An argument seemed to be in process when Brim - sweaty, filthy, and streaked with blood - threw open the door of Dragonreach. The fires were burning bright in the dim, smoky hall, casting leaping shadows into rafters, but Brim strode straight in, ignoring the guards. It was too late and she was too tired and sore to bother with protocol, and she had a splitting headache in addition to all the weird things that had happened to her that day. This reward had better be a large one and paid out in cold hard coin immediately, she thought, her expression creasing in irritation as she skirted the long hearth pit in the center of the hall, or someone's going to regret it.
Balgruuf, his weasel of an advisor, and the same blond warrior that she thought was probably a relative of the Jarl's were in the middle of what seemed to be a fierce debate when Balgruuf looked up and noticed Brim approaching. The other two men followed their master's gaze and the warrior grinned, the tattoos on his face bunching in fearsome patterns. Barbarians, Brim thought to herself, surpressing a snort. There was an eager light behind his eyes, a supremely satisfied expression, as if she was the proof of whatever he had just been saying.
"We were just talking about you," the warrior rumbled in the peculiar lilting accent that seemed to be the local Nord argot, and turned to glare a challenge at the Weasel. "My brother wants a word with you."
"Hrongar, calm yourself. What does any of this Nord nonsense have to do with our friend here? I don't see any sign of her being this . . .what, was it . . .'Dragonborn'," the advisor wheedled, sensibly. Leave me out of your arguments, I'm just here for my coin, Brim thought, turning to Balgruuf and dropping a brief nod. Her back was aching like the blazes and she couldn't have managed a bow even if she had wanted to. Before she could speak, though, the blond warrior took an aggressive step towards the Imperial, his hand straying to his axe, sending the little man back a few paces.
"Nord nonsense?" the warrior snarled, "Why, you puffed-up, ignorant -"
"Hrongar, don't be so hard on Avenicci," Balgruuf warned, though Brim could hear the amusement in his voice. Clearly this sort of thing was a regular occurrence between the two men. Must be nice to have nothing better to do than stand around up here and bicker like old women, she thought, disgruntled, as she waited.
"I meant no disrespect, of course," the Weasel muttered and the warrior Hrongar stood back, scowling fiercely at him. Balgruuf turned his gaze to Brim then, finally.
"So, you've returned. We've heard the reports from the wall tops, but tell me what you've seen with your own eyes."
"Tower's mostly destroyed, your lordship. Your Dunmer captain stayed behind to find any survivors. That dragon ain't the same one I saw at Helgen, but it's dead now," Brim replied, trying to keep it simple and to the point. She had no idea what this Dragonborn business was all about, but it seemed to be something that would draw attention to her and that was a distinctly bad thing right now. The Jarl was watching her expectantly, though, and she sighed inwardly. Clearly, somehow, they already knew about the oddities that had happened after the Dragon's death. "And, turns out I may be something called a Dragonborn."
"Ha!" Hrongar exclaimed, grinning, while the Weasel's face twisted doubtfully.
"Tell us more," Balgruuf prompted, and Brim shifted to a slightly less painful position. Just give me the cursed gold and let me be on my way, she wanted to say, but the interrogation was clearly part of the package.
"When I killed that bloody great monster, this yellow light came out of it and swirled around me. Seemed like it got inside me somehow," she reported and, catching the suspicious eye of the Imperial steward, added, "my hand to Akatosh, that's what happened, your lordship. Don't expect it means much. Could have happened to anyone, couldn't it?"
"We have a legend here of the Dragonborn, a man or woman born with the soul of a dragon and who is uniquely gifted in the Voice. The Voice is part of our Nord heritage, but the Dragonborn is supposed to be a born master of it. Since you have displayed some of those qualities, and the Greybeards have summoned you, it is likely that you are indeed the Dragonborn," the Jarl explained. He turned to his steward, a smug smile on his face, "Well, Proventus, do you have any further objections?"
"It's just that . . . what do these Graybeards want with her?" the Weasel stuttered, casting a scandalized glance over Brim. No wonder that blond oaf wants to get his axe into you, Brim thought, her lip raising in disgust.
"That's for the Greybeards to decide, not us," Balgruuf replied, and turned back to Brim, who was about to decide that she had reached her limit for the evening. Before she could interrupt, he nodded. "I haven't forgotten your service to me and to Whiterun today. You will, of course, receive your compensation in abudance. I also name you a Thane of Whiterun in recognition of the risks you have undertaken on our behalf . It is the highest honor that I am able to bestow, and entitles you to certain privileges in my court, the ability to purchase property in the city among them. You are a newcomer to our country, I understand. Whiterun would be honored to have you as a citizen and as a Thane here, Dragonborn."
Brim's mouth fell open in surprise and she had to hurry to close it in order to keep the words "What? Me?" from falling out. But, Balgruuf wasn't quite finished.
"I will also appoint a housecarl for you from among my guards," he continued and glanced at Proventus, "I think Lydia would suffice." The advisor nodded, his small, dark eyes still fixed on Brim in a consternated expression, though the man didn't dare gainsay the Jarl. Balgruuf settled back in his chair, regarding Brim with a friendly, almost wistful expression. "I envy you, you know. I made the pilgrimage up the 7000 steps when I was a boy to study at High Hrothgar. If you are truly Dragonborn, the Greybeards there will be able to teach you what you need to know to channel your talents into usefulness. Should you require directions for your journey there, speak with Proventus. I'm sure he can have one of the scribes copy a map for you."
"Much obliged, your lordship," Brim replied, still stunned. That seemed to be the end of the interview and she stepped back, nodding, as the Jarl rose and stretched wearily. It was late. Hrongar, evidently the Jarl's brother, cast an appreciative glance over her before turning to follow Balgruuf out of the hall. Proventus bowed respectfully to his master, with true Imperial obsequiousness, and watched the Jarl leave before straightening and turning to Brim. He looked her up and down and sniffed a comment to himself. Brim mimicked and exagerated the gesture, sticking her nose up in the air and leaning back pompously on her heels as she waited for him to say whatever he had to say. I'm a bloody Thane now, she thought, a smile growing on her face. Whatever that means.
"The quartermaster has already retired for the evening, I suspect. I will have the treasury disburse your payment in the morning," the Weasel stated, less than pleasantly. "You may wish to take a room tonight at The Bannered Marein town. I will inform your new housecarl to meet you there in the morning."
"I think that can just about be managed," Brim replied, smiling, and then continued as a thought struck her. "What's this about property in the city?"
"You are entitled," the steward explained, as if the words pained him, "to purchase a home in Whiterun, now that the Jarl has declared you his Thane. Regrettably, we only have a small house available for purchase at the moment, and I suspect you will be far too busy traveling, now that you are the Dragonborn, to make it worth the cost."
"Woman's got to have a place to rest her head, though, don't she?" Brim observed, her expression and tone lightening a little as a thought struck her. "How much is this house?"
"Five thousand septim." The steward smiled nastily. Clearly, he had sussed out that Brim was a little hard up for cash. But, she hadn't had time to sell most of the gems and other valuable she had taken out of the tomb either. If she went back and searched around for some of the other less valuable movables, between what she had coming to her for the Dragonstone job, what she had already looted, and what she could go back and find, she could probably afford the house. And then she could send for Sofie. The nipper would have a proper home out of the cold and, with a base of operations, Brim could see about getting back on her feet.
"Tell you what, your honor," Brim replied, after a moment of consideration. "You put my payment towards that house and I'll come up here tomorrow and settle the balance with you, sight unseen. Seems like a nice place, this town. Prosperous. Good place to settle down."
That wiped the smile off of the Weasel's face, but he could hardly refuse her. Brim excused herself and made slow progress back down all the damnable steps towards the center market of town, where she knew she was most likely to find the inn. The job had been more worth it than she had thought. Right now, though, it was rest she needed. Tomorrow, she would settle on the house and see what this housecarl and Thane business was all about, and then she would take a good look around. There were always thieves and other canting folk in towns of any great size, even in the absence of the Guild. If Skyrim didn't have a Guild already, Brim could rectify that.
"Where could she have gone?" Ulfric Stormcloak pondered, poising over the map of Skyrim that was laid out on his war-room table and staring at it as if it might reveal its secrets to him. The hall was chilly - a cold wind had blown down from the north overnight with a hint of early snow - and the men standing within wore their thick bear-fur mantles even indoors, but Ulfric was barely aware of the cold. His mind had been working incessantly since he had awoken from his dream last night by the Greybeard's thunderous call.
"Could be dead for all we know," Galmar replied, dubiously. The big housecarl had listened skeptically to the dream this morning and, though his friend would not say so, Ulfric knew that Galmar was not convinced that it had been anything more than a nightmare born of fatigue and pain from his wounds. The healer had done an excellent job of extracting the arrowhead from his thigh and closing the wound, but his leg still ached as the new tissue knit itself back together and he would have to go easy on it for awhile. But the dream had not been a random nightmare. It had been a revelation. And they had to find the girl that had stood before the block with him at Helgen, whoever she was.
"No," Ulfric mused, frowning at the map. "No, if she were dead, the Greybeards would not have called to her. They are able to sense such things. She's alive. And she's made herself known to them somehow."
"Ulfric," Galmar began, choosing his words carefully, "should we not be looking to other business? Retribution for the soldiers we lost in the Imperial ambush. The traitor in our midst. The girl can wait, if she is alive. Even if she is the Dragonborn."
Ulfric nearly rounded on his old friend then, but he clenched his teeth instead, his fingernails scraping along the table slightly. Galmar was, in a sense, right. There was no time to waste in the war, with winter coming on, and his blood boiled at the thought of one of his own councilors betraying him to Tullius. But, the Dragonborn . . . the Last Dragonborn . . . was also of utmost importance. He needed to find her, to make sure she understood what was coming, to help her if he could. He had always felt that he would be a part of history, a legend, and perhaps this was the role the Divines had set out for him manifesting itself at last. And in return for his assistance, she could be of enormous aid to him as well. The Nords of Skyrim would flock to the Stormcloak army for the honor of standing behind the Dragonborn.
"She is the Dragonborn. And you're right," Ulfric said, and looked up at his housecarl, standing across the table from him with a serious, searching expression. "We have other business. But I want the woman found, too. The gods granted me this insight for a reason, as a divine gift. That is not coincidence. They want us to triumph, my friend. They bless our efforts. How much better - how fitting - if the Bear and the Dragon face down the Empire together, hm?"
Galmar's face split in a wide grin then, his grey eyes glowing like coals as he conjured the image in his mind.
"How will we find her?"
"Unless she was saved by the Imperials, which I doubt, she is unlikely to have traveled far. She is a foreigner here, from what I remember," Ulfric mused and stared at the map, reaching out to touch the place where the ruined wreckage of Helgen had once stood. "Falkreath would be the nearest settlement, but she would have no way of knowing that unless she found the road. Or . . ."
He traced his finger down the White River that lead away from Helgen towards the central plains of Skyrim and scowled as he landed on the city there. "Whiterun."
"Balgruuf," Galmar replied, nodding. With the old tensions between himself and Jarl Balgruuf at an even more frosty level than normal, Whiterun would be a difficult place to reach the Dragonborn, if she was there. But, only a week or so had passed since the dragon attack at Helgen. Even if she was in Whiterun, there was still time.
"Send notice to the guard and all of our friendly holds to be on the look out for the woman I described. Send agents to Falkreath and Whiterun to determine if she's there or has been there, checking all small settlements and outposts along the way. When she is found, tell them to convey the message that Windhelm offers her sanctuary and shelter from the Legion and that I personally wish to offer her aid."
"And if she is already in Imperial hands, my Jarl?" Galmar grunted in reply. His housecarl only used the honorific when they were in public or the matter was truly serious. Ulfric scowled at the map one last time and stood. It was useless to explain to Galmar why he believed that the Dragonborn was still free. The old soldier was devout to Talos, but he was of an entirely practical mind, trusting only in his sword arm and what his eyes could show him. And, fortunately, in Ulfric himself.
"The Legion has already tried to murder her once. She will likely do whatever she can to avoid them for some time and Tullius, in his arrogance, does not believe in our 'superstitions'. He won't know her worth until it is already too late. There is no reason for the Legion to waste their effort looking for her. The Divines mean the Dragonborn for us, Galmar. Wherever she is, the way will open for us to find her. Send the messengers. When that is done, we will turn our attention back to the war."
As the housecarl clasped his fist to his chest and strode from the room, Ulfric leaned back down, placing his palms on the smooth parchment of the map and staring sightlessly down. He could feel his heart beginning to pound at the idea that he might soon be standing in the presence of the Dragonborn of prophecy. He knew nothing about the woman herself, except that she was brave and evidently resourceful enough to escape the massacre at Helgen, but he could fill in the details in his mind and it painted a glorious picture.
As he pondered this, another realization occurred to him that made a smile grow unbidden on his face. How interesting that the Dragonborn, come into this time and this place and shown to him by the gods themselves in a dream, should be a woman.
The knock on Brim's door made her start from her sleep with a yelp. She sat up and immediately regretted it, clasping the heels of her hands hard to her face with a groan as the aching thump of the wine she had drunk the night before and the sore stiffness of her bruised back protested the sudden movement. Blearily, she scanned the loft room she had rented and looked beside her, finding the comfortable bed empty except for her. Well, that was a mercy at least. The knock sounded again and Brim pressed her palms back to her temples against the pounding, muttering a string of curses.
"Hold the banging, I'll be right there," she growled at the visitor and turned, shifting herself reluctantly out of the bed. The room was comfortably warm and surprisingly devoid of fleas. After a bath and what must have been quite a bit of wine, Brim had slept like the dead, which is what she felt like now as a result. The knock sounded again, and Brim swore and stalked to the door, wrenching it open and preparing to give whoever was standing there a thorough tongue-lashing.
"What in the buggering blue balls of Arkay d'you . . ." she began, but trailed off as her angry eyes found themselves staring back into a pair of wide brown ones that were set in the face of an armored woman. Before Brim could begin again, the woman nodded, clasping her fist to her breastplate in a respectful gesture that was so precise, Brim had to wonder how often the woman had practiced it alone.
"Thane," the brown-haired woman said, crisply, before looking back up into her face with a slightly embarrassed expression. "My name is Lydia. Jarl Balgruuf has appointed me to be your housecarl, and his steward informed me that I was to meet you here this morning."
Bloody hells, Brim thought, giving the regimental-looking housecarl a look up and down. Every bit of Lydia's armor was as oiled and polished as if it were new. Her brown eyes were intelligent and the look in them, despite the tirade, almost reverential as she gazed unabashedly back at Brim. The housecarl smiled, hopefully.
"Oh. Yeah, I remember something about that now," Brim replied, taken slightly aback by the complete lack of guile that she was confronted with. Her head was still pounding, though, and she stepped back from the door a little. "Wait downstairs. I need to freshen up a bit, then we'll get on with it."
As the housecarl turned, creaking back down the wood steps to the main floor of the inn, Brim closed the door and leaned against it for a moment collecting her thoughts. They would saddle me with the greenest, most straight-laced swadkin this side of the mountains, she thought, calculating what she would have to do to keep some of her more illegal plans and activities underwraps in her own home. There was not a chance in Oblivion that she could send Lydia away without offending the Jarl, and that wasn't a smart thing to do at all now that she had found a small amount of security here. And, a personal guard could be of some use, especially once she was able to retrieve Sofie from Windhelm. She can be trained, Brim decided, and moved across the room to divest herself of last night's wine in the chamberpot, wash up, and dress.
The marketplace outside the inn was just getting busy when Brim emerged with Lydia in tow. The city gates had been reopened and traders were coming in from the surrounding farms to hawk their wares, and she could even see a few Khajiit traders here and there among the market stalls. Brim smiled. Where there were Khajiit, there was moonsugar. Where there was moonsugar, there was skooma. And where there was skooma, rackets to control its sale and production would spring up. It gladdened her heart to think about it. But, she had more pressing business to attend to.
"Right, then," Brim said, turning to Lydia, who was watching her with great interest. "First order of business: I've got some items of value to sell. Who's the trader with the best set up for jewels and other pricey items in this town?"
"That would be Belethor's shop. It's right over there," Lydia replied eagerly, pointed across the marketplace to one of the buildings facing into the square.
"And weapons, armor, that sort of thing?"
"Well . . . there's Eorlund Greymane up at the Skyforge behind Jorrvaskr, but if you want to sell, I'd go to Warmaiden's down near the gates. Eorlund drives a hard bargain. I've been saving up to buy one of his skyforged swords for ages."
Brim mentally filed that note away for later. It was interesting that there were two competing weaponsmiths in a town this size, and interesting that this Eorlund seemed to be some sort of specialist, but Lydia's revelation of her desire for one of his swords could be useful, too. Whatever Lydia tried to put herself off as right now, the housecarl's loyalty was still primarily to old Balgruuf up there in his keep. Brim needed to wean her off of the Jarl and gain the primary spot in the housecarl's trust and confidence herself if this arrangement was going to work. Not only would she be a better guard of Brim's property and of Sofie, she would be much less likely to raise the guards if she ever stumbled into Brim's business interests by accident.
"Good to know," Brim replied, rewarding the woman with a smile, that made Lydia smile in return. "Let's get to it, then. If Zenithar smiles on us, we'll be home sweet home by evening."
The rest of the morning and part of the afternoon was spent moving back and forth among the shops and market stalls, trading and haggling over goods and coin. Whiterun was apparently a trade center for the surrounding region. All manner of goods flowed through the market, and Brim could see gold, jewels, and furs on more than one man or woman making their way through the morass. Ripe for the plucking, she told herself again, smiling.
By mid-afternoon, Brim had exhausted her store of valuables from the tomb. On a bench away from the main thoroughfare, she quickly counted out the coin she had made, and was relieved to find that she had enough for the house. Just barely, but a handful of septim over was better than a handful of septim short. She grinned up at Lydia as she raked the coins back into her pouch.
"We're in business, my duck. Let's take a stroll up to Dragonsreach."
In a remarkably short time, Brim found herself the owner of Breezehome, a cottage right on the high street of Whiterun. She surveyed it with satisfaction, finding that, aside from the odd high-peaked architecture of Skyrim and in absence of the smell of stagnant and brackish water from the Docks she had spent a large portion of her childhood on, it reminded her of the house she had grown up in. The inside was a dim mass of dust, old cobwebs and boxes of housewares that had been left behind by the previous owner, but it had potential. Between Brim's and Lydia's efforts, by the time the fire was lit in the hearth and the shadows descending outside the window slats, the place was starting to feel more like home.
"Not bad," Brim observed, surveying the glow of the downstairs room as Lydia finished filling the wall sconces that had been left behind with oil and lighting them. "Bit a furniture in here, a few homey touches, and I think this might turn out to be a first rate hovel, eh?"
Lydia smiled. The housecarl didn't say much, but she seemed pleased with the arrangement, especially when Brim pointed her to the smaller bedroom in the loft and told her she could have it for her own. Brim got the feeling that her housecarl, like most of the sisters of the sword Brim had met, had spent quite a few of her nights bedding down in a common barracks, and so a room of her own, no matter how small, might as well have been a palace. Sofie could share the big bed in Brim's room until part of the open space down below could be partitioned into another sleeping room.
Sofie, Brim sighed internally, hoping that the girl was okay. What was she going to do with a child in tow? Because, in taking on her niece, Brim understood that she was tacitly agreeing to become Sofie's surrogate mother. Me, a mother, Brim thought, smirking, but her expression grew serious again quickly as she remembered her own parents and what it had felt like to lose them and fall under the sway of Uncle Renald. No, she thought, feeling her jaw tighten in resolve. Sofie would never know what that was like; not if Brim could help it.
She was grateful to Uncle Renald - he had stepped in and kept her safe and cared for, and the rough lessons she had learned from him had made her capable and self-reliant in this hard world - but he had taken it out of her a hundred fold in both the gold she had snatched for him from pockets and pouches as a child thief and in the small, calculated cruelties of a man who saw her as an investment to be controlled and refined instead of a little girl. Brim would not be Sofie's Uncle Renald. Her sister's daughter deserved a happier and less complicated life than Brim's and, for poor dead Evylie's sake, Brim would try to see that she got it..
"Tomorrow or the next, I'm headed up to Windhelm. Got some business there," Brim told the housecarl, who looked up expectantly from the hearth where she was setting the heavy iron cooking pot over the fire in preparation for dinner. "Think you can hold down the fort for a few days on your own?"
"Of course, my Thane," Lydia replied, smiling eagerly at the chance to prove her worth to her new employer.
Brim nodded, and returned to her room, counting out her significantly dwindling coin to make sure she had enough for the trip. It would be a stretch, but it was enough. When I get back, I've got to find some work, she thought. She could capitalize on this Dragonborn nonsense for awhile to get some above board work to begin with, and that would keep the three of them in bread. It would be difficult without Guild contacts or a reliable fence already established, but she could begin small and work her way up. And Balgruuf had unwittingly positioned her in just the right social circle in his city to give her a significant boost in the task of getting it and the guards under her thumb. No one would want to mess with the Jarl's newest Thane, the woman that had killed a dragon. Brim smiled to herself and made a mental note to toss another couple of coins into Talos' offering bowl the next time she was passing. Keep this up, she thought at the illegal god, and we might just have the start of a beautiful friendship.
Sofie could not remember when she had last felt safe. But, as the snow fell in great fat flakes outside, collecting on the sills and lead latticed windows of Candlehearth Hall, as she pulled her small shawl closer around her shoulders and basked in the warmth of the upstairs hearth and enjoyed a few moments to herself during the mid-afternoon lull, she realized that that was what she was feeling - safety. The safety of a warm fire and a full stomach. The safety of a comfortable pallet by the kitchen hearth at night. The safety of kindness from the inkeeper and her husband, who were not slow with a good word when Sofie had done well with the daily chores. She would happily scrub pots and fold linen until her small fingers bled if it meant that she would not be forced back out into the cold, frightening world outside. At least, until Auntie Brim returned.
The image of the tall, lithe woman with her flashing green eyes and mischievous smile had made an impression on Sofie. She could not remember Mama well, but she remembered the stories Papa had told her. Mama had been beautiful and kind and had always known what to do. Those were the things she had been told, and she could not help but draw the parallel between her mother and the impressive, smiling aunt who had crashed into her life out of nowhere and swept her off of the street. And so, now, when Sofie lay down on her pallet every night and said her prayers - to the Eight, to the Ninth that Papa had told her she must never speak of aloud, and to the spirits of her parents who she was certain could hear her from the halls of Sovngarde - it was Brim's face that her mother wore now, more often than not.
Too many people had come into and out of her life already for Sofie to be confident that her aunt would return, but she hoped and dutifully asked the Divines every night to make it so. They had not protected Mama and Papa - not even the Ninth, whose symbol Papa wore hidden under his shirt and next to his skin at all times - but Auntie Brim had promised, and promises were special. Papa had not promised to come home. But Auntie Brim had, and she had said they were family, which was also special. Even Papa had told her that. So, Sofie said her prayers, did the chores Elda assigned her, was grateful for the comforts of the indoors, and dared to believe that Brim would keep her word.
The little bell that hung over the door downstairs tinkled and Sofie rose, reaching for her broom. She needed to finish sweeping before the inn crowded with patrons for dinner and drinks and the cook would need her to help in the kitchen. Her broom scraped along the floorboards busily as she heard the muffled sounds of a conversation from the bar down below and then Elda Early-dawn's voice pitched up the stairs.
"Sofie. Come down here a moment, dear," the aging inkeeper called and Sofie felt her heart pound a little as her fingers clutched the broom. Had she done anything to be scolded for? Her mind search and sifted, but she could come up with nothing. Elda did not sound angry, but it was hard to tell with adults. She had been cuffed by more than one man in the street who had not sounded or looked angry when she had approached him with her basket of flowers. But, she could not refuse the summons either and so, clutching her broom, Sofie cautiously descended the stairs.
As she reached the midway point, her eyes turned first to Elda's wrinkled face to detect any signal of disapproval, but the proprietress was smiling underneath her wisps of grey and white hair. Then, her eyes landed on the back of a tall woman clad in breeches and boots, her long dark hair clasped at the nape of her neck and trailing down her shoulders like a horse's tail. The woman turned and, as soon as Sofie saw the bright eyes and smirking, upturned lip, she felt a wave of relief and elation wash over her that was so intense that she could barely keep herself from shouting..
"Auntie Brim!" she cried, unable to bottle up the riot of joyous emotions within entirely, and fairly flew down the last few steps to throw herself at her aunt, who laughed and reached down to catch her.
"Steady on, kitten, you'll knock me over," Brim chuckled, but she didn't peel Sofie away and Sofie hugged her all the harder. She did come back. She promised. "Been a good girl for Elda, have you?"
"Best scullery maid we've had, I think," Elda observed from somewhere behind Brim, a smile in her voice, and Sofie let go of Brim finally, just enough to back up and grin hopefully up into her aunt's face. She wanted to tell her that she had been good, had done everything she was told to do - just like Brim had said - but the words stuck in her throat and all she could do was smile in relief. You're back. Everything is going to be ok now. That was all that Sofie could summon within herself to think or say.
"Any outstanding debts?" Brim asked, turning away towards the proprietress, who shook her head. At that, Sofie watched her aunt turn back and smile again, offering her hand, which Sofie grasped it instantly. The cool skin, the long fingers - a little rough in places, but strong - felt like safety. Though Brim's hand was smaller, it was like holding Papa's hand again. Brim grinned then, a dazzling expression to Sofie's eyes. "Fine, fine. I think it's about time to head home, then, kitten."
And with those words and that tiny gesture, she won Sofie's heart completely.
There were no possession to collect or goodbyes to say, and so - still gripping her aunt's hand for reassurance - Sofie stepped back out into the cold, swirling snow-bound world. The bite of the air on her face brought back memories of lonesome nights outdoors, when she had wondered if the guards would find her body cold and frozen to the street like the stray cat she had once seen curled next to a neighbor's stoop. But Brim's hand, clutched around her own was a warm and soothing presence, and she smiled to herself. She was not alone. Not anymore. Not ever again. And she was going home.
"You come here where you're not wanted, you eat our food, you pollute our city with your stink and filth. And you don't even have the gratitude to support your Jarl and his Stormcloaks. That's why you don't belong here," an angry voice snarled from somewhere close by.
Sofie startled closer to Brim's side, driven by old instincts that made her shy of angry male voices. Her eyes panned left and she caught sight of a big man, broad at the shoulder and running to fat at the gut, short blond hair sticking out at all angles and mingling with a curly, badly groomed beard, as he stabbed a finger into the face of a tall, slender dark elf woman. She recognized the man, though she didn't know his name. He had spent most of his nights drinking at the Candlehearth and she had seen him frequent the high street of the city before when she was selling flowers. Once, he had grown so loud and angry that Elda had summoned the guards to have him thrown out. Sofie shifted to the other side of her aunt away from the man, eyeing him warily and more than a little fearfully.
"We don't take sides because it isn't our fight," the dark elf insisted, as if trying to placate the man who was bullying her.
Papa had never liked the dark elves either and had prevented Sofie from playing with or even speaking to the elven children that had sometimes wandered through their old street on their way to the market district. She wasn't sure why. Her father had said that they were dirty and dishonest, but the children she had known were no dirtier than she had been at the time and the woman the man was shouting at now just looked puzzled and afraid. She had seen her father scowl at passing elves, watching them until they left the area, but she had never seen her father's face twist with the same vitriol that she saw on the hulking Nord's face now, and it made her grip Brim's hand all the tighter.
"Maybe the reason these grey-skins don't join up in the war effort is because they're Imperial spies," another familiar voice drawled. Sofie craned her neck around Brim to see the thinner figure of Angrenor Once-Honored, scowling at the elf from where he stood behind and beside his large friend. Angrenor had always seemed like a nice man. He had known Sophie's father and had always been kind to her. The look on his face now, though,as he looked at the dark elf woman was nasty, hateful, and mean. Her skin crawled at the thought that such hatred could hide underneath a smiling face, and she pressed her cheek against Brim's side, hiding half of her own face against his glare. Even a friend can't be trusted, she thought and clenched her fingers tighter into her aunt's cloak to reassure herself that her aunt could.
"Maybe we'll pay you a visit, little spy," the ruffian leered, his voice taking on a bone-chilling violence as he leaned towards the unfortunate elf. She couldn't hear the rest of what he said, but she could see the effect it was having as the woman shuffled backwards, her crimson eyes wide. Sofie felt her aunt shift position slightly and she looked up to divine Brim's reaction to the spectacle, realizing that they had stopped on the front stoop of the porch and had gone no further.
Her aunt's eyes were fixated on the scene, expression calm, almost amused. Brim's bottom lip caught under her top for a moment, her head tilting in a thoughtful way. She smiled. Sofie felt a small moment of mild distress as Brim let go of her hand and nodded her head towards the angry man and his prey, glancing down with a calm expression.
"Nothing to be afraid of, kitten. Y'see, some old men can't hold their ale like they used to and have to go strutting and bellowing about the streets to get it out of their system. Pay him no mind."
The statement seemed to have been spoken a little too loudly, and Sofie's gaze jerked back to the blond hulk, who paused in his tirade at the dark elf to turn in their direction.
"What did you say?" the big man growled at Brim, scowling. His eyes went first to Brim and then to Sofie, before settling back on Brim. They burned like braziers in his ruddy, unshaven face, and Sofie felt herself shrink backwards, pulling at her aunt's cloke to urge her away from the man. She could imagined the big brute looming over Brim - and herself - the same way he had been menacing the dark elf woman, and she knew that the only way to avoid that was to leave and do nothing further to attract his attention. The elf took the opportunity of the distraction to back away out of range, though Sofie saw her gaze flick to Brim, too, equally alarmed.
"I said: fine weather we're having, ain't it, my old cocksparrow? Perfect for crashing about the street disturbing the peace, I dare say," Brim called back, as loud and friendly as if she were merely hallooing someone from across a market square. Her expression was set in a grin, like she and the man were old friends.
"You have something against me, Imperial?" the hulk stormed as he made his way towards them, drawing his shoulders up like an angry dog raising hackles, the elf apparently forgotten.
"Auntie Brim," Sofie warned, tugging at her aunt's sleeve harder as the brute approached. She could smell the sour mead and ale on him from twenty paces away and the look he was leveling at her aunt would have melted iron. I can't lose you already when you've just come back, she thought desperately, imagining what the big man could to do Brim. She had seen men beat each other bloody and bruised in the streets before and the thought of this man doing the same to her aunt made her want to cry. His fists were enormous. He was enormous. But, instead of taking her hand and walking away, Sofie found herself shuffled carefully behind her aunt as Brim took a step towards the man instead.
"Who me? No, no. Just making an observation to my young'un there. Nothing like a bad example to teach the kids a thing or two, hey?"
The blond hulk's face twisted in fury and he stepped towards Brim again, his fist rising in front of her in an unmistakably aggressive gesture.
"You don't like what I do? Too bad. It's our city. Ours! Not for greyskins and Imperial milkdrinkers like you."
"Oh, aye, I'm agreeing with you," Sofie heard her aunt chime, affably. "Someone's got to tell folk like me and that lady over there where to get off, don't they? Big strapping man like you protecting your city from the likes of us. Ought to give you a bloody medal for bravery, ought'n they?"
The oaf's expression faltered for a moment, and he seemed to be trying to figure out whether he'd just been insulted or not. Sophie's vision of him was briefly obscured as her aunt leaned around to grin at the man's companion, who was rapidly trying to blend into the stonework further back towards the road.
"Ain't that right, Angrenor?" Brim called, and Sofie saw the beggar flinch visibly, as if struck by a lash. She had no idea how her aunt knew the old soldier, but in that moment, Sofie was too amazed at the man's reaction to wonder. He shuffled in the snow like a recalcitrant child, staring down at his ragged boots, as if her were too ashamed to look Brim in the face. "Regular public menace, I am, what with those alms I was giving out. Sure you don't want to step up here with your mate and teach me a lesson?"
"You'd best shut your insolent mouth, woman" the drunk snarled, stepping up so that his face was mere inches from Brim's. "Or I might just shut it for you."
"I could do with it, sir. No doubt." Sofie watched in horror as her aunt turned away from the brute and fixed her with a smile, adding in a lower, gentler voice. "You wait right over there, kitten, this is about to get nasty."
"Auntie Brim, we should go," Sofie pleaded, feeling tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. She was now certain that something terrible was about to happen and that she was powerless to stop it. She couldn't understand what was happening between the adults. The big man was getting angrier and angrier and still Brim stood there, talking and smiling the whole time as if it were nothing. She felt her aunt pat her cheek before winking at her, eyes narrowing in a conspiratorial expression as if the two of them were sharing a joke.
"Go on, love. Auntie Brim wants half a word with the nice gentleman and then we'll be on our way."
With a terrible sinking feeling in her gut, but not knowing what else she could do, Sofie stepped back until she was almost flush with the cold stone wall of the inn. Don't let him hurt her, she prayed, as she watched her aunt step back up to the outraged brute and lean in to say a few words that Sofie could not hear. Whatever was said, it must have broken the last straw of the man's temper. He bellowed and lashed out at Brim with his fist and Sofie shrieked, pressing her hands to her own face in terror and anguish so that she would not have to see what was about to happen to her new caretaker.
"Fus!" A roar split the air, louder than thunder, and there was the furious sound of movement, snow crunching, and the bellow of a man in pain. Unable to keep herself from looking, Sofie opened her eyes wide over her cold fingers, her hands falling to clasp over her nose and mouth in shock as a strange sight greeted her.
The brutish man lay on his back in the snow, groaning and twisting in pain, his face crimson and his breath coming in loud, awful huffs. Brim stood over him, sword drawn, the wickedly sharp tip hovering right at the oaf's scruffy beard. Sofie could not see her face, turned away as it was and hidden by her dark hair, but her aunt's posture, the way she gripped the wasp-waisted Imperial sword, and the relaxed look of her shoulders and arms was deceptively casual and effortless-looking. Only her feet gave her away. Her right foot was poised directly over and pressing upon the man's crotch.
"There, now," Sofie heard her say in the same calm, friendly voice she had been using before, as if nothing at all were amiss. "Learned our lesson, have we?"
"You cheating bi-," growled the brute in impotent fury from his prone position, but he was interrupted. Before he could fully finished the curse, Sofie saw his mouth open in a soundless rictus of agony as her aunt leaned forward a little, pressing down very slightly with her blade and her boot at the same time.
"What was that? Didn't quite catch it."
"Yes, yes, whatever you said," the man gasped as soon as he was able to find his voice again.
"Nothing else us milkdrinkers can do for you today, is there?"
Sofie's eyes flicked from his face to Brim's, astonished. For a moment, her aunt hesitated, as if debating whether more pressure was needed, and then she stepped back. The man exhaled loudly, a large amount of spittle dribbling from his mouth into the snow as he did, and curled inwards on himself, his hands moving down to cup his crotch with a strangled whimper. As he panted and heaved on the ground, Brim reached down and yanked his purse free from his belt. Sofie watched amazed as, her eyes still trained warily on the brute, Brim counted out a handful of coins and then tossed the man's pouch back down in front of him. He rumbled a pained, muffled curse as he moved onto his hands and knees.
"My fee for the effort. Better than having them guardsmen haul you off for assaulting an innocent citizen like myself, ain't it? Much obliged."
Brim turned then, sheathing her blade, and walked back towards Sofie. Her face suffused with a flush, her hair dark against the steel sky, the snow drifting around her, and eyes flashing humor in the slanting afternoon light, she looked for all the world like one of the heroes from the old stories Papa had told her before bed every night. My Auntie Brim is a hero, Sofie realized, taking in the scene as she felt admiration being to spring forth inside of her. She ran the extra few steps to wrap her arms around her aunt's waist in consummate relief. Brim had stood up to a man twice her size and won. She had bested a bully at his own game. True, the man had been bullying a dark elf, but still. She was rapidly becoming the most amazing woman Sofie had ever met. As the glow of near worship kindled in her heart, Sofie felt her aunt gently unwrap her arms and take her hand.
"Come on, kitten. Let's do a bit of shopping before we leave town, what do you say?"
Clutching Brim's hand, Sofie nodded and, casting a triumphant glance back to where the beaten brute was limping his way towards the inn, followed her aunt off towards the market district with as much pride as if she were being escorted by the Jarl himself.
This Dragonborn business might be a lark after all, Brim thought, smiling as she watched the shopkeeper tie up a parcel of new clothes to replace Sofie's old ragged dress courtesy of the coin she had taken off of the idiot drunk that had been making a show of himself in front of the inn. Roughly a hundred septim for her trouble - more or less above board, too - and all she'd had to do was provoke him into taking the first shot at her and make sure the fight was over before the guard showed up to sort it out. She had attracted some attention, but that meant there were witnesses in case the bugger decided retaliate. She doubted he was stupid enough to tell the guard how he'd come to be involved in the tussle in the first place. A decent day's work, really. Wonder what other uses this dragon's trick can be put to?
The daylight was waning, though, and she wanted to be on a carriage back to Whiterun soon. It was too cold and grim for her liking up in this austere city of stone and Stormcloaks and the sooner she got the girl home and settled, the sooner she could turn her attention to the future and getting coin rolling back in. She would need allies, infrastructure, if she was going to set up business as usual in Skyrim. It was one thing to practice thievery in a familiar city with a well-established criminal underground, but it was quite another to work without the Guild's safety net of fences, corrupt guardsmen, and skilled specialists. In the mean time, she could turn a few one-woman cons, lighten a pocket here and there where the opportunity presented, and keep her eyes open.
"Excuse me," a raspy male voice said from somewhere behind Brim as she felt a tap on her shoulder, disturbing her thoughts. She turned, preparing a polite smile to greet the intruder and if she had been less of a professional, it would have frozen on her face at the sight of the guardsman standing behind her, sporting one of the odd peaked helmets she had seen on his comrades both here and in Whiterun. But, Brim had had long practice dealing with town watches, and so she let her smile broaden slightly instead into an expression she knew looked genuine and honest to most eyes.
"Evening, guardsman. What can I do for you?"
The guard's face was obscured by his closed helm, except for a pair of grey-blue eyes that peered into her face through the oculars, so she could not detect the set of his features. The way he stood, though, told her all she needed to know, and she relaxed. This man wasn't prepared to fight her. He didn't have the rigid set in the shoulders that meant he was on his guard. His hands didn't even stray near the axe at his belt.
"You're that Imperial that knocked down Rolff Stone-fist in front of the Candlehearth earlier," the guard said. It was not a question, but more of a statement of fact. Maybe that bastard was dumber than he looked after all, Brim thought to herself, annoyed, but she nodded, shifting her weight to her other leg and raising her hands in a disarming shrug.
"Aye. Should have boxed his fool ears clean off for trying to hit a lady in front of a child, but I let him go with a bit of a shove and a warning, you know. Not one for violence, me. Not in front of the mite there."
The guardsman glanced at Sofie, who was pouring over a display of dolls, tin whistles, and other amusements at a general good stall, and nodded before turning his gaze back to Brim.
"You won't get any arguments from me," the guardsman replied, and Brim felt a little relief wash over her. So, she wasn't about to be dragged before the magistrate on that account. But then, what bone did a guardsman have to pick with her if not about the lout she'd fleeced earlier? "Bystander said you Shouted him down with your voice before you even touched him. That true?"
A thrill of fear swept up the back of Brim's neck, making the hairs there prickle and rise. Too risky, she chided herself. She hadn't thought of that angle. She had gotten the impression from the Whiterun guards and from Balgruuf that this Shouting business, while not common, wasn't unique either. She had thought of it as a type of magic, but apparently it was more sensational than that. Noted, she told herself. Be more selective in your choice of bystanders from now on. But she would have to talk her way out of this one first, and so she repeated her shrug, as if it were nothing much to be concerned about.
"A bit. Just enough to put him on the ground. Wouldn't want to hurt anyone, would I?"
"You need to speak with Jarl Ulfric up at the Palace," the guard replied, unexpectedly. He shifted, turning his body as if to indicate the direction she should go. "He's been looking for a woman from Helgen that just about matches your description."
Ah, yes, she remembered, her mind snapping back to when she had woken up on the cart in Helgen and to a pair of moody blue eyes peering back at her from over the gag wrapped around an unshaven face. She remembered the proud figure standing at attention, watching his own death and the death of his soldiers approaching. The man who would be king. This was his city. Why would he be looking for her? She'd spent less than an hour conscious and in his company all told and never exchanged a single word with him. Maybe Ralof had returned to the city and mentioned her, but Ralof didn't know anything about her killing the dragon or becoming this Dragonborn thing. Of all the reasons Brim could think of that a noble and a near perfect stranger like Ulfric Stormcloak would be looking for her, none of them were good.
"Helgen? Never heard of it," Brim replied, wrinkling her brow in a show of confusion. The guard seemed unswayed. He gestured back towards the center of the city away from the market.
"All the same, you'll need to go up to the palace to speak with the Jarl. I'll escort you there."
Blast and damnation, Brim thought to herself, her mind working quickly. She glanced around the market for a distraction, anything she might be able to call attention to in order to get the guardsman away from her long enough to grab Sofie and head for the gates. Her eyes lit on the back of Sofie's long brown hair and a thought struck her.
"Well, that's good of you, guardsman. Right gentlemanly. Wouldn't want you to go out of your way on my account, though," Brim replied, smiling and nodded her head sideways at her niece. "And I've got the kid in tow. Tell you what do: I'll drop the baggage off in my room at the inn, get her settled for the evening, and then I'll go have a chat with Jarl Ulfric and see what I can do for him. Sound fair to you?"
For a breathless moment, Brim thought the guard was going to refuse and insist on escorting her anyway, but finally he stepped back, nodding his helmed head.
"Alright, see that you do. Ask for Jorleif when you get to the Palace. He'll see to you."
"Much obliged," Brim said, nodded and turned, calling Sofie to her side.
"Are we going home now?" the girl asked, her blue eyes shining happiness. It was a sea change from the shy, half-frightened expression that had lived on the girl's face since Brim had first seen her. This is what children are supposed to look like, I'd almost forgotten, Brim reflected, remembering little Tobie and Evylie and even Victorine in the days when she and her siblings had all still been young and alive, before their troubles started. She tucked the package of clothes under her arm and held out her hand to the girl, winking at the guardsman.
"We've a bit of an errand to run first, my pet. Let's be on our way."
And when Brim emerged onto the high street again, certain that the guardsman had not followed her meandering route through the old town, she turned south towards the looming gates instead of north towards the Palace rising in fortified spires over the rooftops.
"Stick close to me," she told Sofie as they approached the guarded gate. There was always the chance that the guard who had approached her had informed others, but it was unlikely that he had had the time to disseminate the information widely. And the gate guards saw dozens of people walk through every day, at any rate. If she could look common enough, they would hardly bat an eye at her, more likely than not. Brim quickly formulated an excuse to deliver if anyone recognized her and mentally tallied whether she had enough coin left to make a tempting offer for any guard who might be convinced to look the other way. There was always the chance that this Ulfric wanted to see her for completely benign reasons, but she doubted it. In her experience, the sort of people who came looking for her were anything but benign and it wasn't worth the risk. If he had something to say to her, it would be on her terms and in a time and manner of her choosing.
"What's wrong?" Sofie asked, the child's expression going suddenly pensive. Sharp little perisher, Brim thought, realizing that her concentrative expression had given her away. She smiled and tugged playfully on lock of her niece's hair. She'd have to watch herself around Sofie in the future. It would do no one any good for the girl to pick up on more of Brim's affairs than she needed to.
"Not a thing, kitten, just running some plans through the old noggin."
"What kind of plans?"
"Well," Brim replied, carefully, searching for an answer that wouldn't confuse the girl or reveal too much, "we're going on a bit of an adventure, you and me. It'll be a day or two before we get home and who knows what we might see on the road? Got to make plans, don't we?"
Hitching the package up under her arm, Brim continued on, her face turned down to Sofie as she painted a pretty word picture of the house waiting on them and the excitement they might encounter along the way, as they walked right out of the city. The gate guards seemed to pay them no more mind than they would have any mother and child hurrying back home after market day, and Brim congratulated herself on one more con well-pulled. But they weren't out of the woods yet. As they reached the end of the wide, fortified bridge that lead to Windhelm, Brim turned away from the carriage stop and crossed the snowy stable yard to where a merchant was hitching up his team of horses.
"Evening to you, sir," she called. The merchant, an aging man with more than a bit of of a paunch gut under his thick fur and wool coat, looked up. Brim saw his eyes narrow suspiciously, but she smiled back all the more. "You wouldn't have a spot on your cart for a couple of weary ladies, would you?"
The man's eyes flicked to Sofie and then to Brim again. She saw them size her up and determine that she wasn't a threat.
"Depends on where you're bound, missus. I'm stopping over in Kynesgrove for the night. Cheaper than those skinflints up at the Candlehearth."
"Oh, ain't that the Divines-honest truth, sir. Terrible pricey, they are. We're in just that situation ourselves," Brim replied smoothly, putting an arm strategically around her niece's shoulders. The gesture had the calculated effect. She saw the man's eyes soften just a little. "We're headed down to Whiterun, but there ain't no carriage going that way tonight."
"Well . . .," the man replied, considering, and then he smiled, his heavy jowls bunching benevolently. "I plan to make a stop over in Ivarstead on my way to Riften. It's a good afternoon's walk from there to Whiterun. If you don't mind a little delay and if you help with the horses and loading the cart, I'll be happy to drop you both there."
"Mara shine mercy on you, sir," Brim replied, flashing him a grin. She helped the merchant finish buckling the traces on to the horses and then lifted Sofie up into the bed of the cart, situating her on top of the boxes and bags of goods where she would be out of the way, and then hopped up onto the forward seat with the driver herself. By the time Windhelm was out of sight, she had spun a story that had the merchant firmly in the palm of her hand and they were well off the carriage route. It would be a good long while before anyone was the wiser that she had skipped out of the city. If she was lucky, the Jarl would never even hear about it. Pity, though, she thought, smiling to herself as dusk closed over the rocky, forested hills around her. Might have been nice to meet a king.