A/N: Hello and welcome to the fourth instalment of the Cicero Dragonborn series! This is all about the Dawnguard DLC, so take a wild guess as to what's likely to happen. Well, you'd be partly on target and partly not, but that is all in the future, yes? The important thing to realise is that there isn't actually going to be a Dawnguard. Volkihars, yes, all present and correct. But no Dawnguard. Way I see it, Cicero's already got the Forsworn, Dark Brotherhood and Companions at his back. We don't really need another faction to hunt vampires, do we now?
I've been really looking forward to writing this one. I hope you like it.
Warnings: for non-consensual sexual activity and torture - not in any detail, but it is definitely in this fic.
Summary for this chapter: A year free and the Reach is celebrating, with guests invited from far and wide. Some of those guests however are there for business rather than pleasure, and what with Hagravens, unconventional trophy walls and a necromancer king who's closer to his son than he is, Kodlak Whitemane's hating every bit of it.
To Ria Da Silva ap Cicero, Dragonborn
From Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach
I am informed by young Cicero that he is in fact capable of siring children after all, and that you've turned out to be a fellow Dragonborn. As you may imagine, my entire court is fascinated and intrigued by this turn of events and we're all dying to verify this for ourselves.
I would consider it an honour if you and a friend of your choosing were to attend the Liberation Day festivities in Markarth on the 21st of Evening Star. I'm told you have an arrangement with Vilkas and can certainly arrange a double room at the Keep for you both.
Do please reply to either myself or my steward as soon as possible and let us know if you're coming. We'd love to see you.
Anticipating your swift response,
To Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of the Companions
From Madanach ap Caradach, King of the Reach
My daughter has informed me of the unfortunate affliction sustained by her after an encounter with a now deceased member of your order.
You're a fortunate man – were your son not one of my close associates, I might have to consider taking action against you and yours. As it is, it's in no one's interests for your people and mine to come to blows. I'm also told by my daughter you're as much a victim as she is in your own way.
My court mage was of no help whatsoever, but fortunately for you, he's not the only source of magical lore I've got at my disposal. My First Matriarch has been looking into a solution and believes she's finally got somewhere.
We're having a little celebration on the 21st of Evening Star to celebrate the Liberation of the Reach. I suggest you arrange to arrive in the city the day before so we can discuss matters. I've invited Ria as well and recommend you all travel together. There is after all safety in numbers. Should there be any trouble with the border guards, I've attached a writ of passage for you, Ria and two others. My ReachGuard can be a little jumpy about heavily armed Nord mercenaries wandering around, and I'd hate for there to be any trouble now.
In anticipation of your arrival,
Kodlak tucked the letter away for the hundredth time as he wondered if he was doing the right thing. Attending the Reach Liberation Day festivities. Likely to be raucous, busy and full of fired-up Reachfolk singing rude songs about Nords. Why he'd agreed to this he had no idea.
Because you want a cure and he's the only one who might have one.
That was true. But it didn't mean this was going to be either fun or pleasurable, in fact Kodlak was fairly certain he was going to hate every second. Also it was too cold out here on the tundra and this carriage was too slow. Mid-afternoon already and they were only just at Broken Tower Redoubt, where the border guards were out in force. Why the Reach felt the need to interrogate everyone crossing into the country when they were all supposed to be part of the same Empire, he had no idea, but the Forsworn were nothing if not paranoid.
"All right, names and business, strangers," the border guard, a young woman in her early twenties and wearing standard issue Forsworn gear was saying as she approached. Rather more of her colleagues were watching from Broken Tower's ramparts, bows at the ready.
"Kodlak Whitemane," Kodlak sighed. "Harbinger of the Companions of Jorrvaskr. Here on official business with the Reach-King. These are my comrades Farkas, Vilkas and Ria."
"Companion, is it?" the young Reachwoman said, eyeing them carefully. "Here on official business? Reach-King never hires Companions. Doesn't need to. He's got us. Try again, Nord."
He knew it'd be like this. Every single step into this heathen country was going to be like this. ReachGuard wanting to know his business, ReachGuard finding the slightest excuse to harass him, not because of anything he'd done but simply because he was a Nord with a weapon.
The fact that this was likely only the thin end of what the Reachmen had had to put up with from his own kinsmen was scant consolation.
"Here," he said, reaching for the writ of passage Madanach had sent him. "Will this convince you?"
Guarded looks and sneering as she read and then the sneer died as she stared at the writ's contents.
"Official writ of passage for Kodlak Whitemane and Ria Y Davrhiel ap Cicero – Ria ap Cicero?" Amazement on her face as she shrieked up to her friends. "By the old gods, it's the Keeper's daughter!"
Silence and then a stampede as the ramparts cleared and then a few minutes later the doors burst open and easily about fifty Forsworn men and women swarmed out, all staring at Ria.
"Is that her? Y Davrhiel bach?"
"She doesn't look like him."
"Oh, she does a bit. Got his eyes and cheekbones."
"She's very quiet."
"They say she's not like him. They say she's... sane!"
"Give over, one of his get being sane?"
"Kodlak," said Ria nervously. "Kodlak, please tell them to stop staring."
The poor girl, she was only twenty two, and had only been a Dragonborn for three months or so. She didn't have the confidence of a true hero of legend yet – not that she wasn't one. She'd fought Miraak after all, and survived. She just wasn't used to it yet.
"Are we to be allowed in to the country then?" Kodlak asked, returning to the subject at hand. "Only I'm an old man and don't really want to be kept waiting all day."
The Forsworn didn't seem to have heard, but then the door opened again and another one emerged and they all fell silent. A woman, dressed in Forsworn gear but hers gleamed with enchantments and her weapons weren't stone and bone. She had two ebony axes at her waist and a bow and arrows made of the same. This one was someone in authority.
"You know, I don't believe I authorised the entire Redoubt to stop what they were doing and come out here," she said calmly, and no one in that crowd was meeting her eyes. "Do you all perhaps want to get back to work?"
No one argued, and they all slunk back into the fort, leaving just this woman and the guard who'd stopped their carriage in the first place.
"Now, who do we have?" she said to the young guard, who was blushing and stammering.
"Companions, Brenyeen," the girl gasped. "Fr – from Jorrvaskr. The old one's the Harbinger, apparently. They had this writ..."
The Brenyeen took the writ, scanned it and glared at the girl. "Official writ from my father and you're holding them up? Never mind. Back to your post, I'll deal with this. I was about to leave for Markarth anyway, they can give me a lift."
She smiled sweetly up at him and Kodlak saw the eyes and knew who she was, despite never having met her before. Madanach's elder daughter, Kaie, heir to the throne and a hardened Forsworn loyalist like her sister never had been. Eola might be a Daedra-worshipping Dark Brotherhood assassin but she'd always been polite to him, friendly even. Her sister, on the other hand, had spent her twenties killing Nords for pleasure. And now Kaie ap Madanach had just climbed into the back of their cart and told their driver to start moving, sliding in next to Ria with a fascinated smile.
"So you're Ria," Kaie purred. "Cicero's daughter! You know I can sort of see it, something in the eyes. Are you really Dragonborn? Can you Shout like he does?"
"Yes she can, would Shouting you out of the cart prove it?" Vilkas remarked, clearly getting a little sick of Reachfolk already.
"Vilkas," Kodlak said, note of warning in his voice. "We're here as friends, try to act like it. Good day, Reach-Princess. Your father's been kind enough to invite us to the Liberation Day party."
"So I see," Kaie said, amused and ignoring Vilkas completely, eyes lighting up as they fell on him. "So you're the Harbinger. Cicero's Da. Well met. You don't look awfully like him, you know."
"He takes after his mother," Kodlak said, a tad irritated at this always coming up. Stelmaria had never been unfaithful and Cicero might not look like him but did take after him in other ways. While he complained about the cold like any soft Imperial, if you distracted him enough, it'd be hours before he remembered it was cold and that he was supposed to be complaining, and he apparently powered through frost magic like a true Nord. Kodlak had also found out Cicero had the Nordic ability to send foes fleeing with a powerful Battle Cry, a gift not all Nords were blessed with... but Kodlak was. Cicero's pale skin was also a Nordic trait and he'd thrived in this harsh land like he never had in Cyrodiil, enthusing about how dangerous it all was and how many things and people were trying to kill him and wasn't it marvellous? Say what you would about his mind, you couldn't fault his courage.
"That doesn't surprise me," Kaie laughed. "They tell me his ma's sane though, or was. Where'd he get the, you know, oddness from? Clearly not either of you two, you both seem so normal."
"Twelve years isolation from the entire rest of the world," Ria snapped, clearly also feeling a bit protective of Cicero. "It does things to a person. Surprised your father never suffered from it."
"He did," Kaie said, smile fading. "He just hides it better." She fell silent, looking away and out at the passing countryside. A strange land, not like anywhere else Kodlak had ever been, but one with its own stark beauty, with its craggy mountains, misty valleys, stunted juniper trees and the Karth carving its way through the landscape. Warmer than the rest of Skyrim too, the Druadachs not high enough to have snow on their peaks but protecting the valleys from the harsh winds that scoured the tundra. The land had much to recommend it, but it wasn't home. Kodlak couldn't feel at ease here. Few Nords did. Magic was woven into this land's very being and Nords who weren't mages generally felt put off by the place. How Elisif coped with spending half of every month here, Kodlak couldn't imagine but, the separation of three months ago aside, the High Queen seemed happy by all accounts.
And so the carriage trundled on, past Karthwasten and a known Hagraven lair which Kaie claimed was just the home of a poor old priestess of the old gods trying to get by, and a few men and women who served her.
Really, this country was quite insane. No wonder Cicero liked it here.
Then Kolskeggr Gold Mine, source of much of the Reach's wealth, and held by the Forsworn long before Liberation Day last year. And then up the hill and round the corner and there was Markarth, glimmering in the sunlight. Quite literally.
"Soul gems," Kaie explained, a little too smugly for Kodlak's liking. "You put them in a Spriggan and the whole corpse glows! We've got a few on the ramparts and more inside."
The dead Spriggans weren't the only things on the ramparts. Aside from the typical Forsworn stockading and windbreaks everywhere, and the goat's heads on either side of the city gates, there were the silver and red eagle banners that Madanach favoured that had been there since early in his reign... and a new banner draped over the gateway itself reading 'ANTOL Y MARKARTH AR AUR Y SAOIRSE'.
"Welcome to Markarth for the Day of Liberation," Kaie translated. "And that's pronounced 'sai-or-shay', by the way. But don't worry, you'll hear it often enough. Son'Aur Y Saoirse, that's Happy Liberation Day, you'll definitely hear that one."
Kodlak had never really had a head for languages and was surprised to see his fellow Companions seeming to digest this, even Farkas who didn't master complete sentences in Tamrielic until he was eight and still didn't do complex ones now if he could help it. And yet there he was paying rapt attention and not to Kaie's chest either.
"How do you order a beer in the Reach-Tongue?" Farkas asked, which Kodlak did approve of. Farkas was a man of simple and straightforward priorities if nothing else.
"Dodiada mi yn beoir, gwelhin," Kaie said, seeming surprised but pleased at him taking an interest. "And yeah, beoir is beer, we've never been that imaginative with words for things we didn't invent. If you want wine instead, that's gwin, and mead is milgwin. You might also hear it called Admorfual but don't ask for that at the bar." From the amusement on Kaie's face and the fact that one of the few words of Rhanic Kodlak did know was Admor, which meant Nord, he suspected it wasn't terribly complimentary and probably meant something along the lines of 'that rubbish the Nords drink'. Reachmen did like their linguistic comedy, as he'd heard when a giggling Cicero had told him the literal meaning of the word they had for two-handed weapens.
"And then there's Hiril Jenever, but you should probably avoid drinking that," Kaie added, definitely smirking now. "Queen of drinks but not for outsiders."
"I'll be sure to remember that," Farkas promised, smiling back at Kaie. "So, what's Rhanic for 'you're really pretty'?"
"Oh gods, Farkas," Vilkas sighed, rolling his eyes. "Don't start with that here! They're not going to want a Nord in their bed."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Kaie said thoughtfully. "Now we don't have to kill you, you'd be amazed how many of the ReachGuard are getting sweet on Nords. I've got three of them all trying to compete for Lisbet's hand as it is. It's 'te bain viraic' by the way."
"Te bain viraic, te bain viraic," Farkas murmured to himself, before turning back to Kaie with a grin. "Te bain viraic, Kaie Brenyeen."
Kynareth save him. Of all the Reachwomen to try that on... Farkas's courage truly did outweigh his brains.
"Farkas!" Ria had hissed. "You can't chat Kaie up!"
"Her father will kill you!" Vilkas sighed, mortified. Kaie on the other hand was staring at Farkas, seated across the carriage from him, actually blushing... and then she smiled, looking embarrassed but pleased.
"Te melui viraic, Farkas Y Thand-Gwador," Kaie said, smiling back at him. "Thank you."
Kaie and Farkas both smiled at each other for a few moments more, but mercifully the carriage came to a stop after that and it was time to get inside.
"Come on," Kaie said, leading the way. "Let's go find my father."
No trouble from the gate guards, who took one look at Kaie and stood to attention, saluting her as she passed and accepting without question her assurance the four Companions were with her. Then into the city itself.
Kodlak hadn't visited the city since the takeover. It looked much the same... but the inn had a new sign, a Hagraven in a hammock smoking a pipe and clutching a goblet of something red that was probably meant to be wine although you could never tell with the Reachfolk. They'd renamed it The Hag's Rest, or Y Cailleachta Post – the sign had both names. There were Forsworn soldiers everywhere, although to be fair, most were off-duty and some might not even technically be ReachGuard, just Forsworn in traditional gear. There were even children running around, mostly Reachkin apart from one excited Redguard girl, who Kodlak realised was Adara the silversmith's daughter, dressed the same as the Reachkids and having the time of her life from the look of it.
Kaie had been right about the glowing Spriggans too, but they weren't as common as the magelights everywhere, being cast into place by various ReachGuard climbing over the city's crags.
The way they were going, night wouldn't even fall on this city. It seemed fairly unnatural, but what didn't in this country? In fact just about every building and doorway was lit up... apart from one tucked away on the lowest level of Markarth's Cragside, which was shrouded in darkness still.
"Who lives there?" Ria asked, curious. "They're not getting in the party spirit, are they?"
"No one," Kaie snapped, scowl crossing her face at the mention of it. "It's abandoned. It's always been abandoned. Even in the first kingdom, it was abandoned. No one lives there. End of story."
Kodlak was fairly certain that on the contrary, there was a whole story that could be told about that abandoned house, but he said nothing. The place gave him the shivers, and Kodlak did not scare easily.
But Kaie led them swiftly on, and finally the Keep loomed up ahead, water cascading down the front, spray throwing up rainbows in the magelights. It was an impressive building, even more so when you got inside and realised just how deep it was carved into the mountainside. The place was easily as big as the entire city again.
Inside the Keep was bustling, a hive of activity as the Forsworn were scrubbing and cleaning. The rubble that had lined one of the corridors had been cleared some time ago, and the interior was lined with rope garlands with flowers alternating with yet more magelights. Cheap yet effective and Kodlak wondered if that was how the Forsworn decorated their camps on feast days... and then he recalled just how many Forsworn camps he'd turned over in his time. He didn't expect to feel as guilty as he did, seeing them making Markarth shine. Not outlaws any more but a celebrating people.
It was nothing personal, they were just jobs, the Forsworn were out there stealing things and slaughtering travellers, what did they expect?
It didn't stop the guilt.
Kaie had stopped, looking up at a stone balcony with a bench on it, hands on hips as she stared up at two young Nord lovers in the sort of outfits a young aristocrat or merchant's child might wear, the man with dark blonde hair and the woman's hair jet black.
"Hey! Gwador! Gwador! HEY BRO, WILL YOU PUT INGUN DOWN AND TALK TO ME!" Kaie yelled up at them both, and the man reluctantly let his lady friend go, grimacing as he turned to look at Kaie.
Kodlak realised he knew that man from somewhere, had surely seen him before, he looked just like that Nord bodyguard of Madanach's from the summer. Except the bodyguard had had scars on his left cheek and a blind eye... and the closer Kodlak got, the more he realised how the man smelt of death and some sort of twisted magic, a smell Kodlak had only ever encountered while taking on Forsworn Briarhearts.
No true Nord would ever become one of those things... would they? Well, no true Nord had any business becoming a werewolf either but look how he'd ended up. And Kaie had called this man brother. Kodlak had heard from Cicero how Madanach had had a secret half-Nord son no one had known about who had been killed by Miraak, and then just after Cicero had left for Solstheim, word had come in that Madanach did indeed have a half-Nord son who'd been badly hurt in a fight but Madanach had pulled out all the stops, authorised every treatment in his power and restored the boy to full health – then Elisif had allegedly left him, returning after discovering her pregnancy and reconciling. That had been the official story, but Kodlak suspected that Elisif would not have left her husband merely for having a secret son born years before she was, and also he knew damn well that no Dark Brotherhood assassin of Cicero's experience and calibre would mistake a living man for a corpse no matter how badly hurt he was. Cicero had said quite, quite dead and Kodlak believed him.
And yet here was Argis apparently so well healed old scars and a lost eye had vanished, solid enough to be kissing a girl – another of Delphine's people if Kodlak recalled correctly. Kodlak didn't want to believe it, but it appeared the darker rumours were true. Madanach's son had died and the Witch-King of Markarth had brought him back using dark heathen magics, and Elisif had fled back to Solitude screaming in terror like any sane woman would.
And here I am staying in his keep for the next two nights. Kodlak had never really feared for the High Queen before now, he'd seen them together and seen an odd couple but a happy one... but now he wondered if all was as it seemed. Had Elisif really wanted to come back or had it just been duty... or had Madanach compelled her somehow?
He didn't have time to think. Kaie was asking if Argis had seen their father anywhere.
"In the Night Garden," Argis said, waving vaguely to the left-hand corridor. "He and that new research assistant of Calcelmo's are testing that new weapon she came up with. I think it's going to be Cicero's New Life present."
"They're giving one to Cicero?" Kaie gasped, horrified. "Are they insane?"
"Isn't it powerful on the first shot but slow to reload?" the woman with Argis, Ingun, asked, frowning. "Sounds like a sniper's weapon to me, so Cicero's perfect to test it. And he did find the plans in Mzinchaleft for her."
"It's where and what he tests it on that are the bloody problem," Kaie snapped, turning around and making for the left corridor. "Harbinger, you'd better come with me, you as well Ria. You're about the only people he'll listen to."
Kodlak had no idea what they were giving to Cicero but if Kaie of the Forsworn was worried, he probably ought to be concerned. Catching Ria's eye, he followed after Kaie.
They were standing in the middle of a large cavern, the Markarth Stream flowing through the centre and a pair of large doors that led to the city under the city on the far side. Before them, by an arcane enchanter surrounded by pieces of Dwemer machinery, was Madanach himself, looking just like a harmless old Breton man, albeit one with coin to buy nice clothes and a circlet. Watching him was a young Breton woman in leather armour with reddish-brown hair, and next to Madanach was Cicero, wearing his usual hat... and what looked like a tavern wench's outfit, including a short skirt slit up the side and low-cut top. Not that Cicero had a cleavage to speak of, of course, but that didn't seem to have stopped him. And in his hands was some sort of Dwarven bow... mounted on a wooden shaft. Cicero was holding it, peering down the shaft.
"Is it loaded properly, Reach-King?" Cicero said, confused. "It is hard to tell."
Kodlak hadn't seen Madanach move so fast in his life, both he and the woman looking panicked.
"No, don't point it at yourself, Cicero bach," Madanach was saying nervously. "That's a bad idea. Look, you can see the bolt here, so just slide the drawstring back and secure it like so, see? All right, now there's the target on that tower, so you put one hand under the shaft, point it at the target, use the sights and pull the trigger, that's the little hook underneath, that releases the bolt for you."
Cicero did as asked, concentrating hard, the bow twanged and the bolt went flying... and two hundred feet away, a straw dummy on top of the Dwarven tower exploded in a cloud of straw and dust.
"You got it first time!" Madanach laughed, impressed. "Well done, bion. I still can't hit it from here."
"Because you need your eyes testing," the woman said, nodding. "You should wear those optics of yours more often, or let me retest you, it's clear your distance vision could use correcting."
"Sorine," Madanach growled. "My eyes are fine, I hit it with an Ice Spike just fine, it's just this thing's hard to calibrate."
"It's not that hard," Sorine protested. "Maybe your hands are shaking, is it old age? Or a degenerative disease?"
"I am fine," Madanach snapped. "And I never was any good at archery anyway, but Cicero here's a master at it, aren't you boy? Cicero?"
Cicero hadn't answered. Cicero was still staring at the bow, awed.
"Reach-King," Cicero breathed, a man clearly in love, or lust. "Reach-King, it's beautiful! So pointy! So deadly!" He clutched it to his chest, staring up at Madanach, smitten. "Could Cicero... keep it?"
Madanach grinned broadly, patting Cicero on the back and ruffling his hair in a decidedly paternal manner, and Kodlak was taken by surprise at the wave of pure rage that threatened to overcome him. That was his son, not Madanach's, Madanach had no right to laugh and smile and ruffle Cicero's hair and Cicero should be staring adoringly at him, not the Reach-King! Kodlak could cheerfully have ripped Madanach's head off... but he restrained himself. Barely.
"Of course you can, that's the idea," Madanach told him. "That's a prototype, which we need testing, and who better to test it than the Saviour of Markarth. Son'aur y Saoirse, Cicero. Consider it a thank you present for saving my city a year ago. All I ask is you send a report on how you found it to use, what worked, what didn't, any faults with it. It's one thing testing it on the range, quite another in the field."
"With pleasure!" Cicero purred, stroking it, delighted glee all over his face as he gazed at it. "My precious..." Without another word, he hugged the bow to him, sighing happily, and Kodlak could cry with frustration at how Cicero never looked that happy at anything he did for him.
"Da," Kaie sighed. "Why have you given Cicero a crossbow?"
"Needed testing, I couldn't think of anyone else who'll be doing the sort of unexpected and dangerous things he does on a regular basis," Madanach said gruffly, but he looked pleased as Cicero slung the bow over his shoulder and promptly cuddled him, cooing and sighing into Madanach's chest. Once again Kodlak felt the jealousy rise as he saw Madanach grin fondly at Cicero and hug him back.
"If it survives a Dragonborn's lifestyle, it can survive anything," Sorine added brightly. "Not that I don't think it will, but we need to make sure what it can tolerate. That's the first one I've built in the style of the Dwemer, I don't know how it'll stand up to actual use."
"Oh, I'm sure Cicero will find out for us soon enough," Madanach said, carefully prising Cicero off him. He glanced up, saw Kodlak there and the easy affection in his eyes disappeared behind a somewhat cooler look.
"Harbinger. You made it. I was wondering when we'd see you. And you brought the wolf twins. How marvellous." Then Madanach's gaze softened as he saw Ria.
"Ria! My friend from the Windpeak Inn, hello! I hear you've been having quite the adventure in Solstheim and afterwards. Cicero told me all about it. Welcome to Markarth, my dear."
"Thank you," Ria said, blushing and Kodlak was getting just a bit tired of this. First his son and now Madanach was trying to charm his granddaughter as well? Fortunately Cicero had by this point seen them and had descended on Ria, squealing as he did and cuddling her until she was lost for breath, exclaiming what a lovely surprise this was, he had not known any of them were coming!
"I may have neglected to mention I'd invited you," Madanach said, sly grin on his face. "He's very sweet when he's excited."
Kodlak just nodded, trying to feel something other than heartbroken at Madanach forging a bond with Cicero he'd likely never have. Cicero was now cuddling Vilkas too, and then Farkas, and only then was it his turn.
"Hello Harbinger," Cicero said nervously, dancing from one foot to the other as he stared up at Kodlak, contriving to look hopeful and worried all at once, desperately wanting approval that Kodlak desperately wanted to give... but never quite could. It was hard to approve of a son who murdered for a living and a hobby, even if he didn't do very many actual contracts any more, mostly delving ancient ruins in search of Word Walls and taking on dragons and running more Jorrvaskr jobs than he did Brotherhood contracts.
"Hello Cicero," Kodlak said, looking him over. "Lad, I hate to ask, but why are you wearing a dress?"
Cicero giggled, looking a bit pink. "Ah, well, this is a little embarrassing, only you see there was a terrible misunderstanding at the Temple of Dibella."
"Somebody gave him a shot of the good jenever and then someone else dared him that he couldn't steal the gold statue they have in the Temple's Inner Sanctum," Madanach said wearily. "So Cicero took them up on it, and would have got away with it too had he not stopped to fondle the marble statues on his way out. That was when Senna caught him."
And this, this sort of behaviour was why Kodlak had difficulty being as wholeheartedly affectionate to Cicero as he'd like. Cicero was giggling a little, bright pink and staring at the floor, clearly the nearest he ever came to ashamed of himself.
"Cicero, you didn't," Kodlak sighed. "Lad, I am so disappointed in you. Is the dress some sort of punishment?"
"Punishment?" Madanach said, raising an eyebrow. "To start with, yeah, we told him if he liked the Temple so much he could do his community service there for two weeks, as a novice priestess instead of a priest. Hamal had him dressed like that, shaving his legs every day and performing all the most menial jobs she could find for him. Apparently he did everything he was told, good as gold, spent the entire fortnight behaving... and once he got out, apparently liked it so much he wanted to know if he could keep the outfit."
Cicero was giggling still, biting his thumb and still looking nervously at Kodlak as Madanach spoke. Kodlak wasn't sure what should appal him most, Madanach deciding that was a suitable punishment or Cicero apparently enjoying himself.
"What did his wife have to say?" Kodlak felt obliged to ask. Madanach just shrugged.
"Delphine just looked disappointed in him, told him off and then started giving Hamal tips on how to manage him. Whereas my daughter actually went into a hysterical fit of laughter for a good ten minutes."
"Eola was actually crying, I seriously thought she was going to injure herself," Kaie added gleefully. Ria had gone a bit pink but she looked like she was struggling not to giggle herself. Vilkas wasn't even bothering to hide the smirk on his face and Farkas was grinning too.
"Well, I think you look really pretty, Cicero," Farkas told him. "Wear it more often, it suits you."
Cicero blushed and squeaked and cuddled Farkas again, grinning up at him.
"Farkaaaas," he cooed, fluttering his eyelashes. "Can Cicero have a piggy-back ride? Pleeeease?"
"Yeah, all right then," Farkas laughed, turning round and crouching down, hooking his arms round Cicero's legs as Cicero climbed onto Farkas's back, arms round his neck. Slowly, Farkas straightened up before breaking out into a jog down Understone Keep's corridors, Cicero bouncing up and down and squealing his head off throughout, thoroughly enjoying himself.
Not something Kodlak could do any more, and not something he'd ever been able to do for Cicero as a boy and that grieved him. A simple childhood pleasure, riding around on a parent's back, and Cicero probably had never got the chance, not once he got too big for Stelmaria to do it. So many missed opportunities and once more Kodlak grieved for the son he'd never been able to save.
"You should probably go after them," Madanach was telling Ria. "You know my steward, right, Nepos? Go and talk to him, he's over by the Mournful Throne, he'll show you where the rooms are."
Ria and Vilkas gathered Farkas's things and went off to find Nepos, leaving Kodlak alone with a man he was nearly certain he hated.
"Well now," Madanach purred. "You and I have a little business to discuss, don't we, Harbinger? My study, perhaps?"
"As you wish," Kodlak said tersely, knowing that was no real way to address a king, but damned if he was standing on ceremony for Madanach. The Reach-King's eyes barely flickered, but the coldness got that bit deeper. Without another word, Madanach strode off, not waiting to see if Kodlak was following. Gathering his pack, Kodlak followed, having no trouble keeping up. One advantage of being taller than the average Reachman. Madanach led him up the central corridor, up the stairs leading to the Mournful Throne, crowds of Reachfolk parting without needing to be told, conversations dying as the King swept past, before starting up again in hushed whispers as he moved on.
"Did you pass some sort of law that they're not allowed to speak in your presence?" Kodlak felt obliged to ask.
"Oh no," Madanach said carelessly as he climbed the stairs. "They just do it anyway and I never felt the need to tell them not to. A king who has to draft a ridiculous amount of rules and protocol on how his subjects must treat him is not a king."
A nice quote, and Kodlak had a feeling Madanach composed them in advance, quite possibly compiling a book on the subject. He was just that sort of person, intelligent and quick-witted and while somewhat on the introverted side by all accounts, also possessed of sufficient ego to want the world to know all his talents anyway.
Up ahead was a small group of people all gathered round a bench, on which a red-haired woman in a fine outfit dripping with gems was simultaneously having her shoulders and bare feet massaged while someone else stood by a small table with a steaming kettle and two cups on it, two guards at either end of the bench, and a young Reachwoman in scaled armour perched on one of the bench's arms, glaring at anyone who came nearby. Anyone who wasn't ReachGuard, of course, and she immediately stood to attention when she saw Madanach, as did everyone else... apart from the pregnant young woman in fine clothes who just cried out as her massage stopped.
"And there she is," Madanach said, all pride as his eyes fell on his wife, face lighting up. "The most spoiled woman in Tamriel. Elisif, cariad, how are you doing?"
Madanach's voice softened on that last sentence and Kodlak couldn't quite believe his eyes as the Lord of the Reach, the infamous Witch-King, strode over to his wife and dropped to his knees alongside her, first kissing her hand then placing his own on her belly, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against hers, apparently not caring he was supposed to be a dangerous warlord king. And Elisif, High Queen of Skyrim, six months pregnant and married to said dangerous warlord, had put an arm round him, smiling gently and kissing his forehead before cuddling him.
If he'd compelled her back by magic, it must be a very strong spell. Kodlak never had quite fathomed what she saw in him... but it seemed Elisif Wolfslayer had apparently forgiven her husband.
"Hello love," Elisif whispered. "Doing a lot better today, thank you. The tea really helps my stomach."
"Good," Madanach said gruffly. "Mireen used to swear by it, and we had four healthy kids. Glad it works for Nords too."
"The massage is really helping too, thank you," Elisif said softly. "You're so good to me."
"You're my wife," Madanach murmured. "You can have anything you like."
Elisif didn't answer, just cuddling him tighter and Kodlak could only feel envy and loneliness and that he'd not had anyone to do that for a very long time. And bloody Madanach had someone and a beautiful young someone going to have his child too and it just wasn't fair. What had Madanach done to deserve any of it? Absolutely nothing.
"Still want to go through with it tomorrow?" Madanach asked, sounding actually hesitant, which was most unlike him. Elisif nodded, ruffling his hair.
"Yes," she whispered. "Of course. More than ever."
"Should hope so too, I didn't come all the way from Deepwood for you to call things off," a woman laughed, an older woman, harsh cackle like a hag's, and then Kodlak could smell the dark magic and the wrong and he knew what manner of creature had just swanned in.
Before he could turn and draw his sword to decapitate the foul creature, Elisif had looked up and cried out in delight.
"Keirine! You're back!"
"Yes child, I'm back," Keirine purred. Kodlak turned around, wondering just why Elisif was getting so enthusiastic about Hagravens, and then he realised. Before him stood an old woman, silver hair loose and down to her shoulders, piercing blue eyes, long black dress down to her feet and a feather wrap around her shoulders... and a knowing, mocking smile just like Madanach's. But all of it was a lie, Kodlak could tell. Because she reeked of death and necromancy and was fairly dripping with powerful Illusion magic, no doubt to stop the populace panicking and screaming, although in this city that was a lot less likely than most. Or maybe it was just Elisif Madanach didn't want panicking and fleeing... again.
Madanach for his part had gritted his teeth, sighed and sat up, looking wearily at the Hag as she – no, it, Kodlak reminded himself – settled down next to Elisif, who had taken her feet off the bench to make room, wincing as bare soles touched stone floor, but not for long as someone had used magic to summon one of the cushions off the Mournful Throne, placing it under her feet. Madanach had clearly trained his servants well, ensuring his queen wanted for nothing. An apology? Or softening her up for the next blow?
"Keirine," Madanach sighed. "Need something?"
"Now that is no way to greet your sister," Keirine pouted. Sister? Madanach had a sister? Well, the face she presented did look like his, but with the illusions, who could tell. But if she was a Hagraven, well. No wonder Madanach kept her existence a secret.
"Also your wedding officiant and midwife to your pretty young queen and her future child," Keirine added. "Would it kill you to be nice for once?"
Madanach was shaking his head, sighing, but that wasn't what had caught Kodlak's attention.
"Wedding officiant?" Kodlak demanded. "You two are already married!"
"Legally yes," Madanach growled, looking at him as if he was a bit stupid. "And we're definitely together, don't you worry. But we never had a Forsworn ceremony. Never had the Reachkin Bond of Matrimony put in place. I didn't want to in case things turned out horribly when I first married her... and Elisif had her heart set on a traditional Cyronordic ceremony at Solitude. So I did that for her and never exchanged the vows of the Reach." He turned back to her and trailed a finger across the scars, hidden under make-up but never entirely gone. "I wish we had, you'd never have had these if I'd known how to find you."
"It wasn't your fault," Elisif said quietly, taking his hand away and holding it in hers.
"I'm your husband," Madanach said, voice low and strange and Kodlak realised that was actually guilt. Guilt and shame that he couldn't have stopped his wife being stolen from him. "Meant to take care of you and protect you, aren't I? Well, I'm going to. No one's ever hurting you or kidnapping you ever again, I mean it, Elisif."
Elisif smiled, stroking his hair and kissing his cheek.
"You're so sweet," she laughed, looking a little embarrassed, and that had to be a first, anyone calling Madanach sweet. "And it means when I get too pregnant to travel and have to stay in Solitude waiting for you, I won't have to worry about you while you're on the road."
"Me? Elisif, creenama, don't you worry about me, no one's going to kidnap me," Madanach laughed. "I'm not pretty enough to be worth it, and no one's going to try and take me for ransom when they know Kaie and Nepos can just hire Cicero to retrieve me."
Which was traditionally a Companions job, not a Dark Brotherhood one, and while the Brotherhood charged an awful lot more for its services and was never going to start mounting rescue missions for anyone other than the Reach royal family, it galled Kodlak to think of them stealing his guild's work... and the glory. Even if his own son would likely be involved.
"All the same, I worry," Elisif said quietly. "Our baby needs you!"
"I'm not going anywhere, ceilhina," Madanach promised. Kissing her again, he got to his feet. "Listen, I have some business to discuss with the Harbinger here, you remember Kodlak, don't you?"
"Of course," Elisif said, smiling at Kodlak, seeing him for the first time. "Hello Kodlak! Welcome to Markarth. Have you visited since the siege ended?"
Since the takeover, she meant. And while Vilkas had been by a few times in the first few months of the Forsworn regime, ostensibly looking for work but in actuality checking that innocents were not being slaughtered, and Ria and Vilkas had both visited after the Miraak attacks, he'd never been. Too old to make the journey, but the truth was, while he accepted that Madanach was actually a very capable and just ruler despite sponsoring the Dark Brotherhood and allowing worship of virtually everything except Talos in his lands, he detested the man on a personal level and dark magic set his teeth on edge. And the Reach was steeped in dark magic.
"No, High Queen, I have not," Kodlak said, deciding to be polite for Elisif's sake if nothing else. "It's a lovely city. The decorations were impressive." He deliberately left it vague as to which ones.
"Oh yes, the flowerlight ropes are lovely," Elisif giggled. "And the Spriggans look nice too – I didn't know they could be lit up!"
Nor had Kodlak. He wasn't sure if he liked the effect or not so just smiled politely.
"Anyway, I won't keep you," Elisif continued. "I'm sure you and Madanach have plenty to talk about!"
Kodlak was sure they did, not that the prospect of a private conversation with Madanach was anything to look forward to. Even so, it looked like Kodlak's best hope for a cure.
If Kodlak had detested Madanach before, seeing the inside of his study just confirmed why.
"Good gods, man, have you no respect for the dead?" Kodlak demanded, gesturing at the heads on the wall. Kodlak hadn't liked Ulfric, but even so, the man deserved better than his preserved head mounted on Madanach's wall for posterity.
"Didn't respect 'em when they were alive, them dying didn't change my mind," Madanach shrugged. "My only regret is not getting to Thonar's corpse in time, but his skull's polished up nicely, don't you think?" He indicated the human skull sitting by the tea set.
"You are a vile human being," Kodlak said, disgusted and pointedly taking a seat with his back to the three Nord heads. "Does Elisif know they're here?"
"Yes and she was a bit shocked at first, but she got used to the idea and now I find her in here on a regular basis taunting Ulfric," Madanach said, lifting the tea kettle up and casting some sort of very small rune spell on the ceramic plate it sat on before replacing it. "Tea? I've got red, blue and purple mountain flower, snowberry, juniper, lavender and jazbay. Alas, no moon sugar but it's still a source of comfort. Or I've got mead. Don't normally drink the stuff myself but Maven sent me a free sample and you don't turn down freebies from Maven. Even got some juniper mead just in, it was a New Life present from my son – have you met Argis yet? Properly, I mean."
"I saw him," Kodlak said stiffly. "A dead man up and walking around – either your healers truly are miracle-workers or you brought him back with necromancy. Cicero told me he had died, Madanach. My son can tell whether a man lives or not."
Madanach had gone rather quiet, eyes narrowing as he folded his arms and leant against the far wall, no longer bothering with hospitality.
"Your son acquired that skill through twenty-five years of murdering for coin, and unlike you, he'd kill anyone they told him to, innocent or not," Madanach said coldly. "Don't judge me, Nord. I gave my boy a second chance through the only means I had at my disposal and he chose to take it and come back to me." He stepped forward, the room seeming to darken and the very shadows seeming to twist around him, making him look even more intimidating, and even though Kodlak knew it was just some illusion trickery, nevertheless it was a little unnerving. "And as for dark magic, come now, you were invited to a secret night-time ritual in a dark cave that involved drinking the blood of a Shield-Sibling, and nothing about any of that put you off?" Madanach had raised an eyebrow, expression deceptively mild. "If you understood the old magic a little better, you might have realised that was a bad idea."
"I was young," Kodlak growled. "I'd been promised strength beyond my wildest dreams and more than that, the chance to be reborn into a new family after losing my own. I didn't know the price – no one ever bothered to tell me the price!"
"No one told my daughter either!" Madanach snarled, springing forward and planting his hands on the table, teeth bared as he snarled at Kodlak. Kodlak had never been closer to just changing and ripping the man's head off... but his inner wolf was wary. This one was no ordinary man, this one had a witch's power... this one might just have ways of controlling a werewolf.
"You chose this, Harbinger," Madanach spat. "You volunteered to barter your humanity away for your own personal power. Whatever you think of Briarhearts, of Hagravens, at least they are serving their communities with their gifts. Your people don't even know you are one and would think you a monster if they did. And thanks to your idiocy, my daughter's been infected too and she never even asked for it. And you come crawling to me hoping I will make it all better for you? You disgust me."
"You invited me here, Madanach," Kodlak growled, getting to his feet and placing his own hands on the table opposite the Reach-King's, staring him down like a true Nord should. "You made the offer, I never approached you. I am quite willing to leave this city right now if my presence offends you so much."
"Ach, don't bother, I've got half the Jarls in Skyrim, various Legion commanders, and let's not forget, our friends from the Dominion as represented by the new Thalmor Ambassador all turning up tomorrow," Madanach sighed, grimacing as he mentioned the Thalmor. "I need all hands ensuring the Dragonborn behaves himself and does nothing unfortunate that might embarrass the Reach. I was hoping the presence of his kin would calm him down slightly."
Kodlak did have to smile slightly at that. Cicero, whatever his faults, was always perfectly well-behaved in Whiterun and hadn't been hauled up before the Jarl once. Sure, there was the odd squabble with a Shield-Sibling, and Farkas really needed to stop encouraging Cicero to squirm all over him like he did, and that one time Eorlund had chased Cicero off the Skyforge with a battle-axe, but Cicero was mostly very well-behaved in Jorrvaskr. Finding out the reverse was true in Markarth was a little gratifying.
Assuming the reason Cicero played up in Markarth and not Whiterun was because he felt safer in the former city, of course, which brought Kodlak's mood down again.
"So you had an ulterior motive. Of course you did," Kodlak said wearily. "I imagine any aid you offer will have a price attached as well."
"Of course it does, I'm not in the business of offering something for nothing, and my First Matriarch's services do not come cheap," Madanach said, leaning back and slipping into his chair, one leg crossing the other as he rested his elbow on the chair's arm, head on his hand. "You're fortunate, Kodlak. After hearing from Eola who cursed the Companions in the first place, I discussed the matter with Keirine and we think we can help."
Kodlak sat down, still wary. He'd be a fool to trust Madanach or believe he was getting the whole story... but all the same, an actual claim to being able to help was further than he'd got in years.
"What manner of help are you offering?" Kodlak asked, eyes narrowed.
"You were cursed by the Glenmoril Witches, correct?" Madanach asked, clearly already knowing the answer. Kodlak nodded anyway, and Madanach continued, smiling.
"An old coven. Dangerous. Powerful. Secretive. Not going to give up their knowledge to outsiders, Keirine's been trying to infiltrate them for years with no luck. But she does have a means of extracting their knowledge by force... if she can find someone to kill them. None of the Forsworn will do it for her – even a Hag cannot command them to raise a hand to another Hag, she needs to go herself or not at all. But you now... you don't have that problem." Madanach was definitely grinning now, looking positively gleeful.
"I'm guessing you don't have a problem with ordering their deaths then," Kodlak said. Not that he had a problem with killing Hagravens or anything, but he was surprised Madanach didn't. Although not that surprised – Madanach struck him as very much the type to play on his people's traditions and culture in public when it suited him but sacrifice them in private on the altar of expediency at the drop of a hat.
"Me? Order their deaths?" Madanach's eyebrows shot up and he almost looked like he was shocked... almost. "I am doing no such thing. Merely stating that if someone were to kill them all and bring their severed and undamaged heads to First Matriarch Keirine at Hag's End, she would be able to extract their knowledge of beastcraft and use it to reverse the curse for any of your people who wanted it lifted. Obviously the Mournful Throne would have to issue a strongly-worded statement of protest at the slaughter of five innocent old women who just wanted to worship their gods in peace and study magic, but as they weren't living in the Reach and have always refused ReachGuard protection, there'd be nothing we could actually do to the offenders."
Kodlak did have to wonder what it was like in Madanach's mind. All cogs and wheels, ticking over like some Dwemer machine? Or a dark twisted maze of briars and dead things on spikes, a morass of dark emotions that brought forth monsters? How the man could come up with such deceptive sophistries as naturally as breathing was beyond Kodlak. He was almost impressed. Almost.
"You mentioned a price," Kodlak said, certain that killing the Glenmoril witches was not going to be the sole condition. He was right.
"I did, didn't I?" Madanach grinned, looking far too pleased with himself for Kodlak's liking. "I've got a job for you. I don't often need to hire you people, but Eola tells me werewolves are immune to disease. Which is very handy, as I have something needs doing that even the Forsworn don't want to touch."
Kodlak wasn't even sure he wanted to know but felt obliged to ask anyway.
"What task is so vile even your people won't touch it?" Kodlak sighed. The Forsworn weren't exactly noted for their squeamishness.
"There's a group of Daedra-worshippers who've made their home in my kingdom. Worshippers of Peryite, the Lord of Pestilence. He sent them a blessing, a wasting disease that discolours the skin and makes those afflicted vomit up toxic green bile. Needless to say, I want them out of my kingdom without the disease spreading, which means sending in the ReachGuard is not an option. Not sure I want to risk the Dragonborn and friends on this either. But you now... you're one of Hircine's. You can't get sick. And you've got those twins as well." Madanach leaned forward, ghoulish delight at his own cleverness all over his face. "What do you say, Harbinger? You take care of this Peryite cult for me, particularly this mage that's leading them, some elf called Orchendor, and I'll instruct Keirine to cure you if you bring her the heads, not to mention ensuring the border patrols let you through and don't arrest you for carting five Hagraven heads about."
Slaughter a cult of Daedra-worshippers. Kodlak could wonder why the Reach-King, almost certainly a worshipper of some Daedra or other himself, wanted these cultists exterminated when Daedra-worship wasn't illegal in his country – but he supposed the public health risk merited it.
"All right," Kodlak sighed. "I'll take Farkas and Vilkas and head out there once the celebrations are done. Where is this place?"
"It's a Dwemer ruin called Bthardamz, to the north and west of here," Madanach told him, still smiling that strange, gleeful smile. "Here, I'll mark it on a map for you, you can't miss it."
This was done, and Madanach got up, motioning for Kodlak to follow, commenting he should probably make sure all was going well, not to mention Kodlak perhaps should check on Cicero, make sure he wasn't up to anything he shouldn't be. An all too likely prospect, it had to be said. As Madanach reached the door, he turned to Kodlak, mocking grin firmly in place.
"See, we reached an agreement, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
Kodlak resisted the urge to hit him. Agreement? It felt more like mortgaging his soul to a Daedra... and then he recalled it was doing that which had got him here in the first place.
So here he was, beholden to the Reach-King... and Kodlak felt tainted.
Notes on the Rhanic:
Bach - small, little, young
Dodiada mi yn beoir, gwelhin - bring me a beer please
Davrhiel - Dragon's daughter
milgwin - honeywine, or mead
Admorfual - Nord-piss
Antol - welcome
Aur y Saoirse - Liberation Day
Cailleach - Hagraven
Te melui viraic - you're really sweet
Thand-Gwador - Shield-Brother
Hiril - lady
Next chapter, the celebrations get under way and the rest of the guests arrive, some welcome, some not and some not actually invited but turning up anyway.