Tisha approaches her mission very, very conscientiously, and makes a point of keeping her cover - as bait for the Windhelm Butcher - as impeccable as possible. She tussles her already unruly black hair for an extra-carefree look; she whistles a rune she picked up from the lovely Dunmeri bard (not Dragonborn Comes, obviously; that would give her away); and she even walks with a goat-like skip every few steps, as much as she can manage on the ice-coated cobblestones. She tries her best to look like an innocent, unsuspecting girl, just prancing about from dark alley to even darker alley, with not a clue that danger might be lurking round every steep downward bend of the narrow street, behind every snowy corner… And, well, let’s be fair, this does not come too far off from her non-pretend self. Gods know that her roaming the world as Dragonborn has been much more like clueless prancing than the epic quest from the song that she must not whistle.
And it’s not that she is too air-headed to figure out where exactly she is to be headed. She is not like that. She is not stupid; those who assume thus usually learned how wrong they were in a very painful way (much to her regret, but sometimes, people just refuse to listen when you are trying to deal with them peacefully, and instead insist on prodding you with weapons, mouths askew in a battlecry). She just… has been making a lot of detours. Because this beautiful, boundless land that she is discovering for herself (with so much joy! so much amazement!) is filled not just with funny-shaped rocks that are so wonderful to climb, and with swaying, creaking pine trees that are so wonderful to gape at, neck craned back, and with frothing, gurgling streams that are so wonderful to splash in.
It is filled with people who are in pain, for whatever reason, be it wounds of the flesh or the soul. Lonely and desperate, angry and full of aching fear, they keep screaming for help, their sobbing voices meeting nothing but the cold, ringing, crystalline silence; the stifling indifference of the frost-touched wasteland under a pallid sky. Someone has to help them; someone has to veer off the path they were supposed to follow, and dive into the wasteland’s embrace, and add a myriad more tasks to the to-do list. And more often than not, she is the only one whose to-do list is not too urgent (in her own eyes, at least). Like today.
She was supposed to be travelling in the opposite direction, but the Butcher investigation got in the way, and she lost track of her other tasks. She will pick them up again, of course, after she is done here. She hopes. If something else does not crop up.
A few circles around the darkened streets, and he finally emerges, falling upon her like a harpy from one of those Alik'r legends she would read as a child. She clears her throat, ready to reason with him, to try and persuade him to stand down, to hand himself in - the first thing she always does when facing someone who has been endangering others, be it a bandit or Daedric cultist or murderer on the loose. But he does not listen; they seldom listen.
Tisha has barely gotten one word out when she feels a hand closing in round her wrist, tight as vice. Presently, the darkness of the snowy night seems to condense around her, pulling her off-balance as the current of an icy river - the effect of some immobilizing magic, maybe.
She gasps, just as she would if a river claimed her, trying to whip her useless, half-petrified limbs back into shape… And then, a second hand, ghostly pale, flashes out of the murk next to her face, clasping a blade that presses into her face, where the bone of her left socket can be traced if you feel through the soft flesh, and the skin under her eyes is paper-thin… And is pulsing with a terrified tick, too. Because, much as she tries to be a hero, deep down there still are inklings of that inexperienced girl who left Skyrim on a noble but foolhardy mission to reunite her Khajiiti mom - Mother’s new spouse after Father left, the one who turned the lofty, proud, cold Imperial name Laetitia into a warm and kind Tisha - with her long-lost kitten Kharjo.
All the while, as she struggles (or thinks that she struggles, anyway; in reality she does not fare much better than a snail with a cracked shell) against the gripping silhouette that manifested from the darkness, cloaked in hissing magicks, a voice whispers into her ear, scorchingly hot and breathless with excitement… The kind of excitement that Tisha does not like very much.
‘I am glad I left you alive to do your sleuthing… You have pretty eyes… Just the kind that I need… But as punishment for poking your silly nose where it does not belong… And to keep the eyes fresh… I think I will need to carve them out while you are still alive’.
Oh no. Oh what a pity. It’s the voice of Calixto, the town antiquarian. So he is the Butcher… If Tisha’s face and chest were not being clenched, increasingly stronger by the second, by the freezing aura of that spell, she would have let out a frustrated sob.
He… He was… he seemed, so helpful… And she was so blind… Gods, what a gross choice of words, considering… But yes, she did not even think to suspect Calixto, up to this very moment.
She knew that the Butcher was not the court’s arcane advisor - he never seemed evil to her, just old and annoyed with everyone, which is hardly a crime (or else, every other mage in Skyrim, where the Nord prejudices cling to minds harder than lichen to a rock, would have to be jailed). And the killings did continue even after the bug-eyed mob burst in on her conversation with him and dragged him off to the dungeons, without letting her finish. Calixto, though… He never seemed evil to her either. Some hero she makes.
All these thoughts will take a while to write down - if she lives long enough to do the writing - but at the moment, they stampede through her mind, reindeer-like, at breakneck speed, shoving at one another with heavy grunts. And amid all the shoving, she barely registers another shift in the murk: another figure emerging, jet-black against the blurred, milky mouth of the alley, a bristling coil of jagged lightning in one hand and a bared mace in another.
But once she does catch a glimpse of that figure, Tisha cannot help but smile - or think very, very hard about smiling, anyway, because she still can scarcely move a muscle.
It’s for the best, it truly is; it would be a disaster if he actually caught her smiling. She must look like an utter loon, a Sheogorath-touched clown, breaking into a goofy grin whenever there is but a hint of his presence by her side. A shadow stretching across the sunlit rock next to hers; a hint of warmth so near her heart in the cramped confines of some cave serving the two of them as shelter from a blizzard; an echo of that low, raspy Dunmer voice that she does not even need to turn her head to recognize. That little - or that much - is already more than enough for her to feel giddy, ignoring whatever dragon or wolf pack or draugr or Falmer or shadowy killer that might be after her.
And… again, that’s very loony of her… But she has been missing this giddiness. Almost from that very moment when he asked her to let him go from their shared adventures for a while, because he needed to meditate in solitude and reconnect with his goddess, and she almost dazed him with her volley of ‘Of course! Of course! I would never disrespect your faith!’, and afterwards almost tore off his arm in a vigorous farewell handshake, and watched him disappear behind the grey, bulging shoulder of a hunched white-bearded mountain, her smile lingering to the last, until the snowy mist swallowed him whole.
She has been missing it - has been missing him - and seeing him step into the alley, hearing call indignantly to Calixto… to the Butcher, 'Mara will have no mercy on you!’, like he would so often scream at any ruffian that had spat on Tisha’s friendly offer to come quietly, and raised blade or staff or fist against her… It leaves her even more stupefied than Calixto’s spell. But this time, the energy that is chaining her is not dark; it is the brightest, sunniest gold.
The lightning cracks across the alley, like a whip tightly woven from white-hot flame; Calixto releases Tisha, his dagger grazing her skin with a light, faint sting before it clangs down to the rimy ground, and falls back, the crunching strike of skull against the pavement finishing what the slightly smoking, sticky black mark over his heart has started. It… It does not look like it hurt much… which is probably unfair, if you remember how his victims suffered… But either way, it’s a relief to think that Windhelm’s ordeal is finally over.
Tisha shudders, life rushing back into her limbs with a sharp prickle; makes a couple of uncertain steps - and sways right into the familiar, steady, protective arms. Not... Not in purpose, gods forbid! The last thing she wants is for her best friend to feel embarrassed or disgusted by her stupid girlish crush.
'He... He paralyzed you, didn't he?'
Well, not focusing on her crush is going to be about as challenging as ascending the steps up to High Hrothgar - for his voice is so close to her, so intimately hushed, so full of sweetest concern.
'Let me take a look at you... Divines' mercy, you are bleeding!'
'It's just a scratch, Erandur; I am fine,' Tisha smiles, placing her fingertips against the blade mark, glowing white and yellow and pink with a simple healing spell, and looking up into his worried face.
She means to come off as lighthearted as is proper under the circumstances - but her voice loses pitch towards the end, sort of... folding in, under the weight of the realization that has only just begun to swell within her mind.
She has been a hair's breadth away from being claimed by a serial killer. A killer that has, all this time, been hiding behind a friendly mask. A killer that fully intended to take her eyes, just as he took other parts from the other victims, planning to use them to stitch together whatever necromantic construct that he was researching in that grizzly lair of his. Necromantic... construct...
'He had a dead sister,' Tisha says slowly, with a sort of detached, mechanical intonation that a dwarven automaton might have had if its long-gone makers had built in an ability to speak.
'He... he mentioned her when I came to gawk around his shop... Had a portrait of her in the pride of place... I think she had green eyes... Like mine... Which ought to mean... ought to mean that... He has been trying to... rebuild his sister... From whatever... pieces the poor women had in common with her... Oh, Erandur...'
She whips her head up, her throat burning.
'Could you do your last rites? Pray for his soul? He must have been... Horribly, horribly broken...'
Erandur measures her with his gaze, one hand still resting on her shoulder, his ruby eyes huge with a quiet awe that makes Tisha's ears throb with heat.
'You have... a beautiful heart, Tisha... Always trying to be understanding, even towards monsters. Of course - of course I will pray for him. And then pray even more for all those wrongly taken lives. But... But not before I give a pie e of my mind to the local guards! Did they leave you without backup?'
'They ought to be... Somewhere nearby...' Tisha glances about, frowning, and then lets Erandur steer her away from the Butcher's prostrate corpse - a dark, spiky halo of a blood splash under his thrown-back head, his face forever twisted into a startled outcry.
The Dunmer's hands are restless now, fretful, hovering over Tisha's shoulders, endlessly dusting her off, freezing in place for a fleeting moment to cup her cheek and check if the spell has done its work, and then pulling away, balling into outraged fists.
'Somewhere nearby is not enough! If Kharjo hadn't warned me... If I hadn't returned... Who would have come to your aid? Who would have made certain that your... bait and switch operation was going as planned?!'
'Kharjo warned you?' Tisha asks, perking up.
Kharjo - her dear, long-lost-and-then-unexpectedly-found stepbrother, and another close friend and fellow adventurer (which is all Erandur should ever be to her, yes) - was uneasy about exploring Windhelm with her, even though appearing in the company of the Dragonborn would mean that no-one would dare remind him that Khaiit are not allowed beyond the city gates. And Tisha understood: Windhelm is an unkind city to anyone who is not a human. Even if that non-human is under the protection of the supposed Nord hero.
Had her brother come along, poor darling Kharjo would have risked so many awful, awful things being done to him when Tisha was not looking - or when she failed to convince the locals that she was, indeed, their fabled wyrm-slayer (because quite a few of the poor confused darlings seem to have gotten it into their heads that they are being kept safe from dragons, and other evils untold, by a ruddy, blue-eyed, golden-braided woman with enormous thighs and an ample bosom, while in reality, the Dragonborn is a tiny ankle-biter of an Imperial, with brown skin, wiry dark hair, and a prominent Nibenese beak that even her Skyrim-raised kinsfolk call 'silly').
Kharjo could have had his tail stepped on and set on fire, rocks hurled at him, a pouch of moonsugar planted into his pocket as an excuse to beat and imprison him... So, like she did with Erandur, Tisha let Kharjo go, sent him off to spend some time with his friends from the caravan - and yet, the rumours of young women being found dead, sliced up by an unknown assailant, must still have reached him. And he must have asked Tisha's other friend (which is all Erandur should ever be to her, yes), the friend who, while still snarled at, would at least be left alone as a priest of the Divines, to check on her.
'That's so thoughtful of him!' Tisha goes on, beaming at the mental image of Kharjo's furry face, cheeks puffed up and whiskers bristling, like it usually happens when he is considering something gravely important.
'I hope he did not distract you from your meditation, though...'
'Meditation?' Erandur repeats after her - and for a second or two, it almost seems to Tisha that he is not certain what she is talking about. 'Oh, that... Gods, you shouldn't trouble yourself with that! That is not important; you are... I mean... I... If I hadn't come, you would be dead!'
His hand flies up to his chest, clawing at the folds of his yellow headscarf. He tilts his head, as though bowing before Tisha in repentance - which could have been comical, given how much taller he is than her... But it isn't; oh Mara, it isn't. His voice, hoarse and faltering, has never trembled like that since his confession of his past at the Nightcaller Temple; and there is a murky tear droplet clinging to the side of his crooked nose.
'I should never have left in the first place... I should never have run off like this... I thought I'd learned; I thought I'd changed - but now, the only thing I'm good at... is still slinking away like a coward... and endangering my... my...'
His breath jerks chokingly, and Tisha catches this moment to stand on tiptoe and rest her hand over his. He... He did not just stop adventuring with her for the sake of time off for some prayer, did he?
'What makes you call that "running off"?' she asks cautiously, pouring all of her tenderness, all of that golden bliss of seeing him, being near him, unto the question. If she can be there for random Nord peasants, she can be there for the mer that she... that she...
Erandur slants his eyes to look at her, a quivering smile breaking through the unshed tears. His arm slides down from his chest, fingers freeing from underneath hers, and he shifts it towards Tisha's waist... To... To embrace her? To help her balance on tiptoe, reaching up to him? No. To draw her from him. Softly, carefully, without pushing, without hurting - but still, very clearly, motioning her away. Away. Away...
'I am sorry...' he mouths - and each of these three words, softly spoken though they are, burrows into the bare, vulnerable flesh of her drumming heart like a barbed Daedric dagger.
He must have guessed. He must have spotted the yearning in her eyes, and hurried to walk away, like a famous bard besieged by crazed fans. Just as she feared he would. Just as that... Last thing she wanted.
She knows that priests of Mara are allowed to have relationships - she has met the good Maramal and his wife Dinya - but she is evidently not Erandur's type. She is probably not anyone's type, with so many people mistaking her trusting, excitable nature for stupidity, for being Sheogorath-touched... But Erandur wouldn't... She thought Erandur understood... like Kharjo does... Well, perhaps he doesn't think her stupid or crazy or child-like; perhaps he simply is not attracted to her like she is to him. She can respect that. She can work with that. She will swear upon his sacred object of choice - upon anything, anything at all - that she will stop with any and all advances; maybe that will keep their friendship intact.
Tisha flaps her lips, like a river betty out of water, bracing herself to speak. But she is never given the chance to - for the guards that were meant to watch her back finally trot in from behind a corner; and with them, a crowd if anxious onlookers who fall upon the dead Butcher like flies, prodding him with their feet, and spitting into his clammy death mask of a face.
Another current carries Tisha off; she feels like dumpling stuffing, rolled into a ball of limbs that are all so eager to wrap round her shoulders, to pat her on the back, to crush her fingers in a hearty handshake, even to hoist her up and parade her through the streets. A lot of these limbs are pale and hairy - Tisha guesses that removing the threat to their wives and daughters has made the Nords forgive, at least for a while, her southern complexion and beaky nose and leaping Cyrodiilic intonations - but she also spots a few ashen-grey hands and scaly green claws. She would not stop investigating the Butcher no matter whom he threatened, Nord maidens, or the weary-eyed Dunmer women from the Grey Quarter, or the marsh-sisters of Argonian dock workers - and the Windhelm outcasts are not going to forget that. Which is wonderful - because Tisha is just getting started with helping them.
The ball rolls off into a broader street, Tisha right at its core; she is thrust into the tavern, where the light sears the eyes with a yellow brightness, nigh on unbearable after the snowy gloom of the alleys where the Butcher lurked. The fire in the place's eponymous candle-marked hearth whooshes up, gleefully devouring a fresh helping of wood; the ale kegs begin to bleed in thick, gushing jets; the bard strums the lute strings, grey face split with a radiant smile, and The Dragonborn Comes rings out again, louder than ever each verse drowning in a roar of approval that makes the window panes rattle.
Tisha scans the crowd, making sure to reflect each elated smile with one of her own, nodding enthusiastically each time she sees a familiar face - like Shahvee, a sweet Argonian who, like Tisha, strives to remain friendly and welcoming despite all odds, and is now positively bedazzled by being let inside a Nord tavern for the first time inner life; or Tova Shatter-Shield, the mother of one of Butcher's first victims, who is clinging on to her remaining daughter, melting into sobs of relief. But with every glance around her, Tisha's smile shrinks, and her greetings become more and more vague and vacant. In all this chaotically colourful tapestry of faces, Erandur is nowhere to be found; he must have never followed the throng of revellers to the tavern. Which is... disheartening, because still has a conversation to finish. Forgiveness to ask for any inappropriate behaviour. Friendship to offer, as a fresh start.
At long last, when the celebration becomes less about drinking to her health and more about just drinking, she manages to slip away, squeezing in between two yeast-reeking Nords who are swaying in either side of the tavern door, already inebriated enough to blink at her without a hint of recognition. Once free of the place's stuffy confines, Tisha gathers herself up, gives her surroundings a brisk look, and strides in determination towards the city gates. In case Erandur has decided to walk away again. Which... which she should allow him to do... Like a good friend would... And she will allow him, should he so wish - as soon as she lets him know that she is sorry too.
Tisha finds him at the stables, frozen up in an embrace with the Altmeri horsemaster, whose wife was taken by the Butcher for the sake of draining her blood into a bucket (he must have thought that the blood of the most long-lived meric race would make his experiments more successful... oh, what a dreadful, dreadful conclusion to make).
Just as Erandur tears himself away, his eyes meet Tisha's. He blushes, his grey cheeks turning a muddy red; then, appears to reassure himself with a curt nod and, after exchanging a few last reassuring words with the grieving widower, walks up to her, holding his breath suppressed in his chest, as if before a dive into some unfathomable sea depths.
'Tisha,' he calls to her.
There is no anger in his voice, no revulsion. Has he... Forgiven her for her disgrace of a crush already? Or is he just being his usual caring self?
She blinks at him expectantly, also with baited breath; and he motions her to follow him, past the stables and onto the snow-carpeted bridge that arches above the river - a still, barely rippling ribbon of pink in the light of the breaking dawn.
'That poor mer,' Erandur sighs, leaning over the stone railing and following the water's sleepy course with a thoughtful gaze.
'His marriage was falling apart... His wife was feeling bored in Skyrim, annoyed by his love for the simple peasant life, by his devotion to his horses, which she found vulgar and filthy and smelly... He was drumming up courage to talk to her frankly about all of the problems plaguing them... To try to figure out how they could make things better... By moving somewhere else... Or maybe finding a priest from my order to have their bond annulled... because it was no longer making them happy... He was ready to do anything, even let her go, because he loved her so much, and loathed seeing her suffer... But then...'
He shifts his elbow, letting a clump of snow slip off the railing, and watches it plop into the river and vanish in its belly.
'Then, he lost her. Brutally, like in nightmare. She died with her heart poisoned by the rift between them - and they never got to talk. She never got to hear him assure her that he loved her, and wanted what was best for her'.
Erandur swallows, raising one hand to pass over his face, and then leaves it clutching at his throat.
'The reason I... Ran off...' he says to Tisha, turning away from the river to look her square in the face, his eyebrows arched and his eyes clear like the facets of a flawless gemstone.
'Was not because I needed to commune with Mara... Though perhaps asking her for counsel would have done me some good... No, I thought that... distancing myself from you would help me... pretend that... that I wasn't...'
He inhales, as if pierced by pain, and blurts out,
'I care for you, Tisha. I have always cared for you. I have cherished you as a friend ever since you gave me a second chance at the Temple... And later on... When you thwarted that assassination attempt on that hapless Orc in Morthal... whose only sin was being a bad bard... In that moment... You standing between him and danger... I... I looked at you... and it hit me...'
Erandur has to stop briefly and wipe off his eyes, and Tisha suspects that soon it will be her turn to follow suit, for her heart has grown almost too big for her chest, throbbing against her throat and stomach, pushing a tearful wave up her constricted windpipe.
'I had fallen in love with you. And from that day forth, the feeling has only been growing stronger. Everything you do, every life you save, every smile of forgiveness you grace your enemies with... it has been making me... more and more... enchanted...'
Erandur laughs weakly - and when the sound fades, Tisha is stunned to see his face light up with the very goofy grin that she was so mortified by showing.
'Oh, Tisha, you...' he murmurs, his eyes alight. 'You are the best thing that has ever happened to me... But I...'
His fingers claw at his throat, and the light is snuffed out, a crack of pain splitting through his features instead.
'I know perfectly well that I don't deserve you... And even if I dared forget... Vaermina... is very apt at reminding me of that in my dreams... I tried to keep my feelings a secret from you for as long as I could... I could not bear the thought of you finding out and... and giving me the only response that an old, damaged, worthless mer ought to expect... But... the longing... and the self-loathing... grew too much for me to bear, and I... I ran... Again... Which was wrong of me... And selfish... Just as my actions as Casimir... So I came back... to find out that I had been seconds away from losing you... And... finally kicked myself into taking the risk...'
He finishes with a small, frightened groan, and throws himself against the railing, wrapping his arms around his head and burying his face in the snow.
'I have... said what I had to say... Feel free to hate me now. To... To tell me to leave and never come back. I have made peace with that'.
'Vaermina lies, you know that,' Tisha sniffles, thanking the gods that he can't see the tears streaming down her face. 'You are not worthless. You have come so far, and you really have learned so much... And I have learned from you... We make such an amazing team, you and I, and I am... I am not this infallible aspect of Mara... To be admired from beneath. I am just a person - a person who has been in love with her best friend for the longest time... Maybe even since the moment she banished the Skull of Corruption together with him'.
Slowly, like a dreamwalker, Erandur straightens himself up and makes a full-body turn to face her.
'You... You don't mean...' he stutters helplessly, his arms dropping limp by his sides.
'I thought you didn't return my feelings,' Tisha says, her voice stretched thin and her eyes starting to overflow again. 'I thought... I was ready to spill my heart out to you and be rejected...'
'Oh, we are both such fools, aren't we...' Erandur chuckles, still as weakly as before, as he leans down and circles his thumbs along her cheekbones, wiping away her tears and caressing the barely noticeable trace of a scratch where the Butcher's blade flicked against her skin.
The sensation of his touch sends her stomach into an impossible somersault. The whole inside of her body rocking in a sort of... hot upheaval, Tisha feels that if she does not kiss him right now, she is going to scream.
'I am sure Mara will forgive us,' she says - and grabs hold of Erandur's scarf, so that he brings his glowing, just as tear-stained face even closer to hers, for all her lip-biting convenience.
Chapter 4: Illustration: Shortly Afterwards
Some time after admitting their feelings for each other, Erandur and Tisha head out of Windhelm to visit the hot springs and enjoy some quality time together.