A/N: Please note that the following story contains adult themes, including sexual content, non-consensual themes (which at times includes briefly referenced threats towards minors), consensual underage sex (brief and non-explicit), alcoholism, depression and pregnancy loss. Oh, and swearing. Lots and lots of swearing.
The title is taken from a traditional song (the lyrics of which, by the way, are well out of copyright), which I have co-opted as a Nibenese drinking song, because I can't write lyrics worth a damn.
Any and all feedback is hugely appreciated. I particularly welcome constructive criticism, especially if you have any advice to give on ES lore and how to deepen how I've presented it here. I aspire to being a lore buff, but I'm not there yet.
Huge thanks go to Tafferling and ZadArchie for betaing.
The Parting Glass
The Rats of Bravil
"All the money that e'er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm ever I done,
Alas! it was to none but me,
And all I have done for the want of wit,
To memory now I can't recall,
So fill to me the parting glass,
Good night and joy be with you all."
– The Parting Glass
'The Gray Fox
Wanted for theft, embezzlement, forgery, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, burglary, conspiracy to commit theft, grand larceny, tax evasion, slander, fraud, perfidy and impertinence.
Description: wears a gray cloak that conceals his appearance. Presumed male and Colovian. Height between 5 and 6 feet. Normal weight. Hair and eye color unknown.
Any citizen with information should contact the Imperial Watch.'
-Wanted poster, circa 3E 433
Let's get something straight before we begin: almost everything you have ever heard about me is a lie.
Most likely you believe I spent the final decade of the third era shacked up with a mistress and a litter of children in Chorrol or Cheydinhal or wherever it is that faithless Colovian husbands go to hide from their heartbroken Colovian wives.
Some tales are kinder though. You may have heard that I was bewitched. Or that in a moment of fuckwittery I disguised myself as an arena combatant and wound up bleeding out my last into the sand in some baffling urge to prove my martial prowess.
Or perhaps you've heard the stories that seek to explain how a bastard with noble parentage so obscure it might almost be deliberate, could have come to marry into the Umbranox family, one of the most powerful lineages on the Gold Coast.
(A small matter that I was not noble-born, bastard or otherwise, and nor was I Colovian. Until I was eighteen I spoke with a Nibenese accent so broad you could have driven a carriage down it.)
And then there are the other tales, the legends that talk not of Corvus Umbranox, the feckless, dissolute Count of Anvil, but of another man entirely. One who is immortal, shrouded in shadows and secrets. Most of those are lies too. Legends usually are.
Not one of the tales that seeks to explain my mysterious disappearance comes close to the actual truth: that until the very same year in which another notable bastard (one much more heroic than me) sacrificed his life to save all of Tamriel from a daedric invasion, Corvus Umbranox and the Gray Fox were one and the same.
You don't believe me.
But Corvus, you say, since apparently you are the sort of idiot who is in the habit of talking to the written word as if it were somehow sentient and able to understand you, the Gray Fox is still out there! He leads the Thieves' Guild even now, yet you are Count of Anvil!
(Unless I'm dead by the time you're reading this. Or perhaps my blessed lady wife has finally come to her senses and cast me off. I wouldn't blame her if she has).
Well, dear reader, that's rather the point of a cowl. Especially that cowl, damn it to Oblivion. There has not been one Fox, but many, and each one a victim. How many, I am still trying to ascertain, but I have been able to identify at least thirty names. It is a slow process, and often painful; even with the curse broken the magic still lingers, clouding the mind and the memories. It takes concentration to break through, to pick apart the threads and unravel the truth of what happened, the unbroken chain of forgotten souls that leads through the centuries from Emer Dareloth to me.
This work leaves me with splintering headaches, although I wonder sometimes if it is not the magic but the strain of focusing my failing eyes. Either way on a bad day it leaves me feeling like a pickaxe has been wedged in my skull, and the bad days are growing more frequent. Still, it's a small price to pay for my family and my freedom, and one I would have paid a thousand times over. It was worth it to escape from the shadows, to find my way home again.
But I digress.
Some of the more lurid tales about the Gray Fox would have you believe I was born in pitch darkness when the moons and the stars were veiled with clouds. My mother was a living shadow, given form in the total darkness. When the sky cleared and the moons reappeared in the night sky, she broke apart on the moonlight, and I was left an orphan. Nocturnal took pity on me and sent a wolf to nurse me and ravens to bring me scraps of food. And as I grew, I learned the tricks of the shadows: how to shrink myself to the size of a mouse, or turn myself invisible; how to turn myself into mist to seep through the cracks in ill-fitting window panes.
The reality is far more prosaic. My mother was flesh and blood. Or she was when I was born, at least. My earliest years are still something of a mystery, and I doubt I will ever know the truth of what happened when I was an infant: the horrors I must have witnessed are safely locked away in my skull, if I ever remembered them at all. One thing this whole mess has taught me is that the mind, and in particular, memories, can play tricks on the unwary.
What I do know for certain is that on or around the year 394 in the third era a ragged little five year old boy came into the care of a Breton woman who ran an ill-reputed wayside inn on a poorly maintained road between Skingrad and Bravil. Don't bother looking for the inn. It's long since been reduced to ashes, and good riddance. It sold little but watered down ale and flavourless stew, its beds crawled with lice and its proprietress had a face as sour as the ale she sold. Even I wouldn't have drunk there, and the gods themselves will tell you that I am not a fussy man when it comes to inns.
Her name was Masha Dermaine.
She claimed to be my aunt, but I now know this is untrue. Even then I had my suspicions. There are few sources of labour quite so cheap as an unwanted child, particularly if you're prepared to keep them hungry and living in squalor.
She was a changeable creature, cruel and capricious when sober, maudlin and sentimental when drunk. When the inn was bustling, which was rare, she was at least kept busy. She was always happiest when she had people to flirt with, to relieve of the burden of their coin, and to ply with wine and the questionable virtue of either herself or her daughter.
So far I was young enough to have escaped that particular task about the inn, but I had seen the occasional speculative glance my way from a passing merchant and I suspected it wouldn't be long before I was expected to earn my keep warming the beds of those occasional travellers whose taste ran to boys. In many ways I was lucky that Masha took so little care of me; likely it was my filthy body and half-feral appearance that had kept me protected for so long. If she had taken more care to keep me clean and better clothed, the coin she could have earned from selling my tender arse would almost certainly have outweighed the amount spent many times over.
She always was a fool.
When things were quiet, Masha had little to do but sit and drink and try to figure out the source of all her sorrows, and invariably her attention would turn to the rat-faced little Imperial boy, the ungrateful little shit who did nothing to earn his keep.
Not that I can blame her too much, mind you, since as far back as I can remember I was robbing her blind at every opportunity. It's one of my earliest memories, the act of stealing, the realisation that if I snatched up an apple without being seen, then by all rights it belonged to me. The logic of the natural thief.
Just as well really: if I hadn't been such a thieving little fucker, I would have starved to death long before I ever reached my adulthood.
In my memories of my childhood it always seemed to be raining: a needle-sharp drizzle so fine it might be mist in the springtime, or raging storms in winter. This was that heavy summer rain that seemed intent on flattening everything in its path: trees, mountains, small foolish boys who happened to get caught in it. It reduced the ground around the inn to a muddy swamp and rendered the roads around the inn almost totally impassible.
Picture a small boy of thirteen who looks a good three years younger, sheltering from the downpour in the lee of the stable wall. The boy's sackcloth clothes are already soaked through, clinging to his shivering skinny frame, and he's up to the ankles in the mud. When dry, his calloused soles are black with dirt and tough as leather. His dark brown hair is so long he might almost be taken for a girl, if it wasn't so matted and tangled, and his features are pinched from hunger.
I didn't look like much back then.
I was trying to decide whether it was worth making a dash for the shelter of the inn, where a fire was burning, or if my aunt's ill-temper would render this unwise. I'd fled a beating that morning, spent most of the day skirting the edge of the forest, checking the traps repeatedly to see if I'd caught anything that might soften Masha's disposition towards me.
I hadn't, and it was only the rain and the thought of a shivering wet night spent in the damp stables that had forced me back. I was only putting off the beating; I wouldn't be able to escape it completely. At least if I went inside and got it over with I'd be in the warm, with a roaring fire and something to eat, and maybe Brandt would take pity on me and tell one of his stories.
Decision made, I tensed, ready to dash across the yard. Only then I felt a prickling sensation on the back of my neck. I went still, cast a darting glance towards the other end of the stables. Was there a shadow there, something that didn't quite fit? I drew back, darting out of sight behind the wall, and listened. And there, a faint splashing, the sucking squelch of someone nowhere near as stealthy as I was moving through the mud.
I whirled, moving swiftly around the side of the stable, hopped atop a barrel, and hauled myself up onto the roof, toes scrabbling for purchase on the sodden wood. With my weight spread across the slippery tiles, I peered over the edge, searching for the spy.
A boy, about my age, as short as I was, but considerably better fed. Cursing softly under his breath as the mud sucked at his ill-fitting shoes. Edging around the side of the stables, trying to figure out where the fuck I'd vanished to, because he'd had me in his sights a moment ago, and now he'd lost me and that was usually a bad sign. He licked his lips, took another step, cast a cautious glance over his shoulder.
I crept to the very edge of the roof, and braced myself. Counted slowly to three before launching myself at his back. A blinding stab of pain as his elbow crunched into my nose, and as he tried to twist out from beneath me, I fought to pin him down with all my meagre weight. If he managed to get up, I was finished. He was stronger than me.
It was a wrestling match born of desperation, the two of us scrabbling in the mud, his fingers clawing at my face. I bit down on the meat of his palm, and he yelped. Aimed a vengeful knee at my balls. I flinched away, and he pressed the advantage, shoving me aside. As he rolled to his feet, I kicked out at his ankles, and he fell with a startled cry. I was on him then, swinging my bunched fist into his kidneys, and when he sprawled in the mud, I straddled him and hooked his arm up behind his back, my knee wedged between his shoulder blades.
The two of us were panting, soaked to the skin and filthy, but I was triumphant.
"Do you yield?" I demanded.
He wriggled, lifted his head enough to spit out a mouthful of mud. "You're a dirty fighter."
"Taught by the best. Are you going to yield or not?" I jerked his arm up, not quite enough to hurt but not far off.
"I yield, you arsehole. Now let me up before I drown in the fucking mud."
I let him go, sinking back on my haunches. He rolled up, and I snorted at the sight of him. His face was streaked with mud, and his hair was black with it. Not that I was much better. He wiped his face and grimaced.
"My da's going to fucking kill me," he said, then sighed. "Could've sworn I had you beat for a minute."
"You almost did," I admitted. "But you're right. I am a dirty fighter."
"And you nearly wrenched my arm off," he said, pushing his mud-soaked hair back from his face. The rain was already washing us both clean.
"Sorry." I stood up and held out my hand. His gaze dropped to it, then flickered craftily up to meet mine again. I could see the thoughts churning behind his eyes, as he considered jerking me back down for another wrestling match. But it was wet and cold, and he must have thought better of it since he flashed his teeth and let me pull him up.
"You can make it up to me," he said. "Talk to your pretty cousin for me."
"Grow some balls and talk to her yourself," I said, and shoulder-barged him so hard he slammed into the side of the stable.
"Ow! You fucking arsehole!" He swiped at me as I scrambled away, laughed at him as he slipped in the mud as he came after me, and spat some curses at each other that we'd learned from Brandt.
"Take your shoes off," I suggested. "You'd move quieter without them."
"My feet ain't made of leather like yours."
"Yeah, because you wear shoes, you stupid cunt."
"I fucking wish." This last Nate said so fervently I laughed. Our scrap apparently over, we circled around the back of the stables and sank down in a spot beneath the eaves. "She ever talk about me?" he asked.
"You mean my aunt?"
He shoved me lightly. "Mia. Idiot. Does she ever, you know, mention me?"
"Not really. But you know what she's like. She doesn't really talk about anything much."
He twisted his lips, pushed his hair out of his eyes. "I'm going to marry her," he said, with confidence. "And then we'll get the fuck out of this shithole. We'll have a place in the Imperial City. Or somewhere nice, like Anvil. Maybe even Bruma."
"You'll freeze your bollocks off in Bruma," I said.
"Nah." A flash of that wicked grin again. "'Cause I'd have your cousin to keep me warm."
"I don't think she'd like you being a whoremonger," I said, resting the back of my head against the side of the stable. I was thinking about Mia. Wondering how it would be if she married Nate, if they'd let me tag along. Maybe the two of them would find an inn to run somewhere and I could work there. Not a shithole like this, but on one of the busier roads or even in one of the towns. At least Mia could be happy then; he'd take care of her.
"I'd give it up for her." He sighed. "I'd give anything up for her. Dibella's tits, I'm freezing. Might as well be in fucking Bruma."
"Your fault," I retorted. "You could've just said hello instead of trying to sneak up on me. What've you got for me anyway?"
He'd brought me a brace of coneys, stashed inside the stables to keep the free of the rain while he'd tried unsuccessfully to sneak up on me. I ran my hand over the velvet-soft fur, and dug out his payment from where I'd stashed it behind a bale of hay. A couple of bottles of ale and one of mead which I'd stolen from the inn. Nate, my first ever fence. He grinned and stashed them in his pack, slipped it back behind the hay.
"What are you doing? Aren't you taking them?"
"In a minute," he said, pushing himself up. "I'm going to say hello to Mia first."
I glanced over my shoulder at the inn. "If my aunt sees you..."
"She won't. I'm getting better at hiding. Learned from the best, you shitting arsehole. C'mon, you owe me. My arm still hurts and I almost drowned."
Shit. "All right. But don't let her see you. She's thick as pigshit, but it don't mean she's not going to figure things out eventually. She's already starting to notice things going missing."
We crossed the yard, the coneys slung over my shoulder. I left Nate hunkered by the crumbling wall, but as I hopped over, I hesitated, glancing along the road. It was overcast and gloomy, the far off hills shrouded with the mist of distant rain. I shivered, feeling as if I was being watched, as if something was approaching the inn, drawing closer along that lonely road.
"Jack?" Nate was frowning at me. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Hold on." I hopped over the wall and slipped to the inn, peered cautiously through the door. But there was just Mia behind the bar and Brandt sitting by the fire, staring gloomily into the flames. I beckoned Nate, heard him grunt as he climbed over the wall.
Inside, Mia shot me a reproving look, then her gaze flitted over my shoulder as Nate slipped inside after me, combing his fingers through his sodden hair.
"Hello Mia," he said, his voice soft. For all his bravado, he was shyer than a fawn.
"What in Oblivion happened to you two?" she said, in disbelief, her gaze shifting between the two of us.
I held up the brace of coneys. "I caught some rabbits," I announced, and she gave me a look that told me she knew this was utter bullshit. "Where's my aunt?"
"Upstairs," she said. "But she's in a right mood, Jack. What've you done now?"
"Why do you always assume it's something I've done? Not like she needs a reason to be angry with me."
"Yeah," she said. "But to be fair it is usually because you're a thieving little shit."
Nate edged further into the room behind me, flushing bright red as Mia took the coneys from me and vanished into the kitchen. When she was gone, I jabbed him in the ribs with my elbow. In return he punched my shoulder. And by the fire Brandt quietly rolled his eyes upwards, and shook his head wearily at the pair of us.
"Fucker," Nate said, the word turning into a cough as Mia returned. I nudged Nate, and then, when he still didn't move, I shoved him much less gently towards the bar. His hip banged against a table, and he gave a grunt of surprise and pain. I regretted what I'd done the moment Mia lifted her gaze. Her eyes were filled not with amusement but pain and weariness. Nate opened his mouth to say something, and at the look of dread on Mia's face I had to look away. Even Nate thought better of whatever it was he'd been about to say and stared down at his feet, flushing scarlet.
It was Brandt who rescued us.
He'd been a bard in his youth and claimed that he used to sing so sweetly he could charm apart even the most tightly clamped pair of thighs. His voice was cracked and hoarse now, but he could still carry a song, his voice fine enough and strong enough to keep the whole inn enraptured. He'd used to play the lute too, he said, until a thane in Riften had taken offence to a lay he'd written, and shattered every one of his fingers.
These days he rarely sang unless he was drunk, but stories were another matter. It took little persuading and even less ale for him to lapse into one of his many tales, and he was a natural storyteller, with a seemingly endless supply of stories from every corner of Tamriel, most of which were filled with sex and violence like all the best tales told to children.
Outside the rain had grown heavier. It struck in sheets against the inn's windows, forming labyrinthine patterns against the fogged up glass. Throughout the inn, upturned bowls had been left to catch the drips, like offerings to the gods, and there was a lingering smell of damp in the air.
Or there should have been.
Instead, the inn was filled with the keen sharp scent of frost. The steam rising from my sodden clothes was my breath fogging in the freezing air, the sound of the crackling fire my fur-lined boots crunching in virgin snow. And I was no longer a skinny undernourished boy of thirteen, but a member of Ysgramor's Companions, broad-chested and golden-haired with a war-hammer strapped to my back.
Brandt's voice wove a spell around me so powerful that if I closed my eyes I could feel the snowflakes striking against my frozen skin like needles, the soft kiss of the wolf-skin cloak against my jaw, the scream of the muscles in my thighs as I stayed my spill down the snowy slope. Below me in the valley the ice was as clear as glass, and beneath that ice the ghosts of an army of the dead, who had been driven into the lake centuries ago and left to drown, awaited me.
"The warrior lifted his boot," Brandt said, "and took his first step out onto the frozen lake. And beneath the glassy surface, the spirits followed, nails scratching against the underside of the ice."
"How many were there?" Mia asked.
Brandt grinned. In the firelight his teeth looked very sharp and white, and a glittering danger in his eyes. "Their number was countless, lass. So many the lake was crowded with their spirits, and the bottom a tangle of bones and skulls ten feet deep."
"What happened to the Companion?" I asked, my mouth dry. I already knew the answer, already knew what was coming, but I wanted to hear him tell it.
"Ah." Brandt winked. I shifted impatiently as he took another long swig of ale, the bottle gripped awkwardly between his two hands, cradled between his palms. He set it down, wiped his mouth on the liver-spotted back of his hand. "Nothing at first. The ice held, at least until he was out there in the very centre of the lake. He knelt, and beneath the ice the spirits swarmed and writhed. There's nothing hungrier than the dead. It's why necromancers are such benighted fools for fucking about with matters they don't understand. You think you've gone hungry from time to time, lad?"
I grimaced. Only Brandt's tale could distract me from my thoughts of the hunk of bread and sliver of cheese I'd swiped from the kitchen that morning and hidden away in my little spot in the stables. It was that which had earned me the beating. "Well-"
"You've no clue, boy. The dead are hollow. Naught but empty ravening pits that would suck the marrow from a man's still living bones if they had the chance. The dead do nothing but hunger, and for more than food. They hunger for life itself, and these dead, trapped for centuries beneath their ice, were hungrier than most.
"The Companion could hear them whispering now, tens of thousands of voices, each barely above a whisper. And this warrior was like any other. Perhaps a little braver than most, and certainly more foolish, or he would not have gone to that place where the drowned army hungered in its frozen tomb-"
He paused to take another swig of ale. I exchanged an impatient glance with Nate, but said nothing. I knew from long experience that hurrying Brandt when he was in the midst of a story would only cause him to drag the tale out longer. Better to stay silent, as painful and frustrating as it could be. But as he set the bottle down, his awkward hands bumped against it, and it toppled over, foaming beer spilling over the wood. He swore, making a grab for it, and Mia threw herself forward before he could cause more chaos. She righted the bottle, saving most of the ale, smiled weakly as Brandt thanked her.
"You're very welcome," she said, her voice very quiet.
Brandt's gaze lingered sadly on her a few moments longer, before he dropped them back to the table and his spilled ale. His shoulders sagged and whatever spell he had woven around us had lost some of its lustre. I stared at his useless misshapen fingers, the red swollen knuckles, and shivered that someone could be so cruel to destroy a man's livelihood in such a way.
"Brandt?" I whispered so quietly I wasn't sure if he had heard me. He moved, a slight tightening of his shoulders, his head crowned with shaggy greying hair tilted in my direction, but he didn't open his eyes. He wasn't going to finish the story, I thought, and it shouldn't have mattered because I'd heard it so many times before I probably could have recited it myself from memory.
But I was a boy. And I was selfish.
A story left unfinished is a terrible thing. It's like a ghost not yet put to rest; it haunts both reader and listener until the tale is brought to an end. Unfinished tales have teeth, and this unfinished tale would gnaw at me.
"Jack," Mia whispered, as I slipped to my feet. "Let him be."
"But I want him to finish the story," I said, reaching out to touch Brandt's shoulder.
His eyes snapped open, and I swear in that moment they were black. A trick of the light of course, but it was enough to make me flinch away.
"Run." His voice was a growl, and it wrapped around my throat like a fist. "They're coming for you, boy."
His twisted fingers clamped around my wrist. I could smell the stale alcohol seeping through his pores, and useless though his hands should have been he was strong enough to pull me closer as if to whisper something in my ear.
And I knew that whatever he had to tell me was something I did not want to know.
I jerked away. If his tale of the souls of dead men drowned in a river had filled me with a pleasing thrill of fear, this fear was all cold and sharp edges, a knife's edge that cut deep. There was nothing pleasant about this: nothing but death and emptiness and terror. I stumbled away and his head swivelled, eyes searching for me blindly.
Mia knelt beside me, her cheeks wet with tears. "What happened?" she whispered, and I pressed my hand over her mouth. Nate cowered in the corner, his eyes wide. The flames flared up as a log cracked in the grate, and the rain redoubled its efforts against the window.
Brandt made a noise, a sort of sobbing cough, and sank back in his seat. The darkness in his eyes had gone and Mia sagged against me. Brandt's were cheeks wet with tears, and he stared at we, bewildered. He looked even older now, and weaker, as if he was finally starting to lose his grip on his mind and memories. "What happened?" he asked, a tremble in his voice.
"You were dreaming," I lied, and his gaze shifted to me.
"Dreaming," he repeated, as if that made no sense.
"Yeah," I said, and Mia's hand tightened in mine. "You must've-"
The air seethed, so thick that I could hardly breathe. My vision sharpened, tunnelling away, and everything around me seemed suddenly very distant.
We were being watched.
Two figures stood in the doorway of the inn, a man and a woman, both in hooded cloaks which dripped water on the rushes. Mia's hand tightened on my own as the man shook his hood back. He was Imperial, his black hair worn in a military close-crop. It took her a moment or two for Mia to recover her composure and smooth her hands down over her skirt. "Welcome. Please, come in and make yourselves comfortable. Is there anything you need?"
I leaned against the table, crossing my arms in an effort to hide my fear. The man's eyes flitted to me, lingered on my face as he shrugged off his cloak. Beneath he was richly dressed in a green silk doublet, but he wore a short sword belted at his waist, and there was a stillness to his movements that made the back of my neck prickle with warning.
They're coming for you, boy.
"A room for the night," he said, shortly. "We've travelled a long way."
Should have travelled further, I thought, but the thought seemed very distant. It hardly seemed to belong to me at all.
"Of course, sir. I'll fetch my mother down." She glanced at me, meaningfully. "A drink for our guests, Jack."
Gods, I didn't want to move. As if by moving I might draw attention to myself. I tightened my arms across my chest, balled up my hands into fists and pressed them into my armpits.
As Mia vanished into the upper levels of the inn, Brandt placed his hand on my shoulder, sending a stab of agony across my back. I drew in a sharp breath, and the man's gaze jerked towards me, quick as a snake's. Something about the look in his eyes as he studied me made me think of a merchant who'd once watched me with interest, a greedy look that made me feel like the clothes were being stripped from my body.
Now I felt like my skin had been flayed away as well as my clothes, that I was nothing but bones and muscle and raw meat laid bare before him. His lip curled in contempt as the woman stepped past him.
Brandt's hand rested on my arm, steadying me. He murmured something I didn't catch, some softly muttered oath, and when the woman beckoned me with a crook of her slender fingers and I took a step towards her on shaking legs, unable and unwilling to refuse her summons, he clung onto my arm as if he wished to hold me back. But he was an old man and his strength had gone, and I shook him off with ease, my gaze fixed on the woman's face.
She was beautiful, skin like marble, and slanted hazel eyes. Imperial, but her skin was so pale she might have had Nord blood. Her hand cupped my chin, her touch cold and not at all gentle. Her fingers bit into my jaw as she tilted my head, bringing my gaze to meet hers. She regarded me for a long moment while the man snorted softly, a cruel mocking sound.
"What's your name, boy?" she asked, her voice soft.
"They call me Jackdaw, my lady."
"'Jackdaw.'" And, gods, the way her lips parted when she repeated my name. Her tongue flickered out as if she was tasting the sound of it, tasting me. Her eyes hooded, and I felt like a mouse caught in the jaws of a snake. The man leaned against the wall, his arms folded. Everyone was watching me, and I was unable to look at anything but this woman.
"Like the bird," I said.
"You're a handsome one beneath the grime," she said. "You'll break plenty of hearts when you're older, I'm sure."
"I break plenty of hearts now."
She laughed, and I smiled, inwardly cringing. Something about her touch set my skin to crawling. And yet part of me wanted her never to let go. She leaned closer, her wet hood brushing against my cheek. A trickle of freezing water ran down my neck, beneath my shirt, as cold as her touch. I imagined her fingers following it, and the thought didn't feel like my own. I shuddered as she leaned closer still. Her touch might be cold, but her breath was hot.
"Turn around," she whispered.
I didn't want to. Gods, I didn't want to. But I couldn't disobey.
Numb, I turned. Saw Brandt watching me, his expression grim. And then her fingers trailed down the crown of my head to part my hair at the nape of my neck. She bunched my shirt up, drawing the fabric up to bare my back to her sight. I closed my eyes, trembling, because I couldn't bear the way Brandt was staring at me. In that moment, I wished I was invisible, that I could melt into the shadows and vanish. Her fingers traced my back, the fresh welts lying across older scar tissue, the marks left on my skin by countless whippings. Her breathing quickened as if the sight excited her, and my gut squirmed with fear and shame. But a numbing sensation was spreading first through the stinging wounds on my back, and then through me, filling me with lassitude.
None of it mattered.
She released me abruptly, and shoved me away. I stumbled down the steps, collapsed against a table, my back still bared. The world spiralled around me, as if I was drunk. I found myself staring into the flames, the heat of them scorching my cheeks. And at the very edge of my hearing, past the sound of my blood rushing in my ears, Brandt was talking to me. I would have fled if I could move, but I felt like a corpse, flayed and laid bare for them to examine.
"Jack?" Brandt said.
"I'm fine," I whispered. "I'm fine, I just..." My voice shaky, weak. I trailed off, my tongue thick and useless in my mouth. I lifted my head, realised both the woman and the man had gone. Had I imagined them? Perhaps they'd never existed at all. I glanced at Brandt. "Did you... Did you see her?"
"I saw her." There was darkness in his eyes. "Stay away from that one, boy."
"No, but..." I didn't even know what I was going to say. Brandt gently tugged down my shirt, his gaze averted, and I flinched away. Closed my eyes at a sharp stab of shameful memory, A hitch in the woman's breathing, a soft throaty moan in the back of her throat. A stab of hunger in my gut that I didn't understand and my cheeks burned.
I felt sick. I shoved myself away from Brandt, past Mia and Nate who were huddled together by the bar and stumbled back outside into the rain.
I fled to the stables, scrambled up the ladder into the hayloft, curled up in a ball behind a bale of hay, enveloped by the stale musty smell of horses and mildew and rot.
And there I waited until my skittering heart finally began to slow, until I felt like I could my heart skittering in my chest, and only when I was certain I had not been followed, did I sit up and prise up the loose board where I kept all my treasures.
It wasn't much. A small coin-purse half-filled with clipped Septims and tarnished coppers. A tarnished copper necklace, with several stones missing from their settings. A carved ivory comb with missing teeth I'd found behind a dresser in the inn. A pitiful collection, really, and I ignored it all for my most precious possession, a gold locket on a delicate chain which slipped through my fingers like water. My mouth dry, my numbed frozen fingers found the catch.
The locket sprang open. Inside it held the portrait of a woman, her features very fine and pale, the faintest blush of roses on her cheeks. Long slender fingers pressed against her chest, resting above her heart, and her slanting hazel eyes were turned away, staring out of the edge of the portrait as if something had captured her attention.
And it was her. The woman in the inn, who had cupped my chin with fingers as cold as a corpse's, and moaned with helpless hungry pleasure at the sight of my scarred skin.