Didn't know there was gonna be a teaser did you, my dear MLOT fans? Well, tadaa! And, its a standalone, too!
This is part one of a three part teaser for the upcoming sequel. Let me clarify: This is not the sequel. This should also be standalone for anyone who has not read Murder, Love, and Other Things and I think I've explained most of the context as best I can in the story. Nothing off the wall, I promise. Just Dragonborn stuff.
WARNING: If you have NOT read Murder, Love, and Other Things but you ARE interested in doing so then DO NOT read this because there be spoilers abound.
WARNING NUMBER 2: I've rated this "T" because there is very little language and sexual content is lacking thus far. But, if you're sensitive to bloody descriptions, stay away. You've been warned. Oh, and the rating of this story will definitely be changing.
"But I'm feelin' no pain
I'm a little lonely and my quietest friend
Have I the moonlight? Have I let you in?
Say it aint so, say I'm happy again
Say it's over, say I'm dreaming,
Say I'm better than you left me
Say you're sorry, I can take it
Say you'll wait, say you won't
Say you love me, say you don't
I can make my own mistakes
Let it bend before it breaks"
Brandi Carlile "Before It Breaks"
Truly, Rune would never forget the sound. The woman's screams would be forever etched into his mind as deeply as the carved runes of Skyrim's Standing Stones, seemingly made permanent by magical forces far beyond his control. Magic, unfortunately, was not the reason for the way the damnable sound lingered in his ears, grating and scraping like steel against stone. The sole reason was the shear awfulness, the soul-wrenching agony that rang true with every wail.
He had been in the training room of the Cistern when the first cry pierced the air. A sharp, screeching cry for aid filled the ears of everyone within Riften's infamous Ratway. Rune immediately knew the voice and at the recognition, dread filled his heart, causing him to fumble in his training exercises. The guild master was clearly wounded, her normally melodious contralto voice far out of its normal range as it twisted her pleas in pain and panic. He and others from the Ratway were in the Cistern within moments. Across the way, near the hidden entrance that opened at the rear of Riften's Temple of Mara, the guild master and Dragonborn, Isith, was on her knees on the damp floor, her hands pressed to the left side of her face. Brynjolf was the first to reach her with Karliah at his heels.
The Dark Elf skidded to her knees beside her friend and comrade and tried her best to silence the young woman's banshee-like screams. Brynjolf was frantically tugging at the Nord woman's hands. It was only when he succeeded that Rune glimpsed the damage. The entire left side of Isith's face was drenched in blood. Thick red liquid gleamed in the dim light of the Cistern, dripping down almost lazily against the stone ground to mingle with the perpetual layer of water and filth. From this distance, Rune could assess no more before Isith had wrenched her hands free from her second's grip and covered her face once more.
The screaming did not resume and instead Rune heard her bark an order, however her voice was cracked and broken and Brynjolf was forced to relay it again.
"Get to the streets, all of you! Arm yourselves! Stormcloaks have slipped into the city!" At his command, all of the thieves bolted in various directions, snatching up the first weapons they found before darting toward the exit. Rune had just laid his hand upon a shortsword when he heard Brynjolf call for him to stay. He turned and hurried over to the larger man's side, his stride somewhat unsteady from all the commotion. He could hear Isith muttering through her bloodied fingers, her hands still locked in place.
"A small group of them," she sputtered as blood seeped from her cheek into her mouth, "Came after Maven and me while we spoke on the streets."
Brynjolf batted Karliah's hand away as the Dunmer tried to hush the other woman, her small, dark fingers still trying desperately to coax Isith up from her knees. Brynjolf, his voice managing at once to be both hurried and gentle, asked, "Does Maven live, lass?"
Isith answered him with the spit of blood on the ground. "Yes," she ground out, "Now, help me."
Rune, his face an open book of emotions ranging from concerned to alarmed and disapproving, stood back as Brynjolf slipped his well-muscled arms under the small woman's legs and arms before lifting her into the air with ease. Rune placed his hands gently on Karliah's shoulders and urged her back so that Brynjolf would have a clear path to the cot against the far wall, the one he knew was nearest the cabinet containing all the guild's healing agents.
Rune was caught off guard as Karliah turned, her violet eyes wide with emotions that mirrored his own. "By Nocturnal, Rune, did you see her face?"
A knot formed in Rune's throat. There had been so much blood. His stomach churned as he peered over the elf's shoulder to watch as Brynjolf reached the cot. His voice a whisper, he responded, "A glimpse, yes. What has happened –"
The Nord's voice boomed through the air and Rune's name was soon echoing amidst the stone walls.
"Get your arse over here, Rune! Now!" There was no hint of the teasing tone that usual marked Brynjolf's unique brogue. In fact, even from halfway across the Cistern, Rune could see the wildness in the man's eyes. He looked like a great, red-maned lion that had been freed from captivity only to be cornered by the cruelness of a whip. He looked furious, indignant, and more than a little afraid.
Rune and Karliah darted across the room, their eyes flitting back and forth between their guild master, who lay writhing on the bed, and Brynjolf, who was rummaging frantically through the cabinets. It was only when Rune reached his guild master's bedside that he saw the true damage of the wound the woman had suffered. It was enough to make him turn away with a gasp. How the woman was still alive would puzzle him for countless nights after.
A gash, deep and jagged, had sliced clean through the left side of the young woman's face to expose both meat and bone. The white of her skull was visible through the cut, opening her face up in as if she were part of some twisted necromancer's macabre dissection. The damage stretched from her fair hairline down across to her left cheek bone in a clean-cut but crooked crescent shape. The flesh of her brow was cleaved in two and the bone below had been nicked, the evidence of the guilty blade branded upon the skull. Much deeper and Rune knew that the guild master's life would have been over before she even registered the blow. Worst of all, Isith's left eye, once a beautiful, twinkling orb of hunter green, was utterly ruined. The optical orb had been cleaved open along with her skin, sending out a flood of blood and puss from the eye socket.
Rune now understood the reason for his guild master's earlier horror. She was half-blind and would forever remain so. His heart went out to her, twisting about in his chest as he watched her flail atop the cot.
Why would such a thing be allowed to happen to her? Why her? Gods, why not that Black-briar harridan instead? He reached for her, his hands too callused to sooth her, resting against her unarmored shoulders. She had not been expecting an attack midday in the streets of her home. Damn those Stormcloak cowards to Oblivion! Rune shook at the bitterness and animosity of the thought. He was not a violent man, neither was he a quick tempered man, but at the moment, looking down at the wounded warrior and friend in front of him, he was certain he could gut without remorse every man and woman that marched under Ulfric's banner.
"Rune!" Brynjolf's voice pulled Rune from the depths of his own mind. "Hold her still. Karliah," the Nord turned, "hold her feet."
Rune obeyed, settling on the edge of the cot so that he could press his weight against the squirming woman. He saw the healing poultice in Brynjolf's hands, saw the worry in his eyes, as he leaned over the guild master. The auburn-haired Nord's hands shook, fingers trembling against the red glass vial, and he whispered words of comfort to Skyrim's savoir. The comfort was quickly followed by a muttered apology as the vial was tilted up and the liquid poured out onto Isith's face. Her screams pierced their ears once again, sharper than any sword and cutting far deeper.
Rune winced as he felt Isith's hand grip his and her nails buried themselves in his skin, threatening to draw blood of his own. He gritted his teeth, ignoring the way they seemed to crack from the pressure, and whispered to her. He did not know if she could hear him, or that she would even care, but his words were meant to bring comfort to everyone. Karliah was at the wounded woman's feet, muttering prayers of her own. Rune could have sworn he saw the glitter of tears in the corner of Brynjolf's eyes.
Sick curiosity tempted him into glancing up at Isith's face. Brows knitted together, he watched as the potion shimmered and bubbled over the fair, freckled skin of her cheek. The potion was enough to clot the bleeding but as expected, the gaping wound remained.
"We need that damn mage!" Brynjolf hissed as he reached for another vial.
"The Altmer?" Karliah looked up from the toes of Isith's boots. "He is staying at the –"
At that moment there was a commotion from the Ratway entrance. Various expletives from the Altmeri language echoed from the chamber leading to the Flagon. Moments later, the familiar High Elf marched gracefully into view. Evrim, a trusted associate of the guild master from her days with the Companions, paused momentarily as his golden eyes assessed the scene before him. His normally immaculate white-blond hair had been mussed and his regal brow glistened with sweat. If the mud splatter on his normally pristine robes was any indication, the elf had been rather hurried in his arrival.
Evrim took a deep breath, squaring his slim shoulders, and hurried over to the thieves. "I heard the commotion in the streets when the assassination attempt took place. The entire city is in an uproar! That Black-briar woman has guards searching houses and along the roads to hunt down any other supporters of Ulfric's campaign." The elf said all this as he was tugging his sleeves up around his elbows while simultaneously taking in Isith's damaged face and nudging Brynjolf out the way, never stalling for one moment. Rune admired him silently. He had heard stories of the mage from Isith and, for as long as he had known the elf personally, they had all proven true. He was a remarkable healer, as efficient and professional as his tongue was sharp.
Rune could only hope that he proved his skills once again. The Imperial hated to count the number of times Evrim had saved the guild master's life. According to Isith, the reason for their chance meeting had been due to life-threatening injury. But that had been long ago and countless other scars and mended bones remained as evidence of their continued acquaintance.
Much to Rune's dismay, the Altmer hissed as soon as the healing process started. His delicate hands, long-fingered and graceful, were already humming with the heat of Restoration magic.
"This will not be easy to heal," he grimaced when it the dent in the bone resisted his efforts, "for this damnable woman has the worst luck of anyone I have ever met, most of which, it appears, prefers to aim for her face."
It was true, Rune acknowledge sadly. Isith had once been a lovely girl, fresh-faced and much too precious for the good of the male population. It seemed that Fate, however, did not wish for great heroes to remain aesthetically pleasing.
Isith jerked suddenly, her remaining eye snapping open. She thrashed beneath Rune and he was forced to stretch out over her abdomen to hold her still. Such a fighter…I admire her greatly. Karliah snapped at Brynjolf to take hold of Isith's knees and the Nord obliged. Rune wondered with some horror if Isith was in any state to use her fabled thu'um against them should she deem it necessary. Fortune was with them, however, and the woman quieted quickly.
To his dismay, Isith's voice remained frantic as she half-snarled, half asked, "Has anyone checked on the children? By Talos, where are my children?"
Rune cast Brynjolf an apprehensive glance which only expanded into full-fledged worry when he saw the other man's eyes widen, his auburn brows tugging together at the center of his forehead.
Brynjolf twisted his head so that he was looking over his shoulder at Karliah. He kept his voice low as he spoke to his fellow Nightingale. "Lass, go. Find Farkas and the twins, make sure they're unharmed." The Dunmer nodded once and released her grip on Isith's feet. She was out of sight by the time Rune had turned to watch her go.
"Karliah's taking care of it, Isith." Rune worried that his words would bring the woman little comfort but he felt that something needed to be said just the same. He kept his voice soft, suddenly thankful that the gods had seen fit to bless him with a gentle nature. "They'll be fine, I'm certain. Farkas would not let anything happen to them."
Isith's hand tightened around his. He blinked, having forgotten that she was holding it at all. The fleeting grimace that danced over her features was not out of pain - no, she seemed to be ignoring that now - but something else. Likely, pain of a different sort. Immediately, Rune regretted mentioning the warrior's from Whiterun name at a time like this. That was another wound that had yet to heal. Absent-mindedly, he stroked his fingers against Isith's wrist, telling himself that it was all an effort to comfort her. It was both that and an unspoken apology for mentioning a forbidden name.
The three men remained bent over the Dragonborn's bloodied frame for nearly an hour until Evrim could heal no more. The High Elf drew his hands away, visibly drained. Sweat beaded across his brow more so than Rune could remember ever seeing it. The elf looked positively exhausted. From the way his brow was creased, rippling up the length of his high forehead and crinkling severely between his eyes, to the firm set of his lips, Rune knew that the elf was not pleased with his healing.
Brynjolf shifted around to look up at the elf. "Will she be alright?" he asked the question sounding much the same as a husband might inquire after his wife.
Evrim shook his head, fair hair slipping over his shoulders. "I could not save her eye," was all he said before turning away.
Rune frowned, glancing over at the other thief. The expression on Brynjolf's face made him immediately wish he had not looked at all. The master thief looked absolutely livid, any weariness fading from around his eyes instantly. His emerald eyes narrowed into slits, trailing after the elf's heels.
Through clinched teeth, the thief snarled, "Fix her!"
Rune flinched as Evrim whirled about, a mess of muddied, bloodied rainbow cloth. "I cannot," the healer hissed, "the damage is irreparable. She will learn to live with the handicap."
Brynjolf was on his feet at what he considered a blatant suggestion that the woman was now in some way an invalid. "You bloody elven bastard!" The curse was hard to understand amid the thief's quickly thickening brogue.
"Wake her, Brynjolf," Evrim warned, "And she won't be the only one with a handicap. She needs rest. Take your infatuation and temper somewhere else for it is not needed here."
All the while, Rune sat silently amid the heated exchange. His hand tightened protectively around Isith's still one. When it seemed that the two men's confrontation was over - Brynjolf's anger having been replaced with shame from the mage's rebuke - Rune was left alone with his guild master. The other thief had stalked off in the opposite direction from the healer and Rune and the woman that lay sleeping beside him were alone. He took the blissful moments of silence to study Isith's sleeping form more closely than he had ever dared when she was awake.
Sure enough, Evrim's healing had caused the earlier gaping skin to grow shut, leaving angry red patches around her cheek and eye as evidence of the Restoration magic that had been used. The redness would, of course, fade but the scar that remained would not. It curved neatly downward, no longer jagged as it had been when it was made. The skin was smoother than he expected, not puckered and gruesome as Isith's other facial scars were, though it was still plenty obvious. Evrim had been correct when he had remarked that she had bad luck when it came to keeping her face intact. Rune wondered how Isith would react when she saw the newest addition to her skin for the first time. She had never seemed a vain woman but, surely, she would be saddened by this final and definite blow to what was once beautiful.
Furthermore, Rune was curious as to how Isith would cope with the loss of her eyesight. She would have to relearn the ways of battle all over again. That, he knew, would likely be a much greater blow to her pride and rather vast ego than any scar. Looking down at her now, he found that he hurt for her.
Unwilling to leave her side, Rune slipped from the edge of the cot and settled onto the damp ground at the head of the wooden frame. He leaned back against the stone and outstretched his legs, wincing as he knees popped from disuse over the last hour and a half. Surely, he could not be getting that old. He grumbled at the thought, glancing back to Isith and shaking his head. She was still so young; he almost envied her. He was certain he had at least fifteen years on her and he knew without a doubt that in that extra time he had only ever been half as strong. Never could he have endured so much physical pain and heartbreak as the Dragonborn. If he had, he would have died a bitter, angry man long ago.
Head resting against the side of the bed frame, Rune had almost dosed off when he heard the heavy scrape of stone that always announced the opening of the Cistern's secret entrance. The soft creak of feet against wood spoke of boots descending the ladder and moments later Karliah slipped into view. Rune lifted his head and noted that behind her stood the enormous hulking figure of the man his guild master loved.
Farkas was looking worse for wear, having appeared to have aged ten years since the last time Rune saw him, which had been two days ago. The man's black hair had been tied back in a fashion that Rune, somewhat shamefully, knew Isith despised. She had ranted about enough to anyone who would listen – which was everyone – saying that it was not "Farkas" enough for Farkas to where. The man's trademark war paint was also in place, another thing that Isith had mumbled about each time she passed Farkas on the street. Other than the obviously fresh worry-lines on the younger man's face and the sweat on his brow, he at least looked…well enough.
Rune clamped down on the inside of his cheek and glared at the man. "Where are Isith's children?" He spoke the question quietly, hoping that the pitch of his voice would encourage the newcomers to respond in the same fashion.
Farkas met Rune's eyes and the Imperial couldn't help but feel like he was being examined. "Our children are fine. They were in the woods with me when the Stormcloaks came. Didn't even know anything had happened."
"Where are they now?" Since Isith was not awake to ask the question herself, Rune figured it was best if he did it for her.
Farkas remained silent, his gaze still leveled on Rune. Karliah shot her friend a look as if to assure him that both the children were indeed safe. Rune accepted her wordless confirmation with a short nod. Truthfully, he already knew where the children were staying. He just wanted to see if Farkas was man enough to admit it. Rune felt it when Farkas' steely gaze finally left him and watched as the man hesitated where he stood, shifting his considerable weight from one foot to the other.
Rune groaned and moved to stand. He wondered idly if it was his presence by Isith's cot that was keeping Farkas from approaching. He was a polite man, always had been, and he knew that now was not the time for bitterness, regardless of whether or not it was he that had been offended. Isith had already passed judgment on the Companion and no doubt she would likely agree to Farkas' presence.
As he stood, Rune rolled his shoulders in an attempt to loosen them. Stone was not an accommodating material for the body. He looked to Farkas and quietly, with some reluctance, reassured him, "She is asleep, my friend, she will not know if you approach."
Farkas covered the distance in a few long steps and came to rest at the edge of where Isith lay. She was still sleeping peacefully, a blessed change from her earlier state of awareness. Rune gave the other man room, stepping a respectful distance away but remaining at an angle that allowed him to study the warrior's face. Curiosity had gotten the better of him once again.
Farkas' icy blue eyes roamed over Isith's visage. Not surprisingly, he appeared to linger on the Dragonborn's freshest scar. Rune was relieved to see that there was no trace of revulsion on the man's face. He continued to look down at the woman with measured acceptance, blinking every so often as he studied the wound. Finally, the Companion looked away.
His eyes found Rune again and he rolled his impossibly muscular shoulders. His voice reminded Rune of boots tracking through gravel when he spoke. "She will pull through. Always does." Emotion tinged each word and, for the briefest moments, Rune was almost able to ignore what the words insinuated. Unfortunately, his sharp mind caught hold to what he deemed uncharacteristically cold passivity coming from the bigger man and refused to let go.
'Always does.' One day she will not be so lucky.
Rune's blood heated beneath his skin, sending a rush of color to his swarthy cheeks. "Your woman almost died today, Companion. Truly, had her wound been a fraction deeper, her head would have been cleaved in two." Rarely was Rune's voice etched in such warning. Karliah, much too perceptive for her own good, noticed and she narrowed her hazy purple eyes at her brother-in-arms. She mouthed his name once, warning him.
Farkas shrugged his shoulders. "Everyone always underestimates her -"
Rune's temper continued to flare and he cut the warrior short. "Those Stormcloaks came to kill her. Not only Maven, but her." He jabbed a finger at Isith's limp figure. He sucked at his teeth rudely as he scoffed, "The worst of the damage remains unseen. She lost one of her eyes, Farkas. She is not 'fine'."
Farkas' brows rose into his hairline to reveal genuine surprise. "No…"
He glanced at the sleeping woman. Guilt heated his neck as a telltale flush tinged his skin an embarrassing shade of pink. It surprised Rune when the Companion reached out to brush a thick-knuckled finger along the edge of Isith's jaw. In that moment, Rune was taken aback by how much the two of them looked as they had three years earlier…before everything. There was worry in Farkas' eyes, coupled with shame. The emotion was broadcast so strongly that it evident he found the fact harder to swallow than anyone else.
The mountain of a man snapped out of whatever reverie he was in as quickly as he had entered it. He cut his eyes up and Rune and then at Karliah. "When," Farkas took and uneasy breath, "when she awakes, tell'er that I said I'm sorry. Tell her that I'll help with whatever she needs."
Just like that, any sympathy Rune felt for the man was gone with the dank, damp wind. His eyes came together as narrow slits so that only the smallest amount of their dark depths was able to be seen. He bit his tongue and refused to speak the biting words that were currently demanding to be spoken. Instead, he took a steadying breath and measured each and every careful word, "Brynjolf will likely be here to check on her soon. You should go, Companion. Karliah will tell Isith you stopped by."
Farkas recognized from the chill in the Imperial's voice that he had been dismissed. He eyed the smaller man with contempt, an emotion that the Nord had only mastered recently. He leaned down then with both the thieves watching him, both wearing a mask of unreadable emotions. Rune curled his lip when he saw Farkas press his mouth to Isith's clammy forehead. The large Nord wavered over her for a moment too long before murmuring again, more to himself than anyone else, that "Isith would pull through."
With those parting words, Farkas retreated back up the exit, likely heading straight to his newest abode, Rune knew, an abode that was not with the guild master that lay wounded and unmoving on the bed.
"Everyone has sins to atone for, Rune." Karliah's voice startled Rune so that he snapped his eyes away from the hatch leading to the surface. She placed a friendly hand on the Imperial's forearm and gave it a genial squeeze. Her violet eyes, however, told him that she was quite serious. "You should not be so hard on the man."
"He is a coward."
"Isith would not have you believe such a thing." Karliah turned her head to watch Isith sadly. "You're a faithful friend, Rune, but don't become too protective of her now. She'll need strength, not pity, when she awakes."
The male thief silently agreed and closed his eyes to steady himself. The Dark Elf was right as usual and the wisdom of her numerous years rang clear in the gentle firmness of her voice.
Shamed the woman's words and his bitterness at something that did not concern him, Rune suddenly felt the overwhelming need to be alone. "You should go check on Brynjolf. I'll stay and watch over the guild master." He nudged the elf toward the door. "Go on, Karliah, please."
The elf read him clear enough though she did not show it. She nodded once and patted his arm again before slinking like a shadow from the Cistern. Rune did not watch her go this time; instead, he sat back down against the wall and turned himself so that he keep a watchful eye on his leader. With the faith of an old dog, if he could prevent any harm from coming to her as she slept, he would do so with all the patience in the world.
Hope you weren't too confused. Any characters you don't recognize are of my own creation, the rest belong to, you guessed it, Bethesda! Anyway, this was just a warm up. The next chapter will bump the rating up (just forewarning you youngins') and it will not be because of blood and guts.
Please don't flame me for this if you don't like the way the story appears to have turned. They call 'em teasers for a reason.
Let me know what you think, pretty please. Got a review a while back saying that my writing style had changed a bit so I'm trying to revert to my old, more descriptive self but I think I might have gone overboard.