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Steps in the Snow

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“And where'd you say you were from again?”

“Winterhold. Ah, well, the Reach originally, but I’ve been in Winterhold for—”

“Thought you said you were from Riverwood.”

“I’m coming from Riverwood, yes, through the Rift, but I’m from the Reach. The far east Druadachs. I just lived in Winterhold for a number of years.”

“And you don’t know anyone in the city? Nobody you’re staying with?”

“No, I’ve no family here. Or friends. This is my first time to Windhelm.”

“Then how are you supposed to know our laws, eh? Supposing I let you in and you cause trouble. We’ve already got more’n enough on our hands.”

Laughing heartily, you point out, “Then I’d be thrown out on my ass, and I’m the last one who needs that.”

The humour is all a show: see, breaking the law is funny to you, not even a remote concern, that’s how friendly and peaceable you are. A friendly, friendly vagabond elf who smiles through an hour of interrogation while Nord travellers go in and out of Windhelm’s gates unhindered. You don't mind at all that you’ve been made to stand in the cold wind and colder stares.

The guard doesn’t look impressed.

“Look,” you say, reasonable as can be, “I promise I won’t be here for long. I just need to visit the market, buy more supplies, spend my coin, get a few nights’ rest. I really don’t want any trouble. I swear it.”

The guard leans back against the wall, thumps his spear butt a bit. “Swear by the Divines,” he says at last, like it’s a challenge.

For some Dunmer, maybe. Not for you.

“By the Nine,” you say clearly, holding up a hand in oath. “I won’t be any trouble, sir.”

Either the promise, the Talos worship, or the flattery does it. “Go on, then. And if I see anyone dragging you out this gate, I’ll throw you in the river myself.”

You hitch up your heavy pack and hurry through the gates before he can change his mind. As soon as you’re through, safely hidden in the crowd, your lip curls in the snarl you’ve been suppressing since the guard said Too many elves in this city already, that’s the problem, so just you bite your tongue and answer the question.

Bullies, your mother’s voice says in your mind, are the same everywhere. Give them a taste of power and they want more. Give them a taste of pain and they want more. And if you insist on fighting a bully, you angry little nix, you’d better be sure you take all his power. Otherwise the next person along will get all his rage at you. Use your head. Be smart. Not everything is a fight.

All right Lleros. Chin up. Shake it off. You’ve got money to make, if you want to be able to repair the holes in your boots, and by Effra, you are hungry. Where’s a friendly face? You’ll need directions to the market square, maybe a good inn where you can pick up news and work—

“You damn greyskin,” spits a man very nearby. Struck dumb with rage, you whip around to see who.

After a moment, you realize nobody was talking to you. The entire broad avenue in front of Windhelm’s gates is bustling with people, and in all that crowd, there’s only one other grey face: a woman, tall and bony. Two Nord men have her backed up against the eastern wall of the avenue— not right up to the stones, no, not so that you could look accusingly at a guard and demand they do something, but close enough that the woman is standing there, fists clenched and taking it rather than walking freely away.

“You come here where you're not wanted,” the one is complaining, “you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink, and you refuse to help the Stormcloaks."

Stink. Your jaw works. How many times have you heard that, from friends who wouldn’t listen when you said it was only blisterwort or juniper juice staining your hands? As if you don’t bathe. As if you could wash your skin and come out less grey.

“But we haven’t taken a side because it’s not our fight,” the woman says. She’s defending herself, true, but she’s looking at the crowd, looking for help, and people are just streaming by, walking around you and past her, like they don’t see, can’t hear, and you just want to—

You lock eyes with the woman.

Be smart, your mother says. You’ll have to write her a letter and tell her that sometimes you do listen.

“Auntie!” you sing out, darting through the crowd. You pass so close to the fuming Nord that you could stab him right in his damn kidneys (no, Lleros) and swan in to link arms with the Dunmer woman. Your back’s not quite to him, not to a man this angry, but you’re certainly ignoring him, being bright and oblivious and disruptive. “There you are! I wasn’t sure you’d still be waiting, I’m so sorry I’m late.”

Her hand tightens on your wrist. “Quite all right,” she says, voice measured, eyes flicking carefully over your shoulder.

“Come on, we should go. I’ve already kept you waiting.”

“Of course.”

“Hey,” says the other Nord, scraggly and less imposing.

“I’m hungry,” you prattle on, shouldering right past him with the woman on your arm, safely away from the Nords. “My feet are about to fall off, I swear. I said—”

“You damn greyskin,” snarls the big Nord, heavy and bearded, hot on the back of your neck. “Go back to Morrowind!"

“I said,” you carry on unsteadily, “I said I’d walk because I didn’t want to pay for a carriage, but next time, you know, I think, I think I will. It’s not worth it.”

“Go on, little spy!” shouts the bearded Nord behind you. “Maybe we’ll pay you a visit tonight. We got ways of finding out what you really are.”

The woman digs her nails violently into your hand.

She steers you into the cool dimness of an arched tunnel through the stone. A side-street, less busy. Away from the crowd. Safer.

“Animals,” she mutters at last, releasing held breath and venom.

“Bullies,” you say. You hear the word but barely feel it. Your face feels numb. You’d swear you could still feel the man snarling on the back of your neck, though it’s covered against the Skyrim cold by your hair and two scarves.

The woman disentangles her arm from yours. Her regard is careful, somehow cool despite the embered heat of her eyes. “Well,” she says, audibly shaken even beneath her attempt at composure, “I suppose I should thank you for that.”

You take a deep breath, shaking your head clear. “It’s nothing. I just… I can’t believe nobody else said anything. The guards, they just stood there.”

“Most people around here wouldn’t stick their necks out for a dark elf.” She says the words the way Nords often do: like milk drinker, like coward. “You’re braver than most. I’d be careful if I were you, my friend. This isn’t a city for brave young Dunmer.”

“I’m not that young!”

She smiles for the first time, though it’s annoyingly indulgent. You burn with embarrassment, made worse by your indignant, childish little slip than her initial insult. Attempting to distract from it, you say, “They don’t… Do they do that often?”

“Rolff and his tagalong?” She sighs. “Nothing new there. Most of the Nords living in Windhelm don't care much for us, but Rolff is the worst by far. He likes to get drunk and walk around the Gray Quarter yelling insults at us in the small hours of the morning. A real charmer, that one.”

You feel sick. And you wish you’d punched him in the face back there, instead of talking. Or possibly the kidney.

“Is this your first time in Windhelm?” she asks. Is it obvious, just because you’re surprised by this? You’d heard bad things about Windhelm, but you’d taken them for slander against Ulfric Stormcloak. If even half of them are true... “You've come to the wrong city, then. Windhelm's a haven of prejudice and narrow thinking, unworthy of one such as you."

Your flush of pleasure can’t drown out lingering unease. “I’m sorry,” you say. “That it happens, I mean.”

“It’s hardly your fault.”

“I know. I’m still sorry.” You pause and look both ways down the street. “I… Will you be all right to go from here? I still need to go to the market.”

“I’ll be just fine. Don’t trouble yourself, my friend. Ah— your name?”

“Lleros. Ulawayn.”

“I am Suvaris Atheron. You may always come and drink with me. I’m at the New Gnisis most nights.”

“Where’s that?”

“Down in the Grey Quarter. Ask anyone.” Suvaris hesitates and steps in closer to you, head tilted in invitation. “We have markets of our own, you know. There’s the Yellow Market in the Middle, and the daymarket and shops up by the Rivergate. And Sadri’s Used Wares, of course.”

Markets of our own— but who’s ‘our’? Dunmer? This… might be the first time you’ve been counted as part of the group by another elf, not just humans. But if Suvaris thinks you know anything about, about Morrowind, or… well, she’ll be disappointed. As disappointed as your parents. And you’re queerly embarrassed at the very thought of being among actual Dunmer. It’s the embarrassment of exposure, of being underdressed in front of a mocking crowd; and it’s the hot guilty embarrassment of association whenever your mother wears bright red embroidery on foreign holidays or your father mutters Dunmeris to himself in public. You’re ashamed to feel that way, but you still do.

“I’ll come later,” you say, unsure if you’re lying or not. You bow to Suvaris deeper than is necessary, trying to assuage your guilt. “Be safe.”

“Azura’s wisdom guide you, my friend. Be careful in this city.”

Hearing a stranger praise a Daedric Prince out loud is another jolt. Your mother might swear by the Good Daedra and half of Oblivion (and all of their balls, when she’s really angry), but she’s a class all her own; your father always twisted your ear for blasphemy if you used a name beyond a few select saints, Daedra and Divines in the appropriate context. You’re usually careful to keep your words to the Daedra limited and inside your own head.

Buzzing with strange energy— the shock and tantalization of a new city, new people, new things to discover, no matter how alarming they are— you retrace your steps to the gates. This time, the Nord bullies are gone. Rather than asking anyone, you follow the general flow of the crowd to the western side of the avenue. Eventually, as you find yourself safely ignored in the noisy crowd, you start to relax into the bright fascination of exploration.

Windhelm is old, and solid in a way that you’ve never seen anywhere but Markarth. Perhaps Winterhold was like this a century ago, but it has fallen. Windhelm feels like it could never fall, no more than could the Throat of the World. Everything is built of granite, dark and ornately graven everywhere with words, dates, ancient blessings, geometric patterns, faces and muzzles of god-things that were ambiguous and strange even in the old times. The streets are named by huge runes carved into the stone underfoot even deeper than centuries of walk-wear, their raw Nordic names more enduring than the Empire-touched language that evolved around them: Valunstrad, Blunstrad, Thuurdrun. The broad streets are lined by workshops that have been in place for centuries, judging by the dates carved over their doors: furriers, tailors, carpenters, whitesmiths. Still, you carry on walking until the towering stone buildings open up into a huge market.

Past the oppressive heat blasting out of a final open-air forge, the market is bright and cool and brilliant. Every market is. There’s little you love more in a city. Your growling stomach leads you to a pair of girls roasting skewered meat over a pan of coals. Then, chewing your rabbit and trying not to drip grease on your scarves, you enter the bustle of the stalls.

It takes a good hour to circle the market, to see everything there is on offer for just a few seconds, not letting yourself be swayed by entreaties to browse. Patience, mother says in your ear. Nothing worse than selling at one stall and finding better prices ten steps away.

“Adventurer, eh?” says the blademonger you finally choose on your second pass through.

You smile like her knives. “And a successful one.”

Iron and steel you sell to the blademonger, and a matched set of orichalcum axes to the specialist farther along. Pendants and rings you take to an enchanter, arguing that she can have them cheaper from you than through a jeweller. One furrier wants your uncured hides for nearly nothing; you scowl him off and sell to the hooting competitor three stalls down, who at least doesn’t seem intent on turning fox furs into leather just because they’ve got arrow punctures in them. Little by little, one dicker at a time, you reap the fruits of your travelling in coin.

The only things you don’t try to sell, sitting wrapped in fur at the very bottom of your pack, are the dragon bones.

With your pack mercifully lightened, the last stop you make is at an alchemy shop. There were a few stalls selling potions, but they refused your stock because… well, you’re the first to admit that the concoctions brewed up over campfires by adventurers are not often the safest or purest of potions. Bottles without an intact seal and a quality maker’s mark are sometimes not worth the risk. A real alchemist, though, will often buy, test, and re-bottle what’s good, or simply buy questionable stock for the charmed shatter-proof bottle it comes in.

The first thing that strikes you about the alchemy shop is the smell. It’s rampantly fragrant— Brelyna calls it reeking— from the open alchemy lab in the corner. It’s the smell of home, your home away from home found in the shop where you apprenticed, the dark quiet corners of a hundred scattered inns. Thousands of glass and ceramic jars glint dully on the shop’s walls. Even once your eyes adjust to the shop’s dimness, however, you can’t see anyone behind the counter. Then, through the ceiling, an elderly voice grumbles, “I’ll be fine.”

“Master, you're far too old for this sort of journey. We don't know what's inside.”

“I'll…” The old man breaks into a crackling cough that makes you wince, imagining the state of his lungs. “I can… just…”

“You see, you're not well! Have a seat and I'll fetch you some tonic.”

“Bah! If there was a tonic that could help me, I would have found it by now.”

Wincing with the knowledge that the elderly alchemist is likely right, you don’t knock or call the apprentice to attend you. Let him do whatever he can to help his master first. When the footsteps overhead have stopped circling, however, you call out, “Hello?”

“There, you see?” snaps the old man. “There’s work to do. Stop hovering over me and get to it!”

The harried apprentice scrambles down the stairs so quickly you fear for his neck. You greet him with a grimace of apology. “Cranky masters, eh?” you whisper.

He blows out a breath and combs fingers through his impressive auburn sideburns. “You can say that again,” he whispers back, even more quietly. “Which College?”

“Winterhold. Master Aren was a terror when his elbows were aching. Didn’t like to admit there was anything bad about getting old.”

“But you learn from them, don’t you.”

“By the gods, do you learn.”

Grinning crookedly, he coughs and raises his voice to say, “Welcome to the White Phial. I’m Quintus. What can I help you with?”

“Potions to sell, and some to buy.”

Quintus hems and haws over the bottles you arrange on the counter. He’s clearly met too many adventurers like you to ask how you came by all these potions, though he does poke one especially blood-stained label with raised eyebrows. Some bottles still have proper labels from their original shops, watermarked or dirty as those labels are; other potions are identifiable only by their red, blue, or green dyes. A nondescript few get set aside for Quintus to crack and test, one cautious drop at a time.

The first drop on his tongue makes him instantly spit and reach for an antidote. For the next potion, he pauses thoughtfully, jaw working as he channels magic through his mouth, trying to activate and identify the individual ingredients.

“Invisibility,” you advise him, because his head has started going blurrily transparent.

Quintus tries to haggle for the price, but you keep smiling and joking about apprenticeship. It’s terribly hard to gouge someone who makes you laugh, especially when they might be the first friendly face you’ve seen in a week of working your fingers to the bone. In the end, you have to work very hard to keep from looking smug at the price Quintus agrees to. That would defeat your whole purpose, and on top of that, it would be rude.

Beaming, you wander back through the market with an empty pack and a much-replenished purse. You can practically feel the coin burning a hole through your pocket. It’s been at least a month since you saw a proper market, more than a few villagers selling fish and bread, and now you want everything in this dizzying array of treasures. There are soft wool tunics, warm socks knitted in two-colour patterns, silver chains and copper wristbands, tiny vials of liquid gold perfume, beads of bone and stone, razors, scarves, candied nuts…

That’s quite enough, father says in your mind, as you crunch a little guiltily on a mouthful of sugar-crusted acorns. The lovely thing about travelling on your own, though, is that you get to decide what to spend your coppers on.

Much of the afternoon has gone while you were selling. Spindrift from the rooftops glitters gold in the failing sunlight. The high-end vendors and shops are starting to pack up, though others will stay open a while longer in hopes of a little more coin. It might be better to do your shopping tomorrow.

“Pardon,” you ask a bored guard, “how do I find the Grey Quarter?”

He looks at you like you’ve spat on his boots. “The Grey Quarter? Whip yourself out, take a piss, and follow it downhill, elf. You'll find the Grey Quarter.”

Shock leaves you speechless. You want to protest, but he’s a guard. Unable to collect yourself, you turn and walk off unsteadily.

That’s what Suvaris called it, right? The Grey Quarter. Oh, for— is that a nickname, something the Dunmer just call it? Grey, like it’s theirs. Or maybe you’re the twentieth fool today to ask for those directions, when all you had to do was look at the street names. Maybe that’s why he snapped.

But the way he looked at you…

Unsettled, you keep shuffling down the broadest streets, only halfway attentive to the signs and wares. You’re not sure you want to see the Grey Quarter now. Or Suvaris. Or any of the guards, for that matter, not that you have a choice about where they stand and keep watch in their sullen blue and cold iron mail.

On the other side of the Valunstrad, by a smaller set of city gates, you find the remains of another marketplace. This one is also packing up for the night. The stalls are smaller, the wares distinctly more scattered— except when it comes to fish, of which there are many. There are far more Dunmer here, more Redguards and Imperials, even a few Orcs and two tiny Bosmer armorers. It’s a far cry from the huge Nordic market uptown. This, then, would be the Rivergate market Suvaris told you about. Now that you’re here, you’re sorry you missed it.

“Clear out!” a guard is shouting, as he strides through the bustle. “Everything gone by five bells, you know the rule!”

Nobody much reacts, like they do already know the rule. Another bully trying to throw his weight around, then. As if to confirm your thought, a Breton tinmonger spits behind the guard’s back.

You give her a wide berth. You suddenly want to give everyone such a wide berth that you veer right out through the Rivergate and onto the docks.

There’s enough winter ice in the choppy river that the air doesn’t stink of rotting fish and green slime, just clean salt and the occasional plume of smoke from a brazier, and the faint smell of cooking food. The docks aren’t as crowded as the city streets, but it’s a close call. The sun’s not gone yet, so there are plenty of people are still working.

Argonians working, you realize. Heavy, scaly tails poke out from under skirts and shawls on every person hauling crates and ropes and cargo nets. Your foot stutters on the stone. You’re not sure you want to be on the docks either, now. You might not know how to act around fellow Dunmer, but Argonians…

Dammit. You can’t just turn around and return the way you came like an idiot. There’s food cooking somewhere; you can buy some and then go back into the city.

(Though much good that would do! Dunmer in the Grey Quarter, surly guards on every street, Argonians on the docks, and Nords everywhere, with no sign of who might be next to snarl at you. What kind of city is this?)

Hands shoved in your pockets against the chill wind, you shuffle down the docks. The first time you step too close to a group of Argonians carrying crates, two of them flare their feathers like awful birds and hiss alarmingly and oh, Divines, you were trying not to think about mother muttering terrifying stories about her past but these lizards look every bit the child-chewing nightmares she told you about. After that, you keep well away from anyone working; you’re sure they would knock you over if you were in the way.

There. There’s an Argonian with fish, little silver fingerlings he’s pulling out of his pockets; he must be cooking them on that brazier and—

Oh. No. He’s swallowing them raw and whole.

You stare too long. He catches your eye and pulls his lips back to bare every jagged tooth.

Walk. Walk, walk, keep walking.

“Clams! Hot clams! Mussels and clams, hot and fresh!”

It’s a relief to see that the gathered crowd is entirely Nords, tars and fishers fresh from a day on the river. The smell of hot butter and leeks is mouth-watering. You squeeze into the press of damp wool gratefully—

Only to come face to face with yet another Argonian. She’s the gravel-voiced woman hawking the food, which is sizzling away in a shallow pot nestled into the brazier’s coals. Is it a woman, then? A high-voiced man? How are you supposed to tell? What if you say something wrong?

“Ten coppers a plate,” croaks another Argonian, startling you. This one’s crouched low beside the brazier with a second pot between his knees and a crate of wet wooden plates next to him.

“Um.” Jostled by the sailors, you fumble for the money, for small enough coins. The best you can find in the stuffed purse is a half-silver. You offer it vaguely at the crouching Argonian, only for the woman to pluck it away with her clawtips.

“Five plates?” she rasps. “Hungry fellow, aren’t you!” Her words are broken-throated singsong, and you can’t tell if it’s meant to sound cheerful or mocking or threatening.

“Uh. Two?”

That turns out to be ten shellfish, covered in shredded leeks and dripping with butter. When you edge away to eat with your back against a stack of crates, you notice that plenty of the sailors are buying three and four plates’ worth at a time. Some of them still complain that it’s too expensive. The high-voiced Argonian bows her head and shrugs her shoulders, murmuring dissuasions: it’s Sun’s Dawn, the fishing isn’t good right now, it’s the best they can do.

The sailors gulp their food, talking amongst themselves, and toss the plates, shells and all, in another crate nearby. A very small Argonian scrabbles to pick up stray shells from the icy stones. Her feathers— you want to say that this one is female, for some reason— puff up hugely when she hefts up the full crate and staggers off to the water’s edge with it, struggling gamely beneath the bulk.

She’s a child, you realize.

“More for you?” asks the Argonian woman. (Woman, you decide. After all, beneath her cloak of patched-together shawls, she’s wearing a dress.)

“Thank you,” you say shyly, stepping forward to offer your plate back.

She takes your dish of garbage shells and gives you a new plate. She filled it with ten more shellfish, maybe a little presumptuous in trying to sell more, but you hand over the coppers anyway.

Self-conscious, you say, “It’s very good.”

She clasps her hands and bobs a little bow, scaly lips stretching to bare all her teeth. It’s a smile, you realize after a moment. “Our very best, right out of the river. Fresh every day.”

You nod, bite your lip, glance around the docks. Lamely, you offer, “Chilly out today.”

Still making that rictus of teeth, she bobs her head again. “Good honest work staves off the cold.” When the other Argonian crouched next to the brazier rattles in his throat, she nudges him with her tail. He glances at you from the corner of one cold eye, peels his teeth bare and nods jerkily.

Stirring and scraping her pot with a wooden ladle, she carries on rasping, "Shahvee knows the dock doesn't look nice, but fresh air is good for the gills. And it’s nearly spring, so the fishing will be better soon."

“Oh— Shahvee, is that— that’s your name? I’ve met Khajiit who talk like that. Putting your name first, I mean. If that’s...”

She’s nodding along again like her neck is on a perpetual hinge. You shut your babbling mouth. “Yes, I’m Shahvee. I’ve never met any Khajiit, though. They don’t cross the bridge, and we don’t leave the docks.”

That’s… sad, really. “Oh,” you say. “Oh.”

The girl Argonian comes puffing back with the crate of plates, now empty and wet. The one beside the brazier stirs to toss clean plates into his own crate, giving the child a claw-scrape along her jaw in passing. She scrabbles over to Shahvee and makes a whistly peeping, head feathers fluffed once more. She looks like a bird begging, but… with, maybe, the deliberate charm of a child newly knowing how to plead.

“Out loud,” Shahvee croons.

“C’n’I’ave some?”

“Is that words?” you blurt, and are immediately mortified. “I mean— what she said before, is that your language?”

The crouching Argonian is giving you another cold, unblinking stare, but Shahvee is nodding, smiling at you even as she hands the child a steaming clam pinched in delicate clawtips.

“All children know the egg-language even before they hatch,” Shahvee rasps. “Words come later, but it’s good we can understand them before they learn how to talk.”

That’s how this works, you realize. Shahvee agrees with everything you say. She nods and bows no matter what. She lets the Nords harangue her for even cheaper food, and lets you blather any stupid, insulting thing you think of— is that words, like the child was a barking dog, an especially clever pet raven— and she keeps on smiling.

“That’s amazing,” you say, and you make yourself mean it. “I mean, if I could understand a crying baby, I wouldn’t be half as scared of them as I am. How old is she?”

“Three years,” Shahvee says, stroking her claw along the child’s jaw again. “His parents work for the Shatter-Shields. Very hard workers.”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I thought—” Don’t say couldn’t tell— “That’s a lovely dress.”

Shahvee takes the empty clam shell and gives the little boy another. He busily scoops the meat out with the teeth of his lower jaw, a quick neat stroke that leaves the shell scraped clean. While he’s occupied, Shahvee tugs a fold of his dress to display the wide drape of fabric, the tight seams, the patchwork painstakingly arranged into pattern rather than a random jumble of rag-bin scraps.

“Good for egg-children with growing tails! Weaves-the-Thread made it,” Shahvee says proudly. “He mends sails for the Nords, and clothing for us. You too, if you need it,” she adds, with an encouraging little dip of her head.

All it does is make the pit of your stomach colder and sicker. It’s desperate and sad, the way she keeps praising herself, her fellow Argonians, trying to remind you at every opportunity that they’re good workers, ready and able, willing to take any little bit of labour you might have. Friendly, friendly people, smiling and nodding no matter what. And worst of all is that she’s doing this for you.

You’re the Nord at the gate. You’re the clueless bully, and she’s paying you politeness for survival.

Sad, slow, you say, “People here aren’t kind to you, are they.”

You can tell you startled her, because for once, Shahvee doesn’t just nod along. She blinks hard, white membranes slipping sideways across her pupils. At last, she says, “Skyrim isn't very friendly for Argonians. We mostly just keep out of the way.” The words are quieter, flatter, without that sing-song croon. You think it might be the most honest thing she’s said to you.

“The Nords treat us like shit,” spits the crouching Argonian unexpectedly. He’s rough-edged in more than his voice, rubbed raw and belly-full of swallowed rage. He might hate you but you know what it’s like to be him, on your worst days in bad company.

“It’s not so bad,” Shahvee says, glancing quickly at you.

“They treat us like slaves!”

“We’re paid and you know it.”

“Paid nothing. Paid silver when Nords get gold!”

“What’s all this, now?”

Another Argonian is hurrying over, chastening, glancing around as much to take in the argument as to check if any of the sailors have noticed. His gait is unsettling: he moves with long swooping strides that look weirdly like swimming. You suppose it’s not surprising, given that he’s Argonian, but still hard for your eyes to make sense of.

“I’m sorry,” you say, because the last thing you want right now is to see another Argonian ducking and apologising. “I didn’t mean to cause a fight.”

“It’s not your fault,” Shahvee says, “Teem-Ra is just being sour.”

Teem-Ra outright growls, and it is not your fault for thinking he sounds like an animal, dangerous. He clearly intends to. The new Argonian only glances at Teem-Ra. He absently accepts the hug to his thighs that the child gives him, but ignores the boy’s half-chirping babble, turning his attention to you.

“Anyone can start a fight with Teem-Ra,” he says tiredly. (She says? You’re so bad at this.) He’s got the smoothest voice of them all, low and melodic, nearly burrless. But Azura, he’s also got horns, sharp and curled. You didn’t know Argonians had horns. Don’t stare, Lleros.

“As if you don’t hate Shatter-Shield too!” Teem-Ra snarls.

“It’s no good complaining about it,” Shahvee says, even as the horned Argonian shuts his eyes with a groan.

“He wants to make boots of us,” Teem-Ra accuses.

You stare in horror. “What?”

“He calls us boots,” the horned Argonian corrects, but he still sounds bitter. After all, that's hardly better! “And walks on us like them, too.”

“He doesn’t pay you properly?”

Shahvee clicks in her throat, a noise that you want to interpret as distress. Without another word, she takes her almost-empty pot of shellfish out of the brazier coals and walks off, head high. You want to apologize for upsetting her, but the horned Argonian is shaking his head.

“Next to nothing,” he says bitterly. “I wish someone would beat the coin out of his fat fists. He clings to every septim. He says an Argonian’s labor is only worth a tenth of a 'proper Nord worker.' My people are not slaves!”

“No,” is all you can murmur in agreement, stunned and appalled. “No. Definitely not.”

And you may not know a damn thing about Argonians, you may be as clueless and flinchy and stupid-tongued as any backwater Nord child gaping at an elf for the first time, but you are not a Nord. Not when it comes to this. You know better. And these browbeaten people are not the monsters who kidnapped mother from Morrowind and kept her captive for years in a stinking swamp. There’s only one thing you can say.

“Can I help?”

The horned Argonian blinks, slick white film flicking across his eyes.

“Is there anything I can do?” you forge on. “I’m not from Windhelm. I’ve been travelling, taking work here and there where people want help. If there’s anything you need, I can try. I’ll do my best. Anything.”

“Not from Windhelm, eh?” he says slowly. He looks down at the child, who is still absently clutching the hem of his shirt and watching the evening’s last boats haul in on the docks. “That explains it.”

Because this city still shocks you. Everyone else here has been ground down into accepting it. They’re weary to abuse in a way that you’ve never seen from outcasts in other cities, whether elves or Imperials or mages. Even the Khajiit in Ri’saad’s caravan wouldn’t accept being skin-flinted for their wares or services, wouldn’t stoop and beg for a few extra coppers. They bore rumour and accusation and exclusion, but they still hadn’t been reduced as far as these Argonians. They knew their worth, and still had the strength to defend it.

At last, the horned Argonian shrugs stiffly. “You can try,” he says, “but we've gotten nowhere talking to him ourselves."

“And what if you make it worse?” demands Teem-Ra. This time you don’t think his bared teeth are a smile at all.

“I won’t. I swear.”

“What are you going to do?”

You flush with embarrassment. Normally when people ask you for help, they have something very specific that needs doing, or you have time to puzzle out an approach before wading in. Normally, the problem is as simple as hunting, fetching and gathering, settling an argument or a bet. Not getting a man to treat his workers like people. “I’ll… Well...”

Both grown Argonians are waiting, Teem-Ra with a vicious set to his jaw. Oh, this is what mother meant when she told you to stop jumping in without looking, isn’t it. Effra’s toes. Tits.

There’ll be no pressuring Shatter-Shield, you think. Not over a business matter. That’s liable to get you thrown in jail— if not worse, given what you’ve heard and seen of Windhelm. You… probably can’t make a bet and settle the matter with a fistfight. You can’t tease him into it. Maybe… if he’s drunk… but then when he sobers up— and Azura help you, what would you even say? You’ve been in the city for one day, known about the problem for two minutes; how could you possibly convince a man to—

Oh,” you shout, struck by inspiration like a bolt directly from Azura, and it is, praise her, it is Azura’s wisdom: knowledge that flashes fully formed into your mind from the murk of half-thought and unknowable insight. “I know!”

The horned Argonian’s feathers shot up between his horns when you shouted, to say nothing of the alarmed whistle from the child, but you haven’t the time to be polite.

“I have to go,” you say, “I’m sorry, I have to go back before the store closes, I need a potion. I’m going to— I’ll do it, I promise, I just have to go. Azura guide you!”

“Don’t run!” shouts the horned Argonian, already ten steps behind you. You stumble to a stop and look back at him in bafflement. “They’ll think you’re stealing,” he says more quietly, resigned and awful. “Your kind don’t get away with running any more than we do.”

All you can manage, shaken yet again, is, “Bless you.” And you stride off— walking, damn this city. Going as fast as you can, but walking.

By mercy or luck, you make it all the way back to the market square before the White Phial closes. On the way, you were prickingly aware of guards watching you hurry by, helmeted heads swivelling to follow, but you smiled and nodded and nobody stopped you. You arrive sweaty and stressed, and Quintus looks up from behind the counter with obvious bemusement.

“Quintus,” you say, relieved, pleased, warm as you can be. “Quintus, I’m so glad. I made a mistake. I need one of my potions back.”

“Of course you can buy it back,” he says, eyebrows raised. “Which one?”

“The Philter of Glibness.”

“Ah!” he says lightly, and skims a finger down the open register that he was writing in. “Three hundred and… seventeen gold.”

Quintus,” you utter, dismayed. “I sold it to you for forty-five!”

“Fifty-five, and it was made by the Alchemists Guild in Whiterun. Master Nurelion set the prices higher for guild stock. We’ve been low since the war started, and demand is high.”

You put your hands on the counter near his, leaning in. “Quintus, please.” Under your pleading stare, he starts to look awkward. “I only just sold it to you an hour ago. Couldn’t you trade it back, as if we hadn’t...?”

“I already recorded the sale!” he protests, gesturing at the register. “Master Nurelion is meticulous about the books being correct. If he sees I’m going around crossing things out—”

“Will he see, though? He seems so busy with his own work. He leaves the books all up to you, doesn’t he?”

Quintus looks distressed, but obviously not convinced of the wisdom of breaking Nurelion’s rules— no more than you would be easily persuaded to disobey Master Colette. You have been persuaded, though. Before Quintus can marshal his next refusal, you channel Brelyna’s ceaseless badgering and Onmund’s sad, sad face.

“It’s just that I promised my father I’d get the money he was owed back from his supplier,” you say in a rush, “and I thought she’d be reasonable since I came all this way to ask, but I’d never been to Windhelm, and now I’ve met the woman and I don’t think I can do it on my own, not without that potion. She’s not reasonable, she’s... I didn’t think people here would be so…”

You don’t finish, because your distress is not feigned and you don’t yet have the words for Windhelm. But it also leaves an opening for Quintus, an implication for him to fill in from his own experience. He’s an Imperial in a city of Stormcloaks; he must know something of how outsiders are treated. And surely, like you, he won’t want to treat another person like that if he can help it.

Quintus meets your desperate gaze, and he breaks.

“I’ll just tell him I made a mistake,” he mumbles. After a moment of fumbling beneath the counter, he comes up with the philter.

"Thank you so much.” You count your coin quickly, and stack an extra twenty septims next to the fifty-five for the philter. Quintus sweeps those into his pocket with a grunt, unsoothed.

He’s unhappy and you’re a liar, but it wasn’t for your own gain. “Thank you,” you say again, putting a warm hand on his forearm to interrupt his disgruntled paper-shuffling. “I mean it. I owe you. If I ever have spare stock, I’ll bring it right here.”

“At a discount,” he says. Still, he gives a reluctant smile. “Okay, go, before Master Nurelion wakes up. I’ve got to finish the register right away.”

With the philter wedged safely in your pack, you step back outside. The emptying market square is being taken over by lamplighters, ducking here and there to spark lanterns placed among the stalls for the night watch. At a nearby meat stall, however, one of the market’s few Dunmer proprietors reaches out a hand and lights his own lamp with a flaring fingertip. You catch his eye and exchange tired smiles. After the day you’ve had— gods, after the day he must have every day— you can’t help but look for some sort of solidarity.

Mother’s education from previous travels leads you back to the Valunstrad, Windhelm’s main avenue. Every city has inns at its center, the biggest and busiest. The most expensive, too, but that’s the price an adventurer pays for being at the hub of gossip. Wandering about as you are, you will always need news and leads on work to keep your purse full.

True, you have plans to travel south to Kynesgrove. You have to meet that… innkeeper, Delphine. But you’ve already killed the dragon she was so worried about: five days ago, at Bonestrewn Crest.

(Ranmaariisk, whispers your soul. Dry heat flashes over your skin. Dust. Sulfur. Shrieking.)

Momentarily shaken, you adjust the pack over your shoulder. The bones inside weigh like obligation. Like legend.

So as for Delphine, there’s no rush. You can meet her in a week or two and tell her that the dragon she’s waiting for is already dead. Let her wait. You’re still not sure you’ve forgiven her for stealing the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. Or for the tongue-lashing she gave you because you took a few months to track her down in Riverwood, when she was the one who stole the Horn from its rightful resting place to start with! Or for demanding yet more proof that you’re the Dragonborn. If the Greybeards recognized your Voice, why shouldn’t Delphine?

Maybe Ranmaariisk’s teeth will convince her. You’ll enjoy the look on her face.

In the dimming twilight, the Valunstrad’s stones are washed golden by firelight from braziers and windows. The buildings down the centre of the avenue are built like grand houses, with sloping roofs and ornate horn-and-glass windows, but nearly all of them have signs outside: The Arms, Royal Archive and Museum, The Kingsman’s Inn, Candlehearth Hall. You head for the last because you vaguely recall hearing some of the other older College mages talk about staying there when they travelled south, something about an enchanted candle.

The careworn Nord woman behind the counter takes one look at your and rolls her eyes. “Vagabond, are you?” she demands, before you can greet her. “Another Dark Elf, just what Windhelm needs.”

It’s another punch in the gut. Shocked and furious, you jerk your head high. A nasty retort is on you tongue.

Then you realize that she’s not the only pair of eyes on you: a couple of men at the counter are watching you in challenge, as are two or three patrons at the nearest tables. Nords, all. Not a friendly face among them.

Not here. Not in this city.

“I’d like a room for the night,” you say quietly. It’s that or slink out with your tail between your legs, which you will not.

Be polite, says mother, no matter what they do, and give them not a single coin more than you have to.

“Ten gold,” she says flatly. With her little horn-handled belt knife, she nicks the center of every septim you hand over. She doesn’t look an ounce more pleased to find that they’re all genuine.

“It’s yours for the day. I’ll show you the way.”

You follow her down the hall. She pushes back the fur curtain on a room crammed under the staircase, right next to the kitchen. From the looks of the floor, it used to be a storage room. Bitterly, you wonder if this is the only room available, or just the only one she’d give to a Dunmer.

“Great room’s upstairs, and we’ve bread and cheese if you’re looking for a bite to eat.” The words sound far more rote than welcome.

You clench your teeth and duck into the room. “Thank you. Your name, mistress?”

“Elda Early-Dawn.” She gives you another sour look up and down. You know what she sees: muddy boots, patched trousers, fray-cuffed shirt and unwashed hair. Your face, though, is what makes her mouth pinch. “Mind you don't play fresh with Susanna. She plays the flirt, but it's just to get good tips. And don't put out the candle on the hearth upstairs!”

She drops the curtain in your face and marches away, leaving you spluttering with inarticulate outrage. Two minutes you’ve been in the building, and been nothing but polite, and she’s worried you’ll molest the serving girl! Because you’re a dark elf, aren’t you? Because you’re a filthy slut, just like all your kind, grey and easy, never mind what you might personally think of sex, never mind that you’re not like that, not—

You hurl your pack onto the bed, soothed very little by its unsatisfying thump. “Give me patience,” you hiss, clutching the tangle of amulets around your throat.

Fuming, you strip out of your road-worn clothing and upend your pack onto the floor. Re-dressed in the least dirty things you can find, you snatch the washbasin from its stand and stalk into the hall. There’s a water barrel at the end of the hall, near a panel that clearly opens to fill the barrel from a hand-pump outside. This water might be scarcely less icy than that in the cistern outside, but you’ll be damned if you give Elda a single extra coin for a hot bath.

At least your cramped little room is kept plenty warm by the kitchen ovens one wall away. The stone frankly radiates heat. Naked and cursing under your breath, you start heating the water with a smokeless little fire from your fingertips. In any sensible city, you’d be done with bucket baths after paying good coin for an inn!

“Excuse me, hello?”

What?” you snarl.

The woman’s voice outside your curtain door hesitates. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting… I wondered if you’d like anything to eat or drink. I didn’t think Elda offered you any.”

Physically biting your cheek so that the pain keeps your temper in check, you hop back into your pants. “I’m fine,” you say, pulling the fur curtain back, “I don’t need—”

Those are. Very. She’s.

“Sorry,” you say, jerking your eyes up to her face. You fumble to tie your pants up.

The woman only looks amused, green eyes glittering in their kohl, but you’re humiliated. It’s not just the hot, immediate flush of attraction embarrassing you; it’s that you know better than to ogle someone beautiful, no matter if they’re dressed up like a priestess of Dibella. Did all those years volunteering with the Temple teach you nothing?

“Nothing for you to eat?” she says again, raising her eyebrows. “We’ve got fresh bread and some very good cheeses, and the night’s chowder is almost ready. I can bring it right to your room if you’d rather stay out of that sour crowd out there.”

She says the last with a smile that utterly breaks you, because it is sympathetic. Moreover, it’s sympathy coming from a Nord, and that’s a kindness you didn’t know you wanted so desperately until this very instant.

You might not want to give Elda coin, but you can’t bring yourself to turn this kindness down entirely. “Just the cheese. And some bread.”

“In your room?”

“Please.”

She winces, looking down the hall toward the front room. “Elda gave you quite a welcome, didn’t she.” For all her jewelry and shimmering powders, meant to make her look nothing but beautiful, in that moment she looks as sad and sorry as you feel, and almost as helpless. “I don’t know how she can hate dark elves so much when she knows so little about them. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“You know much about us?” It’s ironic, considering that you feel hesitant to even say us.

“I grew up in the Grey Quarter. There were always more dark elves around than Nords.” Then she shrugs and straightens up. “But I shouldn’t keep you. Would you like a bath as well?”

“No, no. I’ve got it. I’d rather not pay for that.” Before she can take your flash of irritation as a personal slight, you add, “But thank you. Could you bring my food in about half an hour?”

“Oh, here now,” interrupts a man’s voice, loud and disgusted. “Leave Susanna alone, you elf.” Glaring, an old man with a tremendous beard thumps down the last stair and comes toward you.

You jump, pulling the edge of the fur curtain across your bare chest with sudden self-consciousness. "I wasn’t doing anything!”

“Nolf—”

“Shor’s beard you weren’t. She doesn’t want to sleep with you.”

“Nolf!” Susanna puts her shoulder in his chest and edges him back a few steps, glaring from the height of his collarbones. “I was talking to him. Don’t you tell me how to do my job!”

“Don’t let him push you around,” Nolf says unrepentantly, still glowering at you over her head.

“Go on home,” Susanna says, “and worry about Midori instead of me.”

Those aren’t the rancid curses you want to splutter. Though you know why Susanna moderated her rebuke, treating Nolf as a paying customer no matter his behaviour, it doesn’t soothe your fresh bitterness. When Susanna throws an apologetic glance at you, you just mutter, “Half an hour,” and let the curtain fall shut.

It’s hard not to sulk while you bathe. Your feet alone turn the washwater brown. Still, you continue scrubbing your limbs with a rag and a block of soap, determined not to give cause for Elda and her lot to think you filthy as well as grey. Only when the water is swimming with scum do you tip it down the little grate in the floor— one benefit of being housed in a storage room, you suppose— and sneak back into the hall for fresh water. You’ll not wash your hair in that.

Susanna knocks tentatively on the door frame when you’re lying damply on the bed, your feet soaking in leftover hot water. You sit up and look at your wet feet. “Come in.”

Bearing a tray and a jug, Susanna swishes into the room. You look at the curtain that fell closed behind her, awkwardly saying, “Shouldn’t you…”

“Never mind that,” she says, then pauses in arranging the tray, jug, and a cup on top of the room’s storage chest. “Unless you’d rather I left it open?”

“They’ll talk, won’t they,” you mutter, looking away. You start drying one foot with a scrap of tundra cotton towel.

“They’ll talk about Susanna the Wicked no matter what,” she says. A wry note in her voice makes you look up, pricked with empathy.

“And about us greyskins,” you say, mouth twisting around the slur. The sympathetic glance Susanna gives you takes away a surprising amount of the sting. “Is that water?”

“Ale. On the house. It’s the least Elda can do.”

And despite your bitterness, your exhaustion, a disbelieving smile comes to your mouth. “They call you wicked? You’re the kindest person I’ve met in this city.”

Susanna smiles back. It’s crooked, warm, not at all flirtatious. “My mother called me that since I was little. I’d be running about in the street with the other children and she’d come out hollering, ‘Come here, you wicked girl!’” She does the same vocal impression of her mother than every wry child does, yourself included.

You huff a little laugh along with her. Apparently inclined to stay, Susanna props her bum comfortably against the wall. You’re surprised to find that you don’t mind the idea of conversation with her, even after this long, tiring day. So you edge from the bed to the single chair, feet still bare since you’d rather not stick them back into dirty socks. The chair is too tall to work with the chest as a table, but it’s all your room has.

On the plate there’s a beautiful assortment of cheese wedges, arranged alongside two seed-spackled rolls, a lump of yellow butter, and a few slices of pickled beet. When you gesture at Susanna to share, she winks and breaks off a corner of the salty white cow’s cheese.

She pops the cheese in her mouth and chews reflectively. “I don’t think the neighbours even knew I had another name,” she adds. “They just called me Dorthea’s wicked girl. Or hla'ekilam. Nobody really acted like I was anything out of the ordinary until I left the Grey Quarter looking for work. Then, since I grew up with the dark elves, people decided I really must be wicked.”

You wince. A commiserating consolation is on the tip of your tongue until Susanna shrugs, like it somehow doesn’t matter. “When it comes to a name like that… well. You can deny it, or embrace it. Only one of those things keeps the customers coming back, hoping they’ll get a bit more tonight.”

That went in a direction you weren’t expecting, and it takes you a moment to work through. Elda’s words about Susanna playing the flirt return. Then you have to sit back, looking at her with wondering admiration. The priestesses of Dibella only ever talked about beauty for beauty’s sake, beauty as a Divine wonder. And you know a thing or two about being attractive, or attracted, but not like this. It’s one thing to be beautiful, and another to arrange makeup and jewelry and clothing like the wire and camouflage of a snare.

“They don’t even realize you’re playing them, do they?”

Susanna winks. “Some of them do. Elda certainly tells people often enough, even though I’ve asked her not to. She thinks I need to be mothered better, bless her. ‘Shouldn’t be showing so much leg, even if it is just for show.’” She does the cranky mother voice again. “Some folks don’t mind, as long as they still get to look. But there’s plenty of men who get one smile from a pretty face and can’t be convinced it’s not desperation for their dicks.”

You slap your hand over your mouth, covering a guffaw that’s as much shock as scandalized glee. Susanna cackles at you, deepening your embarrassment. It’s not as if you don’t know what she’s talking about, but to just say it like that—

“You don’t really sleep with them, though,” you say hastily, trying to move on.

“Some, if I want to,” Susanna says carelessly, to your shock. “But nowhere near as many as they think.”

That strikes too close to home, and it makes the pit of your stomach twist. You’re abruptly disappointed, too. You’d thought Susanna wasn’t really like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with sex… but proving people right, when they already think she’s easy? How can she not care?

You look down at the cheese plate, picking at the brown-skinned cheddar with your belt knife. “Doesn’t it bother you?” you ask in a rush. “That they talk about you like…”

“It’s just talk,” she says. “Good for business, and it doesn’t hurt me any.”

How? How does it not bother you when they say you’ll sleep with anybody, just because—” You have to stop yourself from saying because you’re Dunmer. Suddenly this isn’t about Susanna at all.

“But I know it’s not true,” Susanna says slowly, like it’s also occurring to her that this conversation has changed. “Even if it was, what would that matter?”

You take a deep breath, digging your knife deep into the cheese. “They think it does,” you mutter. “Maybe they don’t look at you like that, like you’re… like they know everything about you, just because they know one thing. Oh, you’re a slut.”

You tear one of the bread rolls in half and start buttering it viciously, determined not to look Susanna in the face. “It’s not like they even count themselves the same way,” you carry on, scowling. “You know, I can sleep with a Nord, and in the morning somehow I’m the only easy one? There was— there was this one, years ago. I was what, twenty-eight. Mother and I did a job with him, a bounty on a cave troll, and we stayed at the same inn that night. So mother went to bed, and we’re having some drinks, and I thought we were fine. You know, I liked him, I might go to bed with him, I thought that would be nice if he wanted to. He was good with his axe, and he if thought I was good with my bow…”

Humiliation eats up your throat like acid, remembered and real. Susanna is very quiet.

“So I’m thinking that, and we’re drinking, and then he turns to me and says—” All these years later, you still have to gasp for breath, choked by the outrage and shame. “He says, ‘Well, I was thinking about one of those girls, but I reckon I’m too tired to go chasing them. You’ll do just fine. Come on, then.’”

You jab your knife tip-down into the cheese, no matter that it’s rude. You can’t have a blade in your hand right now. “Like I would just go,” you hiss. “Like I’d jump in his bed the second he asked, no matter what. He just assumed.”

And the worst part was, he’d been right. If he’d not used those exact words to invite you up, you’d have jumped in a heartbeat. But you’d have thought he still respected you, and he’d have thought you just another promiscuous greyskin.

The silence stretches long enough for awareness to prick through your anger, your distraction with the past. Suddenly you can hear the echo of your own words. You remember where you are— remember that Susanna is a stranger, a serving girl who has to put up with guests no matter how you behave—and you are mortified all over again.

“Sometimes,” Susanna murmurs, before you can blurt an apology.

You click your jaw shut.

“Sometimes they’re like that,” she agrees. “But Misuss Sedalis always said men don’t know nearly as much as they think they do, and I think she’s right. Even if she meant 'men' as in 'humans' at the time. It just… doesn’t get to me.”

Forcing an awkward smile, you scrub a hand over your face as if you could hide behind it. “You’re right. I’m sorry about that, I really am. Terrible manners. I must have been out in the wild too long, living with animals, just blurting out anything to the first person I meet…”

Susanna laughs so hard that her eyes crinkle up. It does much to loosen the tension from the air. “Believe me, you are not the first person to vent their troubles at me. Not even the first today. From the sound of it, I don’t blame you for wanting to get it out. I could tell you a story or two of my own.”

“I’ll listen any time.”

She pauses, as if she wasn’t expecting you to take the offer genuinely. Then she smiles anew. “We’ll have to sit down while you’re here, then. Besides, you must have seen a few things in your travels out there. I hear there’s been talk of dragons?”

Laughter erupts from you, wild and real. “Dragons! Oh, I have stories about dragons. Here, I can show you—”

“Susanna. Susanna, where are you?”

At Elda’s distant call, you hesitate with one hand reaching for the bundle of dragon bones on your bed.

“That’ll be the night crowd coming in,” Susanna says, straightening up and adjusting her skirt. “No rest tonight, I’m afraid. Afternoons are slow, though. Tomorrow? Though— you didn't hear it from me— but if you want a real drink, try the Cornerclub in the Gray Quarter.”

“No, I’ll be here. Of course.”

Suddenly she winks, her expression flashing bold and alluring. “I’ll see what’s in your package then. Enjoy your night, handsome.”

Grinning over her shoulder, she saunters out of your room with an exaggerated swing of her hips that makes her soft yellow skirt swish around her knees.

Astounded and embarrassed all over again, you scrub your face. She was obviously joking, but that doesn’t make a shot of her charm any less powerful. Dibella bless, she’s so pretty.

So pretty, and so nice. A lingering warmth from the conversation lies like a bandage over the day’s earlier hurt. That makes it possible for you to scribble some reasonably positive words in your journal as you work your way through the cheese and bread. You tally your day’s earnings and expenses, and make note of the name for tomorrow’s digging: Shatter-Shield. You’ll have to claim the bounty on the dragon from Bonestrewn Crest, too.

And, of course, you will go to speak with Ulfric Stormcloak.

Chapter Text

Rather than pay Elda for breakfast, you wrap yourself up in an extra layer of woolens and forge out into the icy morning. It snowed hard overnight, the storm driving in so violently that howling past the eaves made you shudder a time or two. You’re glad you made it to Windhelm yesterday after all. And that Elda stuck you in the tiny room next to the hot kitchen wall.

Windhelm is slow to rouse this morning, though the sun is already bright and glittering from every icy surface. You plow your own path through calf-deep snow in the middle of the road while street sweeps shovel away at the edges of the road and guards sulk in any available wall niche. Chimneys smoke busily and few people are willing to leave their hearths.

Your hope of finding breakfast around the Rivergate is dashed by the blizzard. The market stalls stand empty and drowned by snow, and none of the braziers have been appropriated by enterprising food vendors. Street sweeps haven’t even begun clearing the foot of the gates to open the docks, since no doubt today’s haul of fish will be delayed while sailors clean the ice from the rigging and the harbour. If the haul comes in at all.

Unbothered except that your stomach is beginning to growl, you keep wandering. Immediately past the Rivergate, you notice the streets starting to slope downward; they get narrower as well. Still, it’s not until you turn a corner onto a lane full of flapping crimson and yellow banners that you realize you’re in an entirely different part of the city.

All the Dunmer grumpily scraping snow off their stoops and awnings confirm it for you.

Obscurely cowed by unfamiliar faces, you keep walking. A few Dunmer glance sharply at you, then look away without meeting your eyes. You can’t help but be aware that you’re dressed differently than any of them: sheepskin leg-wraps, fur mantle, knot-patterned wool robes. On first glance, anyone could take you for a Nord.

Azura, aren’t they all freezing?

Well. Judging by the muttered curses on Skyrim and its weather and its snow, yes.

And as you walk, the Grey Quarter gets sadder and more sullen. The streets are snow upon dirty snow, trodden into ragged ice, never cleared. Where braziers are lit— fewer and farther between than uptown— Dunmer in shabby cloaks huddle around them. There’s not a shop or vendor to be seen, but plenty of ramshackle dwellings built of scrap wood and packed snow between the walls of old stone houses.

You pass a pair of women in red sashes who are knocking on the doors of these makeshift dwellings with the ends of their staves, calling for the occupants one by one. To see if they’re still alive? Gods. Oh, no— it's a meal service. There’s another woman in red just behind them, pulling along a sled with a steaming cauldron secured in the back. Roused Dunmer are slowly flocking to the soup cart. A grey-haired man in angle-cut robes fills their proffered bowls and cups, offering brief blessings.

“Charity’s a virtue,” says a paper-skinned woman wrapped in a blanket, sitting at the entrance of her crawlspace. Mute, you give her gold.

You walk, and you give money. You feel numb in the cold.

You see a red-sashed man pull a small, stiff bundle of blankets out of a crawlspace beneath some stairs. You are not numb enough.

“I’m lost,” you finally tell an older Dunmer, bone-thin, as you hand over a palmful of septims. “Where do I find something to eat?”

He studies you with narrowed eyes, seeing every part of you that does not fit. “Cornerclub’s up on High Street,” he rasps at last. “Stores and such. Go up the way and keep going east. Get yourself gone, nordling.”

The insult scarcely stings because it only confirms that he can see what you felt about yourself. What you fear your parents have always seen in you. Nordling. Your clothes. Your voice. Your ignorance.

Too grey for the Nords, too Nordic for the Dunmer.

You’ve not even broken your fast yet and the day feels overwhelming. You slog uphill to High Street in a state of barely stifled distress, chewing your lip so hard that the dry skin cracks and bleeds.

So this is what it’s like to be Dunmer in Windhelm, the city of refugees. When you were much younger, your parents used to talk about moving here so that, if they had to live in Skyrim, at least they could be among kindred. This must be why the talk died.

If these Dunmer are what Shatter-Shield is used to, what is he going to think of you? Will the Philter of Glibness be enough? Worse, what is Ulfric Stormcloak going to think? You’d bet gold that the champion of Nord independence won’t want to accept the Dragonborn in a grey face, let alone in road-torn motley. He’ll just see a beggar who’s gone through a rag bin.

Unacceptable. It’s one thing for someone to think poorly of you, and another to confirm a low opinion already held.

You finally find vendors hawking food on High Street, which has been scraped somewhat clear by sweeps, these ones Dunmer. Partially obliterated beneath the ice is a word in runes. You suppose it doesn’t matter what the Nords called this street once.

At least three of the vendors are hollering that their meat isn’t skeever. You don’t know who to believe. Praying that you won’t get Ataxia, you buy a few skewers and chew the gristle stolidly. Hot, bitter black tea takes the grease from your teeth. And some of the flesh from your throat, too, you think.

Ancient signs chiselled into the stone indicate that the Rivergate is ahead. You follow them, intending to return to the main market square, until you’re distracted by a placard’s cold-iron shrieking as it swings. Paint beneath scraped frost says Sadri’s Used Wares.

Well. A used-goods store isn’t a bad place to start cleaning up your appearance. A new shirt with some decent embroidery, cheapish armbands, maybe a scarf that’s not red as Solitude’s banner...

The proprietor behind the counter looks up at the cold draft and smiles widely. “Good day!” he oozes, as if he’s been waiting for nothing more than your specific arrival. “Welcome to Sadri’s Used Wares. You’ll find everything you’re looking for here, and all my goods are legitimate, which is more than I can say for some.

The effulgent welcome startles a smile out of you. Sadri’s charm might be fake, but you can’t help responding: you’ve always been weak to warmth. “No stolen goods here, eh?” you joke. “Good to know.”

Yet the joke falls flat. Sadri’s humour vanishes as quickly as yours arrived. “Of course nothing in here is stolen,” he says sharply. “Only a careless, shameful, idiotic fetcher would do something as stupid as to buy pilfered…”

Hearing his own words— seeing your faltering expression— Sadri trails off. You stare at each other for a few seconds, guarded, until realizes he can’t recover from the slip. His face crumples into misery.

“Oh, by Azura, I've made a terrible mistake,” he moans. He jerks away from your stare, runs his hands through his already flyaway hair, and starts fretting with the arrangement of wares displayed on his counter. “No, I shouldn’t have said anything. This isn’t at all normal for me, you understand. I’ve never gotten myself mixed up in crime before. If you could see your way to forgetting I said anything…”

“No, no,” you say, holding up a soothing hand to his worry. You tug your scarf farther down and come towards the counter, letting both you and he lower your voices even though there’s nobody else in the shop. “What’s the problem?”

Sadri wrings his hands, bony and blue-knuckled. “I bought a gold ring, and Viola Giordano has been missing a ring that looks just like it.”

He flips open a small wooden box sitting right next to him— clearly something he’s been fretting over all morning, if not longer— and takes out a ring. You both regard the ring on the counter for a moment.

It’s very old, judging by how worn the band’s incised knotwork is. Beautifully made, with at least three animals visible in the intertwined carvings. Moth, mouflon, and aurochs: beauty, tenacity, and strength. And it’s thick enough that it could be re-cast into two new, untraceable rings, which… clearly hasn’t occurred to Sadri, or he might not be so distraught.

“Can’t you just take it back to her and tell her somebody…”

Sadri is already shaking his head furiously. “It's not that easy. She'd go to the Jarl if she knew I was even remotely involved, if she had anyone to blame for the theft.”

A part of you wants to say that surely the Jarl will offer a fair judgement; after all, surrendering suspected stolen goods reflects very well on a merchant. The court wizard should be able to perform a Larceny Trace, or if not him then a representative from the local Merchants Guild, in order to determine if this really is the stolen ring. Viola would get her ring back, and Sadri would keep his upstanding reputation intact, if not brighter than ever.

But judging by his distress, that’s not how this would play out in Ulfric Stormcloak’s court. The people of Falkreath never had any issue with dragging all their problems before Jarl Dengeir, nor Winterhold’s people with Jarl Korir (at least if they weren’t College mages). But not here. Not in Windhelm. Not for a Dunmer like Sadri.

That’s not right. Citizens should be able to trust their Jarls, or if not their particular Jarls, then the fairness of the law. This should be a very brief matter, easily settled, not a sentence wretched enough to drive Sadri to despair.

“How would I get it back to her, then?” you ask, already thinking hard.

“You— really? You’ll help?”

Sadri’s astonishment makes you look up from the ring. He’s practically transported with relief, which settles the matter for you. You nod firmly, mouth set.

“Thank Azura,” he gasps, then hurries to business like he fears you’ll change your mind. “Obviously you can’t let her know that you have the ring. You have to get it to her some other way. Look, it's dangerous, but if you sneak the ring into her house... put it in a dresser or something. I considered doing it myself, but I wouldn’t have a hope.” Evidently taking in your furrowed brow, he hastily adds, “I will make it worth your while.”

“Breaking and entering isn’t really something I have experience with,” you say slowly. “At least, not with living Nords. But they can’t be worse than dead Nords.”

It’s a very off-colour joke, but it makes Sadri bark a laugh. Fellow elves tend to appreciate tomb-robbing humour in a way that Nords just… don’t.

“All right,” you say, settling your elbows on the counter. “Tell me more about Viola.”

You leave with Viola’s ring, a page of notes in your journal, a pair of beaten copper bracelets, three bone beads for your hair, and half a bottle of leather oil. You practically had to throw the payment at Sadri and run in order to make him take it.

Viola’s ring rubs against your big toe with every step. Hiding it in your boot feels terribly paranoid, but Sadri insisted that you not get caught with it, and he said there was a risk of being randomly searched by the guard if you’re outside the Grey Quarter.

It has occurred to you that you could just keep the ring. Mother didn’t raise you as a thief, but you are very practical. As long as Sadri doesn’t get caught with the ring, he’s in the clear, right?

But… no. If Viola Giordano doesn’t get her ring back, she won’t stop agitating the guard, and every Dunmer in the city will suffer for that. If the guard catches the actual thief, by chance or design, he could send them to Sadri’s shop, leaving the poor man with no ring to return and no alibi beyond “I gave it to a stranger!” which is… essentially fencing, and illegal. Not to mention that you said you’d return the ring.

Still. Awfully trusting of Sadri. Or awfully desperate.

Sadri’s troubles only distract you for as long as it takes to return to Candlehearth Hall. Elda spots you in the main hall and snaps, “Your rent’s up at noon, you know.”

Finding another inn is the last thing you want to deal with right now. “I need another day.” You slap a gold crown on the counter.

She nicks the coin, which has already been tested, before counting out your change with her lips sourly sucked.

A scrub in cold water leaves you shivering as you rub dried lavender on your skin. Cleaning and mending the dozen little tears in your robes takes far longer, even with you muttering encouraging curses over the needle and thread. By the time you get to oiling your boots, you’re cursing Windhelm in general, and yourself for being a damn fool on top of everything.

Go on an adventure, you thought, it’ll be magnificent, you thought. Kill dragons and see the world! And now you have to come face to face with Ulfric Stormcloak, king-killer, Empire-breaker, would-be ruler of a free Skyrim.

But you’ll show him. You’ll make him see you properly.

There’s a looking-glass hung in the hallway, silver-spotted with age but well-polished. You have to stoop because it’s hung at a height for most Nords. It brings out flaws in your appearance that you don’t normally notice, which gets you uttering curses as you try for the third time to tie your hair into a queue without any stragglers.

Soft footsteps come down the stairs and Susanna says, “There you are. I've been looking for you.”

Oh. You had promised to meet her. She’s still vaguely bed-rumpled, since she must get her sleep over the morning hours, but she’s wearing an apron over her dress (a plain brown wool thing, far more casual than her evening get-up).

“I’m sorry. Something came up. I have to…”

She puts a finger over her lips with a knowing smile. “Say no more. You’re looking very handsome for this time of the afternoon.”

Embarrassed but pleased, you wave it off. “I’m going to the Palace.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. “Really!”

“I have to claim a bounty.”

Susanna comes up behind you and slides her fingers into your hair, displacing your own hands. You meekly give her the comb. She runs it through a few times, then sections the top half efficiently, probably far more neatly than you were managing in the back. Before you can give her your wet leather hair tie, she ties the queue off with a red ribbon from around her own wrist.

“You’ll have to tell me that story, too,” she says, as she expertly braids the queue.

“Of course. I’ll even show you what I killed.”

“Oh! You’re planning to keep the hand, are you?”

“It’s not a bandit.”

“That giant at the Buzzard’s Outlook.”

“No.”

“A bear?”

You grin at her in the looking-glass. “I’ll tell you later.”

Susanna tugs on the end of your braid, but she’s grinning back as she turns you around. “There. You look perfect now.”

It sounds like practised flattery, but another part of you wants to think the encouragement is genuine. “Thank you.”

“Go on, then, and hurry back. I’ll have some ale waiting.”

“You’re wonderful,” you tell her sincerely.

“Ooh, get!” Her laugh is a guffaw rather than a giggle, nowhere near flirtatious.

Elda peers suspiciously down the hallway. You duck back into your room and let Susanna handle it.

With your unstrung bow on your back, you step out into the sun again. Your ungainly travelling pack is locked in the chest in your room; the dragon’s claw and a few choice scales weigh heavy in a smaller pack on your hip. The Palace of the Kings looms at the far end of the Valunstrad.

You lift your chin, settle your shoulders, and go to meet Ulfric Stormcloak.


Still fuming hours later, you pry off your new copper bracelets from around your cuffs and strip off your gloves, flinging them at the wall of your room. Your bow and its harness follow onto the bed, and then your heavy travelling robes.

Dressing up to meet Ulfric Stormcloak. As if that could change his mind about a Dunmer. You had not a chance, not one second from the moment you set foot in his hall that he ever looked on you with anything but prejudice and scorn.

(fo)

No time for anything but his war. No care for his own people.

(krah)

But you made him see the truth, didn’t you. You hope he chokes on it.

(DIIN)

“Don’t you just look like a sour snowberry,” Susanna murmurs in the upstairs great room, leaning on your shoulder to fill your empty mug.

“Sorry I missed your ale this afternoon,” you mumble. In your foul mood, it’s not even tempting to look up from your slouch at the cleavage pressing against your shoulder.

“Never mind. There’s always someone to drink it.”

“Susanna! Over here, girl.”

“Like I said,” she murmurs, before swishing off to the enthusiastic table.

The great room is full of Nords, some of them travellers but plenty of them snow-spattered locals coming in for an evening drink. When you stomped in, you secured a table in the corner and you’ve been given as wide of a berth as you can get in this crowd, though your table’s spare chairs have all been whittled away. All you have for company is the nearby bard also tucked in the back corner— a Dunmer, to your surprise, given Elda’s attitude— but really, that’s the way you want things right now. You’re not in the mood to make nice with prickly locals.

Divines help you if somebody wants to pick a fight, because you’ll probably oblige them. And get yourself beaten to a pulp. And thrown into the street.

Damn this entire city.

Except Susanna.

And the poor bard, you think, because some oaf halfway across the room throws a cork at her just then. It bounces off her shoulder. She carries on picking softly at her lute, unflinching, staring into the middle distance. The oaf turns back to his conversation without missing a word, like he did nothing.

You flip a piece of silver into the basket at the bard’s feet, just as you have every other time someone disturbed her or cursed her over her choice of song. Red eyes give you the barest flicker of acknowledgement.

In an hour, you fill four pages of your journal with furious scratching. It’s better than paying attention to the locals, better than keeping your disgruntlement pent up inside. You don’t realize there’s been a satiated lull in the crowd until a chair scrapes up beside your table.

“Busy?” asks Susanna. There’s a dew of sweat at her hairline and a flush on her cheeks.

“No,” you say. Even if you were, you’d put the work aside for the two fresh mugs of ale that Susanna set down. She deserves a break.

“About your package, then.”

“Don’t,” you groan. Her flirting with you is a joke, but eavesdroppers might think it serious.

More than one person is looking at Susanna, gesturing her to come sit with them. She ignores them, eyes trained expectantly on you.

She wants to hear about dragons.

After a steadying draw of ale, you say, “I’ll tell you the story first.”

You breathe for a moment, settling into the role of storyteller, lining up the words in your mind. Stories are the soul and seam of Skyrim, old as memory and far more powerful. Stories created you as a child, shaped you into who you are and want to be. Mother talked of House Redoran and Saint Jiub, father of Azura and Saint Effra, and the village grandfathers of Shor and Kyne and Ysgramor. If you’re to turn your journey into a tale, you’d better do it right.

“I met Annekke Crag-Jumper at Darkwater Crossing,” you begin, “and she told me of a bounty on a dragon.”

Susanna has to leave twice when she’s urged to fill mugs and fetch food. She smooths ruffled feathers with a few words and hurries back to your table as fast as possible. By the second time, you’ve gathered a small audience of people leaning over from nearby tables, first piqued by Susanna’s attention and then intrigued by your words. One or two scoffs, but you keep your eyes on Susanna and tell the story properly. Your words taste like baked stone, blood, and sulfur.

“And so this morning I went to the Jarl,” you announce, restraining a flare of anger that has nothing to do with the tale, “and I claimed the bounty.”

You put your hand on top of the wrapped bundle that has been sitting on the table all this time. The expectant hush, even from your few skeptics, is thrilling.

An older man coughs. “Susanna, I wonder if I might have a word.”

“In a moment, Calixto,” she murmurs, reaching over to touch his shoulder without looking away.

Careful to keep your face still and proud, free of giddy joy unbefitting this sort of heroism, you pull back the linen. Stacked scales spill onto the table, and Ranmaariisk’s claw gleams in the firelight, a great curved dagger keen as ebony.

A murmur of astonishment rises from your little crowd, sudden enough to attract even more attention. You draw a deep breath and taste victory. Yes, let them look, let them know what you did, what you are. Dragonborn, soul-eater, death in your hands, blood on your teeth—

“It’s cold!” Susanna gasps, jerking her hand back from one of the scales. Even so, she reaches out again almost immediately, stroking with scant fingertips. The scale gleams like mother-of-pearl except for the great furrow across one edge: an old scar, a fissure with splintery edges smoothed by time, the crevices deep brown and hard as stone, like fossilized wood.

“Cold as its Shout,” you confirm. “Diin. Freeze.”

You spoke it with the barest touch of power, nothing but breath, and still the air before your face goes cold.

“Shor’s Bones,” Susanna whispers, her whole face alight. “They’re real. They’re really back.”

“Could I— could I see…?”

A young man hesitantly picks up another scale, nearly dropping it at first contact. You watch, silent and content to be marvelled at, as the scale is passed around your little corner, touched, stroked, sworn over. Let them look. Let them know.

“You say you killed it by yourself,” utters a muscular woman with sudden challenge. “But there’s plenty of bones up on the Crest. Could be you just took these.”

You look at her in silence, eyes lidded. She wants a fight, but you know you could destroy her. Brash, sneering, bigoted little woman.

Casually, you reach over and flip one of the scales remaining on the table. On the outside is a fresh crack, almost unassuming. On the curved inside of the scale, where soft nacre almost glows, is the eruption of an arrowhead, brutal black Daedric soulstuff embedded in the splintered pearl. Embedded deeply enough that it drew blood within Ranmaariisk’s throat.

You recall swallowing that memory, a searing fresh flash that stood out from the incomprehensible torrent.

“I killed it,” you say. “My arrows, my bow. My kill.”

“Remarkable,” Calixto is murmuring, over and over. “Just remarkable. Like I was telling you, Susanna— if anyone came up with a dragon scale, you’d know it was real. Truly one of the world’s wonders.”

“That’s incredible,” Susanna breathes. Looking back at her, you can’t help but start beaming— not proud, not satisfied, but happy to have made her happy. “I never thought I’d see something like this. I can’t believe you… oh, Shor’s bones, I still have work, I can’t sit here all night.”

She sets her scale back on the table and stands abruptly, whipping a damp towel over her shoulder. “Don’t you move,” she orders, poking a finger in your face. “Stay right there until I’m done working, I mean it. I won’t have you running off again before I get my stories.”

For all her would-be authority, she’s a barmaid, her ferocity as empty as her flirting. Neither is a threat. Indulgently, you raise your hands in mock surrender. “I’ll be here.”

The rest of your little crowd pesters you with questions for a while, pressing for details or parts of the story they missed. It’s the most positive attention you’ve had since setting foot in Windhelm. Eventually, however, they pass back your scales and return to their own drinks and murmuring and sidelong glances, which is fine.

You’re satisfied. You open your journal again to carry on writing.

Thinking about Stormcloak threatens to rekindle your anger. Instead, you page back in the journal to look at what you wrote about Ranmaariisk. You want to dwell on victory for a bit longer.

To your consternation, there’s… actually a gap there. The entries are few, short, and undated, like when you’re writing from the disorienting depths of a tomb— but you were just out on the Eastmarch plain, weren’t you? True, you were a bit dazed after killing the dragon. You always are. That’s normal!

Yet...

This can't be right.

Judging by the missing dates, you spent several days wandering the volcanic tundra in a haze. That cannot be right.

But... you try for the first time to recall details. They don't come.

You can't remember. You... walked. You fought something.

Why did you write this?

The few scrawled entries make little sense. Your letters are ragged, angular, falling apart into slashes...

Here. Here you wrote diin, over and over again. Diin. Diin. Diin.

You know those marks. You remember them from the Word Wall, and your fingertips remember tracing the stone furrows for... what must have been hours, judging by the sunburn on your nape even now. You hadn't thought the sunburn significant.

And... you scratched the Word into the dirt with your finger one night, didn’t you, heedless of the dark. The dirt had been too dark to see but it hadn’t mattered because you had felt the shape of the signs, felt memory curving your nail just so to dot and cut.

A sabrecat had crept up on you as you crouched by the edge of a volcanic pool, and you… you had been glad. Savage. Delighted to tear something apart, to prove you weren’t weak, broken, defeated by that scrawny little mortal—

You sit back in your chair with a gulp, shaking. The great room's noise roars in your ears. A sudden flush in your face makes the room feel chilly. You pull the collar of your robes open to dry the sweat on your chest.

Divines, that’s terrifying now that you look back on it. Before now, you hadn’t really thought about those days, hadn’t processed; you just let the haze lay vague in your memory. Even now, clear fragments float out of the blur only when you concentrate.

You killed Ranmaariisk

you burned

and you wandered.

One morning you woke a little more clear-headed and realized your supplies were low. Seeing that you were closer to the distant hulk of Windhelm, you headed there rather than doubling back east toward Kynesgrove and Delphine. And somehow your wandering had felt like… a dream, almost. An unreality evaporated in the morning sun, nothing to worry about.

But you wrote these words. Diin, diin, diin, and more. They swim in front of your eyes, pressing, whispering from too far away to comprehend. You know them but you don’t understand them.

A roar of laughter from across the great room makes you flinch. You sit back from your journal again— hadn’t even realized you were hunching over it— and close your eyes.

Breathe. Breathe.

Steady your mind. Identify the feelings. Order the words. This is how the Greybeards taught you to meditate on your newfound knowledge. The power of the dragons might come to you far more easily than any other mortal, but you still have to comprehend it before you can wield it.

Apparently, meditation may not just be for learning to understand new Shouts. Apparently there is more for you to know.

Why did Arngeir never tell you just how much of a dragon’s soul would remain within you? You’re… not sure you like the idea that you have foreign minds inside of you, strange memories and stranger instincts. You definitely don’t like knowing that the aftermath of each fight hasn’t just been the heady rush and cold comedown of battle-fever, but a dragon clawing pieces out of your mind, blowing your skull wide open and cutting itself a burrow to hide in once you had recovered your senses.

Mirmulnir had been a flash flood, there and gone in moments: a mere headrush, by comparison to Ranmaariisk. The next soul had been similar, and the next, but… in hindsight, not quite as fleeting. Not quite.

When exactly did that turn to days?

Taking knowledge from a Word Wall right after devouring a soul must have deepened your delirium. But if it gets harder and harder to shake the dragon soul every time, it can only get worse from here, Words or no.

Sick with dread but driven by the urgent need to know, you page back through your journal. It's the first time you've ever re-read some of these old entries.

The dragon before Ranmaariisk was Nahgoraan, small and brown as spring mud. He overwintered in the Harald River Valley, snatching goats from farmers while mouflon and elk were hard to find. You heard his calling on the road south from Solitude, heard of his predation from the farmers, and shrieked out your own wordless challenge to the skies.

He came, blind with rage, and you maneuvered him into a mammoth pit trap, and the farmers rolled rocks from the bluff above, and he died in that rocky crevasse reeking of old blood, broken-winged, impaled on spikes, screaming terror, agony, agony

You have to close your eyes and think of laughter, kittens, Brelyna tickling your feet with her quill, Onmund sharing smuggled ale on rugs in front of the fire.

Nahgoraan was afraid of you. He’d never seen a mortal like you, a mortal who could speak. A mortal so savagely clever, so terrible—he hadn’t known what you were and now he was broken, ruined, when he’d only just re-opened his eyes to the fresh new world and the crisp taste of Time unspiralled so far beyond what he last remembered. Agony. Agony, and a hook behind his breastbone, pulling tight. Wrenching him out.

Breathing unsteadily, you smooth the journal’s page down. There’s only one day missing. Nahgoraan died in the afternoon on the 14th of Morning Star, and you wrote again on the morning of the 16th. As far as you remember, you simply turned away from Nahgoraan’s still-hot bones and carried on down the river valley, striding out wildly triumphant and ready to conquer the next piece of the world. The delerium was minor.

The entry is brief, fragmented: No other thing around here stronger than me. Not your voice.

Before then: another dragon, another day missing. An entry written in stilted, scratchy letters. Cut its wretched throat. Not your voice.

Before that, no missing time, but there is an entry about punching a man in a taproom. He’d offended you. The people laughed and forgave because you’d just put an arrow through Vulgutmiin’s eye: surely spirit in a dragon-killer was understandable!

Re-reading the entry now, your utter rage at the man makes no sense.

Not your rage. Not your voice.

You’re not sure if you want to throw up or scream. The clot in your throat threatens both. You’re sick, unsteady, untrusting of every sensation that runs through your blood.

You stuff your journal into its leather case on your belt and clumsily bundle up Ranmaariisk’s scales without touching them. Never mind your half-full mug of ale. You need to… sleep. You should meditate, but you want nothing more than dreamless sleep.

Halfway across the great room, you’re caught by the wrist. Anger flares, then gutters to cold fright: it’s only Susanna reaching out from a table. You swing about in her grasp, too unsteady to either pull away or trust yourself to stay.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” you manage. “I need to sleep.”

“Bed time for us all,” says Calixto, at the table Susanna was attending. “My dear, you must get away early tonight. If you have just ten minutes I can show you the shipment I received from Whiterun, very possibly real dragon bones, as I said…”

“You should ask Lleros,” Susanna says, far too enthusiastically. “If anybody could tell you if they’re real, he could. Couldn’t you?”

“I suppose,” you say, hardly paying attention. “Susanna, I’m sorry, I need to…”

“Get a good sleep. You can go see Calixto’s collection tomorrow.”

You spare her a vague glance backward, trying not to be an utter clod. She smiles, ignoring Calixto’s deep frustration.

Prick. She’s not going to sleep with him.

Tense and miserable, you lie restlessly abed for hours. Your head is full of Stormcloak’s scorn, Ranmaariisk’s rage.

When sleep finally comes, it’s an uneasy blurring of dust and smoke. Fire on the Western Watchtower. You're fighting Nahgoraan all over again at the same time as you watch a puny grey-fleshed mortal aim at you with its bow. You spit fire, Nahgoraan shrieks no, the dragon is breathing fire, catching fire, burning up, streaming into your lungs—

No, not right! Mirmulnir has never swallowed a dovah’s soul. Cannibalism, atrocity!

But you’re not Mirmulnir. Even though you were. Are…?

Unable to process the unravelling of dream logic, you come awake panting. The slow roll of nausea makes you moan and curl on your side.

You can't sleep again. Incompatible memories swirl in your thoughts for the rest of the long, dark night.

Chapter Text

Viola Giordano is fifty-eight, wealthy, mostly Nordic with Imperial blood she ignores. Her name comes from a Nibenese grandfather who made the family fortune. Revyn Sadri thought a climber like Viola would probably drop the name if she could, but it has power of its own and she’d likely rather not lose that, distasteful though the Imperial association is in Windhelm. Bitterly, Sadri said that commenting on the name is a swift way to get blacklisted from businesses one didn’t even know one had made enemies of. Her two husbands died honorable deaths, notable since neither was a warrior: one in a pirate raid and one in a bandit attack. Both deaths reflected rather well on Viola. For herself, she does the accounts for Windhelm’s largest furrier, a position secured by her family’s long-standing involvement in most branches of Eastmarch trade.

Even without her family’s power, Viola is wealthy and influential among a good chunk of Windhelm’s high society. With the weight of the Giordano family behind her— eight separate merchant-magnate cousins, seven relatives high up in various Guilds, four former and current Companions in the family, an aunt in the Windhelm bank, a cousin and a niece Thanes of Stormcloak’s court— she’s all but unstoppable. What the Giordanos can’t negotiate, they won’t hesitate to solve with mercenaries.

No wonder Revyn Sadri was afraid.

You’ve pondered this all morning and come to the conclusion that you’d rather not make your burgling debut in Viola Giordano’s house. The question that remains is how else to return her stolen ring.

The easiest solution, of course, is to be invited into the house.

Easier said than done for a Dunmer. Sadri said that Viola wasn’t kindly disposed to him, but he grudgingly admitted that she might not have a problem with Dunmer in general. Or she might. This is Windhelm.

You’ve got several ideas but only one first impression. After that it’s rather difficult to change your cover story.

Early in the morning, you break your fast at a bakery and walk up the Valunstrad. All of the grand old houses on the avenue from the gate to the Palace of the Kings have been turned into businesses, mostly inns. Carved pillars outside the Royal Archive tell you that Kondar Horn-Blower’s entire family was slaughtered inside this house when Windhelm was sacked by opportunistic pirates during the War of the Red Diamond. Unable to return home, Kondar gave the building to the jarl; it was reopened as a shrine, later a museum and archive. Perhaps many of the homes along the main avenue met a similar fate. It’s an illustrious place to live but also a vulnerable one.

Either way, Windhelm’s richest inhabitants no longer live on the main avenue. They inhabit the farthest stretch of the Valunstrad, which curves left around the Palace and up against the mountain.

Though the houses themselves are impressive, your alchemist’s heart is more interested in the gardens. This is the first time you’ve seen plants growing in Windhelm, a city carved from solid stone: along both sides of the street are flowerbeds sunken and filled with dirt. Nobody here dumps their chamberpot in the gutter.

There’s snow over the earth, of course, but in Skyrim both people and plants only take that as a challenge. Snowberry bushes shine with nigh-ripe red fruit; frost mirriam glitters silver even where the sun has melted off the actual frost. There are crocuses uncurling here and there through the snowcrust. One garden has a magnificent stand of winter-blooming hellebore that your fingers itch to clip.

Entertaining yourself by trying to identify dormant plants by their naked branches and vines, you stroll down the street. And you read the family names engraved on the stone pillars beside each gate: Free-Winter. White-Hawk. Bronstad. Shatter-Shield.

You file that house away for later.

Giordano.

This is not the first Giordano house you’ve passed. This one, though, has Viola’s personal seal carved underneath the name: a moth with two sets of horns, one wide and one curling. Moth, aurochs, and mouflon, the same as her stolen ring.

Leaning on the wall to rub your ankle, you loiter outside the house. Her gate has a lock, not merely a latch. The wall is short enough that you could grab the top and scramble over with a running start, though you don’t particularly want to. Beyond the gate there’s no sign of dog tracks in the yard. You can’t really see much of the house. What would you even look for? You don’t know anything about—

“Stop there, elf. What are you doing?”

You are the worst burglar. Caught before you’ve even done anything! Not that you were going to do anything; you only wanted a look at Viola’s house. Just in case your first plan goes wrong.

“I think I’ve hurt my ankle,” you complain to the guards jogging over. “It keeps bothering me. Shouldn’t have walked so far on it.”

The next thing you know, one of the guards jabs the butt of her spear into your ribs, driving the breath out of you.

“I asked what you’re doing here, elf! Don’t give me lip this time.”

Paralyzed by utter shock as much as pain, you clutch your ribs. “I was taking a walk!”

You jerk backwards along the wall but she still manages to jab your chest again. “Why here?”

“I was looking at the gardens! Plants! I’m an alchemist, a healer, I have my journeyman’s certification—” You snag the medallion hanging on your chest, trying to make them see it. You don’t normally wear it out and about, but being a well-dressed, respectable healer was today’s plan. “I was just admiring! I didn’t mean to walk so far.”

“Walk back where you belong,” the guard snaps. “I catch you hanging about here again and I’ll throw you in jail as the Butcher, see if I don’t.”

Heart beating so hard you can feel it slamming against your ribs, you stumble past the guards. Bootsteps follow you back the way you came, threatening another jab in the back. Everything is so blurred by panic and shame that you can barely pay attention to what you’re doing beyond walk away. What must this look like to anyone watching?

She hit you. A guard hit you. You’ve never been in trouble before, not like this. Like a criminal. Serves you right, thinking you could break in, acting like…

Like nothing. You were walking. They can’t see in your head. Anyone who looked at you should have seen a healer, an Adept in rune-brocaded robes with the Restoration symbol on the back, obvious even to the illiterate.

If they saw a criminal, that’s not your fault.

Footsteps squeak up beside you, making you swerve a little sideways. But it’s the other guard, a man who coughs and says gruffly, “You know, I’ve a lot of respect for the School of Restoration. Skyrim could use more healers.”

You’d like him a lot better if he weren’t hushing his voice so his partner mightn’t hear.

“How nice,” you say, and don’t take the opportunity to offer your services. You don’t care if it might earn you some money, and you don’t care if he’s got blisters or boils or a damn splinter.

“Took a mace to my shield arm a few weeks back,” the guard continues hopefully. “Broke a couple bones. Can’t get back out there to fight until it heals up.”

You pinch your mouth and keep staring forward. “That’s unfortunate.”

“Don’t suppose you could do anything about it?”

Now you turn to smile at him, baring all your teeth. You can’t get angry at a guard, but by Azura, you can make him regret. “Sorry. Seems I’ve got to get back to where I belong.”

Father would approve of your pride. So would mother, thought she might have suggested you quietly heal a knot into those broken bones that would ache for the rest of his life. She approves of revenge in a way that your healer’s oath doesn’t allow for. You’ll settle for letting the man suffer a few more dull weeks off the battlefield.

So. Breaking in to Viola Giordano’s house to return the ring in secret isn’t even a viable backup plan. Now there’s nothing for it but to make your first choice work.

Merciful Mara, let her be less of an idiot than the rest of the city.

The guards finally let you stalk off alone down the Valunstrad where it turns to inns and alehalls, though the woman can’t resist barking a last warning at your back. You bite your cheek and ignore her.

Chin up. Shoulders back. Brush your robes off and look alive, Lleros. Today you’re a healer.

The Valunstrad is coming alive with morning custom, nut roasters and cider carts calling to patrons emerging from the inns. Somewhere a bakery has its doors wide open, ovens warring with the morning chill. Priests are up and about, too, greeting people in the names of Talos and Arkay.

“Anything last night?” a priestess of Talos asks a guard by way of greeting.

“Not a peep,” the guard says. “I tell you, we’ve got the bastard in jail. You’ll see.”

“You’ve got everyone in jail,” the priestess says.

No doubt, you think bitterly.

Viola hangs about in the low city, Sadri said. The houses near the Rivergate and such, I mean. Not down here in the Grey Quarter. I suppose she’s already bent every ear she can bend among the high and mighty.

You’d know her when you saw her, he said. How could you possibly pick out any one old human woman from all the other—

“Be on the lookout. The Butcher could be around any corner!”

“Morning, Viola,” says a Bosmer woman with a basket of steaming bread on her arm, swerving by without a glance.

“Keep an eye open when you’re wandering about! You never know if it could be you next.”

“Not bloody likely,” the Bosmer mutters, out of Viola’s earshot but to the grins of a few other passers-by.

Here we go.

While everyone else is avoiding Viola’s eye, you catch it. She instantly thrusts a piece of parchment at your chest.

“Beware the Butcher,” she says ominously.

The flyer’s title says the same thing. Your eyebrows fly up as you scan the parchment.

“Who’s the Butcher?”

“You don’t know?” gasps Viola. She sounds outraged but she’s nearly gleeful as she launches into an explanation.

Azura bless you, this is so much easier than you feared.

“After what happened to those other women, I'm worried about my own safety,” Viola concludes.

“That’s terrible,” you murmur, not faking even a little bit. You’re sure she was exaggerating the gory details, but fourteen mutilated women since Mid-Year is terrible. Is there no part of Windhelm that’s not crying out for help? What is Ulfric Stormcloak doing up on that damn throne?

Fighting his war and ignoring his people. As ever, it seems.

As if she can hear your thoughts, Viola says darkly, “Women murdered time and again, and all the guards care about is the war.”

“No doubt.”

“I've been following him for months now.”

Startled, you look up at Viola. She’s… well, she looks about the same age as your mother, but she’s also small, with bony, papery hands that suggest the only blade she’s ever held is a penknife.

Under your stare Viola wilts for the first time. “Well, not actually following,” she admits. “Trying to find him. The guards won't help. The people won't help. I'm the only one who thinks he can be caught.”

Nords are normally so ready to jump at a chance for heroism. Unless… perhaps the women being killed are beggars, or bedworkers, or… are they elves? Viola didn’t say. Or could the killer be a guard? “Why? Don’t they care?”

“Oh, they care all right. Just none of them thinks to do anything about it. They say I'm just snooping around bothering people, but I'm trying to save lives!”

“Of course,” you agree, though you’re privately unconvinced. There has to be something else. “Please, Mistress. I want to help. Tell me more.”

She tells you. Oh, does she ever tell you.

Viola’s only too pleased when you pull out your journal and start scratching notes. She’s clearly the type with a never-ending appetite for attention. Never mind, if it gets you information. A good half of that information is… well, baseless gossip, as far as you can tell. But anything could help.

“There is one more thing,” Viola says at last, after a lull. She brushes snowdrift off her skirt— you’ve both ended up sitting side by side on a window ledge, a whole hour gone by— and glances sidelong at you. “I wonder if I should say. But you don’t sound at all like a local. One of those from the Grey Quarter, I mean.”

After a moment, you manage roughly, in your so-Nordic accent that makes your father wince when he thinks you’re not looking, “No. I’m not from around here.”

“I’ve always wondered if it might be one of those dark elves,” Viola whispers. “Not you, of course. But you never know with that lot down in the Gutter. After all, all the murders took place at night.”

“...And?”

“Well, they’re dark elves, aren’t they?”

After a long moment, you say, “We can’t see in the dark.”

“I— well. It might be easier for them to blend in. In the dark, I mean.”

You force a short laugh because the alternative is disgust and remember, remember that you still need Viola to like you. Sadri is counting on you. “We’re not invisible at night, either. Sorry.”

Clearly those are the dregs of her knowledge. You scratch a few underlines to make it look like you took note of her last idea, then clap your journal shut. You stand and bow slightly to Viola, hands clasped.

“Mistress, I can’t thank you enough. I can hardly believe nobody else told me there was such a problem in this city. I’ll do my best to help, I swear.”

“You must tell me everything.”

There. Your opening.

“Of course I will. But, before I go...” You dangle a hesitation, always juicy bait for a nosy woman. “I’m sorry if this is intrusive, but I couldn’t help noticing. Your hands look a little swollen. And you’ve been standing out here in the cold for so long. You’ve been at this for weeks; your knees must be paining you. If you’d like, I could help.”

Viola is absently touching her knuckles, triggered by your suggestion. “Oh?”

“I’m a healer,” you explain, holding out the medallion around your neck. “A certified journeyman of the School of Restoration. I could ease your joints.” Earnest, sweet, you add, “Really, mistress, it’s the least I could do.”

She adores being the centre of attention. The chance to have her sufferings acknowledged is irresistible.

“Oh, well. I don’t like to complain, but if you insist,” Viola says with pleasure, rising and straightening her skirts. You offer her an arm; she takes it with surprise and then entitled satisfaction.

You garner more than a few surprised glances as Viola leads you back up the Valunstrad. Viola, chattering your ear off, doesn’t notice. You, though— you definitely notice when a guard takes an abrupt step toward you and then stops… and retreats.

“I’m so glad to have an escort,” Viola says, and doesn’t appear to hear the irony when you say, “I agree.”

You barely stop yourself from indicating Viola to her own gate. (A terrible thief.) She unlocks the gate and then the door, leading you in with a bit of proud flourishing. Obediently, you murmur admiration at her fine house.

“I just need a basin and a towel,” you say. “Please, sit somewhere comfortable, I’ll fetch it.”

But she leads you right to the kitchen, perhaps too pleased with your compliments to let you go yet. Or, possibly— accurately— still a little suspicious of letting a near-stranger wander in her house.

“Marvelous,” you lie, filling a basin from the hand pump installed directly in the kitchen corner. A private, indoor, well-drawing pump really is luxury for most Nords, true; it’s just nothing impressive next to the College’s bathing facilities, where cold and hot water is drawn from minor Oblivion realms by stable portals engraved on pipeless brass spouts.

The soothing prate of a healer is the same for both peasant and noble patients, so it barely stings your pride to bob and nod for Viola. You get her to settle in the dining hall on a comfortable padded bench and kneel at her feet.

“Now, of course I don’t want to cause you any discomfort,” you say, faking distraction with arranging the basin and towels. “But healing spells do work best if they’re cast skin to skin on the affected area. I have to ask if I can touch your knees. Of course, if you prefer I can wear a blindfold; I don’t need to see anything.”

“Oh, well,” Viola says, fussing with her skirts, but her voice is more coy than concerned. (Oh gods, she really does want attention.) “I think that will be all right. We won’t say a word to anyone.”

“Certainly.”

All the same, you don’t particularly look at her bare calves and knees. They’re narrow, pale, a bit wrinkled, sort of spotty. Just legs. You’ve seen a hundred like them.

Viola has the sort of swelling in her knees and ankles that you’d expect of any human her age. Most of your older patients don’t even complain of it; you tend to treat it as a bonus alongside cuts and broken bones. Simple, very easy work. You know how to make it feel good, though. Brelyna used to badger you shamelessly for foot rubs. Onmund preferred placing bets to ‘win’ your service, while J’zargo routinely bribed you with candied nuts and taffy.

After you’re finished healing, you wrap cold, damp towels around each joint and foot. They bring down the slight swelling and flush that Restoration causes: a very minor concern in most cases, but easily attended if you’re only healing for comfort’s sake. By the time you’re massaging Viola’s wrist gently through a cool towel, she’s sighing peacefully, head resting back against the wall, hand limp in your grasp.

“There we are,” you murmur. “All done. Give me a moment, I need to fetch you some water.”

This time, she doesn’t so much as mumble a protest.

In the kitchen, you do an awkward dance at the water pump: standing on one foot, working the pump with one hand, fumbling in your boot with the other, and keeping your eyes on the door. Quick, quick.

All right: ring in one hand, goblet in the other.

In the hall: a table with a looking-glass hung above it, so Viola can check her hair when she comes downstairs for the day.

At the table: quick, here, stoop and place the ring on the floor, quick, soundless, not breaking step— careful, she can hear your feet on the floorboards—

—and it’s done.

You’re shaky, flushed with pressure. You’d be an utterly abominable thief. Mother and father must have raised you too right.

Breathe, Lleros. She didn’t see you. Nobody saw you. Smile, walk back in…

“Here you are,” you murmur solicitously, placing the goblet in Viola’s hand. “Healing does take a bit out of you, but don’t worry. Water helps.”

“I feel like a girl again,” she sighs. “I can hardly believe it!”

“That’s wonderful,” you beam, not even having to fake it. She doesn’t need to know you’re delighted for reasons other than her joints.

It’s a bit of a production to extract yourself from Viola’s house now that you’ve done what you need to do. She wants you to stay a little longer, sit down and talk, have a drink—  it’s not too early for a little noon meal, is it?—  just a drink then, maybe wine.

You beg off as politely as possible, not wanting to entirely sever a good relationship. Even though she is a bit of a wretch. Oh, never mind that; you feel magnanimous to the whole world.

Back in the cold, you stuff your hands in your pockets and finally let yourself grin so widely that it hurts. One problem solved. Now two to go.

You whirl away from the Valunstrad as quickly as possible, lest that rotten guard find you here again. That can’t dampen your mood, though. Especially since you know now that it’s the Butcher making the guards twitchy, not you. No wonder she was so suspicious! Just doing her job after all.

You’re in too good a mood to spoil. You’d like to share it. Viola wasn’t all wrong about there being time for a little drink.

“Good day,” you laugh, as you sail in the door of Sadri’s Used Wares.

Sadri’s poor face is a mask of pinched anxiety even as he looks up from a trunk of patched blankets. “Is it?” he asks automatically, then— “Is it? Did you do it?”

“It’s done,” you grin. Your delight is redoubled by the utter relief that suffuses his whole body.

He lunges forward and clasps your hand in both of his, pressing palm to palm in a handshake unlike any you’ve had before. “Thank you. Thank you! Azura's Prophecy always guide you to fortune.”

The fervor in his eyes is almost impossible to take. Brilliant red, so bright— Divines, have you ever seen such eyes? The intensity of his gratitude embarrasses you, even as you know you’ll reflect on it later tonight and roll with glee.

Before you can summon with the words to brush off his gratitude without belittling it, Sadri is saying, “Speaking of fortune. Here—”

He releases your hand and darts across the shop, through a curtained doorway. After a few seconds of clattering, he emerges with a leather sack held out like a holy offering.

“Everything I earned from my last shipment,” Sadri says, “It's yours."

It’s touching, tempting, but… pitiful, too. There can’t be more than a hundred coins in that sack, and you don’t think they’re quicksilver. Or even gold crowns. Sadri’s shop is shabby in a way his cleaning can’t help: the floorboards are cracking and the shelves were clearly constructed from scrap lumber; his candles are cheap tallow and his sign wants repainting. Whether that sack holds septims or crowns, he needs it more than you.

“No, I—”

“I won’t beg you to take it,” Sadri interrupts sharply, showing a first hint of temper. Oh, he’s proud like your parents, isn’t he, proud like he’s got the stone of Morrowind in his spine and jaw. He’ll take a dozen blows to the face before he’ll bow his head. “Think carefully before you go about saying you couldn’t possibly.”

“It’s just that deer don’t take coin in exchange for their meat,” you say, inviting a laugh to lower his hackles. “I’m honoured, I am, but the only thing coin is good for in the wild is attracting bandits. I don’t know what I’d do with it all.”

Sadri gives you a sharp look. “Buy yourself a new shirt?”

Your shirt isn’t ugly, is it?

You can’t quite nip your self-consciousness before Sadri sees you touch the hem of your shirt. “Maybe,” you agree, chastened. “But it doesn’t have to be that expensive. What do I look like, a Giordano?”

He snorts. You win.

“No, listen. Could you pay me in trade instead? Shirts, if you like. And a place to sleep.”

“What, really?”

“I’ve been staying at Candlehearth Hall. And, well… I’d much prefer a different bed.”

Sadri grimaces so expressively that you wonder if there are depths to Elda’s rudeness you haven’t yet seen. Then he gives you a look up and down— quick, frank; you can’t parse it— and nods his decision. “Well, that won’t do. Yes, you can stay with me.”

“Perfect,” you grin. “Any bit of floor will do, really, as long as you’ve got a rug or two. I don’t take up much space and I don’t shed.”

“The floor?” Sadri says, eyebrows shooting up. “What kind of ungrateful wretch do you take me for? I have a perfectly good bed, you know.”

“Oh, no, I don’t want to kick you out of your own bed!”

He gives you a mulish look. “That’s quite all right,” he says at last. “I insist. You must take the bed.”

You flutter your robe, but you can’t deny that you’re pleased to have the bed instead of the floor. So— well. If he insists.

 


 

In the middle hours of morning, Candlehearth Hall is brighter yet quieter than you’ve ever seen it. Creaking overhead suggests a few patrons are in the great room, but the entry hall is empty. Even Elda, thankfully, is nowhere to be seen. All the better for you to gather your belongings and slip out unharried.

Humming, you roll your dirty clothing into compact bundles and pack them into a gathersack as neatly as your mother might wish. Then into the travelling pack go your dragon scales, mage robes, spare scarves, sword wrapped in oilcloth, extra knives, skillet and trivet, soap and hair oil...

At the main door, a little thread of guilt makes you hesitate. You could just go now, and never see Elda’s awful inn again. But the inn also contains Susanna, whom you promised stories. Promised, and then denied twice.

Grimacing, you turn back and head upstairs.

When you poke your head over the railing, the great room is quiet, dust swirling slow and undisturbed in the sunlight. At your footsteps, a few of the room’s occupants glance up: a woman in mage robes, a Breton picking at porridge, a Redguard re-wrapping her dagger’s hilt with leather. The grey-haired shieldmaiden with her feet up by the fireplace keeps snoring.

You look to the nearest patron, an older man with a book and inkpot on his table. “Hullo,” you murmur. “Is Susanna about?”

It takes him a moment to break his furrowed grimace at his quill, which was stalled above the parchment. He glances at you with vague frustration. “Er, the serving girl? Isabella? No. Not this morning. I think.”

Not that he’d have much noticed, evidently. Labouring to write words that won’t come tends to make the rest of the world fade away into disgruntlement and looping snatches of song. You know the feeling. It’s one part of attending College that you haven’t missed.

Susanna sleeps through the morning, you remember. But you can hardly ask where her bedroom is. Not that any of these people should even know!

Frowning, you head back downstairs. Maybe you’ll have to come back this evening and tell Susanna where you’ve gone. Maybe invite her out for a drink.

(Oh, but if anyone sees you, what will that look like? They’ll think you’re bedding her, or trying to, and— urgh.)

I’ll make it up to her, you promise yourself as you leave Candlehearth. I’ll come back later.

For now, you have work to do. Torbjorn Shatter-Shield and the Butcher have wrongs to answer for. You need to know how to make them right.

A twist of the wind makes your nose wrinkle. It’s the smell of your own dirty socks in the gathersack over your shoulder.

Laundering first. Then Shatter-Shield.

 


 

For once, you’ve reason to be grateful it’s not summer: with ice on the river, you can’t easily wash your own clothing. That’s enough of a reason for you to splurge on convenience, though mother would have you melting a hole through the ice. You find a laundry in the cluster of shops near the Rivergate and (with only a little hesitation) leave almost every stitch of clothing that you own with the Dunmer launderer. For a bit of wheedling and a few silvers, he lends you a clean outfit that he says isn’t due to be picked up for another day.

“Are you certain you won’t sit around here in your smalls?” the launderer asks, while you’re changing behind a convenient hanging sheet. “It wouldn’t be terrible for my business.”

An uncomfortable laugh bubbles out of you. You cinch your belt a little tighter, glad that your tabard hides the borrowed shirt’s overlong tails. “That’s not really my business,” you demur.

You had intended to sit and gossip with the launderer, hoping to wheedle information about either the Shatter-Shield or the Butcher out of him. Instead, you head down the street to a cobbler you spotted earlier. Your leaky boot is even more unpleasant than usual with bare toes squishing against the wet leather.

The cobbler’s shop is rather like a boot itself: dim and smelling of foot. Someone has obviously done their best with cooking soda and clove oil, but these merely adulterate the funk rather than eliminating it. There’s only so much that can be done for the smell of a hundred used shoes dangling from the ceiling.

The shop is a single room, closetish, far too narrow to conceal anyone, yet the cobbler is nowhere to be seen— at least, until a squinty face pokes out from behind a rack of scrap furs.

“Ho,” says the tiniest, pointiest Orc you have ever seen. She emerges like a squirrel from hibernation, wrapped in measuring tapes and leather scraps, peering up at you. You didn’t know they came that small. Even Urag has bulk, the life of a librarian doing nothing to keep his body from being thicker and heavier than yours. For the first time, you can see an Orc’s relation to Bosmer and Dunmer. Judging by her squinting, dull yellow eyes, though, she’s nothing like Urag. “Something for me?”

You shuffle a foot to draw her attention. “My boots are leaking.”

She shifts her jaw, rolling the thick needle between her lips to click against the little tusk pricking the corner of her mouth. “Let’s see ‘em, then.”

Beside a bellied iron stove providing the shop’s only heat, there’s a padded chair positioned on a small, worn carpet: an obvious arrangement for the customer’s comfort. You sit, pull off your boots and wiggle your damp toes against the carpet. While the cobbler hems over your boots, you study the carpet’s pattern, puzzling out the story in the Khajiiti weaving. It’s a housecat fighting a spiky beetle three times its size, you think, except that the cat has swirls of green and blue mantling its head. Either that’s symbolism you can’t interpret, or… the cat is a mage? A very small Khajiit?

“Good boots,” the cobbler says. “Very good. They don’t look Nord. Where’d you get ‘em?”

“I took them from a vampire.”

The needle in her mouth jumps with surprise, right in sync with her eyebrows.

“The leaking,” you say. “I think it’s the seams…”

“Yeah. They need waterproofing. Soles are cracking, too, if you want ‘em done.”

You bite your lip with annoyance. “How long will that take?”

“Couple hours.”

Longer than you’d like to sit in this little boot of a shop with nothing to do, but not longer than your laundry. “All right,” you agree reluctantly, and settle back in the chair. At least the stove will keep your feet warm.

The Orc settles on a stool and props your boots upside on a pair of wooden forms in front of her. She plucks a plier from her apron without glancing down and begins yanking hobnails from the soles, her wrist twisting efficiently. When she gets to levering off the heel irons, one snaps in two. She holds it up to you as if in proof of just how worn the boots were. Yes, well, it’s not your fault the boots were old.

“You gonna tell me about that vampire?” she asks unexpectedly.

“Oh! I— yes, all right. Of course.” You hadn’t thought she’d be much for conversation. Better than sitting in silence, though. You resettle yourself in the chair to face her properly, arranging the words in your mind. “This was in the early winter, on the frozen coast of the Sea of Ghosts…”

The cobbler doesn’t react to much of the story, but whenever you pause for a sip from your waterskin, she glances up in waiting. That’s good enough, you suppose. Yourself, you find that watching her hands, quick and deft as they pry and scrape and twist, is more entrancing than you’d thought. You catch yourself drifting into silence a few times while she trims down a new leather sole blank with dangerously fast strokes of her knife: never faltering, never erring, never fearful of the blade that could slice off her thumb as easily as the thumb-thick leather it cuts like butter. 

“Sounds dangerous,” she says, when you’ve concluded the tale. It’s hardly high praise; in fact, you can’t even tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism of your life choices. You oddly want her to be impressed, though.

“Adventuring alone can be,” you agree. “But I know plenty about protecting myself. And that’s where I got this armour, too.”

She glances your direction, taking in the burnished maroon tabard, a skillfully made piece if there ever was one. “Not that it helped the vampire much,” she says.

“I suppose that means I’m the better warrior.”

At last, the corner of her mouth quirks up around one sharp little tusk.

Finally finished with trimming the new boot soles, the cobbler sits back and stretches. The crack of her spine is audible. So is her relieved groan, vibrating in the taut stretch of her throat. A tendon rolls beneath olive skin. Your teeth suddenly ache with the sense-memory of a bite, teasing-sharp on hot skin.

It’s her hands, you realize, as you awkwardly rearrange yourself in the chair. She’s so good with her hands. They could take you apart whether they held her knife or no.

“I’ve heard stories about Windhelm,” you say, because it’s better to change the subject than carry on trying to make her like you. No call to make a fool of yourself.

“Sure,” she says, going over to a cabinet and emerging with a glue pot. “Plenty of those. Which one you mean?”

“About the Argonians. How they’re treated.”

“Not well.”

“I know. Something about... Shatter-Shield, Torvar Shatter-Shield?”

“Torbjorn.”

“What’s he about?”

She presses a gluey sole back to the denuded bottom of one boot. “Bit of a jackass.”

Despite her brevity, the cobbler turns out to know plenty about the Shatter-Shields— “as much as anybody,” she says, but that’s more than you know. She’s also done her share of adjusting second-hand shoes for the Argonians, who can neither afford custom shoes nor fit those made for human feet.

“What about this Butcher?” you ask, your charcoal stick hovering attentively over the journal page.

“Hmph!” Giving you a sharp glance, the cobbler holds up her awl in illustration and jabs it through your boot’s sole with totally unnecessary viciousness.

Your stomach flips with something like delight, because— that awl. The constant unerring deftness of her hands, effortlessly punching neat holes through leather thick enough to be armour itself.

“Some man,” she growls, emotionally roused for the very first time. “Nord. Old. Nobody else’d be so bold, thinking he could get away with it in this city. Got the guards poking their noses around down here, thinking it’s got to be a foreigner, but it ain’t one of us. Couldn’t be.”

Huh. That’s... a thought you hadn’t considered. And from a source you hadn’t expected. Curious, you study the cobbler’s tight, pinched face. “Why’s he doing it?”

“He hates ‘em.” At your inquiring noise, she throws you a scornful look. “Look who he’s killing: girls, all of ‘em. Young and pretty. All Nords, too, ‘cept that one Imperial. He wants a woman but he can’t get one, so he’s taking it out on ‘em all, cutting the poor things to bits. Bastard.”

You jot that idea down. Still, you can’t help chewing your lip in doubt. If all the victims were Nords, or look like it…

“What if it was an elf, though?” you say slowly, though every sinew in your body revolts against the thought. How appalling, to prove every prejudice correct. “Because they hate the Nords here.”

The cobbler grunts, punching another exceptionally vicious hole. “You know how many elves they’ve got in the Bloodworks? Mostly your kind, but others too. Anybody caught looking half wrong in the wrong place. Taking ‘em all in for a precaution, see if this arrest stops the butchering. Ambarys Rendar’s been off his damn head. And if any of ‘em confessed to the butchering—” She jabs her awl at you so violently that you flinch, even with six feet of space between you— “They’d be up on the Palace steps to die that day. Stormcloak’d bring back the blood eagle for ‘em too. So who’s gonna risk that kind of dying just to kill a few Nord girls?”

Blood eagle. A violent shudder crawls down your spine. His back laid bare, axe-hacked and split / in bleeding wings for eagle’s feast. Memorising that particular passage of the Edda, short as it was, gave your eight year-old self nightmares and made father furious.

“Stormcloak… said he’d bring back the blood eagle?”

“Guards been saying it. Ofsted, that prick. Wants a reason to gut us all. Tossed my whole shop and tried to say it was my tools did the butchering.” Scowling, she sheathes her awl. You don’t feel any safer when she plucks the big needle from her mouth and begins to thread it with waxed thread. “Priestess of Arkay had to tell ‘em that it wasn’t any cobbling tools that cut those girls up.”

For some reason, her simmering anger at the whole situation unsettles you far more than Viola’s most enthusiastic description of gore. It was easier to dismiss Viola as an attention-hound, exaggerating in order to inflate her minor role in the drama. Harder, though, to dismiss the rage of a woman who’s been chewed and spat out by the indiscriminate, ineffective workings of this whole tragedy. You… can’t imagine that Windhelm’s guard treated an Orc well in their custody. A spear butt to the ribs is likely the least of what she endured.

“How… how did you get out of jail?”

Her jaw works, tusks pinching into her cheeks. “I hadn’t done anything. Guards just picked me out of my shop. Steward made ‘em let me out so’s not to pay for my feeding.”

Quietly, you say, “I’m glad.”

It’s insufficient, and she clearly hears that. Her face still pinched and hard, she goes on sewing your boot’s soles together in silence. You don’t dare break it again. All you can do is make two more small notes in your journal— Priestess of Arkay? Palace steward?— and sit with your own uneasy thoughts.

 


 

Just after six bells, you present yourself at the door of Sadri’s Used Wares with a heavy basket under your arm. Wandering the uptown market all afternoon was an excellent use of your time: everyone there was happy to gossip, even if they looked darkly about while they did so. Conscious of your upcoming evening with Revyn Sadri, you also found a lovely cut of beefsteak, fatter than any wild game on the market in springtime, and two bottles of red wine. He might owe you hospitality, but you owe him gratitude.

“Evening,” you smile at the lamplighter near Sadri’s door, a Dunmer girl sparking wicks from her fingertips. She squints at you like you’re a thief, or possibly a skeever.

Nonplussed, you slip into the shop. Sadri’s laughter is the first thing you hear. While two men browse his wares, he’s lounging over the counter and chatting with another two people, all of them Dunmer and loose with laughter.

Look: you did that. Only this morning Sadri was an anxious mess.

“My newest friend!” Sadri calls when he spots you, spreading his arms. In the warm candlelight, his eyes sparkle. “Do come in. My home is yours.”

“You sound like you had a good day,” you tease.

“Who’s this, now?” one of the Dunmera sks Sadri. The other looks at you and says, brows quirked, “That’s quite a voice you have.”

Accent, he means. Your smile goes brittle. “Thanks,” you say coolly. “I was born with it.”

“I was just telling them about the very great favour you did me,” Sadri gushes, waving you over. “Retrieving my stolen wares from that smuggler, I mean. I don’t know what I’d have done if that shipment hadn’t come in.”

Despite his warmth, he flares his eyes at you in silent warning.

You renew your smile for him and say modestly, “It was nothing much. Happy to do it.” Silly you, not to have thought of a cover story beforehand. Good thing Sadri had it covered. Clever of him.

“You’re quite the wandering hero, aren’t you.”

“I’ve only been doing it for thirty years,” you joke. “You learn a few things.”

Sadri’s impressively swept eyebrows fly up. His eyes flick you up and down. “Thirty years! Well.”

Pleased but embarrassed by all the burning red eyes on you, you hold up your basket illustratively. “I hope you don’t mind me showing up now. I’ve brought a few things for supper.”

Surprisingly, when Sadri's eyes drop to your basket they go hard. Disgust flashes across his face.

“Have you.” After a moment, he flicks his hand at a curtain-covered doorway. “Go on, then.”

You can feel your misstep like a trap tile shifting underfoot. You just don’t know what you’ve done wrong. Confused by the cold dismissal, you hesitate a moment before ducking into the other room.

Behind you, one of the women at the counter says something sharp in Dunmeris. You, the nordling, don’t understand.

Revyn Sadri’s home is a single room, narrow and cramped. It’s not that he’s got too much; it’s that he has so little space that even the bare essentials of life scarcely fit. The bed nestles under a low canopy of broad wooden shelves going up to the ceiling, built to store his belongings. On one side of the hearth is a small table and single chair; on the other side is a pantry shelf.

What catches your eye, though, is the shrine opposite the doorway: a stand of deeply polished burl oak, its surface home to a neat arrangement of incense bowls, dried flower buds, cut twigs, and coins. The smell of it is deep and strange, like nothing you’ve ever known. And tucked underneath the stand, not so much hidden as housed, is a box, locked, made of wood gone black with age.

The shadowed space between the shrine stand’s legs yawns like an open doorway, empty but not. You stare, feeling the cold that rises from the dark silent halls of a tomb which waits. Even if you back away, it will wait. For tomorrow. For ten years. For a hundred. No matter.

In the shop behind you, Sadri’s customers are talking in the tone of farewells. Without taking your eyes off the shrine, you bow to it. You know enough of the world to recognize power, and not enough to risk disrespecting it. Father didn’t raise you stupid.

And Meridia didn’t make you her Champion for you to go about disrespecting the sanctity of hallowed death. Her gift, the Dawnbreaker, is a quiet weight in your pack— quiet for now, at least. You don’t know much about wielding swords, so you don’t often unsheathe it. But you did earn it.

When you look away from the shrine, it’s almost like there’s nothing there but a side table. The tomb waits for you no more obtrusively here than anywhere else. If you turn your mind elsewhere, you needn’t be burdened by it.

Sadri brushes into the room as you’re unloading your basket onto his dining table. “What have you brought me, then,” he says, but it’s cold.

“Beef,” you falter. “Some peppercorns. Wine— do you like red wine?”

His nostrils flare. “I usually eat at the New Gnisis Cornerclub. Not here.”

“Oh.”

“I can perfectly well afford to, you know,” he continues nastily. “And I can afford to feed you. Just what kind of pathetic, poverty-stricken ragpicker do you think I am?”

Your whole chest could cave in with mortification. “I don’t!” you protest. “I don’t think that at all. I was just trying to be polite. You’re my host, I’m your guest, I’m supposed to… It’s a gift. It's tradition.”

Thank Azura: this makes Sadri hesitate. The curl of his lip relaxes into confusion.

"Oh,” he says at last. His complexion shows no flush but his voice holds a shading of embarrassment. “...I see. That’s… different. That is— I thought— it’s only that I didn’t expect such manners! Oh, never mind. Let’s see what you’ve brought me.”

He’s determined to ignore his own overreaction, then. You’re glad to go along with it, but you also can’t forget that you made Revyn Sadri’s silver tongue falter. Like your own does so often.

Sadri ignores the knowing curve of your smile as he takes the wine bottle you offer.

“It's nice enough,” he says. “Beef, you said? I can do something with that. Get some cups from the shelf, would you? I might be your host but I won’t be waiting on you hand and foot.”

Goodness, he’s prickly when he’s embarrassed. Tickled by it, just a bit, you fetch cups— lovely little things of peach glass, very unlike Skyrim’s wood or enamel— and snag the ewer while you’re at it. Even though pouring the wine should be Sadri’s job, he’s clearly occupying himself with stoking the fire. You pour two cups and thin your own with water, leaving room for Sadri to water his if he wishes.

…Oh, but Sadri has lovely hands. Shells of grey ash crumble off the coals as he rakes them into the hearth’s centre, leaving molten-bright embers to tumble through his flitting fingers like his mere touch is enough to turn dull stones to gems. A touch here and there, never lingering, and his Dunmer hands resist the fire; it really looks magnificent to see someone else do that trick. His wrists, too: all sinew and fine bone, flexing tendons thrown in sharp contrast by the coals’ glow. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbow. He stacks kindling deftly, making a perfect cookfire square, and crowns it all with an iron trivet, which straddles the growing flames on three squat legs.

Like it’s nothing, Sadri sits back on his heels and claps off the ash and singed traces of what little hair grew on his knuckles. Before you can look away, he catches you staring.

“Lovely,” he says (why?) and stands, takes his wine, and drains it in one long swallow. “Mm. A little more?”

He goes off to gather cooking implements. You fill his cup with a hot, hot flush in your face. You’re such an embarrassment, Lleros. Out in the wilderness for far too long.

(But Dibella, it feels just as good as the spreading warmth of the wine and fire.)

When Sadri sets an armful of cookware on the table, you snag the mortar and pestle. That, at least, is something you know what to do with.

Sadri raises an eyebrow but doesn’t protest you pouring out the little paper twist of peppercorns. “So you like to cook, do you?”

“Well, I’m an alchemist by training… I suppose I do all right with cooking. Plenty of the same idea.”

“Alchemy, too! All right, what exactly were you training for?”

Grinning, you tell him how your father sent you to apprentice in Markarth as a child. Sadri sears the beefsteak and pries out the stories one by one, and makes it easy to keep telling him all about your education: gardening herbs with father, brewing in Markarth, hunting with mother, healing at the College, now adventuring on your own. You leave out that you’re Dragonborn, because it feels a little too much like bragging. But you’ll tell him eventually. After a little more wine, maybe.

Sadri pours the rest of the bottle into the skillet, sending up a sizzle and a savoury cloud. Imperiously, he makes you fetch a second chair from the shop’s storage room; you do it laughing, and then you and he sit and talk while leaving the meat alone to bubble with its onions. He uncorks the second bottle of wine, so sitting has turned to lounging by the time the beef is done.

You can’t help but make a little show of slicing the meat to ribbons with your bone-handled knife. (Does he notice?) You plate the meat neatly, and Sadri adds pungent vegetable pickle from a stone jar. When he spoons a bit of vinegary green sauce over his meat, you copy him even though you’ve no idea what it is.

“All right,” he sighs, finally leaning back halfway through his plate. “I admit this is a little better than Malthyr’s usual soup.”

“The company is excellent, too,” you say without thinking. Fortunately, all Sadri does is sniff and say, “Of course it is. I’m a delight,” to which you can laugh.

After dinner, when Sadri goes to collect the dishes, you automatically say, “Oh no, I can do it.”

He doesn’t even try to insist that he should— you’ll have to be careful about just what you offer to this proud man— so you end up washing dishes on the hearth while Sadri lounges slightly tipsily with the last cup of wine.There’s a peculiarity to the way he watches you, though: with curiosity and faint bafflement, like he can’t quite fathom you on your knees and doing his dishes. Like you might somehow be a product of the wine.

Your ears are flushed— your whole body is flushed and fizzy at this point— but you find you don’t mind being here, or being watched.

“Bed, then,” Sadri says, though by the tilt of his head it’s a question.

“Sure,” you agree, smiling muzzily. “I’m tired.”

“I’m sure,” he says, offering a hand to help you up. (Lovely hands.) “You’ve had quite a day. I’ve said, you know, how grateful I am.”

“Pff. It’s nothing. You don’t owe me a thing.”

“Still…”

Stopping beside Sadri’s bed, you turn and lay your hand on his hand, just where he’s still holding your elbow. “Really,” you say, all in earnest, smiling at his crow-footed eyes and poor frazzled hair. The last thing you would ever want is to pressure him in any way, whether with obligation or unwanted attention. “It’s nothing. I’m happy to help. Don’t worry about it. Just get a good sleep tonight. Divines know you deserve it.”

After a long moment, looking at you with brows furrowed, Sadri squeezes your elbow and releases you. “And you,” he says. “Is there anything else you need?”

“I’m fine. Here, I’ll get the rugs for you.”

You offered, so of course Sadri lets you climb the narrow ladder and pull rolled up rugs from one of the high shelves over his bed. You hand them down clumsily until he’s got enough of them stacked on the floor, plus extra blankets and a pillow stuffed with hay. The room is already going a little chilly now that the hearthfire has burned low.

With your back politely turned, you strip off your armour, shirt, boots and socks, and crawl between the covers of Sadri’s bed in your trousers. Sadri makes his own noise puttering about for a bit and then undressing. The candles go out. You thump your head into the pillow a few times— actual featherdown; better than at Candlehearth— and sigh in contentment.

Didn’t write in my journal, you realize as you’re drifting off. But never mind that; you can hardly light another candle now that Sadri’s in bed too. And you’re far too comfortable.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow you’ll write, and take another look over your notes, and go settle the score with Torbjorn Shatter-Shield. Just for tonight, you want to put the responsibility off.

No harm in one more night.

Chapter Text

Sadri sleeps poorly on the floor, rugs or no rugs. You know because he tosses and turns all night.

The first time he wakes you with restless rolling, the hearthfire’s embers are still glowing sullenly through their ash. You lift your head from the pillow, squint at Sadri’s outline sitting up in the bedroll, and mumble, “All right?”

B’vek. Sorry. Go back to sleep.”

You do, because you’ve known how to wake and sleep at the drop of a hat since you were fifteen. Interruptions don’t faze you, whether it’s an owl hooting in the trees, mother waking you for your watch, or an apprentice causing an explosion in the Hall of Attainment. The day after fleeing Helgen, you slept through midday on top of a loaded lumber wagon from Riverwood halfway to Whiterun, much to the carter’s amazement.

Sadri, evidently, could do no such thing. He wakes you again later, when the fire is dead and the room black.

“Wu’sit?”

Nothing,” Sadri hisses, even though he’s clearly dragging something across the floor.

Rude. As if it were his sleep you interrupted. A touch grumpy, you roll over and burrow deeper beneath the furs.

You’re not quite asleep when movement jerks you awake again. Fully annoyed, now, you listen to Sadri fumble for a cup, drink water, and shuffle back to his furs, all the while mumbling invective.

Eyes closed, breathing deliberately slowed, you occupy your mind with measured thoughts: the price of bread, the price of arrows, the coin in your purse, the distance to Kynesgrove. Thought leads on to thought: the weather outside, the likelihood of another storm before you reach Kynesgrove, and how slow it is to wear snowshoes. A carriage would be faster, or a horse. Even if you had a horse, though, it would walk away constantly. Or you’d walk away and leave it behind. Never where you need it to be.

Where is the beast now? You double back through an indistinct town, the buildings identical to every building you’ve ever seen, and find your horse. You mount and ride it, though riding one of Skyrim’s stolid horses is scarcely faster than running. So scarcely, in fact, that you’d rather fly. Pleased with that thought, you hover out of the saddle. Riding becomes soaring, wingless, easy— at least until you realize you should have wings, and find yourself back in the saddle.

No matter. You can ride your horse directly up this mountain; she’s a magnificent beast. The dragon’s at the summit. You’ve got to come up from behind. Catch it with its eyes shut. Up this crag, along this slope, over this boulder and up the cliff, the horse’s hooves as sure as stone—

(ah. i’m dreaming.)

—but never mind, this is amusing. You force your mind to drift away from the tangible grasp of logic and relax back into the dream. Up the mountain— that’s it, up the mountain, keep going, dream.

Oh. Too late: you’ve reached the dragon. Face to face. It’s Ranmaariisk, and he has your eyes. (Did he always?) He’s burning, scales flaking like paper, so terrible that you reach forward to stop the fire but you can’t, you can’t reach him. Can’t reach Mirmulnir, who stares into you with slitted eyes and speaks, mouthing words without breath over the roar of the fire. You have to hear! Someone jostles you— holding you back—

—someone pulls the covers back and icy air blasts down your spine. You garble out a curse of shock, grab at the blankets, but your lips and your limbs are so sleep-stupid that nothing works.

Shit,” Sadri groans, sounding half-dead himself. “The Void m’I…? You. Shit.”

He woke up on the floor and wondered why he wasn’t in his bed. And now you’re awake too. Again.

“Just get in,” you growl, rolling heavily over to the back of the mattress. “‘S cold as tits.”

“I—”

Now.”

Sadri fumbles into bed behind you, an indistinct press of clothing and hot skin and cold feet. It takes a few seconds of grunting and twisting to settle, what with him lying on your hair and you, apparently, hogging the blankets.

When at last he’s situated, Sadri does make a wonderful warmth against your back. Not wonderful enough to make you less grumpy, since you wouldn’t have been cold in the first place if he’d not lifted the covers. But it helps you fall back asleep.

You close your eyes.

Sadri is moving at your back again, letting a chill draft down your neck. Barely conscious, you pull at the blanket and roll over into the warm void he left. The room is grey-lit, filtered through windowpanes that must be frosted.

Drowsing in your pile of blankets, you watch through bleary lashes as Sadri gets dressed. It’s not particular, the watching; he just happens to be in front of you and you’re comfortable lying there.

Buttoning his vest, Sadri catches sight of you. “Comfy, are we?” Obviously he’s being snide because he’s standing out in the cold and you’re not.

“Mmm,” you agree, indolent as a cat, and go back to sleep.

The noise of customers in Sadri’s shop, one thin curtain away, finally pulls you out of bed. The rekindled hearthfire has warmed the air at least, though the floorboards remain cold enough to make you curse.

Judging by the dishes in a stack by the hearth, you slept right through Sadri cooking and breaking his fast. He very kindly left a bowl of porridge on the table, damp tea leaves in the pot, and the kettle on its hook.

While waiting for tea to steep, you work your way through the cold porridge. It makes for a filling meal, at least. And it’s free.

"Ah, you’re finally awake,” drawls Sadri when you slip past the curtain.

“I didn’t sleep much last night,” you retort, feeling free to gently mock back because you known the customers have left. You’d not risk anyone drawing the wrong conclusions if they could overhear. “I wonder why.”

“And here I thought you could sleep through anything. You didn’t even twitch when I dropped the kettle.”

You snort, moving over to one of the looking-glasses hanging on a wall to unravel your untidy braid and comb it out. “At least I don’t snore.”

“I— what, do I? I’ve never had any complaints.”

“No, but if I did, you’d probably never have gotten to sleep last night. I take it you don’t sleep on the floor much.”

“I find that my own bed is much more suitable,” Sadri says with poisonous pleasantry.

Even though it’s not your fault for displacing him from the bed— he insisted you take it!— you can’t help but flush. Yes, no doubt he usually sleeps in his own bed. Even when there are other people in it. Who don’t complain about him snoring.

That’s not a subject you meant to bring up, yet you can’t help wondering...

“Thank you for breakfast,” you say, doggedly avoiding that thought. “It was excellent.”

Sadri raises a brow. Archly, he says, “Not a service everyone gets.”

What is that look supposed to mean? Can he see you having lewd thoughts, is that it?

Embarrassed, you occupy yourself with doing a little braid in your hair. Matching braids by your ears today, yes, plus one in the back. You can use those new beads Sadri sold you the other day. You’ve still got Susanna’s red hair ribbon, too.

Best to look respectable today. Ulfric Stormcloak may not have cared about your appearance— at least, not beyond the sight of your ears— but Torbjorn Shatter-Shield just might.

“I have a question,” you say, though you still don’t look back at Sadri. “Do you know much about people around town?”

“I daresay I know more than most. And what I know is accurate, too.”

Thank the Divines, he’s practically purring over the change of topic. Perhaps he’ll leave off with the insinuating glances.

“Well, if you’re going to stay awhile, come and sit over here.” There’s the noise of Sadri pulling out a stool behind the shop counter.  “If you want my knowledge, you can pay a little for it. This place doesn’t run itself, you know.”

With your braids finished, you join him at the counter. He’s got a tin of silver polish and set of antique cutlery spread across a rag, practically black with age. Once you’re set on cleaning the tarnish to Sadri’s satisfaction, he tells you all about Torbjorn Shatter-Shield. Working together makes the questioning feel companionable.

One new piece of information makes your heart leap hard: Torbjorn’s daughter Friga was a victim of the Butcher. She’s been in the tomb barely a month.

“Her mother Tova told me she wanted to sell Friga’s clothing,” Sadri says, “but she hasn’t actually come by. They’re all still grieving, of course. I’ll wait a while longer before I inquire. Don’t mention me to the Shatter-Shields if you see them.”

You had no idea your two quests in Windhelm were linked. As far as you can tell, there’s nothing substantial connecting the Butcher and Torbjorn but wretched luck. Nonetheless, the coincidence makes you uneasy.

“Why do you want to know about Torbjorn, anyway? And don’t tell me it’s not my business. My advice depends on what you want with him. You can’t sell at a buyer’s dinner.”

So you tell him about the Argonians living on the docks, poorly paid and stepped on like boots. It turns out that Sadri has plenty to say about that, too, though he denies involvement.

“Really,” he says, dabbing more polish on his rag with a flourish, “Ambarys Rendar at the Cornerclub deals with them more than me. You wouldn’t think he’d care for the Argonians, the way he talks… Actually, I’m not sure he does. But he’s been working on improving relations across the city wall for the last twenty years. At first things were so bad that they’d barely let a Dunmer speak, let alone listen. Considering some of the things that happened, I’m not sure I blame them. But it didn’t make for good business, which is what Ambarys wants.”

“The things that happened?”

Sadri winces. “Oh, Azura. It’s not relevant. Plenty of people here still remember Morrowind, is all I mean. You’re too young to know. Perhaps your parents told you?”

It takes effort to quell your annoyance. You are well aware that the things you don’t know about Morrowind could fill an ocean, and the things you do know a mere bucket, useless on the tide. It doesn’t seem Sadri meant to take a jab at you, though. “About what?”

“The Argonians in Morrowind.”

Teeth that could tear your arms right off, says mother’s voice. You believe her— you’ve seen their teeth— yet you also remember the dockworkers and your idiotic, insulting ignorance. It makes you doubt everything you want to think about them. “Not really.”

“Perhaps that’s for the best. I mean…”

Sadri clearly wants to change the topic and this line of questioning won’t help you handle Shatter-Shield. You still fix Sadri with a pleading stare. You know you’re ignorant. That doesn’t mean you like it.

Sadri capitulates to your woeful eyes with a dramatic sigh. “There was a bout of trouble with the Argonians about forty years ago,” he explains. His tone makes an attempt at unconcerned, but his face is tense, difficult to read. “It was shameful, really. The Grulathil daughters, who were they... Myna and Sevyna. They moved away from Windhelm years ago, started up a village with a number of other families. All well and good, until they came back to Windhelm to convince more people to move out.”

“And?”

“They went to the docks, too. Talked to the Argonians. Made quite a stir, with people wondering why the Grulathils would go to all the trouble of building up a village just for our people only to bring in Argonians too. Didn’t convince many dockworkers, either. For the best.”

Sadri is… extraordinarily focused on the silver fork he’s polishing. The tarnish in tricky crevices can hardly merit such a deep furrow between his brows.

“In the end, it, ah… it seemed they’d been planning to... enslave the Argonians.”

What?”

Tersely, he says, “Yes. Once they’d got them to move away from Windhelm peacefully. Families and all. The whole village had decided on it. Not enough hands to keep crops alive in rough ground, apparently. Thought life would be easier with slaves again. But with the dockworkers not convinced…”

If anything, Sadri’s shamed hesitation makes your rage burn hotter. Slavery in Skyrim, in this day and age? Slavery by Dunmer? Is that what he meant about Argonians in Morrowind, is that what you’re to understand? That it wasn’t only done to Dunmer like your father, indentured to pay his grandfather’s debts?

"What happened?"

“They kidnapped a few,” he says shortly. “Out of the Assemblage. The blighted fetchers offered wine as a gift, but they’d poisoned it. With the whole Assemblage sick or unconscious that night, they took some of the younger ones off into a boat and went up the river.”

Damn them,” you say— too loudly, but you don’t care. Raw hatred feels almost like fire in your throat, like Yol nearly live in your vocal cords. If only you had a target. Cursing them to the Divines is all you can do right now.

Sadri winces but doesn’t disagree. “It was chaos afterward, obviously. Some of the Argonians swam upriver after them, and practically the whole rest of the Assemblage stormed the city gates. They got halfway through the Quarter, tearing everything up, smashing in every door. Fought every Dunmer they found. Then the city guard arrived, and… that did not help.”

Surly, sick to your stomach, you growl, “Good.”

“Hundreds of people died,” Sadri says flatly. His stare is pure, soul-curling disgust.

It curdles the sick satisfaction you’d felt at the thought of slavers being beaten in the streets. Because it hadn’t been the slavers who died in that riot, had it. It had been innocent people who happened to look like them. Even if some of those people had agreed with the Grulathils, surely not every one had. And no doubt many of the Argonians had been killed too, whether by Dunmer or the guards.

Now you feel small and stupid and shameful. Look, Lleros: given half a chance, you’ll be just as disgusting as every other bigot out there. Even saying I’m sorry for your hatefulness isn’t enough to make Sadri forget you felt it.

Sadri doesn’t quite relent, but after a long moment he does move on. “Anyway,” he says deliberately, picking up another tarnished fork. “The Argonians caught the Grulathils some way up the river. They were mostly focused on getting the children back, but they managed to drown Myna. Sevyna got away. The Eastmarch guard went looking for her in Hla Ruhn. They didn’t find her, but at least she couldn’t go back there. Last I heard, she’d probably joined some bandit gang.”

Maybe I killed her. After all, you’ve killed plenty of bandits, some of them Dunmer women. For all you know, Sevyna Grulathil is already rotting in some cave with an arrow in her skull.

The idea is appealing— and that makes it uncomfortable. It comes from a dark, stubborn part of your brain that remains hateful despite having been shamed. What you’re hoping for isn’t justice, isn’t bounty hunting to protect the innocent, it’s… a blood price.

There have been plenty of songs sung about lawful vengeance. Blood for blood. The satisfaction of dishonour. You’ve just never wanted to seek it for yourself.

At last, Sadri coughs when the silence becomes too oppressive. “As I said. Things haven’t been good between the Argonians and the Grey Quarter. Ambarys has put in a great deal of work to improve that. Buying supplies on their behalf. Getting his runners to deliver goods from inside the city. Some work with the healers.”

When you still don’t respond, Sadri heaves a great sigh. “Stop making that face, would you? It’s not like this happened yesterday. Those children grew up years ago. Things are better.” He sniffs. “I told you it was best you didn’t know.”

“No,” you say quietly. “I should know.”

"If you insist.” Then Sadri shoves another spoon in your face. “Keep cleaning.”

A reluctant smile comes to your mouth. He’s irrepressible. “So that’s why the Argonians can’t come in the city.”

“Oh, no. That was back when Hoag was Jarl. Once the riot was put down, he actually made an attempt to sort out what had happened and why. He was not pleased about the slaving. The Argonians were banned from going anywhere near the Grey Quarter to keep things from flaring up again, but they still used the main gate to reach the market. They weren’t banned from the city until Ulfric took over.”

Ulfric again. Does his spite ever end? “Why then?”

Sadri makes an elaborately skeptical face. “The risk of rioting, of course. Security of the city. Twenty years late. Or maybe it was the way Ambarys had started getting on with their headman, bringing joint complaints to the Jarl. Or maybe he just doesn’t like them.” He taps your hand. “Polish!”

A moment later, Sadri adds, “Now that I think of it… funny you were talking about Torbjorn Shatter-Shield. He was still getting started in the shipping business back then. I seem to recall Ambarys has a special hate for him. Could have been that Torbjorn didn’t like Ambarys acting as a middleman for the Argonians, getting part of that business…”

“So he asked Ulfric to break them up?”

“You’d have to ask Ambarys. But I’d believe it.”

“Wonderful,” you mutter. As if it weren’t bad enough that you’re trying to interfere with a powerful merchant from an old family, now he might have the ear of the Jarl, too.

“Do be careful, won’t you?”

Surprised, you look up at Sadri. He’s paused in his polishing and is regarding you with a hesitant, strangely worried expression.

“Torbjorn Shatter-Shield isn’t a man to tangle with lightly. He started from nothing, and now he’s nearly on top. The people who used to be in his way? They’re nowhere to be seen these days. He’s not about to let his success be threatened. Especially not by some uppity elf.”

Your mouth twists as if those words came sourly from your own tongue. “He’s like that, is he?”

“In Windhelm? Safest to assume that every Nord is like that. Not to say you can’t talk your way around it,” he adds, “but you’ve got to know where you’re starting from.”

“And now I do. Thank you.”

Sadri sniffs loftily. “I suppose I’ll find out one way or another tonight when you come back. If you come back.”

His play at insulting does what it’s meant to, prickling up a little challenge in your blood and a little grin on your face. “Of course I’ll be back. I know what I’m doing.”

Caught by a streak of wickedness, you tap Sadri on the nose with the spoon you’re holding. His outraged splutter is precisely what your spirits needed. Before he can retaliate, you put the spoon down and stand, wiping the last of the silver polish from your fingers.

“Thank you,” you repeat sincerely. “I’ll be back soon. What kind of wine do you want to celebrate with tonight?”

Sadri glowers fit to light your hair on fire. “If it’s not Raven Rock Sujamma, don’t bother showing up.”

You’re certain you’ve seen that exact expression of mortal offence on a splashed cat. You’re equally certain that, just as with a cat, you can redress this offence with a few treats and a bit of stroking.

Grinning, you collect the day’s necessities from your pack and strike out to settle the matter with Torbjorn Shatter-Shield.

Rather than heading directly for the docks, however, you turn the opposite way. You recall something about the Cornerclub being on High Street, and that’s where Sadri said Ambarys Rendar was.

It takes longer than it should to find the place. The signage along this street is good, with most buildings marked as shops or services by the images on their swinging placards. Most of the words on those signs, however, are in Dunmeris. You remember far more about Daedric sigils as magical symbols than as the letters your father tried to teach you years ago.

A passing Dunmer gives you directions, as well as a truly condescending look that you do your best to ignore. You’ll have to apologize to father in your next letter, though. Maybe find a book to brush up on your Dunmeris.

The building she directed you to has no sign. It’s marked instead by an array of tattered banners, most in shades of red and yellow. Braziers meant to heat the deep stone porch have left immense black fountains of soot up the walls and columns, obscuring much of the Nordic stonework. Above the porch is a dovecote built into an upper window, which may supply the Cornerclub with meat and eggs but also threatens passers-by with falling excrement. Neither the daylight nor the fresh snow makes the place look anything but dingy.

Inside is a single large room, difficult to make out because the barkeep hasn’t bothered lightning lamps for an empty house. When your eyes begin adjusting, you make out a room much like any ale hall, save that the beams are hung with yet more banners and the wooden walls have been mudded a sandy brown.

After a moment, the very sleepy Dunmer behind the bar lifts his head. “Morning,” he says groggily.

“Is this the Cornerclub?”

“The New Gnisis Cornerclub, yes. C’n I—” He stifles a huge yawn. “Sorry. Can I get you anything?”

“Just beer,” you say, because it’s polite to spend at least a few coins if you’re seeking information. You knock snow from your boots and cross the empty room.

“Shh,” the barkeep hisses. “Most folks’re still sleeping.”

He’s also quite hungover, you think.

Exchanging the mug of warm beer for a silver without asking the price, you ask, “Would I find Ambarys Rendar around here?”

The barkeep quirks a sleepy brow at you. “You certainly would. He’s the owner. Asleep now, though. He won’t be up until midday unless the club is burning down.”

“Oh.” Disappointed, you drink your watery beer. It’s clearly not the alcohol that people come here for.

“Anything else I can get for you? The soup’s not on, but we’ve got bread, eggs, sausage…”

“I’ve eaten. Oh! But do you have, what’s it called... Raven Rock Sujamma?”

“We do indeed! Got a fresh shipment in last week. Sadri says this is his best blend yet.”

Startled, you repeat, “Sadri said— no, sorry, wait.” Malthyr stops with an uncorked bottle hovering above a clean cup. “I’d like a whole bottle, I mean.”

Despite its supposed freshness, the new bottle he produces from beneath the bar is covered in a film of fine dust. No: ash. It gives off a strong smell of stone and charred wood, not quite like a fire but also utterly unlike the dry, stale dust of cobwebbed corners.

“How much is that?”

“Fifteen septims.”

“I’ll take another.”

“Gold septims,” he clarifies.

“Yes,” you agree, fishing in your purse. “Here you are.”

He takes the coins with a little bow and a smile that makes his hangover seem to vanish. Oh, but he’s handsome, even with his hair rumpled: eyes red as rubies, wide mouth framed by a neat beard. “Can I get you anything else?” he asks, in a voice that makes you want to say yes.

“No, that’s it,” you demur, a touch breathlessly. “Thanks.”

“Should I tell Ambarys…”

“No, no, that’s fine.” Hastily you drain your mug of beer, then slip the sujamma into your belt pack. “Have a good day.”

“It was a pleasure,” he says, a touch bemused.

You have been living out in the wilderness for too long.

Although you didn’t get to speak to Ambarys after all, you’re relieved to be out of that dark, sad bar. Out of the Grey Quarter, too— not that the docks are much better, for pity’s sake. Divines help this whole sad city.

Chin up, Lleros. That’s what you’re here to do.

Just before the Rivergate, you begin adjusting your appearance. Aiming to look more approachable, you pull down your hood, which means you’ve also got to rub Resist Cold salve on your ears. Nothing ruins a smooth lie like chattering teeth. You move your waterskin from inside your winter robes to your outermost belt, alongside your dagger and pack. It won’t freeze in the next half hour, and now you need it accessible: this morning, you filled it with the Philter of Glibness.

Drinking random potions on the street is always questionable behaviour. However, there’s nothing suspicious about sipping water, even in the middle of a conversation.

I’ve heard Torbjorn spends a lot of time down at the docks these days, Sadri said. Not keeping an eye on his business— he doesn’t do much of that, according to Suvaris— just… staring at the water. And drinking. Seems he’s avoiding the market, except when he escorts Tova or Nilsine around.

When you were buying the beef for last night’s supper, you had quietly asked the Dunmer meat merchant if he knew where you could find Torbjorn. Why, right over there, he’d said. The man he’d gestured to had been standing three stalls away, arm in arm with a woman who equally as grey, drawn, and tired as he. He was tall, for a Nord, and old enough that all the hair on his head had gone instead to his jaw. He’d done most of the speaking for his wife, verbalizing her requests and haggling for the produce she gestured vaguely to; nonetheless, the emptiness in his eyes had suggested that he was even less present than she.

By the light of day, Torbjorn Shatter-Shield doesn’t look any better. If anything, he stoops worse now that he’s alone, standing halfway down an empty dock to stare out at the river and ignoring the hustle of dockworkers and bawling sailors all around.

Here we go. You lift the waterskin to your lips for a fortifying sip. To your surprise, the Philter of Glibness tastes primarily of mint rather than bogwater. ‘Primarily’ being the key word, since there is definitely bogwater underneath. And as an aftertaste. As far as potions go, though, a murky vegetal aftertaste is mild and preferable. Apparently there is something to Master Nurelion’s insistence that Alchemists Guild stock should be highly marked up.

A moment later, a pressure wave pulses through your brain. The kick in your bloodstream is strong. Before you can think, you’re pulling at the neckline of your robes, fumbling in the tangle of amulets around your neck for…

An amulet of Arkay? You pulled this off a draugr in a barrow some months ago and hadn’t gotten around to selling it. You’ve never seen the harm in wearing an amulet for every Divine, though it’s made a few devotees furious: as if broad and flexible worship is somehow cheap. But what do you need with this…?

It’s the potion working, you realize. You can nearly feel the chain of thought linking on to some blurry future intent, a thought in your mind but not of it.

And while you wait here trying to understand magic with logic, time is ticking on. With a deep breath, you stride towards Torbjorn, pulling the amulet free of the tangle and dropping it prominently on your chest.

That blurry intent without insight leads you to lean on the low wall at the edge of the wharf, near Torbjorn but not too close. The stone pillar beside the dock is engraved with a familiar crest: a long-handled sword upright between two halves of a split shield. The Shatter-Shields are important enough to own private docks here, then.

Sigh, whispers the potion, and you do. Look at the water. Look at the ships.

Torbjorn isn’t even facing you. What else? You take another nervous gulp of potion.

Words slam into your brain full-force: “Excuse me, sir?” Your voice comes out hesitant, and that may be how you feel but it’s not how you meant to sound. “You don’t happen to know… Could I ask you a few questions?”

Torbjorn looks over his shoulder at you, gruff and unwelcoming. “What is it?”

Look down. Look up again. Embarrassed. Bewildered. “Do you know about these ships? Could you tell me… I don’t even know. Where are they going? What’s everyone doing here?”

“Are you some kind of simpleton, boy? What do you take me for?”

“I’m sorry,” you blurt. Mortified. “I’m only asking because… It’s stupid. Never mind me.” Look away at the water. Blink hard. No, don’t stop talking or he’ll accept the demurral. “I was supposed to be here with a friend, she said— she always said she’d take me to Windhelm one day and show me the docks and tell me all about the ships. She said you could see all of Skyrim coming into this port and it was just... She loved it.”

(What are these words? This is not the story you had planned! Drink, quickly; you can’t run out of inspiration now.)

“And?” Torbjorn demands. But it’s not a flat dismissal: there’s a thread of hesitation in his voice. The thread that says he’s on your hook.

Embarrassed. Upset. “I shouldn’t be here without her.”

“Well, where is she then?”

“She died.”

The potion puts a masterful tremble in your voice, a tremor of grief you couldn’t have faked. Even though you’re staring into the distance, blinking hard to hold back nonexistent tears, you see the word strike Torbjorn like a blow. Died. Now the potion’s inspiration is clear to you.

Not wanting to leave your lies to chance just yet, you lift the waterskin to your mouth and take another sip. You wince as if the contents burn. Spirits rather than water for the grieving friend.

“I thought… I don’t know what I was thinking. That maybe if I came here like we always said we would, everything would be the same again. But it’s not. It’s all wrong.” As if remembering Torbjorn, you look back at him in shame. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be wasting your time. Clearly I’m in no state to be out talking to anyone.”

“No,” says Torbjorn, staring at you. He probably doesn’t know that he looks gutted. Mara’s mercy, you’ve taken all the grief he’s been trying to hide and put it on display, pulled the agony right out of his chest, and he’s no strength left to swallow it down again. “That’s… No. It’s all right.”

Then he laughs harshly. “It’s not all right, is it. Such a stupid thing to say. I can’t stand hearing it.”

You force a wet little laugh to match him, but he hardly needs your input any more. He’s thinking about Friga. You’ve got him.

(You are terrible. Is it your fault if the potion gave you those words? Maybe not. It’s your fault for feeling so triumphant about it, though.)

Shoulders hunched against the bitter wind, Torbjorn comes down the dock to stand beside you, gruff and awkward. “Said she was your friend?”

You wipe your nose and look away. “Best friend. Since we were little. Brelyna.” The potion puts that name in your mouth: a woman you’ve known for years at the College. There’s no risk of you forgetting things about her or contradicting your own lies if they’re based on reality.

“I lost my daughter this summer.” Torbjorn’s voice and eyes are far-off. You scarcely know if he even heard you— not that your imaginary grief matters. This is all about getting to him. “My little Friga. Killed by some damn butcher.”

His sudden savagery makes you wince. What are you doing, Lleros, picking at his grief like this? (It’s for the Argonians.) You don’t have to fake sincerity to whisper, “I’m sorry.”

“Poor Nilsine has been wrecked ever since. Tova barely speaks these days. People keep trying to comfort her, but it seems most of them make her feel worse. Nothing anybody says means a thing. Not when your little girls is...”

Please Mara, make him stop crying. You are wretched. Vile.

Torbjorn catches his breath after a moment or two, swallowing hard. That doesn’t stop the tear trickling into his beard.

The pulse of magical intent in your brain has faded to the weakest flicker. You desperately want another sip of the potion. Before you can get it, Torbjorn straightens himself and looks right at you, his red-rimmed eyes like gimlets.

“I’ve been shouldering my days with strong mead, but nothing gives my Tova peace. Words mean little. I’ve been looking for an amulet of Arkay to remind her that our child is with the gods now, but I’ve not been able to find one. Yet... I notice you have one.”

Startled, you automatically touch the amulet. His eyes fall to it, full of cold need.

“I know it’s unkind to even ask,” Torbjorn says, though he doesn’t look contrite. He has his own grief to handle, and his daughter’s and wife’s; he has no strength left to care about yours. “It’s the only thing I can think of that might help Tova.”

“No,” you say, “of course. It’s fine. Brelyna was my friend, my best friend, but... Friga was your daughter. I’ve had months to grieve here, and now at least I’m here. You can have it. I pray it helps.”

Torbjorn accepts the cold, heavy amulet on his callused palm like an offering. There’s no disguising its age: the workmanship is blunt, unrefined, and rust darkens the carved crevices of the beads and half-torc. The carnelian drop at the centre of the amulet has a waxy lustre and looks dark under the cold wintry sky. In this moment, the gem reminds you of nothing more than raw flesh. Is every amulet of Arkay so visceral, and you’ve just never noticed? Or only this one, plundered from a grave and bound for a butchered woman’s mother?

“Thank you,” Torbjorn says slowly, staring down at the amulet. “I hope Arkay grants my wife some comfort.”

“So do I. And you. Will you… do me one favour for it, though?” Before he can finish reaching for his purse, you say with a tremulous smile, “Will you tell me about the ships?”

Torbjorn huffs, too weary to laugh but relieved enough to return your smile. There is, you think, a little sympathy in his eyes. (Mara forgive you. You don’t deserve it.) “The ships,” he repeats. “Your friend’s ships. Aye, friend. I’ll tell you all you wish to know.”

You look out over the busy wharf with him for a moment. At last you have the opportunity to lift your waterskin and drink again. The potion’s kick makes you wince and blink tears. If Torbjorn notices, he says nothing.

“What’s that one?” You wipe your eye with a knuckle and point at the brightest spot on the river: a trim, tough-looking ship with emerald green sails and a purple pennant at the bow. Even furled, its sails are brilliant.

“The Empress of the Wind,” Torbjorn says with grudging admiration. “You’ve got a good eye. She’s a fast one. Comes out of Hammerfell, from here to Hegathe every two months in the summer. In a week she’ll be gone until next year. More’s the pity, since we could use those swords in the war.”

“What about that one, where’s it going?”

“Sarding’s Win. Looks like she’s a little late out of its berth for fishing today. Might be going to fetch salt from Winterhold. Or it might be that the baby kept Korla awake last night.”

“They keep a baby on the ship?”

“It’s a boat, not a ship. Only one sail, see. Korla said if she made the baby on board, and had it on board, then it could stay on board until it grows up and takes over for her.” Torbjorn’s stare goes distant even as he watches the boat gliding away ever faster, caught in the river’s main current. “I don’t blame her. When Nilsine was born I didn’t want to let her out of my sight. She was my first. Friga was smaller, though.”

Distract, hisses the potion. If you let grief take Torbjorn, you’ll lose him. “Brelyna always said she wanted children one day,” you lie. If anything, Brelyna disliked babies more than you; she had actually been around infant cousins and knew what they were like. “She wanted…” You swallow noisily. “Never mind. Sorry. What’s the metal for, on the front of the boat?”

“Ice breaking,” Torbjorn says, just as gruff as you. “Keeps the floes from crushing the hull, too, if it gets trapped.”

“It’s so small to be out at sea. Does it go far?”

“All the way to Northpoint over in High Rock. She’s one of mine.”

“Is it? You’ve got boats? How many?”

“Ships, friend. Mine are ships. I started with nothing, and now I’ve got five.” His voice firms with pride. That was something Sadri pointed out: that Torbjorn Shatter-Shield may be from an old clan, but he’s not old money, not like Viola Giordano. He built his wealth himself— on the backs of others, though he clearly doesn’t acknowledge that— and he’s full proud of it. “The White-Breaker there, the Blue Wind, the Sea-Stag, Kynareth’s Tide, and Tova’s Joy.”

“What are they for?”

“I run a shipping business. Going on twenty years now. I’ve got other captains with their own ships working for me, too. Lately I’ve even been beating out the East Empire Company for Eastmarch and the northern ports. It took some work, but it was work worth doing.”

From the grim satisfaction in his voice, one would think he’d done all that work himself. According to Sadri, Torbjorn hasn’t set foot on one of his ships since the Blue Wind was crewed by two sailors and four penniless veterans of the Great War. As soon as he could afford to quit the tar’s life, he did. You don’t begrudge that in and of itself! But given how Torbjorn treats the Argonians who actually do his work, you’re not feeling charitable about how much credit the man deserves to take.

Not yet. The Philter of Glibness swerves your mind away from the Argonians almost as soon as you think of them. What comes out of your mouth instead is, “That’s incredible. How did you do that?”

Stories are the soul and seam of Skyrim, and near every Nord wants to believe that their own story is an integral part of history, one day worthy to be remembered by all. Torbjorn Shatter-Shield is the same. You make yourself an appreciative audience and he gives you his whole history in words clearly rehearsed, refined. He’s spent years been building up his tale as well as his business.

You don’t blame him. You do the same to yourself, a little: in journal entries when you’ve half a mind that they might be re-read one day, and in tavern stories where you show your scars as proof of deed, trying to earn admiration and free ale in equal measures.

All the same, you hear the gaps in Torbjorn’s story. He speaks of back-breaking work as if he did it alone. He boasts of shrewd spend-thrift as if that were not money taken from the pockets of his workers. In these silences you hear his wrongs, and you nurse your own silent anger.

Soon.

The conclusion of Torbjorn’s telling finds you leaning against one of the dock’s posts, nodding along and casually sipping from your waterskin (scant sips that barely wet your tongue, just enough to keep the magic alive in the back of your mind). Torbjorn has pulled out his own mead horn, a length of mammoth tusk with silver fittings and a clever clasping lid. He seems to be drinking out of ease right now, rather than grief. The tension in the papery skin of his temples has faded.

Now.

You take a long, deep swallow of the potion, draining half the skin. Through the brilliant dazzle of magic, your mouth asks with perfect incredulity, “How many people does it take to move that much stock? Back home, the biggest farm had twelve people.” You haven’t been such a wide-eyed farmboy in almost thirty years but it plays very well with Torbjorn.

Torbjorn chuckles with deep satisfaction. “Ten times that.”

No.”

“Yes. A little more than that, even. See all those boots?” He gestures lazily down the length of the wharf, over the crowd of Argonians hauling carts and heaving ropes. Potion or no, you can’t help flinching at the word. “Half of them are mine.”

(My people are not slaves!)

“Boots?” you repeat carefully. The look you give Torbjorn is hesitant, as if this were the first cause you’ve had to doubt him.

"I know what you’re thinking,” he agrees, nodding. “But it’s purely a business decision. They cost less than Nords. They work a little less, of course, but a bit of leverage keeps them in line.”

“How much less?”

“About a tenth,” he says, stuffed with pride at his own conniving cleverness. “If you offer a Nord three septims a day, he’ll spit in your face. The boots will take it and be grateful.”

Three septims? Three? You spent that much on hot cider at the market yesterday.

Torbjorn catches sight of the expression on your face. His proud smile stills, slackens.

“I didn’t take you for a cruel man, my friend.” The coldness is yours; the disappointment is the potion’s.

“It’s just business,” he says, still trying to teach the country rube something new about his work. “It’s not cruelty.”

“Isn’t it?” you demand. “Zenithar have pity, how do they eat on that coin? I’d work slower too, if I was starving.”

Torbjorn frowns, hesitates, his awful surety in his own cleverness caught on your logic. Didn’t consider that, did he? And it cannot be comfortable to have someone appealing the Divines for help against him.

“How do they eat?” you press. “Since they can’t even go in the city to shop.”

Torbjorn’s shoulders shift defensively. “That’s not really my lookout. They get it delivered, I suppose.”

“So it comes from the market, then?”

“It must. What of it?”

“It’s the same goods you trade, then!” He blinks, taken aback. “All their clothes, their ironware, their, their soap, their furs— you ship all of those, you said. You sell to the market, the market sells to them, and the market buys more. You get the money back!” It’s too strident, even with the potion putting words in your mouth. Torbjorn’s jaw is tightening. Before he can retort you falter visibly, as if also realizing that you’re a country hick trying to lecture Torbjorn on his own business. A little embarrassed, chin ducked, you push through to conclude, “So… if you pay them more, and they buy more… you still get that money back. Don’t you?”

Torbjorn runs his fingers through his bushy beard, still frowning but mollified enough to sit with your words. “I… suppose,” he says at last, clearly discomforted. “That’s not every detail of it, but it’s close enough.”

Now. Gently.

Low, quiet, eyes full of disappointed reproach, you say, “You really ought to pay them fairly.”

Torbjorn tugs his beard, mouth twisting. You can’t tell what he’s brooding on, save that he’s dissatisfied with all of it. Despite the thrill of nervy anticipation that goes up your spine, you hold his stare: not expectant, not condemning, just quietly sad that your new friend in grief is not the man you thought he was.

“I may be a little harsh on them,” Torbjorn admits finally, like he wants his beard to muffle the words so you won’t actually hear them. “If you truly think the Argonians need more coin, my friend, I’ll make it happen. By the honour of Clan Shatter-Shield, they’ll be paid fairly.”

So in the end, it wasn’t because your arguments were strong enough or he recognized his own cruelty. It was because he doesn’t want you to perceive a stain on his family’s honour.

But it’s victory. You’ll take it.

A brilliant smile unfolds across your face: astonished, delighted by his change of heart. It’s the reward Torbjorn wants for his generosity.

“Thank you.” And thank Azura you still have the potion inspiring your words, because you wouldn’t be able to mouth that platitude otherwise. “It’ll be worth it. You’ll see.”

Torbjorn grunts, reluctantly pleased. “We’ll see. Could be they’ll work harder to keep my favour, too.”

Keep smiling, Lleros. “Could be. The Nine alone know our future.”

Torbjorn’s brows jump a little at that, a Dunmer like you mentioning the Nine. Nords are always so impressed by that. Then his face softens, a kind of sorrowful affection coming over it.

“Don’t take anything for granted in life, my friend,” he tells you, clasping your arm in compassion, in need for companionship. Some fleeting reminder has brought grief back into his eyes: maybe a word you said, or the tilt of your head. “Nothing lasts forever.”

You remember your own imaginary bereavement and return the sad smile. “I know. I won’t. Thank you, again.”

“And you.” His hand goes to the amulet in his pocket. “I should go now. I want to get this to Tova.”

You clasp his arm in farewell. “Arkay’s peace to you both.”

You truly do hope he gets it soon. Torbjorn may be cruel to the Argonians, but his daughter’s death wasn’t punishment for that and grief won’t teach him any lessons. Your words will have to be enough.

As he strides off to the Rivergate, Torbjorn parts the Argonians like a wolf through sheep. You watch him go, nowhere near as happy as you thought you’d be.

With so many unspoken words still crowding your tongue— all the censure and moral pleading you had planned before the potion took control with logic and manipulation— this feels like an empty victory, a battle abandoned halfway through. You wanted to break him utterly, make him see and repent. Apologize. Atone. But promise or no, Torbjorn is the same person he was before. You haven’t really changed anything. Despite your best effort, Windhelm is fundamentally the same place it was before.

You hope the Argonians will forgive you. You meant to do better.

The last tingle of the potion’s magic fades, leaving your tongue numb and your head oddly hollow.

Upset with yourself and the world in general, you head off for Candlehearth Hall. Susanna is the only bright spot in this whole ugly city, and you want her terribly.

 


 

What you get is Elda, a cup of beer, and a lonely seat in the near-empty great room. It’s barely nine bells: of course Susanna is asleep. Too morose to go outside again, you mope away a few hours with some more beer, occasionally scrawling in your journal and sharpening your knives to feel remotely productive. Even napping by the fire is empty of its usual guilty pleasure. You’ve done nothing to deserve a restful day.

When Windhelm’s great bell distantly rings four, you don’t look up from moodily feeding bits of tinder into the fire. With a fine thread of magic— barely a shimmer at your fingertips, nothing the Nords around you would notice— you slow the fire’s consumption of the twig to a miserable crawl. Divines forbid Elda should have cause to complain that you waste her wood.

“Well, look who it is.”

Your head snaps up. “Susanna!”

She lowers herself into the armchair across from you and settles a plate of food in her lap. Her daffodil-yellow dress is immaculate and her hair gleams in an elaborate arrangement of twists and braids, but she’s not yet painted her face for the night. Smudges of yesterday’s kohl make her look unaccountably grumpy.

Oh— no. No, she’s definitely annoyed with you.

“Didn’t think I’d see you back here,” she says pointedly, jabbing a fork in her baked potato.

“No,” you agree with a wince. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you. But I just don’t… like this place.”

The annoyance softens out of her wide mouth. “Can’t fault you for that, I suppose,” she murmurs. “You off at the Cornerclub?”

“No. I’m staying with Revyn Sadri— you know Sadri’s Used Wares?”

Susanna gives a belly laugh that fills the whole great room. “Don’t we all. Well! You must have had a much better night than me, eh? Was he good?”

Stung, mortified, you recoil from the insinuation. “It’s not like that!" you snap. "I didn’t do anything!”

Susanna’s laugh is frozen on her face. After a moment, she falters out, “I’m… sorry. I didn’t mean… Lleros, no. I didn’t mean anything by—”

“I didn’t,” you insist. “Why would you think I did, anyway? Did you ask why I’m staying there? I did him a favour. Some of his goods had been stolen by a smuggler and I got them back. I asked if I could sleep on his floor because I hate this place.”

And oh, now Susanna looks hurt by the bile in your voice, but you can’t help it. You’d thought Susanna wasn’t like others, only it turns out she’ll think you as promiscuous as any other Nord will. Just because she’s a slut—

Mara, that’s unkind, that’s ugly. No. She doesn’t deserve that word. Nobody does.

But if you can’t articulate your anger and you can’t just ignore it, where does that leave you? Stuck with it seething in your chest, making you want to burn down this entire inn. You will, if you keep this up: the hearthfire is spitting embers and the candle on the hearth has flared, its flame three inches high and wavering madly. They’re reacting to the blood-borne magic of your Ancestors’ Wrath, soul-fire calling to every stray spark around. Not all angry Dunmer will provoke fire like that, but you’ve had a decade of College training to deepen your well of magicka and attune your body to the magicka flowing throughout everything in Mundus.

Frowning, Susanna kicks a stray ember back into the hearth and pulls the hem of her dress up so it won’t be singed. You take a long breath, struggling to get control of yourself before she realizes it’s you causing this.

She won't look at you, though. “Revyn Sadri’s a very soft touch,” Susanna says to her plate. “Very generous. With his coin and his affections. Which nobody says a bad word about, because it’s all good fun and why shouldn’t he? And if I went to bed with him, I’d be fair pleased for days.” She cuts into her beef with unnecessary violence. “That’s all.”

Susanna doesn’t mean to be cruel, you think. She really doesn’t. She doesn’t see at all why you should be hurt by her making assumptions about your sex life. And she doesn’t make them in the same way as people determined to see your actions in the worst light possible.

Why does it still hurt?

“I’m sorry,” you mutter.

“For what?” Susanna demands.

All you can come up with, after struggling to summarize the churning turmoil in your chest, is, “I’m being unpleasant.”

She presses her mouth. “I don’t see why you even care,” she says at last.

Frustrated, you shoot back, "I don’t see why you don’t.”

And with it out in the air, your resentment softens. By the expression on Susanna’s face, she realizes it too.

Thank the Divines. You don’t want to be angry at Susanna, or at anyone. It takes so much out of you.

“I wish I didn’t care,” you confess miserably. “I wish I could just—” You can’t say it— “go about and do whatever I liked and not care what people thought of me. But when they look at me, and the things they say…”

“They shouldn’t,” Susanna says, her conviction solid as steel. You could kiss her for that, you really could: for believing so firmly that people shouldn’t say cruel things about your promiscuity, when sometimes even you believe you deserve them. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a lover. Or two. Or ten.”

A scandalized snigger escapes; you scrub a hand over your mouth to hide it. Susanna still sees and grins, raises her brows, challenging you to agree. You can’t quite manage honest agreement— not even in your head can you seriously think oh yes, ten lovers, that’s totally normal and fine — but it’s… it is a thrilling thought to entertain. Your ears flush.

Susanna is satisfied enough to have you laughing. “Try and don’t miss too many things while you’re worrying about other people,” she says, not unkindly. Then, smirking, she adds in a whisper, “And just for you, next time I see Revyn Sadri I’m going to ask if he wants a good hard tumble.”

Your scandalized half-shriek makes the entire room look over. Susanna cackles at your reaction. Hot-faced, you try to smack her knee but she’s out of reach; you have to settle for flicking beer at her. This only makes her laugh harder and throw a piece of bread at your forehead.

Flushed, you pick the bread off your lap and toss it into the fire with what little dignity you have left. While stares linger on you two, Susanna continues giggling; you fold your hands in your lap and stare forbiddingly.

You can’t deny that you also want to break down giggling. Humour lightens the would-be-hard edge of your mouth, fills your chest with warm contentment as you watch Susanna chortle and pick into her potato.

“So why did you come back here?” Susanna asks at last, through a mouthful of potato.

“Oh,” you grin. “I wanted to see you.”

She makes a grand gesture: here I am. “Now tell me another story,” she demands, pure impatience. She’s been waiting on this for days, hasn’t she.

“About the dragons?” you tease.

Yes. Obviously!”

Nothing that will give away that you’re the Dragonborn: you don’t want to deal with that. Maybe a story where you’ve got a good scar to match…

You press a hand to your stomach, where below your cuirass and shirt there are the keloidal imprints of teeth that came far, far too close to tearing you in half.

“This was in Hearthfire of last year,” you say, “before it was widely known that the dragons had returned. I was not as prepared as I should have been.”

 


 

Sadri is astonished when you present him with the Raven Rock Sujamma, eyes flying wide enough to catch the light like rubies.

“I didn’t mean it,” he murmurs, almost apologetic for having made you fetch him expensive alcohol— if apologizing were a thing Revyn Sadri ever did, that is.

You laugh it off, magnanimous. “I hope it’s good. What did you make for supper?”

“What am I making for supper,” he corrects, eyes flashing. “You can come and help if you want any.”

That’s entirely all right with you.

You skin and chop root vegetables at Sadri’s direction: some kind of tough purple-fleshed tuber with wiry bristles on the outside. Ash yam, Sadri calls it. Once those are parboiling, he order you to cut onions and makes fun of you for crying.

“Come over here and say that,” you threaten, gesturing with the knife.

“I am busy,” he sniffs, flicking goo from the fish’s insides off his fingers.

When Sadri opens a little chest full of spices, you pester over his shoulder until he lets you handle them. At his direction, you season the frying onions with salt, bay leaves, grated nutmeg, ground cloves, powdered dried mudcrab, a white powder that Sadri can’t explain except to say that it’s fungus, chili powder, white pepper, black pepper, sweet red pepper, something called alit pepper—

“Isn’t that enough peppers?”

Sadri laughs in a way that is very specifically at you.

You sniff the alit pepper and regret everything. Hand clamped over your nostrils as if to protect yourself— too late for that!— you wave the jar back in Sadri’s direction, blinded by sudden tears.

“Perhaps we’ll leave that out tonight,” he drawls.

You glare through your tears. Clearly alit pepper is just as much of a joke as the jar Sadri said contained guar gland excretions. Those are alchemy ingredients not meant to be eaten.

You have a lot more crying to do that night, however. By the time you’re halfway through your bowl of stew, you’ve given up on wiping your face. “No, it’s good,” you reassure Sadri repeatedly, between mouthfuls of flaky fish and tender yams that taste of pain. It’s a complex and multi-layered pain, to be sure: every time you exhale, you taste the flavours through your nose, smoky and salty and meaty and rich. You just can’t taste with your tongue any more.

Showing no distress at all save the mild bemusement with which he’s regarding you, Sadri eats his stew and occasionally passes you another piece of bread to clean your palate with.

Once the supper dishes are cleared, Sadri brings out the sujamma and his little peach glass cups. “I almost don’t want to give you any,” Sadri drawls, as he’s cracking the seal on the first bottle of sujamma. He saves the wax in a clay bowl full of candle scraps. “I’m not sure you’d appreciate it. Or taste it properly.”

You glare. “I earned that.”

Your first sip of the sujamma is very, very cautious. It doesn’t deserve your hesitation, though: it’s so smooth that at first you barely feel the alcohol on your scorched tongue. After the second swallow, you start tasting fragrant spices and a fruity sweetness.

“Brandy?”

“Sujamma,” Sadri says firmly. “The best my brother makes.”

Once you start questioning, he tells a few stories about his relatives: few and far between, all living elsewhere. Those who made it out of Morrowind, that is. Thankfully Sadri’s grief is decades old and comes from his youth; it has faded enough not to hurt him. He prods you about your family in return. So, lounging in front of the fire, the two of you exchange tales until the slim bottle of sujamma is gone.

“That’s enough for tonight, I think,” Sadri says. He puts the second bottle in a cupboard. “I really appreciate it. I’ll think of you when I drink it.”

Your belly is full of warmth, and your smile even more so. “Good. Glad you shared.”

“You’re not drunk, are you?”

Laughing, you stand to show Sadri how easy it is. “What do you think I am? Some kind of milk drinker?”

Sadri rolls his eyes. “Ancestors forbid,” he mutters. So prickly at your Nord slang. Well, you grew up with Nords and he knows it!

"I imagine you’re ready to sleep, though,” he says, head tipped to study you.

You glance at the frosted window pane in surprise. The sun may be down, but the days are growing longer and there’s still blue evening light in the sky. “It’s early, isn’t it? I thought I’d write a letter.”

Unaccountably, Sadri puts a hand to his face and rubs his eyes like they hurt. What? What did you say?

“All right,” he mutters, then looks straight at you. “I can’t tell if you’ve been pulling my leg or not, but I’m not about to have such a fine elf sleeping in my bed without at least asking. Would you like to go to bed together?”

A hot flush sweeps over you that has nothing to do with the sujamma. You realize your mouth is open but you can’t find words.

“To have sex,” Sadri enunciates.

He wants...

(a fine elf such a fine elf eeee)

He wants you? He wants you? It’s not just that you’ve been thinking inappropriate, unwanted things about him, all because you’ve been travelling for so long and you’re lonely?

Oh, Dibella. He tried to ask last night, didn’t he. You brought him wine and supper, then brushed him off to the floor. Tonight you brought imported sujamma, even pricier and dearer to him, then said you’d like to write a letter.

You are the worst, Lleros; you are terrible and very dumb. How did you not see?

Very generous. With his coin and his affections.

And it’ll be nobody’s business but yours if you get something you want so desperately.

“Yes,” you blurt, before Revyn can take your hesitation as denial. “Yes, that’s— yes.”

Thank you, Lord Azura,” Revyn says to the ceiling, hands spread. He’s mocking you for running him around in circles for the last few days, and all right, you deserve that. It’s fine, because when Revyn lowers his eyes to yours again, they’re full of heat.

“I wasn’t trying to be confusing,” you say, embarrassed. “Sometimes I’m just very slow. When I’m around such a handsome man.”

Though Revyn’s brows quirk at how clumsy your flattery is, he doesn’t comment, thank Dibella. “I suppose I can forgive you,” he sighs, and comes over and takes your chin, and kisses you.

You shudder hard at the first touch of his lips, not shaken so much by the kiss as by everything it prefaces. When you open your mouth to welcome Revyn in, he refuses, dancing around the invitation with nothing but light kisses and the tiniest brush of his tongue to your lower lip. You shift with uncertainty, but he goes on, unhurried and assured, until you relax into it.

Trying to communicate your urgency just a little bit, you put a hand on Revyn’s waist. Then the other. You creep them around his lower back, sliding his shirt along, scratching through the fabric with your nails. Revyn huffs a breath of laughter and— finally!— slips his tongue into your mouth.

Satisfied, you slip a hand under his shirt and bite his tongue. He gasps, jerks back, and you chase him, nipping at his lower lip.

“Toothy little thing, are you?” Revyn asks, a touch breathless.

“Not little,” you mutter, and bite his lip to cut off the inevitable retort. You soothe it with a gentle suck, long and slow, and give him your own tongue.

He doesn’t bite, but at least the pace picks up a bit.

You tingle everywhere Revyn touches, whether it’s his breath against your face or his hand on your side, pressure barely tangible through your cuirass. Desperate for contact, you press closer. You’re far too aroused to be shy about wanting pressure on your stirring cock. Needy as a cat, you rub against him. Revyn jolts as if surprised. How can he be? How could you not need this?

Your hands map his narrow back, his prominent spine, every hot inch of skin that you can reach. When you start fretfully working Revyn’s shirt higher, however, he finally pulls back from the kiss.

“You are…” he begins, breathless. His eyes flick all over your face, to your mouth as wet and panting as his, and he loses the thought. “I had imagined…”

“Do you want your shirt off?” you ask, very politely and with what you feel is commendable restraint.

“It seems we’re headed that way, yes.”

You raise your eyebrows. Nonchalance looks too much like hesitation and you don’t abide that.

“Oh, yes, yes, come on,” Revyn says impatiently, which is… not quite desire but certainly more direct agreement. “You ruin all my plans to be suave. I had meant to charm you.”

“I am very charmed,” you assure him. You are, actually: the fact that Revyn had clearly planned to go slow for a lover he’d thought would be inexperienced is lovely. You’re not unclear on what you want, though, just bad at knowing when you’re wanted. “Do you want my shirt off?”

“Please and thank you.”

So snide! You wrinkle your nose at him but can’t help grinning. As Revyn unbuttons his vest and untucks the shirt you had begun lifting, you fumble to loosen the straps of your cuirass. When you pull the leather, mail and padding over your head, your shirt comes with it. You drop the whole mess with a heavy thump and push back your tousled hair, and find Revyn staring with his hands frozen on his cuff buttons.

“Saint Nerevar,” he says. You can’t tell if that’s a prayer or a compliment, but his stare is enough to make you squirm. “I believe I’ll keep my shirt on, actually.”

Flushed with flattery, you laugh, “No, no no no.” You catch his wrists and fumble at his shirt, eager to strip it off through Revyn’s half-hearted pretense at inadequacy.

Underneath he’s very nice— at least, his skin is nice, all hot and smooth, not a scar on him. His waist strikes you as wrong, too narrow, until you realize: it’s like yours. It’s an elven body, narrow from sharp ribs to square hips in a way that human aren’t, not even the very thinnest of women. The fact that Revyn is bony, neither muscular not particularly well fed, only highlights his shape. You pull him close anyway, because a body is a body and you want his. Want him.

Murmuring his appreciation, Revyn finally puts his hands on you. Now he apparently wants to touch everything, from your scars, to the bow-tautened muscles of your back and arms, to the bit of soft chub that a winter of good living as Jarl Elisif’s guest put on your flanks. Driven to distraction, you squirm against him and bite his shoulder.

“You’re a fiend,” Revyn gasps. “I’m not sure I should trust your mouth.”

“Sorry, I just— I bite.”

“Every time you do...” he threatens, and pulls your hair in illustration.

The noise you make is embarrassing.

“Oh,” Revyn says. “My. That’s not exactly discouraging, then, for you, is—”

“Are we going to bed or not?” you demand, voice too high. It’s whiny, it is, but he’s made you flustered and desperate, and surely he must be able to feel your cock pressing against his hip.

“So impatient,” he drawls, as if he himself is not— is he not? You’ll make him.

You hold Revyn's face and kiss him fiercely. He makes a noise of surprise that you steal, and you keep going until you’re stealing his moans too.

“All right,” he gasps at last, “all right, yes, the bed.”

It’s plenty wide enough for two people (and how did you not notice that before), though the overhanging shelf makes overt athleticism unlikely. Revyn negotiates you back onto the mattress and climbs on top of you still kissing. He keeps touching your arms, squeezing the muscle built by thirty years of archery.

“Impressive,” Revyn whispers in your ear. You shudder as if his words were a physical touch. They’re certainly enough to make your cock jump.

When Revyn follows up with a hand sliding down to cup your groin, you buck. He presses and you grind against his hand, groaning. This is shameless— you should be ashamed— but Revyn’s still smiling open-mouthed, watching, red eyes glittering in the hearthlight, and he wants you in return, he does, it’s all right.

With shaky fingers you pull at Revyn’s belt. He gets yours open first and entirely destroys your ability to concentrate on anything but his hand around your cock. He lifts it free, squeezes, gives an exploratory stroke that makes your toes curl.

“You’re not going to fuck me with this,” is his dry comment.

You pry open your eyes and look down. The sight gives you a pleasurable shiver. You already know that your cock is shorter than most you’ve seen, with the head of it just peeking from Revyn’s fist. It’s the girth he must be complaining about.

You’ve not had complaints before— the opposite— but admittedly you’ve never put it in a man before. Standards must be different when it comes to taking a cock in the back. Now that you consider it, you’ve been had by a few men you wish had been smaller, although it… didn’t occur to you to mention it. You thought they’d known what they were doing when they praised and pleaded with you to take it.

“All right,” you agree breathlessly, rolling your hips a little to watch your cock crest from Revyn’s fist. “I’d rather— if you would— use your mouth? Please.”

Because if your cock looks wonderful in his hand, it will look so much better in his mouth.

“Hm…”

Please.” You’re not ashamed to lean up and kiss him again the way he likes. He sounded considering, not hesitant; maybe he wants you to beg. “Please. I’ll be so good.”

Magnanimous and pleased, Revyn agrees, "Oh, all right.”

He catches your chin and kisses you hard, not moving until you whimper and shift your hips desperately. Then he slides from the bed and pulls your knees around. When your pants and smalls are the rest of the way off, Revyn fusses with folding them for padding under his knees before he settles between your legs. You sit up to watch.

Just looking at him between your knees makes your cock jump. Revyn lifts an eyebrow. Embarrassed but too aroused to retreat, you bite your lip. Under Revyn’s considering study, your cock stands a little higher, absolutely not embarrassed of itself.

Trying not to whine, you repeat, “Please.”

Revyn shivers. You trace the line of his ear, run your fingers over his wiry hair and cup the side of his head.

“Please?”

Revyn’s eyes flash a smirk. “Tell me what you want,” he murmurs, and goes down.

Oh, Divines, oh, oh, oh. His tongue is even better here than in your mouth. He’s licking, sliding his mouth along the side and making it wet, wet. His touch turns frictionless, nothing but slick warmth and then— oh!— slick heat as he takes the head of your cock between his lips and sucks.

“Yes,” you pant, absolutely willing to be effusive with your praise. “Oh, Dibella. Good. Just like that.”

He can do whatever he likes as long as he uses his mouth. Even better, he’s good at using his mouth, familiar with the motions and enthusiastic enough about you to show off a few tricks: slipping his tongue beneath your foreskin, for one, caressing rawly sensitive nerves until you’re whimpering and struggling not to pull away from the white-hot sensation.

At last Revyn relents, giving you a challenging look through his eyelashes: are you certain you can handle this? Then he closes his eyes, lets out a long sigh through his nose, and settles into a businesslike rhythm.

You hold the side of his head not to guide him but to brace yourself. Watching your cock disappear into his mouth over and over is hypnotizing. It’s a stretch for his lips and jaw, you can tell. The occasional scrape of teeth is something you’re accustomed to. It’s worth a little sting to feel your cock settle deep at the back of his mouth, pressing in tight until ah, his throat flutters and spasms, a little choke, just a little, but he takes it for you.

Again. And again.

"That’s it,” you gasp. “That. You look. So…”

Dibella, you love the way your cock looks in his mouth. It’s perfect for this: short enough to take all the way, but thick enough to make your partner feel like they’ve conquered a challenge. At least, that’s what you’d think if it was you. If you were him. Is that conceited? What if you don’t say it out loud? If you just watch, and it makes your toes curl, the slide, the wetness, the soft click at the back of his throat...

Then you can’t think much any more. The pleasure is coming on too hard, too fast, waves building behind a dam already months overburdened. You could try to hold off but you’re not doing anything for Revyn right now; he’s pleasuring you and there’s no reason to make him work longer.

Surrender is magnificent. You let your moans get louder, your praise less coherent, and Revyn responds as if he’s trying to destroy you completely: he goes faster, harder, your cockhead hitting his throat a pain he doesn’t seem to feel. It’s good, it’s so good, you’re— he’s—

He makes you come, dragging orgasm from your body without mercy. It’s too much, too hard— you bang your head on the overhanging shelf, a burst of pain almost invisible in the white-out of ecstasy— but Revyn keeps sucking, long slow pulls, his hands bracing your hips to hold you still and trembling and whining with overstimulation until he’s entirely finished with you.

When you can think again, you’re a shaking mess, wrecked by release and desperate to let Revyn know it. He accepts your gasping and hair-petting as his due, smirking into your frantic kisses. He deserves it. He’s incredible.

“What do you want,” you mumble between kisses, “what can I do. Tell me. I’m good at listening.”

“Here. Move…”

He stands to slide off his pants. Perched on the edge of the bed, you kiss his stomach and hip and his cock, dusky purple and hard because yes, he enjoyed sucking you off. You want to return the favour.

Revyn lets you suck and stroke for a few minutes, running his fingers through your hair. It feels so good, all of it. Every time he gasps you take it as a victory. Eventually, however, he gathers himself enough to nudge you back: he still has plans. A string of spit breaks on your chin.

“Move over. Here, just— yes, get up here. Like that.”

He stretches out on the bed, tangling with the blankets and pillows and you until he’s satisfied, prepared, eager. Straddling his thighs, you have to hunch down a bit not to bang your head on the shelf above. It doesn’t matter because Revyn immediately tangles his hands in your hair and pulls you down to kiss him.

Oh, this must be his favourite thing: kissing, touching your arms, while you stroke his cock still wet with your own saliva. You can’t watch his cock from this position, but Revyn more than makes up for that with the way he keeps running his hands over you, caressing your back, feeling your biceps flex as you jerk him off. He finds you impressive. You could fly apart with how delighted you are, how dizzy on desire, his and yours, blurring together until everything is heat.

You must have done all right with your mouth, because it doesn’t take Revyn long to come. Except for his ragged breathing, he’s quiet right up to the end; then his hips jerk and he gives a sudden loud groan, spilling over his stomach, your hand. Desperate to pull every last gasp and twist out of him, you keep stroking until his cock softens. His mouth is slack against yours, unable to even kiss back, just panting for air as you plunder him with your tongue.

The afterglow can be awkward or it can be easy. Preferring to hold on to uncomplicated satisfaction as long as possible, you flop down beside Revyn and lick your fingers clean.

He gives you a dry sidelong look, snorts, and fishes a kerchief out of his bedside table to wipe off his stomach.

Well, fine: you roll onto your side, prop your head up on your hand, and flex.

There. Revyn’s eyes fall to your biceps and unfocus a little. He reaches over to squeeze your muscle with a groan of suffering. You are endlessly delighted to know that you please him so much it hurts.

“Don’t give me that look,” Revyn mutters, caressing your arm. “That, yes. Don’t you smirk at me like that.”

“I’m not smirking.”

“You are! Not my fault you’re some fit, pretty, alchemist archer wanderer mage. By the Three, you appall me.”

Though his tone is cranky, his words are compliments; you can’t help giggling with sheer delight. Revyn glares but carries on: “Stop that! Stop. I forbid you to laugh at me in my own bed.” You erupt in fresh giggles. “I hope you know how blessed you are. I wasn’t half so attractive when I was a hundred.”

“Maybe I’ll be as attractive as you when I’m a hundred,” you snicker, wiping your eyes.

“When— Azura’s sake, how old are you now?”

You lift your chin, proud. “Forty-four, just last week.”

Flat and immediate, Revyn says, “No.”

That reaction is unexpected, and it hurts a little. “I am,” you insist, frowning. “My birthday is the fourteenth of Sun’s Dawn, it was…”

No,” Revyn says again, with dawning dismay. He looks at your body, your scars, your face, as if any of them will tell him a different truth. “Oh, no. No. I thought—”

He flings himself onto his back to stare up at the ceiling in distress. It is melodramatic, utterly foolish, and you find yourself growing annoyed at the display.

“I thought you looked young,” Revyn rambles on. “I thought, ‘Where are his eyebrows? Where is his beard?’ But maybe you just don’t grow one. And then you go on telling me all these stories, telling me you’ve been out taking contract work for thirty years—”

His voice turns accusing and you can no longer bear it. “That’s true!” you protest, sitting up sharply and gathering the blankets around yourself. You cannot tell what’s more upsetting: the fact that Revyn thinks you lied, that he’s reacting like you’re a child, or that it’s spoiling the first afterglow you’ve had in months. “I’ve been hunting bounty for decades. I killed someone when I was eighteen. You, how many people have you killed? You couldn’t do half of what I do.” It’s no kind of talk for a lover’s bed, but you don’t care: if he wants to be hurtful, he can have the truth.

“Eighteen,” Revyn says weakly. “Where were your parents?”

“Don’t talk about my parents!” you snap. “I’m not a damn child! You, you ask me to break into a house for you, commit a crime, you invite me to bed, but you think— Am I not capable? Haven’t I done everything that I had to? On my own? I am not too young.”

Out of your mouth, the last words sound pathetic. You can’t stop yourself from repeating them, trying to be more strident but instead, stupidly, coming out hurt, uncertain: “I’m not too young.”

“No,” Revyn groans, putting a hand over his eyes. “I’m too old. My stars and spirits, I’m pathetic.”

Absurdly, his reaction cools your temper. It’s… not about you? It’s about him. He feels inadequate. It’s not about you.

“No,” you try to reassure him, patting his arm. “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m going to be a hundred and sixty-seven this year,” Revyn says faintly.

Which— well. “You don’t look it,” you comfort.

Revyn gives a weak laugh and moves his hand to peer up at you, still squinting for that alternate truth he’s not going to find in your face. At least he seems to be recovering from his outburst of drama.

“Wait until Ambarys hears about this,” he mutters. “I’ll never hear the end of it. Forty-four.”

“They don’t need to know,” you say— too sharply, because Revyn frowns. Trying to sound less defensive, you say, “It’s not that I’m ashamed. I just… I don’t like being talked about.”

“Quite,” he says.

You lie down again and re-settle yourself firmly against his side. You’re determined not to let the rest of the night be terrible. With a huge sigh, Revyn gives up on his mood and slides his arm under your head. So dramatic.

“Are you done?” you ask, with a touch of warning.

“I suppose,” he sighs. “Is it too much to ask that you give me some warning next time?”

“Before I tell you something obvious?”

“And ruin the moment, yes.”

You pinch his side, because he ruined that moment, thank you very much. But…

It’s only right, you suppose, to be honest with him. Especially if you’re going to be sleeping here, and sleeping with him (you hope) for the next few days.

“I’m the Dragonborn.”

It takes almost an hour to sort that one out. Revyn’s utterly unwilling to let himself be talked out of his theatrics until you suck him off again. It’s a crude distraction, but effective.

He’s only mumbling in disbelief a little as you push him under the blankets and curl up to sleep, smug, secure, and— if you’re to be honest with yourself as well— entirely satisfied with his reaction.

Chapter Text

Heat. Dust. Pain— piercing. Blood in your mouth. Screaming. Rage. Terror. Screaming. Kill it. Kill it. Kill it

Someone is toying with your hair. Face squinching, you mumble and squirm in confusion. Who…?

Revyn. And you’re wrapped in blankets, fur tickling your neck. In bed.

Material reality becomes immediate and powerful, overwhelming vague impressions of battle. The dream, already confusing, goes to incoherence and evaporates, leaving nothing but sleepy pleasure.

For a while you lie there and bask in it all: the warmth of Revyn’s body, the sound of his breath, the sensation of his fingers combing idly through your hair. You could spend all day like this without a mote of regret.

Revyn clearly doesn’t feel the same. Eventually he pats your shoulder, mutters, “Here we go,” and sits up.

You groan in disgust, pulling the covers back over your bare shoulder. Revyn sighs and disentangles his legs from yours.

A wicked thought strikes you, embarrassing even within the confines of your own skull— but why shouldn’t you be wicked with him? Based on last night, he clearly has no objections.

“Stay,” you urge, rolling onto your front. You reach out and put your hand on his upper thigh to hold him back. Revyn gives a little start of surprise. Nervy yet determined, you squeeze his thigh and do your best to communicate with your eyes how much you’d like it if he stayed in bed. How much he’d like it, too.

“The store doesn’t run itself,” Revyn groans, removing your hand. He does hesitate a moment to smooth back your hair from your face, looking terribly affectionate, before he rights himself and withdraws. That, at least, saves you from complete humiliation.

He’s right. You should get up.

Groaning and shuffling like a draugr, you emerge from the covers. Your clothing is still scattered on the floor, visible evidence of last night’s passion. For some reason, that sight makes your cheeks flush more than waking up naked did.

You had sex.

Excellent sex.

Looking a little violet-eared himself, Revyn sorts out one of your socks from his smallclothes and hands it over. You smile like a fool and put it on.

The city bell rings eight times while Revyn is cooking porridge. “Late,” he mutters. “Shouldn’t have slept so long.”

“Terribly sorry if I kept you awake last night,” you joke. Seated at the kitchen table, you drop your hair ribbon on the table and unravel the remaining braid. “I’ll be sure not to do it again.”

His eyes go heated, a slow satisfied smirk sliding onto his mouth. “Let’s not be hasty,” he drawls. “I still have plans for you that I didn’t get to.”

A hard jolt of surprised arousal goes through you. Flustered, you comb your hair forward past your face. Even though you started this, you didn’t expect Revyn to flirt back! He’s a hundred times smoother than you are, attractive and confident and wonderful, and oh, look, you’re embarrassing yourself even before breakfast.

“I— I won’t say no,” you attempt. Flirting? How? “In fact, why... don’t you show me now?”

He gives you a look of pure fondness: oh, that’s adorable. “You think we’ve got time for that? I may have given you the wrong impression about my stamina last night, but I’m not ordinarily so quick to rise or fall.”

“Neither am I!”

Oh no. Even to your ears it’s pure bluster. Revyn laughs outright. And can you blame him?

Well, yes. You’re terribly embarrassed. Wounded. Deeply.

By your own sword. Well done, Lleros.

“Oh, don’t look like that,” Revyn croons. He abandons the pot to swoop over and kiss you.

Taken by surprise, you squeak a little. All of a sudden he’s close, holding your chin, giving you another sweet kiss. By the Nine, he does get affectionate as soon as he’s sleeping with someone!

“You’re very rude,” you mutter, trying to hold onto a shred of indignation.

“I wasn’t laughing at you,” he says, and kisses you again.

“Liar.”

“I was not.”

Liar.” But at this point it’s hard to keep a straight face: you’re enjoying the petting and crooning, the attempts to earn back your amusement. Revyn knows it, too, by the sparkle in his eyes.

“I wasn’t laughing. I like how fast you come. Really!”

Betrayal! Your outrage bursts out in an inarticulate squawk that makes Revyn whoop.

Cackling, he showers kisses on your whole face. “I like it, I do—”

Rude.”

“No, really— really, Lleros, let me…” He hesitates for a moment, looking over at the pot of watery porridge and then the beaded curtain to the still-closed shop. “Oh, Void take it. Let me show you.”

He cups your face in both hands and kisses you deep, his tongue sliding in slow and thorough. The sudden passion of it makes your brain freeze like a startled deer. He slides his hands back into your uncombed hair and you melt.

What did he mean, show…? Actually, you don’t care; he can do whatever he likes as long as he keeps doing that with his teeth.

So you barely take notice of one of Revyn’s hands leaving your hair until it reappears at your waist, tugging the tie of your pants undone. Quicker than you can process the touch, he’s pulling out your half-hard cock.

“Oh!” you blurt, grabbing his upper arm for support even though you’re already sitting down. The sudden rush of arousal through you makes your vision lurch.

Revyn flashes all his teeth in a wicked grin. “That’s it,” he murmurs, and props one knee on the chair between your spread thighs to make himself comfortable in leaning down to kiss you again. “That’s exactly what I was talking about.”

He strokes a little bit, toying with the glide of your foreskin, before lifting his hand to your mouth. You gather spit and lick it wet without being asked, even as the back of your mind is fizzling with erotic revelation: you’ve wetted a palm to touch your cock countless times, but never so that someone else to do it for you. What a familiar thing to seem so astonishing!

And it is astonishing, the way Revyn just tugs your head back by the hair and kisses you as he strokes your cock right in the middle of his kitchen, pants open and knees apart while breakfast is still on the fire. All you can do is cling to his arms and take it, let him casually obliterate your brain and oh, you thought you were being clever, Lleros, flirting with him, but you had no idea.

“That’s nice,” Revyn murmurs against your lips, giving you a moment to gasp. “That’s very nice. How quick you get it up. I like it, I really do.”

“I don’t…”

He tugs your hair— the dirty cheat, he remembers last night— sending a jolt of pleasure down your spine so hard that your hips jerk. You bite your lip to stifle a noise.

“Don’t try to hold off,” Revyn says. “Not this time. Just let me have it. Will you?” He kisses along your jaw, up the line of your ear. You shudder helplessly. How is it that even his breath in your ear can feel so good? “For me?”

“Okay,” you choke out, eyes squeezed tight.

His hand moves faster, slick and loud. “Tell me when you’re close,” he orders.

Yes.”

“You are?”

“Yes!”

“Pull your shirt up.”

When you don’t respond at first— too busy concentrating on the white-hot knot tightening in your belly— Revyn bites your lip. “Pull your shirt up!”

Orgasm is so close you can barely spare the focus to breathe, let alone move, but you manage to clutch the hem of your shirt up at your ribs. You don’t understand why until you peak— slow but hard, gods, every muscle in your body tight, teeth clenched to muffle an overwhelmed shout— and Revyn aims your cock so that you ejaculate onto your bare stomach.

Dazed, slackening, you look down to watch your cock give another weak spurt of seed. Pleasure ripples through you in heavy waves. Revyn is still stroking you slowly, just as focused on the sight as you are.

Good thing you didn’t get your shirt all dirty. You just had these clothes washed.

“Very nice,” Revyn purrs.

A hard shudder rolls through you. Your pleasure at his words is nearly physical, like a second smaller climax. Completely wrung, now— exhausted enough that you can simply not care that you are sticky and filthy and debauched— you slump back in the chair and bask.

“Here,” says Revyn, and puts a damp washrag on your stomach.

With a great effort, you lift your head to look up at him. “You...”

He catches your hand reaching weakly for his belt. “Not now,” he says, and somehow sounds like he’s fine with that. He’s a touch flushed, a tiny bit breathless, but once he finishes wiping your seed from his fingers he’ll be entirely presentable.

And he’s managed to leave you wrecked.

You don’t even know how to feel about this. You still can’t think.

“Keep an eye on the porridge,” Revyn says, smoothing your hair back from your face. “I’m going to go open up the store. I’m afraid there’s no time for you to return the favour right now. In the meantime, you can just think about what you’d like to do to me tonight.”

The bastard.

He swishes through the curtain, smug and smiling. Dazed, you drop your head back over the rung of the chair and stare up at the ceiling.

Think about what you want to do to him? All day?

He’s no idea what he’s in for.

It makes for a really nice afterglow even though you’re alone. Still, you can only mull on fantasies of sexual comeuppance for so long before breakfast, satisfying though they are. (And filthy. Really, Lleros. Could you even bring yourself to do that with someone watching?) Eventually you have to tuck your shirt in and get up to stir the porridge.

While the pot bubbles, you braid your hair and finish dressing. Padded woollen shirt, then mail, then the maroon leather tabard… Of course you don’t expect to be attacked in the city, but it makes for a warm outfit. You’ve been out adventuring long enough that your armour feels like a second skin now. Then bracers, belt, dagger, pouches...

Guilt pauses your hand on top of your journal in its leather belt-case. There are plans in that book that have nothing to do with Revyn’s body.

You make an excuse of taking the porridge off the fire, spooning it up and taking Revyn a bowl. He accepts it absently, buried as he is in a book of receipts and credit letters. The sight of his responsibility makes your guilt worse.

Reluctantly, you sit down and face the quest that’s been looming over your shoulder all this time.

There are four pages of notes about the Butcher in your journal, and every one of them is depressing.

The killings date back to the autumn of last year, possibly even midsummer. You’re not sure if it’s hysteria or a calculated bid for the city guard’s attention that has made people attribute every single murdered woman to the Butcher. You can’t even decide which is worse: the idea that there could be so many killers in this city, or that there could be a single one so horrific.

The early murders, rare but vicious:

A woman with three holes in her chest, left mangled and alive enough to crawl halfway down a deserted street before dying. Another with eight stab wounds, who had clearly wrestled with someone in the mud before bleeding out. One with her throat cut, and cut again, and cut again, until her head was halfway off— or so the merchant had told you with ghoulish delight.

Then, when the weather cooled, the murders that were certainly the Butcher’s work: women not just killed but taken apart.

The first, raw and horrific, with her back flayed skinless. Then one with a hand removed. Then a scalping... and the ragged scalp abandoned twenty feet down the alley, as if it were not worth killing her for after all. More missing hands. A severed foot. Thighs split open and carved like mutton, the fleshless bones left connecting knee to hip. A headless body identified only by a daughter who knew her mother’s birthmark. A body bloodless and drained, left strung up from the rafters in an abandoned house. A body so perfectly intact it had seemed asleep until the guard realized there were no eyes in the sleeping sockets.

Woman after woman after woman. Women hidden in houses and garbage and snow. Women left in piles, in so many pieces that you can’t even figure out how many bodies there were to start with. Bodies without limbs, limbs without torsos, torsos emptied of their offal like animals. Dead, all dead, all gone, too late.

No matter how you stare at your notes, a pattern never emerges. No target, no focus, no goal. It’s all just mutilation, random and senseless and vicious. Is he taking trophies? Torturing them? Eating them?

Finally, unable to bear the atrocity any longer, you slap your journal shut. Despair and revulsion and rage without aim have you pacing the room like a caged beast.

You don’t want to pursue this. You have gone in too far to stop.

You know too much. You don’t know enough.

The only thing that will teach you more is new information. And that, you do not want to hear.

Revyn wanders through the curtain scratching his cheek with the end of a quill. He stops at the sight of you pacing. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” you say, because you don’t want to deal with this. “Revyn...”

He takes it very well when you cross the room in three long strides and clutch him close by the shirt, laying a desperate kiss on him. It’s the only thing you can think of that will distract your gut from its queasy roil, even if it’s not precisely something you want.

“You just came,” Revyn says, somewhere between admonishing and impressed. "What has it been, an hour? Goodness me…”

Still, he lets you cling and kiss him, obligingly holding you by the waist. Kissing isn’t all that exciting for you, doesn’t light a fire in your blood, but any stimulation will stir you if it goes on for long. Sure enough, between the suggestion of sex and the way you’re restlessly rubbing up against Revyn, your cock starts to harden in a minute or so.

It doesn’t matter that you’re not truly turned on, just reacting, as long as it means you don’t have to think about the corpses.

“Couldn’t wait for tonight after all?” Revyn teases. Yet despite how smugly pleased he sounds, he demurs, "Listen, if this goes on for much longer…”

“I’ll be quick. Please?”

“My store is open,” he says, almost despairing, even as he tries your outermost belt. You have to lift the bottom of your tabard and mail for him to get at the ties of your pants.

Revyn walks you back against a wall and holds you there. You need the wall for support a moment later, when his hand finds your cock.

Clutching your armour up with one hand and his hair with the other, you bury your face against his neck and focus on the pleasure. You need it to drown everything.

A few minutes later, you give a high-pitched noise against Revyn’s throat and finish. He nuzzles your cheek, distracted with… a kerchief? He didn’t let you make a mess this time, either. Bless him.

“Tell me you’ve got plans for this afternoon,” Revyn pants, as you tie your trousers up again. “I don’t know if I can take this.”

His cock is a heavy bulge in his pants, only half hard but clearly getting there. “Still no?” you ask.

He gives a muffled groan of frustration and adjusts himself, making a futile attempt to hide it. “Not now. Wretch.” Yet he swiftly pecks your cheek. “By Azura, I’ve awakened a beast.”

(dust. fire. screaming.)

A sudden hard shudder runs down your spine.

Unaware, Revyn mutters, “Before someone comes in,” and leaves.

A moment later he yells from the shop, “Water! That’s what I wanted. Bring me water. It’s the least you can do.”

You grunt a little laugh, wiping your sweaty forehead. You don’t quite feel right, but you’re… better. Tired enough that your imagination can’t get hold of you anymore, at least.

Come on. Make yourself useful.

You fetch Revyn his water, then putter around the back room for a while. You wash the dishes and the hearth too, while you’re at it, then dust his shelves. And you may as well pick up some clutter.

Looking for a place to put away Revyn’s whetstone, you open a cupboard and find a curious sight: a personal shrine to Zenithar, fragrant with steel polish and blackened on top with the ashes of offerings. So… he hides his Divine worship, yet keeps that shrine with its aura of cold, patient death out in the open.

Now that you think about it, you suppose that makes sense for a Morrowind-born Dunmer. Especially if he doesn’t live surrounded by Nords like your parents. And if most of his... guests are Dunmer like himself.

Now you’re just snooping, Lleros. Enough.

Reluctantly, you sit back down at the table. You push aside the journal and line up a quill and a fresh piece of paper. There’s another uncomfortable responsibility you've been putting off.

 

Dear ma Dearest mother and father,

Hello from Windhelm!

The weather has suddenly gotten very snowy, but just in time I have reached the city so I’m fine. Hope it is good for you back home & all the fields are thawing nicely. I write to you from Windhelm. This city is

 

Your pen hovers above the parchment for so long that the ink drips, then dries. Nose wrinkled, you swish the pen’s nib in water and dry it on your sleeve.

 

city is difficult to describe. I am glad that you did not move the family here years ago. How can a city be so grand & so horrible at the same time? But despite all the terrible people I have met, I have also made friends. I’m staying with one called Revyn Sadri who has agreed that you may address your letters to me here, so that I have somewhere to receive recieve receive letters in Eastmarch. Soon

 

With a long sigh, you tear off the top of the paper. Scribbled entries in a private journal are one thing; letters home are another. You desperately miss having a wax tablet for drafting. Yours are all in storage at the College, awaiting your return to academia. They’re heavy and messy and don’t travel well; for all that you can easily melt a fractured tablet back together, everything else makes it not worth the trouble.

Except when trying to compose a letter that won’t upset your parents.

On the back of the scrap, then:

 

My dear parents,

Since my last letter, I have left Solitude. I know it is v early in the year for travel but the roads & weather have been good. I’ve been safe & careful about staying close enough to settlements, ma.

 

That is a complete lie. You wonder if she’ll be able to sense it.

 

I had to leave Solitude because I cleaned out my pack & found remembered felt it was time I was more responsible about pursuing the quest the Greybeards gave me. You remember I wrote about the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller? The thief left a note that I was to meet her in Riverwood. Ma, you won’t believe— you know the inn in Riverwood?

 

No, no. If you tell them you came as close to home as Riverwood, father will have a conniption and mother will probably beat down the door of the Sleeping Giant demanding answers. And, you realize, Delphine will… react badly if she discovers you revealed her secret identity in a letter to your parents. As well she should. No matter how secure and impartial the mail couriers insist they are.

It’s rag paper, thin and cheap, and won’t take scraping to be re-used, so you burn it in the candle.

The blankness of your remaining paper makes beginning yet another letter even more difficult than it should be.

“Revyn,” you call into the shop. “How do I spell ‘mother’ in Dunmeris?”

Of course he can’t just respond; he has to poke his head through the curtain to be sure you see his judgmental eyebrows. “Do you not know the word?”

“Of course I know it,” you snap, ears hot with embarrassment. “It’s just been a long time since I wrote any Dunmeris, and I was never very good at the letters.”

“Just use Imperial letters.”

“I want to—”

“Just use Imperial. That pen nib is no good for Daedric script. A-L-M-A.”

“How do I say ‘dear’?”

His expression can only be described as nostalgic scorn: contempt for something he hasn’t encountered in years, now so far removed from annoying reality that it amuses him. “Unless you want to sound like an especially boot-licking Imperial missionary, you don’t. Dunmer don’t say nice things to each other. It’s not polite.”

 

Alma en ata,

Since my last letter I have departed Solitude in order to pursue the quest the Greybeards gave me. You recall I wrote of the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller? I tracked the thief down & thankfully she he was sensible about returning the Horn, which he did not want at all. He only took a v annoying route to getting in contact with the Dragonborn & making certain I was not a pretender. Perhaps I should have Shouted in his face! That would prove it. But I was v patient & did not.

Now, after another trek up the mountain, the Horn is back with the Greybeards where it belongs. I am glad, no matter the reason, that I had another chance to see the land from so high up there. It is a magnificent thing: seeing that this truly is the land at the rim of the sky. How can words describe it? The world seems so

 

(bright!)

A flash of sensation grabs you, not so much remembering as realizing : ice, cloud, cold bright light and the power of wind holding up wings ten thousand times heavier than thin air. Keizaal! The whole great land beneath you, clutched between your open claws.

Ink sprays across the paper as you fling yourself backwards, scrambling to feel your feet on solid ground.

Keizaal, whispers Ranmaariisk. Nahgoraan. Mirmulnir.

Heart pounding, you throw the letter into the hearthfire. Even as fire eats the ink, your vision swims. The words are too much.

You can’t do this.

Mere moments later you’re struggling into your robes, calling to Revyn over your shoulder, "I'll be back later.” You’re out the door too quickly to hear if he replies.

A biting wind takes your breath away instantly. It’s no blizzard, but winter is far from surrendering its grip on the year.

That’s good. That helps.

Wincing into the needle-sharp wind, you adjust your pack on your shoulder and head for the market. There’s bound to be something there to distract you properly.

 


 

Cider is good, and chestnuts are better. Socks are always useful, of course, so you allow yourself a new pair with patterns in grey and nettle gold.

None of this lets you forget about the looming presence of guards everywhere. There are more in the market today than you’ve ever seen in one place before. You’d think their numbers were an illusion caused by their faceless helmets and interchangeable uniforms, except that you have actually seen ten or more at once combing through the crowds in staggered ranks.

And they keep... prodding you.

A spear-butt thumps your ankle, interrupting your examination of the pattern on a scarf. You have to clench your jaw to keep from screaming that this is the fifth time.

“You buying something?”

“I’m looking,” you say through clenched teeth.

“He buying?”

“Not yet,” says the merchant sourly. He has no care for you as a potential customer.

You drop the scarf without bothering to re-fold it. “Never mind.”

Stalking off in offended dignity is not the same as fleeing. You refuse it. You will not be hounded by these pressing, prying, assuming—

Banging open the door of the White Phial is gratifying, if rude. Quintus jerks to attention behind the counter, alarmed.

“What,” you demand, “is the problem outside?”

Quintus scowls at the frosted window and the market beyond. “Same as always,” he says. “A guest up at Candlehearth said she was followed around by somebody last night. The way they’re acting, you’d think there was another body. They’re looking for the Butcher again.”

No matter where you go, it follows!

“Again?”

“Turns out they don’t have him in jail after all. Or maybe they do, and they just want the excuse to turn over a few shops.” With a glance up through the floorboards, he lowers his voice. “They were in here this morning. Didn’t leave until Master Nurelion could barely breathe for the coughing. They kept digging around in the cupboards. He got so worked up.”

Concern overrides your resentment as if it never was. You may not know what to do about the Butcher, but you can see to the master alchemist’s terrible cough. “Does he need a healer? I’m an Adept of Restoration. I could try…”

“He’s tried. He knows every healer in the city, and there’s nothing they can do. And he wouldn’t thank you or me for trying anymore.”

Upset and a little hurt, you sigh. That some patients cannot be helped is a bitter reality of healing that you still have difficulty accepting.

Forcibly positive, Quintus consoles, “He’ll be up and about again in no time. It’s just a temporary setback. But if you were hoping to see him today, I’m afraid I can’t allow it.”

You don’t believe his optimism but you’re not about to fight it. “No, no. I don’t suppose I could use your lab though?”

Anything is better than outside.

“By all means. If you need any ingredients for your work, just ask.”

So, for a few hours, the White Phial makes a quiet refuge. You pull out your materials: a hand-written book with leaves pressed between every page, part herbarium and part storage; and a flat oak cabinet with little drawers full of salts and mushrooms and teeth and all the other bits that won’t take pressing. With a complicated Elixir of Resist Cold reducing to syrup in the alembic, you wash vials and write labels and melt wax for sealing. Quintus hums pleasantly to himself, and he has a very good way with the pestle— rhythmic, regular, soothing— and the afternoon is peaceful.

Hunger finally drives you out of the Phial. You bid Quintus farewell and slip warily back out into the market.

Are there fewer guards about than this morning? You eye them suspiciously.

It’s too early to return to Sadri’s Used Wares. You really ought to hang about and pick up the new gossip, perhaps even get a new lead on the Butcher...

But hang it: the guards are out. That’s their job, not yours. Even if Ulfric Stormcloak doesn’t care about aught except his war, they ought to.

—And the fletcher you’ve been hounding for the last few days has something shiny out on a lovely snow fox fur that you need to see.

“Welcome back,” she says. “Again. Still interested in buying, are you?”

“We’ll see,” you murmur, taking in the set of glittering glass arrows. “These are new.”

She may be annoyed but she’s starting to pull out the stops for you, so that’s all right. Over the last few days you’ve browsed every fletcher in the city, everywhere from the market stalls with their barrels of iron-headed arrows sold by the bundle to clan-owned workshops that specialize in quicksilver or real Dwarven metal. You’ve hemmed and hawed, playing at vague dissatisfaction even over the magnificent ebony arrows that one fletcher brought out yesterday. This refusal to buy has frustrated most, leading a few to offer discounts. You’re close to the end of the game, you think. If you just keep playing your cards right...

“That’s not bad,” you murmur, lifting an arrow to sight down its length. The shaft is straight, with no flaws in the glass, and the broadhead… looks...

Zenithar shine down.

You need that.

But you cannot spoil everything now by letting this woman know.

Looking down the arrow, you find yourself staring at something beyond the broadhead: a long deadly shaft with razored fletching and a crescent-moon head, coal-black except for otherworldly veins of slow-pulsing crimson. A Daedric arrow.

The arrow— no, arrows, five of them— are suspended by threads from the roof of the merchant’s stall to hang as if in mid-flight. You were so preoccupied by the glass arrows on their fur that you never looked higher than eye level.

“Now that’s interesting,” you say, putting the glass arrow down. “Where did you get those?”

The merchant glances proudly up at her display. “From a private collector in Markarth. Real Oblivion Crisis relics. Not common at all these days!”

Most arrows from a war two centuries ago would be garbage. For instance, the arrows you recover from Nordic tombs are valuable only as rusty scrap iron; the draugr seem to neither notice nor care that their shots frequently fly askew, bounce off your armour, or splinter upon impact. But Daedric arrows are not of this world. By whatever techniques they were crafted, they were made more than durable enough to survive hundreds of years in Mundus and fly as true as they ever did.

More importantly, Daedric soulstuff is the only thing you’ve found that can punch through dragon scales with reliability rather than luck. Glass and ebony arrows will slice dragonhide but fracture against scale. Iron and steel... well. You remember how many charred arrowheads were found rattling around Mirmulnir’s skeleton after he finally, finally died. Fighting on your own, you’ll never have the time to sink a whole patrol’s worth of arrows into one beast before it gets the better of you.

Gods, what you’d do for a Daedric bow.

As if idly curious, you ask, “How much did you pay for those, then?”

“Twenty-one septims apiece, and it was a hard bit of bargaining.”

That is a very good price. You were being asked forty septims apiece from a collector in Solitude. Then you complained of the price at a dinner with Jarl Elisif— and truly, you weren’t trying to get her to interfere! You didn’t even imagine that she might. But one of the nobles at the table had offered you every arrow in her grandmother’s collection case for free. She’d rather the Dragonborn put these into a dragon than have them sit in the trophy case, she said.

You have, since, done just that. Of the twelve arrows you were given, three have been lost despite your best efforts. Two were destroyed by the sheer destructive forces involved in killing a dragon.

(ice.)

Seven is not enough to go forward with.

“I’d give you eighteen gold each,” you say carelessly.

The merchant startles, then scowls. She’d have started the price much higher if she knew you were bargaining. “That’s not counting the cost of transport and taxes. I wouldn’t take less than forty-five.”

“Forty-five each! You want me to eat my boot leather? You got them for such a good price, you could take twenty-two.”

“You want me eating my boots? Forty-three.”

“Twenty-four, and I’d buy the rest of my arrows from you as well. I need steel bodkins too, and these glass broadheads are good.”

After a long glare, she says, “Forty-one.”

You do have that much coin in your purse, but you can’t exactly spare it. With the high cost of dried meat and bread this early in the year, and the need for lodging and food down the road, and the number of palms you’ll likely have to grease this deep in Stormcloak territory...

“You want two hundred septims for five arrows? Two hundred. That’s absurd. Who do you imagine will give you that coin? I can do twenty-five each. A hundred and twenty-five septims is more than a fair price.”

"Forty-one. If you can’t pay it, greyskin, someone else will.”

You eyes go narrow. This is the point, ordinarily, where you would fake disinterest. For most things you’d even walk away because she just had to be rude. But Daedric arrows are not something you can buy at the next stall over. The fact that you found them at a merchant at all is remarkable. And if you walk away now, you won’t get a better price when you slink back with your tail between your legs.

These arrows could be the difference between life and death the next time a dragon shrieks in the distance.

What do you want, Lleros, the arrows or your money?

The money… or your trophies?

You raise your eyebrows mildly, as if this choice is not agony. “You want them for display, then, do you? I admit, they look impressive. But if you want something that’ll really show your customers what a good arrow can do, I have something better.”

“Better than Oblivion Crisis arrows still red with Daedra blood? Go on, make me laugh again.”

You smile along as you dig into your pack, letting her have her petty joke. In a moment she won’t laugh.

In a moment she’ll have your victory as a prize.

But no. Come, Lleros, be reasonable. What do you kill dragons for if not to protect the people?

(sand. sulfur. blood. mine.)

“The Oblivion Crisis was centuries ago,” you say, coming up with the bundle of dragon scales in their linen wrapping. They clunk on the stall’s counter to underscore your words, heavy beyond their size. “The return of the dragons is today.”

And you slide the linen open, spilling out the last remains of Ranmaariisk across the snow fox fur. They shine colder than the spring sunlight, cold as loss, cold as diin.

They’re yours. Ranmaariisk was yours. Rightfully conquered and rightfully claimed. You took all that was his for your own— your Wall, your Word, your land and your sky—

And his thoughts in your head, a vicious last revenge. Let his scales go, Lleros. Maybe this will lessen the dreams.

“Who wouldn’t be convinced of a single arrow’s might?” you ask, swallowing bile, and trail a finger across the hook of vicious Daedric soulstuff embedded in the scale. “Who wouldn’t want your wares when you can say you sell to dragon slayers?”

Afterthat, the trade takes little effort. She takes the point-pierced scale and three more, palm-sized and perfect. In return you get your Daedric arrows, twenty glass ones, and a hefty bundle of steel broadheads in their own new quiver.

Still you feel that she got the better prize.

Uncontrollably grim, you slope off into the crowd with a scowl. She’s got her hands all over your scales like she owns them, like she won them and not you, like they’re not yours by right of blood and fire and—

“What’s your business here, elf?”

The noise you make is not human.

The guard jolts, then whacks you harder with the side of his spear, forcing you around to face him, the tip rising—

“All right, all right, I’m sorry,” you gasp, lifting your hands. Cold sweat prickles down your back, the shock thankfully enough to remind you that you are not made of fire and fury. You are mortal, and unarmed, and godsdamnably grey in this godsdamned city.

“What was that, then?” the guard demands.

“Nothing. I’ll leave. I’m going home.”

“You’ll stay where you are until I tell you, elf!”

You keep your hands up and feel the crowd parting around you, going quiet, staring. Every face is accusing and hard.

“I’m sorry,” you force yourself to say, despite the voice in your head shrieking DIE. “All right. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s see in your pack.”

(insult!)

“Of course.”

Everything spills onto the icy street.

(VENGEANCE)

“Any other weapons?” A hand yanks your dagger from its sheath. The spear tip scrapes your gorget.

(KILL)

“Only my bow. At home. You see the arrows.”

Your hands are shaking. Not from fear. You want to leave. You have to leave.

When the guard finally lets you go, you shove your muddy belongings back into the pack and walk, slowly, walk, all but panting with fury, until you are out of the market and out of sight and ready to scream and then you run.

 


 

“I hate this city,” you snarl, over the bang of the door of Sadri’s Used Wares. Revyn has dropped something, it’s clattering, and you’re being terrible but you are so. So. Angry.

“What…”

“I hate it,” you say, stripping off your scarf and robes as you stalk in. The store is empty, though you would barely care if there was an audience to your fury. You sling your wet and jumbled pack to the floor. Your rage is not nearly satisfied by the thud. It’s in your blood, your bones, trembling and too deep to get out. The long walk to Revyn’s store didn’t exhaust you; it stoked the flames, fed the fury, gave you time to think.

“I don’t disagree,” Revyn says carefully, coming out from the back room. “But what specifically...”

You take hold of his collar, pulling him close, because he at least is still yours. “Everything. All of it. I could burn it to the ground.”

But you aren’t allowed, which only frustrates the screaming thing in your soul all the more. So you just need to take what you can have.

When you pull Revyn up close and kiss him, all your fury turned possessive, he shudders hard. You hold him tightly, dig your fingers in, pull at his clothing. Somewhere in the panting he fumbles the lock on the shop's outside door, then gives in to you entirely.

As you strip each other in Revyn’s room, the hearthfire flares wildly, sending crazy shadows across the walls. You don’t know and don’t care which of you is causing it. It’s just that the acrid smell of smoke fills your head, putting you that little bit more out of control. You’re shaking. You’re burning, too.

Revyn shoves you down face-first on his bed. It knocks the breath out of you for a moment, leaving you choked and blank. Good. The way he handles you— his thumb digging in to your jaw, his fist in your hair tight enough that the pain sings a song—

“Yes,” you gasp, pushing back into the burn of his fingers inside, his teeth in your shoulder. “That.”

He fingers you for longer than you want, but Dibella, does he know what he’s doing. With two fingers he finds the tenderest place inside you and uses it mercilessly, his thumb behind your balls all the while. Is it magic, what he’s doing? Some kind of fire spell, a burning you can barely take because you’re Dunmer?

You can’t tell, and you can’t ask because it’s almost impossible to breathe. You’re holding the headboard because otherwise you’ll push him off, that’s how it hurts, the pleasure, the intensity of it. You want to stop but you want it to feel good, so you’re left struggling and incoherent until Revyn’s other hand squeezes under your stomach and finds your cock and strokes, and it's finally enough. Overload transforms into orgasm, unfolding, expanding—

With a shout, you jerk away from his fingers, against the mattress, shuddering and jerking out your climax in hard waves.

“All right?” Revyn murmurs in your ear.

“Yeah,” you moan, high-pitched. “Ah. Dibella. You...”

A handful of seconds beyond the overstimulation, you’re feeling nothing but pleasure, the sweet downhill roll of fading climax. Gods, he’s good. Now you’ve no qualms about accepting Revyn’s kiss and spreading your legs a little wider for him to climb onto the bed above you, his cock finally all the way hard.

With a stinging stretch, he’s inside you, bearing down deep and heavy on top. The first sharp thrust is all pain, jolting a cry from your throat. But then he controls himself, thrusting gently, and his hands are good, his lips on your skin, his nuzzling against your back, and if the rest hurts a little, it’s a pain you want right now.

You lose track of time for a while, your body buzzing as Revyn fucks you in measured strokes. He fills you so good. At least, he fills you enough that you cannot focus on thinking any longer.

But bit by bit your arousal reawakens. Your mind comes back. You lost something today and you cannot forget that. Some place inside of you is empty, cold and angry and hungry, and it will spread if you don't satisfy it again.

“More,” you groan, even though you ache so deeply that your fist is twisted in the blankets.

“You wretch, I have no more.” He’s trying to snap, but sex make him sweet and he’s barely got the breath to murmur.

He does thrust deep and hold there, grinding your hips down into the mattress. The ache goes eye-watering, split through with something like electricity: nerve-cracking, unbearably hot, brilliant in fleeting bursts. You muffle your yell into the pillow.

Revyn tries, then, to return to tenderness, to taking you in long measured thrusts. He meant what he said this morning about being slow to rise and fall: the whole process of sex takes longer for him, from stoking the embers of lust to seeking his pleasure. If you hadn’t already come once you’d be furious at his deliberation, taking it for denial.

As it is, you’re simply frustrated. He has what you want. If he won’t give it to you? You’ll take it.

“Get off,” you say, then remember to modulate your frustration. “Roll over. Let me. I want to.”

“Oh?” Amused, Revyn grazes the back of your neck with his teeth.

You twist beneath him, managing to catch his mouth with yours and kissing savagely. Either the suddenness or the ferocity of it takes him by surprise, makes his whole body snap hard against you.

“I want you,” you growl, too low, too low, up from deep in your chest where your power lives. Revyn’s eyes fly wide. “Let me have you.”

“Like…?”

“Like this. Inside me. Let me take it. Give me everything you fucking have.”

He rolls over and you climb on top, nails digging into his shoulders. (Too much—? No, he’s panting, clutching your hips closer.)

On top is magnificent. Easier to breathe, easier to control. Teeth bared, you mount him again, sliding down hard the moment you get his cock inside. The rushing ache knocks a groan out of you, but it’s a sweet pain: pressing on a three-day bruise, stretching out a raw muscle. It means you’re working and winning.

“All right?” Revyn asks breathlessly. Oh, sweet man, still trying to take care of you?

Good.”

The pitcher on the bedside table rattles. Then you are moving, riding him, hips quick and even quicker as you gain confidence, and the bed banging against the wall covers any other tremor that could be your Voice.

You ride Revyn furiously at first, burning through your urgency until you’re dripping sweat. He lets you go, holding your hips but not guiding. You wouldn’t allow that. Then you’re worn down to a slower pace, no faster or deeper than what he was giving you.

It’s still better like this: taking rather than being taken.

Taking what’s being given freely— how does that work? You don’t know. You just know that it satisfies, deep and primally.

(You know why. You know why.)

Flushed, breathing deep, you maintain a steady pace and look down at Revyn with narrow satisfaction. He looks good beneath you. Deeply handsome, yes, with his brilliant irises and strong-boned hands framing your hips… but it’s the light his his eyes that you love best. He didn’t look at you like this when he had you beneath him: like you were strange and powerful and possibly dangerous. Not dangerous now, of course, not here where you’re pleasing his cock. But somewhere out in a future he hadn’t considered in real detail until you bared your teeth and growled.

Let him see you. Let him know.

Everywhere he can reach, Revyn touches you with reverence: thighs, hips, flanks, back, shoulders, arms, neck. He doesn't just want to fuck you, he wants you. He wants to make you his. You can see the idea in his eyes, of pulling you down for a kiss.

You smile with all your teeth before he can try.

He doesn’t try.

Satisfied, you lean over him and brace your hands on the wall, taking the leverage to roll your hips harder. The candlelight jumps with every jerk of the bed frame against the table.

Below you Revyn's face is flushed, his eyes glittering. You can’t get a reflection of yourself in them. What is he seeing? Who is looking out of your face?

Someone who makes him want to be taken. Someone who makes conquest a gift.

Your eyes fall slitted with exertion, reducing everything to smears of shadow and firelight. You burn all over, raw muscle and raw insides and raw pleasure. It’s fine if you don’t think clearly. It’s enough.

Revyn digs his nails into your back, you dig into your endurance, and you let the feeling fill you up.

However long he lasts, Revyn finally holds your hips down and spills with a groan. You grind and rock through it, moving now only because you are in a place where moving is all there is. His groans are distant, delicious.

Then, only then, can you finish. Now that you’ve won. Oh, and he does that work for you, bless him, stroking your cock while you shift and shudder on top of him. His cock softens, slips out, and you are tired, you can admit it now, sagging lower over him with your hands braced desperately on the wall, tired and giving your last trembling thrusts into his hand until— until—

There’s little in you left to come out. It’s all over Revyn’s belly already, all over your cock so utterly wet in his hand. Look at it. Gods. You’ve never leaked like that before. All that’s left is a shuddering, a squeeze, and...

You see the spurt and just like that your orgasm is over and past, a weak pulse, a throb of pleasure through your body almost too exhausted to feel anything more. The best part is the release, the relief, the collapse to satiation.

You go down. You’re wheezing, sobbing for breath.

He holds you. He holds you. He’s so good.

“That was something,” Revyn whispers in your ear as you’re falling asleep.

It’s been minutes, long enough that you’ve stopped shaking, and he’s still got you wrapped up tight like maybe it’s him who needs something to hold onto. He could be talking to you or just himself, in that hushed half-lucid tone of voice.

“That was… something.”

You don’t dream.

Chapter Text

Nose wrinkled, you stretch a cramp out of your leg. Sharper pain retorts: you used these muscles too hard last night. Mm, and that’s Revyn’s warmth beside you, his chest under your head.

Your thighs really hurt. And… all your insides. And—

—oh gods.

Oh Divines all above. What… what did you do last night?

Revyn is already awake: his fingers are tracing idle circles on your back.

Does he truly intend that affection? Or is he soothing you so that you won’t leap on him again?

“Revyn?” you whisper, voice cracking from sleep.

“Good morning,” he murmurs, smooth and warm, which... doesn’t sound like he’s upset. But if he’s hurt, would he be covering that with nonchalance? “You do sleep heavily.”

“You wore me out.” That’s too glib and you instantly regret it. “Was… was last night all right?”

Revyn’s hands go tight, squeezing your shoulders. “It was quite something,” he says, all breath. Even hours later, he can’t articulate it. “I have to say, I’ve... never had a ride quite like that.”

There is a definite thread of arousal in his voice. He does mean it.

Relief melts over you like butter. You squeeze your arm around his middle, trying to thaw the anxiety in your core. “Me neither.”

“No? And here I was, thinking the Dragonborn is always a lover without compare.”

You cannot resist joking, “Of course I am.” But a moment later, sober with lingering guilt, you murmur, “It’s never been like that. Where I’m not… the same in my head. Not when I’m in bed, at least.”

“Not when you’re having sex, you mean,” Revyn drawls. “You talk plenty in your sleep.”

Your head jerks up. “What? What did I say?”

Revyn frowns, confused. He runs soothing hands over your back. His words are no comfort, though: “I’ve no idea. Something very Nordic, I thought. Growly.”

Your heart squeezes. “How long?”

Knowing that something is wrong, if not what, Revyn hesitates. “Every night?”

What?”

You sit bolt upright in bed. Sick to your stomach, you stare around the room, seeing none of it.

You cannot feel Ranmaariisk in your head now, but apparently that means nothing. And how long have you been talking in your sleep? How many nights where you slept alone and nobody was there to tell you?

“I thought you knew,” Revyn says. “Calm down. It’s nothing.”

“It's nothing that I’m talking like a dragon in my sleep?” you shout. “That’s not my voice, Revyn! Those are souls that I ate and they’re still in me!”

But the sight of his face forces you to stop. It’s not fair to throw this on him— not at all, let alone first thing in the morning.

Breath and focus.

“I’m sorry,” you murmur, getting a hold of yourself. “Never mind. You’re right, it’s probably nothing.”

“Eating souls?” Revyn whispers. “Lord Azura keep watch over you. How did this get thrown on you?”

At first it felt like a blessing. Most days it still does. Sometimes, though— now…

“I wish I knew,” you groan. “The Greybeards say the Voice is Kyne’s gift, a defense from the tyranny of the dragons. The grandfathers say it's the truest expression of a soul. Well. Of a Nord’s soul. I can only imagine what they'd say about mine. But I don’t know why Kyne gave it to me.”

“Mm. Well. The Divines and Daedra only know why they do what they do,” Revyn says, uncomfortable and rote. He's clearly reached his limit on philosophy before breakfast. “I have to get up. Let’s not have a repeat of yesterday.”

The subject of your difficult and unclear destiny is one you’re glad to drop.

Manners won’t let you lie abed while Revyn is putting on the kettle and finishing last night’s abandoned tidying. You dress and apologetically go outside to break the ice on the rain barrel and fetch water. Thankfully, Revyn can stoke a fire as hot and fast as any Dunmer. He professes no sympathy for your frozen fingers but seats you beside the hearth with a tub of mercifully hot water and the supper dishes.

Beans have burned and dried like glue in the cookpot. You suppose that’s what you get for jumping Revyn the way you did.

Shame makes you duck your head and scrub harder. You’ll have to do better today.

With the Butcher. With… everything.

 


 

Alma en ata,

Every day I see or do something that makes me think of all you’ve taught me. Have I ever told you how much it means to me  how much I owe you for the way you raised me? I cannot have expressed my gratitude enough. I would not be alive without you.  I could not make my way in this world without everything you’ve given me.

Lately it seems I have solved all my problems through speech rather than action. Perhaps I am getting wiser. Ha ha.

 

Your parents are not meant to laugh at that suggestion, actually.

 

Since my last letter I have departed Solitude in order to pursue the quest the Greybeards gave me. It was a complicated journey, but the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller is now back in High Hrothgar where it belongs. During this journey, I learned that there is a pattern in the rising of the dragons from their burial mounds. The most recent was from Kynesgrove. I have already killed it, but I am going there soon to see about stopping the next rising.

Mother— I got your letter on 19th Evening Star that said when the ground was thawed you planned to go to the burial mound at Rorikstead & dig it up to see if there was a dragon & pull the head off the skeleton. The pattern suggests that this will be one of the last dragons raised. But if you are going to go, PLEASE go soon. I do not know how fast the black dragon is travelling or if he will break pattern. And please, if you see the black dragon do not try to kill it. I know you do not believe me that this is the World-Eater— maybe it isn’t— but it is the dragon that burned Helgen and all the Legion soldiers in it. It is bigger & stronger than any other dragon I’ve seen. Please do not fight it. Please.

Right now I am in Windhelm. The weather has turned harsh, so I am settled & resting. I have made friends & done some work here. The city is terrible  hard to describe

 

Without warning, you find yourself tearing up.

A tear splashes on the paper when you try to blink the sorrow away. It’s too huge, too sudden, the great wave of homesickness that overwhelms you. For a moment it’s all you can do to shut your eyes and gulp for breath, fighting the fist crushing your chest.

You want your mother to be safe. You want her to be here, with you, telling you what to do next. You want to be home with father, where none of this— not the Butcher, not the dragons, not Alduin himself— is your responsibility.

But you take another breath.

You will always have to take another breath. That is life.

When you were on your knees, wheezing into the stones of High Hrothgar at the enormity of the new destiny the Greybeards had revealed, Arngeir knelt beside you and said only that: Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

When you could, he asked of you a little more: Su’um ahrk morah. Breath and focus. Breathe deeply and find where your trouble lives. Name its name and let it go.

This is how the world yields, Dragonborn. This is the way forward. Take it slowly. One breath at a time.

So you do as Arngeir taught: drawing the air deep and holding it, then letting it out long and slow. You picture the tensions sliding out from your chest along with it. Steady your mind. Identify the feelings.

And when you can breathe and focus once more, you have found the right words.

 

This city is huge and complicated and difficult. There is so much wrong here. But I have done good here, too. I may not have found the perfect solution to every problem, but I have done good. The work yet to be done is hard, but no harder than what lies behind me.

I will be in Windhelm for a while yet to come. It will not hurt anything for me to wait until the weather improves before I depart to Kynesgrove. And as I said, I have found friends here too. I am staying with Revyn Sadri, who has agreed that you may address your letters to me at Sadri’s Used Wares.

I hope to hear from you soon. Your words mean so much to me.

With love

 

“Are you done the dishes yet?” demands Revyn, over the clattering of the bead curtain. “Oh, for pity’s sake, how much writing can you need to do? I didn’t know you were writing a book. Healer, alchemist, archer, writer, my goodness.”

“It’s a letter. And that was research, I told you.”

“And I told you, I need help moving this cabinet. Tova Shatter-Shield is finally bringing her daughter’s things this afternoon. Sorting through all that is going to be a nightmare.”

He sounds pleased about it though. As he should be, with his store’s shelves so bare from the winter’s pickings. And it pleases you to hear that Tova is apparently ready to let her daughter’s belongings go. Your amulet of Arkay must have cracked her grief the way Torbjorn hoped.

The reminder of Friga Shatter-Shield, however, is a reminder of the Butcher. A queasy surge ties your stomach in knots instantly.

“I don’t suppose you’ll stay and help with that,” Revyn says hopefully. “Or I suppose I could call in a few hands to help out.”

“Yes! Yes, of course. I’d love to.”

“It won’t be that much fun.”

A day spent inside the warmth of the shop, sorting clothes and polishing furniture with the constant entertainment of Revyn’s droll commentary? Instead of walking Windhelm’s cold streets, suffering grotesque speculation from the gossips and prying rudely at the fearful? It would be a blessing.

The guards are doing their job outside. They don’t need you. They don’t want you.

“Do I ever pass up time with you?” you tease, ignoring the twist of guilt in your stomach, and saunter over to kiss him as you swing through the doorway.

 


 

So: the whole morning you spend moving crates from a heavy pony-cart to the store. Revyn stands with Tova, taking inventory and making meaningless, one-sided conversation in a comforting murmur. Tova holds her amulet the whole time, watching the process with the dead eyes of a soldier on a five-day march. Torbjorn is there too, and somehow looks worse than his wife; if she’s exhausted beyond emotion, he’s hurting beyond awareness. Rawly red-eyed and empty as a stone, he carries crates without seeming to notice you or the two gangly Dunmer girls working alongside him. The story you had prepared to explain your presence isn’t necessary.

Only when the cart is empty does Torbjorn finally stop, stare at it— finally realizing that it’s over, the last of Friga is gone— and stagger into an alley to weep raggedly.

You should comfort him... but you don’t. Can’t, not without the Philter of Glibness. The lies wouldn’t come. You don’t particularly want them to.

Thank Mara he never looked into your face enough to recognize you.

Torbjorn recovers before Tova emerges. They drive off in silence, empty-eyed with an empty cart to an empty house.

The afternoon is a muddle of opening crates, sorting through piles of belongings haphazardly packed together, and endlessly holding things up one after another for Revyn’s judgement. The work is somber at first, but Revyn’s tense snark melts into joking and the presence of grieving parents fades. At one point you discover a sack of fur hats and find yourself modelling them one after another, wheezing all the while at Revyn’s critical commentary on Nord fashion.

In the evening Revyn refuses to cook, since he hasn’t forgiven you for interrupting his solitary supper the previous night. Undeterred, you take a skewer and toast bits of bread and cheese over the fire, eating them with dried mushrooms and herbs and oil from your pack. Eventually Revyn joins you with his own skewer and the second bottle of Raven Rock sujamma. He gives you sips whenever you, sitting on the floor beside his chair, rest your head against his knee and make calf eyes.

When the bottle is gone, Revyn carries on absently petting your hair. It’s pleasant until it becomes stirring. (If you’ve proven anything in the last few days it’s that you stir easily.) Revyn doesn’t realize he’s done anything until he catches you shifting in discomfort; then he laughs in sheer incredulity.

He takes you to bed, and when you ask, he gets down on his knees again to suck you off. He makes you plead for it longer and more explicitly than you wanted to. You can’t deny that you enjoy the experience: the slowly building pleasure, the exquisite frustration, the squirming every time his mouth trails across your hip or to the insides of your insistently spread thighs.

His mouth is still your favourite thing. Revyn is so shameless about being wet and noisy that you’re vocal in return, rambling incoherent praise until orgasm takes your voice away entirely. It returns a moment later, of course, in a shout that’s a little too loud, that makes Revyn’s eyes go wide. But he’s not too alarmed to climb up and kiss you afterwards, and pull your hands to the erection straining in his pants. Divines, you are grateful for the entirety of him.

“My pants are still on,” Revyn says when it's over and he's lying on his back beside you.

“...Sorry?”

“I didn’t even manage to get my pants off. And yesterday! Three times yesterday.”

You snort. “By the Nine, you’re right, that’s terrible. I ought to restrain myself. I promise not to touch you anymore. In fact, I’d better not even look at you, just in case—”

He pinches your side right where it tickles, making you break off with an undignified yelp. “I’m just saying,” Revyn mutters, sitting up and tucking himself back into his smalls. “This is quite a change. I hadn’t planned on it.”

Suddenly shy, you say, “I hope it’s all right.”

After all, you’ve intruded on his life quite a bit. Who’s to say that he wants to be interrupted like this? All he offered you, initially, was a bed for one night. Quite without his permission, you’ve been getting used to it.

You think you could really like it. Like staying here. Like Revyn. For all Windhelm’s faults, this is… this is good.

As long as he wants you in return.

“Somehow I shall survive,” Revyn says loftily. Then he looks down at you and breaks character, eyes softening.

You melt in a way that is entirely separate from the post-coital softness.

Sweet Dibella, you’re in over your head.

Mercifully, Revyn misses your expression because he has turned away to fiddle with the buttons on his half-open shirt. “Didn’t you have plans today, too?”

“Oh, mm,” you agree, distracted. “Nothing, really. Just sending that letter. I think it’s finished.”

“To your parents? You haven’t sent that yet?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Out of nowhere, a sharp slap lands on your thigh. Revyn turns and glares at you.

“You can do it tonight,” he says severely. “By Azura, with all the writing you were doing I thought you’d written four letters already.”

You roll your eyes. “Well, I forgot to do it earlier. It’s not a problem, I’ll just—”

Tonight,” he insists, pinching your ticklish side again.

“Revyn!” You grab his hand to immobilize it, then do the first thing that pops into your head: pull it to your mouth and begin kissing his palm. “Come on, we’re already in bed…”

“It’s early.”

“It won’t matter if I send it tomorrow.”

“They’re your parents.” He jerks his hand back.

You scowl. “My pants are off.”

“Put them back on, then. Put— put them back on. You are a menace,” Revyn proclaims, flushed. “Go, you imp.”

There are times his temper is a front, but he’s not at all laughing. Nor does he intend to let you sleep, it seems.

He’s right; it’s early yet.

Sighing, you sort out your clothing and dress, ensuring that your sealed letter is stuffed in a pouch. You redo your hair, too, self-conscious that it might tell others you’ve been fooling around.

Revyn smacks your thigh. “Go.”

“I’m going.”

“Dawdling doesn’t help.”

“Impatient.”

“Procrastinator.”

Guilt makes you wince. He’s more right than he knows.

“I have to finish the books. I’ll make tea,” Revyn says, stoking up the fire. “Hurry back if you don’t want it to get cold.”

A touch bitter, you can’t help but say, “If I’m not accosted again.”

“Well, don’t run.”

You snort in derision. Still, despite his scolding, Revyn is looking at you in concern. You sigh and nod acknowledgement as you slip into the shop.

One step out the shop’s door, all warmth is torn away by a cold wind. You wince and pull your scarf up higher.

Despite the early hour, the city is dim and darkening fast. Grim clouds threatening a storm have gathered overhead. The sun has just gone down but it may as well have been snuffed out.

Head down, you hurry toward the main avenues. Windhelm’s stony streets are becoming familiar, at least. You can find the Valunstrad, then the shops. The courier office is in there somewhere. There’s one in every town worth stopping at.

Lamplighters haven’t yet come out into the premature nightfall. Lost, you squint up at the signs along the dim, icy avenues, struggling to decipher them as they bang violently in the blustery wind. Was it on this street? Near the quicksilver fletcher?

No, you’ve gone much too far. The big market square is up ahead. You can hear the blacksmith complaining at his apprentice: “Blast, girl, I told you to leave my tools alone. You have yours, and I have mine.”

Frustrated, you turn around. There’s nobody on the street to ask for directions, not even a guard to be seen. They clearly all headed indoors at the first signs of the storm.

Wise of them. Sensible. Obviously they didn’t have pushy lovers chasing them off to finish errands in the dark.

You pick a street that’s at least somewhat illuminated by shop windows. It goes roughly the right direction, you think. The courier office is... somewhere north of the blacksmith?

From behind, hobnails clash on the icy stone. A guard dashes past, trailing torch sparks and plumes of breath, there and plunging ahead before you can stop her. Bemused, you watch the guard scrabble to maintain her footing on a slippery patch but keep running regardless.

“Effra guide me,” you mutter, tugging your cloak tighter. Gods, but it’s gone full night fast. The heavy grey clouds have swallowed the last of the light and vanished into blackness.

Void take it. You can practically hear mother scoff in your ear. Abjuring light and wandering about blind for the sake of any Nord who might be watching is pure foolishness. They’re all indoors. Windhelm or not, you’ll risk a spell.

You throw a Candlelight above your head, far enough back that it won’t glare into your eyes. You hurry on, haloed by harsh white shine and stark black shadows moving on buildings as you pass.

Oh, but you couldn’t have picked up Clairvoyance at the College, could you. That wouldn’t at all have been a useful spell for a mercenary or adventurer, or even a journeyman healer in search of the next backwoods hamlet. No, Drevis Neloren had found you annoying and Illusion magic was finicky, so no wayfinding for you, Lleros.

Perhaps a courier might be willing to give you some practical tips. Though they tend to keep quiet about their very specialized magical skills, surely they’d share with a mage already in the know.

If you ever find the damned office!

Your Candlelight dies. Immediately you trip and fall. Before you can cast another, cursing the bite of ice on your knees, you spot something up the street: torchlight. Lots of it.

Squinting, still glare-blind from the loss of direct light, you limp toward the torchlight. The street ends in a high stone wall, worn and soot-black and old: a section of the ancient city that refused to be uprooted by changes around it. Beyond the wall, torchlight blazes up, illuminating the naked limbs of winter-stripped trees. Confused voices carry, though they’re torn into obscurity by wind.

You don’t remember this part of the city at all, but there are obviously people here. You’ll ask directions and mail your letter and go to bed.

And you’ll tell Revyn— oh, you’ll tell him exactly what you think about…

Beyond a gap in the wall lies Windhelm’s cemetery, sunken and thick with skeletal trees. The graves are shrouded with snow, except—

—except the one where people are clustered, guards and priests and citizens alike, babbling, faces wild in the torchlight—

—around a body.

From the top of the steps that descend into the cemetery, you can see over the crowd, almost directly down onto the grave vault. Frozen in place, you stare, you stare, you cannot take your eyes away, even though you don’t believe them— can’t make sense of it— cannot process the sight, the blood, the naked flesh, the dress torn open and fur robe discarded in the snow like trash.

Breathe, Lleros. This is far from the first dead body you’ve seen, far even from the first mutilated one. Just because you weren’t expecting to see it in the middle of a city, surrounded by guards...

The dress. Beneath the blood. It’s yellow.

“Hey, you! What are you doing? Come down here.”

You descend the steps, blankly fixated on the body rather than the guard. It— she. She's face down, limbs askew. Head turned away. Golden hair everywhere.

“What's your name, elf? Did you see anything?”

You shove through the crowd, panting, unable to breathe. Then you're walking in blood— blood in the snow, blood on the ice, blood that poured down the sides of the stone vault. You are stepping in it and she's— it’s—

“Susanna,” you blurt, panicked, voice cracking. It's an announcement, a protest, a denial of please no, not her, not this. Not dead.

She’s not dead. She’s still warm, her flesh steaming in the cold air— from the open hole in— the place where her kidney was and isn’t. Kaan withhold her kiss, she’s been opened like a gutted deer.

Susanna,” you say desperately, grabbing her shoulder, her neck, trying to find a pulse. Restoration magic blazes from your hands, which slide across her blood-slick skin in a way that makes your gorge rise despite all your experience because you know her. You have to stop the bleeding, you have to—

A bony hand snatches your wrist, pulls you back. “Don’t do that.”

“Stop it!” you shout, grabbing for Susanna again. “I have to— I’m a healer—”

“Let go, boy. She’s dead.”

“I’m—”

“She’s dead,” the priestess of Arkay repeats, digging her nails into your wrist and twisting. “She’s dead. Missing half her insides. There’s no fixing that.”

“I—”

“Let go. Let her go. She’s dead.”

She’s still. warm. and her blood is.

everywhere

on you

and she’s still—

“Susanna,” you repeat, your voice an animal whine, high and hollow with horror. “That’s Susanna. She’s… from… she was...”

“Come away,” the priestess says, not unkindly, and pulls you out of the bloody snow. “Don’t look.”

You’re staring at your hands, unable to believe that you touched her.

Her body.

Shaking uncontrollably, you look to the nearest guard, desperate that they should know. “She’s… she was from… Candlehearth. The inn.”

“Aye. Served me a drink just a few nights ago,” the guard sighs. “But I can’t say I knew her.”

He sounds vaguely regretful, as if contemplating nothing more serious than the chore of cleaning up. Behind the helmet, he is young, patch-bearded, and too inept to do anything more than blot the blood and move on.

Breath comes to you cold and hard, like a knife through your chest. Realization is setting, locking you up, locking the tremor and the terror into ice.

She’s dead. And someone is responsible.

“Did anybody see anything?” you ask. Though the words come slowly and you hear them as if from far away, they are rock solid.

Nobody in the crowd reacts. They gawk. The priestess turns Susanna’s naked leg.

“Did anybody see anything?” you demand, your voice ringing out. “This was recent. He was just here. Somebody must have seen—”

Your voice breaks. The ice cracks—

It does not. It must not.

“Settle down,” another guard says, coming over to glare. “We don’t need a fuss.”

“No?” you say, unable to believe your ears. “She’s... dead. The Butcher was just here. You have to find him. Why are you just standing around?”

“Nobody’s standing—”

“Why haven’t you found him?” you interrupt, going shrill again, unable to control your soul’s screaming certainty that this wouldn’t have happened if somebody had just done their damned job.

“We’re stretched thin as it is with the war,” says the young guard, defensive. “Nobody has the time to—”

“We don’t need to explain ourselves to you, elf,” says the older guard more loudly. “It’s none of your concern.”

You draw breath deep and slow, struggling to maintain control. “Let me help. I’ll do it. I’ll find him.”

The young guard scoffs. “Look, friend, if you think you can do better than the legion of guards—”

“Well, you’re clearly all not up to the task!” you snap.

The older guard exhales a hard breath. His eyes glint in the torchlight. “All right,” he says. “You want to help? Come over here. We’ll talk.”

Finally, someone’s listening. “All right,” you say, gathering yourself. “Yes, all right.”

“Over where it’s quiet,” the guard says. He leads you away from the torchlight, tromping through unbroken snow to a dark, quiet end of the graveyard. “Don’t need all these damn gawkers interfering.”

Good. Sensible. Away from these idiots. Standing around, just staring at her...

“He can’t have gone far,” you tell the guard, stumbling through heavy snow after him. Everything in your skull is spinning so hard that you have to think out loud in order to bleed the pressure, straighten the words. “He— it must be a man. Targeting women like this. Probably— possibly a Nord. To move around without being noticed, to, to feel so— invulnerable, so bold— and only targeting Nord women.”

“Oh, I see,” the guard says, still leading you farther into the darkness: out of the graveyard, around a corner, down a side street.

“Probably,” you say, turning down the dark street, “probably there’s a reason for all this. I mean— why— why did he start? What is he doing this for? If we knew— if you had any clues, it could help me figure out where to—”

The blow to your face comes out of nowhere.

Stunned, you find yourself holding the alley wall for support. You numbly touch the blood pouring over your lips, down your chin. You find a cut, a groove through deadened, dumbstruck flesh.

You stare at the guard, unable to process as he flexes his gauntleted fist and raises it again.

Starburst. Pain. The wall holds you up, though barely. Your legs are trembling too hard to move— or maybe you could, if you could just think. “What… wh—”

The fist to your stomach hits harder than any dragon’s soul, dense and cold and iron-hard. It hurts. It hurts so bad, puts you on your knees on the ice folded up small around your pain, unable to breathe, blinded by tears.

“When I want to hear an elf talk, I’ll ask,” the guard says.

He grabs you by the scruff— rather, by your scarf and robes and hair, half choking and lighting up pain all across your scalp. It knocks sense out of your mind all over again, leaves you scrabbling to loosen his hold because it hurts but he isn’t seeing that, isn’t listening.

“You think you get to walk up to my face and tell me how to do my job?” the guard demands. He shakes you like a rat terrier, knocks your shoulder and head against the stone wall. All your protests are garbled pain sounds, helpless, inarticulate, and if he’d just stop for a second you could talk but he’s not, he won’t, and you can’t, you can’t.

“You live in my city, elf. I’m the law here. I tell you.”

When he lets go of your hair, you collapse all the way with a wordless gurgle of relief, unable to speak but desperate for him to know you’re grateful, yes, all right, you understand, he’s merciful, that’s all you wanted, to be free, that’s all. You clutch the back of your neck, trying to keep him from grabbing you again.

“Get up!”

“Please—”

“Up! Let’s see what you’ve got on you.”

You make it to your knees. The thought of running away is momentary, impossible; you’re shaking too badly. Then one booted foot is planted on your thigh to hold you down. The guard is slapping across your chest, your sides, patting out sheathed weapons. He plucks away your dagger and your skinning knife.

“What’s this, eh?” He flashes one blade too close to your face. “Is there blood on these? Maybe that’s why you’re lurking about. Maybe it’s for your creepy dark elf worship of those damn Daedra. Or maybe you can’t get it hard unless you’re cutting on some poor Nord girl.”

“No, please.” You could help, you know things, and he needs to understand— but right now you don’t even know if you can make him believe you’re not a murderer. How is this happening? “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do anything. It’s not me.”

“That’s what they all say.”

“I didn’t—”

He smacks you across the face, his cold leather gauntlet harder than it has any right to be. “I decide that.”

You swallow blood so it stops bubbling when you breathe, gods, and you try desperately to blink away tears and think.

Eventually, the guard ends his show of examining your spotless blades in the dark. He scoffs and tosses them both away down the street.

“You’re lucky this time. I don’t want to bother taking you to the cells. But this is the last time I better see you. You understand how this works now, elf?”

One last time, despite your trembling, despite the pain, you try. “Please. It’s Susanna. I know her. I just want to—”

He grabs your chin in a vice grip, jerking your face up, mashing your cheeks into your teeth and twisting your face up stupidly just to humiliate. Above you there is no face, no eyes, just a helmeted shadow that hates you. “Do I have to explain again?”

Your tears overflow. “No,” you whisper. “I understand.”

He shoves you away. “See that you don’t forget.”

On your hands and knees in the dirty snow, it’s all you can do to stay up and quake. You listen to the guard’s steps crunch away. You see your blood dripping into the snow.

First you choke back a sob, terrified and relieved. Then, as you grasp for control, you instead find frustration. Then, the thing your terror smothered, slow but growing, white-hot and fed by helplessness: rage.

You’ll kill him. You’ll kill them all. This guard. The other one. Stormcloak. This city. Stupid, useless, bitter, ugly, twisted, vile, hateful. All of them. You’ll burn it all.

On your knees, you reach out for your skinning knife. There’s no thought, just rage. You can feel it sliding through flesh, between bone. Beneath the armpit, yes. Where the armour is weak. From behind. Into the lung. You know how.

Knife in your fist, you look up in the direction the guard went, only to find him standing there at a distance, watching you.

Under the cold, eyeless stare of his helmet— of a uniformed guard of the Hold— your murderous rage shrivels.

You can’t.

Trembling, you sheathe your knives. You wipe blood from your face and stand, unsteady. Praying that he didn’t see murder on your face.

At last, satisfied that you’ve been terrorized, the guard turns. Leaves.

You get halfway back to Sadri’s Used Wares before grief breaks through and the tears start.

 


 

When you stumble in the door, Revyn startles like you’re a draugr. His pen goes rolling across the inventory book.

“Lleros. What…”

“I hate this city,” you hiss, unable to grasp anything but wrath. Distantly, you know you must look monstrous, dishevelled, bloody— Revyn is terrified— but you cannot stop. You are unravelling, out of control. Nothing is real, nothing is good, not Revyn or his shop or the warmth of bed. “I hate it all.”

“Lleros—”

“I'm going to kill them all!” Shelves rattle; delicate glass smashes. The whole shop is atremble at your Voice. As it should be! Grief has sunk fangs through your chest, and in return you want to tear apart the world. It should suffer too. It has taken from you—

—it took away—

(blood, flesh, hair, smirk, cackle)

You clap a hand over your mouth, hunching at the force of a sob. The world feels like it’s wheeling around you. Insubstantial, unstable. So are you. Two gyres locked together, swinging each other from extreme to extreme.

“Sit down,” Revyn says sharply. “What happened?”

“He killed her,” you spit through another wave of tears. “And this whole useless city of gawkers just stood around and let it happen!”

Killed— Who? Lleros! Will you stop for a moment—”

You’ve already ripped through the curtain into his bedroom and started feverishly grabbing every possession you see. “I can’t stay here,” you say, stuffing socks into your pack. “I hate it. I hate it. Azura burn this city and piss its ashes into the Void!”

“Lord, spare us curses made in childish rage,” Revyn says loudly. “Lleros—”

“Don’t know how you stand it,” you mutter, “every rotten crack and corner of this damned—”

“STOP.”

Before you can push past him, Revyn seizes you by the wrists and yanks you to a halt. He holds despite your straining, forcibly staring into your face until you make eye contact.

The connection breaks you.

“I have to go,” you croak, your voice wavering. “I can’t.”

“What happened?” Revyn begs, holding your wrists to his chest. He would embrace you but for the fact that you have terrified him.

You shake your head, unable to articulate the stormswell of grief and horror that surges every time you think on Susanna. (Susanna’s corpse.) Hot salt rolls over your lips.

“You went out to send a letter,” Revyn says carefully, still attempting to lead you into explanation. “Did it happen on the way there?”

Horrid laughter hiccups out of you. The letter. The damned letter. You scrabble the missive out from its pouch and stare at it.

Imagine: this is what the epitome of stupidity looks like, the manifestation of your naivety and blindness. A single piece of folded parchment full of claims that you’ve accomplished any real good, and that there is hope for the work of changing Windhelm.

The letter catches flame and goes to ash before Revyn can snatch it away. He curses.

“Lleros,” he says, distraught, made more miserable by the sight of your misery than you could possibly deserve or earn. Poor man. “Just…”

“I have to go,” you repeat wetly. “I’m not coming back.”

You pull your hands away.

He lets go.

You leave Revyn standing there in his bedroom, alone, the ash of your letter on his hands.

Outside, the streets of Windhelm are deserted. Everyone fled the oncoming storm, leaving Susanna to die. The thought makes you pant with rage. The only person you pass on your way to the gate is an old man, stooped under the weight of a snow-covered gathersack and fumbling with the locks of Calixto’s House of Curiosities. He flashes you a look of alarm and shrinks back against the door.

There’s still blood on your face. You must look monstrous. Gods only know if he’ll call the guards. Without stopping, you grab a handful of fallen snow from the ground and wipe your face. It numbs the gash on your upper lip, now searingly painful, before you heal it.

The guard at the main gate nearly doesn’t let you out. “There’s a storm on the way. You don’t want to be out there when it hits.”

You can’t look her in the face, can barely breathe just standing so close. “I have to go. I’m— I’m a healer, there’s a patient. In a village.”

“You won’t be any help if you’re frozen to the road.”

“Well let me make that choice! Let me out!”

Muttering, she lifts the bar and shoulders open the gate wide enough for you to pass into the night.

Through the gate. Across the bridge. Down the road. Away, with just your Candlelight and the path.

Away.

 


 

The storm comes on hard. It takes away the signposts, the trees, the world beyond your fingertips. Your light struggles against the blizzard, creating a halo of swirling, blinding white that illuminates just enough to keep the stone road beneath your feet.

This is the Belly of Kaan, the devouring storm, the wind with teeth. The kind that eats whole armies and kills shepherds mere feet from their huts, so lost in the roaring cold that they may as well have been leagues away. It could kill you. If your grief and shame, that almost seems acceptable.

If there was a time to stop walking, it was hours ago. It was before you left Windhelm. Shivering, shoulders bent against the gale, you drink your vials of Resist Cold in sips just large enough to keep your feet from freezing and fight on through the dark.

 


 

When morning finally comes, your legs are so leaden you can barely feel them, except that your toes are still burning. The pain means there’s life yet. At some point in the night, the wind fell and the snow settled, leaving you to forge through the becalmed void with nothing but the sound of your own breath and stride. Now there’s pale lavender on the horizon— when did the clouds disappear?— and light in the sky and a world of cold, still, snowy foothills around you.

For the first time in hours, you stop. The silence is deafening.

Kynesgrove stands in the distance, shrouded in snow and nearly enfolded by the treeline. Tiny lines of woodsmoke mark it out from the tumble of rock and forest alongside the south-bound road.

Somewhere down there is Delphine. The idea of taking her Ranmaariisk’s scales and proving your victory is joyless.

But there’s nowhere to go except forward. Behind you…

Behind you is only a trail of your own steps in the snow, vanishing into the distance and eventually unmade by the storm. There may as well be nothing else. Somewhere far distant Windhelm is standing yet, cold and hard and ugly as it is, and full of fresh horror for its people to discover this morning— but you are no longer a part of it. You cannot go back.

How are you supposed to go forward? With Susanna’s blood on your hands, knowing how terribly you’ve failed? What are you good for?

A deep, distant rumble makes every hair on your neck stand up.

Your hand flies to your bow, unslinging it from your back before you’ve even thought. There is no need to think. Not with the way your soul reacts to that noise.

A roar splits the morning air, full-throated now and wholly roused. On the mountainside miles south above Kynesgrove, the trees shudder free their burden of snow, and a great black shape lifts into flight, wings tearing the sky.

“Talos guide me,” you whisper, cold to your bones. You could never forget the silhouette of death looming over you on the headsman’s block, spitting fire and hate. Even at such a distance, that scything black body is immense. Even at a distance, that Voice shakes the world.

NU, SAHLOKNIR. ALOK.

Your brain shudders, assaulted by reactions not your own and comprehension just beyond your grasp. The words are shadows, impressions, dreams incompletely forgotten from nights you didn’t sleep. All you know is a name— and an intent.

Suspended on air, Alduin wheels above the land. Then he turns, stoops, and begins to cut like a knife towards Kynesgrove.

No.”

The horror of Helgen flashes to mind, as much a memory as a vision yet to come. You bolt, launched like an arrow from a bow. Desperate, every sinew of your body screaming, you race death itself toward Kynesgrove.

Delphine was right. This was Alduin’s next target. But why would he return if you’ve already slain the dragon who was—

no.

You slew the dragon of Bonestrewn Crest, lord of the hissing plains and broken tundra. You didn’t think there would be another buried so nearby, claiming territory so close, when every fibre of your instincts said dragons would never consent to share an inch of land, a scrap of prey, a single worshipper.

(Or maybe, hisses a voice within, you just wanted to believe your work was done. You wanted an excuse to stay where it was warm and comfortable, and neglect your duties even more.)

Ranmaariisk wasn’t the dragon buried over Kynesgrove. You killed the wrong dragon. Now Alduin has come to raise another, and tear down everything in his way.

And all your fury, all your pain, every drop of thirst for blood that had no rightful outlet until now, crystal clear and razor sharp, rises to say NO.

Not here. Not this time.

Alduin’s shadow descends on Kynesgrove. You scream in rage, charging headlong through the snow. The Words come without effort— "RO DAH!"— and powder erupts into the air, driven back from a massive channel split through the drifts.

Your chest burns with effort, with fury, with power. You fly. You can already taste blood.

The World-Eater doesn’t know you’re coming for him. You’ve been given direction, a slap back onto the right path and a chance to atone for your failure, even if you can never properly redress it. And by the Nine and every bloody Daedra, you are ready to finally make someone pay.