In the end our plan worked… well, like a charm would be exaggerated, considering that the Thalmor had a new number one on their “Most Wanted” list, but it worked and Delphine got what she needed.
The party itself was the most ridiculous event I had ever attended – despite the majority of the guests being Nords, it was something incredibly Altmerish. Stiff and sophisticated. Food and drinks were excellent, though slightly exotic – not too exotic of course, in the end most of the guests were simple natives with their barbaric tastes, but strange enough to radiate exclusivity and make clear that, despite the closed borders, the Thalmor had excellent contacts to the rest of the world.
The Ambassador had not shown her astonishment with a single expression that I accompanied Idgrod, uninvited and unexpected, and she greeted us personally when the guard at the door didn’t know what to do with me. Idgrod’s affable declaration that her good friend the Dragonborn would not have missed this opportunity to pay her respects for the world only caused an elegantly arched eyebrow and a pinched smile.
I wore only simple black leather pants, a long plain tunic and no jewellery but my warpaint and the enchanted necklace from Farengar, mostly to stick out against all the fancy clothing and glitter around me. Especially Idgrod had gone absolutely over the top and clad herself in an ample, pitch black robe of silk and satin, over and over adorned with frills and ruffles, golden buttons and nacre sequins and crowned by a small hat with a tulle veil and black feathers. She looked like a crossing between a mammoth and a raven – her own words, I would’ve never dared to express my thoughts in such a way. Together, we were a ridiculous couple, and we knew it.
Elenwen made me hand over the small elven dagger tied to my belt to a guard immediately at our arrival. Speak about paranoia. When she said that I wouldn’t need it in her house, I couldn’t suppress a smirk.
“Of course not, Ma’am Ambassador. Not even should a dragon decide to disturb your wonderful festivity tonight.” Idgrod’s snicker was unmistakable, and I really enjoyed the flicker of uncertainness in the Altmer’s eyes.
The Thalmor Ambassador was… different from what I expected. I hadn’t met many High Elves before, but the few that I knew were tall and slender, of an elegant grace which gave them their natural beauty. Elenwen was tall and slender as well, but she didn’t show so much as a hint of grace or beauty. Her whole attitude radiated nothing but contempt and arrogance, and her heavily painted eyes didn’t hide her emotions half as good as she thought, despite the pinched smile on her lips. She was clad in the typical Thalmor attire, grey, formal highnecked robes, but with a better fit and more embroidery than those of the officers beside her. The way she followed every of my movements, how she tracked who I talked to and the fact that one of her guards never left my vicinity clearly proved that she didn’t trust me. Which was exactly what I wanted – the more of her attention I could hold, the better. I just hoped she’d believe me that my presence in the embassy was caused by simple curiosity.
During the dinner, everybody sat stiffly around a huge, festively decorated table and tried to engage in more or less toiled, boring conversations with total strangers. I felt myself constantly observed, and it was strangely ironic that for once I was glad that I had in fact learned how to make shallow conversation, deal with several sets of cutlery and not to make a complete fool of myself. People were obviously more than curious to get to know the Dragonborn, to find out if I had anything blatantly heroic on me or if I was really just a simple girl with the Nord-typical bias for physical violence.
Delphine had got a job in the kitchen, disguised as a simple maid she was to help with the preparations for the meal. Something she was certainly good at, after thirty years behind the counter of an inn. I just had to focus the attention of the whole household on me to give her room for action, and my behaviour was as cocky as possible.
It was nearly too easy, even if I felt like a hired trickster after I had answered the same questions over and over again. Dragons were everywhere, and most of the guests had seen one in the meantime, at least from afar. The stories how to find them, how to kill them and how it felt to absorb one of their souls seemed to fascinate them to no end. When the request for a demonstration of a dragon shout came up – and I knew beforehand it would come – I presented my sweetest smile and beckoned one of the elven officers to my side.
“Sir, I trust you have a weapon to protect us?” Altmer were usually more prone to magic than to steel, but as a soldier the man would hopefully be able to use both. He just nodded, eyeing me warily. I gestured at the guests standing around us, sipping at their drinks.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen, give us some room. Playing with dragon’s toys is never entirely safe. We don’t want anybody to get hurt, do we?”
When the large and undeniably handsome Altmer and I finally stood in the middle of a large circle, he with his broadsword unsheathed and ready to strike, I with wide spread arms and no means to defend myself, I ordered him with a friendly smile to attack me.
He was a lousy sword fighter, and it helped that his stance and his eyes announced his attack seconds before it he lunged at me.
It was a simple shout, but I knew the effect was impressive. My body became transparent while retaining its form, and the sword aiming for my chest just slipped through the ethereal flesh. I didn’t even flinch, in contrary to my attacker. He recoiled sharply, his astonishment breaking way in a gasp, and I grinned cheekily at him when the effect faded.
“You’re too easily surprised, Sir.” I couldn’t help it, but this was fun. “Wanna try something different? Or someone else?”
General Tullius stepped forward and took the sword from the Altmer. Now I had to be more cautious, despite his shiny ornate armour this was a battle-hardened soldier, not a pretty sentinel not used to close combat. Tullius stood motionless but tense like a drawn bow, not even a wink hinting at his intents. But he took too long.
The sword just slipped from his grip, but the momentum of his attack let him stumble forwards, his hand still clenched to a fist, and the weapon glided over the polished tiles of the floor until I stopped it with my boot.
“You’d be dead by now if I wanted, General,” I smirked at his consternation, “decapitated by your own sword.”
“Impressive…” he just muttered, and I saw the fascination in his eyes… in his, and in every pair of eyes around me. Most of the guests were simply excited about the unusual performance, but Elenwen’s gaze was predatory. She’d certainly not underestimate me.
I turned to my audience. “There’s one more thing I can show you without harming anybody, but for this demonstration I need even more space, please. And a shield.” When the whole length of the great hall was at my disposal, I beckoned the Altmer officer over to me again and handed him an apple. “Please, Sir. I know you’d prefer a fireball, but I don’t want to risk any damage on this beautiful furniture. Would you please stand beside me and throw this apple through the hall, as hard as you can?” He looked curiously and nodded. The moment he lifted his arm and let the fruit fly, my
chimed through the room, and I caught it easily at the other side of the room. The apple burst on the shield, and a choked snicker went through the audience when the juice sprayed over the Ambassador. Her own fault, I had told her not to come too close.
It was a strange kind of fun I had that evening. A weird mixture of a foreboding sense of danger, excitement and acceptance. I didn’t have a name that day, nobody was interested in me as a person. Everybody just saw the Dragonborn, and it was exactly what I wanted to achieve.
But the longer the evening lasted the more restless I became. Nothing hinted at anything unusual going on in the Embassy. Certainly there’d be some kind of alarm if an intruder would have been caught? My nervousness even grew when Elenwen approached me. I knew she’d come, sooner or later, search the contact to find out where I stood in the many conflicts boiling in Skyrim, and that she’d probably try to interrogate me herself. Observing how insolent and pretentious she dealt even with people like General Tullius gave me an impression how dangerous she really was. But I’d do my best.
“Dragonborn…” she sat down beside me with a wide, false smile, “finally I’ve the opportunity to express my joy about making your acquaintance. And my gratitude for your attending our little festivity here.”
“Too much honour, Ma’am Ambassador,” I muttered with cast down eyes, “and please, if I may express a wish, please call me Qhourian. Dragonborn, that’s so formal. I’m just a country girl that’s quite overwhelmed by your warm welcome, you know.” I hoped my shy glance at her was credible.
“Oh, but you’re so much more than a simple girl, friend!” she exclaimed. “You’re a legend come true! Certainly you’ll crave a rather heroic destiny, for yourself and for your homeland!” She shot me a sharp glance. “In fact, I’m really interested in your opinion, as a neutral, outside observer. As far as I know, you’re not affiliated to any of the more… important factions in Skyrim, aren’t you? Nothing against the honourable Companions, of course, but they’re known to not take part in… politics, am I right?”
Strange relief flowed through me. She couldn’t have had too close an eye on me if she thought I was still a Companion. Perhaps she didn’t know about the encounter in Labyrinthian either.
“Yes, your information is correct, Ma’am. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about politics to say anything… substantial about these matters.”
Of course she kept at it.
“But you certainly have an opinion about this horrible war? I suppose it must break every true Nord’s heart to see your beautiful homeland ravished by its own people?” A slight flush was visible on her cheeks. She toyed with me, and she enjoyed it. But I could play that game too.
“Honestly, Ma’am,” I leant closer to her and lowered my voice to a bit more than a whisper, the smell of dust, magic and a sickly sweet perfume rising into my nose. “If I may be so blunt, I don’t like that Stormcloak in Windhelm at all. I don’t like how he wants Skyrim just for the Nords. I’m a Nord myself, but the country is so big… I mean, not even all Companions are Nords, and we carry Ysgramor’s legacy! “
That was definitely a content smirk on her clamped lips. I was glad I didn’t even have to lie, I had a feeling she’d see through me at once if I tried. Fortunately she wasn’t sensitive enough to take my nervousness for what it was, probably thought it to be caused by her overwhelming personality.
“You’re much wiser than you think, Qhourian,” she cajoled me, her eyes still cold like stone, “that’s what we all strive for. To live together in peace, all races and all people. I’m glad to hear these words from someone like you.” She took a deep breath and took a small sip from her wine, her next question casual.
“Forgive me my curiosity, friend, but what do you do as Dragonborn? We’ve seen your impressive… powers today, but how do you think it will go on with the dragons?”
I couldn’t suppress a smile. If she only knew that the answer to that question was exactly why I was here! But I contained my expression of innocent naivety.
“Oh… I’m not sure, Ma’am. Go on killing dragons, I suppose. There’s nothing else I could do, isn’t it? It’s my duty, after all. And at least that’s something I’m really good at!” I showed her my most boisterous smile.
Delphine couldn’t find a better moment to make her presence known. A guard, clad in shining elven armour, his hand on his sword, stormed into the hall towards Elenwen. She surely didn’t want me to hear what he had to say, but I couldn’t just ignore his frantic whisper.
“Intruders! Not sure how many, but the guards in the upper level are dead. Your orders, Ma’am?”
Elenwen’s face lost even the smallest trace of cheerfulness. “No word to the guests as long as we don’t know who it is and what they want. Special attention to the dungeon and every exit. Don’t let them escape!”
I needed to get out of here. Help Delphine, whatever she was doing at the moment. Cause a distraction. Cause as much harm as possible. I intervened. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I couldn’t avoid to listen. Is there anything I can do to help?”
She looked at me, taxing and cautious. “I suppose I can’t convince you to just… forget this incident and keep quiet about it?”
I smiled reassuringly and shook my head. “Hardly. Not when there’s danger ahead. It would be a shame to let this wonderful evening end in bloodshed.”
“Okay. As long as we don’t know who and how many of them we have to face, we have to prepare for everything, even for a battle inside these walls. That’s difficult, with all these strangers here, one of whom may even be the target of the attack. Or the traitor that caused it.” Her gaze tried to pierce into my mind. Delphine had done an incredible job. She must have wreaked havoc if the Ambassador was desperate enough to consider my offer.
“Yes, Dragonborn, your help would be appreciated. Now you can prove your loyalty to your Empire and its allies. Rulindil!” She called one of her officers, the one who had helped me so heroically with my performance.
“You two go to the dungeon. We don’t know how well our attackers know their way around, but there’s an exit there. Dragonborn, you will get your weapon at the entrance. Hurry!” As soon as I turned away, I heard her whisper. “Keep your eyes on her. She can be useful, but kill her when she tries anything.” I couldn’t suppress a light chuckle. These elves were so used to have the upper hand that they lost every sense of subtlety. While I made my way through the room, I met Idgrod’s gaze, and she knew at once that something was gonna happen. I just hoped she’d make it out safe, and no harm would come to her because she’d brought me here.
“Snowback, come here!” Rulindil lifted an elegant eyebrow under his hood when the dog took his place at my side. I smirked at him. “Don’t worry, he’s well trained and a fierce little boy. He’d fight a dragon alone to protect me!” Not a man of many words, that Altmer, but he nodded. Not that he had a much of a choice, though.
“I’d like to see the dead guards, please.”
“To see how they’ve been killed, of course! That could be important, don’t you think? To see what we have to expect?”
I saw the lightning form in his palms. He was certainly a dangerous fighter in his own rights, but he had no idea how to deal with such a situation.
I had neither, but at least I knew what had happened.
The dead guards on the upper level had been assassinated, fast and silently. No signs of a fight in the chamber, one of them with a broken neck, the other stabbed in the back. I examined them thoroughly, then turned to Rulindil who just watched me instead to lift a finger himself.
“What do you think, Sir?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Not sure… there hasn’t been much fighting, there must have been quite a supremacy to overwhelm them so easily. And the attackers must be well equipped, or they would have taken at least their weapons. Everybody knows our weapons are superior to nearly everything else.”
“You’re clearly an expert, and I think I agree. Does that make me an expert too?” I grinned at him, a bit childish, and the arrogance in his expression even deepened with my consent.
“Of course I’m right. We have to be careful. I hope you’re not afraid to fight more than one enemy at a time?”
My smirk was cocky. “I’m a Companion, Sir. I’m used to work with a shield-sibling, and I’m used to be outnumbered.” The Companions as part of my disguise and a Thalmor mage as a shield-sibling, that had its own irony. Especially as I didn’t intend to let him survive this… mission.
On our way through the embassy we found a few more victims Delphine had left in her wake as well as plenty of guards patrolling the corridors and the courtyard. What a waste, as if they expected an army to break out of a closet. Two more dead Altmer lying in their own blood directly behind the door to Elenwen personal study finally forced some curses from my reticent companion, but they were nearly drowned out by the noise coming from below us and two more guards crashing through the door, a battered, limp body between them. I couldn’t suppress a relieved gasp when I saw that it wasn’t Delphine.
Rulindil spun around to his colleagues. “Who’s that?”
“Malborn, the Bosmer who’s in charge for the wine cellar. We caught him crawling through the guard’s quarters, and he tried to flee. Wanted to lock him up till there’s more time to interrogate him.”
Rulindil pointed to a trap door. In the meantime, the fighting noise from below had dwindled. “Something’s going on down there. We go together, be careful.” He led the way, down the narrow spiral stairs. I stayed in the back of the group, Snowback by my side, and hadn’t even reached the bottom when one of the guards let out a surprised yell. The large room with its iron cages on one side was a battlefield. A prisoner hang motionless in his shackles in one of the cells, with a robed Thalmor sitting across of him, the arrow piercing his temple and a small line of blood the only hint that he wasn’t alive any more. Two more armoured guards lay dead and badly mangled in the hallway. But apart from the corpses the room was empty, and the only exit, a trapdoor in the far corner, was locked. The Thalmor searched frantically for a clue, the unconscious Bosmer heedlessly dropped against a wall.
Wherever Delphine hid, I didn’t have time to wait that they’d finish their investigation. But the moment I sucked in my breath with a sharp hiss, a leather-clad figure burst out of a haypile in a corner, hay that was usually used to cover the bare stone ground in the prisoner cells.
“FUS RO DAH!”
The shout hurled the two guards against the back wall, but Rulindil, busy examining the dead wizard, spun around and let his spell fly in a single move. “I knew not to trust you, bitch!” he hissed when the lightning hit me. No dragon soul could have protected me from this attack – but the mammoth soul in Farengar’s amulet fortunately did, and what should have turned my brain into a useless mass of gore just dazed me, bright sparks dancing behind my lids, and I slumped down the wall when my muscles went numb and twitched in spasms.
But I didn’t lie when I told him that Snowback would fight a dragon to protect me. The dog jumped on the Altmer with everything he had and clenched his teeth into his left wrist, tearing the fabric of gloves and robe apart. Too bad he was too small to reach his throat.
No way to get off another shout, not with my dazed brain, not without risking to hurt my allies. I had to rely on my dagger against the powerful mage. And on my furry, courageous companion, who didn’t let go although Rulindil dashed his body against the cage bars. I attacked when I saw a dagger in his other hand, ready to slit the dog’s throat. For a short moment he wasn’t able to throw any more magic around, this was a chance I had to use. I hurled myself at him and crashed him against the bars, grabbing his outstretched arm and forcing it with all my weight around the corner of the cage. His scream, the pop of his shoulder dislocating and the clank of the dropped dagger made a beautiful sound that was only topped by the wet gurgling when my own short blade found his neck.
Finally I had time to turn to the other fight. Delphine had finished one of the guards before the other had recovered from my shout, but now she was heavily pressed. I saw her limp, gashes in her armour and blood on hands and face, but she fought frantically against the much larger mer. And she still showed an infectious grin when I hurried to her side to finally end this.
“Good to see you, Dragonborn,” she gasped between her attacks, “had a nice evening?”
When the Thalmor realised that I was unarmoured and only armed with a small dagger, he turned his attention to me. His last fault. Delphine’s blow nearly tore through his neck.
“Yes. Yes, I had,” I panted with a giggle.
We both breathed heavily, but the still grinning woman pointed to the trapdoor. “We need the key, help me search?” Delphine’s first victim had it in one of the pockets of his robe, and after she’d hurled the motionless Bosmer over her shoulder and I’d taken Snowback in my arms, we finally left this place. Only a frost troll guarding the Embassy’s back door tried to stop us again, but he fell easily to Delphine’s arrows.
The loot Delphine had pilfered from various chests and trunks, especially in Elenwen’s office, was better than we could have hoped. Although my prediction had been correct and the Thalmor didn’t know anything substantial about the rising of the dragons or Alduin, they had found something else… someone else. Beside two comprehensive dossiers about Ulfric Stormcloak and Delphine herself that were worth a fortune all by themselves and would perhaps come useful later, they had gathered intelligence about another blade living in hiding, and she blanched visibly when she opened the thin booklet.
It was about a man named Esbern – a friend and colleague of hers she had thought dead for years. And now she had returned to Riverwood, we had sent Malborn to Morthal to tell Idgrod to keep her head down for the next time, and I was on my way to Riften. This rotten, reeking skeeverhole of a city. Foul-smelling channels running beside and beneath dilapidated wooden buildings, and I only knew the upper, more friendly part of it. Esbern however was supposed to hide somewhere in the sewers, and I didn’t even dare to imagine what debris I’d encounter there – the literal and the human kind.
I had only a single name to rely on, but my contact wasn’t hard to find. The first I did in the Bee and Barb was order a meal and a drink to wash away the disgusting smell, but when I asked the all-knowing inn-keeper if she knew someone named Brynjolf, the Argonian just grinned and nodded towards the man who had occupied the stool beside me, eyeing me curiously.
I frowned when I turned my gaze on him. Scruffy strands of shoulder-long, flaming red hair framing a pale stubbled face with blood-shot eyes and a badly treated scar on his cheek, hands with greasy, black fingernails clenching around a tankard, his breath reeking of old mead. He looked much older than he probably was, and he could have been handsome – if he’d spend at least three days in the hot springs out in the tundra to wash away the filth that had accumulated in the gashes of his worn out armour and probably in every pore beneath it.
“Lass,” he drawled when he saw that he had my attention, his voice hoarse and slurry from too much mead and too little sleep. He leant over far too close, and the rank breath was overlaid by the smell of old sweat and something rotten that seemed to belong to him like the scar or the smug grin. “Better be careful when you ask that openly for people you don’t know. Riften has a bias for lasses with pockets full of coin, and it doesn’t care where it comes from.”
Holy Kyne, this was my contact?
“The same, lass, at your service.” This smug, slightly desperate grin… Delphine had said he led a business here. Well connected in the city, especially into the lower regions. This man looked as if he had just gambled away a fortune, buried his lover and got into a fist fight with a cave bear, all in a couple of hours. But I just needed an information. How hard could that be?
“Keerava, a drink for my friend here. Whatever he usually takes.” I eyed him appraisingly.
“Take it as the first part of a payment. I need an information.” If he led in fact something like a business, however shady, he’d perhaps appreciate my straightforwardness. If he was what he looked like, he wouldn’t be of much use anyway.
Suddenly he sat straight, his eyes losing some of their dullness.
“Information doesn’t come cheap nowadays, lass.”
“I know. I tell you what I need, and you tell me what you want for it. Easy?” His reply was a chuckle. Perhaps we got somewhere.
“No, not that easy. If you want something, find me in the Ragged Flagon, and we’ll talk.” He stood up with a surprisingly fluid motion, and I was sure he somehow vanished from my sight before he had even reached the door. No, didn’t seem we got anywhere. I sighed in frustration.
“Keerava, please enlighten me. Who in Oblivion is that?” The Argonian barkeeper looked stunned.
“You wanna make a deal with Brynjolf and don’t even know who he is? That’s hilarious!” She laughed heartily, showing every single one of her impressive teeth. “It would be much more fun to keep you in the dark and let you run straight into the trap, but… I’ll tell you anyway, because it will be of no use to you.” She chuckled at my scowl, obviously having far too much fun with my ignorance.
“Brynjolf is a traitorous bastard, a serial womaniser, he knows everything going on in Riften and around, he has his fingers in every foul deal in the province and he’s probably the second best thief in all of Skyrim. Because if he were the best, he’d have the job of his boss and not just be the second in command of the Thieves Guild.” She looked curiously at my reaction, and I didn’t disappoint. I felt my own jaw drop into my lap. Thieves! Delphine, you can already prepare for a long, painful death for not telling me. I had no idea how to deal with thieves. Organised thieves, in particular.
I tried to screw together the few facts I had. Esbern was supposed to hide somewhere in the Riften sewers, also known as the Ratway. A name that gave me at least a hint what to expect down there, and everything I knew the Thalmor knew as well. Brynjolf was supposed to know exactly where he was and lead me to him. But the Thieves Guild… it would probably not be enough just to pull out my pouch and count some coins into his palm. He would try to use me, especially if his situation was really half as desperate as he looked like.
“Am I right that this Ragged Flagon is in the Ratway? Sounds like a tavern name.”
The Argonian just grinned amused and pointed at her feet. “Exactly. Probably the only tavern in all of Tamriel that expects its guests to crawl through the wastes of a whole city to reach it. And if that doesn’t kill you, the stuff they sell as mead there certainly will.”
I had survived crawls through ancient tunnels filled with half-rotten undead. I had cleared countless bandit hideouts, had wiped out frost spider nests in abandoned mines and exterminated more than one den of bears. This were just sewers. How bad could it be?
I had no idea.
The worst wasn’t the smell, though I’d never smelled anything like this before, and never wanted to repeat the experience. The worst wasn’t the vermin, and it wasn’t the sleazy wrecks of human beings who defended their miserable existences with their lives – as if I put any value to them.
The worst was that these bloody sewers were such a bloody maze that every ancient Nordic tomb was a children’s playground in comparison, and that it took forever! I wandered and crawled around aimlessly for hours and hours, encountered the same marks and the same corpses over and over again without finding a way, an entrance or an exit. Even my so often approved method of always taking the left turn proved to be absolutely useless in this maze of filth and mud. Once I heard voices and the clanking of tankards behind a wall and was very tempted to gain access with a wellplaced Shout, but it would have probably collapsed the buildings above me.
Nobody could blame me for being angry when I finally found a nearly invisible door in the darkest corner of these godscursed tunnels, after an endless crawl on all fours through a narrow pipe half filled with a non-descript matter! Nobody could blame me for losing my manners entirely when Brynjolf greeted me with a pretentious, broad grin and the words “That’s the spirit, lass! Didn’t expect to see you ever again!” I didn’t care about the threat in the faces around us when I grabbed him by the collar, my hands leaving a muddy mark on his armour.
“Before we talk about anything else, you will show me the back door to this rotten place.” Not the smartest move probably, to attack the only one who could help me in front of his friends, but I couldn’t restrain myself. This little test he had put me through had brought me to the edge. Promptly I felt the tip of a blade between my ribs, but Brynjolf shooed the woman behind me away.
“Leave her alone, Vex. This lass may be hot tempered, but she’s too smart to go further.”
No, I wouldn’t. Not yet, at least. The woman backed off with a growl, but she kept her hand on the hilt of her weapon.
“Tell me, lass… it seems you’re serious or you wouldn’t be here, but why should I want to make a deal with you?” He beckoned me over to a table and ordered something to drink from the man behind the raw, dirty wooden counter. After all, this was a tavern, populated with the most shady folk I’d ever seen assembled in all of Skyrim. All of them eyeing us, curiously and threatening. I decided to come straight to the point. No need to draw this out longer than necessary.
“Because you have something I need: information about a man named Esbern. A knowledge that will cost you your head if the wrong people just take it from you. But it will save your life and the one of your friends here if I get it in time. Make your choice.”
I looked around, took in the large room with the basin filled with a murky sludge, the water dripping from the slick walls, the greasy stone floor and the makeshift tavern area with its raw wooden furniture. How in Oblivion could anyone in his right mind choose to live here?
“Oh, and because I will tear your little refuge here to pieces if I don’t get what I need. Not that it’d make much difference.” Finally he was alert, and I saw his gaze wander over me with a new expression, gauging and with a hint of respect.
“Somehow I believe you could really do that,” he muttered. “You got that certain spark… I could make use of someone like you, you know?” He grinned, and the atmosphere lightened up a bit.
“You should’ve seen me in better times!” he exclaimed, throwing up his arms in a broad gesture that spanned the whole room. “When this was a palace, overflowing with luxury and all amenities anyone could wish for. A pity we’ve only met now, after our Lady Luck has left us for so long.” Well, I wasn’t really interested in the latest history of the Thieves Guild, but this was just another pointer that we were still negotiating.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any influence on the divines, but I’m willing to pay a reasonable price for the information I need.”
He sensed my impatience and leant back in his chair, arms crossed in front of his chest, and suddenly I had the nagging feeling that nothing escaped these sharp green eyes.
“You know, lass, we’re used to strange folk down here, but it’s been a bit too much lately. Especially when all of them want the same. First those cursed elves, and now you… this information must be really precious. And I wonder what’s suddenly so special about that crazy old guy who may or may not be hiding here. I mean, he’s completely nuts. Even we get out from time to time, but that man hasn’t left his room for years.”
Finally, we were getting somewhere. Excitement took over. “What elves are you talking about?”
He grimaced with disgust. “Thalmor. They came down here as if the whole place belonged to them, less than a day ago, asked stupid questions, plundered our supplies and wreaked havoc in the tunnels. Not that we told them anything. Even thieves have their honour.”
That were bad news. Hopefully I wasn’t too late.
“Okay, Brynjolf, if you want anything like a future down here, I have to get going. I’m sure you know what the Thalmor are capable of if they get really angry. I need to find Esbern, and I need to find him fast. In return I will get rid of these unwelcome guests of yours. I think that’s a good deal, with a much higher risk for me than for you.”
The unquenchable smirk left Brynjolf’s face, and he nodded. He seemed to realise that this wasn’t a game any more. Not even the kind of business he was used to, and I had to trust him that he wouldn’t try to rip me off.
“Rune, come over here for a moment,” he shouted over to the people gathered at the counter. A young Imperial in the same shoddy armour he wore came over and looked expectantly from his boss to me. “Lad, you’ve brought food and stuff to the old guy in the Warrens, haven’t you?”
“Yes, on occasion, when Vekel didn’t have time. Why?”
“Take this lady to him. Get your weapons, but let her do the work. She promised to get rid of the Thalmor scum down there.”
When we left the room through another door, I realised that Brynjolf didn’t even ask for my name. He either wasn’t interested, knew it already, or he thought we’d meet again and didn’t bother for now. Weird, that guy.
The Warrens were just more of the same, darkness, dirt and rot with Thalmor on top. Rune showed me the way, but he let me lead and take the onslaught of everything we encountered, just plinking one or another arrow from time to time. Now I wished I hadn’t left Snowback at the stables. On the other hand, I didn’t even want to imagine what the smell down here would do to his sensitive nose.
The Altmer warriors in their shiny armours weren’t that much of a challenge anyway, but the wizards were a real pain. Their lightning attacks in the narrow tunnels seemed to multiply and find their targets over and over again, and the air became hot and smoky from their fireballs. Strangely, the attacks became less the further we got, although I heard shouting in the distance. If what I feared was true, we’d have an even harder time on our way out.
Finally the young thief stopped at the end of a dead end, in front of a heavy wooden door with a spyhole.
“I’m sure you’ll find your way back, don’t you?” he said and turned to leave, but I grabbed his arm.
“Don’t be stupid. Didn’t you recognise that the attacks have stopped long ago? They used us to lead them here. Unless you wanna fight your way through an army of of very angry Thalmor all on your own, you better stay.”
I knocked, and the hole immediately opened, as if the resident had waited behind the door. “Oh, Rune… is it time again?” The small part of the face I could see was old and crinkly, but the grey eyes looked clear, and the voice was deep and full. Not at all like the craziness I had expected.
That changed when he saw me, the man’s voice pitching into a panicked babble. “By the gods, there they are, and you led them here, traitor scum.” The hole closed with a bang, and I felt silly speaking to a door.
“Esbern, please open the door. I need to talk to you. Delphine sends greetings.”
“Delphine? Esbern? What? No, that’s not me. I’m not Esbern. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Go away!” His voice got a whiny, trembling undertone, as if he didn’t want to understand what was going on around him. I heard steps in the distance, many steps, approaching the last corner before they’d see us.
Before I could argue any further, the first fireball flew towards us, avoiding Rune only by a hair’s breadth and scorching the wall behind him. At least the thief wasn’t as helpless as I had feared – he knocked his first arrow with calm certainty and let it fly accurately. I hit the door with everything I had.
“Yes, Delphine sends greetings, I’m the Dragonborn, and she told me to ask you where you’ve been on Frostfall the 30th.” The 30th of Frostfall in 4E 171, the day the Dominion had sealed the demise of the Blades. A macabre password that Delphine had given me. I just hoped it’d change his mind, and quickly. “And now for all that is holy open the damned door and help, or do you want the Thalmor to roast you alive in your little nest here?”
I didn’t have time to see if my words had any effect when half a dozen fighters stormed towards us, with three mages behind them. Rune took care of the first of those, and fortunately in the narrow tunnel not all of them could reach us at once, but there was no way we would survive that fight with common means only. If it caused an earthquake in the city above us, I couldn’t help it.
“FUS RO DAH!”
The Shout hit our attackers with full force and let the front line tumble against the people behind them, the whole group getting entangled into a pile of limbs and yells and drawn weapons hurting themselves. A glorious sight, and it would have been even more hilarious if I had had something to finish the chaos quickly. Instead I sprinted towards the elven mess, a dumbfounded Rune shortly behind me, just to feel something hot fly by and sear one of my braids.
Esbern had finally decided to take part in our little quarrel to save him, and Shor’s bones, he was effective. Fireball after fireball hit the Thalmor warriors, and with the assistance of our arrows they didn’t even come close to the door we defended so frantically. Even their ranged attacks couldn’t harm us seriously, as we could take cover in Esbern’s room while they had nowhere to retreat.
I had to confess, they were courageous, especially after we entrenched ourselves in Esbern’s refuge. But the old man showed remarkable quick-wittedness in this fight, and with the three of us working together as if we had years of experience as a team, they didn’t have a chance. Only when the last yell died down and the smoke from the pile of bodies in the tunnel evaporated, I turned to the thief.
“Good job, Rune. Didn’t expect thieves to be such capable fighters. I think now it’s safe for you to return.”
He just grinned a boyish, open smile. “No, now it’s too late. No way I’ll miss the fun to introduce the Dragonborn to the others! What you did here, we will talk about it for months, and Bryn will eat his boots that he let you get away with so little!”
I liked this boy. Not only because he had proven to be a capable fighter, doing his job without bragging, but he didn’t try to betray me, and, in his own, strange way, he had an honesty about him that was refreshing. I couldn’t imagine how someone like him could make a living solely at the expense of others. But on the other hand, who was I to judge? I didn’t know his history… and I had been a mercenary myself, killing for money without asking questions.
Anyway, I had to turn my attention to the old man who cowered in a corner of the tiny room. It didn’t seem he was particularly eager to leave this place.
“Esbern? We got to leave now. I’m gonna take you back to Delphine. You’ll be safe there.”
He looked at me with wide open eyes, swimming in tears, his lips trembling. What a difference to the dedicated powerful mage we’d seen only moments ago! I felt more than uncomfortable.
“Dragonborn! Who cares about safety? There’s hope, finally! You’ve come! The end is near, but you’ve finally come, and there’s hope again! Do you have any idea what that means!?”
I scratched my head. Did we really have to discuss the Dragonborn destiny now? “Eh… yes? That I will be able to overcome Alduin, some day? Perhaps?”
“Yes! Yes! Alduin, the Worldeater, the devourer of souls, here and in the afterlife, he will perish! Gimme a second, just a second, I will just grab some things and be ready…” Suddenly he was full of enthusiastic energy, not caring a bit that he had just barely survived the attack of nearly a dozen Thalmor. He dug through some sacks under his bed, obviously his only belongings, while shooting sceptical glances at me and continuously muttering into his grey beard. I only understood single words, something about the end of the world, Alduin and Sovngarde, and even Rune grinned amused about his hectic, frantic behaviour. I could understand how Esbern could convey the impression that he was totally insane. Perhaps he really was, but I had the feeling that he’d still be able to surprise us.
The way back to the Ragged Flagon was easy – thanks to Rune’s guidance, I would have never found the shortest way out. We met a few more Thalmor, but it seemed they were already fleeing when we caught them. The scene when we finally entered the tavern again caught me entirely off guard, though – Rune burst into the room first, but before he could get out a word, Brynjolf greeted us already with a casual wink.
“Uh, Dragonborn, already back? And all in one piece? Fine, fine…” My face as well as Rune’s caused roaring laughter around the room, and the redheaded Nord looked more than complacent. He gestured me over to the counter.
“Vekel, mead for our guests. The good stuff! Don’t think we have to expect a bunch of angry Thalmor burst through that door any more. Please, Qhourian, Esbern, take the time to have a drink with us.”
Esbern refused the offered mug with a scowl, but Brynjolf’s smug laughter was so contagious, I couldn’t help but join the good humour. “You knew it right from the beginning, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. You rescued the city once from a dragon, with a Dunmer companion. I’ll never forget how you shouted the gates apart.”
That was where I had seen this particular armour he and his friends wore before. The thieves had helped to fight the dragon when the guards had been essentially useless. I looked at him with new respect. “You guys helped, back then. I remember.”
“Told you, we have some honour too. And even if we’re safe down here, having the properties of our worthy fellow citizens burnt to ashes would be bad for business as well.”
“Our business has gone pretty well too, I reckon. And on top, you can just grab all the elven gear down there. It’s worth a fortune.”
“Aye, you held your part of the agreement. Didn’t expect anything else, though.” He beckoned over to Esbern who stood a bit aside, looking very confused and a bit peeved. “Is that guy really so important that they needed you to fetch him?”
“Honestly… I don’t know. Yes, think so, or the Thalmor wouldn’t have made such a hassle. We’ll see.” I rubbed my hand over my face and downed the tankard in a long gulp. “Thank you, Brynjolf. Gotta go now.”
“You leave Riften right away?”
I should have, but I wouldn’t. Most of all I needed a bath and then a night of sleep. I didn’t know what would happen next and how Esbern would be able to help us, but the last days had been more than exhausting – first the dragon, then the assault on the Embassy, now this. I had to meet so many people during these few days, had been forced to work with them and trust them with my life, against every instinct. Delphine who told me what to do, Idgrod who had poked into my past, now these guys with their friendly curiosity… I felt pushed and engrossed and suddenly very tired. And Esbern’s scowl only proved that he had demands as well I’d have to meet.
I gave Brynjolf a feeble grin. “No. We’ll stay at the inn for the night. I need a bath.” Neither another Thalmor brigade nor Alduin would keep me from that.
When I turned towards the exit, Esbern followed me eagerly, obviously glad to leave. But Brynjolf grabbed my wrist and held me back.
“Rune, show her the way,” he said over his shoulder.
Surprise stood in the young Imperial’s face, and the woman from earlier, the one who had poked her dagger into my ribs, gave him a scowl. “Bryn, you can’t…”
But he cut her short. “Oh yes, I can. And no word to Mercer.” He turned back to me. “Thanks for the business, lass. If you ever come to Riften again… or if you’re ever bored… you know where to find me.” His grin was boyish and open.
I arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Rune led us through another large, circular room, looking exactly as depraved as the tavern, only that this was obviously the place where the thieves spent their free time when they weren’t drinking. Narrow bunks were lined up tightly on the walls, a desk laden with parchments and scrolls and an empty shelf was tugged into a niche. Several doors led into what I could only suppose were the deepest parts of the sewers.
But Rune made straight for a brittle ladder, pushed the trapdoor on top open and climbed up into a dark, narrow alcove. Only very little light fell in from below, but he grabbed my wrist and guided it to a protrusion hidden in a stone ornament, smooth from years of use.
“Push here… and then press to the right.”
Strangely silently, a massive stone plate slipped back and let in the sunlight. We stood in front of a small, unremarkable mausoleum in the middle of Riften’s graveyard, the entrance closing with the soft scraping of stone on stone.
“Your back door?”
Rune nodded. “Bryn meant what he said, Dragonborn. You’re welcome here.”
I had no idea what I had done to earn this trust, and I couldn’t imagine a situation where connections to the Thieves Guild would come handy, but one should never say never.