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Innocence, My Brother

Chapter Text

People have been whispering about the Dark Brotherhood again, nowadays. Mutterings could be interrupted by the guards, about the group beginning to re-organize itself and be on the business, accepting contracts and finishing the targets. No one would spot them or catch them in the act. They were the most secretive ones yet brutally close when someone was in need to get rid of another person. A bloody, taboo ritual was the only cost to summon one member.

In the era of wars, dragon attacks and the constant threat of vampires in the night, people began to be desperate to clean the grass off in their environment, and this called for the Dark Brotherhood’s presence in Skyrim. This was their time to rise and show their power again.

And yet, the Brotherhood’s real system behind the myths and legends, the torturous, morbid tales about the Black Sacrament would downright shock the average citizens. The Brotherhood was, a family.

Their Sanctuaries began to grow in numbers in the past few years. Outcasts who knew of nothing in this world but killing, assassinating namelessly from the shadows, appearing, murdering without a blink and disappearing again. Each and every of them with their own stories behind them.

In the Brotherhood, all mattered was to complete the contract and get back home, safe. If one faced a risky case, the leader of the Sanctuary would send a second member to watch the agent and interfere by their side. They held each other’s backs and truly, deeply cared. They even talked about feelings.

. . .

Astrid always liked watching the interactions of her family members. The new ones warming up to the atmosphere, the realization slowly reaching their consciousness and rooting in their minds, that this place, the last Sanctuary in Skyrim, was safe. They were all safe there. No one could find them here, or hurt them here.

So, when the newest member of the family got acquainted to the rest of them, Astrid knew from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to be an easy year. For any of them. The lithe man was mostly quiet, barely talked to anyone except her and his contract advisor but most importantly she also noticed how the blonde seemed to grow more and more hungry for the killings. On occasion, he accepted five contracts and came back only to ask for new ones.

And even though Astrid was the leader of an assassin guild, she knew the limits one had to be held onto to keep the person safe from any kind of illness that could plague the mind sooner or later. She had to intervene.

The blonde frowned, thick eyebrows connecting in a neat wave-line as he cast his emerald green eyes on the cold stone floor with resentment. Truly, Astrid herself had seen emeralds before, and this man had the eyes of the jewel, glistening in the flames and darkening with the matters of the soul. If he wouldn’t miss them so bad, she would have them in a jar, neatly on her shelves.

“One of us has gone missing. Please go out and find him, if he is in danger you are to save him and bring him back here alive,” she informed him without letting him interrupt or show any signs of disobedience. “He is dear to us, so I advise you to ride fast.”

“Where am I going?” Oh the voice, she had to smile at this rebellious yet well controlled anger. He was bewildered by not getting any new contracts. Good.

“To Windhelm.”

She saw the resentment rise in those green eyes; the man scoffed and took a deep breath to calm his mind although the rise and fall of his chest revealed how upset he was by this entire matter. Being sent to a frost-covered land, most likely dig into prisons or torture chambers to bring back a fallen comrade, keeping someone alive... this wasn’t this Valenwoodian’s cup of tea.

“Oh please, if you’d know him. He deserves our help.”

“Then why don’t you go yourself?”

“Honestly, I would rather send my husband for this kind of... “ she hummed as if the right word didn't seem to cross her mind at that moment, “wicked trouble plaguing the boy, but I assume if you are capable of handling dragons, this one cannot cause the slightest headache for you, ey?”

In that moment, Astrid chuckled with the sweet, poisonous voice of her, knowing the obvious defeat of the archer in front of her. He couldn’t turn this down anymore, not in any way. She addressed his pride, power and honour in one strike.

“I’ll get him. But then, give me something that’s actually useful for the—“

“Shut, “she stepped forward with such vehemence and might that the outlander had to leap back, eyes wide with on-guard shock, gazing into the challenging, pitying eyes of the woman. Heads rose around, discussions halted at her voice. In this place, her word was order and this new one had to learn the ways too. “Shut your mouth. You still have no idea where our true strength lies. Go on your way, and get Alfred back before the next fullmoon. Be gone, now.”

. . .

Snow, freezing cold, howling wind, stones, air that crawls at the skin beneath the multiple layers of leather, fur and the specific fabric that his uniform was made of. The steel  weapons got stuck to their sheaths, thanks to the moisture inside.

Without usable weapons, nearly frozen and hungry, Arthur arrived to Windhelm and was ready to kick the nearest tavern’s door in only for one hot cup of tea or mead. Whatever. Something warm.

The town guards raised their bushy Nord eyebrows at him, deeply sunk suspecting eyes watching his every move as he walked up to the pub’s door and practically slipped in through the narrow opening. His investigation could actually have started from the pub too; Astrid gave him no direct place to start with. She only said, Windhelm. Not the client’s residence, not the prison, not the nearby dungeons or caves. Windhelm. The capital of Eastmarch, the residence of the High King of Skyrim, home to a morbid kid who performed the Black Sacrament only to get rid of his keeper at an orphanage...

A few months ago they revealed that one of the merchants in town was behind the butchering of several innocent women.

Great, wee place, Windhelm.

Of all places, why did the boy, Alfred had to be stuck in here? As a Wood Elf, Arthur could only wander to open places, the ever-watching sharp eyes of the Nords would not let him anywhere inappropriate for sure, for the outlander he was by race. He could only listen to the townsfolk's gossip and follow the possible trails, given that the native Nords wouldn’t spill any information to a non-Nord, an elf  like him.

He had to initiate a short conversation with a Dark Elf kinsman who was another outcast of the community; she told him that indeed there were strange sounds coming from the Stone District, nearby the cemetery and close to the local pharmacist’s residence. She could not identify the exact source although but to her anxious and pleading narrative Arthur could master a pretentiously caring and understanding act, and convinced her that indeed he’d personally go and check the trouble out himself. She almost hugged him in gratefulness; if he wouldn’t have asked for another jug of warm mead.

. . .

That night, Arthur couldn’t get the buggering thoughts off his mind. Astrid’s sentiments, her reactions and words when she practically threw him off the Sanctuary; Arthur wondered if he’d be allowed to come back without Alfred... would he dare...?

This boy... what was the catch? Why would Astrid prefer sending her husband for him? Why didn’t she, then? If Arnbjorn knows better, why didn’t he come instead of Arthur who knows nothing?

What was the catch?

. . .

The sounds were indeed bone-chilling, Arthur staggered and clung to the wall in sheer terror at the first time. Right beside the cemetery, indeed, the blood trails of the recent murders mingled and led to several directions, and were only carried on in little red spots all around the corners. The guards have been walking in pairs, not solitarily as usual but whenever the Wood Elf would ask them of some “unusual incidents” they would brawl at him for being a nosy outlander who should crawls back to the high forests.

Behind the cowl Arthur glared at the close-minded fools and grit his teeth. Useless branch, these Stormcloaks, not to mention their repulsive reek.

They would deny the Sun’s existence if a non-native would ask, just to sound superior.

The assassin shook his head and quickly joined the shadows to be gone from unrequited gazes. He waited, listened and searched the marketplace, even took his gloves off to touch the stone beneath and feel the resonances running through. At his highest alert, Arthur cursed Malacath and his twisted games, cursed Sithis for not giving any sign to save his own kin and cursed Nocturnal, for not letting him proceed. All spirits, all gods, cursed by this angry elf...

The guards didn’t appear again. Arthur waited, squatted beneath a bush and anticipated their appearance as their normal guarding circles would do but none of them came. The area slowly sank deeper in silence, the snow falling gently on the thick bricks of Windhelm and the forge of the blacksmith began to cool as well. The house on the corner, the pharmacist’s residence stood in eerie solitude on the square. Not a breath could be heard.

“Aah... “Arthur’s spine constricted at the exhausted, tortured sigh but he refused the instinctual urge to spin his head to the source. “Aah... charity is such a luxury today...”

The owner of the voice dragged something and Arthur forced his breathing to be low and quite, not letting his chest swell too much to make any sound with the equipment. The object on the ground was dragged again, making cracking and thumping sounds like a heavy sack containing hard things inside while being pulled on pebbly surface.

“Spare a coin, please? Someone out there?”

A beggar.

He had to release a shudder in relief.

Just a beggar. She could probably be convinced to spill an info or two for some gold.

The assassin emerged from his cover, causing the poor old woman to gasp and step back a few steps in fear. She held her hands in front of her and even stumbled a bit as her frozen, dirty feet slipped on a snow-covered puddle.

“Please! Please, don’t hurt me! I haven’t heard anything! I haven’t seen anything!”

A coy, smug smile grew on the blonde’s lips without him actually noticing while his confident, strong strides carried him right in front of the poor soul, “is that so? Silda the Unseen? Then where is this name coming from?”

“Ju—just an old nickname, what do you want from me, please just, don’t hurt me! I had enough suffering in this life!” She fell on her knees and leant to the ice-covered stone fence, hoping but not getting any mercy from the creature standing above her.

Oh, how they could beg... how they could play the victim...

His smile long gone, Arthur felt disdain grow in his chest. He could just spit on her, right now. Or, give her a coin and let her speak, then she’d run off to the guards in hopes for a warm bed or a plate of food for her “good deed”. Nuisance. All who weren’t good enough to be clients or targets, rubbish.

“Speak, woman. This place reeks of your filth, for how long do you keep gambling with my patience?”

“The sounds you are looking for...”

He scoffed and kicked into her thigh without any serious force, “and you claim to be innocent, eh? Go on, worm, I can’t afford wasting my time on you for long.”

“The sounds are made by bears... being skinned, but... the real noise comes from underground... you can hear them from the tunnels!”

Trap. How else could she know?

His eyes narrowed as he lifted his jaw with an elegant tilt of his head, “how smart of a beggar you make.”

“My Lord, I do my service for surviving...” she plead, she attempted to sounds seductive, oh the rotten wretch. “Maybe you would have use of me in the future, you never know!”

How... how could he silence her without killing her entirely?  This is always a dilemma and up to his moods.

“Speak, maggot, before I grow tired of your misery. I might end it in the easier way, least, easier for me,” hissing, he even drew a finger around the feather-light, enchanted glass sword handle.

“I know no more! I heard them only because the pharmacist has an alchemy labor close to the outer wall, it keeps the stones warm! I heard it only like this! His apprentice kills the bears only to distract the guards!”

Not to cover his delicate fingers in the woman’s dirt he kneed her in the forehead and kept his leg there with his entire weight crushing the beggar underneath, “and how on earth do you know such thing?”

“I heard them arguing, my Lord! The apprentice complained about the experiments failing!”

With a repulsed and obviously annoyed spit, Arthur released the woman by tossing her to the floor. He grabbed a few coins in his pocket to threw in front of her, “silence is your reward. Keep quiet and your eyes open so you may live.”

“Thank you, thank you! Divines!”

Eye-roll, sigh, the assassin slipped up to the roof of the nearby market stall to sneak his way to the pharmacist’s residence. Both the Dark Elf and the beggar had talked about this place still something, a distant voice kept trying to pull him away from this location. He had no idea what would wait inside, but this could have been told of all jobs he had done before.

In the end he broke in like an amateur thief, on the front door. Astrid would laugh maniacally.

. . .

Silence welcomed him with grim shadows playing on the walls, the old candles burning to their bases yet fighting for the diminishing light they maintained. He could hear the steady slices of a giant, sharp dagger upstairs piercing through flesh and leather to create pelts or to extract whatever material was needed from the source. Arthur himself only concentrated on his newfound hiding post, steadied his breaths into low and tiny puffs and gently kept his eyes shut to rest them for the time being. He’d need them for aiming, his instincts told him.

With the softest sounds he could master he made his way to the main chamber and turned left—Nords liked having small chambers beside the main ones, with little trapdoors on the floors. Flipping one open wasn’t the treacherous job to do; but disappearing and closing it without making any creaking sound or letting it fall on his own head, that was always the task to do.

The stench erupting from below made him wince, sturdy Wood Elf features twisting in a bitter expression as he glanced down and almost let a disgusted scoff escape his lips. He really didn’t know what was waiting for him down there but the reek, the stink of rubbish, death, thick layer of moss and rotting filth... his boots sank more than two inches deep in the mud.

He didn’t want to know, yet his mind immediately identified certain... remains.

He attempted to take a breath but his gut was gripped into a tight knot and he nearly threw up.

Noises cut through his consciousness, calling his attention back to reality. He had a mission going, stay alive and investigate what was going on in there... as he turned his head and peaked through the hole of hid cowl he could see weak, yellow light luring him towards the end, a smaller chamber maybe, or just a turn. Just to be sure he pulled his bow to the front with an arrow ready to be shot.

Walking, attempting to get closer to the edge without making blubbering, nasty sounds with his moves was nearly hazardous in his position; in this death-filled dungeon he had no idea what could have been done to him upon discovered. Arthur had to stay with bent knees, bent spine and keep his head low to stay in the cover of moss hanging from the aged walls. The more he got closer to the edge, the more his ears began to make sounds out in the gloomy haze. Something was behind the wall.  Chains, almost inaudible thumps and nudging...

Stretching the bow with the arrow, Arthur slipped to the opposite wall and narrowed his eyes to protect his sight from the erupting light. No one spotted him yet which was a good sign, and yet... there was a step, in the room right in front of him, was no swamp anymore. He saw no carpets on the floor, no sight of enchanting tables or... any sort of trace of magic, at least. Yet, he couldn’t decide if this was for his advantage or not.

Again, the rumbling of chains, stretching nails in the wall, someone groaned in agony. Couldn’t be the pharmacist.

Taking a deep breath and mumbling a silent prayer to the spirit of the Void, Arthur took a hesitant step off the filth and sneaked into the chamber to be hidden soon in the shadow of the corner below the thick layer of cobweb.

“Is someone there?”

Breath and heartbeat frozen for the second, Arthur’s entire being was paralyzed. He’d been noticed. At least, his presence. Some tall man with a long dark robe emerged from the other side of the room and walk over to the entrance, glanced out and apparently frowned. He knew that an intruder was around. Arthur closed his eyes and dared slipping a dagger into his fingers, letting his bow down silently to the floor. In melee fight he didn’t want to break it.

The old man hummed and left the chamber. Judging by the sound of his steps Arthur could tell the man walked to the trapdoor and climbed up the ladder. With a loud creaking noise the door was lifted, and with the second creaking being followed by a thump, the dungeon was empty. At least, empty of captors. The chains were rumbled again, someone released a ragged sigh. Another attempt... failed.

Someone, something desperately tried to get out.

One ear listening to the noise from the corridor, in case any sounds would arrive from the trapdoor, the other following the source of the sound, the Wood Elf sheathed his dagger and picked the bow from the floor to sneak to the corner to the opposite side. The creature, a humanoid form sat on the icy stone floor, reeking and covered in dirt along with his own bloodstained filth, yet pulled on the chains again with its all might. Arthur never had seen such a terrible, yet hopeless strive before.

And there he goes again; teeth grit, muscles stretching to their utmost limit in this exhausted and underfed state yet he tried. The frown on the assassin’s face is now rooting from a different, almost strange emotion he hadn’t felt for years, it creates a foreign sting in his chest. Closed up in a stench... obviously suffering from torture... who’s this?

He sneaked only a few steps closer before he heard the trapdoor’s thump so in order to stay hidden he clung to the wall and froze all his moves entirely. His breaths quieted and slowed in pace while his arms took their most basic supporting position on the ground to keep him up for as long as needed without beginning to tire and tremble.

A man entered the scene, wearing the same black robes as before and the sight only made the assassin’s frown deepen. Nercomancer? How? This experimental subject was still alive and moving, it was still conscious. Perhaps it had some kind of poison circulating in his body.

“I have decided what to do with you, dog,” the ever-so confident voice of the captor poured disdain which made the prisoner wince and avoid the entire sight of the man as if he wasn’t even there. Arthur repressed a quiet hum as his eyes swallowed the miserable view; the hope still being in the core of the captive, pretending not to see his tormentor only to juxtapose himself into the illusion of being at a better place... free from this place, this time. Probably, this life too.

He could hear his knowing, defeated sigh.

“Then get on with it,” he whispered, barely audibly. Dripping faithlessness, which for some unknown reason tore a string in the assassin’s soul. He was surprised he still had one... but it seems Sithis didn’t consume it all.

“No, well, I’ll, soon. For now I’ll give you one more dose of this, then replenish the bandage on your back. I’d like to see if you can die in the process of transformation or not? You failed all of my experiments so far, I hope you will at least be some use in your dying.”

Necromancer... how Arthur despised his kind...

“Say your prayers now, then we shall begin,” and with that, the merciless old man stepped back to lean onto the wall, folded his arms and pretending sympathy, sighed at the young man.

The prisoner’s figure trembled under the chains as his breath shook while soft, weak whimper left his lips. This was it, the end. No one came, no one would witness it other than this sick, wicked monster, such thoughts crossed his mind while the other part of him warned his consciousness to be alert. If he is to transform, that meant he had a chance to fight until his last conscious thought.

Arthur dared moving enough to cover his dagger in the Deathbell poison. By Sithis, contracts, killing, all happened for a reason, there was always a reason behind it... but this... torturing and murdering someone for some experiment, an unsure experiment only to cause pain until one’s last breath?

To his greatest shock, the captive’s murmur revealed such an information he’d never expected from the starved remnant of a young man.

“Sweet Mother, Sweet Mother, send your child unto me, for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear. Hail Sithis, great Lord of the Void, help your kin the deepest need of turmoil. Sweet Mother, sweet Mother, send your child unto me, for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear. Sweet Mother—“

He’d heard enough.

He cleared his voice, quiet yet audible enough for Alfred to frown in his chanting, tilt his head and even squint a little. He kept whispering.

Arthur shifted a little closer and rose the dagger up to aim at the necromancer, who was apparently busy studying the contains of a bottle, supposedly one of his poisons. It gave Arthur a bad angle, by this he could only catch the man’s shoulder, not his heart directly.

“Alfred,” he addressed the young man with a sharp whisper which caused the badly injured, starved prisoner to gaze in front of himself, eyes wide with anticipation. His breaths came in ragged puffs but he took control of them in time to quiet them down in the method only trained assassins knew.

“Mother...”

The boy expected someone else, obviously.

“It’s Arthur. I’m here to take you home. Keep chanting.”

Seeing a puzzled expression on the other, Arthur grit his teeth and gripped on the dagger tight to aim again. The old man was absolutely enticed with his potion; he turned the bottle on his palms and analysed the liquid with such endearment that Arthur could have also assumed that he fell into a trance-like state. His spine straight and shoulders flexed, the necromancer even shook his head a little in admiration.

. . .

With a punctual, powerful shot, the necromancer found himself catching for air yet failing, a cold and burning steel standing from his throat. He looked down at the captive, winced and groaned breathlessly as blood boiled up his throat to erupt down on his robes. No one heard his silent scream for help, having his throat slit in such a fashion.

Arthur stood from the shadows and stepped forward to look directly in the necromancer’s fading consciousness as he took the bottle off his hands and placed it into his own supplies of poisons. The old man’s expression became bewildered and furious at the assassin yet all he could do was glare at the tall blonde.

“Don’t play with the sons of Sithis.”

. . .

“The divines sent you...”

“No, it was Astrid.”

“His apprentice is upstairs... did you take care of him?”

“No. I didn’t know you are actually here.”

“I knew she would start worrying... you came in the last moment...”

“Well, aren’t you the lucky one?”

Shaking his head, the young man groaned as the chains were removed from his wrists yet he couldn’t hold his own weight enough to avoid falling disgracefully to the mossy stone floor.

“Hey, stop making a mess.”

“Sorry.”

“You don’t sound like you are,” Arthur knelt down to lift the man’s weight up by pulling his arm around his shoulder. By Sithis, this wasn’t his cup of tea. He always worked alone without companions, without followers, without anyone, just on his own not to be worried about a partner. Another person meant only nuisance, like now. Their only luck could have been that the prisoner was starved to the point that his actual weight could be carried by the grumpy assassin; to avoid his injured feet touch the filthy mud on the corridor, Arthur actually picked him up on his back and carried him to the ladder.

Climbing up, however, all his dormant muscles flexed to pull both of them up. Alfred clung to him, his dirty arms and hands around the elf’s neck and shoulders while he was the first peeking out from the trapdoor’s cover. He claimed not to hear anything, and the two slowly made their way to the main chamber quickly enough that the apprentice only noticed the lock’s closing noise behind them.

They were out.

Alfred breathed in a long breath and if it wasn’t taken from Arthur’s neck the elf could have sworn it was from the relief of getting free, clear air again. It only sent a shiver down his spine as he adjusted the weak figure on his back to be held better, attempting to ignore the entire matter for the time being. The absence of guards nearby gave them a small amount of advance to slip away under the protection of darkness and shadows.

“Air, clean air...” the gentle, soft voice beside his ear disrupted his thoughts, yet again only annoying the blonde to no end. He had to concentrate, they had to escape Windhelm since an actual assassin carrying another horribly tortured and injured assassin was not a sight to be seen by the locals. Unwanted attention was the last Arthur wished to deal with.

Although if he had been alone, he would have quite a bit of fun using that mayhem scroll and watch everyone furiously kill one and other. The dumb cattle they were.

“Thank you, brother.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We are out but you’re barely alive. I’ll take you to an inn so I can fetch you up a little.”

“Where is Arnbjorn?”

Again, that man. Arthur rolled his eyes and repressed a sigh, suddenly finding himself tired of hearing the man’s name again. Why did this boy need him so much? Did he expect him to come too?

“At home, in the Sanctuary,” he replied only with his best controlled-annoyance voice and practically carried the man through the alleys to the backdoor of the closest tavern. The boy at least knew when to be silent so while Arthur picked the lock and stepped in the warm building, Alfred looked behind his own shoulder to watch for any unrequited gazes.

Slipping in the closest room, Alfred stretched his left arm out and pulled the door on them to close and hide them from the folk, letting Arthur turn around and release him down onto the bed to lie on his stomach. As much as his senses were still highly alert for all kinds of danger, Alfred melted onto the pelts and let his stuck, weakened joints crack at the new position. Being hung up by the shoulders and having his wrists tied for gods knew how long, Arthur shook his head in sympathy at the sight. The man needed to rest and let his body find its way back to the normal, natural positions.

Behind his closed eyes, the injured assassin fell asleep in less than two minutes with the calming, soothing muffles of Arthur packing all of his supplies from his apothecary satchel. Potions of healing, potions to ease pain, potions to help someone regain some strength in the bones, in the muscles, potions to cure diseases... and yet, he frowned at the miserable sight lying in front of him. There was something wrong with this man, something was off.

His back... it was bandaged.

But as soon as his eyes touched the fabric on the skin, Alfred awoke and let a terribly painful, long cry out of his lips, followed by ragged breath and his young features twisting in agony.

“What happened here?”

“The bastard... he...” Arthur had to kneel close to the man’s mouth, he even drew his fingers through his hair to sign how close he came to his shield-brother. There was no need to use his voice, breathing and articulating was sufficient for now. “He skinned me... there... and put his... bandage in... it’s soaked in Wolfsbane essence...”

Wolfsbane...

The Wood Elf shifted back onto his heels, to let his thoughts begin to connect all these disturbing enigmas. Transforming, dying during the transformation, the mage mentioned these, addressed the man as ‘dog’ and Alfred asked for Arnbjorn, the man known as the werewolf of the Sanctuary... and now, wolfsbane essence directly bandaged to a young man...?

The experiments... he read about these. Werewolf experiments... animal and human in one being...

Some mages thought they can cure them... or they were just curious of their limits... these sentient beings could go through many, many hardships before releasing their final breaths. They even wrote books about their torturing experiments, almost racing with each other whose imprisoned werewolf can endure more pain before their deaths.

From the core of his being, Arthur shuddered and had to take a firm hold onto the bed, Alfred’s weak gaze following his moves. The captive blinked... but Arthur could only see the faded light in there. Now, that he was saved, the relief and the stress took way too much energy off him but he still grasped onto the present, fought and forced his mind to stay on this realm of existence.

Alfred was dying, right in front of him.

“I will get it out of you,” he promised, merely centimetres from the diminishing luminance of the other’s eyes.

“Can’t... my skin grew to the bandage... it... it’s stuck. If you want it off, you have to skin me again.”

“Oh, shit,” face sinking into his palms, the elf cursed for longer before glancing to the side and check his potions. “I can try soaking you in healing potion. It will burn, though.”

“Don’t care. I don’t wanna die. Not like this,” he moaned and releases a sigh again.

“I’m not giving up here, so hold on. I’ll go pay for the room then get a bucket of water. Don’t move, don’t do anything, I’ll be right back.”

With that the Wood Elf stood and left, closing the door behind him and even though now he knew about Alfred’s better senses, he pressed his forehead at the wooden door’s surface for a moment, firsts gripping his own flesh. So much agony, yet still suffering to survive... wasn’t it enough...? He took a calming breath but it didn't work. His body defied him... and there was an anxious tightness in his guts again... not to mention the sourness of his heart.

His eyes opened wide when he heard the werewolf’s weak voice from the inside of the room.

“I’m not going anywhere... hurry... please.”

. . .

The owners of the inn quickly became acquainted with his purpose and suddenly the whole tavern was on their sides. Arthur refused to take his hood off in order to regain at least a glimpse of his dignity but it made barely any difference. The cook offered him roast beef, horker meat and cheese and even put two big jars of mead on the trail while the innkeeper fetched two buckets of luke-warm water. How she managed to warm it up this quick remained a mystery Arthur didn’t care to solve now.

The guests assured him of their discretion and some ladies even offered some parts of their clothing to sew a shirt and trousers for the injured.

All was suddenly so splendid Arthur refused to believe it and almost felt relief upon arriving back and finding the young man choking on his breaths and fighting the urge to cry so fiercely that he actually broke a tear, “finally, you’re back!”

The demanding, angry voice took Arthur by surprise. He sat the buckets to the wall beside the bed so he could kneel again in front of the man. No matter how annoying he was, Arthur could understand him. Being so helpless, left on his own and being unable to move, the werewolf man had harsh reasons to fear loneliness in such a state. The distress however, only drained his energies even more so as best as he could, Arthur caressed the stray mops of hair out of Alfred’s sweaty, sticky forehead.

“I thought you’re gonna leave because I’m dying.”

“Don’t be such a fool.” 

His voice almost chimed as soothing... like a weak attempt to calm the other. 

How? How could he rip these tightly glued doors open in his dried, indifferent soul? How and why now? It tore Arthur apart, just the sight, the sentiments towards this unlucky person, his agony... and now his despair... he wanted to rip this tightness out of his own ribcage yet it only grew and squeezed him stronger. The more he tried soothing the filthy remnant of a fellow assassin, the more his mind gradually accepted him as an equal.

He wouldn’t leave him behind. By no means.

“Let’s see what can I do here.”

. . .

 

Chapter Text

 Biting into his lower lip, Arthur frowned and slid a hand underneath the man’s chin to turn his face towards himself and check the luminance his eyes. The bloodshot redness seemed to be gone yet the unfocused gaze remained which didn’t ease any of the assassin’s burdens. He checked the pulse again and shot an anxious, troubled look at the soaked bandages for probably the millionth time in the past three days.

Alfred was still out.

Almost a minute, which is a very long time not to be conscious. For a werewolf with more efficient healing skills it was downright a bad omen... and it became way too repetitive to watch him fall out of his cognition this frequently to stand it anymore.

“Come on,” he nudged at the dark-blonde hair and pulled on a dirty, brownish mop weakly, only to wipe the dried blood off his fingers into his own clothes. The whole man was covered in his own blood and purulent discharges and after consuming three hours and eight buckets of lukewarm water only that evening, Arthur scoffed at the stubbornly stuck, thick layer of filth still plaguing the poor lad. “Alfred?”

Hearing and having no response, the elf’s frown deepened and he reached for a new bottle of healing potion to pour it directly onto the newly opened wounds. The living flesh hissed from the burning acids fighting their ways through the man’s veins, the liquid medicine earning more access to take the place of the venom’s essence. But there was still a long road ahead to get Alfred back on his feet which only collected numerous grey clouds above the blonde’s head; they had to escape Windhelm before the word got around.  An injured man with a Wood Elf wearing a mysterious uniform, having an enchanted ebony bow and refusing to leave the side of the wounded.

He couldn’t send a courier, nor a falcon. He had no fence to trust in Windhelm either.

The only way out was through the main gate with Alfred walking on his own feet.

Getting back onto the horse was yet another enigma Arthur had to figure out.

“Hey...” the breathless sigh grasped his mind back into the present and the widened emerald eyes shot a relieved yet worrying look at the young man. Alfred blinked and squeezed his eyes shut in his terrible pain yet his fingers kept crawling upwards on the pelt covered bed. Upon seeing this miserable attempt the assassin bit into the insides of his cheek and took the dirty, bony fingers into his warm and steady hold. “You still here?”

“I’m not leaving without you, get used to the idea finally.”

Alfred released a few exhausted pants and swallowed, “it hurts.”

“Say something new.”

“You... really don’t know any healing spells?”

Well... wasn’t this an extremely embarrassing question? At this point in this profession, being the member of the most secretive, legendary assassin guild and not knowing such a simple ability that... well, the first bandit chief with some wit handles with their pinkies.

As to avoid the answer, Arthur tilted his head on the right and hummed, “should I get you a healer?”

“Probably...” Alfred sighed and scowled again through a tremble of suffering before his eyes shot up at his shield-brother in alert, suddenly with absolute focus, “no! That’s a bad idea. No, don’t.”

“Why? Here is a temple for Talos just in a yard’s distance.”

“Because... ah, come closer...”Arthur knelt down right beside the bed and leaned in to have his ear almost directly in front of the other’s lips, he could hear him taking a hesitant breath among the burning bolts jolting through his body. “I... I don’t want the Silver Hand on my neck. I—I can’t deal with them right now.”

Arthur couldn’t oppose this argument; the group of werewolf hunters were indeed a pain in the back more than often, most of them being brute axe-wielders and were not the most fortunate fellows to stumble into right now as opponents. Arthur with his lithe, slim form and Alfred weakened into this mess, they couldn’t stand a chance against them. In fact, now with the notion bugging his mind Arthur cursed under his breath and took a hasty look around in the room; they really had to get away from there.

“We will stay one more night then we have to move, Alfred.”

“I—I’m not sure if—“

“There’s no choice, we must be on the move for no one to be able to track us. We will always take some rest in regular breaks for you to lie down but we really can’t afford to stay in one place,” he explained with the calmest voice he could collect in the moment yet the cut into his attire pierced him when he saw Alfred’s eyes water with agony and fear. The boy gritted his teeth and flexed his jaw not to release the weakest, most hopeless whimper Arthur had ever heard in his life and his breath ragged for several seconds.

In fact, Arthur had no clue of the Windhelm guards’ opinion about helping injured citizens. Alfred was just another wanderer in their eyes, now with these haphazardly sewn clothes he would look like a common beggar from another city, not to mention the fact that they would give their daily portions of foods away before helping an outlander Wood Elf like Arthur, even if that'd in-directly help a fellow Nord like them... Stormcloaks and Nords, the same stubborn branch.

Mindlessly he ran his fingers through the boy’s hair and combed it for a good while to collect his thoughts, barely paying attention to the werewolf dozing off under his ministries. He only noticed it when his own fingers were brownish from the bloodstain being cleaned from Alfred’s hair and it began to itch on his skin. He turned to reapply the medicine on the man’s back and watched the open wounds hiss at the contact while attempting to shut his ears inside not to hear the torturous plea from his partner’s lips.

He wished for an end already, and Arthur could fully understand him. Depending on a stranger, even if he was a shield-brother to Alfred the elf had never met him before and in fact in Alfred’s shoes he wouldn’t have his hopes high either. He had no other choice than trust a stranger’s common sense and goodwill, not knowing anything about the limits of this person and how far would he actually go before running off to save his own life first. Not to mention that the people he’d expected to arrive hadn’t come in the end. They sent a nobody.

. . .

They chose the night, after all. Alfred wrapped in medicine-soaked clothes, his arms and legs tightly around Arthur’s form they slipped through the main gate with only a little notice of the guards, one of them wishing safe travels and another threatening them to be hunted down if there’ll be a plague after their departure.  Arthur interpreted this as a sign to get away from Eastmarch as fast as physically possible.

Seeing the condition of his friend, in the whole hold only the stable-boy didn’t comment on them; he led Arthur’s horse to the hay-stack and helped Alfred sit onto the horse, even held him with his strong, calloused hands until Arthur got up behind the injured man’s back. The problems weren’t solved only by this though; Alfred kept falling in and out of consciousness, one second he was awake the other he leant towards the neck of the horse and his hold weakened. None of them could be sure for how far could they get at all yet Arthur enveloped him into a tight embrace with his left arm crossed on Alfred’s chest and his right keeping the horse in the right direction. He couldn’t use his legs for the time being for holding both of them on the back of the animal.

The sight itself was terrible. The brilliant, life-saving idea arrived from the stable-boy running after them with long stripes of leather, the young lad haphazardly tied Alfred’s legs to the saddle and his hips to Arthur’s body. As to express gratitude, Arthur threw more than enough gold for the lass’ services and thanked him.

Alfred was glad for staying awake for more than five minutes and managed to mumble something that sounded like ‘thank you’ and ‘let’s go’. Arthur wasn’t even sure if the man was even articulating, maybe he was just moaning from the pain.

The horse shook its head to get rid of some flies and finally began walking on the stones. Finally, they were heading to Falkreath... and Arthur hummed in satisfaction.

“This is just going to be splendid, you’ll see.”

“Uuhh..”

“Hold on tight, we’ll speed up,” he spread his fingers on Alfred’s chest and pushed the boy against himself to keep him at place when he nudged the horse to step a little faster... but not fast enough to shake Alfred off from the saddle... in other means, they only kept a stable, pacing “speed”.

Arthur rolled his eyes and bit into his lower lip before deciding to run a quick calculation.

“Bless Azura, maybe we’ll reach Falkreath in ten days. If the fortune is on our side you’d be able to stand for a short period of time on your own by then. Let’s be optimistic.”

He had the sudden urge to laugh in his own misfortune for this awfully uncharacteristic advice he just supposed. They’ll certainly attract attention. They’ll certainly be attacked, possibly more than once... and Alfred is slipping off the saddle even through the tightly knot leather stripes and Arthur’s firm hold...

“I’m not giving up on this mission, so focus and stay with me, Alfred.”

“Why...” the sudden almost inaudible breath grabbed Arthur’s wandering attention and the blonde leant his jaw on the other’s shoulder to make his words out better, “why didn’t... Arnbjorn... come?”

“Astrid said she’d rather not send him. I don’t know what this might imply, take it as you want. I’m sorry for you to be stuck with me.”

“No... no it’s not that,” Alfred panted and with a careworn, weak move held his own hand on top of Arthur’s. “He’d have made a bloodbath.”

“Well, he is the theatrical one, then?”

“You’re... a new member?” Arthur could hear the apparent frown through the man’s voice.

“Just joined a few months ago.”

“Oh... I see.”

. . .

Sleeping in abandoned shacks, at generous farmer families, forgotten yet miraculously still on-going inns in the middle of nowhere, underneath the sky without campfire and finally, in the camps of slaughtered bandits. Arthur certainly had his own style in choosing their resting places and more often than not these ended to be the last options and with Alfred tied onto the back of their horse, the entire scene was up for the blonde’s tastes.  After three days, Alfred got tired of counting the souls Arthur had taken for their mission to be successful but he managed to keep his tongue knot with the stabile confidence that the newly recruited assassin would not attract unnecessary attention at their presence on purpose. Their difference in dealing with other humans came from their upbringing, in this theory Alfred was most certain.

Arthur wouldn’t stop complaining about this mission in general, held resentment against Astrid yet he was more than ready to re-apply and wash Alfred’s filthy bandages, left to buy new medicines and when the dark-blonde suddenly fell into a worse state Arthur would order the horse to an immediate halt and tend the werewolf as best as he could.

In the nights he left their camp to find herbs and quickly made potions; these little trips never took longer than five or ten minutes. He collected what he needed and returned, eventually he covered Alfred with his own cloak as well to keep the man’s warmth better. He wouldn’t recognise the small curve of the Nord’s lips at the gesture since he was immediately pulling distance between them by squeezing himself for all heat his clothes would give to him, or turned his gaze away, up, up at the picturesque sight of the sky at night.

By the fifth day Alfred could use his sentient senses to keep track of Arthur’s whereabouts but by this he also caught the grumpy mumbling of the elf.

He doubted if Arthur even slept at dawn or just let the horse follow the road. He just seemed to doze off and bonelessly melt against Alfred’s figure from behind and trusted his horse enough not to wander off the road. When it happened and the mount decided to chew on the grass Arthur immediately seemed to come back to the present and took control of the animal right then.

By the sixth day Alfred nudged the animal a few times to urge it walk faster, or show it the right turn at a crossroad when Arthur spaced out and leant his forehead on the dark-blonde’s shoulder. Secretly, not even fully admittedly but to a great extent it pleased him to have Arthur relaxing and trusting him enough to show this vulnerable side to him when it was only the horse and Alfred to watch their safety and direction. The elf might have been cranky at times, snappy towards outsiders who were nosey enough to ask about the reason behind Alfred’s condition but the werewolf couldn’t help but notice the change of Arthur’s venomous attitude to ease towards his person. Of course that didn’t mean that at times Arthur didn’t find him particularly “troublesome”.

After all it was Alfred’s fault in the first place to have both of them in this situation.

. . .

Surprisingly they met only a few smugglers and two groups of Stormcloaks on the road, meaning that the first half of their journey went peacefully... at the second half however, Arthur did warn Alfred that at the mountains and at Valtheim Towers they will stumble into bandits even if they would do their best to avoid them. The worst that could happen would be to be ambushed by vampires...

... and Arthur humbly admitted that he was afraid of trolls. But Spriggans he could handle.

That didn’t stop Alfred from imagining this perfectionist, slim and impossibly agile assassin running away at the sight of a troll in the forest. At first the thought pulled an amused smile on his lips then the realization hit him. Arthur would not dare fighting a troll... he would run away.  Would he...?

Chapter Text

This Wood Elf was certainly not the type he expected. In the short periods Alfred was awake the man accomplished to surprise him with his deeds so often the young man felt a bit of shame every now and then for not knowing much about the Bosmeri people. Even though Arthur was resourceful about his ways like any other apparently self-taught man at survival, he knew several types of herbs and how to create numerous potions out of them and even managed to out-smart bandits as they maneuvered around their camps. Even so, Alfred was bound to face the unmatched preciseness of the fellow assassin’s race with the use of that ebony bow. Wood Elves and their bows, he didn’t pay special attention to the weapon in the beginning nor to the ways how efficiently Arthur hunted in record time and then skinned the animals to prepare their meat for transport. He wasn’t surprised when the Bosmer fired arrows from their horse either.

It only struck the werewolf with astonishment when they finally turned South and chose their road to lead them around Ivarstead: the area was filled with abandoned Nordic forts now festering with bandits and as it would naturally come as consequence, they were attacked by a bigger group. That was when he noticed: Arthur didn’t carry his arrows on his back as the soldiers and bandits did: he had two quivers on both of sides of his waist and with simple agility he could fire the arrows quicker than anyone Alfred had ever seen doing so. Once a marauder had an arrow sticking out of their throat, the other already faced a neatly prepared black piece of wood to mercilessly pierce their bodies. The battle was short lived yet left them with enough food and equipment to make camp in the nearby woods.

The excitement left Alfred exhausted, only the kindness of their horse with her head lifted up high for him to rely on and neighing to him lowly was keeping him awake, the low mumbling of the animal soothed him to the very core of his being. Arthur was collecting the intact arrows and food, the man seemed to be obsessed with collecting food, and for the moment forgot about the injured man on the horse.

The young Nord’s mind barely registered the arrogant yell coming from the thick of the woods and Arthur calling the horse’s name in alarm. Daisy. He called their horse Daisy.

. . .

Ashes, cracking fire and the voices of animals woke him a few hours later. Alfred was lying his stomach with his arms casually under his chin like he usually did after Arthur finished his sessions with his back and re-applied the healing potions and bandages. Upon focusing and letting an exhausted yawn escape Alfred indeed spotted the blonde hunched over his tiny potion-brewing kettle, chanting some Valenwoodian elf magic Alfred had no clue about. So, the usual evening-routine happened after all and he must have blacked out again for some time, forcing his strange companion to stop and camp here. He realized that their location was still unknown for him.

“Arthur?”

He didn’t mean his voice to come as raspy and deep as it did. The lithe man froze in his moves and hurriedly turned to move and kneel in the dirt right beside his injured comrade; his anticipation and obvious worry caressed a string in Alfred’s heart and by all means it spread warmth through his entire body. It felt kind of nice to see his saviour actually show caring.

“How are you feeling? You’ve been out ever since.”

“I think I’m alright,” the dark-blonde attempted a reassuring smile but as soon as he tried lifting his head to look at Arthur in a better angle, pain shot through his back with a hiss, burning his newly recovered skin.

“Just stay down. I’m here.”

And this, of all... These two words assuring him of Arthur’s presence pulled a bittersweet frown with a smile onto Alfred’s young features. He knew the elf wished to touch him, from his peripheral sight he spotted the gloved, slender fingers but he also saw the hesitation, the lingering presence above his figure. He couldn’t wait for his skin to recover, for Arthur to feel secure enough to reach for him. With the uncharted, unstable fire in his heart Alfred couldn’t wish for anything else but fast recovery... so he could probably meet Arthur halfway.

“You blacked out right as we left the clearing. I think you just heard the shriek and saw the first ice bolt, then you almost fell from the horse.”

“We’ve been attacked?”

“Just an apprentice storm mage. No big deal.”

“If a mage apprentice is around it means they have a den somewhere nearby... doesn’t it?”

“I had to stop to give you some potion... I—I didn’t know what to do because after I got off the horse you leant forward onto her neck and didn’t move until now. You didn’t wake.”

This information had Alfred frowning deeper and cast his gaze away from Arthur. So it was his fault after all... he wished to wipe his face from the dirt that stuck there and succeeded in pulling his hand to the side as he did so. A few days ago even this simple movement was torture for his skin and shoulder joints and yet after he’d been making such a slow progress towards healing, Arthur was still by his side. He risked his life and continued doing so for Alfred’s sake. Or, for something more valuable... his train of thoughts were interrupted by the assassin’s comment.

“Well, I’ve placed fire runes around this clearing so if something crosses the circles we will know about them.”

“So you know runes, but can’t use a single healing spell? Such a professional assassin, you are...” he actually felt a hearty chuckle bubble in his chest, almost a stranger in their company after what they’ve been through together.

Even without looking he could hear the embarrassment in the blonde’s voice, “shut it, I’m trying my best to keep you alive...”

“I’m only teasing. Your potions taste much better than Gabriella’s, back at the Sanctuary...”

The Wood Elf seemed to pause at that for a longer moment, with the smallest tilt of his head he looked down on the other and only then seemed to catch himself in the act. Choosing a spot around three feet away from the injured man, Arthur kicked a few pebbles away with the tip of his boot.

“Oh..” in the end, Arthur slid down onto his bottom to pull his knees up in front of himself before allowing a diminutive smirk onto his lips, “I’ll take that as a compliment, then.”

“Do you have some of that, now?”

“I tried making a potion for quicker blood regeneration, not sure if you’ll feel the third ingredient though...” with that he stood again to collect a small, carved wooden cup from beside the fire to pour just a little from the liquid. Alfred had seen and became familiar with that cup yet still couldn’t guess if it was the man’s own carving. With him falling silent after a prodding question, the dark blonde decided not to venture into such personal things instead.

His ears called his thoughts back to the present as after closing the bottle’s cap Arthur moved right beside the Nord and with that trademark troubled- yet worrying scowl on his face, helped Alfred slurp. The effects were almost instant on the badly injured man, his eyes opened wide and he gasped, the burnt dead skin on his back suddenly evaporating, followed by the scent of Juniper berries.

“Oh...” that was all Alfred could articulate when the effects began to slow; resting his head on his arms and just as well enjoying the soothing caresses, Arthur rewarded him with on his head like a good pup.

“You did very well. It looks much better now. I’m glad this worked, I was making this for two hours... used up all Gleamblossom I had... those can be found only in one place in all of Skyrim.”

“Then...” the young man grunted and cleared his throat to voice his idea, “we gotta get you some again.”

The hum, the gentle snort and the feather-light caress on his hair assured him only that Arthur’s imagination already enacted the scene. The assassin never stopped brushing his mops of hair above his ear and yet Alfred couldn’t wait for the next touch Arthur would lay onto him. Where and how that would be. As they were helping him get on the horse or already holding him fast not to have him fall face first to the ground?

“I suppose that wouldn’t be so easy...”

“Why, what’s so special about that place?”

“It’s located in Haafingar, but it is extremely hard to find if you refuse to undergo certain trials.”

“But you passed those, right?”

“I did. Long, long ago, I did.”

“Would you mind telling me the story?”

“Well, if you intend to stay up with me through the night? One of us should be on the watch anyways.”

“I’ve got time, you know,” smiled the werewolf by which he earned another gentle snort from the other, mysteriously staying by his side for longer than he usually did.

“I have no doubt in that. Well... this goes way back to my days still in Black Marsh.”

“This’ll be good, my guts are telling me. I’ve never been there.”

“Mostly it consists of jungles and swamps, the inhabited areas are the only well-kept places. Once you step into the wilderness, you better be on your guard, whether you’re a werewolf or not.  In Blackrose or Soulrest the animals and spirits of the marshes might attack you in daylight too, not to mention the reptiles in the lower forest areas... well.” Arthur bit into his lower lip upon noticing the faint colour flushing on his cheeks; distractively he wiped at his nose and cleared his throat, “where was I?”

“No idea. That, this story goes back to your time spent there.”

“Right. We were always fed with legends about Snow Elves and how majestic their race was back then. How divine their culture was, their ancient knowledge and profound connection with Auriel was not only mysterious but different from all other nation’s practice of religion. So, when the stories of Snow Elves always came to that... tragic and vile turn, me and my fellows never actually believed that all of the Snow-elves turned into that repulsive Falmer bunch. Of course our elders explained that it was a long process, hundreds of years of poisoning but still,” he shrugged and took a breath to continue, yet Alfred’s low comment came earlier.

“Yea, children like having hopes up.”

The Wood Elf couldn’t help but draw his eyebrows together disapprovingly upon hearing these sceptical and dark words coming from a young person’s mouth. With his deep bottle-green eyes Arthur cast a suspicious look down at the resting Nord yet Alfred remained motionless, waiting for the man to continue the story. He didn’t look older than twenty-five, dirty complexion and long hair aside which made Arthur wonder what foul experience would talk like this from Alfred’s mouth? It was certainly not a natural reaction of his.

“You stopped. Is there something wrong?”

His voice didn’t tell anything else but curiosity. So, it was a natural reaction after all? His own thoughts? Arthur refused to believe it.

“I’m wondering why would such a young person like you, say something sorrowful and plain like that.”

Alfred snorted at which Arthur involuntarily glared down at him with wide open eyes and in his sudden shock he couldn’t even articulate a coherent answer.

“Plain?” Alfred sighed, “isn’t this how it goes? Children hope legends were true, hope to meet extinct races and animals... that’s how it went. I wished I could see a dragon with my own eyes and now here they are again and they keep the Holds in terror.”

“But there’s a Dragonborn out there too. He or she was summoned by the Greybeards.”

“The Dragonborn is just another man like us. He can be poisoned or killed. How do we know if he or she is actually interested in facing the World Eater or not? If the Greybeards would summon me and tell me my fate is to defeat Alduin, I swear to Sithis I’d laugh first then ask for a huge armour with such a big sword it would pierce through dragon skin...”

“You’d have no choice,” Arthur hummed in contentment as Alfred’s reasoning began to clear in his mind. “You can let the world end and it would find you elsewhere, but Alduin would come and bring destruction no matter how you choose. The Dragonborn is, let’s put it this way, forced to face Alduin in battle. If he or she fails, the world ends. If he or she runs away, the world ends anyway. The only choice left there is to fight and win.”

“You are the fighter type, eh?”

“You are too. God knows for how long you were down there and even in the last seconds you were fighting.”

“Just because I’m the hero-type. I never give up, only when there is really no other way. You are the fighter type with the brain to fight but you don’t want to go and be in the first line.”

“You surely got that last point. My weapon of choice would be the bow.”

Alfred laughed lowly, “how surprising would that be. A Bosmer with a bow!”

He earned a weak slap on his shoulder which only made him laugh louder, cheerfully winning over all sounds and noises Arthur’s delicate ears were trained to check in the wilderness. The elf shook his head in disbelief, “when you recover we’ll continue this discussion with an entire barrel of mead.”

“Only one? What’d be left for you?”

“Don’t fret about that, dear.”