A/N: Hey. So, yeah. It's been a while. So much for early April, huh? I might as well say that updates will be infrequent for this story and then it'll be a nice surprise if they arrive sooner than that. xD
Anyway, thanks to everyone who has favourited/alerted so far and especially to those who have reviewed. :D I love you all.
Disclaimer: Don't own it.
Steel Over Shadow
Chapter Eight: In the Memory of the Living
It was raining when Tirion returned to the Feed Bag the following morning. The streets were completely sodden, puddles forming in every dip in the road. The sky was a dull, uniform grey; a solid blanket of clouds stretched from horizon to horizon. Not a flicker of wind stirred the leaves on the trees. Water gurgled and roared beneath the streets, swirling away down the drains to the sewers.
Tirion approached the entrance to the Feed Bag and ducked under the door lintel, entering the tavern. As he did so, the thin, transparent-blue shield bubble collapsed around him, sloughing off the numerous raindrops that had collected on its surface.
The bar didn't look much worse for wear, despite the rather rowdy crowd that had been in last night, and Tirion was able to instantly spot Parwen and Ah-Malz. Not that it was difficult – apart from the bleary-eyed proprietor, who was leaning on the bar as if he expected to fall over at any second, the two Guildsmen were the only ones in the room. The Bosmer was perched daintily on a barstool, eating her way through an incongruously large plate of food. Ah-Malz was doing the same, only the quantity of food looked far more suited to sustain his massive, muscular frame that it did the archer's.
"Tirion!" Parwen waved a hunk of bread at him in greeting and then stuffed it into her mouth. She chewed vigorously and patted the stool next to her. "Pull up a seat."
"Didn't your mother ever teach you not to speak with your mouth full?" Tirion inquired. Not waiting for the flippant reply that was sure to come, he added, "And I'm afraid I can't stop. I just came by to drop this off for Elsynia." He held up the swordswoman's travelling cloak. It shimmered faintly as the low light caught the subtle enchantment now weaved into the fabric.
"Oh." Parwen succeeded in swallowing the bread and then chased it down with a mug of water. She looked at Tirion apologetically. "I'm afraid she's already left."
"Already?" Dismay flickered through the Altmer.
"Yeah." The archer shrugged. "Wanted to get it over with. Can't say I blame her. The note specifically stated that she was to go alone though, so Ah-Malz and I said we'd stay here at the Feed Bag for a few days while she, ah –" Parwen flicked a cautious glance at the bartender. "Runs her errand."
Tirion frowned. "That is unfortunate." He glanced at the cloak in hands and then at the two Guildsmen. "Will you two hold onto this and give it to her when she arrives back?"
"Sure." Parwen perked up as he passed the garment to her and she examined it with interest. Then she looked up, her expression questioning. "Why don't you just wait until she comes back to give it to her? It's not like we're going anywhere. In fact, once she gets back, we're going to be sitting around twiddling our thumbs until Martin calls for us again." She paused, looking suddenly horror-stricken at the idea. "Dear gods, I'm going to have find something for us to do. I can't handle sitting still for that long."
The mage chuckled. "Well, you might not be busy, but I am. In fact, you were lucky that you arrived when you did yesterday. A couple of hours later and Elsynia would have found my rooms empty. I ended up staying longer because you three descended on me and claimed the rest of my day."
"Oh?" Parwen stabbed a hunk of ham with her fork and popped it into her mouth as she shot the Master-Wizard a quizzical look. "And just where were you going? Did your Guild send you out to dispatch another merry band of necromancers?"
Tirion briefly applied the adjective 'merry' to the memories of his most recent encounters with the rogue mages and had to restrain the urge to laugh. "Eh, not exactly. Actually, I was going to capitalise on the momentary lull in orders from the Arch-Mage and seize the opportunity to take a quick trip into the Jeralls."
Parwen cocked her head interestedly. "Oh? Going on a mystery excursion are you?"
Tirion couldn't restrain the broad smile that spread over his face at the mere thought of where he was going. "Not a mystery – not anymore anyway. A couple of days ago I finally unearthed the location of Frostcrag Spire."
The archer looked blank for a second, then realisation flashed across her face. "Your grandfather's hidey-hole?"
"Yes. I've been searching for it for months now; whenever I got a spare moment. After Grandmother died, he took himself off to live in the Spire permanently, abandoning their house in Cheydinhal." The High Elf frowned, a flicker of old sadness stirred at the memory. "When he died last year, he left me both dwellings – but it's taken me this long to simply find Frostcrag Spire."
"So where is it then?" Parwen dropped her cutlery and whipped her map out of the bag at her feet. "Show me!"
Tirion obliged, scanning the parchment before pointing at a spot in the Jerall mountains to the east of Bruma. The archer dug out a quill and marked it on the map. "There!" she said, finishing the name with a flourish. "Now we can drop in for a visit."
"Be careful if you do," the Altmer warned. "If memory serves correctly, there are various magical defences on the property."
Parwen nodded, stowing the map away in her bag again. "Okay. 'Be careful when visiting mages' is pretty good piece of general advice anyway," she added, resuming eating.
Tirion rolled his eyes. "Good to know something has penetrated your thick skull."
The Bosmer jabbed her fork at him in an accusing manner. "Says the mer who misplaced a house!"
"Well, for a start, I'd say it's a tower rather than a house." The High Elf laughed as Parwen pulled a face at him. "And far more than simply that, it was Grandfather's workshop. It was meant to be hard to find."
The archer huffed and then popped a cherry tomato into her mouth. "Looking forward to seeing it again, then?"
"Oh, yes. He only ever took me there once but, by Akatosh…" Tirion sighed in appreciation. "It was magnificent. I was only twelve but even so, I could recognise a virtual paradise for mages when I saw it."
"That's why you look so happy," Parwen concluded, sipping from her mug.
The Altmer nodded in confirmation, his grin widening. "So if you can stand being deprived of my company so soon, I'll leave immediately. I don't know how long it will be before Traven sends me off to do something else and I badly want to visit the Spire before I have to go chasing necromancers again."
The archer waved a hand airily. "Go on then," she said graciously. "You have my permission."
Tirion swept an exaggerated bow in return. "My thanks." He nodded at Ah-Malz, who up until that point had been steadfastly ignoring his companions' theatrics in favour of food. The Argonian tilted his head in brief acknowledgement of the farewell, then Tirion made his escape back out onto the waterlogged streets.
The Master-Wizard didn't take long to reach the stables, his stride quickened by eager anticipation. However, he was inevitably slowed by the process of saddling up Ebony. The black mare was docile, chewing a mouthful of hay and waiting with endless patience for her less-than-horse-savvy master to slowly put her tack together. Of course, he could always enlist the help of a stable hand, but he was determined that he should be able to do it for himself – regardless of the fact that it took much longer.
Tirion finally hoisted himself into the saddle with a sigh of relief. He had never been all that great with horses and had only learned to ride because of the sheer necessity of it. The mage was quite sure that the horses knew that too; he'd gone through a lot of mounts until he'd found one that didn't immediately become skittish or act up as soon as he got in the saddle. Of course, Illusion spells went a long way to towards nudging their minds into a calmer state but he preferred not to have to resort to that on a daily basis.
A slight dig in Ebony's flanks sent the mare trotting out of the paddock. The sound of her hooves changed from muffled thuds to sharp, ringing clips as the grass gave way to cobblestones. Tirion turned the horse to face downhill and they began a careful descent of the steep road.
The movement made him aware of the extra weight bumping against his torso under his robes. The Altmer rolled his shoulders, trying to get used to the feel of the chainmail again. It felt vaguely constricting and irritation flickered through him. Only for you, El. The memory of the way her green eyes had gazed up at him was the only thing stopping him from ripping the damn thing off and stuffing it in a saddlebag. Behind the visible anger on her features had been that disquieting fear; old fear that he recognised all too well. Tirion sighed. He had hoped it was banished for good, but then, if anything was going to reawaken it, it would be the chaos and destruction of war. You're terrified...terrified that it's going to happen again. That you'll lose one of us.
Tirion was still sunk deep in thought as Ebony reached the bottom of the hill. The horse trotted forwards, heading towards the enormous bridge that spanned the waters of Lake Rumare, connecting the Imperial City to mainland.
A loud yell brought him back to his surroundings. The mage's head snapped up and he reined in Ebony, twisting in the saddle to look back up the hill.
Parwen was running down the slope, waving frantically at him. "Tirion!" She skidded to a halt beside him, gasping for breath. "Geez, you move fast!"
Tirion waited with patience and just a hint of amusement as the archer caught her breath. "Not as fast as you that time a pack of trolls chased you up a tree."
Parwen groaned and shot him a look of indignation. She straightened up as she recovered from her sprint. "Are you and Elsynia ever going to stop bringing that up?" He suppressed a chuckle as she pulled a face and didn't wait for his reply. "Never mind. Stupid question. Anyway, this is what I ran halfway across the city for. I noticed it after you left, on the floor of the Feed Bag. El said these things were important so I figured you'd want it back right away."
The Bosmer then proceeded to produce a Nirnroot from somewhere and Tirion hastily extended a hand for her to place it on. She did so. Faint light still spilled from the plant, casting a weak blue-green glow on his tawny skin. The leaves trembled in a non-existent breeze and a soft chime shivered momentarily in the air.
"Ah, thank you." The Master-Wizard tucked the Nirnroot carefully away in a saddlebag along with several dozen of its brothers and sisters. He wondered idly if the bag would glow in the dark too, thanks to the combined luminescence of the plants. "It must have fallen out of my pack."
Parwen stretched up on tiptoe and patted his leg affectionately. "Don't mention it. See you when you get back."
The archer spun around and was about to dash away when two things happened simultaneously. Ebony reared suddenly with a loud whinny of alarm and Tirion was forced to grab hold of the mare's neck to stop himself from being thrown off; at the same time, a grey-skinned figure clad in demonic red-black armour stepped out of the undergrowth, moving to block the road directly in front of Parwen. The Wood Elf leapt back with a startled shout, hands flying to her bow.
Tirion wrestled with his suddenly panicked horse, trying not to fall out of the saddle. He soothed her mind with a strong Illusion spell and managed to bring her under control just in time to see Parwen's second arrow carom off the Dremora's shield. The Bosmer was retreating rapidly, fingers darting to her quiver again. The Kynval made no move to follow, remaining with his feet planted firmly on the path, shield upraised. "Calm yourself, mortal. I have no wish to fight you today."
The Dremora's harsh, guttural voice mangled the words a little but they were still recognisable. Parwen shot the grey-skinned warrior a look of utter disbelief but Tirion merely blinked in surprise, before lowering his hands a little – allowing the flickers of gathered lightning to die away – and appraised the Kynval more carefully. He had made no move to draw the broadsword strapped across his back and his tone didn't convey threat, just... annoyance.
"What business do you have with us then?" Tirion asked in a quiet, carrying voice.
"Not you. Her. The Hero of Kvatch." The Dremora flicked his eyes at Parwen.
The archer looked startled. "Me? I'm not the Hero of Kvatch. Whatever gave you that idea?"
Consternation flickered across the grey warrior's face, followed by irritation. "Do not lie to me. I can feel the oscillations of energy from the Sigil Stone in your possession."
"What has that to do with anything?"
The Kynval gave a bad-tempered snarl. "It means that you are lying about your identity! The only mortal to have removed a Stone recently from Oblivion was the Hero of Kvatch, when she closed the Gate at the city of Anvil."
Oh, the danger of making assumptions. Tirion was amused, despite himself.
"That was me actually." Parwen looked askance at the Dremora. "Elsynia was there, and technically it was a team effort to shut the Gate, but I was the one who physically took the Sigil Stone. Elsynia and Ah-Malz said they didn't mind if I kept it."
The grey warrior stared hard at the Bosmer with narrowed golden eyes, assessing the truth of her words. She looked back steadily, unflinching. "Tell me then, if she is your companion; where can I find her?" he said, apparently deciding that wasn't lying.
"First, tell us – why are you seeking her?" Tirion broke in smoothly. "You'll forgive us for doubting your reasons to be benign."
The Kynval snorted. "I never said they were, mortal." The High Elf tensed, ready to draw on a spell if necessary, and he saw Parwen's fingers flutter towards her quiver again. "But it just so happens that all I intend to do is deliver a message." He reached into his cuirass and withdrew a slightly battered-looking white letter sealed with red wax. "I was summoned by a mortal to play courier."
Deep disgust dripped from every syllable and Tirion wondered briefly if being called on to perform such an apparently menial task was why the Dremora was in such a bad mood. And who would this mortal be?
"Well, in that case, we can look after it for Elsynia until she gets back." Parwen spoke up, interrupting the Altmer's thoughts. The Wood Elf trotted forward a few paces and held out a hand.
The Kynval sneered at her. "Why don't you just tell me where she is?"
Parwen met his gaze squarely. "Because we don't know exactly where she is at present. But Elsynia will be rejoining us in a couple of days; leaving the letter with us will save you either a wait or a trek across the province. And correct me if I'm wrong, but it'll be much harder to find her without a Stone to follow."
The grey warrior appeared to contemplate this for a minute but the idea of hanging around on Nirn for any longer than absolutely necessary seemed to decide it for him. "Very well." He dropped the letter on the ground, ignoring Parwen's outstretched hand, and turned to leave.
Tirion realised with a jolt that there was still a question left unanswered and called after him. "Wait!"
The Master-Wizard's shout halted him. "What is it now?" The Dremora hissed, displeased.
"Who sent you with this message?" Tirion asked, his curiosity mingled with suspicion.
The Kynval's tone dripped irritation and impatience. "A man. Called himself Martin." With that the warrior turned on his heel and strode away, vanishing with a ripple of red Conjuration magic, presumably returning to Oblivion now that his task was complete.
Silence reigned momentarily. Parwen recovered first. "I wonder if Martin's aware of the irony in using a Dremora as a messenger."
"I'm sure he is," Tirion said dryly, overcoming his own surprise. He was busy turning over the implications of the entire conversation in his mind as the Bosmer bent to pick up the dropped letter.
"I'm surprised that Martin trusted a Dremora not to sneak a peek at this. It's probably important, or at least related to the war," Parwen commented, examining the letter with interest as she wandered over to stand next to him.
Tirion shook his head. "Not all Dremora serve Mehrunes Dagon, you know. And beyond that, they're bound to the will of the summoner. It's possible to order them not to read the messages that they deliver."
The Wood Elf angled a curious glance at him. "You speak as if you've seen it before."
"That's because I have. It's fairly common practise at the University for mages to use summoned beings as messengers – at least, it is for those that have the skill to do so."
"No wonder he looked so irritated. It would annoy me too, being yanked to another plane of existence, just to run what amounts to an errand for someone." Parwen was silent for a few seconds, then she looked up at the Master-Wizard. "I was thinking..."
"Oh, shut up. What that Dremora said...about being able to track Elsynia by using the magical energy that the Sigil Stone gave off...I didn't know that was possible. I didn't even know that Sigil Stones gave off energy." Her tone was troubled. "And if that's the case, El does have a Stone with her – the one she took from Kvatch. Why didn't he couldn't detect that?"
"Well, first off, the fact that the Stones emit traceable magic is news to me too." Tirion leaned back in the saddle, stretching his back muscles. He had been piecing together information and conjecture in his mind ever since the Kynval had mentioned it, and thought he might have arrived at a reasonable conclusion. "Much about the Daedra remains a mystery, even to us mages. But I did notice that he said the only Sigil Stone to have been taken from Oblivion recently was the one from the Anvil Gate. I can only surmise that the emitted energy grows fainter the longer it is removed from its native dimension. Perhaps the energy the Stones radiate is in fact excess power soaked up from the beam of magic that they are suspended in, when they are used to anchor Oblivion Gates. The Kvatch Stone might no longer be detectable because the extra magic it absorbed has dissipated."
"Oh." Parwen appeared to consider this. "Nice theory. Makes sense." She seemed comforted by his explanation. "I don't really fancy the idea of Dremora being able to find me either by that method," she explained when she saw Tirion's questioning expression. "I'll have to let Elsynia know as soon as possible too, in case she takes it into her head to go charging through another Gate," the Bosmer added thoughtfully.
Tirion patted the top of her head. "If you're worried about them tracking you using it, just leave the Stone somewhere secure. You're welcome to store it at the University if you can't find anywhere else; I'm sure the other mages would leap at the chance to have a look at a genuine Sigil Stone."
"I'll bet." Parwen snorted. "Thanks for the advice." She poked his leg. "Shouldn't you be off if you want to get where you're going any time soon?"
The High Elf jolted slightly in surprise, realising she was right. The sun was hidden by the grey expanse of cloud far overhead, but the sense of time passing made him think that it was about midday. "Ah, I think you may be right."
"Of course I'm right," Parwen rolled her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. "Off with you."
Tirion nodded. "With any luck, I'll see all of you soon enough." A sharp dig in Ebony's flanks set the horse moving rapidly, carrying the Master-Wizard away over the bridge.
Parwen watched Tirion until he was out of sight, then transferred her attention to the piece of parchment still clutched in her right hand. She studied the outside of the letter. It was just plain white parchment, sealed with unmarked red wax and it bore only Elsynia's name on the front, in neatly inked characters. It looked anything but extraordinary, but the first stirrings of excitement rose in her nevertheless. If it was from Martin, then it must be important. It likely even told Elsynia what the next item needed for the ritual to enter Paradise was.
The temptation to open it was overwhelming.
Ah-Malz was just finishing the last of his enormous plateful of food when the door to the bar flew open with a bang. He shot to his feet, alert for trouble but then relaxed as he took in the familiar figure in the doorway. The next thing he knew, Parwen was hanging off his arm, talking in a frantic rush and waving a piece of parchment wildly at him.
"– we need to go! Right now!" she finished breathlessly.
"Slow down," he rasped. "I didn't understand a word of that. Where are we going and why?"
The archer launched into another confusing spiel. The Argonian heard her mention a letter somewhere in the blur of words and connected it to the parchment that she was gesturing wildly with. Correctly deducing that he would get nothing sensible from her when she was like this, Ah-Malz whipped the letter from her unresisting hand and read it for himself, in the hope that it might make more sense than Parwen did:
My apologies for the sudden summons, but it is imperative that you return as soon as possible. Another Gate has opened in the mountains around Bruma, and Jauffre has asked that you lend your assistance to the City Guard in closing it; you are the only one that we know of that has any experience in doing so.
The Warder looked up from the parchment at Parwen. "You opened Elsynia's letter?" he rumbled disapprovingly.
"Yes, yes, I know, but look at what was written!" the Bosmer cried impatiently, waving aside the minor detail of privacy invasion. "You're missing the big picture! He's asking for her help but it'll be at least four days before Elsynia comes back, and then another two days before she can ride all the way to Bruma! They need someone with experience closing Oblivion Gates to help them now!"
"You are proposing that we go in her place," Ah-Malz realised.
"Yes! If we ride hard, we can maybe make it in a day and a half," Parwen said, almost quivering with impatience.
Ah-Malz understood her concern. The ruin of Kvatch had made a thoroughly disquieting sight, even when seen from a distance. The idea that Bruma might end up the same way was not a happy thought. "Then let's leave immediately." He picked his pack up from the floor and swung it onto his back, unwilling to waste words on further pointless debate when it was clear what they should do.
Parwen almost sprinted from the bar in her eagerness to get going. Ah-Malz paused only to scribble down a note for Elsynia, explaining their absence, and left it with the Feed Bag's barkeeper.
An half an hour later, the two warriors left the Imperial City at a hard gallop, heading up the Red Road towards Bruma.
She knew she was dreaming immediately. The house had never looked like this; never in reality anyway.
The swordswoman walked through the hallways of her home. They seemed to stretch on forever and were at once both strange and familiar. Sunlight flooded in through the enormous windows, so bright that the world beyond the glass was hidden by the intense white glow. It heightened the sense of unreality; the feeling that nothing existed outside of the house.
And there they were. Standing at the end of the corridor. Just as she knew they would be. The dream was predictable; identical in nearly every way to the ones that had come before. It always contained the same memories, always invoked the same powerful mix of emotion. And those were the worst kind, the dream-memories. Not-quite truths, but not-quite lies either. Familiarity, however, did not dull the sharp pain that tore at her and the swordswoman was powerless to change the outcome of the dream. Her limbs were not her own and she could do nothing but continue down the corridor towards the two figures silhouetted by the light.
Bare feet pattered across the honey-coloured floorboards and a small figure cannoned into her. The swordswoman swayed slightly from the impact and a pair of slim arms were thrown around her waist, squeezing her in an eager hug. She looked down into a pair of delighted green eyes, framed by a halo of wild coppery-red waves.
"Elsynia!" Nerissa's voice was filled with warmth and welcome. The sunlight of the dreamscape brightened everything about her sister; the nine-year old's golden skin positively glowed with reflected light. Her eyes were vivid, intense; almost too brilliant a green to be natural. The sun played along every strand of her hair, brightening it to the deep, rich crimson of rubies.
If the sight of the unearthly, light-edged child had not enough been to convince Elsynia that she was dreaming, the next person who stepped forwards was.
"…Daenlin," she murmured, staring at the boy. Her brother. Grief punched Elsynia in the chest, stealing her breath; old wounds split open and wept blood.
The eleven-year old boy who looked back at her was almost the complete inverse of her sister. If Nerissa was fire and sunlight and emeralds, Daenlin was ink and snow and shadow. His hair and eyes were so deep a brown as to look black; except in direct light, as they were now. The sun shone through his hair, lightening it to rich mahogany. His skin was pale, white, not even a hint of gold to betray his Altmer heritage.
Elsynia couldn't help but think he looked like Nerissa's shadow; monochrome next to her vibrant colour. Dark to her light. Because, despite the two year age gap, despite the stark contrast in their immediate appearances, her siblings were remarkably similar. Same height, same slight build, same fine-boned features –they used to tease him about being pretty, she recalled, and her heart tore a little more at the memory – same stubborn glint in the eyes and the same beautiful, radiant smile.
"Daenlin," Elsynia breathed again, choking on his name, her throat closing up with emotion. She tightened her arms around Nerissa and continued staring at her brother over her sister's shoulder. The boy only tilted his head. He made no move to come closer. His face was unfathomable, expressionless. Strands of feathery hair fell into his dark eyes. Was that accusation that flickered through their depths? Did she only imagine the anger tightening the corners of his mouth?
"I'm sorry," Elsynia whispered, anguished. "I…I couldn't…I'm so sorry." Daenlin merely stared back, silent. Reproachful.
Then she felt the dream shifting, warping, dissolving around her. "No!" The swordswoman cried, dread rising within her. As painful as it was to stand in that sunlit place, surrounded by the memory of her brother, it was infinitely preferable to what always came next –
Then suddenly, mercifully, Elsynia was abruptly wrenched from the dream, dragged back to consciousness. She shot upright in her sleeping bag, unable to stop the involuntary cry that burst from her lips. It echoed in the stillness of the dark, silent forest around her.
A moment passed before the disorientation of sleep left her and the trembling elf realised what had woken her. Something had brushed against her wards; specifically against the one designed to protect her while she slept and alert her to danger.
Light burst from her hand, shooting up into the air and forming a dazzling globe that illuminated the clearing. Elsynia searched for the intruder and caught a flash of glowing eyes, bright with reflected light. Then the wolf melted away into the shadows of the forest.
The swordswoman released the spell and the ball of light dissipated. She was suffused with gratefulness for creature's timely interruption; for the reprieve it had granted her. For now, at least, she had avoided suffering through her worst memory yet again in her sleep.
Elsynia was filled with the oddest mix of relief, anger and grief. The sadness was the hardest to deal with it. It was old and painful, stirred up out of deepest recesses of her mind by the dream. To her horror, she realised her cheeks were wet. Angrily, the mer swiped away the tears with the back of her left hand. It shook slightly and Elsynia was privately appalled by her reaction. It was painful to know that she could be so easily undone by a mere memory.
The elf grabbed hold of her anger and forced herself to concentrate on that instead; of the two, rage was so much easier to bear than grief. What's wrong with me? I haven't had that nightmare for over two years.
Elsynia made herself take deep, calming breaths, attempting clear her mind and reign in her emotions. She forced the grief back down within herself, tamping it down hard and locking it tightly away as deeply as she could manage. She had had a lot of practice in doing so but it took still several minutes before she felt normal enough to function.
Knowing from experience that she would get no more sleep that night, Elsynia began to pack up her things, ready for a – usually despised – early start. The nightmare had left her feeling drained emotionally but the adrenaline circling her system ensured her body was wide awake, if not well-rested.
By the time she had dismantled the various protective wards encircling her chosen campsite, rolled up her sleeping bag and stashed her belongings in Snowflake's saddlebags, the first faint light of dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon.
Elsynia led Snowflake by the reins out of the thick undergrowth of the forest. They had camped near the edge and soon emerged onto the Blue Road, south of Cheydinhal. The elf swung herself into the saddle. A sharp dig in the ribs sent the bay mare springing forward in a fast canter and they set off up the road, hoof beats ringing on the stony ground.
It was midday before they reached Cheydinhal. The day had turned out to be dismal; the sky was an uninspiring grey and a cold rain had hissed down steadily all morning. Elsynia just hunched inside her spare cloak, miserable, and tried to think warm thoughts.
Horse and rider continued on past Cheydinhal and began ascending the steep hill on the far side of the city. If memory served the swordswoman correctly, Fort Farragut was very close by. They followed the winding road as it meandered back and forth across the hillside and Elsynia was forced to stop several times to dispatch the aggressive wildlife roaming around near the path. Eventually the mer glimpsed a flash of white stone through the trees.
Finally. Elsynia leaned forward in relief and urged Snowflake on a little faster. The mare obliged and as they rounded the last bend in the road Fort Farragut came into view. Crumbling white walls overrun with dark green vegetation greeted them. The forest crowded in closely on all sides, trees growing right up against the battlements in a way that never would have been tolerated had the fort still been in active service.
The swordswoman reined in Snowflake and the bay mare slowed to a walk, before stopping completely. Elsynia remained motionless in the saddle for a few moments longer, simply watching and listening. The area was still and silent as far as she could tell. The infernal rain had finally slackened off. The only sound she could hear was the barely audible dripping as water slid off stonework and plant life alike. A lone warbling cry echoed through the trees – the call of a solitary woodland bird. The air was cool, moist; refreshing. It brushed her skin with gentle fingers and filled her nose with a rich, loamy smell. Despite her dislike of getting wet, the elf had always loved the scent of the earth after it rained.
Dismounting, Elsynia led Snowflake by the reins through the knee-high sea of grass surrounding Fort Farragut. The stalks were yellowing now, withered by the autumnal frosts, but her mind's eye painted in the vivid colours of summer; the lush, vibrant green and the brilliant hues of the wildflowers. She could almost hear the lazy drone of bumblebees, feel the heat of the sun warming her bare skin – then Snowflake snorted and she snapped back to herself.
Now is not the time to be daydreaming. The mer was annoyed with herself. No matter how intensely she longed for summer to roll around again – or rather, roll back, to the summer just past, before everything went to hell and when the only Daedra she had to worry about was the occasional summoned creature – it wasn't going to happen any quicker just because she wished it so.
Not to mention the swordswoman was still deeply uneasy about the contract…agreement…job offer…whatever it was, that the Dark Brotherhood was extending to her. I need to keep my wits about me if I want to find out what the hell is actually going on here.
Judging by the complete lack of life visible above ground, the meeting was most likely going to take place in the network of tunnels and rooms under the ruined fort. Elsynia had already guessed as much and was casting around for a suitable place to attach Snowflake's reins to, when a sudden movement caught her eye.
Her sword was in her hand before she realised it was just another horse; a black mare had wandered into view, stopping to leisurely crop the shorter grass amongst the trees. A sigh that was equal parts relief and irritation escaped the elf as she lowered the blade.
However, a closer look at said horse was enough to make Elsynia decide that Snowflake was not going to be tied up anywhere near it. As tough and cantankerous as the bay was, the strangely demonic-looking black horse looked as if she could quite happily eat Snowflake for breakfast.
The swordswoman led the bay mare around the far side of Fort Farragut, watched until they were out of sight by eerily intelligent red eyes. Then she looped Snowflake's reins over a tree branch – loosely – and leaned in to mutter in the horse's ear, "If she looks like she's going to take a bite, run for it."
The mare huffed as if in agreement and despite feeling abruptly rather silly, Elsynia couldn't shake the notion that the odd black horse might actually be capable of something of the sort.
Unhooking the sacks tied to Snowflake's saddle, the swordswoman slung them over her shoulders before jogging back around the perimeter to the gap in the crumbling wall. Stepping over the boundary line – and steadfastly ignoring the pair of red eyes boring into her back – the elf headed straight for the small wooden door set into the base of the interior wall. A well-placed strike shattered the weak, rotten wood around the lock and then she ducked inside, casting a Night-Eye spell as she did so.
Elsynia descended a short flight of stairs and scanned the area around her. The tunnel was dank, cold and dark. Traces of the white stone remained but much of the brickwork had fallen away from the walls, exposing the bare earth underneath. Piles of rotten wood lay scattered here and there, where barrels and crates had moldered away over the years.
She had been here once before and it had looked much the same. From what she could remember, that while this particular fort wasn't all that large, it was filled with some tough undead. She'd mown down a whole crop of skeletons in order to clean the loot – such as it was – out of this place.
Therefore, the swordswoman wasn't all that surprised when an axe-wielding undead shambled into view at the end of the tunnel. Her longsword and shield were readied in an instant. No sooner had she done so, did it catch sight of her. With creaking groan, the skeleton altered its path and broke into a sort of ungainly run, heading straight towards her.
Elsynia tensed, all her muscles starting to sing with adrenaline. She dropped the sacks and moved into a defensive stance, ready to avoid the first blow of that enormous axe. She had been on edge all morning ever since her nightmare, nerves raw and thrumming. The unwelcome memories stirred up, along with the mixture of emotions attached to them, had filled her with the overwhelming need to do something. But the enemies had all been in her head; there had been no physical release for the built-up tension.
The swordswoman deftly avoided the first swing of the skeleton's axe. It crashed down through the space where she had formerly been, sparks flying as it struck the stonework.
Battle was more than welcome.
This – this at least is an enemy I can fight.
It was quiet in the great hall of Cloud Ruler Temple. Martin could hear the low crackle of flames, the occasional snapping noise as the enormous fireplace exhaled a cloud of sparks. The distant clash of steel on steel was audible from the ongoing sparring sessions in the courtyard. Every now and then, the doors would open and close as a couple of Blades passed through the hall. Other than that, it was relatively peaceful.
Not that the heir to the Empire was feeling anywhere close to peaceful at present. With a deep sigh, he laid down his quill and gingerly closed the cover of the Mysterium Xarxes. Even though he knew methods of protecting itself from its evil, just reading the accursed tome left him feeling tired. An oppressive weight seemed to drape itself over his shoulders like a heavy mantle every time he opened the book.
Martin leaned back in his seat, rubbing at his eyes. Despite his exhaustion, a sense of tired satisfaction pervaded his being. Even with the added strain of struggling against the effect the book had on its reader, he felt sure he was close to uncovering the second item needed to open the way into Paradise. It shouldn't take longer than another day or two...
The ex-priest was broken from his speculation as something registered in his subconscious; the noise of swordplay in the courtyard had halted. Not unusual in itself, but as he listened harder, he could make out the sound of distant shouting and the thrum of running feet.
"My lord..." Baurus materialised at his elbow, looking uneasily in the direction of the main door. The Redguard's hand was on the hilt of his katana.
Martin had half-risen from his seat when the door burst open. Baurus' sword flashed out of its sheath with a steely rasp but he lowered the katana again almost instantly as Jauffre came striding into the hall.
"Sire, if you could come with me for a moment? A...situation has arisen." the Grandmaster requested. The Breton looked harried and older than ever. Martin sympathised.
"Of course." The future Emperor reined in his curiosity and moved swiftly up the great hall, Baurus shadowing his footsteps. The three of them walked out into the courtyard and then Jauffre strode to the top of the wide flight of stairs leading down to the main gateway. He beckoned Martin. The heir moved to stand next to him, peered down the stairway and through the open gates; only to be met with the sight of an Argonian and a Bosmer, surrounded and held at sword point by a group of Blades, whose expressions ranged from suspicion to outright hostility.
The red-scaled Argonian was tall and muscular, clad in steel armour from head to toe and wrapped in a thick black travelling cloak. The hilt of an enormous claymore jutted over his shoulder and he looked strong enough to wield the massive blade with ease. His golden reptilian eyes regarded the circle of Blades impassively.
Next to her hulking companion, the Bosmer seemed very slight and diminutive, though in actuality she was probably above average height for a Wood Elf. She appeared to be very beautiful, Martin noted appreciatively, though her expression was drawn and anxious, dark brown eyes regarding the Blades with trepidation. Her chestnut hair was twisted up into a bun but a few locks had slipped loose and the strong breeze blew the curls across her face. She wore a suit of chainmail, covered by a warm cloak, and had a silver bow slung across her back; Martin noticed her fingers fluttering nervously, as though she were itching to grasp it, at the very least for reassurance. He knew as well as she did though, that such a gesture would most likely see her impaled on the katanas of the nearest Blades.
Tearing his eyes away from the scene, the future Emperor turned to Jauffre, his eyebrows raised questioningly. "What exactly is going on? Who are they?"
The Grandmaster sighed and leant on the wall. "I was hoping you could tell me. They claim to be friends of Elsynia and that they have come in her stead to help us close this new Gate. However, we have no way of verifying their identities."
"I see." Martin looked at the two warriors with a mixture of amusement and weariness. "That is a problem."
Parwen watched the Blades and the Blades watched her. It was completely silent, apart from the quiet sound of breathing. The wind whipped up the snow and set it swirling around them, tiny ice crystals peppering the bare skin of their faces.
The archer shifted her weight from one leg to the other, relieving the aching muscles. The tension of the little standoff was getting to her. She sighed internally, all-too-aware of the eyes of the Blades tracking her every movement. We really didn't think this through very well.
The distant clash of metal on metal echoed through the underground passages of Fort Farragut. Lucien kept half an ear on the conflict but the majority of his attention remained on his paperwork. It wouldn't sort itself, unfortunately, and frankly if the half-breed couldn't get past the Dark Guardians, she wouldn't be of much use to the Brotherhood anyway. Besides, he had a feeling she would make it. One didn't gain the attention of the Night Mother by being weak.
The assassin was absorbed in the details of an important contract in Chorrol, when suddenly the sound of several fiery explosions reached his ears. That in itself wouldn't have drawn his attention, if not for the fact it was accompanied by the unmistakable roar of falling masonry.
Lucien looked up, the slightest of frowns creasing his brow. Years of habit kept him from showing much of his feelings on his face, despite the fact he was alone. What in Sithis' name is she doing?
A hundred yards away, the elf in question was in fact currently surveying the mess she had made. Bones and various pieces of armour littered the passageway, along with several smoking craters in the floor and walls. Elsynia winced at a little at the section of the ceiling that had caved in. Perhaps she had been a little overzealous with the fire spells.
Despite her mishap, the swordswoman actually better felt better now. Her nerves – unsettled since her nightmare that morning – had finally receded and she had shifted into a state closer to calm. A good fight could do that.
Skirting around the rubble, Elsynia continued along the passageway and within half an hour, she had been through Fort Farragut in its entirety – setting off every single trap along the way of course. Bastard, she grumbled internally, slipping a hand under her armour to rub at her shoulder, where a falling mace trap had caught her a glancing blow. I bet he weeds out visitors like this. Only the really determined even manage to get to see him.
Which, Elsynia thought as she looked around, was half of the problem. She had been around the whole fort and hadn't seen hide nor hair of the assassin she was supposed to be meeting. The mer knew he was here – the faint pink shimmer that her Detect Life spell picked up sporadically was proof of that – but none of the passages seemed to lead to him, no matter what kind of circular route she took.
With a sigh of frustration, Elsynia renewed her spell and headed to the spot where the life signature had seemed strongest. As before, she arrived at a dead end. The swordswoman stared hard at the blank rock wall, going over the fort's layout in her head for what felt like the fiftieth time.
Then an idea occurred and, on impulse, Elsynia reached out to run her hand over the wall. She remembered exploring ruined forts before and finding hidden rooms behind collapsible walls and false panels. If there was indeed a secret room of some sort, there also ought to be some kind of lever...
Her fingers brushed over a nondescript patch of rock and a tingling sensation touched her magical senses. Aha!
Something was hiding behind an Illusion-Alteration spell. Elsynia pushed her hand against the small patch of 'rock', applying both physical and magical pressure –
And then abruptly felt disorientated. According to her fingers, they were touching a thin, flexible membrane-like ward, but her brain and eyes insisted that she was just pointlessly pushing against a solid rock wall.
The swordswoman gritted her teeth – recognising the insidious suggestion of the Illusion spell nudging her thoughts – and increased the pressure she was putting on the ward. It was a strong shield enchantment but Elsynia's willpower was stronger still. She pushed hard, ignoring the attempts of the Illusion magic to confuse her mind, and seconds later the ward broke.
An unconscious smile tugged at her lips as a small, dark hole appeared in the wall and the clouding touch on her mind vanished. The elf reached into it through the dissipating sparks of magicka and, sure enough, her searching fingers grasped a lever. She pulled it down and a low, rumbling noise filled the passageway. Elsynia backed up a few steps and swiped her longsword from its scabbard, watching as a section of the rock wall to the left of the lever descended into the ground.
A short passageway was revealed, terminating in an iron gate, and beyond that was a room lit with the flickering orange glow of torches. And the strong pink shimmer of a life signature.
Elsynia paused. She had been chewing this over for days and she still didn't really know what to expect what to expect from the impending encounter. And she hated surprises; particularly of the potentially lethal variety.
If Lachance had been completely honest – unlikely – they would be making some sort of bizarre trade agreement. She would hand over the two heavy sacks she was lugging around, filled with dismembered pieces of Daedra and various bits of unfriendly plant life, in exchange for gold. And that would be all. Even in my head, it sounds ridiculous.
Nevertheless, Elsynia steeled herself and moved forward. She was here after all, and she wasn't about to back out now, just because she still harbouring suspicions about the truthfulness of an assassin. She would be vacillating for years if she expected proof of that.
The elf stepped over the sunken section of wall and strode down the short tunnel. She unlatched the iron gate and warily stepped through into the room beyond. It was surprisingly large, and looked to be in much better repair than the rest of the fort; from what she could see of it anyway. The high ceiling was hidden in shadows. They clung thickly to the room, pooling in the corners and around the two massive pillars supporting the roof. A couple of torches were scattered around, creating small areas of dim light in an otherwise dark room. They illuminated long banners draped over the silver-grey stonework, emblazoned with the emblem of the Dark Brotherhood; a black handprint within a pale yellow oval, on a rich crimson background.
"Greetings, elf. I see you've finally arrived." The deep, cold voice made her stomach lurch unpleasantly, the sound triggering her memory of the shock of waking up to find an assassin in her home. Elsynia's gaze snapped to the room's sole occupant, who was still partially obscured by the glittering haze of her Detect Life enchantment. The elf released the steady trickle of magicka she had been feeding the spell and the halo of pink light died away, allowing her to see him more clearly.
Lachance was standing across the room from her, holding a book and watching her with a piercing stare. The assassin wore the same heavy black robes he had worn in her house in Skingrad. However this time his hood was pushed back and she could see he was an Imperial, though the details of his features were obscured by distance and dim lighting.
Elsynia straightened, consciously shaking off the remembered fear. She couldn't afford to hand him the psychological advantage and besides, her pride refused to allow her to show any sort of weakness to the man. And there was no real reason to be afraid; he no longer had the upper hand. The strength of the assassin lies in stealth, in taking advantage of a moment of vulnerability, and – particularly in the case of the Dark Brotherhood – in fear. Right now, he's no different from any other opponent and I am hardly incapable of defending of myself.
With this in mind, the swordswoman replied to his greeting with her usual frankness. "Yes, well, it took me a while to navigate that obstacle course you so thoughtfully set up for your guests. Correct me if I'm wrong, but greeting prospective business partners with a shower of poisoned darts seems rather counter-productive."
An amused smirk tugged at Lachance's mouth as he shut the book he was holding. The assassin placed it on the desk to his left and then moved across the room towards her. "I was sure that someone of your ability would have no trouble with the security measures put in place to keep out the riff-raff," he said smoothly, coming to a halt a short distance away from Elsynia.
Uh-huh. That's a nice way of saying that you were seeing if I was up to scratch. The light of a nearby torch gave the mer her first good look at the assassin. With a twinge of surprise, Elsynia realised he was rather handsome – if one ignored the cold, predatory stare. Then again, she was sure he was perfectly capable of acting charming. Morbidly, she wondered how many people had been fatally taken in by that deceptively good-looking face.
Lachance's gaze slid down and fastened on her hand. "Are you planning on using that?"
The elf realised she was still holding her longsword unsheathed in her right hand. Her eyes narrowed at him. Well, no point beating about the bush. Might as well get right down to it. "It depends. Did you really call me here so we can finalise a deal to exchange alchemical ingredients for money?"
"Why?" he looked faintly amused. "Did you think I asked you to come here so that I could kill you? Please. I would hardly have needed to dream up such an elaborate ruse."
Elsynia matched his stare. "I thought as much. But it was the only sensible explanation I could come up with."
Lachance arched an eyebrow. "Is it so difficult to believe that the Dark Brotherhood might wish to make a trade agreement with someone in your unique position?"
"Yes," said Elsynia flatly.
The assassin tapped one gloved finger idly against the hilt of his own sword. "You are hardly capable of making an informed judgement."
Despite her best efforts, the swordswoman felt her temper rise a few notches at his patronising tone. "Well, from what I have heard, it seems a strange thing for the Dark Brotherhood to do."
Lachance gave her a condescending look. "That is because the only information the general public knows about us, is what we want them to know. Like any other organisation, the Brotherhood does need to purchase various supplies on occasion and we do not inform the world every time we contact a merchant."
"Then why me? I'm hardly a merchant."
"I was under the impression that this had already been explained." His tone said plainly that he thought she was an idiot.
"I'd rather hear it directly from you, if you don't mind," Elsynia said, still waiting for the snag in this arrangement.
"Hmm. Well, the Brotherhood needs to get alchemy ingredients from somewhere and you are in a perfect position to collect some of the rarest varieties. You can also gather much larger quantities than are available on the general market and, unlike many merchants, you do not quibble over prices." He paused and raised an eyebrow. "Do you understand now?"
"I doubt that many people would dare to make a fuss about the price of goods when dealing with a group of assassins." Elsynia managed to keep her voice level with some difficulty. His polite derision and barely veiled mockery of her intelligence made her sword hand twitch reflexively. If nothing else, talking to this man was a lesson in self-control.
A flicker of amusement passed over Lachance's face. "You would think so, wouldn't you?" he agreed calmly. "The constant stupidity of some people never ceases to amaze me."
Elsynia made a conscious effort to push her rising anger down. You can't kill him, remember? That would piss off the Brotherhood for sure. "Okay," she said, pulling the conversation back on track. "So what you're saying is that you will pay me to fetch alchemy ingredients. And that is all the Brotherhood wants from me."
"Yes," Lachance agreed. "That is all."
The swordswoman gave him a suspicious, searching look. He looked back, expressionless; his dark eyes opaque and unreadable. His explanation makes sense, but I can't shake the feeling that he's not telling me everything. I was so certain that the offer in the letter was just to lure me in; that I'd arrive here and then I would get the full story of what is expected of me. Though maybe it was naïve of me to expect Lachance to just lay whatever additional demands the Dark Brotherhood might make out on the table.
"I see. And is there anything else of importance I ought to know?"
The Imperial appeared to consider her request. "No. You are, however, free to back out of the agreement at any time – although, of course, we will also revoke our protection if you make that decision."
Elsynia narrowed her eyes. They were giving her awful lot of freedom and it should have been reassuring. Instead it made her uneasy. This offer slants too heavily in my favour.
The silence stretched as they stared at each other. I could always turn it down right now. Walk away. But what would that accomplish? I would be right back to where I was before. If I stay I won't have to worry about Dark Brotherhood assassins stalking me in addition to the Mythic Dawn; plus, if they do make any more demands of me that I don't like, I can always leave then. Although they might not be very happy about that either.
"Hmm. Fine. I don't believe you, and I certainly don't trust you, but we're clearly getting nowhere here," Elsynia said bluntly. "You're not going to tell me anyway, so let's just get on with this. Where do you want these sacks?"
Something indefinable flickered through Lachance's eyes, so fast the elf was unsure she had actually seen it. Then it was gone and the assassin waved a gloved hand to his right. "As you wish. Over there, if you please."
Elsynia strode to the indicated table, taking care not to turn her back on the Imperial and dropped the sacks. She began to unpack them and Lachance moved to stand on the far side of the table, untying the second bag. The two worked swiftly, remaining silent, and within a few minutes the surface was covered in neatly arranged rows of Daedra hearts, Clannfear claws, Daedroth teeth, Spiddal sticks, Harrada roots and Bloodgrass.
Lachance stepped back and examined them, his gaze flicking over the ingredients; Elsynia waited while he calculated their value. Then the Imperial vanished into the back of the room, hidden by the clinging shadows. The swordswoman's sharp ears caught the creak of wood and the quiet clink of coins muffled by fabric. Lachance emerged a few moments later, holding a large bag. "Your payment," he said silkily. Did she imagine that flash of satisfaction in his eyes?
Elsynia reached out and took it from him, her movements slow and wary. The gold felt heavy in her arms and as she met the assassin's gaze, she had a sudden sense of the sealing of a pact; of the jaws of a trap closing shut around her. "Thanks," the mer said flatly, her mood abruptly even worse than before. She wanted nothing more than to leave. "I'll return when I have more."
The swordswoman was almost out of the room, when Lachance's voice drifted across to her. "Oh, one more thing, before you go. Occasionally you might have to deal with other members of my organization, in the event that I am not here when you return to Fort Farragut. If that is the case I will leave you instructions on how to find them."
Elsynia whirled around. "Why?"
The assassin looked up from where he was starting to divide up the alchemy supplies into piles. "I am a very busy man; I have better things to do than sit here and wait around all day, on the off chance that you might drop in," he said sardonically. "You may be a Hero, elf, but the world does not revolve around you."
Elsynia's fingers curled reflexively as fury flared hot and tight in her chest. How dare he? I've never made any such – never behaved as if –
She was on the point of opening her mouth to deliver a biting retort, when she noticed the peculiar gleam in Lachance's eyes; the calculating way he was watching her. As if he was waiting to see her response.
Surprise shot through the swordswoman. He's goading me on purpose. Testing my reactions to everything he does. She couldn't fathom his reasons but the realisation cooled the heat of her temper. It enabled Elsynia to return his stare with curiosity and mild annoyance instead of rage. "I'm well aware of that," she said levelly. "And I'd thank you not to insult me in such a manner." The threat hung unspoken in her voice.
Lachance straightened a little, his gaze sharpening. A flicker of triumph ran through the mer. He thought that I would explode.
"I'll keep that in mind," the assassin replied. His smooth tone contrasted with sharp glint in his eyes. "And if we are being polite –" there was an undercurrent in his voice that she couldn't quite decipher – "then I'll expect the same courtesy."
If you can refrain from openly insulting me, I can keep a lid on my temper. "Fine." Elsynia gave a short nod and turned to leave. "Goodbye, Lachance."
As she strode away down the tunnel, his voice drifted after her, faintly mocking. "Goodbye, Hero of Kvatch."
Lucien waited until the mer's footsteps had faded away into the distance. Then he returned his attention to sorting the Harrada roots into bundles, and spoke aloud to the apparently empty room. "You can come out now, Delan."
There was a pause. Then one of the shadows clinging to the corners of the chamber moved, detaching itself from the main body of darkness. The lean, leather-clad form of his Silencer padded forward into the circle of torchlight, stopping a respectful distance away. "Speaker?"
The senior assassin didn't look up from his task, deft fingers looping twine around the Harrada roots and tying them together tightly. "How much of that conversation did you hear?"
"Almost of it." Delan shifted slightly. "I arrived and realised that you had company. Upon seeing who it was, I thought it better not to announce my presence."
Lucien nodded, still not taking his eyes off his work. "A wise decision. I doubt she would have taken kindly to you." His Silencer snorted softly in agreement and the faintest trace of a smirk appeared on the Imperial's face. He swept the parcels of Harrada roots into a chest and started on the Clannfear claws. "I will fill you in later on anything you missed. For now, is there anything new to report?"
Delan straightened slightly, his demeanour becoming more formal. "Yes, good news. I met with J'Ghasta as per my orders and it was as you predicted. He was quite happy to volunteer his Silencer to shadow the Hero of Kvatch and keep tabs on her actions."
"I see." Lucien's neutral tone betrayed nothing of how pleased he was. "That is good news."
The Redguard frowned slightly. "Speaker, if I may ask, why are we handing this task over to someone else? Even if you cannot spare me, surely the other members of the Cheydinhal sanctuary are capable of surveillance?"
"Because, Brother," Lucien murmured, "The Black Hand is rife with suspicion. We are watching each other's movements far more than usual and I, in particular, am being scrutinised because I am in charge of our little 'saviour'. In offering the task of keeping an eye on her to another member of the Black Hand, I am showing that I have nothing to hide; that I am not using her to carry out nefarious plots against the Brotherhood." There was a hint of irony in his tone by the end of the statement.
Delan nodded, his expression unchanging. "I understand."
Silence fell, broken only by the rustle of Bloodgrass being arranged into neat bundles. The Redguard leaned against a pillar, watching his superior methodically sorting ingredients. Several minutes passed without either of them talking. Then –
"Yes?" Lucien had been waiting for Delan to bring up whatever it was that was bothering him ever since the Silencer had first stepped out of the shadows. To almost anyone else, the younger man was about as expressive as a rock, but the Imperial had learned the nuances of his body language in the time they had spent together. Right now, the slight shifting of his weight from foot to foot was betraying Delan's agitation. "What do you wish to ask?"
"Why have not made an attempt to ensnare Elsynia more thoroughly in the Brotherhood?" the Silencer asked, the slightest hint of perplexed anxiety in his voice. "You have tied her to us with the barest of threads."
Ah. I wondered if you would ask that. The senior assassin laid down the Daedroth teeth he was holding and fixed Delan with a stare. I see you are as bemused as the elf herself. "Because any attempt at a stronger, more obvious binding would only ensure that we lose her forever."
The Redguard tilted his head questioningly and Lucien sighed internally. His apprentice still had a lot to learn, it seemed. "Delicacy is required. She will not join us, she will work for us only in the loosest sense – what reason could she possibly have to save the Brotherhood? No. This elf must be trapped in the subtlest of ways. And by the time she realises it, it must be too late for her to back out."
Simplicia the Slow ambled leisurely through the Market District. It had been a good afternoon. A kindly Breton woman had pressed a small bag of septims into her hands, and so for once she was feeling comfortably full and reasonably happy. The Imperial beggar was just passing by the Feed Bag – and contemplating trying her luck near the gate into the Arena District – when a loud shriek echoed from the open door of the bar.
"They went to do what?"
Simplicia jumped with fright and then scuttled off to take cover behind some nearby crates. Raised voices tended to be accompanied by violence, and whatever was going on, she wanted no part of it. Not more than a second after she had ducked behind a barrel, a golden armour-clad figure came out of the Feed Bag and took off running down the street. It vanished with surprising speed, watched by an open-mouthed beggar.
…You know, I could have sworn that was the Hero of Kvatch.
Less than half an hour later, said Hero was tearing out of the Imperial City's stables on an irritated bay mare, heading up the Red Road towards Bruma and her absentee comrades.
A/N: If you've read this far, you could leave a review, hmm? Please and thank you. :D