A/N: Oh my god, you lot. This is it. The LAST CHAPTER! I can't believe this fic is actually finished. I was blocked for so long on it, but we're finally here. Thank you to everyone who is still reading and to all those of you who have said nice things. I hope you enjoy this one.
Warnings for: discussion of D/s issues, drug addiction, fingering and dirty talking.
Summary: Cicero finally returns to Markarth to look in on his in-laws, and sure enough, all is not well. But an entertaining story and the knowledge the trigger for all the drama is dead can go a long way to cheering up a Reach-King in mourning, and it turns out Cicero's not the only one who felt a visit to Markarth was warranted...
The goblin song is a probable nursery rhyme turned drinking song from an old episode of Blackadder and its full lyrics are "See the little goblin, see his little feet. See his little nosy-wose, isn't the goblin sweet?"
Slan Gwasanaeth (y Rhan) = (Reach) Health Service, the free healthcare centre Madanach's set up in Understone Keep for Reach citizens.
Mameth Y Nocta = Night Mother
Brenhina = queen
Nearly six o'clock in the afternoon, and Cicero had meant to come earlier, he really had, but there'd been drinking and storytelling and dancing the night before, and waking up around noon with a sore head and a few hazy memories of the evening chiefly involving sitting on the banquet table in the main hall squealing while Ralof sat there with his arm around him singing some song about a goblin and his little nosey-wose. That juniper mead was clearly very powerful stuff, and Ingun was already excitedly talking about opening a Black-Briar Reach Meadery in Hroldan Village. Cicero was itching to see how her mother would respond to that one, but it would do no harm for the Dark Brotherhood to have a legitimate front business, would it? The Re-Opened Temple of Sithis, now staffed by no less than four ex-Forsworn fighters at a time, would only go so far.
And so here Cicero was in Markarth, Miraak's clothes and mask packed in his backpack, the staff having been claimed by Delphine once she found out it had two settings, kill and fun, the latter involving non-poisonous tentacles and a lot of fine control. Cicero had a horrible and rather enticing feeling he'd be on the receiving end of experiments later, and if Miraak's cock was gone forever, he could happily live with a wife who could wield tentacles.
The guards recognised him, standing to attention as he passed, and within minutes, a detachment of three had arrived from the barracks, their sole duty to attend to sweet Cicero while he was in the city. Very flattering of Madanach to arrange that but quite unnecessary, Cicero really didn't need the protection, he kept telling him that. Madanach had just grunted and told him he was having it anyway.
But that had been before, when Madanach had a pretty wife to love him and had his Skooma problem under control. Cicero wasn't sure what he'd find in the Keep now.
"Da, you need to eat something." Eola and Cicero's heart leapt to hear her, his depraved little sugar princess, here and alive and not harmed by Miraak's cultists. Just her father's terrible decision-making.
"I'm not hungry," Madanach growled. Court was clearly closed for the day, and Madanach was sitting at the table near his throne, picking over his dinner. He'd not eaten much.
"Doesn't matter, you need to eat!" Eola cried. "You barely touched breakfast, you skipped lunch, you're wasting away!"
"I said I wasn't hungry!" Madanach snarled, rounding on Eola, who flinched back. Madanach immediately looked contrite, returning to his dinner and taking a bite.
"I'm sorry, cariad, look, I ate something," Madanach said, trying to sound reassuring. "Is that better?"
Cicero crept up closer to see Eola in her Shrouded Robes, tears in her eyes as she patted her father's arm. Madanach was wearing a blue outfit in the style common to a lot of Skyrim's nobility, probably once the property of a dead Nord, circlet on his head but not looking as kingly as he once had. He'd lost weight and looked pale. Too pale and his eyes looked bloodshot and puffy. He took a sip from his wine goblet, hand shaking as he did so, and Cicero saw light glinting off the diamond ring on his left index finger. He still had his wedding ring on.
Cicero fingered his own, remembering the one time he'd surrendered it and how he'd got lost with the Daedra as a result. He didn't blame Madanach for hanging on to his, even with his wife gone.
"Are the shakes bothering you?" Eola asked gently. Madanach shook his head, but healing magic still flared from his hand anyway.
"No," Madanach growled, clearly lying. Eola just sighed.
"Did you need a higher dose?" Eola asked, still sympathetic. "I can get the healers over here."
"If the dose was any higher, it'd probably kill me," Madanach sighed. "Leave it, cariad."
Then Kaie emerging from the royal quarters, looking furious.
"Did you take your meds this morning?" Kaie shouted. "I just picked your next batch up from the Slan Gwasanaeth because I thought you'd be getting low, and what do I find in your cabinet but half the box still there!"
Madanach gritted his teeth, clearly guilty of that very thing, and Eola looked appalled.
"Da!" Eola cried, shocked. "You can't not take them, you need them!"
"I wanted some moon sugar in my tea!" Madanach shouted. "Nothing tastes of anything without it, it's one of the few pleasures I've got left! I'm the damn king, and you people won't even let me have that? What's the problem anyway, I'm not hurting anyone!"
"You overdosed and nearly died!" Kaie shouted, "It was me and Argis found you, do NOT tell me you're not hurting anyone! He was freaking out, so was I!"
"You just want an excuse to declare Regency," Madanach snarled, rising to his feet and turning on Kaie. "Don't deny it, you just want me shuffled off and out of the way!"
"I don't - !" Kaie cried. "Da, I just want you to be happy!"
"Happy?" Madanach shouted. "You sent my Elisif away!"
"She hurt you!" Kaie cried. "I spent nine years watching Ma ill-treat you, I'm not seeing it happen again from some idiot young Admorhina!"
"Don't you talk like that about -" Madanach started to say, fingers flexing... and then Eola saw Cicero there, standing rather awkwardly and fidgeting with his dagger hilt.
"CICERO!" Eola cried, getting up and running to him, clearly relieved beyond the telling of it to have him back, not to mention a distraction from her dysfunctional kin. She was in his arms in seconds, holding him tight and Cicero held on to her, not having fully realised just how much he'd missed her until now.
"Sweetling," Cicero breathed, feeling her soft and warm in his arms, smelling of blood and flesh and desire and by Sithis, his sister in darkness was a welcome sight. He wondered how she'd have coped with Solstheim.
Probably better than he had. Certainly better than she seemed to be coping with a Skooma-addict father whose marriage had imploded.
"I missed you," Eola whispered.
"So did I," Cicero said quietly. "I killed Miraak! The filthy imposter is dead. Quite dead."
"Good," Eola breathed, tightening her grip. "Bastard wrecked my family, you don't do that and get to live. Let me guess, stabbing and fire?"
"Stabbing and fire," Cicero growled, feeling his cock twitch as Eola moaned softly in his ear, and someone was going to get bent over furniture and fucked just as soon as he got her alone.
But first he'd have to wait until Madanach was gone, and right now the Reach-King was watching him intently. Cicero looked up and saw him standing there, arms folded... and a very satisfied smile on his face.
"You killed the bastard then," Madanach said, grinning. Cicero nodded, not sure what to say to him now he was here. He could kill an evil Dragonborn but Skooma addiction and a broken heart were a bit beyond him. But Madanach was smiling and holding out his arms, and Cicero let Eola go and ran to the Reach-King, clinging on to him for a cuddle, and it was a measure of how lonely Madanach had been that he let Cicero snuggle up to him and didn't seem to mind at all.
"Well done, Dragonborn," Madanach murmured, ruffling his hair and smiling as Cicero cooed and snuggled. "I'm glad it's done. Welcome back."
Cicero squeezed Madanach back. "Thank you, Reach-King," he whispered. "Cicero is glad to be back. Er... Cicero saw Argis! You brought him back! Cicero is very impressed, sir, very impressed indeed!"
"Glad someone is," Madanach said roughly. "Suppose he also told you about the other thing too."
"He may have mentioned that you cannot have moon sugar any more," Cicero admitted. "And you and pretty Elisif have, er, quarrelled. That is sad, very sad, you both looked so happy together. Cicero is sorry."
"Thanks," Madanach said gruffly. "I miss her. It wasn't her fault, she got scared, she's not used to Reach-magic, and I should have warned her before I did it. But it's too late. I've lost her. She won't be coming back. Guess that's it now. Knew happiness was too much to hope for."
Cicero whimpered and hugged him harder. Wrong for anyone to sound that hopeless and lost! Especially the fierce and deadly Reach-King.
"Would you like to hear the story of how Cicero stabbed Miraak?" Cicero cooed. "Cicero hardly broke any laws! Not where anyone could see him anyway."
Madanach did laugh at that and said yes, he would love to hear the story of How Miraak Died Horribly. So Cicero sat down with the Reach-King and his daughters, and about half a dozen other people who had all materialised out of nowhere on hearing the Dragonborn was back with a story to tell, and proceeded to tell the story, and aside from skipping over the details of what exactly happened when he first met Miraak, Cicero left not a thing out.
"So Cicero came home," Cicero finished. "And now pretty Ria is training with the Greybeards so she doesn't turn into another Miraak, and Cicero has brought a little souvenir back for sweet Eola! Look, sweetling, Cicero has brought Miraak's robes for you!"
Eola picked over the robes. She didn't look thrilled.
"They're lovely," she said crisply. "Aside from the singed bits, bloodstains and gaping slashes in the back, but not to worry, I'm sure charred, bloody and falling apart will be all the rage once I'm seen wearing it. What exactly did you do to him again?"
"Looks like the previous wearer was brutally stabbed and set on fire by an angry Dragonborn," Madanach smirked, ruffling Cicero's hair while he finished his dinner off, listening to a good story apparently having done wonders for his appetite. "Ach, never mind. Odvan! Take these over to Maelgwyn, tell him I'd like them fixed if possible. Failing that, duplicate the enchantments and work up another two sets in Eola's and my size. I fancy looking like a Dragon Priest."
Cicero squeaked and then remembered the other thing he'd brought. "Cicero can help with that! Cicero has his mask, look! Would you like it, Reach-King?"
Cicero produced Miraak's mask, and Madanach took it off him, examining it closely, raising an eyebrow at Cicero. Then he pulled it on before turning to Cicero, one finger lifting Cicero's face to look at him.
"I am the First Dragonborn," Madanach intoned. "Fear my Thu'um and yield, mortals."
Much laughter from all around, particularly when they saw that Cicero had squeaked and gone scarlet, staring up at Madanach with lust-crazed awe.
"OK, I think you need to not wear that around Cicero, it's clearly affecting him," Eola laughed merrily. "He's a delicate and sensitive boy, after all."
"Daedra forbid I offend the Mameth Y Nocta," Madanach laughed, removing the mask and replacing it on the table, patting it gently. "All the same, thank you. I think I might hold court in it now and then. Such as when a certain Dragonborn is up before me on drunk and disorderly charges again."
Cicero meeped and clutched at Eola, unsure as to whether this was a good thing or not and Eola comforted him, grinning at his discomfort.
"Me, I'm still having trouble believing Ria's your kid," Eola said. "She seems so... normal."
"Agreed," Madanach said, to general agreement from those who'd met Ria. "She seemed like such a sweet girl. Hard to believe she's related to you."
"Why does nobody believe me?" Cicero pouted. "Ria is Cicero's adorable little child! And she can breathe fire and fly dragons and kill lots of things!"
"I don't doubt it," Madanach said thoughtfully. "You'll have to bring her here. I'd like to meet her properly."
"But you have met her!" Cicero said, confused. "In Dawnstar and then Whiterun and Solitude and here!"
"Yes, but I didn't know she was Ria ap Cicero then," Madanach pointed out. "I'd like to talk to her. I bet Eola wants to as well, don't you, cariad? And Kaie's hardly ever seen her."
"Damn right I want to meet the other Dragonborn!" Kaie agreed. "Cicero ap Davrha's spawned a kid, we want to see this for ourselves."
Cicero could see there was no getting out of this, so he reluctantly agreed to invite Ria to Markarth so the Reach-King and his court could all meet her. What Ria would think of that was anyone's guess, but it would be nice for Ria to get to have a look round.
Story over, the gathering began to break up. It was getting late by this time, and Cicero in particular was looking forward to bed, especially as it would have Eola in it and it had been too long indeed since Cicero had bent anyone over and fucked them hard and he was definitely going to see if that was likely to happen tonight. From the way Eola was smiling at him, he had a feeling his chances were good.
And then a little frisson went through all the Forsworn present as everyone fell into a fighting stance, bows lifted, hands on swords, spells all good to go, and Kaie was pushing past everyone, her face a frozen mask of rage.
"You have some nerve coming back here after what you did!"
"Where is my husband, Kaie."
Elisif's voice shook a little but she sounded undaunted, no easy feat with half the Keep's guard presently taking aim, and probably the only reason she'd got this far was because the city and border guards had been too confused to know what to do with someone who was still queen and yet not queen.
That and she had Uaile at her back, dressed in Forsworn gear and ready to face off against her fellow countrymen and women if she had to.
Madanach had heard her voice and gone still, staring into space, heartbreak and fury at war in his eyes... but it was love and desperation that won out.
"That's enough, Kaie," he growled, getting up and making his way over. "Stand down, all of you."
Spells flickered out, weapons were sheathed and guards backed away, everyone clearing a path between Reach-King and High Queen. Everyone but Kaie.
"Da, you can't honestly mean to talk to her!" Kaie protested. "After what happened?"
"After what happened, talking is the first thing we should be doing, don't you think?" Madanach said, eyes not leaving Elisif. She was still in her travelling gear, Saviour's Hide and Jagged Crown with enchanted Forsworn boots and gauntlets that Madanach had given her once. She'd still found time to do her make-up at some point though.
"She's an outsider, Da!" Kaie shot back. "She doesn't understand us or our ways, as has been made bloody obvious! We don't need her, Da."
"Kaie," said Madanach, voice only shaking a little. "When I last checked, I was still King of this country. So I'm telling you now, as your father and your king, and I will only tell you once. You will leave my marriage to me and if you don't stop talking and get out of the way, I'll have the ReachGuard remove you. Are we clear?"
"But Da - !" Kaie protested and Madanach did turn to her then, eyes positively glacial. He didn't say another word. He didn't need to. Kaie gave in.
"If she hurts you again, I am invoking the Act of Regency if you don't divorce her," Kaie said softly, and then she shot Elisif a filthy look and backed off, retreating to where Eola was waiting with Cicero.
"What can she possibly want?" Kaie scowled. "Nothing good, I'm sure."
"Namira forbid she just wants her husband back," Eola sighed, rolling her eyes and watching as Madanach ordered everyone to stand down and leave if they weren't on the evening guard or cleaning roster and as everyone filed out, slowly approached his wife, standing about ten feet away.
"Elisif," Madanach said, sounding calm enough but if you knew him well enough, you could see the emotion in his eyes. "What can I do for you?"
Elisif knew him well enough.
"Madanach," she said softly, her voice trembling. "Can we talk? Alone, if you don't mind."
Curt nod of the head from Madanach. "My study all right with you?"
Elisif nodded and she followed after him. Uaile fell in behind her, at least until Madanach noticed her.
"You're dismissed, Uaile, I won't need you for this."
Uaile ignored him completely, glancing at Elisif.
"Brenhina?" Uaile asked. "I'm not leaving unless you tell me to."
"You can stand down," Elisif said quietly. "But thank you. Wait out here, if you hear fighting or see me running out in tears, you'll know it's gone to the Void." Faint smile from the Nord Queen to her Reachwoman housecarl and Uaile did smile at that.
"You take your orders from her over me?" Madanach snapped, bristling at his Cidhna Mine blood-brother's child just ignoring him.
"You told me to guard the Queen with my life, sir," Uaile said calmly. "So I'm following that order, and if it turns out you're the one I need to guard her from, then I'll do my duty to my Brenhina. Sir."
Madanach narrowed his eyes at Uaile. "I'm having words with your father," he growled. But he said nothing more after that, just heading for his study, Elisif behind him.
Kaie watched, all glaring hostility as her father and stepmother swept out.
"I don't trust her," Kaie said quietly. "What's she up to? Why here, why now?"
"Maybe she missed him," Eola sighed, a little bored by Kaie's constant suspicion. "This is Elisif we're talking about here. She's a good person!"
"Exactly, way easier to hide what you're up to if everyone thinks you're innocent," Kaie snapped. "Come on, let's get after them. I want to find out what they're up to."
"You're eavesdropping?" That was Uaile, staring at Kaie in disbelief. "Kaie, this is your father. The Reach-King! Can't you let him have his privacy?"
"Last time I let him have his privacy, he downed three bottles of Skooma," Kaie said firmly. "Because she freaked out and Shouted him unconscious. So no, I don't like leaving him alone with her."
Eola glanced down at Cicero, cuddled up next to her with wide, worried eyes staring up at her, and decided some monitoring of this was called for.
"All right. We'll get after them, wait outside the study. That way if anything kicks off, we'll be there. And Kaie? She's his wife and he loves her like I don't think he ever did Ma. Try and show a little respect, hmm?"
Kaie glared but nodded, letting Eola take the lead with Cicero as the four of them crept after the King and Queen.
Madanach's study was the same as it ever was. Typical Dwemer room with a table and chairs in the middle, a few cabinets, a safe, a strongbox, Madanach's personal tea set, and various trophies mounted on the walls with a shrine in the corner.
It sounded so normal put that way... but only the King of the Forsworn's trophies would consist of the preserved heads of Ulfric Stormcloak, Galmar Stone-Fist and Thongvor Silver-Blood mounted on the wall, and Thonar Silver-Blood's polished skull next to the tea set. And the shrine wasn't to any of the Eight either. It was a dragon mounted on a pillar, a shrine to Peryite the Divine Taskmaster, Daedra of Order. Apparently it helped Madanach concentrate, or so he said.
Elisif wanted to be appalled. She was appalled. The first time she'd come in here, idly exploring the Keep and looking for Madanach, she'd taken one look at the mounted heads and screamed. Madanach, not far away and on his way back from the privy, had come running, spells blazing, as did half the Keep's guards. She'd felt like a bit of an idiot having to admit it was the heads on the wall, which had got knowing grins from the guards and even her own husband as he'd dismissed them and made her tea, admitting he probably should have warned her about his trophy wall and was she all right?
She'd told him he was a bad man, and he'd grinned even wider and said yes he was, did it bother her? And it sort of did... but not as much as it should have, and once over the shock, she had to admit she wasn't exactly surprised, in fact seeing Ulfric and his lieutenants mounted on her husband's study wall gave her a perverse sort of pleasure. Take that, Ulfric. Teach him to kill her husband and break her heart. Husband number two clearly wasn't going to go the same way her first had. Maybe that was what had drawn her to him in the first place, seeing someone who clearly wasn't a weakling showing an interest. He'd turned out to be smart, witty, cunning, charming, and combining a secret romantic streak with some utterly depraved sexual proclivities, and Elisif was ashamed to admit that she loved every minute. What that said about her she had no idea, probably nothing good, but he'd remained an untamed, unpredictable force of nature and Elisif had loved him.
But even Elisif had limits and seeing a dead man up and walking around with his heart removed and replaced with a Briar Heart had been a bit much for her. She'd always wondered why the plant buds were called Briar Hearts, and why the Forsworn named their fiercest warriors after them. Now she knew. It was unnatural, wrong, vile, a sin against Arkay... and Elisif, once she'd got over the shock, could feel only shame that her first thought was how does it even work?
And then she'd remembered the man who could have told her the details over dinner (maybe not dinner) or curled up in bed, eyes alive as he started explaining some technical detail of how magic worked, had last been seen lying unconscious on the floor after she'd hurt him, and she'd cried her eyes out.
Eola's letter had arrived a few days later, telling her he was all right, but that Kaie was furious and it was best if Elisif didn't try to contact anyone at the court. Her things had arrived not long after, left behind in the desperate flight out of Markarth, and Elisif had gone to pieces all over again.
Nothing had been right since and she'd felt more like a ghost than a real queen, and word had got round that she and Madanach had fought and then had come the horrible sympathy and pitying looks. Thank the Eight for Uaile, who'd consoled, petted, brought her tea, helped keep the world at bay and generally looked after her, and while she'd not known exactly how the rite to make a Briarheart worked, she'd told Elisif enough about them to calm her down and at least help her understand. Elisif still didn't approve, but at least she knew now that it didn't work on the unwilling, so Argis must have come back voluntarily. And, well, Madanach had been heartbroken over his death. He'd held her that night, talking non-stop about Argis and raising the boy at Druadach Redoubt, all sorts of stories about him and how he'd been one of the most skilled warriors they had, and then a few later stories, heartbreaking ones about Cidhna Mine, and then Argis had ended up in there himself after Thongvor took power. Madanach had actually needed a few moments to compose himself telling that one. When he'd talked of his own experiences in that mine, he'd always laughed them off or downplayed it, but Argis had been in there only a few weeks and for Madanach it had been devastating and heartbreaking that they'd done that to his son. Elisif had held him and vowed quietly she'd do whatever she had to to look after Madanach through this.
She hadn't realised Madanach would be so hurt and desperate he'd resort to arcane Reach-magic to fix things, but perhaps in retrospect she should have guessed he'd try something like that.
At least now she could say she understood.
"Did you want tea?" Madanach asked, producing two cups and heaping tea leaves into a little metal filter specially designed for the task. Elisif thought about it and nodded. Madanach cast a small fire rune and used a flames spell to heat the kettle up, bringing it to the boil in under a minute. Elisif said nothing, just placing the Jagged Crown on the table, watching the usual ritual and remembering happier days. He always made the tea. It was strange, a little quirk of his. Normally he'd delegate absolutely anything that smacked of domestic chores if he could but not the tea-making. He wouldn't turn down anything someone else brought him, but when they were alone together, it was just always something he did, make himself some and ask if she wanted any and then make hers as well. Usually with moon sugar in it, although the bowl didn't seem to be there any more.
"You're not having sugar?" she asked as he placed hers in front of her and took a seat, staring at his own cup.
Silence, a guilty silence as if he was weighing something in his mind that he wasn't sure he wanted to tell her and then a shrug.
"I can't have moon sugar any more," Madanach said quietly. "In fact, there's some medication I need to take, I'm well overdue for it, excuse me." He got up, opened his strongbox to reveal a whole rack of little blue bottles, one of which he took out and flipped the stopper out of.
"Dim anas aur," Madanach whispered and knocked the whole thing back, clearly hating the taste. Then he locked the box and returned to his seat. Elisif couldn't call herself fluent in the Reach-tongue but she did know that one – not this day. It was what the Reachmen traditionally shouted to Sithis before going into battle, that the Void would not take them that day. So what was Madanach at war with? And why the potions?
"You never needed to take them before," Elisif said, feeling a little chill prickle down her spine. "What are they for? And why can't you have moon sugar? Is it – is it because of what I did?"
There, it was out in the open, the subject neither wanted to talk about, that Elisif had hurt her husband, done to her second what Ulfric had done to her first, and all the tears and regret couldn't change that.
She couldn't even look at Madanach and he didn't answer for a moment. Then it came, the gentlest of touches as his fingers ghosted over her hand for a few brief moments then moved away.
"No cariad, it isn't," and Elisif could have cried. But that didn't answer her question.
"So what is it?" she asked, daring to look up. He wasn't meeting her eyes.
"You know we've got a treatment programme for Skooma addicts," Madanach said. Elisif knew, she'd gone to have a look around the clinic, stunned and amazed that Madanach would not only use the Reach's wealth to run a free healthcare programme for the citizens of the Reach but that he'd devote part of that to treating Skooma addiction like it was something that could be cured.
"And you know why."
She knew that too. That Skooma had been used in Cidhna Mine as a kind of currency and a way to pass the time, and that released prisoners with Skooma addictions had been a blight on the Forsworn ever since. Madanach's people had been researching the problem for years, trying to find a cure... and it appeared they'd found one, or at least a way for people to manage their addictions. Madanach had spoken with pride of his blood-brothers from prison finally getting the cravings under control and rebuilding their lives. Elisif didn't know all the details but she knew there were regular support groups where addicts helped each other, and sessions with trained mind-healers, and potions that stopped the withdrawal symptoms. It was something she'd been very proud of Madanach having put together, but what did it have to do with... potions. No moon sugar. Cidhna Mine. Oh no.
"You joined the Skooma programme," she whispered. "But you're not... are you?"
Madanach didn't answer, just kept staring at his tea, faintest hint of a tremor in his hands.
"Madanach?" Elisif whispered, reaching out to him, about ready to cry or tear something apart or... It was a good thing Thonar Silver-Blood was already dead, because his bloody prison had turned her husband into an addict apparently, and suddenly any lingering reservations about the heads on Madanach's wall disappeared. "Talk to me?"
"I think I might be," he finally admitted. "It wasn't so bad when I first got out, because there were people there and I had to set an example and you try relaxing with the Dark Brotherhood based right there – not that I didn't trust Delphine, but I knew I needed to keep her respect. So I used Restoration magic to stop the shakes, and it worked. And then I had an uprising to plan and the siege, and there was no Skooma to be had anyway. Then I realised I had to go through with marrying you, especially when you started writing and didn't seem inclined to take no for an answer, and I knew you'd never approve. So I stayed clean, but it took all my willpower to do it. But you were there and you seemed happy and you were better than any drug. I didn't need Skooma when I had you in my bed... but cariad, there were times when the cravings still took over anyway, and I ended up initiating sex not because I wanted to but just because it made them stop for a bit. So I managed and I was happy. And then it all went to the Void."
She'd seen the terror in his eyes as he'd pleaded with her not to go, begged her. She'd thought him insane, been terrified he'd hurt her or take her prisoner... but if he'd been relying on her to keep him sane and off Skooma... and she'd not been there.
"You took Skooma," she whispered, and he nodded.
"I'm sorry," Madanach said quietly. "I didn't... I couldn't face the prospect of the rest of my life alone. I love Argis, love all my children, but you're my wife. Maybe I'm not the easiest man to live with but I do sincerely love you. I'm so sorry, cariad. I didn't mean to hurt you. I just didn't want you to go."
Elisif bit her lip, desperately trying not to cry. She'd missed him so much, spent the weeks walking round the Blue Palace feeling numb and tearful all the time. She'd thought he'd been angry and furious and probably hated her. It had never occurred to her he'd felt the same, that he'd fallen apart completely without her.
"Where did you get the Skooma from?" she said, wondering if there was anything she could do to stop the supply. The Reach itself wasn't home to very many dealers – plenty tried, drawn by the prospect of addicts undergoing treatment, but somehow their mutilated corpses always seemed to end up staked out by the side of the road eventually. Elisif had a fair idea who was responsible, she wasn't an idiot or as naïve as she once had been, but the Dark Brotherhood couldn't be everywhere. All the same, if she knew who'd supplied her husband, she suspected Eola in particular would be quite interested in that information.
"There's these Argonians in Solitude," Madanach admitted. "Jaree-Ra and his sister Deeja. I used to meet them by this side gate that the traders use to get goods into the city. Not many guards down there. I didn't take the stuff! I would just buy it off them. It helped just having some there. Until after you left, and then there didn't seem any point hoarding it. I used to keep it in a chest hidden at the bottom of the pool in our room here, knew you'd never find it there and even if you did, I'd just claim it must have been Thongvor's or something."
"You utter bastard," Elisif said without thinking. "You'd lie to me about it?"
Madanach just nodded quietly. "Yeah. I guess that's one of the symptoms, isn't it? Going to great lengths to hide it. Guess I ought to tell you I've been skipping meetings and mind-healer appointments and potion doses too, and no one can do a damn thing because I'm King. Unless Kaie deposes me, and that's not as unlikely as you might think."
Elisif couldn't hold a sob in at that point, as she realised the husband who she'd loved for his strength was far more fragile than she'd ever thought, all this had been going on and she'd not known a thing. She could hit him. But her real anger was aimed at the Nords who'd got him hooked in the first place and even though they were dead, their heads mounted on his wall, that didn't mean she wasn't angry. They'd had their victory from beyond the grave after all.
But Madanach wasn't dead, and at least he was telling her the truth now.
"You came here to ask me for a divorce, didn't you?" Madanach said softly, his voice sounding flat and featureless. "I don't blame you. I – fine, if that's what you want. I could live for another twenty years, I can't have you waste your entire fertile years trapped in marriage to me. I'm sure you'll find someone else. I don't think I will, but that's hardly your problem."
Elisif did lose it then, bursting into tears as she realised she couldn't give up or walk away, she still loved the old bastard, and damned if Ulfric was having this posthumous victory.
"Cariad? Elisif no, don't... oh no, don't cry, Mara's mercy, don't cry." He'd dragged his chair over, taking her hands in his, staring helplessly at her. He'd never really coped well with tears.
"That's not why I came here!" Elisif cried, drying her eyes and finally looking at him properly, and sweet breath of Kyne, he looked awful. Pale, too thin, bloodshot eyes, dark circles – he'd really not been looking after himself.
"No?" Madanach asked, confused and by the Eight, he was adorable when he looked like that. Elisif shook her head. She wasn't sure what she'd been hoping to get from this, but she'd known they needed to talk. Ever since Styrr had confirmed it last week.
"No," Elisif whispered. "Because... because I needed to talk to you and I couldn't not tell you, it's not something I could keep quiet and you deserve to know."
"Deserve to know what?" Madanach asked, worry creeping in. "Elisif? What's going on?"
"I'm pregnant," Elisif gasped, feeling the truth hit home as she finally admitted it out loud. So far Styrr knew and Uaile and Saerlund, but no one else. She'd only known for sure for a few days but she'd suspected since getting back to Solitude and idly thinking shouldn't she have bled by now... and then started to quietly panic.
Madanach hadn't reacted, other than blinking and shaking his head a little, still confused.
"But how... I mean, how long... are you sure?"
"About two months. Nearly three. I think," Elisif said, wishing he'd do something, say something, anything. "Madanach, I – I'm scared, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm all on my own in Solitude, Uaile's helping but she doesn't know anything about babies either, I was hoping you'd help..."
Madanach was nodding, still looking adorably dazed.
"You're really pregnant," he whispered. Elisif nodded, biting her lip and feeling tears on her cheeks again, and then a smile as she saw Madanach's face light up. Then he kissed her hand, squeezing it and rubbing her fingers, finally looking like his old self – no, not like his old self. Years younger, happier and more innocent than she'd ever seen him, actually crying.
"I'm gonna be a father. Again!" he gasped. Elisif nodded, not sure where they went from here but he was pleased, delighted in fact. That was something, right?
"You don't have to take me back as a wife, not properly, but... could we spend time together?" Elisif asked hesitantly. "Just enough so that our baby knows it's loved?"
"Anything you want, cariad," Madanach whispered. "Anything at all. I swear, I will take care of you and our child and... and I'll take the potions, get into the Skooma programme properly, see a mind-healer, I swear it. I scared you, hurt you, and I think the cravings were making it worse, but I promise I will get help, I swear I'll be a better husband, I promise."
"And I'll never use the Thu'um on you again, I promise," Elisif said quietly. "I'm sorry I called you a monster, you're not, are you? You just missed your son, didn't you?"
"How is he?" Elisif felt obliged to ask. Uaile had told her about Briarhearts, that they usually came back different, focused on the fight and little else, with little of their former personalities. She'd been concerned Madanach had gone to all that trouble only to be left with a stranger with his son's face. Elisif hadn't known Argis that well, only met him a couple of times, but he'd seemed really nice. The man who'd almost killed her for harming his father hadn't seemed like the same person.
"He's all right," Madanach said, smile flickering on his lips. "He's doing well. Even got himself a girlfriend. He's running one of our camps now. And he's happy. I can sense him, you know, we're connected now, I could tell if he wasn't, I think. Just as he can tell when I'm not happy." Madanach paused and lowered his eyes. "He's been worrying non-stop since... you know. Angry at you. But that's mostly because I was hurting because of you. He'd never... he wouldn't hurt you. I've told him, ordered him not to, not ever. He's agreed. He's not fond of you, but he's agreed."
It was as much as Elisif could hope for. She didn't want to stop Madanach being with his son, but all the same, it'd be a while before she'd let herself be alone with Argis.
"Thank you," she said, stroking his cheek. "Is it all right if I stay here tonight? You've got a spare room, right, I don't mind sharing with Uaile?"
Hesitation and then Madanach clutched her hand and spoke again.
"You don't have to have a spare room if you don't want. You can share my bed. You can always share my bed. We don't have to do anything if you'd rather not, and you can say no if you like to the whole thing until you're ready... but I've missed you."
"I missed you too," Elisif breathed, hardly daring to believe she might still have a marriage after all this but realising she'd forgiven Madanach at least. So she leaned forward, hand cupping his cheek and kissed him, gently but firmly, intending to break off and just leave it at that but he'd only gone and moaned and opened his mouth beneath hers and then they were clinging on to each other and kissing for all they were worth and Elisif could cry. It might just work out. Sure, his children probably hated her now, and Akatosh only knew what his people thought, and it wasn't going to be easy dealing with the addiction and the baby, but she didn't care. She had her husband back and he still loved her. And she still loved him, loving him all the more for finally seeing him honest and vulnerable.
Maybe this might just work out after all.
There hadn't been a lot of noise audible through the study door. Just muffled words, the sound of fire magic, but that was probably just Madanach putting the kettle on, then quiet conversation, too muffled to hear anything... until a woman started sobbing quietly.
"Good, so she should," Kaie muttered darkly, until Eola and Uaile hushed her in unison. Cicero, knowing when to shut up, just stood back awkwardly.
Then nothing for a while and then something that was unmistakeably a woman's cry of pleasure. Kaie groaned in despair, throwing up her hands.
"I bloody knew it. He's taken her back, hasn't he," Kaie sighed. "One flash of cleavage and he's right back in her hands. Knew it. Gods, he's so shallow."
"Kaie!" Eola cried. "He's happy. Can't you be pleased for him?"
"Cicero is very pleased to hear the Reach-King enjoying himself," Cicero said cheerfully before realising that could be misconstrued and hastily sidling up to Eola, beaming at her. "It means his marriage is safe, doesn't it my lovely?"
"Means you're a little perv, is what it means," Eola said firmly, and then she heard the sound of footsteps and a woman's giggling, and the door opened.
Elisif was first, crown off, hair mussed, make-up off, skin flushed but smiling, and then Madanach behind her, hair likewise in need of brushing but his eyes were bright and he too was grinning... at least until he saw two of his children and Cicero standing there.
"We have eavesdroppers," Madanach growled, protective arm around Elisif's waist. "What exactly do you lot want, as if I can't guess?"
"You've got back together, haven't you?" Kaie said, glaring as she faced off against her father. "As if nothing happened."
Madanach's eyes narrowed as he glared right back at Kaie.
"Elisif and I have talked and I am sure we will be doing more of that in the days to come, but we've established we were both at fault that day, and will be treating each other better in future," Madanach said firmly. "So seeing as we've missed each other, we've agreed to try and fix things. I trust that won't be a problem."
"She Shouted you into a wall!" Kaie cried. "You were unconscious! Concussion, and you were lucky to escape permanent injury, the healers said."
Elisif gave a little terrified whimper, turning to look at Madanach in horror. "You never said...!" she gasped.
"It doesn't matter," Madanach said gruffly, looking a little bit embarrassed. "It happens."
Elisif shook her head and snuggled in closer to Madanach, tears in her eyes.
"It does matter and it shouldn't happen," she whispered. "It won't happen again."
"You were scared. I was hurting you. That shouldn't happen either... and it won't," Madanach murmured.
"Spare me," Kaie muttered, only to be soundly hushed by Eola and Uaile, who were both watching with identical soppy smiles, along with Cicero who was practically cooing.
"Well, now you're enrolling in the Skooma programme properly, it'll be easier," Elisif said quietly. "And speaking of which..." She kissed Madanach on the cheek and turned to Kaie, having the grace to look apologetic at least.
"Kaie, I'm so sorry," Elisif said. "I didn't mean to hurt him, I swear. It won't happen again. I promise I'll do better in future, and look after him. I know he needs it."
"I do not need looking after!" Madanach protested. Elisif just rolled her eyes and ignored him, keeping her eyes on Kaie. The Crown Princess of the Reach still looked suspicious, but she was at least listening.
"You'd better," Kaie snorted. "I don't really want to find him passed out on Skooma with my brother freaking out at me again. That was not fun."
"You poor thing," Elisif said softly. "Well, don't worry, he told me everything, and I'm going to do all I can to keep him clean, both here and in Solitude. I just have one question. Did you search the pool in his room? He had a cache of Skooma in a chest there, I don't know if you found it or not..."
From the hiss Madanach gave and the way he was gritting his teeth, the answer to that was clearly no, and the slow expression of outrage on Kaie's face confirmed it.
"No. We did not," Kaie said, glaring at her father. "That is very interesting to know. Thank you." She nodded at Elisif, still not exactly friendly but definitely rather more respectful. "All right, Brenhina. I'll give you another chance. Help keep my father off the Skooma and you can consider yourself forgiven. This time."
"Thank you," Elisif said, relieved, as Kaie ran off shouting for some members of the ReachGuard to come and help her, they had a pool to dredge. Smiling, she turned to Eola. "And you might be interested to know that Madanach was getting his Skooma in Solitude. His dealer's an Argonian called Jaree-Ra, usually hangs out near the market although Trader's Gate was where they used to meet. He's got a sister called Deeja, usually hangs out on the docks. I need someone to infiltrate their operation, find out if they're really dealing Skooma, and if they are, or if they're doing something else illegal, deal with the problem. I'm sure I could authorise a monetary reward if this were to happen."
Eola's eyes had widened, predatory smile appearing on her face, and Cicero looked delighted.
"We'll be sure to look into that for you, Elisif," Eola promised. "I think Argis in particular would be very interested in that job. I'll talk to him tomorrow."
"Thank you," Elisif said, beaming. "Now, Uaile, can you get me some time with Nepos tomorrow? I've got to write to Saerlund, get him to send the rest of my stuff seeing as I'm going to be here for the next couple of weeks. And I also need to get him to make sure the kitchen's moon sugar free by the time we get back, and that all the Palace's supply is locked up with Sybille's stores. And then I suppose we need to get some laws passed on proper food and potions labelling. Which means I'll need Nepos to show me the Reach's laws on that. And I'll need increased guard patrols on the docks and by the gate."
"Will do, Brenhina," Uaile said calmly. "Only I recommend leaving the guard patrols until Eola reports back they've sorted your dealer problem. Give her space to work, you know?"
"Oh! I – yes, I suppose I should, shouldn't I?" Elisif said sheepishly, as Eola gave her a grateful smile and Cicero bounced up and down enthusiastically, exclaiming how he worked much better without guards breathing down his neck and not to worry, he and pretty Eola would investigate the clearly up to something Argonians for sweet Elisif.
"Am I allowed any say in my own personal life?" Madanach sighed, eyes rolling. "And that information was in confidence!"
"Confidence?" Elisif said witheringly. "You reported illegal activity in Solitude to the Jarl, what exactly did you expect to happen? And you're not keeping a Skooma cache in our bedroom either. If you're serious about staying clean, you won't need it any more anyway, will you?"
Madanach muttered something about interfering Nordic minxes, but that didn't seem to prevent him putting an arm round Elisif and pulling her to him, roughly kissing her cheek, and the sight of Madanach scowling as deeply as he was capable of while at the same time snuggling Elisif like a child would their favourite toy was, there was no other word for it, adorable.
Kaie arrived from the royal bedchamber, two Forsworn manhandling a dripping wet chest behind her, and she shook her head at Madanach as she passed.
"I am so disappointed in you, Da," was all she said as she walked past, nodding respectfully to Elisif. "Don't think I won't have the ReachGuard checking on a daily basis either."
"I should never have put her in charge of them," Madanach sighed. "It's gone to her head. She's turning into her mother."
"She's nothing like Ma," Eola retorted. "I actually don't mind Kaie these days."
"You're not a lot better," Madanach growled. "Don't you have a jester to entertain? I'm sure you two have a lot to catch up about."
If by catch up, he meant 'have wild kinky sex', he wasn't far wrong, but Eola wasn't going to ask for clarification. She grabbed Cicero's hand and started to lead him off.
"Oh, and Eola," Madanach called. "We're having a family dinner tomorrow night. You and Cicero should be there. And Delphine and Argis – don't worry about heading all the way out to Karthspire, I just sent the invite to him. I know Kaie's not going anywhere either."
That ability to commune with Argis was really getting a bit creepy, but Eola smiled anyway. It was good to see her father happy... and having a brother was also kind of nice.
"We'll be there," Eola promised, leading Cicero off to her room, Uaile also making her excuses and saying goodnight to Elisif. And within minutes of her bedroom door closing, Eola found herself shoved up against a wall with Cicero's hands finding their way into her robes as he whispered she had no right to look so pretty in those robes and she'd been tormenting him all evening, the artful little hussy.
"Have I been a bad girl?" Eola gasped as Cicero's fingers slid into her underwear. "Going to punish me?"
"Yes," Cicero breathed. "Cicero is going to keep doing this until you come, but the number of seconds that takes is the number of times he's going to spank you afterwards."
"That's not – oh gods – fair!" Eola cried as Cicero began to finger her, grinning knowingly.
"Cicero likes this game," Cicero purred. "Watching Eola try to work out what she wants more, this or a good hiding. Cicero shall have to remember this one!"
"You bastard," Eola whispered, closing her eyes, but inside, marvellously twisted and cheerfully sadistic Cicero back in her bed was just what she'd needed. Holding on to him, she let him pleasure her, deliberately holding off orgasm. She'd always liked it rough.
Meanwhile in the Keep's master bedroom, King and Queen were holding each other, neither moving or speaking or knowing what to say, only that they needed each other and loved each other still. Then without a word, Madanach broke off and led Elisif to their bed, lying down on it and silently reaching out to her, taking her into his arms and just holding her.
"Did you want to...?" Elisif whispered and Madanach paused before kissing her jawline.
"Only if you want to," he murmured. "And... I want you on top. You in charge. I know it's usually been the other way round but... I can't... I think I need you to look after me for once." He pulled her closer to nuzzle her ear. "More than once, if you're willing."
"You'd still trust me that much? After all this?" Elisif gasped, surprised and feeling tears welling up again. Madanach nodded.
"Yes. With my life. You're not – you're not dangerous. Well, not out of control anyway. You were scared... because I scared you. So take charge and then you won't be scared."
"That makes no sense whatsoever," Elisif whispered back. "You are actually crazy, aren't you?"
Soft laughter from Madanach. "Perhaps. But don't tell me no one warned you about that?"
Elisif had to admit she'd heard nothing but warnings from the day she'd announced their engagement. More laughter from Madanach as he kissed her lips once.
"And you married me anyway. Now who's the crazy one?" He trailed his fingers through her hair, smile fading. "Cariad. Tell me I can't have Skooma."
"What?" Elisif said, confused. Madanach placed a finger to her lips, stopping the questioning.
"Just do it. Tell me I'm not to have it."
Her husband was clearly crazy, but if it was what he wanted... "A-all right. You can't have Skooma any more or..."
Madanach was shaking his head. "No. Not like that. Don't say you'll punish me. Just tell me I'm not to have it. Make it sound like your word is law. As if it's inconceivable anyone would ever disobey you, least of all me."
Elisif had a feeling that teasing the former King in Rags about secretly wanting a Nord to tell him what to do after all would utterly ruin the moment and possibly more than the moment. So she climbed on top of him, kissed his cheek, then his neck, before looking up and staring right into his eyes.
"You are not to take Skooma," she told him. "You are my husband and my husband does not take Skooma. You will put our marriage first."
Shallow gasp from Madanach as he nodded breathlessly. "Yes," he whispered, closing his eyes. "Yes, I'm yours."
Elisif hadn't realised that would sound as arousing as it did. It frightened her a little... but there was something rather appealing about Madanach writhing under her begging for more for a change. Even if it was a little worrying realising he was so fragile underneath it all.
"When did you get so needy?" Elisif whispered. "You were never like this before."
The answer surprised – no, shocked her.
"I was always like this before, cariad," Madanach said quietly. "I was just afraid to show anyone. Was afraid you wouldn't want me if you knew."
Elisif tried to speak but just choked instead, realising she was crying again, and he was watching her, contrite and guilty and oh Mara, no, he needed to stop looking like that, it'd break her heart. So she kissed him instead, and that was better, she liked those noises he was making, he should definitely do more of that.
"Don't keep these things from me again," she finally told him when they both broke off for air. "You're my husband!"
"Yes," Madanach said, smiling again, that same carefree smile she'd seen earlier when she'd told him about the baby. "Always."
Elisif realised she could easily fall in love with that smile all over again, little realising he was thinking the exact same thing about the expression on her face right now. They didn't do anything else but kiss and hold each other that night, finally drifting off to sleep with smiles on their faces... but when they woke up the next day and both realised they weren't alone, the resulting joyful kissing led to rather more.
Meanwhile, over in Sky Haven Temple, Delphine was getting ready for bed when she heard footsteps running up the corridor – and the Shrouded Boots of the Brotherhood would have soaked the sound up.
"Esbern or Argis?" she called, surprised to hear either bothering her at this time of night. She hoped it wasn't Esbern coming to tell her he'd translated some obscure text that predicted the second return of Alduin or something.
"Argis," she heard him say, sounding a little out of breath – it had been a surprise to realise Briarhearts still breathed but given the whole concept obeyed no law of nature Delphine knew, she'd decided to give up being surprised at any of it. "Can I come in, Matriarch?"
"I suppose," Delphine said, pulling on her robe. "What is it? Is everything all right?"
"Yeah," Argis said as he slipped into the room, clad in Forsworn kilt and boots but not a lot else, Briarheart on show. Still gave Delphine the creeps a bit, but each to their own. Argis seemed ecstatic about something. "It's Da. He's... he's happy."
"Happy?" Delphine asked. "What do you mean?" Skooma was about the only thing that made Madanach happy these days, but Argis wouldn't be looking so pleased about that.
"Elisif came back," Argis said, a little wary as he said her name, but not the rage it had brought out in those first few days after the Incident. "And they're getting back together, and he just feels... so different. So happy, like you wouldn't believe he could be. I think... I think he's gonna be OK."
"That's marvellous news," Delphine said, knowing she'd need to see this for herself before she could finally relax, but Elisif reconciled with him? A good thing indeed. Madanach liked to claim he was a vicious, hardened man to be feared, and maybe he was, but when it came to Elisif, Delphine had seen the truth in his eyes. He adored, doted on and loved his young wife, and Elisif had looked happy with him too. Thank Talos they'd sorted it out.
"Isn't it?" Argis said, grinning. "Still not entirely sure I trust her again yet – but she's alright, I think. He swears he's kicking Skooma for good this time, and it's because of her."
"So you don't need to kill her then, do you," Delphine said, hoping to avoid a repeat of Argis on the verge of ripping Elisif's head off. Thankfully, Argis shook his head.
"No, Matriarch. If it means I don't find him passed out on Skooma again..." Argis shivered, and Delphine remembered seeing him the day after it had happened, devastated and frightened and clinging on to Eola whispering how sorry he was while Eola had slowly gone into a terrified panic herself.
"Here's hoping not," Delphine said quietly, remembering the heartbroken frantic stare Madanach had given her as he pleaded with her to get Elisif back for him, and while she didn't want to get crude or anything, Elisif had leverage over the Reach-King no one else had.
These things were never easy to fix. But Delphine found she had faith in them both. She glanced over at Miraak's skull, still sitting on the dresser, awaiting conversion into a replacement shrine for the Night Mother's crypt, the Karthspire one having been delivered to the Re-Opened Temple to replace the one the cultists had destroyed. Miraak's malice had delivered a blow to the Brotherhood, but by the grace of Sithis, they had survived this time. Maybe their patron had suffered. Maybe their Keeper had suffered, and their Windhelm Speaker too. But they were here and alive and still going strong. All was going to be well.
A/N: And that's the end! And everyone is going to be all right. Until I write the next one anyway, which will probably be the Dawnguard DLC, will probably take a lot less time to write and about which I am cackling already. Probable title will be Coldharbour's Children. But it may be a while and I do have Wolf Queen Awakens and another fic on the go, so maybe I'll work on those first. We'll see.
Thank you for reading, it's been a pleasure.