Riften was on Mjoll's shoulders. That was what it felt like some days. It sat there like a heavy cloud made of iron, or a stone cloak that could not be shaken off. Even Aerin's steady, kind company was not enough to assure Mjoll the Lioness that all would turn out well. Often it was the opposite; she had to convince him of her steadfastness and the possibility of change. Steadfastness was wavering as of late. Maven Black-Briar seemed more confident and empowered than ever. Concerned gossip pointed to possible Dark Brotherhood support via some assassination. The streets seemed thinner, they said, though nobody could put a name to any possible missing faces. Unlikely that anybody was gone. Still, Maven was at large, which meant Mjoll felt less helpful than ever.
She sat at the usual table in the Bee and Barb, Aerin across from her with concern heavy in his tone. "Mjoll? Is everything alright?"
Everything was not alright. For all her effort and time, months and years of life put into this project, Riften was moving backwards. The Thieves were strong; things went missing too often. Even her beloved ring was gone. That ring had meant so much. At first she was inclined to believe it was only misplaced; now she knew better. How somebody managed to snatch it from her bag, she did not know. People looked to her for help, and she could not do anything. It was so over her head. And then the damn Black-Briars and their world of extortion and cruelty were at a high. She wished she could help, but she was blocked at every turn. All these people were finally asking for help, and she was letting them down, losing their trust, and watching them return to fearful silence and apathy.
Mjoll forced a smile. "It's nothing. I'm fine."
"Are you sure? Do you want to take a walk or something?"
"No, thank you."
Aerin was hardly oblivious to his friend's weary psyche. He saw how pained she was, tense at every moment and spiraling as everything went wrong at once. He cared so much about this woman, the life he had saved. But how could he help now? There was no answer.
The young man looked around the uncomfortably quiet tavern and then to Mjoll. Her blue paint seemed chipped away. It smeared and faded in all the worst places, highlighting the stress marks and tension lines of a face that should have been alight with a hopeful smile and just a hint of keen sarcasm.
She ordered another drink and hunched her shoulders. It was not cold in Riften. Not now. Especially for a Nord.
Aerin opened his mouth to speak, but the silence flowed in instead so he swallowed his thoughts and finished his drink.
An unfamiliar woman walked into the bar. At first, Mjoll suspected a thief due to her hood. But a thief would not be wearing heavy armor or carrying a shield. The visitor was of a slim frame compared to most of the warriors the Lioness had known. But she was also clearly not a Nord. Although exactly what race she belonged to was difficult to determine from here. Mjoll did not choose to greet the stranger; it was enough that she did not cause trouble.
She ordered a bottle of mead and waited patiently as Keerava brought it to her. But after one sip, she made a horrible gagging sound. "Ugh. What is this?"
"This shit tastes as bad as the name should smell."
Everybody in the Bee and Barb gawked. This visitor had insulted the devil on her own turf. By some miracle, Maven was not present but no doubt she would soon be made aware.
"I'd rather have swamp water at this rate. Just some plain ale, if you kindly would, ma'am."
"I... sure. Right away."
This was enough to summon Mjoll's attention, though Aerin kept his seat and nervous vigil. His friend had a tendency to admire anybody willing to express views against Riften's tyranny. He occasionally wondered if this was wise; plenty of truly horrid people also disliked Maven and theft.
The Lioness leaned on the counter top. "Well met, friend. Mind if I buy you a drink?"
"As long as it isn't the local scum."
So she was an Imperial. Probably. Unusually high cheek bones and narrow eyes with a pointy chin contrasted with tan flesh, dark hair, and distinctly legion-esque posture. The hood masked any definite conclusion. Most notable, perhaps, was the Amulet of Stendarr that hung around her neck.
"What brings a Vigilant to Riften?"
"The usual things," she said, at last turning to face Mjoll. This woman was not pretty. Her face had scars from knives and burns that made her seem aged far beyond the years her voice indicated. Her sharp, long nose stuck out aggressively. Her eyes were forever narrowed in mock disgust, though the dislike hardly seemed directed at Riften's protector. From the slight wrinkles, it seemed this Vigilant had no expression that did not involve a frown. "Rumors of Daedra worship. Various injustices. Necromancers. And the search for more gainful employment." She sipped her drink. "You seem fairly local and painfully native," she said. "Can you verify any suspicious activity as of late?" Mjoll wasn't sure if she was offended. Perhaps?
"I... nothing indicated daedra. But--"
"I figured as much." She hissed and her upper lip curled slightly. "Would you, then, be kind enough to tell me exactly what has made this town a bubbling shit-pool of lawlessness and stupidity? After I met a guard, a guard, trying to rob me at the gate, I feel obligated to find this problem and annihilate it, preferably with unparalleled violence."
Mjoll laughed. It had been so, so long since she even had a slight chuckle. Aerin blushed jealously, wishing he could bring about such a reaction from his friend.
"I've been trying to cut the root for years. And I've never had much luck at it. My name is Mjoll the Lioness," she said, offering her hand.
The Vigilant took it. "Well met, Lioness. I'm Deela."
Mjoll sat down on the bench, feeling the solid cold of it run up her armored thighs. The air was thick with the stench of stagnant waterway and Brynjolf's latest cure-all. This one was entirely too sweet; it lingered and clung to as many surfaces as if could reach, including cloth and armor. Along with the meadery, Boli's fish, and hot iron, Mjoll was feeling dizzy.
That was only part of the matter, though. Stress continued to build and now she was not even certain of the reasons. Everything was overwhelming.
Aerin noted that his housemate had not been sleeping well. Some nights not at all. He could hear her, late in the night, pacing the lower floors. She woke before him every day, went to bed at night well after. The Imperial sat next to her and looked up at her pale face, lips sealed tightly as he waited for her to say something.
"I'm fine," Mjoll lied. "I just need a moment."
"You don't seem well. Maybe you should go home and take a nap?"
"I don't have time, Aerin. But thank you. You're a good friend." He had a tendency to smother, but he meant well and she knew it. She owed him everything. And now that she was here, she felt obligated to save Riften for more than just his sake. Some sort of divine intervention had led her here. This city was her purpose.
She lowered her head into her hand and tried to breathe easy and recapture her senses. She truly did not have time. Every day new thieves prowled the grounds, always escaping their punishments by an inch. Success had drifted away past her once broad reach, and now only hollow routine remained the staple of her patrols. Her shoulders tensed and shook. Mjoll felt a little cold, and not in the pleasant, mountain-air way.
"Mjoll?" Aerin felt his stomach twist a little. His voice cracked.
"I'm fine," she muttered back, teeth clenched.
"I'm not entirely sure how you plan on getting anything done in your condition, Lioness, but I recommend you listen to your friend and head home for the day."
Both vigilantes looked up to see Deela, who had either not left town or had returned since last week. In any case, Mjoll had not noticed her, and she knew her senses had dulled to a dangerous level. "You--"
"I find it's much easier to help people when one isn't limited to staying inside the town. Luckily you are here to watch the streets and draw attention while I make deliveries and eliminate nearby threats. Did you know there were skooma dealers about? Pesky bastards."
The mention of contribution almost cheered the Lioness up. Instead, she felt failure grow like a sickness in her gut. She had not noticed any drugs. Deela had been here for only a short time, and she was accomplishing much more. She loved that Riften was getting help, but...
"I'm glad you're here to help," she managed, though the cheer sounded as strained as it was. Mjoll smiled.
"Oh. Are you now?" She knelt down in front of her and looked up at an exhausted face. "Go home. Riften can survive a day without you."
Deela meant well, but Mjoll got the feeling from those words that Riften did not need her at all.
She did not sleep.
She could not sleep.
It was getting worse. The nights seemed endless and empty as all the shortcomings of the day rolled around in the Lioness's overdrawn mind. She wished she could go back and do so many things differently. Wake up earlier. Say something different. Focus on a different lead. Choose smarter tactics. Create more trust. Smoke out more liars.
But the past was cemented under her feet, and try as she might, she could not undo her mistakes in protecting Riften. There was nothing but the opportunity of tomorrow, and tomorrow looked so bleak. She sat up, bed creaking, and went to her window, rubbing her eyes and letting her sight adjust until she could spot the flitting torchlight of guards.
She tugged on her armor over sore joints and crept down the stairs, trying not to wake Aerin. While Mjoll doubted her interference would help, she needed to feel busy. She needed to feel needed. So she took herself out the door and walked to the center of the empty market.
The wooden planks of the venders' stalls were rotten and unsightly. The stone beneath her feet stained. The well always smelled foul, and always it was covered up. And yet she had learned to love this spot. She loved how busy it was during the day. Wares from across Skyrim, all right here, being sold by familiar faces. She might not have liked all of them, especially Grelka who had a sour attitude and a foolish business practice of selling to criminals. But the shopkeepers were so unique and awe inspiring to her. Mjoll had grown up in an isolated, rural place where wild game abounded and the roads were dirt or missing entirely. She had not seen a city until she was a young woman, at her father's side, selling furs for food. Urban life had enchanted her from the beginning. Shopping. Sightseeing. The history. The people. The smells. The lifestyle.
It was night now, however. The market was dead. The world was quiet except wind passing the corners of these old, disrepair-plagued buildings. No movement or life resonated here. It was all quiet. And Mjoll wondered if this was the ultimate fate of Riften; to go all quiet.
The frustration hit her and pathetically, Mjoll punched one of the well's beams.
"Don't break anything."
Mjoll whipped around. Deela again. This only added to her stacking of negative emotions. "It's plenty sturdy! Nothing will happen to this."
She put a hand on the warrior's shoulder, unaware of all the agony beneath the iron. "I meant your hand," coaxed a gentle tone. "Sorry for not clarifying."
Mjoll blushed and felt herself choke, lips twitching downward. She tried to recover. But everything was shit right now.
Deela the Vigilant handed Mjoll a bottle of ale. It was cold as frost and heavy to her right now. "Let's have a drink, hm? Just for a while."
They found themselves leaning out on the fence, looking down at the canal waters, so thick with sludge it hardly seemed liquid at all some days. A ragged sigh escaped Mjoll's chapped lips. She glugged her drink and contemplated tossing it down there. But that would be wrong. She abstained.
"I heard from the locals that you're the city's self-proclaimed protector. It sounds like a big job. And a noble one. I can't imagine ever staying in one place for so long or being entirely committed to a single cause. You must love this place."
"Sometimes I think I hate it." Mjoll rested her chin on her arms. "But I do love it. Riften has so many good qualities and so much potential. But then... everything gets in the way..."
"I understand." Deela smiled. In spite of her unattractive qualities, she did have a nice smile. Mjoll's grin was a strong, warm wind. Deela's was a light breeze in early spring. "I hope, though... I hope you understand how valued you are around here."
"I do," came the sarcastic cluck. Mjoll knew she was a thorn in everybody's side. She was intimidating but not helpful. She could not catch the scavengers nor defeat the predators. She wondered if her efforts had actually helped those damn thieves. She was disgusted with herself.
Deela snorted. "Sure you do, blondie." She polished off her ale. "I had about ten of these bastards tell me they didn't need my help because they felt 'safe enough just knowing Mjoll is around'. When I spoke to the Jarl, she even called you a champion of her hold. Helping these people is like trying to squeeze milk out of a stone, and they're only happy with your hands around their pin necks."
Mjoll's eyes were wide. "You... You mean that?"
The Vigilant nodded.
For a moment, she felt better. Mjoll smiled. Oh, she needed to smile. But then she looked back to the canal and it faded into the shadows of her scarred face. "I'm failing them, then."
"You're one person trying to do the job of an army."
"You seem to be doing a lot more than me."
"Like I said, it's because you took the hard job." She smiled again. "Besides, I'm good at pulling teeth and making evil people cry. Wouldn't have survived as a Vigilant otherwise."
"I heard the Hall burned down." Mjoll regretted the statement as soon as it left her tongue. She was trying to make conversation, but instead she sounded so aggressive.
Deela seemed regretful, her joy dissipating, but hardly offended. "It did." She set her empty bottle on Bran-Shei's unoccupied stand. "Vampires set the fire and started the slaughter. I was one day out when it happened, and when I got there... I was the first to see the carnage."
"I'm sorry... You were lucky, though."
"I suppose." She sighed.
There a long pause, both parties trying to consider how to proceed. Ideas came slowly, either from hesitation over the topic and its possibly offense, or lack of any words at all. But Mjoll, ever talkative, broke their silence with a query. "What do you think of the Thieves Guild?"
"I don't like it." She sighed. Deela glared into the dark water at where her reflection would be. "I don't like the stealing or the desperation here. I don't like how they operate in this poor environment, taking advantage of the dumb and helpless. I don't like them getting away with this business enough to grow into an organized tumor."
Mjoll breathed easy. "I'm starting to like you."
"Don't get used to it. I've been told my sparkling personality doesn't hold up over long periods of time."
The Lioness chuckled.
"Anyways. I thought you should be sleeping. You get up at the ass crack of dawn every day."
"I can't sleep."
"You look sick."
"Then you're always so on edge?"
Mjoll blushed again. "It's only because of the sleep." Her mind kept assaulting her. How long had it been since she truly rested? A few months, she thought. Ever since Maven got that poisonous smile on her face. So this was a world of insomnia; dull senses always on alert.
It was then that her new Imperial friend turned to her and patted her back. "Take some medicine and get your mind back into place after a full night’s sleep."
"Oh, no thank you. I don't much like the idea."
"Well, then you should probably find some extra time in your day to just relax and focus on your own needs. Selflessness is a sickness, too, when taken too far." She patted Mjoll’s shoulder again, and winked. “Sweet dreams, Lioness. I hope I’m in them.”
Mjoll scoffed, but with a grin. The weight began to lift.