped through the air, and the door gave, sagging inward. Mercer straightened, whatever tools he’d been using vanishing back into one of the many pockets on his armor. “See? These old locks just need a firm hand. Nothing to it but a little bit of luck and a lot of sk – “

The pommel of Celia’s dagger collided with his temple, hard, and he staggered before crumpling soundlessly onto the snow. She gave it a second, just in case, then sheathed her weapon before crouching down to check his pulse. As she suspected, he was fine. He’d have a nasty headache later, but some things were unavoidable. She hoisted his limp form by the armpits, grunting, and dragged him off to the side, propping him up against the wall in a sitting position between two burial urns. Then, as an afterthought, she fetched a coil of rope from her supplies and tied his hands behind his back.

“Sorry,” she said, examining her handiwork. Even unconscious he looked angry. “I can’t let you go charging in there, acting the hero, and risk you getting yourself killed. Brynjolf would have my hide.” Not that her motives were entirely selfless – she had no intention of letting him kill Karliah until she had a chance to face their old friend herself, and hear the story of Gallus’s death from the murderer’s lips once and for all. “Like I told you.” She patted his shoulder. “You’re not the only one entitled to a bit of revenge.”

----------

The coast was little more than a nondescript stretch of grey – grey skies, rocky shores, and a foamy, bruise-like sea. Fish, horkers and mudcrabs were the main offerings in the way of game, since going inland meant risking a run-in with the Stormcloaks camped out across the Pale. Under Sorin’s direction, the party split into thirds, two of which went to hunt horkers while the remainder set about fishing and gathering clams in the shallows. He didn’t ask Rhiannon. She sat on the shore and trimmed milky grass pods from their stalks, watching Ortha teach Nels how to spear-fish with limited success. She wondered if Ortha knew the quartermaster was in love with her. It seemed obvious, the way he looked at her, but you couldn’t always be sure. The pods left a sticky residue on her fingers, bleeding sap, and she licked them clean, grimacing at the bitter taste. Mature, then – they’d make for an excellent antidote. Laughter drifted from further down the beach while she was cleaning her hands. Jak was chattering animatedly at Lydia while the two of them waded through knee-high water, a woven basket of clams between them. Rhiannon huffed, clambering to her feet. She left her boots and satchel on the shore.

“My Thane,” Lydia said, looking surprised as she came sloshing through the shallows to join them. “Is something the matter?”

“No, everything’s fine.” There was a clam half-buried in the sand by her foot. She scooped it up and tossed it into the basket. “I just thought I’d come help.”

Jak and Lydia exchanged a look.

“Sure,” Jak said, still baffled, but game. “You don’t have to, though, if you don’t – “

“I want to.” She picked up what looked like a clam, but upon further inspection, was only a rock. “What were you talking about?”

“I was just telling Lydia about the time Sabine dared me and Zeno to go into that old Ayleid ruin outside of City Isle.” Jak chuckled. “Nothing in there was half as terrifying as Mum by the time she found us.”

“Oh, right.” Rhiannon had forgotten about that, mostly because she’d been too young at the time to really grasp what happened. “She banned all three of you from leaving the house for a month, didn’t she?”

“Worse. She wouldn’t let us go anywhere without Oliver in tow, because she knew he’d tell her if we tried anything. He always was a terrible snitch.” Jak plucked another clam from the waves lapping at their ankles. “Shame he hasn’t made Guard Captain yet. He’d be excellent at it.” Rhiannon giggled despite herself, and they shot her a sly glance. “He used to have the most awful crush on Alanna, you know.”

“Our old cook’s daughter?” Jak nodded. “Did he really?”

“Right up until Sabine told her that he wet the bed until he was fifteen.”

“She didn’t."

Lydia snorted. “I once told my cousin Jon that if he could eat an entire giant’s toe without throwing up, it meant he was destined to be our clan’s greatest warrior.” Her lips twitched. “He made it about halfway through before Farengar caught him in the alchemy stores.”

“Lydia!” Rhiannon said, scandalized – and slightly nauseous – while Jak cackled gleefully in the background. “Why would you tell him that?”

Lydia shrugged. “I wanted to see him eat a giant’s toe.”

By the time they’d filled the basket and lugged it back to shore, Rhiannon’s heart felt lighter than it had in days. Her earlier jealousies had faded, and really, why had she been so angry? It seemed silly now. The afternoon sky was a pale, clouded blue, and below it the rest of the party was busy cleaning fish and butchering the horkers they’d slain into parcels of meat and pelt and tusks for easier transport. To her surprise, before she could join them, Lydia took her elbow and drew her away, to the grass at the edge of the shore.

“You didn’t tell your nameday passed,” she said, mildly accusatory.

“What? Oh, that.” There was an interesting pebble near her foot, oblong and dusty red. Rhiannon poked at it with the toe of her boot. “I forgot.”

“I didn’t,” Jak chirped from behind her, and when she turned around, they were holding out a rectangular parcel, tied up with string. “Here.”

She took it, nervous without really knowing why. Parchment crinkled in her hands, and when it fell away, her heart skipped a beat. The book shone up at her. It was a proper book, gilt and leather-bound, with a sheaf of blank, cream-colored pages between its covers. Jak looked almost embarrassed, rubbing the back of their neck with a sheepish hand.

“I heard about what happened. Thought you might want a replacement, in case you decided to try again. This one’s water-proof.” They motioned to Lydia. “Her idea.”

Rhiannon folded the book to her chest, throat tight. For a moment she couldn’t speak, and when she did, it came out tremulous, her lip wobbling. “Jak… Lydia…”

“Oh,” Jak said, looking appalled. “Oh, no, don’t cry – “

“Hush,” Lydia said sharply, cutting them both off. Her hand went to the hilt of her sword. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Shh. Listen.”

The three of them stood silent, ears straining against the breeze. Pine needles rustled, voices skipping across the shore while the hunters divvied up their spoils, but everything else was still. It was wrong, somehow, the quiet, and it took Rhiannon a moment to realize what it was.

“The birds,” she whispered. “All the birds are gone.”

Beside her, Jak had gone stiff, every muscle poised; like magic, their bow had appeared in their hand. Lydia’s nostrils flared. Her face had gone the same greyish-white as the ice floes bobbing just beyond the shallows.

“We need to go,” she said.

This time, it was Rhiannon who heard the sound.

It was an unmistakable sound, one that had haunted her since the fight at the watchtower, distant but growing ever closer with each creaking beat of leathery wings. But there was something different this time, something bigger, and her feet stayed rooted to the spot, the souls that lived in her stirring once more. This, too, was different – this time, she could feel their fear, and their awe. Him, Him, Him, they cried, and the invisible tether that kept her bound grew shorter by the second, until it felt like it was strangling her, and she could feel each stroke of those enormous wings in time with every rabbit-patter beat of her heart. She didn’t realize she was speaking until Lydia’s hands were on her shoulders, shaking her back into consciousness.

“What do you mean? Who’s ‘him’?”

“It’s Him,” she said helplessly, clutching her book to her chest. “He’s tired of waiting. He found me.”

“What in Oblivion are you t – “

A fierce wind ripped across the beach, branches snapping and water churning in its wake. It sent them all staggering, swept in opposite directions like so many leaves in the face of an oncoming storm, and from somewhere behind them, voices rose up to sound the alarm, followed by a single, hoarse cry.

“Dragon!”

----------

The Flesh Sculptor has a name, but no one uses it. She could be Bosmer or Imperial or Breton; she could be twenty-five or five hundred. Her own face is waxy and immobile, like a well-carved mask, but her eyes are what scares Celia the most, cunning and sharp like a knife, ready to peel back her skin and see what’s underneath. Celia doesn’t show it, of course. She never shows fear. She learned that the hard way.

“There are rules,” the Sculptor says in her strange, haughty accent. She doesn’t belong down here, in the squalid damp of the Ratway with the dying and the insane. Celia wonders what she’s hiding from. “If I do this, you will no longer be able to use any sort of Alteration magic on yourself. Even something as simple as water-breathing could undo the results, and all my hard work will be for naught.” Her eyes bore into Celia’s, twin stars. “It will hurt. It will hurt a great deal. But you cannot move, and you cannot scream. If this is agreeable to you, then I will help you.” One hand emerges from beneath her cloak, slender and cold. “Do you accept these terms?”

Celia looks at her, then down at her own body – the flat chest, the narrow hips, the too-big hands and feet. She chews on her lip, and then Karliah is at her side again, wrapping a comforting arm around her shoulders. “It’s alright,” she murmurs. “I’ll be here the whole time.”

“You promise?”

Karliah smiles. “I promise.”

Celia takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders. Holds out her hand. It only shakes a little.

“Okay,” she says. “Let’s do it.”

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She’d often thought about what she’d say to Karliah over the years, if she ever got the chance. Sometimes it was pleas for understanding, for an explanation, something that might help her make sense of it all. Other times, it was words of sorrow and rage, hot enough to burn out her tongue. Sometimes she didn’t say anything at all, and just ran her sword through the imaginary version of her old friend, over and over again. It had been a while since she’d indulged that particular fantasy. As she’d gotten older, she’d come to care less about revenge itself and more about answers – answers she couldn’t very well get if Mercer and Karliah slaughtered each other on sight. For all that she’d accepted Mercer’s side of the story, the one thing she’d never been able to puzzle out was why. Karliah and Gallus had always been so happy together, quietly and sickeningly in love. Was she really so talented a liar, to have fooled them all so completely? Celia had been wrestling with that question on and off for nearly a quarter of a century, and tonight, one way or another, she’d have the truth. Even if she had to rip it out of Karliah’s throat with her bare hands.

Not that Karliah was making it easy for her. Celia hadn’t expected easy, but the tomb was full of traps, and something went off every time she so much as turned a corner – fire runes, poison darts, swinging axes with the mechanism jammed so she couldn’t turn them off, and of course, bone-chimes, hung thick like falling rain. No matter how quietly she moved, there was at least one draugr awake and ready to pounce.

“You know, in my day, the dead stayed dead,” she told the corpse brandishing a rusty axe at her. It hissed in a guttural tongue, eyes glowing with an unnatural blue light, and lunged. She sighed. “Back to sleep you go, then.” This whole ‘resurrected dead’ business was starting to grate on her. It probably had to do with the dragons coming back, now that she was thinking about it. Dragons really did ruin everything.

How long it took, she didn’t know. It felt like days, creeping through the dank and the dark and the cold at a glacial pace, checking over her shoulder every so often to make sure Mercer hadn’t freed himself and come after her. But eventually she found herself in a long stone corridor, free of fire and restless undead, and at its end stood a cavernous stone chamber, mouth gaping wide. Beyond that, silence. Another trap, and a taunt besides, but there was nowhere else to go. She pulled her hood low over her face, drew her dagger and sword, and stepped through the door.

Nothing.

No movement, no sound, save her own footfalls and the dust stirring beneath her boots. She slowed, uncertain, then stopped. Karliah had to be here. She had to. Didn’t she?

In the precious few seconds before impact, she heard it – the twang of a bowstring, like the first note of a lullaby. On instinct, she moved, but she was exhausted and already limping from a cut on her thigh. The arrow pierced the meat of her shoulder, and her hood fell as she did, hair spread across the stone like an oil slick and poison burning through her veins. She would have screamed, if she could have. Paralysis was already setting in, seizing her throat, and an anguished wail echoed throughout the chamber, born of grief and rage. It took her a second to realize that it hadn’t come from her.

“No!”

No, Celia’s thoughts echoed fuzzily, darkness seeping in at the edges of her vision. No, this wasn’t how this was supposed to go at all. A figure moved into view, blurry and distant. She tried to turn her head, but her body remained stiff and unyielding, muscles as frozen as the tundra outside. Just before pain won out and consciousness faded, she heard the whisper, furious and heartbroken all at once.

“You were supposed to be him…”