Well?” Delphine asked. “Do you recognise her?”
Even with her head separate from her shoulders, Vilkas would recognise Njada anywhere. He felt his heart sink as he realised it was true. Right here in Jorrvaskr all along, they'd been harbouring assassins. Njada hadn't always been the friendliest, but Vilkas had had a lot of respect for her, and he'd never thought she was capable of this.
“She's one of ours,” said Vilkas roughly. “Her name is – was – Njada Stonearm. I know she favoured Ulfric's cause and worshipped Talos but I never thought...” He stopped, breathing until the urge to scream and break things went away. “I did not think she would sink so low as murder.”
“Plenty of people do the wrong thing for the right reasons,” said Delphine gently as she replaced the sheet over Njada's remains and led Vilkas out of the catacombs. “I imagine she thought she was saving her country.”
“By attacking her queen and her lawful consort?” Vilkas cried. “I can't say I approve of Madanach, but I was watching as he and Elisif came in to Whiterun. I saw him looking as angry as I'd been led to believe he'd be, but she touched his arm and smiled at him, whispering to him. When he looked at her, for a second, just the briefest second, he smiled back. Whatever that marriage may be, it is not a loveless or unhappy one and I am sure he's worried about his wife. Njada had no right to interfere. Besides, I have visited the Reach since it seceded. It is a wild land, and its people do not look kindly on Nords, but it is peaceful enough. It is not the barbaric realm of Oblivion some people think.”
Delphine did look a little surprised to hear that, but she seemed happy. “It makes a change to hear someone say that for once,” she laughed. “You're a complicated man, Vilkas.”
“I use my eyes and my brain, that's all,” said Vilkas awkwardly. It was a strange thing indeed to be having this conversation with someone who was almost certainly a leading member of the Dark Brotherhood. Even stranger to be feeling like the more dishonourable of the two. But thanks to his Shield-Siblings' foolishness, that was exactly where he and all the Companions had ended up.
“Listen, Delphine, I am sorry for my intemperate words of earlier,” Vilkas sighed. He knew when to admit he was in the wrong after all. “I did not wish to believe any I called brother or sister capable of such an act and spoke rashly. Forgive me. Any assistance you need, I will provide. We all will.”
“Thank you,” said Delphine. She was looking remarkably sympathetic for someone who most likely had blood on her hands herself. “So, you were going to tell me who the other Companions are? Kodlak Whitemane is your Harbinger, correct? And you and Aela, you're his deputies?”
“We're in the Circle,” said Vilkas. “We meet with clients, arrange the jobs, hand them out to the others. Kodlak advises us. The rest of the Circle are my twin brother Farkas, and Skjor. Farkas is in Dawnstar with another of our number, Ria. Damn fool fell off a glacier and injured himself. They'll be back soon enough though.”
“Poor man,” Delphine laughed. “Tell me more of this Skjor. Has he been a Circle member long?”
“Over a decade now,” said Vilkas. “He's a good warrior. Fierce in combat, gruff on the outside, but he's got a good heart. He's out on a job at the moment, but he should be back soon.”
“I'll be sure to have a word with him when he returns,” said Delphine, looking increasingly thoughtful. “Does he care about politics at all?”
“He fought in the Great War, but cares little for that sort of thing,” said Vilkas. “I'm sure he's not involved.”
Delphine did not press the point, for which Vilkas was grateful. “Who else have you got?” she asked. “In particular, we're after two Nord men, one with short red-hair, one with longer blonde hair and a braid.”
As if things couldn't get any worse. “Harrald Law-Giver and Ralof of Riverwood,” said Vilkas wearily. “Harrald is Laila Law-Giver's son, you know the former Jarl of the Rift? And Ralof is...”
“A Stormcloak,” said Delphine, closing her eyes, an expression of sadness on her face. “I know. Watched him go off to war after the Thalmor took his cousin. Talos, to see him resort to this... I practically watched the boy grow up!”
“You're from Riverwood?” Vilkas asked, wondering why a Breton would be living in a small Nord village in Skyrim, and then he recalled some idle gossip from the year before. “Wait, you're that Delphine? The one who used to run the inn? I heard you'd disappeared, run off with the Dragonborn...”
Delphine looked up and smiled, although she still looked sad. “That's me. I wasn't really cut out for the quiet life. Life with a Dragonborn is anything but.”
“I can imagine,” said Vilkas, dying to ask all sorts of questions about said Dragonborn and if he'd really gone to Sovngarde to kill Alduin, and did he really wear a jester's hat and leave bodies in his wake? Not to mention if it really had been him who'd liberated Northwatch and wiped out the Thalmor. But now was not the time.
“I don't suppose anyone has seen either of them today?” Delphine asked, not sounding terribly hopeful of getting an answer. Vilkas was once again forced to shake his head.
“No one,” he admitted. “They're in on it too, aren't they?”
“I imagine so,” Delphine sighed. “I don't care about Law-Giver, but Ralof, well, that saddens me. He was always such a nice boy. Of course, I don't suppose it's only them. There's someone organising all this behind the scenes, isn't there?”
“There probably is,” said Vilkas. “Harrald was always a little snide, but he was too idle to come up with this on his own. Ralof, maybe, he's certainly bright enough, but he's a soldier not a general. He takes orders and carries them out, it's what he does. It's knowing who gave them that's the problem.”
“Leave me to think about that,” said Delphine. “Just tell me who else lives in Jorrvaskr.”
“Well, there's our blacksmith, Eorlund Grey-Mane – a Stormcloak supporter but I don't think he'd be behind this. His brother Vignar lives with us too, along with his steward Brill. He was always the more politically minded of the two. I don't want to think it's him, but I can't say it isn't him either. There's also our servant, Tilma, but it's surely nothing to do with her, she's an old woman. Otherwise there's also Torvar – a good man but usually found drinking when he's not fighting. He's not involved, he can't keep a secret to save his life. Ria and Farkas haven't even been here, and Ria's an Imperial – spirit of a Nord, but her heart lies in Cyrodiil. Athis likewise is Dunmer – don't need to tell you what Stormcloaks tend to think of them. At least Ralof was always polite to him, but Harrald got into more than a few fights with the man.”
“So other than Skjor and Vignar, we're running out of candidates,” said Delphine, frustrated. “And none of this tells us where Ralof and Harrald took Elisif, or where Eola went!”
“You don't think Eola was abducted as well?” Vilkas asked. While he could tell from looking at the Reach-Princess that she was no cosseted brat, and that most Reach natives were skilled in magic if not the blade, he'd assumed they'd taken her as well.
Delphine's face gave little away. “Her weapons and armour were gone and her room shows no sign of a struggle. She wasn't there when the abduction happened. There is no way in Oblivion that she wouldn't have joined the fight. Fortunate for our abductors.”
Fortunate indeed. That's if she wasn't in on it and either hated her stepmother or else Madanach had his wife abducted for nefarious reasons of his own... but perhaps Vilkas was overthinking things here.
“Is there anyone else in Jorrvaskr?” Delphine asked. “Anyone at all?”
No, no one... apart from Cicero. By the gods, Cicero. Simple-minded, innocent, sweet little fool who Kodlak doted on and who Vilkas had something of a soft spot for despite his antics. He'd even accompanied Cicero on the Trial that had proved him worthy of being a full Companion. Despite his erratic mental state, underneath all the playfulness lurked an extremely capable warrior, and there was something about Cicero's lack of pretension that reminded Vilkas of his brother. Cicero who Kodlak feared was wanted by the Brotherhood and hadn't a blonde Breton woman been asking questions?
“No one,” said Vilkas, uncomfortable with the lie but knowing he had no choice. Cicero wasn't a conspirator, Vilkas was sure of that, but he was also friendly with Ralof, a little too easily led, and Talos but it would break Kodlak's heart if Cicero was involved. Even worse if the Dark Brotherhood decided to kill him anyway.
“Pity,” said Delphine. “Well, it's something to go on. Thank you, Vilkas, you've been most helpful. Best if no one leaves Whiterun for the time being, I think. And if you get any new recruits, let me know. I may want to check them out.”
Vilkas agreed and followed her out of the Hall of the Dead. Kodlak would need to hear this. If anyone would know how to protect Cicero, he would.
Said Companion was crouched behind a gravestone, waiting as Delphine and Vilkas left the Hall of the Dead. The Imperial who'd accompanied Delphine earlier was still at Jorrvaskr, talking to Torvar and Athis, trying to find out where they'd been last night. Cicero didn't envy the man – Torvar had been drinking more than usual and so was likely to make no sense whatsoever; on the other hand, it did mean the chance to talk to Delphine alone. For some reason, Cicero found himself preferring it that way.
Vilkas parted company with her and headed back to Jorrvaskr. Cicero waited for her to start ascending the steps to Dragonsreach and then began to follow. Harder than it seemed given the lack of cover on Dragonsreach steps, but Cicero managed it. He trailed her into the palace, across the Great Hall and then upstairs, into the guest quarters. So she was staying here? Looked like she really did have the Jarl's authority to investigate, although Cicero was sure that wasn't the half of it.
He noted which room was hers and after the door closed, he waited for a few moments before creeping in. One of the bigger rooms, impressive. A parlour and a decent-sized double bedroom off it – well, she wasn't in the parlour, so she must have gone for a lie-down. Cicero closed the door quietly behind him and began to creep towards the bedroom door.
Or at least he did until someone grabbed him from behind, leather strip going around his neck and choking him. Cicero struggled but her grip was strong and it was difficult to go for his dagger and try to breathe at the same time. She'd been behind the door, waiting. Damn it! And he'd been so careful...
“All right, little sneak-thief, game's up,” Delphine growled. “I knew someone was following me ever since leaving Jorrvaskr. Surprising, I didn't think Companions knew how to sneak. You're good, I'll give you that. Now, who are you? Vilkas only mentioned one blonde and you're definitely not him.” She yanked his head back to get a closer look at him. Cicero found himself staring up into a pair of beautiful blue eyes, the colour of ice and just as dangerous. Well, if he had to die, staring into those eyes was as good a way as any.
The leather strip fell from her hands as she stared back at him, stunned. Cicero collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath. Talos, she was strong and smart too. He was definitely in trouble. All the more so because that prospect didn't presently seem like a bad thing. He looked up, hopeful smile on his face.
“Hello,” he said breathlessly. The smile faded as he saw the expression on her face. Stunned didn't even begin to cover it. She'd gone pale and were those tears in her eyes? Oh Talos, no, he'd not meant to upset her.
“Please don't cry,” he whispered. “I hate seeing you upset.”
“Where have you been?” she breathed, eyes flaring in fury. “Where in Sithis' name have you been, I thought you were dead!” She screamed the last sentence, grabbing his armour and hauling him to his feet. Definitely in a lot of trouble, but now it didn't feel remotely enticing, it just felt horrible.
“I'm sorry,” he cried. “I'm sorry! Please don't hurt me, I don't mean you any harm, I swear! I swear it, I swear it, please, please...”
“Cicero,” she gasped, choking on the word, and oh Talos, his name, she knew his name, she knew who he was. “Oh Cicero. You...” She stopped, unable to say any more and then the next thing he knew, he was in her arms, being held tight against her as she stroked his hair.
“You're alive,” she managed to get out. “Thank the Nine, you're alive. Cicero. Oh Cicero.”
Cicero couldn't help it. He slid his arms around her, resting his head on her shoulder, the locked-up dragon in his head finally shutting up and calming down, and by Talos, she smelled lovely and felt so soft and finally he felt the fear and anxiety about who he was fade away. She knew him, knew who he'd been, and she was strong and safe and reliable. She could protect him, he knew it. She could save him from anything. He'd never felt so safe... so loved. From somewhere inside he didn't even know existed, a well of emotion began to build, a ball of feelings he couldn't name and didn't think he'd have words for even if he could remember who she was. Clinging on to her, he began to cry, not even caring he was probably making a complete fool of himself in front of her.
“I'm sorry,” he sobbed. “So sorry.” He didn't even know what he was sorry for, just that he was in the wrong somehow, needed her to tell him it was fine, that he was all right and all would be well.
“It's all right,” she whispered, stroking his hair as she held him close. “It's all right, you're here, you're safe, I've got you. I've got you. You're all right.”
Cicero closed his eyes, feeling about ready to melt in her arms. He couldn't remember anything about his mother, but this probably wasn't dissimilar to being held and comforted by her. Except he obviously wasn't related to Delphine, and he hoped he'd never felt aroused by his mother. Gods above, he really must be some sort of sex fiend, why was his libido making its presence felt again?? The woman was wearing a wedding ring, she probably had a husband or maybe a wife somewhere, and he had Eola, at least he hoped he might eventually. He wasn't going to risk losing any chance of something with her by giving in, rolling over and begging for this Delphine to have her way with him. Absolutely not. That would be... definitely not arousing or all kinds of delightful, very definitely not.
“What happened to your hair?” she whispered. “You look so strange blonde...”
“It wasn't my idea,” he told her, loving the way her hands played over his scalp. Soothing, so very soothing, by Talos he'd needed that. “Kodlak made me dye it. He was afraid the Dark Brotherhood were looking for me. He thinks there might be a contract out on me. So... so he dyed my hair to make me less recognisable. I don't like it at all. I much preferred it red.”
“So did I,” said Delphine softly. “It suited you.” A pause as her fingers suddenly went still. “Wait a second. A Dark Brotherhood contract. Out on you.”
Cicero nodded nervously. “So Kodlak says. Cicero doesn't leave Jorrvaskr often, not alone. Kodlak says I'm safe there. I hope so.”
“You've been in Jorrvaskr this whole time,” Delphine breathed. “Sweet Night Mother, no wonder she was angry with me. I've been such a fucking idiot.”
“Who was angry with you?” Cicero asked, curious. “Not Eola? And who's the Night Mother? She's not one of the Nine, is she?”
Delphine pushed Cicero away, staring into his eyes, utterly bewildered by now. “Cicero, what...? What happened to you?? You know who the Night Mother is! And I can see how Kodlak might think there was a contract out on you, but why would you think that?? You should know there never... ever... would be...” Her voice trailed off as she saw the helplessness and genuine lack of understanding in his eyes. “Cicero, do you even know who you are? Who I am?”
Cicero shook his head, feeling the tears of frustration threatening to come again. “I don't remember,” he said, never feeling more miserable over his lost memories than he had right then. He should know, should certainly know who this woman was because she was clearly a friend, clearly cared for him and whoever she was married to, they were very lucky and hopefully not the jealous type, because the way she'd held him earlier could easily be misinterpreted. “I woke up in Jorrvaskr a month ago and don't remember anything about who I was or where I came from. Kodlak felt sorry for me and let me stay, took me in and when they found out I could fight, they let me work for them. Then they sent me on a proper Trial with Vilkas to a Falmer hive in Shimmermist Cave and I did so well, they swore me in as a full Companion! And that was good, very good, and Cicero is very pleased to have such loving brothers and sisters to look after him, yes indeed. But... they aren't my real family, are they? I have a home somewhere, don't I? Eola said I was special. Wealthy even. Loved. You know, don't you? Eola said you were a friend, and you knew my name.”
“You've seen Eola?” Delphine cried. “She's alive?? Where is she? Is she alright? Not injured? Does she know where Elisif is?”
“She's fine,” said Cicero, feeling an indescribable wave of happiness welling up at the look of joy on Delphine's face at those words. Yes, definitely a friend of dear Eola's. Maybe even a relative. “She's alive, she found Elisif, she's taking her back to Markarth.”
“Thank the gods,” Delphine breathed. “Cicero, you have no idea how good that is to hear. You'll have to tell me how you found her and where. It could be important. Could unlock this whole mystery.”
Right now, there was only one mystery Cicero wanted unlocked – the one in his head.
“I will,” he said. “But please, you have to tell me. Who am I? Am I in trouble? In danger? And what's wrong with me? Why do I have dragons in my head? Am I going mad? Why... why does the sight of blood make me...”
“You don't like the sight of blood?” Delphine asked, looking surprised.
“I wish that were the case, I only wish,” Cicero said, feeling himself blushing. “Delphine, there must be something wrong with me, there really must be, normal people don't get aroused when blood spills, do they?”
Delphine had put her hand to her mouth, and Cicero had the very odd impression she was trying not to laugh.
“It isn't funny!” he cried. “I'm scared I'm some sort of... monster! Or... or a lunatic. I must be, sane people don't have a dragon in their head that they have to keep penned up all the time!”
“Oh sweetie,” said Delphine, biting her lip. “Sweetie, you're fine. There's nothing wrong with you. Come on, sit down, let's talk.” She held out a hand to him and led him away into the bedroom. Dazed, Cicero followed. He didn't know what was going on, not at all, but something told him he was finally going to get some answers.
She sat down on the bed, pulled her boots off and lay back on the covers, sighing in relief as she wiggled her toes. Cicero swiftly looked away, suppressing the urge to start massaging them for her, because that would probably lead to wanting to kiss them and suck on her toes, and Talos help him, once he'd started down that road, he could guess where it was likely to end up, and the prospect of being pursued by the jealous spouse she probably had did not appeal. Feeling rather nervous, he settled on the edge of the bed, partially lying down next to her, although he kept his own boots on.
“It's alright,” said Delphine softly. “I won't hurt you. You're in no danger from me. You never were, Cicero. And you're not going insane. Those dragons inside your head, they're there for a reason. They're why you're special. They're your power, Cicero.”
“They scare me,” Cicero whispered, trying not to think of the visions of fire and death that flashed through his head whenever he tried to peek behind the door sealing the savage thing away.
“I imagine it's pretty frightening,” said Delphine sympathetically. “But it's part of who you are. It's the source of your strength, your power. Those visions of fire and death and blood, were you in them?”
“No,” Cicero whispered. “No, it was like I was just watching as people died in front of me, or looking around and seeing nothing but bodies. And laughter, always this lunatic laughter. Talos, I could stand the violence, but the laughter?? And why so many of them seemed to be Altmer, I don't even know.”
“You killed a lot of Thalmor in your time,” said Delphine, now grinning as she looked up at him, head resting on one hand. “Nothing to feel guilty about there, I assure you. Cicero, you've no need to be afraid. All that is part of you. It won't hurt you. It will however prove a very potent weapon against your enemies. In fact, I think if you were to let it go, you might also remember who you are. Right now, if I told you everything, I don't think you'd actually believe me. But if you let your dragons out, tapped your full power...”
“I might kill someone!” Cicero cried, terrified at the very thought. “Someone who doesn't deserve it, that is.”
Delphine stared at him for what felt like a full minute.
“You are different,” she said softly. “I don't know whether to be proud or sad. Cicero, you don't have to let them out yet if you don't want. But if there comes a time when your back's against the wall and you've got no other options – promise me you'll let it out. Power's no use to you if you never use it!”
“If there is no other choice, Cicero will do it,” Cicero finally promised her, although his heart felt like lead at the thought. “But not unless he has to.”
“That is fair enough,” said Delphine, her voice still so very sweet and gentle. “I won't force you, Cicero. You've been through enough. So, you were going to tell me about Eola. How did you find her?”
Now this was going to be the tricky bit. But Delphine wasn't a Companion, and Eola was a friend of hers. So Cicero told her everything, about Skjor leading him from Jorrvaskr and telling him he'd performed the Sacrament, and then finding someone from the Dark Brotherhood there as a prisoner, namely Eola. Delphine listened, her face grim and when Cicero told of how he'd seen Eola, half-naked and battered in a cage, she'd actually looked like she was about to be sick.
“I'm sorry, Delphine,” Cicero said guiltily. “I didn't mean to bring that on her. Skjor did it for me. He thought the Dark Brotherhood were hunting me so he summoned one of them to find out where they lived. I think he was planning to lead the Companions to wipe them out so I could be free.”
“He'd never have succeeded,” said Delphine viciously. “What happened? Presumably he brought you there to watch?”
Cicero nodded, still trying to summon a shred of guilt for the murder and still feeling wretched about the fact he couldn't.
“He meant well,” Cicero whispered. “Meant so well. I think he was trying to help. But I just looked at her and she looked so weak and helpless and it just felt so wrong to see her like that, and part of me knew, part of me recognised her. So... so I killed him. He was a friend, a Shield-Brother and I... I just stabbed him. Delphine, what's wrong with me, why don't I feel guilty??”
Delphine's hand crept across the bed, taking his hand in hers.
“Because you didn't do anything wrong,” she whispered back. She was smiling, in fact she even looked proud of him. Proud? Of someone capable of murdering a friend?
“He was hurting Eola. She's your sister, your companion, your friend. You've always cared for her, always. Maybe you don't remember that, but it's still true, and deep inside, your heart knows it. Of course you killed him. After seeing him hurting your sister, how could you let him live? What sort of brother lets someone do that to a sibling of his?”
“Skjor was my brother too,” said Cicero sadly. “I should be mourning him, should be suffering the pangs of conscience, but I'm not. Am I a bad person, Delphine?”
She hesitated before answering and Cicero's heart sank. Gods above, he must be the worst kind of bloody-handed killer. Maybe it was for the best he couldn't remember.
“You've got a very strong code of values,” she said finally. “And you're very protective of your loved ones. You'd not known Skjor long, but you and Eola were very close. Of course you'd choose her over him. Don't dwell on it a second longer. So you rescued her, presumably had some healing potions on hand to heal her?”
“Something like that, yes,” said Cicero, not sure confessing that his ring apparently gave the wearer the ability to heal by eating dead bodies was a good idea. Or that Eola was now a werewolf after said feeding on Skjor. Admitting the sex was right out. “Then we saw the man who took Elisif riding past the bandit lair, and Eola recognised her and chased after them. I went with her and we finally tracked them to a place called Valtheim Towers. We killed Harrald, that's the man who took her, and rescued Elisif. Eola took her back to Markarth and sent me here to find out what was going on and who else was involved. She said I should look for you and leave messages with the innkeeper in Riverwood. She said... she said you were a friend.”
Delphine smiled at him, eyes full of kindness. Not at all like Eola, not really, Eola's eyes had been full of a fierce joy and predatory bloodlust. Delphine by contrast seemed sweet and gentle and kindhearted, and now her fingers were caressing his cheek.
“We're more than that, love,” she whispered, and then she was kissing him, soft lips finding his, moaning softly as she leaned closer. Talos, it was lovely, it was very lovely indeed, and Cicero was flattered to have so many attractive women flinging themselves at him all of a sudden. But he was a man of honour and honour demanded that not only did he not betray his own sweet Eola, he didn't start conducting an affair with someone who had a spouse out there, probably a six foot tall, heavily built spouse with a jealous streak and the ability to carve him to pieces.
“I can't,” he whispered, pushing her away and staggering off the bed. “I can't, I'm sorry, you're lovely, you really are, but you're married and I've got someone, well, not exactly but I love her and she won't believe I do if I start leaping into bed with other women, so I have to go, right now!”
“Cicero, what are – you've got someone else?!” she cried, looking alternately heartbroken and furious. “Who??”
“I can't tell you!” Cicero cried, seeing that look in her eyes and knowing that if she ever found out, she'd certainly kill them. While Eola was no pushover, she wasn't invulnerable either and Cicero had no intention of letting her get hurt because of him. “I'm sorry! Go back to your husband or wife, forget about me – oh Talos.” He saw the black ribbon around her wrist. Black – colour of death and mourning. It occurred to him that maybe the big, burly jealous spouse might not be such a problem after all, and that only seemed to make it worse somehow. “I'm sorry for your loss, I'm so sorry, you must miss them awfully,” he babbled over his shoulder as he made for the door. She was calling for him to wait, staggering off the bed and wincing as bare feet met cold stone.
“But you're pretty! You're lovely! You'll find someone else in time,” Cicero called back, already running. “Someone who's available. Just mourn your spouse first!”
“Cicero!” she shouted. “Cicero, come back, you are my-!”
He darted out into the corridor, slamming the door behind him and racing away before she could finish. Gods, his life was getting messed up even more – first meeting his lover again, now being propositioned by the grieving widow Eola had pointed him at. He needed to get out of here, get back to Jorrvaskr quickly. As he heard the door open behind him, he dived around the corner into the shadows and was gone.
“Cicero, wait, come back, I'm your-” Delphine staggered into the corridor, panic-stricken at the thought of losing him again so soon. Too late. He'd vanished.
“-wife,” her voice trailed off, a lump in her throat. Great. She'd given in, moved too soon and scared him off. And another lover?? Well, he was charming and handsome and hadn't known he had a prior commitment, she supposed it wasn't out of the question he might have gone along with it if someone else had initiated things. All the same, he was still her husband and she wasn't giving up that easily. At least he'd still found her attractive. That was something. More than that, she knew he was alive and she knew where he was, where he'd been. Jorrvaskr, he'd been at Jorrvaskr, been made a full Companion after going out on a job with Vilkas. Who had conveniently neglected to mention Cicero's presence there. Now that was interesting, very interesting indeed. After talking with Cicero, she could guess why Vilkas had lied to her, but lying to the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood was a very bad idea. Perhaps it was time to pay him a little visit and point out just what a terrible idea that was. And when she was done with Vilkas, her next job would be to identify this lover of Cicero's and track her down too. Another woman might have retreated to her bed in tears, but Delphine wasn't just any wronged wife. Someone had stolen her husband's affections? Someone was going to pay dearly.
“Troll!” The scream echoed out from behind Eola, ruining any chance she might have had at sneaking up on it.
“I know it's a troll!” Eola shouted, dual casting fireballs at it while retreating backwards as fast as she could. “Either shut up or get behind it and hit it!” Really, escorting Elisif home was proving to be more trouble than it was worth. They'd parted company with Cicero and sneaked south as far as Riverwood, taking refuge at the Sleeping Giant, where Delphine had had the foresight to leave a cache of weapons and armour in her secret cellar. That had been this morning. Eola had taken the opportunity to dress Elisif in an outfit that didn't scream 'Queen' to anyone who saw her. She'd braided her hair like a warrior, applied face paint and decked her out in a set of full Elven armour with a scaled helmet, and lent her the ebony war axe she'd picked up in Dustman's Cairn plus a Blades katana. Apparently Elisif had had a few lessons in one-handed weapon fighting, but most of that had been from a fencing tutor. Eola had heard of fencing from Cicero. He'd gleefully described it as an elaborate system for nobles to convince themselves they knew how to fight while simultaneously making them incredibly useless in actual mortal combat. Cicero had liked the idea of fencing greatly. Fortunately, Elisif had also been having a few lessons in proper defence from both her housecarl Bolgeir, and indeed from Madanach, who'd taken one look at the way she held a sword and insisted he teach her personally. Eola just hoped it was enough. Besides, that war axe should put a dent in most things if you hit them hard enough with it.
Now it was evening and they were on the road to Falkreath, by the shore of Lake Ilinalta fighting off a troll that had lurched out of the woods. Well, Eola was fighting it. Elisif was just standing there clutching her katana and looking petrified. At least if she stayed still, it might leave her alone. Eola summoned a Flame Atronach with the last of her magicka and drew Dawnbreaker and the Skull of Corruption for a little hand to hand.
Of course that was when Elisif decided she was a true Nord after all.
“Victory or Sovngarde!” she cried, in a scared and uncertain tone of voice that would frighten no one, and darted forward with her katana to hit the troll's side, barely scratching it. The troll roared, spun round and with one blow of its claws, sent her katana flying. Elisif screamed and reached for the ebony axe, clinging on to it for dear life. Eola wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't drop that either, but she had to do something. One blast from the Skull later and the troll had left Elisif and turned back to her, clearly recognising her as the more dangerous one.
“That's right, you get over here, you furry son of a bitch!” Eola shouted. “Come, come and face the Forsworn!”
The troll roared and prepared to strike. Eola had Dawnbreaker ready to hit it back... and then the troll staggered under a blow from behind, blood spurting everywhere. Eola took advantage and shoved Dawnbreaker through its torso. The beast howled in pain, falling to its knees, and then another blow to the lower back sent it falling to the ground entirely. Elisif planted a foot on its back and tried to wrench her axe out of it. To no avail – the axe head was embedded deeply in the troll's back and wasn't budging. Slowly, the troll was starting to stir.
“Help!” Elisif cried, looking nervously at Eola. Fortunately for them both, Eola's Atronach lobbed a fireball at it and the thing finally died.
“Oh gods,” Elisif whispered, staring at the blood all over her shiny golden armour. “Oh gods, we killed it. We – I – I helped kill something. Mara help me.” She staggered back a few feet and promptly sat down by the road, visibly shaking.
“Are you alright?” Eola asked. She hoped so. She really didn't want to have to explain to her father that Elisif was traumatised for life thanks to her.
“It's dead,” Elisif whispered. She looked up at Eola, still fearful. “I was useless, wasn't I? And... and your axe is stuck! It's ebony too, isn't it? Stendarr, I'm so sorry.”
“It's fine,” said Eola, casting a Conjuration spell at the dead creature. Slowly, it lumbered to its feet, making Elisif shriek again.
“But it was dead!” she cried.
“It still is,” said Eola gently. “I just raised it, so now we have a bodyguard and when the spell wears off, it'll be ash and you can get the axe back.”
Elisif didn't look reassured, in fact she'd shuddered at the sight of the zombie troll. “It's horrible,” she whispered. “I don't even know how you can do things like that.”
Somehow Eola suspected Elisif wasn't after Conjuration lessons. “Because I learnt how and it comes in useful sometimes. Come on, you're married to a Reachman, you're not used to casual magic use around you yet?”
“He's never raised anything from the dead in front of me!” said Elisif, still appalled. “Although he did once use a lightning spell to shoot a hawk down. That was impressive...”
“Da's not really a Conjuration expert, it's true,” Eola agreed. She put an arm around Elisif, giving her a hug. “Are you OK? We should keep moving if we're to get to Falkreath tonight. Get a proper night's sleep there then make for Markarth tomorrow.”
Elisif nodded, letting Eola help her to her feet. She retrieved her katana and sheathed it, turning to the other woman.
“Was I alright?” she asked nervously. “I've – I've never been in a proper fight before, not actual fighting.”
Eola could tell that. However, she could also tell that Elisif was braver than she looked and that her previous weapons training had paid off. While she wasn't about to let Elisif wander off anywhere on her own, Eola decided maybe she wasn't quite the liability she appeared.
“You did fine,” Eola reassured her. “It's dead, you're not, you're not even injured and you got a few strikes in. Wouldn't recommend you try and fight a troll on your own, but you're not bad with an axe. Keep practising, you'll get there eventually.”
That seemed to cheer her up. Elisif didn't even seem bothered by the raised troll after that. They continued along the road, occasionally running into wolves and there were the two skeletons near the turn for Falkreath, but Elisif seemed to be getting a little more confident and by the time the last skeleton crumbled to the ground, Elisif was swinging the axe and shouting “True Nords never back down!” like she'd been doing this sort of thing all her life.
“Da's not even going to recognise you when he sees you at this rate,” said Eola as they made their way towards Falkreath. “There we all were, thinking you were such a prim and proper young lady, and now look at you, you're looking like a proper Nord warrior.”
“I feel it! This is so much fun! I've never been on a proper adventure before!” Elisif giggled. Eola felt her heart twist as she was reminded of Cicero. But he wasn't here and Elisif, despite the giggling, was no assassin. She put the ebony war axe away, looking a little nervous. “You don't think he'll mind, will you? I – I don't know what he really wants in a woman. I know he cares about me, and he's been so sweet and kind, but I don't know if he'll still be interested if I come home waving an axe around and going on about all the things I killed. It won't put him off, will it? I know it must sound foolish, but I want him to think well of me.”
Bless the poor girl. It was all very endearing, but also obvious she didn't know Madanach that well yet. Not that Eola knew her father as well as she'd like, not with twenty years of separation, but she knew him well enough to know that he'd always respect strength. Plus he tolerated her and Cicero randomly dropping in and talking about things they'd killed, he'd put up with it from Elisif, of that Eola was sure.
“I'm sure he won't mind at all,” Eola reassured her. “He'll be surprised but I don't think he'll be upset. He's a Reachman. We've got more important things to worry about than court manners and being ladylike. Honestly, the whole process of becoming an adult among the Forsworn involves proving you can take a life, animal or human. He's not going to be upset you killed something, he'll be pleased for you and probably very proud. Not sure what your own court would think, but they're Nords, right? Nords are fighters, aren't they?”
“We are,” said Elisif. “Falk might not approve, but he'll have to like it, won't he? At least it will mean Balgruuf and Brunwulf will have to take me seriously and not patronise me, and gods, it'll make Erikur so much more bearable if I know I can take his head off if I had to.”
“That's the spirit!” Eola laughed, patting Elisif on the shoulder. Good to know even Erikur's Jarl thought he was obnoxious.
It was at that moment the half-naked man in ragged trousers staggered out of the bushes towards them. Both women readied their weapons, but it was clear he was unarmed. Clear to Elisif anyway. Lowering her axe, she approached.
“Hello?” she asked cautiously. “Who are you? Where are your clothes?”
“Elisif,” Eola called. “Be careful. Those are prison trousers. He's escaped from somewhere.” She'd not lowered Dawnbreaker for a second, and her free hand had a fire spell ready to go.
“It wasn't my fault,” the man protested. “I couldn't help it. You – you know! You know how it is, being one of us!”
“Shut up,” Eola hissed. Elisif looked between them, confused. Eola wasn't a Nord and this man was, so it obviously wasn't ethnic similarity. Was he a fellow mage? Or... not a Dark Brotherhood assassin, surely – not that Eola had ever outright admitted it, but Elisif had seen her at that secret conference at the side of the Dark Brotherhood's leader, not with her father, and it hadn't been difficult to work out that Madanach's ties with the Brotherhood were due to his younger daughter being a member.
“I would know nothing,” said Eola viciously. “I've got a lot of blood on my hands, but every single kill was someone I intended to die.”
“Eola, what's going on?” Elisif asked, honestly confused as to why she was reacting like this. “Do you know this man?”
“No,” said Eola, edging closer. “But I know what he is, and you should back off, Elisif. He's dangerous.”
“He doesn't look it,” said Elisif, sure that Eola might just be overreacting. “What's your name, friend? What happened?”
The Nord man gave her a strange half-smile. “You should believe your friend there, lass. My name's Sinding and I made the mistake of offending a Daedric Prince. You should probably just let me go and forget you ever saw me. There are guards on my tail.”
“Guards? But... if it wasn't your fault, we can help you, we could talk to them, get them to let you go!” Elisif cried, ignoring the sigh from Eola.
Sinding shook his head. “Too late for that. I lost control. I... I killed a little girl. Just tore her apart. I didn't mean to, it wasn't my fault! But they won't believe me and I don't blame them.”
Elisif did take a step back at that. Even so, she could sense there was more to this than met the eye, especially if Daedra were involved.
“How do the Daedra come into this?” she asked.
“The Daedric Lord Hircine,” said Sinding miserably. “I stole a ring from him. I'd heard it could help... people like me. Maybe once, but when he found out I'd taken it, he cursed the ring. I came to Falkreath because I'd heard there was a great white deer that haunts these woods, and Hircine will speak with whoever kills it. I was going to give him the ring back, get him to lift the curse. But then... the little girl... it was the curse, it made me do it, I swear!”
“That's awful,” Elisif whispered, horrified. “Where is this deer? We could kill it, talk with Hircine for you?”
“Elisif, no!” Eola cried, exasperated. Elisif turned to Eola, fed up of the Reachwoman being so hostile for no reason.
“What is wrong with you, Eola?” Elisif snapped. “This poor man's in trouble through no fault of his own!”
“He stole from a Daedra, I'd say it's entirely his fault!” Eola shot back furiously. Elisif really couldn't believe how callous Eola could be sometimes.
“Well, I'm not just leaving him on his own,” said Elisif. “It's my job to help people and I will.” She turned back to Sinding and gave a little scream in horror. He was staggering back, clutching at his chest, hair starting to sprout from his arms.
“Werewolf, you're a werewolf!” Elisif cried. Sinding looked up, eyes full of misery and terror.
“Run,” he whispered. “Get away!” Elisif, whimpering, ran back to take cover behind Eola, who also looked horrified. Which was frightening in itself, Eola was definitely not the type to scare easily. The transformation completed and the werewolf growled at them. Elisif sobbed, terrified, and for a moment she could have sworn the thing was going to attack them... but it stopped, locked eyes with Eola, then turned and ran, heading west faster than either could follow.
“He was a werewolf,” Elisif finally managed to say by the time she'd stopped shaking. “Divines, he could have killed us!”
“Told you not to mess with him!” said Eola. “Honestly, you and your damn bleeding heart...”
“He was still one of my people!” said Elisif stubbornly, not yet willing to admit Eola might have been right about the man. “And no one deserves cursing by a Daedric Lord. Poor thing, the ring must have made him lose control of his changes. We should do something about it.”
“Like what?” Eola asked wearily. “We really don't have time to be messing around trying to help him, we've got to get you to Markarth and find out what in Oblivion's happening in Skyrim. Elisif, are you listening? Elisif? Oh sweet Sithis, no, Elisif, leave that alone!”
The silver ring with the wolf's head on it that Sinding had been wearing had fallen to the floor when he'd changed and was now lying on the road. It looked so harmless. Eola wasn't fooled. She knew Daedric artefacts when she saw them, she could feel the power rolling off that one. She would have been wary before – now she was cursed with the beast blood herself, she wasn't touching it.
Unfortunately, Elisif had no such knowledge of the Daedra. Curious, she bent down and picked it up. Somehow, the thing ended up on her finger.
“It won't come off,” said Elisif, looking up in alarm. “Eola, why won't it come off??”
“Because it's a Daedric Ring with a curse on it, and you went and picked it up!” Eola cried. Oh well, at least Elisif wasn't a werewolf and therefore unlikely to change into a beast any time soon – oh balls.
Elisif had gone very still, staring at her in horror as she reached for her chest.
“Eola!” she cried. “What's happening to meeeee??” She screamed in pain as her armour fell to the floor, reddish-gold fur sprouted all over the place and her face turned into a snout. Eola placed a hand to her mouth, horrified. Finally, a red-furred werewolf was staring back, whining hopelessly at her.
“Elisif,” Eola whispered. “Elisif, it's alright, don't panic, we can fix this...”
In the distance came the sound of footsteps and voices shouting “Murderer!” and “Kill the beast!” Elisif whimpered and promptly fled into the woods faster than any human stood a chance of running.
“Sweet Namira,” Eola swore, hastily gathering up all Elisif's things and shoving them into a pack. Before the guards could get there, she dived into the bushes, stripped off her own clothes, packed them as well and willed her own transformation.
It seemed quicker, easier, this time. Certainly it didn't hurt as much, and when it was done, everything seemed brighter, sharper, werewolf night vision making everything so much clearer. Elisif's scent left a clear trail marking where she'd gone – humans might not be able to track her, but she could follow it. Clutching both packs in her mouth, she dropped to all fours and gave chase.