Bryling surveyed the scene, feeling a little nervous and she couldn't rightly have said why. Still no sign of Elisif, all the Jarls were here (even if Balgruuf was pointedly ignoring his brother), no one in Solitude was explicitly agitating against her, and while General Rikke had been a bit terse about having hoped for peace and stability after the Stormcloaks had been put down, she'd not actually arrested her and ordered martial law. Rikke was a true Nord at heart. She'd understand the need for someone to be in charge, and surely she knew that Nords needed leaders they could respect, leaders who could lead them into battle and hold their own in a fight, leaders who didn't need a strong hand guiding them all the time? Skyrim did not need an untried slip of a girl like Elisif as its queen, and it definitely didn't need the Reach-King hovering at its ruler's back, manipulating and using both the queen and Skyrim, having the power over the Nords he'd never get on his own. No, this was the only way. The original plan had been to eliminate Madanach and find a replacement consort, but dethroning Elisif and taking power herself would do as an acceptable back-up. As long as Elisif didn't turn up. She was out there somewhere, probably with her husband plotting something, but as long as they didn't turn up before tomorrow's Moot, all would be well. By then, it would all be legal and Elisif wouldn't be able to do a thing. Certainly not without provoking a war, and the assassination method was also no longer an option, thanks to Hrongar and his associates. She still missed Falk... but he hadn't really loved her, had he? He'd really wanted Elisif the whole time. Pretty, helpless, vulnerable Elisif. Well, so be it. It had cost him his life, and soon, it would cost Elisif her throne. Besides, she had someone else now, a new lover who preferred strength to passivity.
“Worried, love?” Hrongar murmured into her ear as he passed her another glass of mead. “Don't be, everything is going according to plan. Elisif's not coming back. Solitude needed a Jarl and you're it. The Moot happens tomorrow, the Jarls will all sign up to it because none of them want the job and you'll be legally and legitimately Queen.”
“Yes,” said Bryling softly. Yes she would. She regretted harm coming to Elisif, she really did, but it was her own fault really, for persisting in being stubborn and marrying that monster and acting as if she was really a loving wife and he a loving husband. Couldn't she see her foolishness had turned the whole of Skyrim over to a bloody-handed murderer? That was assuming the girl was still alive and hadn't been killed by the beast that took Harrald (Laila was being very tiresome on that subject – hopefully she'd shut up once they'd taken the Reach back and she had a Hold of her own again). No, Elisif couldn't have been allowed to stay in power. Skyrim needed a competent ruler not in league with the Forsworn and worse, and while Bryling would never have supported Ulfric, not after he'd killed Torygg anyway, the man had known what he was doing at least. No, this was all for the best.
She should probably start mingling with the guests – she'd taken the liberty of hosting a reception at the Blue Palace for the visiting Jarls. So far, no trouble – Siddgeir and Maven had both offered congratulations and good wishes for her future career, although the calculating look in Maven's eyes unsettled her. Almost as if she didn't seem to think Bryling had much of a future. Still, expecting sincerity and charm from a Black-Briar was possibly asking a bit much. Balgruuf had been ignoring her, but that was to be expected. Korir had been polite enough but displeased at why the Empire needed to be involved – once a Stormcloak, always a Stormcloak, but if he rebelled on his own, Winterhold would not be difficult to take over by force if necessary. Brunwulf had talked heavily about dark days coming to Skyrim and death stalking the halls of Solitude, and Idgrod had been no better, talking of dark portents and evil magic, a storm of wolves and eagles and dragons about to break on Solitude. How she was still Jarl remained a mystery to Bryling. Finally there was Brina Merilis, the lone Imperial amidst all the Nord Jarls, keeping her counsel but radiating disapproval. Bryling wasn't sure what her problem was – she was a former soldier, didn't she respect strength? Bryling wasn't planning to secede from the Empire or anything, just rule her country and hopefully reunite it.
From somewhere outside, there was an awful lot of noise happening – shouting, cheering, clapping? She'd not authorised a party but if Solitude decided to spontaneously throw one, she could live with it. She could even hear someone singing, although she couldn't tell what from here.
The herald on the door coughed nervously, cleared his throat and announced the next guest to arrive.
“Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of the Companions, accompanied by Aela the Huntress, Vilkas and Farkas Jergensson of Jorrvaskr, and Ria Da Silva, all Companions of Ysgramor.”
A collective gasp went through the assembled throng. The Companions rarely left Jorrvaskr except on business and never intervened in politics. To show up here, uninvited and unannounced? Something was up. Bryling looked nervously at Hrongar.
“Should I be worried now?” she hissed. Hrongar just smiled.
“Clearly they're just here to give you their blessing. Everyone respects Kodlak Whitemane. You should be flattered he's here.”
Flattered wasn't the word Bryling had in mind, not given that they'd been using his organisation as a staging post for a coup. Still, he'd shown up here in public and the eyes of Skyrim were on her. She could hardly ignore him. Getting up from her throne, she made her way down the stairs to greet him.
Rikke was already there, cheerfully making conversation.
“Harbinger, what a pleasant surprise! We weren't told you were coming! General Rikke of the Imperial Legion, Military Governor of Skyrim, at your service. I am honoured to stand before you, sir.”
“Oh, no need to stand on ceremony with me, lass,” Kodlak laughed, looking completely at ease in his wolf armour. He was the only one of the Companions who did, the rest all looked rather uncomfortable, still covered in dust from the road. “We're both warriors, veterans of many combats. We stand as equals, you and I.”
Rikke's cheeks blushed scarlet as she smiled at the compliment. “You're very kind to say so, Harbinger. It's an honour to be reckoned worthy by one such as you.”
Bryling decided she'd better interrupt this little love-fest. Part of her was feeling a little stung at Rikke getting all the attention and being deemed worthy by Kodlak Whitemane himself. She was just as good a warrior as Rikke, why wasn't the same being said about her?
“Harbinger,” she said, keeping her voice level. “What brings you to Solitude? Not that you're not welcome, but it's rare to see any of your company attend things like this. I thought the Companions didn't interfere in politics?”
“We don't,” said Kodlak, staring her straight in the eye, his voice cold as his steel. “Not as a rule. But when our honour is at stake, we'll do what we have to in order to reclaim it.”
All five Companions were now staring her down, cold fury in their eyes, and Bryling realised that they weren't here to give her their blessing. They wanted revenge for her conspiracy having sullied Jorrvaskr.
“Guards!” she called, but the guards were hesitating to respond, no one really wanting to arrest Kodlak Whitemane of all people, especially when no one had drawn a weapon yet. Then the door opened, and Bryling could hear the song clear now, Lisette the bard going into the second chorus with some gusto and that woman had best be leaving Solitude in a hurry if she didn't want to be in prison for inciting rebellion. No one sang Rains of Lost Valley in Bryling's city. No one. That anyone had even dared sing of the House of Madanach's triumphs here was a shock. But if someone was brave enough to do that openly... Bryling's heart sank, and then the herald announced the next guests and Bryling was half tempted to flee right there.
“Madanach ap Caradach, by the grace of the old gods King of the Reach, Heir of Red Eagle, Custodian of the Mournful Throne. Eola ap Madanach, Princess of the Reach, Handmaiden of the old gods and Protector of the Dragonborn. Cicero Di Rosso, Companion of Jorrvaskr, Slayer of Alduin and Dragonborn.”
Madanach?? What in Oblivion was he doing here? Shouldn't he be out searching for Elisif, or at least preparing the Reach for the inevitable invasion? Why had he dared to show his face here? Not that Bryling believed he truly loved his wife for a minute, but no man could afford to be seen sitting idle while his wife was missing. And the Dragonborn... He'd been missing since the wedding, part of the reason to strike now and stage the coup while he wasn't around to interfere. To have him show up and clearly in the Reach-King's entourage – this was very very bad. Bryling had seen what he'd done to Lydia right there in the palace. He was strong, talented, utterly fearless and dangerously unpredictable. And he was right here.
“Sorry we're late, my daughter was taking her sweet time getting ready,” said Madanach calmly, dressed in full Forsworn armour with glass war axe at his waist and about four Forsworn warriors plus the biggest Orc Bryling had ever seen behind him. Eola was next to him, clad in a set of scaled armour, but Forsworn boots, gauntlets and headdress. Her sword was golden and glowing, just the one weapon visible, but everyone knew she was a spellcaster to be feared.
“It's not my fault, I'd have loved to be ready on time, but someone was hogging the mirror and fussing over his hair!”
She glared at Cicero, who was giggling to himself and patting his hair, which had gone from a deep reddish-brown auburn to a vivid shade of scarlet in the intervening months. He seemed not to care, especially as the patched and worn jester hat and the black leather and dragonscale armour designed to look a bit like a jester's motley were not typical party attire. No, the Dragonborn was here in full combat gear, clearly armed to the teeth. And a Companion of Jorrvaskr? Since when had the Dragonborn been one of them??
“Harbinger, Harbinger, Cicero is here!” he cooed, skipping over to Kodlak and standing at his side, gazing up at him in a rather sickening adoration. To Bryling's surprise, Kodlak looked down at him tenderly and patted him on the back.
“Glad you made it, lad. Are you ready?”
Ready for what, Bryling didn't want to know. Hrongar was by her side, and the guards were gathering, as were the other Jarls, all looking curious. Apart from Balgruuf, who was just smiling. Almost as if he'd expected this.
“Oh yes!” Cicero giggled. “She's just coming now.”
“Oh my gods,” the herald gasped, her voice echoing more than it should have done and grabbing everyone's attention.
“Just do your job and announce me,” a woman cut in angrily, and Bryling knew that voice, her heart sinking. She's here, she's actually here, and she must want her throne back.
“E- Elisif Wolfslayer, Jarl of Haafingar, High Queen of Skyrim,” the herald announced, doing a very professional job under the circumstances.
The guests just melted away, clearing a path between Bryling and the door. Elisif was there, in Forsworn boots and gauntlets, some kind of low-cut fur armour, an ebony war axe at her waist and some sort of helmet on her head? It looked like dragonbone, but surely not...
“Is that Elisif?”
“Surely not, she never used to look like a warrior...”
“Gods, look at her face!”
“What's that on her head? It's not Forsworn...”
“It's dragonbone,” Giraud Gemane of the Bards' College could be heard to whisper. “Made of dragon teeth. Kynareth preserve us, I think that's the Jagged Crown!”
Elisif strode towards her, looking nothing like the little girl she'd once been. Now she walked like a veteran warrior and as she got closer, Bryling recoiled to see that one of her eyes was a milky sightless white, and the war paint on her face was clearly hiding the scars.
She stopped about five paces away, arms folded.
“Thank you for taking over in my absence, Bryling,” said Elisif calmly, her voice the same as ever and that was just wrong, that cut-glass ladylike voice coming out of this barbarian's mouth. “But as you can see, I've returned, my attackers certainly won't be, and I'd quite like my throne back if it's all the same to you. Step down peacefully now and we'll write this off as a regrettable misunderstanding and continue as friends.”
“Right up until the Dark Brotherhood stick a knife in my back too?” Bryling said, reaching for her sword. Elisif's good eye had gone cold as soon as she'd mentioned them.
“Whatever you may say about the Brotherhood, at least they are honest murderers,” she said coldly. “I can't call them innocent, but at least they've not plotted to overthrow me behind my back while pretending to be my friends.”
“They killed your steward, Elisif,” said Bryling, hoping to persuade her that relying on the Brotherhood for support was unreliable at best. “Even if they're making deals with you now, what makes you think they won't kill you when the coin is right? Or when your husband decides he's tired of playing second fiddle to you? It's only a matter of time now your face looks like that.”
A spasm of pain flickered across Elisif's face but she got her emotions under control. The same could not be said for Madanach, pitiless blue eyes glaring out at her from under that headdress, lightning crackling in his hands.
“The wolf has claws,” he growled. Eola, there at his left hand, just laughed, smirking knowingly.
“But are they as long and sharp as yours?” she grinned, quoting that damn song again, and Bryling really didn't like that smile, not at all. Madanach's eyes never left Bryling, hatred of the Nords on show for all to see.
“In answer to your question, she-wolf, when the seas take Skyrim, the Reach burns in fire and Oblivion takes us all, Elisif will still be my Wolfslayer and I will still love her,” Madanach growled. “Elisif, you don't mean to stand for this. Say the word, and we will send her to the Void.”
“No!” said Elisif tersely, hand on her husband's wrist, lowering his arm and encouraging him to turn the spells off. “We need to do things lawfully. And that means having the truth come out. Bring him!” She clapped her hands and a big Nord in steel armour, along with a cowled woman in red and black, hauled another man forward. He was dressed in leather armour, in chains, and his captors threw him to the floor at Elisif's feet.
“Who is this?” Bryling snapped, although Hrongar had gone a bit pale and she suspected she knew all too well what had happened. “Why are you carting prisoners around when you absconded to a foreign power and left Skyrim leaderless? You have no legal authority to make arrests!”
“I left my steward in charge, as you well know!” Elisif snapped. “Until someone killed him! And I certainly had no intention of leaving Skyrim had I not been snatched from Dragonsreach and been forced to flee for my life after Eola and the Dragonborn rescued me.”
All eyes turned to Cicero, who was just standing there grinning. Eola looked completely unbothered by the attention.
“I snuck out for a quiet bit of night hunting and came across some renegade Companion abducting my stepma, damn right he gets what's coming to him,” Eola shrugged. “Have to say though, it was mostly thanks to also running across my old buddy Cicero the Dragonborn here. Turns out he'd been in Jorrvaskr this whole time, infiltrating the place to try and find out what was going on. Because he's a concerned citizen like that.”
“I did? I did!” Cicero squealed as Eola elbowed him in the ribs. “Cicero was most worried an evil plot was afoot, yes indeed, and he likes Elisif, she is a good queen and a very kind lady. So yes, Cicero joined the Companions to try and unmask the traitors.”
“But that's not-” Vilkas muttered, only for Aela to elbow him in turn.
“Shut up,” she muttered, “it makes for a better story.”
Kodlak patted Cicero on the shoulder, looking rather proud of him. “Aye lad, and we're most grateful you did. Gaining their confidence by pretending to be a Talos-worshipper and on the run from the Dark Brotherhood was inspired. Not exactly the most honourable way to proceed, but you saved Elisif and helped cleanse the name of Jorrvaskr. We're most grateful, lad, and very proud of you.”
Cicero went bright pink, staring at his pointy leather jester boots to avoid all the attention.
“The Harbinger is too kind,” he whispered, shuffling closer to Eola, who'd put a protective arm around him. In the background, Giraud Gemane and Viarmo were frantically scribbling, clearly making notes for a future composition. Bryling made a mental note to ensure any creative output from that college told the story with the right ending.
“Convenient for you that help came when it did,” Bryling retorted. “And Falk's death was regrettable but one cannot stop the Dark Brotherhood, you know that.”
“No,” she heard Cicero purr as he looked up, the previous modesty giving way to a dark and dangerous voice that suddenly made the ridiculousness of the little man in his silly hat seem very much a flimsy cover for something far more terrifying. “You certainly can't.”
“Funny you should say that,” said Elisif, prodding her prisoner. “Turns out it actually wasn't them. Ralof, tell them who you are and what you've been up to.”
“I killed Falk Firebeard,” said Ralof, his voice dull. “I'm not a Dark Brotherhood assassin, in fact up until recently I was a Companion. Not any more though. Doubt Kodlak still wants me in Jorrvaskr now. I posed as a guard and made the murder look like Dark Brotherhood work. To sow dissension and try and set Madanach and Elisif and the Brotherhood at each other's throats. And I did it on his orders!”
He pointed at Hrongar, hate in his eyes. Everyone gasped and turned to look.
“Is this true?” Brina cried, horrified. “Balgruuf, tell me you weren't involved as well as your brother!”
“He's no brother of mine!” Balgruuf snapped. “He stopped being kin to me when he corrupted one of my better guards and sent her to turn the Companions from the path of honour!”
“Yes, we're really not pleased at being used to take part in treason,” said Kodlak sternly. “I lost some valued brothers and sisters to this little plot. To do this at all was a vile thing, but to drag the name of Jorrvaskr in to the mud with it? Honour demands a reckoning!” The other Companions nodded in agreement, not exactly reaching for weapons, but definitely looking like they were about to.
“Now – now wait just a minute!” Bryling cried, shooting glances at Hrongar. “If individual members of the Companions decide honour demands the queen that sold the Reach for peace has to step down, that's no concern of mine. Also, do you expect me to take the word of this man? He could be anyone. For all I know, he's a Dark Brotherhood assassin himself. Besides, by your own admission Elisif, you left Skyrim for Markarth at a time when you needed to be back in Solitude. Your steward's death is besides the point. Your throne is forfeit and the Jarldom is mine. I'm sorry Elisif, but do be reasonable. You're just a girl. Nords need a warrior to lead them, not a naïve young thing like you. If you're willing to stop this foolishness and leave, I'll be happy to let you go your own way. You're still Madanach's consort, you can be queen there.”
“Until you decide to invade and take back the Reach?” said Elisif bitterly. “I think not. In that case Bryling, you leave me no choice. If one has to be a warrior to rule Skyrim, then I'm willing to prove it. I challenge you, Bryling. I challenge you in the old way, one warrior to another, like Ulfric challenged Torygg. The winner is Jarl of Haafingar, and queen if the Moot decides it. The loser... well, the loser pays in blood.”
Not a sound could be heard. The court had gone absolutely silent. Even Elisif's backers looked tense, even Cicero still for once, and Madanach had lowered his eyes, face a mask.
“You cannot be serious,” breathed Bryling, almost on the verge of laughing. Had it really come to this? At the same time, it was something of a godsend. She could take Elisif in a fight, she was sure. “You can't be challenging me. Three weeks ago, you were no more than barely competent with a blade! And those scars mean someone got the better of you.”
“I smashed his brains out with my axe and now I'm wearing his skin,” said Elisif coldly. “I have challenged you, Bryling, you can't turn me down with any honour.”
“There's no honour in fighting children,” Bryling snapped. “But if you insist on throwing your life away like this, then so be it. Fetch my armour! We'll have this out in Castle Dour courtyard. Is that all right with you, General? Will the Empire recognise the victor as ruler of Skyrim?”
“If it means you all stop trying to kill each other, fine,” Rikke sighed. “Let's get this over with.”
FUS RO DAH. YOL TOOR SHUL. KRII LUN AUS.
Elisif ran them in her head over and over again, repeating the Shouts Cicero had taught her as they proceeded down the pathway towards Castle Dour. Three Shouts, the power of the dragons, at her command if she needed.
She hoped she wouldn't need it. She'd tried breathing fire in the tundra on the way up and felt physically sick afterwards. It hadn't helped that Cicero had danced around cheering and chanting “FIRE FIRE FIRE!” afterwards. Nor had the fact that she'd accidentally killed a bunny. She'd felt horrible, especially when Aela had applauded her aim and that it now didn't need cooking and starting preparing it for lunch. She'd had to leave at that point, sitting on her own until Madanach came to find her, comforting her and pointing out it just meant she was a good person and a decent human being, unlike Cicero whose levels of bloodthirst made even him uncomfortable sometimes. She'd felt better after that, at least up until she'd got to Solitude anyway. The guards hadn't recognised her at first and tried to bar the way, then one of them had recognised Cicero and they'd looked closer at her. She'd been let through without further delay.
Everyone had turned to see the gathering of warriors walking to the Blue Palace – not enough to alarm the guards or cause trouble, but enough to have people talking and following, especially when the Dragonborn and Companions and the feared Reach-King had been among their company. Then people had started recognising her, and the shouting had started.
“The Jarl is back!”
“Look at her, she's so different.”
“She looks like a Forsworn.”
“She looks like a barbarian.”
“She looks like a true Nord!”
“All Hail Queen Elisif!”
Elisif had looked up in surprise to see the citizens of Solitude lining the streets, cheering her name, smiling at her, and she'd smiled back, waving to them and promising that yes, she was back to stay. Madanach had squeezed her hand in his and murmured in her ear that if it all went south, she could easily escape and lead an uprising at a later date, these people would follow her to the death.
“What is it with you and uprisings?” she'd whispered back. He'd just smirked, clearly already planning one.
“All Hail Elisif, High Queen of Skyrim!” a woman cried, Lisette the bard from the sound of it. “All Hail the Dragonborn! All Hail Madanach, Scourge of the Stormcloaks!”
Elisif couldn't help but giggle as the crowd started taking up that tripartite refrain, watching as Cicero's face went scarlet and he darted behind Eola, before peeping out, seeing it was all genuine and squealing with delight, chanting that yes, yes, Cicero killed dragons, lots of dragons, the bigger and scarier the better, much to the delight of Solitude's children. Madanach had just tightened his grip on her hand, moving that bit closer.
“This is not right,” he murmured. “There is absolutely no way they should be that pleased to see me.”
“You can handle being their enemy, but can't cope with them liking you?” Elisif asked, amused, although amusement turned to guilt when she saw the confusion on his face. He genuinely had no idea what to do about having his praises sung in a city of Skyrim.
“You had no idea, did you?” Elisif said, letting his hand go and putting an arm round him. He shook his head, still at a bit of a loss. Elisif leaned in and whispered in his ear.
“Your off-duty King's Guard spent the entire two weeks after the wedding hanging around in the market or the Temple or the Winking Skeever, I think a few even took lessons at the Bards' College. In that time, they helped stop two vampire attacks, three thieves, and persuaded Irnskar Ironhand to drop Octieve San's gambling debts. They've broken up bar fights, they're polite to everyone, they tip well, the children love them, and apparently the townsfolk can't get enough of their stories about the Battle of Markarth. This city hates Ulfric, Madanach. He murdered their king, left me an unhappy widow, brought war down on them. They weren't sure what to make of you when you took the Reach, but they cheered when Ulfric died and your people played a huge part in making that happen. Then came the engagement and they were a bit uncertain but they went along with it. Two weeks of having you here and the sky didn't fall in and I was happy. They saw me smiling for the first time in months. You did that, just you. Of course they like you. You're a friend to Solitude and they know that.” She kissed him gently on the cheek, smiling. Madanach stopped, turned her round and pulled her to him for a kiss. It only lasted a few seconds, but the cheering intensified, including an ear-splitting shriek from Cicero, and then Lisette started singing Rains of Lost Valley. Madanach let her go and led her onwards, his mood turning serious.
“Come on,” he'd said. “Let's get you back into that palace, High Queen.” Elisif had nodded, remembering that a triumphal parade was all very well, but she'd not actually won anything yet.
The people of Solitude had followed her to the Palace, the children in particular whispering loudly that now Elisif looked like the Reach-Princess, she must be really scary.
“Do you think she'll marry the Dragonborn next?” little Minette had giggled. “He likes the Reach-Princess, everyone knows that.”
Cicero had gone a bit pink but ignored the chattering.
“Everyone knew but you, sweetie,” Eola muttered in his ear. Cicero had muttered something back that might have been 'be quiet hussy' but not objected when she took his hand.
“Don't be silly,” Kayd had said loudly. “Queen Elisif already married the Reach-King, and if Princess Eola likes Cicero, she's not going to want him to marry Elisif either.”
“Do you reckon if I get blinded in my left eye, Papa and Mama will let me be a mighty warrior maiden too?” Svari asked hopefully. Eola had grabbed Cicero very firmly by the arm at that point and hauled him away before he offered to do the job for her.
The procession had made it to the Palace, Elisif feeling rather relieved that the people of Solitude were behind her. If she could just get her Jarldom back, that would be enough, she wouldn't care if the crown ended up with Balgruuf or Brunwulf. They were good men and had seen enough war to know what it did to a country. They wouldn't be in any hurry to reclaim the Reach. Maven, she wasn't so sure about, but the woman was known to care most about her personal wealth and power. She wouldn't want to be bothered about a mostly honorary position when she could stick with the real power of a Jarl and her considerable influence in Cyrodiil.
So she'd gone in and confronted Bryling and now here they were in Castle Dour's courtyard, Elisif in the Saviour's Hide and Jagged Crown, and Bryling in her steel plate armour, steel sword at the ready. Elisif gripped Blackfire tight and hoped she was doing the right thing.
“You can do this,” Eola whispered. Madanach, on her other side, turned her round, removed his headdress and then kissed her, managing to avoid impaling himself on the dragon teeth. Elisif closed her eyes and kissed him back, wanting him more than ever and hoping this kiss wouldn't be their last. This was a terrible idea, she should have met in secret with Rikke, got the go-ahead from her, then plotted a rebellion with Madanach and led the citizens of Haafingar to get her crown back. But no help for it now. She had a crown to win.
“Make her pay,” Madanach whispered as he let her go. One hand on her shoulder then he raised the other and blue Illusion magic flared out at her. Fear faded away and new strength flooded her.
“What did you do?” she whispered.
“Cast a rallying spell on you, macreena,” he murmured, lips pressed in a tight little smile. “Use it well.”
Elisif nodded, blinking back tears. By the gods, if she'd known deciding to marry him would lead to all this... she'd still have done it.
“You never told me, you know,” she said quietly. “You never told me what cariad and macreena mean.”
“I never did?” he asked, surprised. “Well then. Cariad means I love you. Macreena means it would break my heart to lose you.” He leaned in closer, giving her one last kiss. “So don't die.” He stepped back, pulling the headdress back on, shadowing his face so only those piercing blue eyes were visible, folding his arms as he joined his daughter and guards.
Elisif nodded back to him, biting her lip in the hope that would stop the tears falling, and stepped forward to meet her fate, not wanting to look at Madanach in case she broke completely and ended up running back to his arms. She caught Cicero's eye as she did. He was grinning as if something wonderful was going to happen. Knowing him, he probably didn't care who won as long as there was blood.
The formalities were brief and then battle was joined. Bryling lifted her sword and ran forward to cut her down. Elisif took a deep breath and hoped this worked.
“KRII LUN AUS!” she Shouted, eyes closed. She heard Bryling gasp, along with everyone else not already in the know.
“That was Shouting! Elisif just Shouted.”
“Elisif Wolfslayer, secret Master of the Thu'um, this just keeps getting better and better!” That was Viarmo, frantically making notes. Well, at least someone was happy.
“I didn't know she could do that. Is she Dragonborn too?” That was one of the children who had followed them in to watch the fight and whose parents had yet to catch up and order them home.
“No, no, but Cicero has been teaching her!” That was Cicero, clearly befriending the children. Definitely past time for their parents to turn up. “Now Elisif can Shout too! She's very good at it.”
All very flattering, but Bryling, having staggered back under the Shout and still clearly under its influence, was getting up.
“What did you do to me?” she shouted.
“Don't know the Thu'um when you see it?” Elisif asked, advancing. “You can call me many things, Bryling, but do not ever claim I'm not a warrior again.”
“The Dragonborn's clearly a good teacher,” said Bryling, raising her sword. “But it takes more than the Thu'um to make a ruler. Ulfric should have taught you that.”
Elisif lost her temper. No one got to compare her to Ulfric. No one.
“No, takes power and having popular support,” Elisif growled, raising Blackfire. “Madanach taught me that.” Screaming, she ran forward, and the fight began in earnest.
Her first blow bounced off Bryling's armour, but the momentum carried her past Bryling and away from her sword. The second blow actually connected. Bryling screamed but did not stop coming for her, and Elisif was blocking with the steel shield she'd taken from Jorrvaskr, desperately trying to wear her out. Bryling swung her sword down for a few more blows, shattering the shield and tearing it out of Elisif's hands. Elisif dodged instead, but one blow caught her side, drawing blood.
“Still want to fight? I'll accept a yield,” Bryling snarled.
“Never,” Elisif spat, ignoring the pain and swinging her axe down for another blow. That caught Bryling on the shoulder, causing her to drop her own shield. She howled in rage and dealt another blow, this one catching Blackfire and sending it flying. Elisif felt her eyes widen as Bryling advanced, usual composure gone. One hand might be out of action, but the other still had a sword in it.
“Yield!” Bryling shouted, sword raised. Elisif looked away, to where Madanach was standing with fire in his hands and horror on his face, and she guessed Bryling might not long survive her if she died. Madanach would probably soon follow, and knowing him, he'd take half the city guard with him. She had to win this. Had to.
“Never,” Elisif hissed, feeling the refractory period finishing as the Thu'um rebuilt itself inside. Time for one last trick.
“Pity,” said Bryling with a shrug, looking almost indifferent to Elisif's fate. “You fought well. I'll see you in Sovngarde.”
“Yes,” Elisif gasped. “But you'll get there first. YOL TOOR SHUL!”
Bryling screamed, collapsing to the floor in agony as the flames took hold. A full blast of dragon fire to the face – Bryling's looks would be worse than her own. If she survived, of course. Elisif wasn't so cruel as to damn someone to disfigurement.
A telekinesis spell fired and Blackfire skittered across the courtyard to her feet. Elisif didn't know if it was Madanach or Eola or someone else but she mentally thanked them and the gods. Raising the axe, she finished Bryling off, striking the head from her body.
Silence, and Elisif sank to her knees, shaking all over. She could hear Hrongar shouting “No! You fools, what have you done?” and Rikke shouting for her soldiers to arrest him and take him to Castle Dour's dungeons. She could also hear Cicero chanting “FIRE FIRE FIRE BLOOD!” and cackling dementedly, and both Kayd and Minette gleefully asking if they could learn how to do that, and where were their parents anyway?
Madanach was there next to her, bare-headed again, kneeling beside her and taking her in his arms. Elisif clung on to him, tears rolling down her face. She couldn't speak, couldn't do anything, she certainly wasn't sure she could walk, but his hand was on her side, Restoration magic flaring and the skin knitting back together.
“You did it,” he was saying, “you got your throne back, you won, sweet gods, you won, I've never been so proud of you.”
“I just killed a woman,” Elisif whispered, not even feeling horrified, just numb. “Mara help me, what have I done?”
Madanach helped her up, leading her away amidst the cheering crowd of Solitude's citizens, five Companions, a small group of Forsworn blasting celebratory Destruction magic into the air and the Dragonborn and Reach-King's daughter looking rather awkwardly at each other before he picked her up and swung her round once before depositing her on the floor then cuddling her.
“You won,” Madanach told her, arm draped protectively around her shoulders. “You're going to be queen. You're going to be a very capable ruler and everyone in Skyrim is going to sing of this day.”
“Oh,” Elisif whispered, really not sure what that was actually going to mean. She was exhausted, in pain, Madanach's magic had helped but she was so tired, she really was. Queen?? She didn't even have a court left. She'd lost a thane, a housecarl, a steward, oh god, Falk, he'd never deserved any of this, he'd been loyal to the last, even the constant bickering with her husband had just been because he'd been worried about her. Elisif began to cry, just wanting it all to go away, for it all to stop and leave her alone so she could curl up in a ball and mourn the dead in peace. Falk had been very good at keeping the world away when she'd needed space. Now who did she have?
As it turned out, one Reach-King consort who was very protective of his young wife and extremely good at persuading people to leave, particularly when he yelled for his guards, who all immediately stopped what they were doing and gathered round, taking one look at Elisif and starting to herd people out of the way. Most people, on seeing a group of grim-faced Forsworn and one huge Orc, all tersely requesting that they make way for the King and Queen, were fairly quick to comply, but there were always exceptions.
“All right, everybody out of the way,” Madanach barked at the crowd, “the Queen needs a healer and some rest, she's had a very stressful few days. What in blazes do you want?”
“Oh, er, hello, Giraud Gemane, Dean of History at the Bards' College,” said the excited young Breton before them who'd ducked past the Forsworn and was only still conscious because he'd tutored a few of them in Skyrim's history before now. “I was just wondering if the Queen could tell me how it felt defeating the usurper who took her throne. It's for the ballad we're writing – we're going to call it the Song of the Wolfslayer.”
Madanach's eyes narrowed in hostility and the young bard took a step back, recalling a few of his own history lessons and remembering a bit too late that the Scourge of the Stormcloaks had only recently started limiting his predations to Skyrim's foes.
“The Queen is exhausted and needs her rest,” said Madanach sharply. “Now if you don't want a lightning bolt up your backside, you'll stand aside and let us move on.”
“But the song-” Giraud began, before seeing the fury in Madanach's eyes and backing away. Elisif dried her eyes and pulled herself together before Madanach actually did start firing lightning at her people.
“Just make something suitably heroic up and tell them I said it,” said Elisif, feeling a bit sorry for the poor man. “You're so much better with words than I am.”
“Make it up?” Giraud said, confused. “That doesn't seem appropriate.” Still he backed off, letting them pass. Elisif closed her eyes, leaning against Madanach for support.
“There'll have to be a trial for Ralof and Hrongar, won't there?” she sighed. “I suppose I'll have to execute Hrongar, won't I? If Ralof's willing to confess, I could just imprison him for life maybe.”
“Trust me, life imprisonment doesn't work,” Madanach laughed. “They just hatch an escape plan, lull you into a false sense of security, then escape in a rain of blood and start plotting revenge.”
There were times when she forgot she'd married someone who'd been not a lot better than a bandit or marauder until fairly recently.
“I think that's just you, dearest,” Elisif sighed. “I'm still going to have to have a trial though, aren't I?” Madanach still seemed very amused about the situation.
“Elisif, beloved wife of mine, I wouldn't worry about a trial. They have made an enemy of the Dark Brotherhood, they'll be lucky to make it to next week.”
“But that's awful-” Elisif began, before Madanach placed a finger to her lips.
“Of course, but save that reaction for when Rikke tells you there's nothing left in their cells but blood and body parts. At least try and look surprised anyway.”
Elisif nodded, guessing that if Delphine wanted revenge, nothing was really going to be able to stop her. Besides, if it meant that people thought twice about killing innocent people and blaming it on the Brotherhood, it was probably a good thing. The Jarl's justice relied on things like evidence and proof which meant a bit of planning made it too easy to circumvent sometimes. The Dark Brotherhood's justice answered to no one, which made it all the more likely perpetrators might have something worse than the guards to worry about.
Resting on Madanach's shoulder, just about having the energy to wave to the cheering citizens of Solitude, Elisif let herself be led home.
“We did it, we did it!” Cicero was still shrieking as he, Eola and the Companions made their way back to the Blue Palace. “We have defeated the filthy corrupt usurpers, Cicero taught Elisif how to breathe fire and there was BLOOD! Sister, sister, did you see the blood??”
“All of Solitude saw the blood, Cici. Entire city must have turned out to see that. Gods above, that last move with the axe – oof! Da's a lucky man.”
“Are you always like this after a fight?” Vilkas asked wearily. Warrior he might be, but there was a time and a place for bloodlust and that to him was on the battlefield. No need to dwell on it after the fight was over.
“Ah, let him have his excitement,” said Aela, feeling quite pleased with the way things had turned out. “It was a good fight. They both fought well and honourably. They'll be singing of this day in Sovngarde for years.”
“Aye,” said Kodlak, a little downcast at the mention of Sovngarde. “Elisif deserved her victory. All thanks to you, lad. Those Shouts saved her life.” He patted Cicero on the shoulder, giving him a brief hug. Cicero flushed scarlet but beamed up at Kodlak, overjoyed at the praise.
“See, said he was the best,” said Ria, looking rather proud herself.
“So does that mean we're honourable again?” said Farkas, still thinking things over.
“Yes, dear boy, it does,” said Kodlak. Farkas still looked a bit confused.
“But we didn't do anything. We just turned up. We didn't even get to fight anyone, Elisif did all the fighting.”
Which was true, but also not the most important thing as far as the Companions were concerned.
“Sometimes the important thing is not drawing your blade but being there and being prepared to draw it for someone else,” said Kodlak. “The important thing is not that we fought or didn't. It's that we stood here at Elisif's back and said we believed her the rightful queen, and that one of our own gave her the tools she needed to win. We have demonstrated that despite the treachery by some of our former brothers and sisters, we know what honour is and we know what justice is and we were willing to right the wrongs done to her. That is the important thing, Farkas.”
Farkas still didn't look like he entirely got this, but he nodded as if he did anyway. The Blue Palace beckoned and they all ventured in to the empty hallway.
It wasn't quite empty. Sitting to the side as they walked in were two gentlemen helping themselves to the free mead from the reception, one man in a black robe and the other in a purple and red outfit that made Cicero's motley look restrained and conservative.
“Were they here when we came in the first time?” said Eola, confused. “And they smell... wrong.”
Cicero had gone very still, recognising them both. “Excuse me,” he said, leaving Eola where she was and making his way over to them.
“You!” he snarled pointing at them both. “You got me drunk and abducted me, you vile degenerates! What do you have to say for yourselves, hmm?”
“He's back!” Sheogorath cried, delighted. “You found your way home, laddie! I knew you would!”
“No thanks to you!” Cicero shrieked, about ready to stab the pair of them if he thought it would do any good. “Cicero was lost for weeks! The Listener was heartbroken! What were you thinking??”
“We were thinking the world needed a little more merriment,” Sanguine slurred.
“And madness!” Sheogorath put in, raising a tankard.
“And you did us proud!” Sanguine laughed. “You stabbed a tree, danced in Jorrvaskr so hard you fell off a table, and they didn't beat you up or throw you out, and it turns out you were in exactly the right place to stop the forces of order! You did a better job than if you'd known you were Dragonborn.”
“Having one of the conspirators think you were a Talos worshipper and letting you find the Jagged Crown!”
“The bit where that Companion tried to interrogate a Dark Brotherhood assassin for you, and you stabbed him instead! And then she turned into a werewolf and ripped the other conspirator to pieces! Brilliant!”
“Not to mention the bit where he had an affair with his wife's lady friend and then thought his own wife was trying to tempt him to infidelity!” Sheogorath howled, wiping tears from his eyes. “Never laughed so hard in all my immortal days, let me tell you.”
“Do not make me stab you both!” Cicero snarled, close to losing it. “If Delphine had not forgiven me...!”
“Ah, of course she forgave you,” said Sanguine, grinning. “You and your Eola are cute together, who wouldn't want a piece of that action? She's been pining after you two to see to her for months. About time you gave her what she wanted.”
“Keep your filthy noses out of the Listener's love life!” Cicero shouted, reaching for his daggers. “You two are to stay away from her!”
“Aw, he's so sweet when he's all protective,” Sanguine purred. Sheogorath nodded, wiping a tear away.
“I know, the angrier he gets, the less sane he gets, it's beautiful. He'll lose it entirely in a minute, just you watch.”
“I HATE YOU BOTH!” Cicero shouted. “I should never have gone with you, never! Cicero is going back home with his dear sister and the sweet Listener and never speaking to either of you again!!”
Sanguine and Sheogorath both stopped laughing, in fact they were both now pouting at him, Sanguine in particular looking as if he was about to cry.
“Don't say that, laddie, we'll miss you,” Sheogorath cried. “You're a tribute to us both, you know.”
“Yeah, don't go,” said Sanguine, eyes full of hope as he fluttered his eyelashes at Cicero. “I've not had so much fun with anyone since your mama Stelmaria. Now she was the best to get drunk with, you know that?”
“You,” Cicero breathed. “You're Sam Guevenne. You got her drunk while she was pregnant, you made her run away so Kodlak couldn't find her! YOU!”
Sheogorath was wincing, patting Sanguine on the shoulder. “Ooh, you're in trouble now, friend!”
Sanguine didn't seem to care. “Yep, guilty as charged. An' I don' even care, cause you know what? Before I met her, she was fallin' apart and this close to visiting the local alchemist for a potion to get rid of you. Afterwards she was running to the healer in terror because she was worried about you. Maybe I'm not yer father, but you wouldn't be here if not for me yourself. So no, I'm not sorry at all.”
Cicero flexed his fingers, wondering how much strength it would actually take to throttle a Daedra and if he could do the deed before Sheogorath could stop him. Probably not but it was fun to contemplate.
“Cicero has had enough of you both,” Cicero hissed. “Cicero is leaving and getting on with his life, thank you very much!”
“Wait!” Sheogorath called. “Don't you want your staff, laddie?”
Staff. He'd forgotten they'd promised him magic staves. He turned, a little curious.
“What sort of staff?” he asked.
“We promised ya staffs if you helped us, and you did!” said Sanguine, head resting lazily on Sheogorath's shoulder. “So here's mine.”
A long staff in the shape of a rose appeared in Cicero's right hand.
“And here's mine!” Sheogorath laughed. Another one with three faces on the top appeared in Cicero's left.
“Sheogorath's Wabbajack!” Sanguine cackled. “You have fun with that, now. I know I have.”
“And the Sanguine Rose,” Sheogorath grinned.
“Oh, I always do that around you,” Sanguine purred, sliding into Sheogorath's lap. “You have that effect on me.”
“Oh, I do, do I? And what's this about you having fun with my Wabbajack now, hmm?”
“You've never had a good lay until you've had a ride on the Wabbajack,” Sanguine growled, starting to nibble at Sheogorath's ear.
“Oh! How rude! My virtue is sullied beyond repair!” Sheogorath cried, horrified, hand over his mouth.
“Sheogorath does not have any virtue – if he ever did, Cicero is sure he misplaced it a long time ago,” said Cicero wearily, wishing the two Daedra would just have sex and get it out of their systems. Ideally somewhere else.
Sheogorath slapped his thigh. “Of course I don't! Oh that's alright then, I'd started to wonder.” He gave Sanguine a playful smack on the backside. “All right, let's get back to yours. I can't remember what my sexual preferences are, Sanguine, we'll just have to try everything until we find out. Have you still got the horker tusk and the trout?”
“Somewhere,” Sanguine laughed. “You mean it, you're coming back to Oblivion again?”
“Sure!” Sheogorath laughed. “Elisif's turned from a nice but dull young woman into a fire-breathing werewolf-killing warrior queen. I'd say my work here is done, don't you?”
“Does that mean I get laid?” Sanguine queried. Sheogorath responded by kissing him and as Sanguine's human form shifted into a dremora's body, both Daedra vanished, leaving Cicero alone in the Palace, two staves in his hands.
“What happened, Cici?” Eola asked, coming to stand behind him. “What are those and where'd the two men go?”
“The Sanguine Rose and Sheogorath's Wabbajack,” said Cicero, still staring at them both in fascination.
“Sanguine and Sheogorath??” said Kodlak, having just about come to terms with the career in murder, but not having expected Daedra worship on top of that. “Do you make a habit out of trafficking with Daedra, boy?”
“Not normally but they just turned up on the night of the wedding and got me drunk!” Cicero protested. “Next thing I knew I was in Jorrvaskr with no idea who I was!”
“Who are Sanguine and Sheogorath?” Farkas asked, confused. He'd never been one for comparative religion.
“The Daedric Lords of madness and debauchery,” Aela told him. She looked Cicero up and down, looking entirely unsurprised. “I can see why they might take an interest in Cicero.”
“Cicero isn't mad!” Cicero protested. “And Cicero is a good boy, Cicero hardly ever overindulges.”
Not a single person there looked as if they believed him. It was Eola who broke the silence.
“Come on, Champion of Many Daedra. Let's go find Delphine. I suspect she'll be wanting an update.”
With any luck, by update, Eola meant sex. Cicero was more than happy to assist with that. Saying goodbye to the Companions, Cicero followed Eola to where Delphine would be waiting. Time for some fun.
“So in addition to the murdering and insanity, he's also touched by Daedra,” said Vilkas. “Harbinger, are you sure he's really Companion material? What if he goes on a blood-soaked rampage? We've all heard stories of Madanach's escape from Cidhna Mine.”
“Aye, but with the Silver-Bloods gone and Madanach his own man again, the Reach is freer and more prosperous than ever,” said Kodlak, stroking his beard. “Whatever Cicero's intentions, his actions seem to have a way of working out in the end.”
“He killed Skjor, Kodlak,” said Aela softly.
“Aye,” said Kodlak, his voice lowered. “But Skjor decided to traffick with and betray the Brotherhood and take no one for back up or consult with me first. I will mourn Skjor forever but at the end of the day, he knew the risk he was taking. Cicero and Eola being where they were at least meant Elisif got rescued. I don't know if Skjor's life was a price worth paying for that, but none of us are immortal. The bards are already writing a story of the Dragonborn joining us to root out corruption and succeeding in rescuing the queen and teaching her how to fight back. That's a story I want associated with us, regardless of whatever else he's done or will do. Come on, my friends. Let's find somewhere to sleep, and then tomorrow it's back to Jorrvaskr. I find I am rather done with politics.”
Ria, who'd been quiet throughout, hung back with Farkas.
“Is it wrong I don't feel bad about Cicero being Brotherhood?” she whispered. “I don't feel good either, I just don't care. He's my friend.”
“He's my friend too,” said Farkas, relieved that someone else shared his opinion. “He makes me laugh and doesn't treat me like I'm stupid. Not like I've never killed anyone.”
“I don't think I'd have passed my trial if it weren't for him,” Ria whispered. Farkas patted her on the shoulder.
“You'd have got in eventually. You're faster and nimbler in heavy armour than most are in light. Come on, let's go. Best not keep the Harbinger waiting.”
Ria grinned and picked up her steps, following them off to the quarters Elisif had set aside for them in the palace. Today had been a good day to be a Companion.