"When was the last time you were actually outside?" Malia asked as she skipped a stone across the calm waters of Lake Honrich. "And going out on a job doesn't count," she quickly added, turning back to point at Brynjolf as he waded into the water.
"Couldn't tell you," he admitted with that lopsided grin she loved to see.
Malia loved mornings like this one. When the mist still clung to the surface of the lake and everything was quiet. Torchbugs still floated about, blinking lazily before the sun came up. The water was still clinging to the warm summer days, so it was pleasant enough to stand in, but not nice enough to swim in. Autumn was beginning to set in, turning the trees into beautiful shade of orange, yellow, and red. Goldenglow Estate could be seen an arrow's flight away, torches still lit, but all the windows were still dark. She knew Mercer was planning something big with the honey farm, but nobody really knew what yet.
"I heard your job in Windhelm went well," Brynjolf said, skipping a rock as well.
"It's already cold as all hell in the city," Malia complained. "I shouldn't be surprised, but it's only Hearthfire, and it was snowing almost the whole time I was there."
"I thought you loved the cold, lass?"
"I do!" she argued. "But I don't like the early cold. I don't expect snows until maybe mid-Frost Fall. Maybe even early Sun's Dusk." She laughed. "Don't act like you're some hardened Nord that was born in the snow, Bryn. You hate the cold!" Her redheaded friend chuckled and gave her a knowing nod. He brushed his bangs away from his face and bent over to splash her lightly. Malia yelped and retaliated with a bigger splash.
"Watch the hair!" Brynjolf protested.
"Oh, the hair!" Malia taunted, giggling. She jumped away as his hand reached out suddenly to grab her, splashing water everywhere. "You're such a butterfly!" She continued to laugh as he chased her in the shallow water. Just as his arms came around her and he hauled her up in the air, she heard the telltale ring of swords, making her freeze. "Bryn, stop!" she snapped. He immediately set her down, looking concerned as if he had hurt her. "No, Bryn...listen..." They both stood as still as the morning lake as they craned their heads.
Off in the distance, Malia heard shouting and more swords. She lurched back toward shore where her socks, boots, and swords were sitting beneath a tall birch tree. Brynjolf followed her. She tossed her socks aside, shoving her boots on and snatching up her swords. She didn't even wait for Brynjolf as she took off running in the direction of the noise. She sprinted past the stables and across the road, noting that the two guards that normally stood at the gates were absent.
"In the name of the Jarl of Riften, I order you to lay down your weapons and come with us!"
There were five bandits, all of them dressed in mismatched armor and wielding a wide array of weapons. Three city guards stood a stone's throw away from them, swords and shields up and at the ready.
"Fat chance of that, you pompous prick!" the leader shouted back with a bark of a laugh, hefting his battleaxe on his shoulder. Malia scowled at the way he stood, the way most bandits stood and carried themselves, like they thought they were the hottest shit to have graced Tamriel.
"I won't ask again!" the guard snapped. "Step away from the man!"
Man? Malia looked past the leader, spotting who the guard was referring to. There was indeed a man among the bandits, lying on his back, unconscious. "Best listen to him!" she called, smirking. "You can still leave with your lives, if not your dignity."
The city guard closest to her gave her a nod of his head. "Nice of you to join us, Thane," he said with false cheer. He looked just past her as Brynjolf finally joined them. "I see you brought a friend."
"It was either him or a slaughterfish," she joked.
"What is this, a social call?" another bandit shot at them.
The two thieves looked at each other and shrugged. "Might as well be," Brynjolf laughed. "Robb, how are the kids?"
"Samuel turned six last week," the far guard answered, his smile evident in his voice, even though they couldn't see it.
"Oh, give him my best wishes."
"Enough!" the bandit leader yelled.
"I agree." Malia surged forward and thrust both swords through an unsuspecting bandit, yanking them free. The sight of blood threw everyone into action. Brynjolf dashed past her towards the archer, narrowly avoiding an arrow aimed for his head. The three guards worked as a team against the leader. Malia wove her way through the impending chaos, jumping over the unconscious man, and locked swords with the two remaining bandits, holding them at bay with each of her swords.
The one on her left jumped back and thrust towards her thigh, but she sidestepped away and whirled behind the one on her right. She kicked the back of his knee, forcing him onto it, then kicked again between his shoulder blades, knocking him face down in the dirt. She stepped on and over him, dropping down to slide between the other man, swinging her sword up as she passed, catching him in the groin. She wasn't one for dirty moves, but then again, there wasn't any point to fight bandits honorably. He screamed in pain and dropped to his knees, holding his crotch. Malia shot to her feet and saw blood streaming to the ground.
The other bandit got up and snarled at her, his sword raised high overhead as he rushed her. She cursed quickly before ducking low and elbowing him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. She quickly spun and sliced through his thigh, grimacing at the splatter of blood that squirted on her bare forearm. She dropped one sword, reached around to grab the man's head, and quickly slit his throat, spilling his blood on the ground. She pushed him aside and quickly did the same to the other bandit. Tossing her hair back with a jerk of her head, she looked around. Brynjolf had made quick enough work of the archer, who was sporting a dagger sticking out of his eye. The leader had been taken down as well, but the guard named Robb was holding his chest, wheezing. She dropped her other sword and rushed over to him.
"Chest..." he panted. What remained of his shield was still strapped to his arm, but it was in splinters all around them. His wrist and hand was positively crushed. He had probably taken a full swing of that battleaxe with his shield, only to have it slam back into his chest, breaking several bones. Malia found the small strap of his helmet and pulled it free, revealing the man's face. He was bright-eyed and handsome with a dark stubble that matched his curly chocolate brown hair.
"Look at me," Malia encouraged softly. "Small breaths, not too quick. Try and even it out and calm down. I'm going to heal your chest first, okay?" He nodded and did his best to do as she asked. She moved him to lie on his back, then rubbed her hands together and called forth her magic. Her hands glowed with a golden light, tendrils of it licking up her forearms. She oh so gently pressed her palms to his chest and focused, finding the breaks and fractures. No internal damage, that's good, she thought, wincing as his chest was forced to reform. The guard yelped in pain, but his comrades were quickly at his sides to keep him from moving too much. "Brynjolf, can you check on that man?" she called over her shoulder.
Malia smiled down at the guard. "Good news, Robb. You're halfway there." She unbuckled the ruined shield from his arm and tossed it aside. "Better news is that this one won't hurt as much." She carefully cradled his hand and wrist in her palms and carefully fused his bones back together. Robb coughed stifled a strained sound behind his free fist. "Sorry, I know it tickles. Suck it up. Brynjolf? How's he looking?"
"Not sure. You'd better get over here and check on him."
"I'm okay," Robb assured her, groaning as his fellow guards helped him sit up. Malia nodded and went over to Brynjolf and the stranger. He was wearing a set of handsome armor. Where it wasn't splattered with blood, dirt, and what looked like black ichor, polished metal shined. His half-plate had a massive tear down the front, but pulling back his similarly torn collar revealed no wound. She pressed her index and middle finger against his neck and felt the flutter of a heartbeat.
"He's alive, that's a start," she declared, sighing.
"Poor bastard looks like he's been through hell," Brynjolf observed.
"But he's fine. There's nothing. She pressed against other tears in his armor and clothes. They were all damp with blood, but her fingers always brushed smooth, unmarred skin. "Nothing wrong with him at all. What happened to him?" She pressed her hand to his stubbled cheek. "He seems troubled." He had a slight furrow in his brow. His sandy brown hair was in complete disarray. "Help me get him to Honeyside, will you?"
Together, the hefted the man up between them, and dragged him to the open gates of Riften, still barely awake. She dug her key out of her pocket and shouldered open the door to her home. Brynjolf all but threw him on her bed, the man's armor clanking loudly. "Divines, he's heavier than he looks," he grunted, rolling his left shoulder. "I'm gonna head back to the Guild. You've got this, right?"
"Yeah, I'll look after him," she agreed, putting her hands on her hips. "Tell Mercer I'll be back soon. See you later, Bryn."
"Lass." He closed the front door behind him. Malia went over to the unconscious man again, thinking of what she should attend to first. She shrugged and decided that his armor was a good place to start. She unbuckled his half plate and set it on her spare armor stand. Next, his boots and gloves. She pulled his tassets out from under him, setting them aside as well. With difficulty, she removed his coat of studs, too. As she pulled and maneuvered his body so he could lie properly in bed, she chuckled. You really are heavier than you look, she sighed inwardly. She pulled the mussed covers over him and went back to the kitchen area. Mere minutes later, a warm, crackling fire was seeping a wonderful warmth throughout her house. She filled a jug of water from the barrel in the corner and poured it into a cup, setting it on the side table next to the bed.
"Who are you?" she breathed, wandering back to the fire and putting the kettle on. She rooted around for a bit, lighting a few candles, but her thoughts kept returning to the strange man in her bed. Why had he been alone? What was he doing in the middle of the Rift, unarmed? And why was his armor unlike Malia had ever seen? She tiptoed over to the set, picking up his half plate quietly and examining it in the low light. She ran her fingers along the tear in the metal, thinking. It was appeared more like silver than steel, but it felt as strong and firm as ebony. She had never seen anything like it. And the blue of the fabric of his clothes. It was sharper than any blue she had seen worked into clothes. Maybe she had seen something close to it, but only at the remarkable tailor's in Solitude.
Stop spying on the man, Mal, she chided herself. Even so, she looked at him. He looked more at peace when he slept properly. She sat down on the edge of the bed and pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. It was warm, but not overly so, as if he had a fever. Why would he? He has no wounds to treat. She didn't have anything to do. All she could do was wait for him to wake up. That's utterly boring. She got up and went to sit at the small table in the kitchen, pulling a book toward her and propping her feet up on the chair opposite to her. She managed to keep her mind off of the man long enough to read a few chapters, but a subtle sound of him stirring in the next room had her on her feet in a heartbeat. She peeked around the corner and found him shifting beneath the blankets, eyes squinting up at the ceiling.
He froze the second he spotted Malia standing in the archway. His eyes were a warm brown, almost hazel color. "Who are you?" he rasped out, succumbing to a bout of coughing. Malia sat down on the edge again and offered him the cup of water. She eased his head up and made sure he took only small sips at first.
"My name's Malia," she said, setting the cup aside. "You're in my home in Riften. Some bandits wanted to kill you earlier, but you're safe now, here." She offered a small smile. "How do you feel?"
"Tired," he mumbled, resting his head back in the pillows. "Sore. Maker, what happened to me?"
"Do you remember anything?" she asked.
"Th'was a Nightmare demon...I told the Inquisitor to go..." He shook his head slowly, frowning. "Where's the Inquisitor? Where's Hawke? Did they make it out?"
Malia cocked her head at him. "I don't know who you're talking about," she admitted. "We found you in the woods." She frowned as well. "What's your name?"
"Alistair... 'M Warden-Constable..."
Warden-Constable? "You need to rest, Alistair. I promise that no harm will come to you here."
He stared at her for a second. "I...thank you." He sighed slowly and closed his eyes. Malia tucked the blanket back over his arms, but just as she was about to get up, his hand curled around her wrist. "My sword..."
They hadn't found him with a sword, and the scabbard and belt she had set aside had been free of a sword. "I'll find it," she promised. "Rest, now."
Keeping a hand on the trunk of the tree she was in as she took another step along the bench. Her spell let her see in the dark, but it was useless unless she had a high vantage point. None of them had seen a sword, but it was entirely possible that Alistair hadn't lost it where they had found him. She would have appreciated a little more information about where he had come from, but Alistair needed rest more than she needed information. She made a face and dropped down to the ground with a grunt. She found another tree and climbed it as well. She took a moment to sit on the branch and take a moment. Her thoughts were drawn back to Goldenglow estate. She had a bad feeling about whatever Mercer was planning, and an even worse feeling that it involved her.
An owl hooted in the distance. She heard a wolf's cry even further in the other direction, towards the mountains. There was a chill wind coming down from them, promising a harsh winter. She wished the summers were longer in Skyrim. She longed for the sun-warmed lands of Elsweyr again. She wished she could smell the salty sea again and dream of white sails and golden sunsets. She missed the way her father would sing her to sleep or how he would tell her tales of legendary pirates and explorers that sailed to all the corners of the world. She loved Skyrim, but she missed home.
A fox down on the ground caught her attention, pulling her from her daydreams. It was staring up at her, its ears high up in the air, its head cocked. She froze, wary of scaring it. It trotted a little further down the way before turning back and looking at her again. She slipped down and followed it silently. It was always wise to follow foxes, she heard, because they would always bring good luck. She needed a fair amount if she was going to keep her promise to Alistair. It led her deeper into the birch forest, away from the slopes of the mountains. She followed it past Merryfair Farm, avoiding the Stormcloak camp she knew was just to the north.
"You're leading me toward Autumnshade Clearing," she said quietly. It stopped and looked at her again, sniffing at her silently. It led her to the clearing she knew. Luna moths and torchbugs floated around the tall pines that marked the area.
Please let there be no spriggans, she prayed. Please, please, please, I do not need that kind of trouble right now.
The fox circled around a bush until Malia noticed it. She went over and pushed the branches and leaves aside. Shining metal greeted her eyes. Her face broke into a wide smile and she pulled the sword from the bush. It was lighter than she was expecting, but free of any scratches or nicks. The hilt was adorned with a griffon, just like Alistair's armor. There was a rose carved into the pommel. Malia smiled down at the fox, pressing her hand over her heart with her free hand. "Thank you, little one."
Before she could find out if there were spriggans around, she quickly left, finding the darkened, cobbled road that would take her back home. She couldn't help herself; she tested the sword with a few swings. It felt like she was cutting the air itself, and she considered Alistair a lucky man to have such a weapon. Her own swords were made of ebony, black as night, and they never failed to find their targets.
Riften was dead asleep once again. She loved how generally quiet the city was during the day, but she especially appreciated how silent it became at night. Nodding to the guards of the night shift, they let her through without so much as a question to her business. Being Thane of the Rift had its perks. The warmth of Honeyside greeted her as she stepped through the door of her home once again. Alistair was still sleeping, and even snoring quietly. Malia smiled at his ease and returned his sword to its scabbard.
The scrape of metal caused Alistair to flinch, and before Malia could utter a quick prayer that he would stay asleep, his eyes fluttered open. he groaned and tried to sit up, dragging a hand down his face.
"Good morning," she greeted him. "Or, good night, I suppose. You slept through the day."
"I...really?" He looked down at himself and pressed his hands to his chest. "Where's my armor?"
"On the chair." She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead again. "Still no fever. I think it's safe to say you're in the clear, Alistair. You just needed the rest. How do you feel?"
"Better, I think." She poured him some more water and passed the cup to his hands. "Thank you, Malia."
"It's a little late, but I'll get you something to eat, and you can tell me what happened to you." She took a step back and offered a hand. He grasped it and she steadily pulled him to his feet. She grabbed the spare blanket off the edge of the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders. He mumbled thanks as his cheeks and ears went a little pink. "Sorry," she giggled. "I have a tendency to be motherly. At least that's what Brynjolf teases me about."
She sat him down at the little kitchen table while she made quick work finding him a plate of bread, cheese, and a couple of apples. Alistair wasted no time digging in, and rather than risk him choking as he tried to answer her questions, she kept them to herself, fiddling with the kettle over the fire again. She soon sat down with two mugs of tea, sliding one over to him. It was easy to observe him when he was so enamored with the food in front of him. He was strong, that much was obvious. Hard won muscle sat beneath his near ruined underclothes. She caught the barest glances of multiple scars hiding beneath his clothes as well, and she couldn't help but wonder what line of work had given him so many. He was no mercenary, that she was confident of. His armor was too handsome, and his sword was castle-forged. Was he a knight? She almost snorted. There weren't many knights outside of Cyrodiil, and Skyrim certainly wasn't the place for them.
There was a knock at her door and she went to answer it. She yelped in surprise when the feline face of of Dro'Vasdar. Without even thinking, she jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs tightly around his waist, completely forgetting about the strange man in her kitchen. Dro'Vasdar laughed as he squeezed her tightly. "What in the name of the Divines are you doing here, Vas?" Malia cried, burying her face in the soft fur of his neck.
"Can a man like myself not simply pop by every once in a while?" he asked. He set her down, his brilliantly white teeth flashing as he smiled at her. "You've grown your hair out." He tucked a lock of her bangs behind her pointed ear. "I like it."
"Oh, shut up and get in here!" She pulled him in by his wrist and closed the door behind them. "You're supposed to be Morrowind!"
Malia had known Dro'Vasdar since she was a little girl, even before her father died. He was a khajiit from Elsweyr, though he wasn't a part of any caravan. He had dealings with them, same as she did, but he was more akin to a smuggler than anything else. He had taken care of her after she found herself alone in the world, taught her all she needed to know of the world until she could go off and leave her own mark on it. She called him Dro'Vasdar because although they were not related by blood, he was her grandfather in every other regard. His fur was silver, grey, and black, though the black had given way to the others over the years.
"Alas, my business in Morrowind lead me to Solstheim, and my business there on that little island has led me to your Thieves Guild," Dro'Vasdar told her, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "It seems that Delvin Mallory's brother is looking for support."
"Glover? Divines, the Guild hasn't heard from him in years." Alistair cleared his throat awkwardly, making Malia jump a little. "Love and light, what's the matter with me? Dro'Vasdar, this is Alistair. Alistair, this is Dro'Vasdar." Malia frowned when she realized that Alistair had gone horrifically pale, and his hand was gripping the edge of the table tightly. "Vas, can you give us a moment?" The khajiit nodded and strode into the other room and down the stairs. Malia quickly kneeled in front of Alistair, her instincts kicking in.
"Deep breaths," she advised. "Match them with mine. You're alright."
"I don't..." he gasped, rubbing a hand over his chest. Malia stood and pulled the blanket tighter around him. "What...is that?"
"Vas?" He nodded slowly, closing his eyes. "He's my grandfather. Well, obviously not by blood, but he's family."
"What is he?" Alistair reiterated in a sharper tone.
Malia dragged her chair over and sat down, grasping Alistair's hands tightly so he had an anchor. He trembled in her grasp, still trying to breathe. She was confused to all hell, but she implored herself to be patient. "He's a khajiit from Elsweyr," she explained slowly. "Cat-men."
"Cats," he echoed in a mumble. Malia nodded, though he wouldn't see the gesture. "I've never..."
"Alistair?" The sound of his name opened his eyes. Brown irises met her green ones, brimming with confusion and frustration. "Listen to me, okay?" He nodded. "Where are you from?"
"Ferelden. I'm the Warden-Constable at Vigil's Keep in Amaranthine."
Half of those words didn't make sense, she thought to herself. "Okay. Warden-Constable. Vigil's Keep. Amaranthine. Ferelden. Do you know where you are now?" He shook his head. "You're in my house, in Riften, in the Rift, in Skyrim." She gave his hands a tight squeeze. "Please, please stay calm when I say this. I've never heard of the places you just named. Never."
They stared at each other for what seemed like years. Alistair's hands slowly starting crushing Malia's, his face going, if possible, even paler. What? he mouthed. He couldn't even say it. He cleared his throat, but it came out as a a high-pitched voice crack. Without warning, he pitched forward, his eyes rolling back and fluttering shut. Malia yelped and wrapped her arms around his shoulders to stop him from slamming to the ground. "Vas!" she shouted.
Within seconds, her friend was up the stairs and helping Malia get Alistair up by his arms, one flung over each of their shoulders. "What happened?" Dro'Vasdar asked once Alistair was back in bed. Malia pressed a finger to her lips and led him outside to the deck.
"Okay, just listen to me for two minutes before you ask any questions, alright?" Malia took a deep breath and started pacing. "Alistair has never seen a khajiit before. You can't fake that kind of shock. He is the Warden-Constable of...some place called Vigil's Keep in Amaranthine. He's got armor and a sword made of something I've never seen before. Bryn and I found him in the middle of the woods surrounded by bandits. None of it makes sense."
"You know I'm not someone to jump to conclusions, Vas. Even when we were on that one job, crossing the border into Black Marsh, and the patrols stopped us, I never for a second thought we were going to get arrested because we didn't have anything on us."
"He can't be from here, Vas. Not Skyrim. Not Tamriel. Not-"
"Malia!" Vas snapped, grasping her shoulders, his claws gently scratching her skin beneath her shirt. "Breathe." She nodded, closed her eyes, and took deep breaths. "What is the first rule of smuggling, Silla?"
She scoffed, smirking. "'Panic is a poison,'" she recited. "I know, I know, Vas." She looked up at him, studying his golden eyes and dark irises, glowing faintly, signaling his night vision. She considered her next words carefully. "But every conclusion I keep coming to is the simple fact that Alistair does not belong in our world, on our plane, however you want to put it."
Dro'Vasdar gave her a single nod. "I believe you, little one. Remember what I am, Malia. A khajiit, a smuggler, and a mage to boot. I have heard plenty of mysteries of this world, and others. I have heard that one day the sun will rise in the west and set in the east. A pirate once told me that the moons will someday merge into one. When I was just a kitten, I met a traveling mage who studied at the College of Winterhold. He believed that the dragons that once ruled this world will rise again to reclaim it."
"You know how I feel about that last one," Malia giggled.
"My point, little one, is that you will be hard pressed to tell me something that I do not believe is possible. If you tell me that this man is not of our world, then I believe your judgement. I only wish I knew how to help you."
"Alistair needs the help more than I do." She turned toward the lake and rested her arms on the railing. "How does one cope with that? Really driving home the whole 'stranger in a strange land' saying." She glanced back toward the double doors. "I don't know how to help him, Vas. I don't even know how he got here."
Vas rested his hand on her shoulder, warm and comforting. "How did I help you, little one?"
"You turned me into one of the best smugglers Tamriel has ever witnessed," she bragged sarcastically. She paused. "I remember that day perfectly, you know? The day we buried my father. You took me to your wagon and made me the best cup of tea I've ever had in my life. We just talked, and kept talking until the sun went down, and even after that. Talked about my father, about our stories of him. You loved him like a brother, and you started to love me like your daughter."
"Only far too young and little," Vas added with a quiet chuckle.
Malia grinned as well. "Fine. Granddaughter, you old cat. You gave me the world, Vas. You've taken me to the northern shores of the Eltheric League to the southern forests of Valenwood, where my people are. You taught me to cherish compassion and love and the very world around me." She shook her head, looking up at the stars. "There is nothing I can do in this life that would repay you for that gift."
"Yes, you can." Malia looked at him, confused. "Take all that you said, all that you've learned, and give that to that young man in there. He may have lost much of his world, but there is everything of this one that you can gift to him."