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The Changing of the Jarls

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“My Jarl, you can't just turn round and say no to her, she's a very important woman!” Proventus sighed, exasperated at his Jarl's stubbornness.

“And what am I then?” Balgruuf snapped from his throne in the Blue Palace. “Last time I checked, Proventus, I was Jarl of Haafingar and High King of Skyrim.”

“Yes, my lord, of course,” Proventus said, bowing as he always did when his High King got tetchy. “But this is the Thalmor Ambassador, it would be a grave mistake to disrespect her and...”

“You like those damn parties so much, why don't you go!” Balgruuf shouted, exasperated. “You and Bryling went to the last three quite happily!”

“Yes my Jarl, but I'm only a steward, not the High King, your continued absence is starting to raise eyebrows...” Proventus trailed off, not liking the look in Balgruuf's eyes.

“Damn Elf's barely got any eyebrows left to raise,” Balgruuf growled. “Bloody witch-elves, coming here, arresting anyone they like on trumped-up charges...”

“Sir, I think your own wife might like to attend,” Proventus said carefully, and that did stop Balgruuf in his tracks. Yes, yes she might. Damn it.

“Fine, fine, we'll go to the next one,” Balgruuf sighed. “Can't have our elven overlords get their noses out of joint, can we? Draft a suitable reply, make it sound like all your stories of the previous ones have made me simply desperate to attend.”

“Will do, sir,” Proventus said, sounding rather more cheerful. “Was there anything else?”

“Yes, a couple more things – that Wolfskull Cave issue. Don't look at me like that, Proventus, Varnius wouldn't have come if he hadn't thought it was important.”

“Sir, Sybille was adamant her scrying had revealed nothing in the area, are you sure it's not just beasts?” Proventus sighed.

“Scrying's unpredictable, you know that,” Balgruuf said with a shrug. “And beasts don't cause strange lights. Write a letter to Kodlak Whitemane, have him send some of his people to investigate – if it's just beasts, they can deal with it. If not... well, they can probably take care of it anyway.”

“Yes, my Jarl,” Proventus said, mentally going over the state of the treasury and wearily realising he wouldn't be ordering any more Firebrand wine in the near future if he had to pay the Companions' fees. Still, he'd been intending to write to Adrianne anyway, this letter for the Companions could go with it. “Will that be all, my lord?”

“Yes – oh, one last thing. See if Rikke's available for drinks any time this week. She owes me at least three bottles of mead for stealing my housecarl's affections.”

“I'll tell her that, but you can hardly stop an Imperial Legate spending time with her wife, even if she is your housecarl,” Proventus sighed. Balgruuf just rolled his eyes. He was glad Irileth was happy, he really was, he'd even given them Proudspire Manor as a wedding gift, but all the same, it meant Irileth's attention was now diverted elsewhere and Balgruuf wasn't sure how to feel about that. Irileth had been his friend and companion for years, decades, and it irked him a bit to see her with Rikke. Still, not like it had left him lonely... or unprotected. His own second wife was a force to be reckoned with too.

Closing court for the day, Balgruuf headed for his own apartments, a luxurious private suite in the Pelagius Wing. It had been said to be haunted for years, but Balgruuf had grown tired of half his palace essentially lost to him, and called in the College of Winterhold to investigate. Mirabelle Ervine herself had turned up with an entire team of mages. The investigation had lasted barely two days before Mirabelle had staggered out of the place, clutching a strange staff but announcing the place had been exorcised. Balgruuf had paid her handsomely for her trouble and not had any problems with the place since. He'd even seen an unexpected improvement in Nelkir's behaviour afterwards, a nice side-effect.

“Papa!” Dagny cried, launching herself from her chair and running to hug her father. “Papa, do you like my new dress? Mama made it for me!”

Dagny's real mother had died years ago, and Balgruuf still missed Freydis. A vampire attack had killed her right in Solitude marketplace and Balgruuf, half-crazed with grief, had sent men after every known or suspected vampire den in the hold, a venture which had turned out to be costlier than expected when he'd found an entire castle of them off Haafingar's western coastline. Still, being High King had its perks and he'd rounded a force up from across all Skyrim to slaughter the bastards. It had worked, just about, although if Balgruuf never had to speak to that Isran fellow again, it'd be too soon. But there'd been no vampire attacks in any city in Skyrim since, and Balgruuf had made his peace with his first wife's death. He'd even moved on and found a second, and she'd turned out to be a godsend.

Some had said he was crazy. Some had sworn she'd eat him alive. She'd done no such thing. She had however taken charge of three grieving, unhappy children and lavished them with the love and attention their busy father couldn't, changing them from three spoiled brats into three of the sweetest children in Skyrim. And if some people thought the High King marrying an Altmer had sent out unfortunate political messages, well, Balgruuf could live with that.

“It looks lovely, Dagny,” Balgruuf told his daughter, giving her a cuddle. “Where is your mother, I need to compliment her on her talent personally.”

“Right here, dearest.” Taarie emerged into the main family parlour in her latest creation, an attempt to meld Alinorian high fashion with the practicalities needed in Skyrim's harsh climate. All of which meant fur linings and most skin covered up, but enough fancy silks and clinging fabric to make Balgruuf want to rip the thing off her and whisk her off to bed. As he had done ever since the day when she'd turned up in court in one, asking the Jarl's opinion and did any of his household want to place an order?

It hadn't been the dress he'd wanted, but he'd sent the kids over the next day to get outfitted, started making excuses to go over himself, and one thing had led to another. He hadn't thought he'd ever marry an elf, still less an Altmer, but on the day he'd said his vows to her in the Temple of Divines, he'd been the happiest man in Skyrim.

If it meant occasionally having to swallow his pride and escort his beautiful wife to parties at the cursed Thalmor Embassy, then Balgruuf considered that a small price to pay.

Chapter Text

“Sir, are you sure this is a good idea?” Nenya asked her Jarl nervously. “He hasn't done anything wrong.”

“I don't care,” Siddgeir snapped. “The townsfolk don't like him, I don't like him, my wife doesn't like him. He's a disruptive influence on the entire Hold and I want that mage gone, understand?”

Nenya sighed, exchanged glances with Helvard and nodded. Despite everything, he was still Jarl, and his word was law. So even though Falion had broken not a single law, it fell to Nenya and Helvard to obey their Jarl and throw him out of the Hold, him and his young ward. That was what got to Nenya the most, the little girl. She didn't deserve to have her whole life uprooted, but thanks to Siddgeir and his new wife, that was what was going to happen. It wasn't fair, but cursed little was in this town since Siddgeir had got married. No wonder Laelette had run off. Maybe it was time to write to Irileth in Solitude, put their plans into action...

Siddgeir watched his steward leave, reaching for another bottle of mead and relaxing in his throne. One problem taken care of. That just left his uncle now, the former Jarl turned Thane, pensioned off with his own homestead at Windstad Manor, out in the middle of nowhere and away from Siddgeir. With any luck, the Draugr or chaurus would get him and Siddgeir need never worry again. As it is, his uncle represented the last remaining thorn in his side now Falion was leaving. Even if it did likely mean he'd end up having to find a new innkeeper. A small price to pay.

Nearly sunset, and Siddgeir knew what that meant. His wife would be rising soon. Leaving the throne, he made for their bedchamber, closing the door behind him and loosening his clothes, prostrating himself on the bed and waiting. He didn't have long.

The coffin in the corner of the room swung open and the love of his life, his beautiful wife Alva, slunk out, orange eyes gleaming in the candle-light. Theirs had been a whirlwind courtship of only a few months, but Siddgeir had known as soon as those eyes had turned on him that night in the Moorside that she was the one for him, and he'd gone all out to seduce her. She'd only put up a small amount of resistance before giving in and allowing him to marry her, and Siddgeir had never regretted it. Anything to make his Alva happy. Anything at all.

“Mistress,” Siddgeir whispered, sliding off the bed and dropping to his knees before her, his beautiful goddess, his gleaming lady of the night, his queen. “I am yours to command, my love.”

Alva ran her fingers through his hair, deftly removing his circlet and placing it on her own head as she always did, to symbolise the transfer of power as the sun went down.

“Beloved pet,” Alva whispered. “How have you been? What did the day bring?”

“Falion is being removed, as instructed,” Siddgeir said quietly. “He'll be gone from this town by morning. Likely his sister will follow though. We'll need to find someone else to run the inn.”

“Hroggar and his wife live next door, give it to them,” Alva said thoughtfully. “He's wasted at the mill, you know. About time we had a family in charge of that place. Might liven the place up a bit.”

“As you command, Mistress,” Siddgeir breathed. “Was there anything else?”

“No, my pet,” Alva said gently, still stroking his hair. “Well done, I'm pleased. You've been a very good boy, beloved.”

“Thank you, Mistress,” Siddgeir whispered, cock already straining in his breeches. Alva cupped his cheek, bending low to kiss his forehead, allowing her pet a full view down the front of her outfit.

“As you've been so good, I think you deserve a little treat,” Alva whispered. “How would you like to eat my arse tonight?”

Siddgeir actually whimpered, nodding enthusiastically. Alva petted his cheek again and pushed his face into her cleavage, all the while whispering what a good boy he was. Tonight she'd ride his face like a prize stallion, fuck him until he was spent, and then she'd feed on him, as she always did eventually. Funny how these things went. Movarth had turned her into a vampire, seduced her, sent her out to find a protector then try turning the guards, soften the town up so it could provide a ready food source for his coven.

Alva had looked around, narrowed down the candidates and finally came up with a shortlist of one – the young, male, single and incredibly vain Jarl of Hjaalmarch himself. He'd been hers within weeks of trying, and the entire Hold had fallen into her hands, just like that. Movarth had been ecstatic, and Alva had smiled... but something in her was changing. Movarth was starting to annoy her, with his swagger and his ego and his blindly assuming she'd follow his every whim. Whereas Siddgeir, sweet, pliable Siddgeir who was so eager to serve her, was really starting to grow on her.

Alva made a mental note to issue some more commands in the morning, namely a request to call in the Companions to deal with a certain vampire cave just outside the town. She'd gone to a lot of trouble to secure Morthal. Now she had it, Alva found that the last thing she wanted to do was share it.

Chapter Text

Nightmares. Always the blasted nightmares. Everyone in this damn town suffering and no one doing anything. His court mage was no help. His uncle was no help. Even his housecarl wasn't helping.

“Faleen, this has got to stop,” Igmund ranted. “I'm sick to death of these blasted dreams. You can't tell me this is natural.”

“Of course not, sir, but I'm not a mage!” Faleen sighed. “I've already asked Madena, she says even her strongest sleeping potions don't work for more than a few nights, and some of those are addictive.”

“Well find someone else who can help then!” Igmund snapped. “What about that priest of Mara, Randa was it? See if he knows anything.”

“Yes sir,” Faleen sighed, saluting and leaving the hall. She wasn't sure Erandur was going to be any help for the second time of asking, but she could try again, she supposed. Maybe Brina might be able to help. She had a way of reading people. Faleen was loyal to Igmund, of course she was – but she knew who knew Dawnstar better than anyone, and Igmund's aunt by marriage could always be relied on for advice.

“Brina, I need help,” Faleen sighed. Brina sighed, rolled her eyes and invited her into the house she shared with Raerek, her lawful husband, and Horik Half-Hand, her... other one. Quite how Brina Merilis got away with openly living with two men and calling them both husband, while still retaining an elder stateswoman role in the village was beyond Faleen, but everybody respected Brina and everybody overlooked her unconventional living arrangements as if it was completely normal.

Horik nodded as she took a seat in Brina's main room, and Raerek looked up from the cooking pot, pleased to see her as always.

“Faleen, my dear, good to see you, I was just making some horker stew, did you want some?” Raerek offered.

“Go on then,” Faleen said, amused. “Raerek, shouldn't you be up at the White Hall being the Hold Steward?”

“Oh, like Igmund needs the help,” Raerek shrugged. “It's not like I'm having to help him run a vast hold like Whiterun or the Reach, is it? He can cope with me being away for a bit. Besides Brina needs me.”

Brina Merilis didn't seem to need any such thing, but she accepted her bowl of stew with thanks.

“So, Faleen,” Brina said, looking exhausted from the nightmares as did they all these days. “What brings you here? I'm used to the townsfolk turning up wanting help but it's not often I see you visiting. Don't tell me it was just to berate Raerek.”

“Hardly,” Faleen sighed. “Brina, it's the nightmares. Igmund wants them sorting and I have no idea what to do. Madena's at a loss, I'm at a loss, Erandur just keeps saying to trust in Lady Mara, but I can't just sit back and do nothing! But how do you fight dreams? I need enemies I can swing a sword at, Brina.”

“I don't think anyone needs enemies, Faleen,” Brina said, a touch disapprovingly. “But I can understand your frustration. Raerek, any thoughts?”

“I admit, it's a tough one,” Raerek sighed. “But I did notice something. It might be nothing, but in the Windpeak the other night, Erandur seemed... concerned. I mean, more so than usual. Guilty, even. As if it was his fault somehow. I know priests of Mara tend to take the woes of the world on their shoulder, but he seemed to be taking it even more personally than that. As if he knows something somehow.”

Brina raised an eyebrow and turned back to Faleen.

“Well now. That's interesting. Faleen, I would never advocate going behind Igmund's back, you know that... but he did authorise you to deal with the nightmares in any way you saw fit, and I think you can agree they can't be allowed to continue. If Horik and I paid Erandur a visit, private citizen to private citizen, do you think we might get somewhere?”

Faleen nodded, relieved at having got a lead, however tenuous.

“All right. But don't think I'm letting you get all the glory. Igmund's suspicious enough that you're setting up a rival court as it is. You can do the questioning but I'll be waiting to hear what you found out.”

“I would never dream of usurping Jarl Igmund,” Brina promised, amused smile on her face. “All right, meet me outside the inn tonight. Horik, you and I are going out for some drinks with a priest of Mara.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Brina found out what Faleen and Igmund never had – that the source of the dreams was in the Tower of the Dawn, once used as a centre of Vaermina worship years ago, and that Erandur knew more than he let on. So it was a confused and guilty Erandur found himself being quietly escorted back to said Temple by Brina, Horik, Faleen and three of Faleen's most loyal guards, where careful questioning from Faleen and Brina elicited the full story of how Erandur had once been a cultist himself, now reformed and turned to the worship of Mara, and how Vaermina's artefact was still there, sealed off and now able to reach out and feed on the townsfolk of Dawnstar.

Faleen was all for arresting him there and then, but Brina was of the opinion that seeing as this was all his fault, he could help put it right and then they'd talk punishment. So on they ventured, into the temple, fighting off cultists and Orc warriors alike, seeking out Vaermina's Torpor so one of them could Dreamstride past the barrier and let them in.

Brina offered to do it. Horik refused to let her. Faleen had doubts about Horik's ability to cope with this but wasn't so foolish as to tell the old man that. So in the end a Redguard who distrusted magic on principle ended up downing a mysterious potion to undergo a ritual of a Daedric Prince.

Never again. Absolutely never again. Faleen didn't know who this Casimir cultist had been but he must have been insane to barge past all those battles like he had. Still, she could respect bravery, even though the cause was beyond misguided.

Then back to the real world, lifting the barrier and moving on, returning to the fighting and this was better, this was more like it, fighting was what she lived for and these bastards were all going to pay.

Finally it came down to the two she'd seen in the Dreamstride... and she nearly dropped her sword when they called Erandur Casimir. She'd been in Erandur's memories??

She had no time to think about it, because battle commenced, but despite having lost two of her guards, they still outnumbered the cultists, and it turned out Horik and Brina could still fight. Finally it was time to face the Skull itself. Then it happened. Faleen could hear it, a voice telling her to kill Erandur as he began to perform the ritual to unmake the Skull of Corruption.

“He's deceiving you. When the Skull is free, Erandur will turn on you. Kill him! Kill him now!”

Faleen thought about it. She really truly did. But she'd been inside his head and she'd seen genuine remorse from him. She wasn't about to strike down a man who'd done no wrong just because some otherworldly voice told her to.

Erandur finished the rite and the Skull vaporised, leaving not a trace behind. Shaking, the priest lowered his hands.

“It's done,” he said quietly. “Dawnstar's troubles are behind it – the nightmares anyway.”

“No more nightmares?” Brina asked, relieved. Erandur nodded.

“No more nightmares.” He glanced awkwardly at Faleen, looking uneasy. “I... suppose you want to arrest me now. I don't have coin for a bounty.”

Faleen looked at Brina. Brina looked at Faleen. Something in Brina's eyes told Faleen that locking up an old man for things he'd done years ago and repented from wasn't worth it. Not to mention having to explain this to the townsfolk, or indeed the Jarl.

“The Jarl doesn't have to know,” Faleen said at length. “And you did help fix the problem in the end.”

Erandur's sigh of relief was palpable.

“Thank you, Housecarl. If you ever need anything from me, anything at all, I am at your command. I was going to make my home here, spending the rest of my days in contemplation of Lady Mara's benevolence but if you and the city of Dawnstar need me...”

“I should think not,” Brina interrupted. “Staying here where it all happened, wallowing in the past. I don't think so. Gather your things and move back to Dawnstar. We could do with a priest of Mara in the town, serving the community, not stuck up here.” Belatedly, Brina recalled she wasn't actually Jarl and couldn't actually order that to happen, turning to Faleen for her agreement. It was a good thing Brina's judgement was invariably sound really.

“She's right,” Faleen said, beginning to smile a little. “You'd be a lot more use to us in the town. Come back with me, I'll find you a room in the barracks and speak to the Jarl about getting a permanent shrine to Mara set up. He's always complaining about how the place lacks prestige. Getting our own little temple to Mara would help no end.”

“Really? You'd do that for me?” Erandur asked in wonder.

“I'd do it for Dawnstar,” Faleen replied. “But if it stops you from sinking into misery, I'm all in favour.”

Erandur's face lit up, and he willingly let Faleen escort him out of the ruined temple, and true to her word, six months later a new Temple of Mara had been constructed on the edge of town, and the town was thriving, with pilgrims coming from all over and the citizens of north Skyrim no longer having to trek all the way to Riften to get married or pay the Temple of the Divines' exorbitant rates. But there was one couple who had to journey to Riften still. When Erandur and Faleen decided to tie the knot, Erandur could hardly conduct his own wedding after all.

Chapter Text

Mirabelle loved and hated her job as Master Wizard. She loved mentoring apprentices, she loved research, she found the administration soothing and even dealing with her colleagues wasn't so bad. Dealing with the Thalmor Adviser was less pleasing, and constantly guarding Savos's time so he wasn't forever dealing with visitors was a bit draining. But all these were as nothing compared to the hassle of dealing with the local Jarl.

“I want that man out of your College!” Skald was fuming. “His very presence is an affront to us all!”

Mirabelle didn't exactly like Ancano either, but alas it wasn't her decision.

“What exactly has he done?” Mirabelle enquired.

“That's not the issue!” Skald seethed from his throne. “I am Jarl of this city and I don't want one of those Thalmor in my Hold, poking his nose where he's not wanted and hauling Talos worshippers off, never to be seen again!”

“Jarl Skald, Ancano barely leaves the College. Whatever he's poking his nose into, it's hardly likely to affect you,” Mirabelle sighed. “And he's not arrested anyone. He says he's here purely in an advisory role.”

“Advisory!” Skald sniffed. “Probably sending reports back to his superiors at the Embassy as we speak. I want him out of your College, Mirabelle.”

“I can't just ask him to leave without evidence of wrongdoing,” Mirabelle sighed. “He's broken no rules. And as for arresting Talos-worshippers, Talos worship's illegal. Or have you forgotten that?”

Close to the bone and they both knew it. Skald narrowed his eyes at Mirabelle.

“This isn't over, Mirabelle,” Skald growled. “I find he's been up to anything he shouldn't, I'll have you all executed.”

“Sir,” Mirabelle sighed, before taking her leave and returning to the College.

Faralda was waiting by the College gates, warming herself by a fire rune and looking sympathetic.

“The old man giving you a hard time again, is he?”

“He wants Ancano out of the College,” Mirabelle sighed. “I tried to explain we can't just kick people out for no reason, but he's having none of it. Stubborn old...”

Faralda nodding, understanding completely. “Never mind. Next time, invite him over here. I'll ice the bridge up specially, no one'll think him having a little accident and falling to his death is our fault.”

Mirabelle bit back a laugh. It really wasn't funny, not at all, but Skald the Elder succumbing to his age and dying in a completely non-suspicious way would make everyone's life a lot easier.

“He'll never accept,” Mirabelle sighed. “Face it, we're stuck with him for the foreseeable future.”

“He won't live forever,” Faralda said, gazing over to the longhouse. “Don't worry, Mirabelle. He has no grounds for doing anything to any of us. If he causes any trouble, we just seal up the College and send word to Sybille in Solitude. She speaks with Balgruuf and he'll tell Skald to back down and pull himself together. Balgruuf's not exactly fond of us, but he's not a fool either. He knows Skyrim needs us.”

High King Balgruuf might well know that, but Mirabelle didn't think Skald knew any such thing, and Skald's loyalty to the Empire and to Balgruuf was paper-thin at the best of times. Still, Skald also wasn't strong enough to secede on his own. Mirabelle just hoped some of Skyrim's more powerful Jarls didn't get any ideas about seceding, because if they did, Skald would join them in a heartbeat... and the College's future would get awfully dim.

Chapter Text

“You have no right to do this, woman!” Galmar Stone-Fist roared. Idgrod barely reacted, being quite used to Galmar's tantrums by now. Twenty-five years since the Great War ended and yet Galmar still seemed to be fighting it.

“To do what, Galmar?” Idgrod asked, idly examining a fingernail.

“Close the Temple of Talos!” Galmar cried. “No, not just close it – desecrate it! You let those heathen dark elves set up a shrine to Azura in there!”

“And why not?” Idgrod asked, still unruffled. “Galmar, Talos worship is outlawed, you know that. The temple's going to waste otherwise. And why not Azura? Half this city's population is Dunmer, and I have seen Nords going to pray to the Mother of the Rose as well. Brunwulf Free-Winter and Hillevi Cruel-Sea both attend her services, so does young Nilsine. I think even my own daughter's thinking of converting.”

“That's the bloody point!” Galmar roared. “Nords shouldn't be worshipping bloody Azura, it's not natural!”

“Natural?” Idgrod asked, raising an eyebrow. “This whole city didn't get here on its own. The hands of humans raised it from the snow, quarried the rock, laid brick on brick. There's nothing natural about it. Just as there is no law that says elves must worship one god, humans another. Times change, Galmar. You and your brother would do best to accept that, lest time leave you behind.”

“Pah, that doesn't even mean anything!” Galmar snarled. “Forget it, woman, if you want to hand this city over to the lizards and grey-skins, fine! Just don't look to true Nords to defend it when the witch-elves come calling in the next war!”

Turning around, Galmar stormed out of the Palace of the Kings. As he did so, Aslfur emerged from a side room, glaring at the man who'd just been abusing his wife.

“He's going to be trouble, Idgrod,” Aslfur warned. Idgrod just shrugged.

“Let him, he's been trouble for the last twenty years and more, but done nothing. He complained when I allowed Argonians into the city during the day for purposes of lawful trade and employment, and again when I extended that into the evenings, and then residency. He complained when I allowed non-Nords to join the guard and again when I allowed the Khajiit traders to open stalls inside the gates. He has not stopped complaining since I turned him down when we were both young.”

Aslfur had heard the story many times and he grinned to be reminded... but that didn't make him any less wary of Galmar.

“Nevertheless, there's a lot of Nords that resent you,” Aslfur warned her. “There's talk in the Candlehearth Inn that it's time for a change in leadership. If Galmar were to lead a rebellion...”

“Galmar's not the man for that,” Idgrod said, staring into the distance at some vision only she could see. “He will rage impotently, but without another, stronger leader to channel his rage, that is all he will ever do. As for the others, Windhelm is doing well. They'll learn to accept that this city is home to more than just Nords in time. Now, if you'll excuse me, husband, I must rest. Tonight will be an exacting one.”

Aslfur decided he didn't want to know. And so Idgrod headed to an early bed, leaving Aslfur to keep an eye on the city then help Idgrod the Younger put the two boys to bed, young Joric (their biological son) and Aventus (adopted after Idgrod foresaw great darkness coming from sending the boy to the orphanage – why Idgrod couldn't just admit she wanted Joric to have a brother, Aslfur would never know, but his wife usually had her reasons).

It was around midnight that Idgrod arose, getting dressed and pulling illusions around herself to hide her passing, and heading for the recently inaugurated Temple of Azura. Inside, the shrine and statue that had once been of Talos had been removed, to be replaced with a statue of the Lady of Twilight, sun in one hand, moon in the other and Azura's Star, retrieved by Idgrod's soldiers and cleansed by the Jarl herself, twinkling on her brow. They might think Idgrod crazy, but the Jarl of Windhelm's skill in Destruction magic was a force to be reckoned with still. Idgrod reflexively bowed to Azura and waited. Moments later, Aranea Ienith emerged from the shadows.

“You are ready,” Aranea said, adjusting her Destruction master robes. “He is only one man but a dangerous one. Don't underestimate him.”

“I haven't,” Idgrod replied. “Why do you think I invited you to help?”

Aranea grinned, her own skill at the Destructive arts better than Wuunferth's. “Lead the way, my Jarl.”

So Idgrod did, her and Aranea sticking to the shadows, Idgrod's foresight indicating the way to travel. They turned a corner to see Susannah from the inn slipping down an alleyway... and a shadow moving in her wake.

“There,” Idgrod murmured, casting Detect Life, and Aranea did likewise, getting a lock on her target and sending an Ice Spike flying at him.

A cry of pain, and Idgrod sent lightning at the figure that had just fallen to the ground. He cried even louder, and Idgrod sent a magelight flaring to reveal Calixto Corrium collapsed on the ground with a knife in his hands... and Susannah turning around and staring at him, horrified.

“There a reason why you're following a young woman down a dark alley with a knife in your hand?” Idgrod asked calmly.

“Me? What? It's not in my hand, it fell out of my pocket,” Calixto protested, but guards were already running towards the sound of magic flaring, and even the least trusting still obeyed their Jarl. Given half of them were Dunmer, most of them were loyal to a fault.

“Bring him in,” Idgrod ordered. “And search his house. I have a feeling we just caught the Butcher of Windhelm.”

“Oh my gods,” Susannah whispered, looking like she was about to faint. “Was he...?”

“Quite possibly,” Aranea said, glaring venomously at Calixto as the guards hauled him off. “I say, are you all right?”

Susannah shook her head, shaking all over.

“Come back to the Temple with me,” Aranea said gently, taking the young woman's arm. “You'll be safe there. Azura warns me of any danger well in advance.”

Susannah nodded, too nervous to object, and let Aranea sweep her away. Idgrod smiled as she made her way back to her palace. Going to the Shrine of Azura for advice on the Butcher problem had been one of her better ideas. Serial killer caught, Susannah not dead, and if Idgrod was any judge, Aranea might just have found company rather more tangible than that of Azura. She knew that Dunmer needed to get away from that shrine and be around people again.

All in all, tonight had been one of her better nights.

Chapter Text

“You did what???” Maven shouted, unable to quite believe what she was hearing. She knew her husband was unpredictable and a law unto himself, but even she couldn't believe he'd gone this far.

“I killed the leader of the Thieves Guild,” Ulfric said, smirking at her from across their bedchamber. “Yes I know, it proved quite the challenge. I did not know Mercer Frey was even a mage, still less capable of turning invisible... but I do not need to be able to see a man to Shout him down, and the water gave him away when he fell into it. My sword did the rest.”

“You imbecile!” Maven cried. “Half my entire business relies on the Guild! What were you thinking??

Ulfric's expression darkened as he advanced on her.

“I was thinking the perils of thinking he could share a bed with my wife and get away with it needed making a little more explicit,” he growled, and Maven went quiet. She knew what this dance entailed – their twenty year marriage had been through it often enough. He'd stop paying attention to her and her city, and start focusing on his Stormcloak militia instead (as if they needed to waste time and money on their own army when they had the Legion), Maven would feel neglected, Maven would acquire some contraceptive potions and invite a man into her bed. Ulfric would find out, kill the luckless man or at the very least banish him, reassert his authority in style and the passion would return to their marriage. At which point Maven would stop taking the potions, get pregnant and then reap the benefits of how Ulfric changed whenever there was a baby inside her, changing from domineering lord of all he surveyed to reverential worshipper and later, doting father. So far she'd got six children that way, six little Stormcloak-Black-Briars (she'd refused to give up her name on principle).

She was too old to get pregnant again, of course, but that hadn't stopped the affair with Mercer. He'd been the one she'd always gone back to, the one Ulfric had never known about. Until now, it seemed.

“You may think you own this city, and perhaps you're right,” Ulfric growled as he leaned over her, pushing her against the bedpost. “But you do not own me, woman.” He had one hand pinning her shoulder and parted her legs with the other, erection pressing up against her, and then his lips had claimed hers in a bruising kiss that made her go weak at the knees. As it always always did.

Maven wrapped her arms around him and yielded, putting up no resistance as he threw her back on the bed and began to disrobe.

The sex was as raw and passionate as it had always been, the little secret of just how the marriage of two strong and ambitious personalities had lasted as it had. Maven had gone after the son of the Jarl not long after he'd returned from war, sensing someone brilliant but damaged, and easy to manipulate. She'd been right about the first, wrong about the second. After the Markarth Incident and Ulfric's humiliating imprisonment, he'd returned brooding, angry and with a point to prove. He'd seen the heiress of the richest family in the Rift and decided he could do with that – needed Black-Briar backing to be seen as a Jarl worth the having. And so they'd married, each jockeying with the other for power – and that had spilled over into the bedroom. Maven had had many lovers, both before and after her wedding day, but in the end, she always found herself giving in to Ulfric. There was something about him that made her feel alive, a reminder that no matter how often he gave way to her on matters political, he was always still a force to be reckoned with. He was a challenge, and Maven thrived on challenges. She liked to think he did likewise, because no matter how aloof she sometimes was, no matter how distracted by his own ambitions he sometimes was, he never failed to react to the idea of losing her with anything other than outraged fury. No, Ulfric Stormcloak needed her far more than he ever let on to anyone.

Ulfric thrust into her, snarling that she was his wife, and no other man could have her and live, and Maven wrapped her legs around him, crying out as she came, and the two finally collapsed on their bed, sated and exhausted from the rutting that wasn't exactly common for a long-married couple in their fifties if what Maven had heard was true. Maven pitied those others. To have had six children and still have a husband intent on sweeping her off her feet and ravishing her – she considered herself rather fortunate.

So it was that she felt rather pleased as she snuggled into Ulfric's arms, and Ulfric hugged her right back.

“Sabre cat,” Ulfric murmured sleepily.

“Meow,” Maven smirked, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Mercer wasn't any good anyway. Far too functional and aloof. Now you, at least I know you care.”

“Aye,” Ulfric said gruffly, kissing the top of her head. “More fool me. Even if you are a criminal mastermind who likes cosying up to the Thalmor. Nine help me, you're not bedding any of them, are you? Not that it would stop me killing them, but I don't know if we're ready for a war yet. Balgruuf would have me dethroned and I don't feel ready to challenge him for the crown.”

“I should hope not!” Maven said, vaguely scandalised. “Look, Ulfric, I can put up with your attachment to Talos, but please don't go starting wars. It's very bad for business. As is interfering with my Guild! Where am I supposed to find another Guildmaster now? Are they all going to tear each other apart? Do I need to go down there in person and appoint someone?”

“No need, that Brynjolf has decided having just one Guildmaster was an outdated practice and a ruling council consisting of him, that blonde Imperial and that shaven-headed Breton was going to be the new order of business. Although it's possible you might have to go over and reassure them I'm not about to slaughter the rest of them. Not yet.” Ulfric's savage grin was not comforting on that score. “You know, you should have let me pass those laws banning non-Nords from the city, it'd solve an awful lot of problems.”

“No!” said Maven firmly. “Dunmer run my meadery, Argonians run the inn, half the market stalls are run by non-Nords and our court mage is a Bosmer. You kick them all out, the city falls over and I lose money! You lose money too if they all stop paying taxes and leave. And as for the Guild, they have their uses. For example, at the latest Thalmor Embassy party, and by the way Ulfric, Elenwen keeps asking after you, it's getting very difficult to keep making excuses for your continued non-attendance.”

Ulfric had stiffened at the mere mention of Elenwen.

“Let her keep asking,” Ulfric growled. “I'm not setting one foot inside that place.”

Maven said nothing, then slowly and deliberately turned away, reaching into the drawer of her bedside table, and produced the document Mercer had managed to steal for her before Ulfric had killed him, handing it over to Ulfric, watching his reactions carefully.

“What is this,” Ulfric whispered, staring at it.

“Your Thalmor file,” Maven said crisply. “After twenty years, the fact you don't trust me enough to tell me what really happened during the war was starting to bother me. So I seduced Mercer and persuaded him to infiltrate the Embassy and retrieve your Thalmor file. I knew they must have one on you. Ulfric, why did you never say? I had no idea your hatred of Elenwen was personal!”

Ulfric said nothing, reading through it in disbelief until he reached the end and lowered it, hands shaking.

“They let me believe...” he whispered. “They told me they had me to thank for giving them the entire Empire.”

Maven said nothing, just stroking his arm and looking sympathetic. It was a side of her few ever saw, but she did have feelings.

“I don't think even you had that much power and influence,” Maven said quietly. Ulfric stared hatefully at the dossier, then roared in fury, getting up from the bed, shredding it to pieces and hurling it into the fire. When he returned to the bed, Maven realised to her horror that he was wiping tears from his eyes. Maven held out her arms and he didn't resist, holding on to her as if she was his protection from the world. Perhaps she was.

“Why?” Ulfric whispered. “I mean, why did you go to all that trouble?”

“Why?” Maven asked, surprised. “Because I don't like being lied to or being kept in the dark or not knowing things. Because I didn't like the way Elenwen kept smiling whenever your name came up or the way she kept asking after you like you were old friends. Because I wanted to know why you hated non-Nords so much and kept trying to seize any excuse to bar them from the city. So I started cultivating my contacts and planning. It took years to set this up, Ulfric. Years. But I got there in the end. I always do. You should have told me, it would have saved an awful lot of time.”

Hesitation from Ulfric and then a grunt. “Didn't think you'd still want me if you knew. Thought you'd think I was weak. Man's wife shouldn't know her husband's a milk-drinker who let the elves break him.”

Maven held him tighter, feeling her own particular brand of possessiveness spark up.

“Idiot,” she muttered. “Well, I don't think I'm going to be able to bring down the entire Aldmeri Dominion for you, but I can at least do something. You ought to be grateful my business has prospered, husband. Astrid's fee for Elenwen was not cheap.”

Ulfric did look up at that, astonished. “Astrid?? Wait... the Dark Brotherhood's Astrid? Taking on Elenwen?

Maven nodded, toying with one of his braids and smiling down at him. He really had no idea how cute he looked when he was surprised. So much younger, and really it was quite gratifying to know she could still surprise him yet.

“Of course,” she purred. “Really, one simply doesn't torture and manipulate the husband of a Black-Briar and live, and Elenwen needs to understand that. I paid Astrid extra to drag it out if at all possible. I hope she's able.”

Ulfric stared at her in shock, and then the next thing she knew he was kissing her again, not as roughly as before but with no less passion.

“I love you, Maven Black-Briar,” Ulfric said roughly, clearly not having thought before saying that, because admitting his true feelings was something he so rarely did... but Maven felt her own heart skip a beat as she kissed him back.

“I love you too, Ulfric,” Maven said quietly, and she didn't say the words often either, in fact come to think of it, had she actually said them before? She wasn't even sure, but she must have done, surely. Ulfric said nothing, clinging on to her for a good long minute or two before responding.

“So, sabre cat, you've read mine. What did yours say? I refuse to believe you don't have one.”

Maven had indeed asked Mercer to retrieve hers as well – he'd scoured Elenwen's office of everything and Maven imagined the Guild were making short work of the rest of the dossiers, but hers and Ulfric's had come to her, as promised.

“I was rather insulted actually,” Maven remarked. “They seemed to imply I was a narrow-minded harpy whose sole concern was Black-Briar business interests and who would do anything if offered sufficient coin, and that my attachment to you was purely to allow Black-Briar interests to prosper. They said I was of little danger or consequence and might prove useful as a means to get to you. All true, obviously, but also really rather missing the point.”

“Which is?” Ulfric said, amused. Maven ruffled his hair and kissed him again.

“You are a Black-Briar interest, darling,” Maven told him. “Whoever tangles with you, tangles with me. Oh don't worry, I'll still continue to play the Thalmor like a lute. But a lute that doesn't co-operate can be broken.” Maven patted his cheek, really rather enjoying the delighted look on his face.

“Raise your Stormcloak militia, my love,” Maven whispered. “When the Dominion rises again, we'll be ready for them.”

Ulfric grinned in delight and joy and rolled her onto her back, spreading her legs. Turned out the Dominion wasn't the only thing rising again... and Maven was more than ready for it.

Chapter Text

Laila couldn't have been prouder of her new Thane and her husband. True Nords both in their matching leather armour, she with her dagger and bow, and he with his battleaxe, who'd taken on bandits and Spriggans and selflessly helped make her Hold a better place. Was there anyone in Falkreath they hadn't helped? Laila didn't think so.

“My Jarl, you really don't have to go to all this trouble,” her new Thane purred in that seductive voice of hers. “My husband and I have been mercenaries for a long time, it's all in a day's work for us.”

“For you, maybe,” Laila said proudly. “For our little community you've been a godsend. You've become a real champion of the people and I think you've helped solve more problems in the short time you've lived here than some of my court have in their entire careers. There's no one I'd rather have as a part of my court than you, Astrid. And so by my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Falkreath. Please, accept this enchanted sword from my armoury as a badge of office and the services of your own personal housecarl. I am honoured to have you as my Thane.”

“I'm... honoured to accept,” Astrid said, seeming a little dazed by the whole thing. “Thank you, Jarl Laila. I don't know what I did to deserve this privilege, but I am grateful.”

“The privilege is mine, Thane Astrid,” Laila replied, meaning every word. With Astrid ensconced at her recently completed manor near the lake, Laila felt Falkreath had never been safer.

Astrid mounted Shadowmere, left waiting near the gate, telling Arnbjorn to walk Rayya back to the house for her while she went for a ride, and spurred her horse into a gallop. She pounded down the road, wind in her hair, sun on her back, not stopping until she was halfway to Helgen. And then she slid off Shadowmere, sitting down on the grass verge and watching the sun set over Lake Ilinalta, Bleak Falls Barrow lit up like a fairy castle, and she laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed until she felt she was nearly as mad as Cicero. Thane of Falkreath. THANE OF FALKREATH. Astrid couldn't breathe. She'd just been made nobility, and now all the guards would know her and her little family and she could quite literally get away with murder.

She should thank Cicero. This was all his doing, really. She'd been this close to having to say something disrespectful about the Night Mother in his hearing to provoke the inevitable scene, and then she'd heard Laila had a plot of land for sale. A bit of heroism later, and by heroism, she meant doing what Astrid liked to do best and killing a lot of people, and now Astrid not only had a manor by the lake, she had a title. Status. Protection.

She'd heard Maro of the Penitus Oculatus had found their Sanctuary passphrase – a captured initiate had broken under torture and told him. She'd have had to move anyway, but to another hideout, another old ruin to get into shape, or so she thought. Not anymore. Now she had a pretty manor house where she could live with her husband and their little girl Babette, and their Redguard steward Nazir, their Argonian groundskeeper, Dunmer cook and of course her elderly uncle Festus. All perfectly respectable, everyone looking the other way, the Dark Brotherhood living in comfort and style. They were set for life.

Babette's sleeping potion should keep Cicero out for hours. In that time, everyone else had whisked every scrap of furniture, every personal possession, out of the Sanctuary and up to Lakeview. Cicero wouldn't have a clue where they'd gone when he woke. If he woke. If the Oculatus didn't get there first and burn him alive, him and his precious Night Mother. Possibly she should have killed him, but even Astrid was loath to raise a blade to a fellow Dark Brother without him having done something to deserve it. Other than being Cicero, of course. Rayya, however, as a housecarl, was under no such restriction. Arnbjorn even now would be briefing her about Cicero and telling her to kill the useless cretin on sight.

Mounting Shadowmere, Astrid turned and rode for home. The Dark Brotherhood's future had never looked brighter.

Chapter Text

Korir waited, tundra breezes whistling in his hair, surrounded by his men as he watched the other soldiers approach. He wasn't worried. He'd spent weeks setting this up. The other man had been eager, no, ecstatic to help. Tales of a Forsworn camp on the Whiterun side of the border had been all it had taken to bring the one they called the Hammer of the Reach to his side.

“Korir!” That was him. Twenty five years old, gung-ho warrior, Jarl Torygg had taken the throne five years ago after his father, Istlod Witchbane, the Jarl before him, had been killed fighting the cursed Forsworn. You only had to mention the witchmen to get Torygg excited. Ever since the Markarth Incident twenty five years ago, Istlod had savaged the Forsworn, taking the fight to them wherever he could and cracking down hard on law-abiding Reachmen in his hold. It didn't seem to have worked. The Forsworn were masters of sneak attacks, using powerful illusions to hide their camps and their forces, and many of the Reach's young people had flocked to their ranks. Their erstwhile king, Madanach, might be shut away in Cidhna Mine, but there was talk of a new leader rising, a fierce warrior queen called Eithne Brenyeen, who'd turned the Forsworn into a lethal fighting force. There was even talk that her people were in High Rock, recruiting from Bretons and Western Reachmen there. But so far at least, the violence had been restricted to Torygg's Hold, and Torygg had been swearing he was winning the fight, driving the witchmen out of Karthspire and slaughtering the Hagraven there only three weeks ago.

The news there was a witchman camp on the Whiterun side of the border had got Torygg's attention like nothing else.

“Torygg!” Korir laughed. “You had a good journey, I trust?”

“Yes,” Torygg grinned, pulling his helmet off. “No trouble from the Forsworn, they just melted away into the undergrowth. I think they're finally learning who's boss. If only Thonar would let me execute Madanach! As it is, I'll just have to settle for killing his people instead.”

“Good idea,” Korir nodded, approving. “Now, Rorik told me the camp was this way – you can't see it from the road, but it's definitely there.”

“You sure it's really there?” Torygg asked, narrowing his eyes. “Can't even begin to count the number of times I've had word of a camp, led troops out there and found the place was an illusion. Those bastards don't know the meaning of fighting fair.”

“It's genuine,” Korir promised. “Farengar was out here personally checking it out. I don't think they know we know about them yet. Should be able to catch them off guard.”

“Never easy,” Torygg said grimly. “There's always someone who knows Detect Life on duty. My advice? Wear heavy armour, stay on your horse and drive in fast before the fireballs can hit you.”

“Sage advice,” Korir agreed. The two men had ridden ahead, their soldiers falling back out of respect, two Jarls of Skyrim riding to deal with the Nord-hating witchmen. “The camp's just up here, if you ride ahead a little you can see it. Right there, you can just see the goat heads if you squint?”

Torygg rode ahead, squinting into the distance, frowning as he peered at the horizon.

“Are you sure it's out here? I can't see a thing- ack!”

Korir had drawn his ebony greatsword, hands clutching the hilt, and before Torygg could even finish the sentence, the Ebony Blade cleaved through his neck, sending the Jarl of the Reach falling lifelessly to the floor, head flying off.

That was the signal for the rest of his men to fall on the Reach Nords, using surprise, superior numbers and already having weapons at the ready to make short work of Torygg's men. The battle was short, bloody and left only Whiterun troops standing.

“Sinmir!” Korir called to his captain of the guard. “Anyone on the road see this?”

“No, my Jarl,” Sinmir grinned. “We're in the clear. As far as anyone else is concerned, Torygg got here early, started without us and the witchmen killed 'em all.”

“Good,” Korir smirked, cleaning his blade, pausing only to kiss it and sheathe it. A Talos-worshipping Jarl dead and the witchmen the scapegoats. The other Jarls would be sure to back his challenge to Balgruuf after this. The Talos-worship ban had weakened Skyrim, weakened all of them. He'd already had guarded agreement from Igmund, Skald, Laila, even Ulfric had indicated some agreement that Skyrim needed a change, and Ulfric's private army would be very useful. If only his hagraven of a wife could be persuaded to loose the purse strings. Maybe she could be the next sacrifice to Lady Mephala. That was if the plans he was hatching with Galmar in Eastmarch didn't bear fruit.

Gathering the bodies, Korir gave the order to ride for Whiterun. Time to send the remains to Lady Elisif and send his condolences. With no children, Elisif would be the next Jarl, and Korir was sure a grieving widow would be very easy indeed to manipulate into supporting his bid for the kingship.

Balgruuf and that witch-elf queen of his should start worrying. Korir of Whiterun had plans. Big plans. Solitude's years of easy, assumed dominance just because they were the ones who kowtowed best to the Empire were over. It was time for Whiterun to be capital once more and claim back what was rightfully hers.

~~~~~~~~~~

Just another job for the Companions. Head out to Rorikstead, find the Mouldering Ruins nearby, clear out the suspected vampires, easily done. Well, for Vilkas anyway. Ria might find it a bit harder, which was why he'd gone with her. Not that he doubted her competence, although he made a point of not letting her get complacent about her abilities either. He just didn't like the idea of her getting hurt.

They'd done the job and emerged, heading for the inn at Rorikstead and cresting over a hill just in time to see the Jarl of Whiterun himself behead the Jarl of the Reach with his greatsword and then his men falling on the Reach contingent, slaughtering them to a man. Ria had been on the cusp of drawing her sword and running to join in... until Vilkas grabbed her and hauled her behind a rock.

“What are you doing, we have to help!” Ria whispered.

“And do what? Get ourselves killed for our trouble?” Vilkas hissed. “We're Companions! We don't get involved in politics! Who would we even side with anyway?”

“But Jarl Korir might need-” Ria was silenced by Vilkas placing a finger on her lips.

“Jarl Korir just beheaded a fellow Jarl while his back was turned,” Vilkas said quietly. “He does not need any help from us, Ria. He just committed murder and treason. And no one knows but us.”

Ria gasped, looking like she was about to be sick. “We have to do something, Vilkas! If a Jarl's turned traitor, the High King needs to know!”

“I know,” Vilkas said quietly, his heart heavy. “But we need to be careful, Ria. Our Shield-Brothers and Sisters are in his city. We can't challenge him openly. Balgruuf's a fair-minded man but he'll insist we testify in public. If we do that, who knows what Korir might do to Jorrvaskr.”

“He wouldn't,” Ria whispered, horrified. “But we're the Companions! Everyone respects us! He must know all Skyrim would turn against him.”

“Not if he blackened our name first,” Vilkas said quietly. “Ria, he just killed a Jarl in cold blood, who knows what he's capable of?”

Ria whimpered, but she nodded, knowing in her heart he was right.

“What do we do?” Ria whispered. “We can't just go home and act like everything's all right.”

“No,” Vilkas agreed. “But there is something we could do. Korir's likely going to send Torygg's corpse back to Markarth and probably spin some story to Lady Elisif – Jarl Elisif now, I should say – about the Forsworn or bandits or something.”

“That poor woman,” Ria said softly. She didn't know Elisif the Fair that well, but her reputation preceded her as a sweet, pretty young woman who loved babies and puppies and did a lot of charity work for those less fortunate and was very much in love with her husband of three years. She didn't deserve this to happen, even if you disagreed with her husband's heavy-handed war on the Reachmen.

“Aye,” Vilkas said, sombre. “The poor woman's a widow at barely twenty three and now Jarl of the most troubled Hold in Skyrim. I don't envy her. But we can do her this service, Ria. We can make sure she knows who really killed her husband. Jarl Korir and Jarl Torygg were friends before this. Elisif's first instinct will be to lean on Korir for aid, and you can be sure Korir knows that. We need to make sure Jarl Elisif's not his next victim.”

Now that was something Ria could get behind.

“Let's go, then,” Ria said firmly, getting to her feet. “I think Jarl Elisif's going to need a new housecarl. Another woman, about her age. What do you think, Vilkas?”

“I think Jarl Elisif's going to need all the friends she can get,” Vilkas said, following behind her. “Come on. Let's just hope we don't run into Eithne Brenyeen's folk on the way.”

Chapter Text

“Get him out of that mine.”

“My Jarl, do you think this wise-” Falk Firebeard began, but his new Jarl was having none of it.

“I don't care!” Elisif howled. “Get him out of that mine, get him here, get him damn well explaining himself!”

“Elisif – Jarl Elisif, what good is it going to do you?” Falk sighed. “He'll just rant in your face about how Torygg deserved it and had it coming, then some speech about how the Forsworn will have their land back or destroy it, and paint the ground red with Nord blood. Not to mention word is he doesn't even have any real power any more. Eithne Brenyeen's the real power behind the Forsworn these days.”

“Well, I don't have Eithne Brenyeen trapped in a mine in my city, do I,” Elisif said bitterly. “So get the bastard out of that mine, get him brought here and then leave him with me. I want to let the King in Rags see for himself just what he's done to me.”

Falk sighed then nodded. Honestly, this was the most emotion he'd seen out of her since the news and Torygg's lifeless remains had been brought back. Elisif had turned into a howling, screaming wreck and spent two days locked in her room crying, and when she hadn't been crying, she'd just stared into space, eyes devoid of anything, and Falk had been concerned enough to remove all weapons and blades from the room as a precaution and have beds put in for maidservants to keep an eye on her at all times. Now she'd emerged, having clearly moved into the anger stage of grief. While demanding Madanach be hauled out of Cidhna Mine to face her wrath sounded like a terrible idea, Falk also couldn't deny anything was better than Elisif just staring into space, not moving, not talking, not eating, just lying there half-dead herself. If she wanted someone to rant at, so be it. Rather Madanach than him.

And so it was that Madanach the King in Rags found himself hauled out of Cidhna Mine, hands tied, feeling sunlight on his skin and fresh air in his lungs for once, although the sack over his head did take the shine off somewhat. When they pulled it off, he found himself sat at the long table in the Dwemer room that had once been his study in Understone Keep. How times had changed.

“Leave us,” a clipped feminine Nordic voice announced.

“My Jarl, is that wise-?”

“That's an order, Falk!”

A pause and then a sigh.

“Fine, Jarl. But there will be guards posted outside, if there's any sign of trouble, they will be coming right back inside, orders or no. Just because you don't have a housecarl yet doesn't mean you can take risks, Elisif.”

“Falk. Go.”

Falk, a name Madanach recognised from Forsworn dispatches as Istlod's former steward, then Torygg's and now presumably Elisif's, took his leave. A great pity, Madanach knew Falk was one of the few voices of reason in Torygg's court, a man who cordially despised both Silver-Bloods and in Torygg's absence, dispensed justice and was far fairer to the Reachmen than his Jarl had been. Bothela's grandson Odvan had narrowly escaped imprisonment on trumped-up charges thanks to Falk's timely intervention while Torygg was off fighting Forsworn in the hills. It wasn't a lot but it was something.

Of course, now Torygg was dead and the Nords had put his widow, Elisif, on the Mournful Throne. By all accounts Elisif was a pretty, empty-headed doll of a woman who had funded the little schoolhouse, which on the one hand had raised the literacy rate... but was also teaching an entire generation of children that the Nords were good and virtuous and the Reachmen were evil witches. It remained to be seen what she'd do as Jarl – most likely nothing, and Falk would end up doing most of the ruling, which Madanach could live with.

The door closed and Elisif stepped into his field of vision. He caught a glimpse of red and green finery, red hair and a gold circlet before a hand collided with his cheek and sent him reeling.

“You filthy witchman bastard!” the new Jarl seethed, and Madanach quietly gave up hope of this one being different. At least she'd decided to abuse him in person. Madanach supposed he should be flattered.

“I'm sorry, if your guards had found me a bathroom first, I'd have cleaned up,” Madanach growled. “Listen, while I don't exactly mind being tied up and slapped around by a pretty young woman, isn't it customary to at least tell me what I'm supposed to have done this time?”

Elisif had been staring at her hand, now covered in rock dust and grime from Cidhna Mine, before hastily wiping it on a nearby tapestry, but at his words she actually shuddered, looking like she was about to cry.

“You know damn well what you've done!” Elisif cried. “You murdered my husband, you bastard! You and your Forsworn! He was twenty five years old and you cut his head off!”

Madanach could feel his blood chilling as he realised the tale being told. He'd heard Torygg had died in battle, but he'd also heard he'd been over the border in Whiterun at the time, and Nepos had assured him the Forsworn weren't involved. But it wasn't far over the border and it was always possible a band of Forsworn had gone rogue or simply not recognised him. They weren't supposed to attack travellers on the Whiterun side of the border but there were sometimes incidents, Madanach knew that.

“I didn't authorise it,” Madanach said quietly. “I don't even know if it was us – didn't he die in Whiterun Hold? We've no interest in Whiterun Hold.”

“Don't give me that, Korir told me you had a camp out there,” Elisif hissed, face inches from his, and Madanach saw the dark circles and the red eyes and pale blotchy cheeks, and while she was still pretty, he could tell she was heartbroken.

He almost felt sorry for the poor girl.

“And the Jarl of the Reach, what a prize that is, hmm? Your people are probably singing a song of victory and re-enacting the death scene even now. You make me sick!” Elisif was seething, grief turning to anger now she had someone to blame.

“Oh come off it, you Nords can't even forge a blade without composing a twenty-verse saga about it, never mind wield one,” Madanach snapped, about done with sanctimonious Nords who'd never had a day's hardship in their lives shouting at him. It didn't get him anywhere. Elisif let out a furious sob and threw a tankard at his head. It only narrowly missed.

“Shut up!” Elisif howled, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, I hate you!”

She was standing there, head in her hands, starting to cry and Madanach didn't know what was happening but there was some unfamiliar feeling starting to churn away in his stomach, some gnawing, anxious sensation that he slowly recalled might be guilt. How strange. He'd not felt that in years.

“I swear on the old gods, I never authorised his death,” Madanach said quietly. “I mean, it was probably going to happen at some point the way he was going on... but it wasn't us. Not this time.”

“How the fuck would you know, you're a prisoner in a mine,” Elisif whispered. “Eithne Brenyeen really runs the Forsworn.”

Someone that ladylike really shouldn't be swearing, it sounded completely incongruous. Not to mention a little arousing. Which was absolutely not going to help matters, not at all.

“Don't think I'm completely without influence,” Madanach said, gritting his teeth and crossing his legs. “I was turning scattered hill tribes into a rebel army when she was still in the cradle.”

“I know what you were doing,” Elisif said bitterly. She didn't say any more, just staring hatefully at him, and then came the knock on the door.

“Jarl? Jarl Elisif, you have visitors. It's important.”

“I'm busy!” Elisif cried, exasperated. “Can't it wait?”

A pause and then Falk's voice again, firm and a little impatient with his Jarl.

“Elisif, they're Companions of Jorrvaskr. They've got news of your husband. They said they saw him die and wanted you to know the truth. They won't speak to anyone but you.”

Elisif had gone very still, mouth open as she stared at Madanach, almost as if she was after his opinion. Madanach just shrugged. Not like he cared, although hearing how a Nord Jarl, particularly one who'd been savaging his people, had died bloodily was likely to be hugely entertaining. He'd have to be careful not to smirk too much.

“Send them in,” Elisif called back, and the door opened to admit two warriors, one Nord male in shiny armour with a wolf's head on it, and the other a young Cyrodiilian girl in scaled armour. Both of whom noticed him and looked rather alarmed.

“Take no notice of him,” Elisif said briskly as they were shown in, the door closing behind them. “He's just a prisoner who I'm questioning. Now, you had word of my husband. You... you saw him die?”

The two warriors exchanged looks and nodded hesitantly, seeming rather nervous now they were actually here speaking to the Jarl herself. Which was some feat because Elisif didn't look like an imposing queen, she looked like a desperate young woman.

“How did he die?” Elisif whispered. “Did he have any last words? Did he fight bravely? Was it quick? Oh gods, did those heathen Forsworn abuse his corpse?”

Sadness and surprise on the girl's face and heartbreaking sympathy on the man's as both slowly shook their heads.

“It was quick,” the man said gruffly. “And his remains weren't defiled. But I don't think there were any last words of any note and he didn't fight at all. My Jarl, I -.”

“It wasn't the Forsworn,” the girl said softly, looking remarkably composed. “He was killed in an act of treasonous cowardice by his own kinsmen. He was out riding with the Jarl of Whiterun and while he was looking the other way, Jarl Korir rode up behind him and beheaded him. Then Korir's men slaughtered Torygg's soldiers. I don't know what Jarl Korir told you, but it was lies, every bit of it.”

“The Jarl of Whiterun's a murderer and a traitor,” the man said viciously. “And he has our Shield-Siblings in his city. We can't challenge him openly, but you're a Jarl. You could speak with the High King, get justice from him.”

Elisif had sunk into a chair, stunned and horrified, barely taking any of this in.

“You're sure,” she whispered. “Sure it was Jarl Korir.”

“Sure,” the man said. “I saw his face plain as day and I know my own Jarl when I see him. Jarl Elisif, I know this must be hard to take in but our city's being run by a murderer, we need your help...” He stopped talking as the girl nudged him in the side.

“Vilkas, stop it, can't you see she's barely coping as it is?”

It was true. Elisif was shaking all over, looking like she was about to be sick.

“Elisi- I mean, Jarl Elisif?” Vilkas said, looking guilty for even having come. “Er... should we get your steward?”

“No,” Elisif whispered. “I mean, thank you. Thank you for telling me. I don't know if I can call it a service, but thank you. I – I need to be alone, I need to think... go see my steward, he'll arrange accommodation for you for tonight, and we'll speak in the morning.”

Vilkas assented and he and the girl took their leave. Elisif closed the door, barely aware Madanach was even in the room still, and covered her face with her hands, letting out a little sob. Then she ran to the sideboard, where Madanach had once kept a little Dwemer tea set so he could have some nice juniper or snowberry tea while he was working. Turned out what Elisif kept there was a bottle of Colovian brandy and some shot glasses. Typical Nords. Elisif poured herself a shot of brandy, her hand shaking so much it was going everywhere, downed the contents of the glass then looked at the bottle and took a swig out of that for good measure before putting them both back and sinking into a chair, hair falling around her face.

Silence, and Madanach tested the knots on the bonds tying his hands behind his back. Not loose enough to wriggle out of, more was the pity. Also starting to get rather uncomfortable.

“So, now that we've established the Forsworn did not actually kill your husband, were you going to let me out of here?” Madanach queried. “Or did you plan to keep me tied up all night for your pleasure? Not that I mind being tied up and abused, but I wouldn't mind a bath first.”

“Oh!” Elisif had clearly forgotten about him. “Right, of course, just a second.” So preoccupied and distressed was Elisif that she forgot completely that he was a dangerous marauder serving life imprisonment. Drawing a pretty Elven dagger out, she made her way over, cutting his bonds loose and standing back while Madanach stared at his hands in disbelief.

“All right, you can go...” Elisif began before she realised what she'd just done. “Oh no, by the Eight, I didn't mean...”

“I can go?” Madanach smirked, getting to his feet and shaking his wrists out. “What, you mean, go where I want? Seriously? Now that's mighty generous of you, Jarl Elisif. I shall do that very thing. You think your guards'll mind?”

“Oh no, no, I meant back to prison!” Elisif cried, clutching her dagger, but her grip was all wrong, and Madanach's shiv might have been taken off him... but the King in Rags did not need a shiv to fight.

“That's not what you said, and you just cut me loose,” Madanach purred. “You're Jarl now, Elisif, your words carry weight.”

“Get away from me,” Elisif whispered, backing away, terrified. “I'll kill you, I swear!”

Madanach couldn't stop himself laughing at that point. “Kill me? Your grip's completely wrong, I could have that knife off you in seconds if I wanted... and I'm far better armed than you'll ever be.”

“But they took that blade off you...” Elisif gasped, and then her voice trailed off as she saw flames dancing in the palm of Madanach's hand. Grinning, Madanach closed his fingers shut, then folded his arms, standing back and smirking at her still.

“Witch-King, Elisif. Don't tell me Torygg never called me that in front of you.”

“You leave him out of this,” Elisif whispered, anger starting to rise again. Madanach grinned and shook his head.

“Oh, I don't think so, Jarl Elisif. Not after what I just heard. For you see, I now know that the Jarl next door, Jarl of the Hold with which you share a very long, virtually unguarded border, is a traitor and a murderer and he just killed your husband. And if you're not very careful, he might decide you're going to be next. I don't think your guard forces are up to a full-on assault from Whiterun. Not given that Korir's likely been building troops up for years, no doubt citing concerns from Rorikstead about the Forsworn so close to them.”

“But wouldn't the Forsworn attack him if he invaded?” Elisif asked, confused about where exactly this was going. Madanach just shrugged.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Not if someone were to get word to Eithne Brenyeen that Jarl Korir killed the Witchbane's son. If she were to learn of that, I think you might find the Forsworn finding reasons to be elsewhere when Korir came calling.”

“You wouldn't,” Elisif breathed, but her eyes told Madanach that she believed he'd do exactly that.

“Don't think I don't have informants in this palace,” Madanach said, no longer smiling. “You could have me executed and they'd still find out and get word to her, and I know Eithne. She'd love to simply stand back and watch while you people killed each other then take on the victor.” He tilted his head, watching her with no little amusement... and in the back of his mind, the mental cogs were ticking, plans coming together and excitement surging through his veins as he realised opportunities like this didn't come along often. “Whereas if I sent the news, I could add orders to it. I might be able to persuade Eithne to lend her troops to your aid, make invading the Reach a bloody and unprofitable venture that would give Korir second thoughts. That border with Whiterun doesn't have Nord troops there... but it's got us. We could keep him tied up for months.”

Elisif still looked confused, brow furrowing. Bless her, the poor girl was adorable, absolutely adorable, but clearly young, grieving and completely out of her depth. Poor thing. But she was also brave, fierce, not a complete idiot and in possession of a kind heart and compassion her husband and father-in-law had lacked. Madanach could definitely work with this.

“Listen, girl, and listen well. This is how it's going to work. You're going to tie me up again and send me back to Cidhna Mine. Then I heard a rumour your steward Falk was talking of retiring this year, going to marry that Dibellan priestess he's been seeing.”

Elisif's eyebrows shot up. The young Jarl was clearly scandalised by the very idea.

“That is none of your business!” she gasped. Madanach just grinned.

“Whole city's talking about it, it's a bit late now. Anyway, they also tell me Thongvor Silver-Blood was tipped to replace him.”

“That is also none of your business,” Elisif said grimly. “As it happens, Falk has said he's going to stay on to support me in this difficult time. So there.”

“So nothing,” Madanach growled. “You tell Falk he's not to sacrifice his own happiness because of you, he's served the city loyally enough for years, he deserves a reward. Give him a pension, a title, a house, whatever, just get him out of your court. Then get a new steward.”

“You can't possibly mean Thongvor, he loathes you all,” Elisif said, confused... but she was lowering her knife. He'd got her intrigued and now Madanach was fairly certain this might actually work.

“No, not Thongvor. Nepos the Nose. A well-respected Reachman elder who the entire city thinks well of. He's smart, capable, and most importantly, there's not a Reach native in the Hold who doesn't know who he is.”

The lights were going on inside Elisif's head and Madanach really hoped this did work because if it didn't, he'd just sold his oldest friend down the Karth.

“He's one of you, one of the Forsworn,” Elisif whispered. “You want me to take a Forsworn agent on as my steward??”

Madanach nodded, and she'd not screamed for her guards which had to be a good thing, right?

“Yeah. I need to be able to get word to you without arousing suspicion and Nepos is perfect for that. Not to mention you're going to need all the help you can get and Nepos is going to be far better at that than Firebeard. Next, sit tight because in a few weeks, the Silver-Blood family are going to die. Horribly. All of them. Leaving all that money and assets and no heirs, which means that's all going to default to the Jarl of the Hold. To you.”

“You're going to murder the Silver-Bloods,” Elisif whispered, looking appalled... but still that gleam in her eye, and Madanach had a sneaking suspicion Elisif didn't like them very much. That perhaps the brothers had brushed her off or been mean to her or dismissed her pet projects, or Betrid having looked down on the Jarl's wife, maybe engaged in the odd act of spite or jealousy perhaps.

“They don't have your interests at heart, believe me, Elisif,” Madanach growled. “This Hold is better off without them, and you can use their wealth to change this place for the better.”

Elisif was shaking her head, clearly disbelieving, but she motioned for him to continue.

“Next, well, there's going to be a little uprising. Oh don't worry, nothing to hurt you. Only the mine everyone says is so secure? There's going to be a little jailbreak. My men and I are heading for the hills to meet up with Eithne Brenyeen and friends, have a little reunion party.”

“And then?” Elisif whispered, still gripping her dagger tight even if she was no longer pointing it at him.

“Then you're going to start making a few changes to the way this city runs,” Madanach growled, no longer smiling, no longer joking, the radical young idealist he'd been once resurfacing, and even he didn't realise how his face was changing, his voice was changing, how the years were falling away from him as passion burned in his eyes. “You're going to give that school of yours the funding it's been crying out for, and you're going to hire Reach native teachers as well as Nords, get a more balanced history taught to the kids. Don't worry about where you're going to find them, Nepos will handle all that. You're going to set up a free clinic too, healers, alchemists, mages, all paid for by the Mournful Throne, providing free healthcare to any citizen of the Hold that needs it. You're going to visit the Warrens personally and bring healers with you, ensure everyone down there gets medical care. Again, don't worry how you're going to find these healers, just tell Nepos you want it done and it'll happen. You're going to be closing Cidhna Mine the prison and re-opening it as a working commercial mine worked by free men, and you're going to review the contracts of everyone employed by the Silver-Bloods and make sure they're getting a fair wage and conditions, in fact you're going to pass laws guaranteeing a suitable minimum wage to everyone in the Reach who's not self-employed or working in a small family business, and laws ensuring everyone gets at least two days off a week and doesn't have to work more than forty hours a week unless they're self-employed and want to. You're going to take all the wealth the Nords have been hoarding and you're going to use it for the good of everyone. And you're going to give some pretty speeches on how the bloodshed and destruction has gone on long enough, and you want to build a land where all can be free regardless of their race and Nords and Reachmen aren't fighting any more.”

“Is Nepos going to write those for me too?” Elisif asked, but there was no bitterness in her tone, no anger, in fact she was actually smiling.

“If you ask him nicely, sure,” Madanach said, seeing that smile and feeling his heart skip. They didn't lie when they called her Elisif the Fair. But he needed to pull himself together. This was no time to get distracted. Even if she was beautiful.

“And then what?” Elisif asked. “Say I turn the Reach into an egalitarian paradise. Are the Forsworn still going to keep slaughtering people?”

Madanach paused, taking a deep breath, feeling time slow down as he uttered the fateful words that would change everything.

“If you make all this happen, I will talk to Eithne Brenyeen and persuade her to cease hostilities on a temporary basis. And if things can stay stable for a good six months or so, then I will gather the Forsworn High Command, and I will agree to enter negotiations to end the Forsworn Rebellion.”

Silence as Elisif stared at him, never having thought she'd ever hear those words. Madanach hadn't thought he'd ever say them, but there was something about Elisif that inspired trust... and loyalty. She was never supposed to have been Jarl, but now she was, and unlike her predecessors, she wasn't treating him as subhuman. She was actually listening.

“You'd stand down the Forsworn?” she whispered. “What, forever? I thought you wanted to be King again?”

“I wanted a land where Reachmen can be free and where justice is dispensed fairly,” Madanach said, feeling a little awkward and strangely vulnerable... but also tired, so tired of a lifetime of war. Nepos was right about that, all the death was wearing even Madanach down by this point. “Yes, I wouldn't mind being Reach-King again, but if the Mournful Throne's in the hands of someone I can trust to actually look after the Reach and her people, then I'll settle for a place in her court, running the Reach's army, turning the Forsworn into the ReachGuard, having them protect this land and serve her people like they should be doing, instead of butchering her.” Madanach couldn't hide the bitterness in his voice, but Elisif didn't seem bothered. She actually laid her dagger on the table and left it behind, stepping closer, almost within touching distance.

“Can you actually deliver this?” Elisif said softly. “Can you really persuade Eithne Brenyeen to give it all up on your say-so?”

Madanach wasn't entirely certain he'd be able to do this... but he knew a few things about the Forsworn's war-lady that very few others did. Time to part with one last secret.

“You don't know the Reach-Tongue, do you?” he said, guessing she'd have had no exposure to anything resembling traditional Reach culture in her life, although in some respects that might be for the best. Elisif shook her head.

“Then you don't know what Brenyeen means.”

“Is it a family name?” Elisif asked. “Or some sort of honour-name? I heard she had a sister, Kaie Brenyeen...”

“Close,” Madanach grinned. “But it's not a name at all, it's a title. In the Reach-Tongue, Brenyeen means Princess, or more literally, daughter of the one in charge. Eithne Brenyeen is Princess Eithne.”

“Princess...” The septim dropped as Elisif realised how a Forsworn war leader would come by that title. Princess – daughter of the king. Madanach's daughter. Madanach could only grin as Elisif realised the big secret – Eithne Brenyeen hadn't displaced Madanach at all. She wasn't a rival for the Forsworn leadership, she was its heir, keeping the movement together while her father was imprisoned. “Oh! You've got kids!”

“Yeah,” Madanach said proudly, starting to feel a bit emotional at the memory, and while Kaie regularly snuck in to see him in prison, and he had regular letters from Eithne, he'd not actually seen her since she was fourteen, and he missed her horribly. Not to mention the other heartache of being imprisoned. “Grandkids too. Caradach's six, Amaleen's three, and little Inga's just turned seven months old.”

“Inga?? That's a Nord name,” Elisif said, curious. Madanach shrugged, deciding the whole Inga conversation could wait until he and Elisif got to know each other a lot better.

“There was a Nord woman called Inga who lived in this city when I was King, and Eithne befriended her son. I'm guessing Eithne wanted to commemorate her,” Madanach said roughly, suddenly feeling too vulnerable, as talking about his family always made him feel, and realising he'd said too much, exposed too much of himself to a Nord Jarl, to the one he should be fighting for Sithis' sake... but she was smiling that beautiful smile of hers and then suddenly looking stricken.

“But you've been in prison twenty years, you've never even met them!” Elisif cried, looking heartbroken. Madanach nodded mutely, recalling talk that Elisif couldn't even walk past a baby or small child without stopping to squeal over it, and that her guards had forever had to haul her away from Reachmen children on her city walkabouts. He'd even heard tell of Torygg telling her in the Keep that Reachmen children grew up into killers if you weren't careful, and not to be fooled by the surface cuteness. Elisif's response had been tearful pouting. It had been a grim reminder to Madanach of how the Nords saw them at the time... but now he was realising that Elisif might have been a little resentful and disbelieving and that her love of children was perhaps something that might just work to his advantage.

“I never have,” Madanach said quietly. “I get letters, and I know they've heard stories about me... but they don't know me. Their Granda Madanach, the Reach-King that was, he's just another tale like Red Eagle.”

He didn't have to feign the regret. Elisif's eyes had widened... and then her face set into a determined grimace as she picked up the ropes and sacking.

“Right,” Elisif said firmly. “I'm afraid I'm going to have to tie you up again and send you back to prison. Then I've got to break the news to Falk that he's retiring after all, and then I need to talk to Nepos, ideally without Thonar getting suspicious. I do hope Nepos is as good as you say he is, Madanach. If he turns out to be incapable, I will not be pleased with you.”

“Oh don't worry,” Madanach purred, inwardly fighting the urge to skip about or gods forbid hug Elisif. That was all the poor thing needed, a filthy unkempt Reachman old enough to be her father all over her. “He's served me well for a long time. He'll be more than happy to help you too... if you're really committed to working with us.”

Elisif hesitated then glanced up, staring coolly at him, eyes narrowed, and Madanach realised that the informants who'd told him she was an empty-headed doll and Torygg's little wife had completely underestimated her. He made a mental note to warn Nepos to watch out. Elisif might be a big softie but she was clearly not an idiot.

“I have a traitor Jarl on my doorstep who murdered my husband in cold blood,” Elisif said quietly. “I don't know what else he's planning or who to trust, but I fear the whole of Skyrim might be about to erupt into war. I can't afford to be fighting my own kinsmen and the Forsworn as well. I can't do anything about Korir... but you're a different matter. He's no friend to the Reach. You... you could be. So I'm going to trust you. Eight help me, but I need all the allies I can get. Don't screw me over, Madanach.”

She retied his wrists as she was saying all this, and Madanach didn't resist, watching her carefully and realising this might just be a gift from the old gods themselves. A Jarl who cared... a way to end this whole conflict through diplomacy. He'd not thought that'd ever be possible, and even if they'd won, he'd never been able to work out a way of persuading the Empire and the rest of Skyrim to leave the Reach alone.

It wasn't entirely what he'd been hoping for and he knew Eithne would take some convincing... but he had a strong suspicion he could talk the First Matriarch into going along with this, and Eithne always took her aunt seriously. And freedom – not just freedom from prison but freedom for everyone. It wasn't exactly what he was after, but Madanach was a patient man and well schooled in playing the long game, even if he never lived to see its end. For as Elisif retied him and called the guards to take him away, Madanach looked her over and decided that if he couldn't be Reach-King, there might be a consolation prize. Eithne running the ReachGuard after his death... and if he played his cards right, it might just be a younger half-sibling of hers as the next Jarl.

Chapter Text

Poor Cicero had asked for none of this. Humble Cicero was just an assassin at the end of the day, responsible for his Unholy Matron's safety and little else. Then he'd made the mistake of coming to cold, frozen Skyrim to try and find a Listener.

Well, that part had actually worked, praise Sithis. Only, well, then it had gone horribly wrong, which was why Cicero now found himself dangling a foot off the ground, struggling to breathe.

“Why him,” Ulfric growled, hand tightening around Cicero's throat. “Why this little fop. At least your others were all young and handsome, or powerful in some way. This one's not even sane.”

“Don't hurt him!” Maven cried, horrified. “We haven't... I've not even slept with him!”

“DON'T LIE TO ME!” Ulfric roared, turning on Maven while his hands pinned Cicero to the wall. “You take this idiot into our court, Talos knows why, and I put up with your eccentricity because Nine know it's easier than arguing with you over it, and then I find him in our bedroom on his knees and kissing your hand? Do not tell me that if you haven't bedded him, it's only because I caught the fetcher first!”

“It's not like that!” Maven cried, running over to try and get her husband to stop strangling her newest pet. “Ulfric, please, don't kill him, we can use him!”

“What for, irritating our enemies to death?” Ulfric snapped. “Who in Oblivion's got any use for an addled court jester??”

“Ulfric, please, listen to me!” Maven cried. “He's important! More so than you realise! He's not... oh Mara, look, he's not a court jester. Not really. And he's not my lover either. He... he works for me.”

“Him being a Guild man will not help him,” Ulfric growled, ignoring Cicero's whimpering and wailing. “He comes near your bed, he dies.”

“He's not Guild!” Maven gasped, flinging herself at Ulfric, trying in vain to peel his arm away from Cicero. “Ulfric, please, he's Brotherhood!”

Ulfric's eyes widened, instinctively letting go and stepping back, drawing his sword and grimacing at Cicero, who had collapsed into a heap on the floor, clutching his throat and gasping for breath.

Maven ignored her husband completely and ran to Cicero's side, helping him sit up and rubbing his back.

“Cicero, are you all right, can you talk?” Maven whispered. Cicero nodded, coughing and gasping but just about able to talk.

“Yes Listener,” Cicero whispered. “Cicero... Cicero is sorry! Cicero only wished... Cicero did not mean to offend the Listener-husband!”

“Listener?” Ulfric said, hefting his sword, confused but not letting his guard down. “Maven? What's going on, woman?”

He'd never ever seen Maven look guilty or ashamed before, but now she seemed both, not meeting his eyes.

“I'm sorry, Ulfric, I know you don't approve...” Maven said softly. “Karliah found him hiding in some tomb in Falkreath after Astrid relocated her headquarters and left him behind. She brought him to Riften, got him a room in the Ratway Warrens and a job as a Guild enforcer. I was down there visiting Brynjolf about something when I heard her.”

“What, Karliah?” Ulfric asked, scratching his head. Maven shook her head but it was Cicero who spoke.

Mother!” Cicero whispered, eyes wide. “Mother spoke! Broke the long silence! Chose a Listener! Chose Lady Maven! Told her... the Words!”

Ulfric actually shivered a little but did his best not to show it. It wasn't even fear – more a primordial frisson and he didn't know if it was fear or lust. Possibly a little of both.

“Explain,” Ulfric said curtly, staring at the little jester. So Cicero did and after a good half-hour, Ulfric knew how the Dark Brotherhood worked, or was supposed to, and that his wife was apparently now its leader.

“Does Astrid know this yet?” Ulfric had to ask. Maven nodded.

“There's been negotiations. I've already taken a few Guild members on to form a small Sanctuary here, and we're looking for more. Ulfric, I've known Astrid for years, don't worry, we came to an arrangement. I'll send work her way, she'll send me a cut of every job she does for me and agree not to harm anyone I've said not to. Cicero wasn't entirely happy, but Cicero is a good boy who understands that his Listener is in charge and needs to do what she has to to keep the Brotherhood functioning. Isn't that right, Cicero?”

Cicero nodded enthusiastically, edging closer to Maven and looking a little bit less in fear of his life. Ulfric stared at his wife and could only wonder what she'd come up with next, and more to the point, what revelation would actually break him and send him screaming. Turning into a Hagraven, perhaps? She did use magic, he knew that.

“So he's not your lover then?” Ulfric said, wanting to clear that one up right away. Both Maven and Cicero vehemently shook their heads.

“Cicero would never importune his Listener so!” Cicero gasped. “Listener is married! Listener does not want poor Cicero's advances, surely.”

Maven did raise an eyebrow. “What, are you actually attracted to women then? I thought you preferred men.”

Cicero looked a bit nervous at that, glancing at Ulfric, then Maven, then going a bit pink and blushing.

“Cicero is not fussy,” Cicero admitted. “Cicero has had both in his time and a few who were not sure what they were.” Cicero tilted his head, a faint smile playing on his lips as he grinned up at Ulfric. “Cicero is particularly fond of Nord men. There's something about being pinned down and used by a big, strong Nord, isn't there, sir?”

“I wouldn't know,” Ulfric said, memories of his Legion days coming back to him, of seeking companionship with a brother in arms, all things he'd had to give up on getting married of course... but Cicero was smirking up at him and there was something in Maven's eyes too, surprise... and pleasure. “I usually top.”

No doubt about it, that was definitely a gasp of pleasure from Maven. Very interesting indeed.

“You work for my wife, you work for me,” Ulfric growled. “You want to be her pet, that makes you mine.” Cicero was nodding throughout, face flushed and breath coming in little ragged gasps and his eyes never left Ulfric's. Ulfric glanced over at Maven, catching her eye, and she looked rather flushed herself, nodding as he advanced on Cicero. Ulfric stood over him, sheathing his sword and placing his hands on his hips.

“You want into her bed, you join me in mine,” Ulfric growled and Maven actually moaned at that idea.

Cicero turned to her, taking a hand in his. “Listener?” Cicero whispered. “Cicero will do anything you ask, you know that.”

“I know,” Maven gasped. “Will you do anything he asks as well?”

Cicero slowly turned back to Ulfric, staring up at the Jarl of the Rift. The tall, broad-shouldered and really quite handsome Jarl of the Rift who Cicero had entertained many a secret fantasy about before now. The Jarl who was smirking down at Cicero and who Cicero guessed had probably had a man in his bed before now and who certainly had ways of dealing with naughty little Keepers, of that Cicero was sure.

“Cicero obeys Listener and Listener-husband,” Cicero breathed, licking his lips. “Cicero does whatever he is told. Cicero is a good boy. Cicero is always eager to please, my Jarl. Always.” Cicero looked meaningfully up at Ulfric, who looked simply delighted.

“Good,” Ulfric growled, unlacing his breeches and as Cicero saw what Ulfric was in possession of, he felt his own cock twitch and his mouth water. Nords really were big all over and Ulfric was bigger than most. “Get pleasing then.”

Cicero could barely resist squealing as he crawled forward and took Ulfric into his mouth. As Maven came to put her arms around him, hands snaking into his own breeches to fondle his cock while Ulfric filled his mouth, Cicero closed his eyes and smiled. Cherished pet of Listener and Listener-husband. Cicero was a very lucky fool indeed.

Chapter Text

This country was crazy. The people were crazy. The customs, religion, law, everything. Insane. Completely insane.

Go to Skyrim, they said. It'll be a nice easy job, they said. High King Balgruuf's a stable ruler, he's mostly managed to keep peace between the Thalmor and Nords that resent them, they said.

No one could have predicted how things would have turned out. First the Jarl of the Reach was killed – well, Forsworn violence was hardly unexpected, and the murder of one of Markarth's senior families by their own servants then the jailbreak of the King in Rags had had Tullius preparing to send more troops there as Jarl Elisif clearly needed help. And then she'd appointed a Reachman steward and loudly announced the violence had gone on long enough and was helping no one, and she wanted a united, peaceful Reach where all could live in harmony. There had followed the announcement of a raft of measures, from opening Cidhna Mine as a working mine staffed by free workers, allowing Reach natives to join the guards, extra funding for the school with Reach native teachers all the way to a new free clinic staffed with healer-mages. And then she'd announced that if Eithne Brenyeen and Madanach the King in Rags were to lay down arms and come to treat with her in good faith, she'd be prepared to talk terms and not bring any of the Forsworn in on criminal charges.

Shocking as that had been, the next announcement had been more so. She'd said the Reach had outside enemies, that she knew the Forsworn hadn't killed Torygg. That Torygg had been slain in an act of murderous cowardice by one of his own kinsmen, and that she had eyewitness testimony from impeccable witnesses identifying the Jarl of Whiterun as the killer. That Jarl Korir had turned his back on both the Empire and his country and was seeking unlawful control of the whole of Skyrim as an independent province and the restoration of the worship of Talos, whose troops had unmercifully hammered the Reach once. She'd told an entire crowd of people, Nords and Reachmen alike, that with Torygg gone, he was clearly thinking the Reach would be easy prey again.

The shockwaves had been immediate and gone right around Skyrim, and they'd not been helped by the Falkreath Incident, when the Thalmor tried to raid the home of Jarl Laila's newest Thane, after a tip-off she was worshipping Talos. Thane Astrid and her household had fortunately held them off... and then the Thalmor Ambassador herself had been brutally assassinated by parties unknown, resulting in a recall of all agents back to Haafingar. Some had said the Dark Brotherhood were involved, but then Jarl Korir had responded to Elisif's attacks, denying Torygg's murder but agreeing that the Empire and Thalmor were a blight on this land, claiming responsibility for the Embassy attack, seceding from the Empire and swearing that all true Nords who wished to freely worship Talos, Skyrim's finest son, were welcome to help him... and he'd start with the damn witches, elves and those traitor Jarls who supported them.

All Oblivion promptly broke loose in Eastmarch and Winterhold. Galmar Stone-Fist started a rebellion against Jarl Idgrod, and Jarl Skald declared in support of Korir and laid siege to the College. Jarl Laila was keen to defend her Thane, and Igmund had remained non-committal too. Ulfric said nothing, but was known to be raising troops – to what end had remained to be seen, but Rikke reckoned he'd been a devout Talos worshipper once.

Balgruuf had ranted and roared to his steward and housecarl then calmed down sufficiently to send couriers to Elisif to demand to know what she was doing, and Tullius had made a point of being around to read the reply. The reply had been two Companions of Jorrvaskr turning up, two twin brothers, and the elder twin swore that he and another Companion had seen the beheading with their own eyes. Said other Companion was back in Markarth under Elisif's protection.

It had been sufficient for Balgruuf to take the threat seriously and grudgingly admit to Tullius he had a problem. It had also been sufficient for Balgruuf to put up the Companions in his own palace – it seemed there'd been time to get a warning to Jorrvaskr, and half the mead hall were in Haafingar sorting out a cave infestation (of necromancers, it turned out) and the other half in Hjaalmarch helping Jarl Siddgeir deal with a vampire coven near his capital.

And then it had all gone wrong for the rebels. Igmund had been persuaded by his Redguard housecarl who was involved with a Dunmer and by his Nord steward married to a one-time Legionnaire that Skyrim was better off in the Empire, and gone over to his High King's side. Then Ulfric, Lady Maven at his side, had announced that there was no honour in cold-blooded murder or in supporting a traitor Jarl who hadn't even the stomach to face his King in the old way, and sent his Stormcloak militia north to help Idgrod out (of course, had Tullius or Balgruuf known that the Thieves Guild were short of funds from all Mercer's embezzling and needed to heist some items of value out of a ruin in Eastmarch to recover their standing, they might not have been so surprised to see Ulfric join their side). Meanwhile Thane Astrid prevailed on Jarl Laila to see sense and back her High King – of course Astrid wasn't a Talos-worshipper, and she was sure there wouldn't be any further misunderstandings with the Thalmor.

Then there'd been a coup in Winterhold, Skald's mind having succumbed to the ravages of old age and it becoming apparent he was suffering advanced senility, although some whispered they'd never seen it come on that fast before and shot sidelong glances at the College. Skald's replacement, Jarl Kraldar, had been very quick to swear fealty to Balgruuf and promise good relations with the Empire.

The most surprising result of all was Madanach and Eithne heeding Elisif's words and turning up at Markarth at the head of a delegation of Forsworn to talk terms. The resulting talks had gone on for weeks and Tullius hadn't been pleased at Elisif and Nepos effectively shutting the Empire and High King out of them... but the result had been a peace agreement. Elisif remained Jarl, but had promised to take a Reachman husband within three years. Meanwhile the erstwhile Forsworn had been transformed into the ReachGuard, providing protection and security for the Reach under Madanach's command, with Eithne as his second and heir. And then things had got really nasty for Korir as the Reach's new army turned Korir's forces back and invaded Whiterun.

So now here they all were, besieging the city itself and Tullius had to deal with a Reachman army on one hand and a Nord militia on the other, both of whose chief commanders hated each other and had actually attempted murder on their first meeting. Only Elisif and Maven's timely interventions had prevented a massacre.

The entire force had been on edge for days, and then Maven had sent a Dunmer agent of hers, some woman called Karliah, to go open negotiations with the Reachmen, and that had been followed by Madanach and Eithne and Madanach's sister Keirine meeting with Maven and a few of her people, including that odd jester she'd started keeping company with for reasons that escaped Tullius. Was she trying to start a trend or something? Still, the meeting appeared to have worked, a suitable weregild payment for the Markarth Incident was on its way to the Reach from the Rift, and if Madanach and Ulfric still glared at each other whenever they were in ten feet of each other, Madanach and Maven appeared to be getting on, and Elisif had been seen thanking Ulfric for being so reasonable, it made all the difference.

If the Jarl of the Rift and the Reach's newly-dubbed Lord Protector were no longer trying to kill each other, that was all Tullius cared about, and if part of the weregild involved the loaning of Maven's little jester friend out to Madanach for purposes Tullius didn't care to think about but which had involved the little idiot scampering after Madanach, vanishing into his tent and emerging the next morning cooing and squealing with Madanach appearing non-committal but a lot less grumpy than usual, that was between them.

With that resolved, co-operation between ReachGuard, Stormcloaks and the Legion had proceeded without any further hitches, and aside from having to deal with the High King's ego, and his own Legate disappearing off with her wife for unreasonably long stretches, things had been going well. Madanach had assured Tullius his sister had come up with a way to get into the city, and then further reassured him that no it didn't involve human sacrifice or portals into daedric realms.

“Can't guarantee a secure landing point on the other side,” the man they still called the Witch-King explained, looking far too pleased with himself.

“It had better work,” Tullius had growled, shooting a glance at Jarl Elisif and wondering if she had any idea just what she'd allied herself with.

“It'll work,” Madanach promised. “Can't let my Jarl down, can I?” He'd put an arm around Elisif, grinning at her and far from looking offended, Elisif had actually beamed back.

“Madanach's going to kill him for me and then I'm going to mount the traitor's head on my wall!” Elisif had said, eyes shining and voice perky, clearly having moved into the anger phase of grief and stayed there. Madanach had smirked and patted her on the back, saying “that's my girl” and that daughter of his, Eithne Brenyeen, with long dark blonde hair, grey-blue eyes and a bewildering array of tattoos that her fur and bone armour barely covered, had nodded in surprised approval and simply said, “all right, she'll do”.

High King Balgruuf had walked in just in time to hear Jarl Elisif excitedly proclaiming her desire to have Korir's head on her wall and the icy stare he'd given Madanach did at least wipe the proud smile off the Reachman's face.

“What did you do to her??” Balgruuf had snapped. “She used to be such a sweet young girl!”

“She still is!” Madanach had protested, and Elisif had looked unrepentant.

“Madanach's been an unfailing source of help and support since my husband died,” Elisif had sniffed. “High King, I beg you, don't interfere with my Hold – I am not the one leading a full-scale rebellion.”

“No, you made him Lord Protector,” Balgruuf had growled, but seeing as the Forsworn were behaving themselves, Balgruuf elected not to push things.

And so here they were, arrayed before the drive up to the city, the final push happening today. Speeches were given, Madanach having fired up the Forsworn, then Elisif thanking them for helping and promising she would ensure that all those who fought bravely in her name would be well-rewarded. Meanwhile Ulfric had been doing the same to his men, promising the gods would be watching and Sovngarde awaited those who died bravely, and glory in this world for the survivors, and that true Nords, having given their word, backed their leaders to the end and did not tolerate murdering cowards.

Tullius had rather a lot to live up to after that, but he felt he managed, and then the fight was on.

It was brutal. It was bloody. It involved fireballs and ice storms, arrows and axes, reanimated corpses turning on their erstwhile friends, but the Legion joint task force swarmed up to the gates, Maven's pet jester coming into his own as, dressed in the same black and red armour Maven was sporting, he darted through the fighting, moving fast and low, stabbing anyone in his way with practised skill and managed to get the drawbridge down.

As per orders the troops held back, just some small shock troops surging forward, casting fire runes on the gates then everybody fell back as arrows with some strange Dwemer globes on them thudded into the door.

The resulting explosion shattered the entire gatehouse, and the invading army poured through.

As per orders, dwellings were left alone, and no true Nord would ever consider burning a tavern. As the combined Legion/Stormcloak/ReachGuard troops poured in, the Whiterun guards did their best but were overwhelmed by superior numbers. And so it was the High Command ran up to Dragonsreach, Tullius in the lead, Balgruuf behind him, and behind him, Madanach and Ulfric, enmity temporarily suspended in the presence of a joint foe. Behind them, Maven and Elisif followed, Elisif in steel plate armour and carrying a sword and shield, desperate to see revenge done and Maven in her black and red keeping an eye on Ulfric. Last thing Maven needed was Ulfric deciding to slaughter the entire city like he'd done last time he'd broken a siege. Behind them, Cicero was skipping behind, squealing in delight and firing off arrows at anyone in range.

A combination of Thu'um and fireballs scythed through the guards that came to meet them as they broke into Dragonsreach, and the little party advanced on Korir's throne room. It was Sinmir who stood in their way, battleaxe in his hands.

“You'll never take us alive!” Sinmir roared.

“Wasn't planning on it, Nord!” Madanach shouted back. That actually got a laugh out of Ulfric.

“Jarl Korir!” Tullius cried, determined to inject some protocol into this before those two turned it into a bloodbath. “You are guilty of treason and murder! Stand down for public execution or face summary execution by my hand!”

Korir got up, ebony greatsword at his back, but it was his bow he reached for, eyes falling on Maven, of all people.

“So. The Traitor's Get shows her face. Good. I've been looking forward to this, Listener.”

He fired a shot and before anyone could react, the arrow punched straight into Maven's abdomen. Maven cried out in pain, the force of the bowshot pitching her back to the floor. She did not get up.

“LISTENER!” Cicero wailed, just as Ulfric stared in horror at the sight of his wife lying bleeding on the floor and screamed her name, before rounding on Korir.

Korir was looking quite pleased with himself... until he saw Ulfric and began to realise the mistake he'd made.

“FUS RO DAH!”

The might of the Thu'um sent Korir and Sinmir sprawling, and Ulfric wasted no time sprinting after Korir, sword raised, mercilessly carving into Korir again and again, wordless howl of rage and grief and fury coming from his throat as the Jarl of the Rift tore into the man who'd shot his wife.

Meanwhile Sinmir was barely able to pick himself up before another red and black blur had darted over and an ebony dagger slit his throat. Then Cicero was running back, wailing as he ran to see his Listener.

She was lying in Madanach's arms, Elisif behind him, looking pale and horrified, but Madanach was just staring grimly at her, healing spells pouring into her, and while Madanach was no expert, he knew how to keep someone alive long enough to get them to a Matriarch.

“Listener, Listener, you cannot die, you can't, Mother needs you!” Cicero cried, wringing his hands. “Listener-husband needs you! Cicero needs you!”

“She's not dead yet, idiot,” Madanach growled. “Stay back and let me work.” He snapped off the tail of the arrow, and telekinesis retrieved the head, and Heal Other sealed the wound. “There. She'll live.”

“MAVEN!” Ulfric had abandoned his prey and was running over, dropping to his knees and taking her hand, openly crying and not caring who knew it. “Maven, Maven, no. Sabre cat, don't leave me.”

“She's not dead,” Madanach repeated wearily. “She'll live if you get her to a healer. Find my sister, she'll sort you out. She won't want to let the Lathroniel die.”

Ulfric stroked Maven's cheek as her eyes fluttered open.

“Stormbear?” she breathed. Ulfric took both hands and kissed them.

“I'm right here, sabre cat. Don't leave me. You stay with me.”

“Sithis' sake, man, I keep telling you, get her to a healer!” Madanach sighed. Ulfric finally looked up, seeing him properly for the first time.

“You're a mage,” Ulfric said, the rest of his brain clearly not functioning that well. Madanach rolled his eyes.

“Yes,” Madanach said irritably. “Surely you knew that?”

“You healed her,” Ulfric said, still clearly processing all this. Again Madanach nodded.

“You probably saved her life,” Ulfric said softly, amazed. “Why?”

Madanach shrugged, his turn to look confused. “Why? Listen, Stormcloak, I personally despise you and your death would bring me unmitigated joy. But your wife's all right. She's one of the few Nords I actually like, I don't want her to die.”

Faint smile on Ulfric's face as he slid his hand under Maven and picked her up.

“You have my thanks,” he said quietly. “Try not to rebel against Elisif, I'd prefer not to have to kill you.”

“Just get her to a healer,” Madanach sighed. Ulfric nodded and took off for the frontline infirmary at the Temple of Kynareth, Cicero scampering after and cooing at Maven to hang on and not die, Jarl Ulfric was getting her to safety.

Madanach watched them go, shaking his head as Elisif helped him up.

“Well, that's that done,” he sighed, turning to her. “Look, the man who murdered your husband's dead, you pleased?”

Elisif didn't say anything, launching herself into his arms, squeezing him tight. Madanach, surprised, reached out and put his arms around her, kissing the top of her head and cuddling her.

“Thank you,” Elisif whispered. “Thank you for helping. I know you hated Torygg, I know it probably wasn't easy for you, but thank you. I will always appreciate it.”

“You're welcome,” Madanach murmured. He noticed Balgruuf glaring at them both and let her go. “Shall we go and see how your High King's doing?”

Balgruuf's glare didn't leave Madanach, even as Irileth arrived with Rikke and an Imperial detachment to secure the palace.

“What?” Madanach said, defensive. “I helped you deal with your traitor Jarl!”

“You take advantage of her or break her heart, I'll be dealing with you next, Madanach,” Balgruuf growled. Then he turned to Elisif, who was mostly looking confused. “Elisif. Are you going back to the Reach, or do you want to help track down Korir's wife and son? Might help having a woman along, and Irileth and Rikke don't have a maternal instinct between them.”

Elisif assented, shuddering away from the blood and bodies... at least until she saw Korir's sword lying abandoned on the floor.

“Oh gods, is that it?” she gasped. “Is that the sword that killed my husband?”

“Most likely,” Rikke said, approaching it. “General, we should probably take this for safekeeping – oof!”

Irileth had nearly knocked Rikke to the floor to stop her touching it.

“Don't!” Irileth gasped. “That's the Ebony Blade of Mephala. It feeds on the blood of the wielder's friends – it gets stronger when they die. Good gods, if Korir had it, no wonder he did all this.”

The room fell silent, and Madanach became uncomfortably aware they were all looking at him.

“What?” he protested. “I don't know anything about Mephala! Some kind of murderous spider Daedra, right?”

“The Webspinner,” Irileth said, sombre. “She likes nothing better than to stir up political intrigue among mortals. She must have loved watching all this.”

“Quite,” Tullius said, gritting his teeth. “So if it's a dangerous artefact that drives the wielder to treachery and murder, what exactly do we do with it?”

Short-term, that problem was solved by Madanach using telekinesis to drop it in a chest. Long-term however was going to be more of a problem... at least until Madanach mentioned the problem to his daughter, who came up with an idea that made Balgruuf laugh out loud and set about putting it into action.

So it was that Ambassador Ancano, abruptly recalled from his post at Winterhold to take charge of the Embassy after Elenwen's death, found himself being ceremonially presented with the two-handed ebony sword that had once been Jarl Korir's.

“We wanted you to have this,” Balgruuf said gruffly. “As some way of compensating you for the death of your predecessor. It's Korir's sword.”

“Claimed the life of a Jarl,” Irileth added. “They say that makes it especially potent, although best not to say that around Jarl Elisif.”

“Good thing we're allies, or I'd be worried you'd try it on me,” Balgruuf laughed, although all present could tell the laughter was fake.

“Quite,” Ancano said, taking the sword and admiring it. “Well now, I'm not really a swordsman myself, but it'll look marvellous on my wall. Thank you, er, High King.”

Balgruuf bowed and took his leave, both he and Irileth desperate to get back to Solitude and their eager spouses before their self-control gave way. As it was, they managed to get as far as Kilkreath before Irileth caught Balgruuf's eye, and the High King and his housecarl burst out laughing.

And so peace reigned under Balgruuf, and the Snow Tower never lay sundered, kingless or bleeding, and on top of the Throat of the World, a dragon called Paarthurnax saw a time wound heal and realised, with both relief and sadness, that he truly was the last.